The great Northwest


I just returned from a two-week trip to Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, part of my 50-state project for VISIONS magazine that I’m doing with photographer Jim Heemstra.

It was a big, exhausting trip: Eleven alumni, four very large states, three national parks, one ocean, several wildfires, four flights to get there and back, and 3,000 miles on the rental car. We’ve now traveled to 44 of the 50 states.

With the completion of this trip, our flying days are over, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Although we managed to get through this entire project without any flight cancellations or even delays (can you believe that?!) I still find flying stressful, uncomfortable, and basically just a pain in the ass. I’m happy to have it behind us.



IMG_7474We flew into Seattle but had very little time there for anything but work. While we were scouting for photo locations for one of our Iowa State alumni, we did visit some touristy spots: Kerry Park (for the best view of the Seattle skyline, above), Pike Place Market, and the original Starbucks. Oh, and we got a friendly $53 parking ticket for parking in what I still contend was a legal parking spot near the market.

We had lunch at Specialty’s, a counter-service restaurant so high-tech that I could not figure out how to order my food at the computer and had to be helped by a human being at the counter.

The coolest part of our visit was seeing where our alumni work. We were allowed incredible access to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and we visited one of the many buildings in the complex.

That night, I went up to the rooftop of my hotel, the Mediterranean Inn, and watched the sun set over the Seattle skyline. This would be the first of many glorious sunsets I’d see in the great Northwest.


After a full day in Seattle, we drove north early the next morning to the town of Edmonds, where we boarded a ferry (car and all) to cross Puget Sound to the small community of Kingston. That “commute” is probably old hat to people who live up there, but I thought it was really, really fun.


After an hour’s drive, we were in Sequim, the lavender capital of North America.  Seriously – they have actual lavender farms there. Purple flowers as far as the eye can see. The whole place smells good. And I found a restaurant there that served blueberry pancakes – my favorite breakfast.


We went with an alumni couple to Olympic National Park, but since the goal was to get great photos of them I don’t feel as though I really had a chance to see much of the park.


Afterwards, we had dinner at a cute Italian restaurant in nearby Port Angeles. And then we stayed at a motel on the outskirts of town that can only be described as the Bates Motel, complete with creepy proprietor and squawking birds. But I survived, and it was actually very clean and comfortable and even had free wi-fi.



Our travels from Washington to Oregon can only be described as Day 1 of many Dramamine Days. The route (Hwy. 101) was beautiful, but very curvy and hilly. This became a pattern on this trip, so I was glad that I packed my pills or I would have been carsick from the get-go.

En route to our first Oregon appointment, we were drawn in by a brown National Park sign along the road. Though the park itself is many miles away, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument visitor center was right off Interstate 5, so we took a quick detour to check it out. I specifically remember the volcano eruption in May 1980 – because it happened one week before I got married, and Dave and I had an ash cloud over our wedding reception. The eruption was a horrible tragedy, but the science behind the event is so fascinating that I got sucked into a ranger talk for almost half an hour. I could have stayed longer, and it would have been interesting to take a closer look at the volcano.


But these are not leisurely trips. We picked up a young grad at the Nike campus in Beaverton and headed to the Oregon coast. Jim wanted to photograph her on one of the most picturesque beaches in along the Pacific coast: Cannon Beach.

I have a bit of a water phobia since I don’t know how to swim, but I was brave and waded through the ankle-deep water to the “best” photo location AND slogged back through the above-knee-deep water later, after the tide began to come in. (I shudder to think what I would have done if we’d waited much longer.)

It also rained rather hard on us toward the end of the shoot, so we were wet from the ocean, wet from the rain, and covered with sand by the time we struggled back to paved ground. It was sort of cold, too, so we found a neighborhood coffee shop where we all dried off, warmed up, drank lattes – and Jim cleaned the sand and water off of his cameras.


Our headquarters for the next two nights was the Park Lane Suites in Portland. Sometimes I fail miserably when I make lodging reservations over the Internet, but this place was spacious, comfortable, and in a very nice neighborhood. We ate, drank, and shopped for yummy groceries, all without getting into the car.


The next morning, after a fun breakfast with some friends of mine who now live in Portland, we visited a Japanese garden with an alum. It turns out that Portland is home to what is widely considered the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan. It was really great, though I don’t have anything to compare it to. For lunch, we ate dim sum at an authentic Chinese restaurant in Portland’s Chinatown area.

We were told by the locals that we should stop by Voodoo Doughnuts, which we did. The line was out the door and down the street. Neither Jim nor I cared about actually eating a donut so we just looked at the ones that people were bringing out of the store in signature hot-pink boxes. They were topped with Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops, M&Ms, and all sorts of odd things. I looked on the company website, and apparently you can get donuts in the shape of both male and female body parts, donuts topped with Tang or cayenne pepper, and slightly more normal donuts like French cruellers and blueberry cake.



The next day, we packed up and left Portland for points east, and basically spent the entire day in the car. But before you feel sorry for me, consider this: The first part of the route was along the Historic Columbia River Highway. Have you been on this highway? If not, do yourself a favor and take this drive. We took it from Corbett to Dodson, and it was spectacular. (I was lucky enough to see this road once before, in the fall, and the foliage was gorgeous.) We stopped at Shepperd’s Dell, with its historic bridge, lovely vista, and waterfall. We stopped again briefly at the Wahkeena Falls. And then, of course, we stopped at Multnomah Falls, one of the most scenic areas in all of the Northwest. It was raining lightly, and we were lucky to be there without a hundred thousand tourists. Jim photographed me on the iconic bridge holding my green umbrella. A classic. (You can check it out on my Facebook page.)

After that, it was pretty much drive, drive, drive … over a mountain range and through the high desert … eating lunch in the car… taking lots of Dramamine. (I could be this company’s spokesperson.) This fun, fun day ended by doing laundry in Boise, Idaho, a city with 100-degree heat and smoke-filled air. But at least I had clean clothes at the halfway point.


Very early the next morning we met with an alum named Carter Niemeyer. Carter is one of the first people I had my eye on to feature in this 50-state project, so I was really thrilled to finally be able to meet him face-to-face (or face-to-chest, as he is more than a foot taller than me). He’s one of the country’s foremost wolf specialists. He’s worked primarily in Montana and Idaho, and he helped capture the wolves that were famously introduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the 1990s. He took us more than an hour north of Boise to wolf country – he actually HOWLED for us! – and this experience made me grateful that I went into journalism and decided to go to work for a university magazine. This is the good stuff.

IMG_7924We spent the rest of the day (when I wasn’t holed up in my air-conditioned hotel room fighting off a mild illness) scouting locations for our next photo shoot.

Boise, it turns out, has lots of cool places to do photo shoots: city parks, foothills, a reservoir, the Boise River Greenbelt, the state capitol building.

We also stopped by for a quick tour of the Old Idaho State Penitentiary, but it paled in comparison to the Eastern States Penitentiary we toured in Philadelphia, and it was HOT. So, meh.


The next day, after our work was completed in Boise, we drove to McCall, Idaho, a terrific place with a lovely lake and the fantastic Ponderosa State Park, above. (Our Super 8 out on the highway had views of neither, but hey, we did get to rub shoulders with the people there for the big gem and mineral show.) We walked along the public beach, drove up into the state park with its stunning views and marshy hikes, enjoyed a lakeside dinner, and watched the sun set over the water with a pack of tourists all eating ice cream cones.



Another full-day drive, this time to Kalispell, Mont.

Like the day we left Portland, the drive north from McCall was just spectacular, with mountains and the white-water rapids of the Payette River intermixed with pastoral scenes of grazing cows and bales of hay.

We stopped for lunch at the surprisingly wonderful Lochsa Lodge on the Idaho/Montana border. I ordered a huckleberry float, something I’d never seen before on any menu. This was my first introduction to huckleberries, but it would not be the last, as this fruit is a popular local delicacy in western Montana.

And then, on Hwy. 12 in Montana, we had a close encounter with the Lolo Creek Complex wildfire, which scared me to death because it was SO CLOSE. (Officials closed the road just hours after we drove through.) But we made it OK, turned north at Missoula, and left the fire behind.


Our destination for the day was Kalispell, but we stopped several times en route to scout for photo locations along Flathead Lake – a very big, very blue lake surrounded by scenic small towns and half a dozen state parks.

The next day, after a morning appointment, we had quite a bit of time to kill before our late-afternoon appointment, so we ate a very slow sandwich very fast in Bigfork, Mont. (long story), bought some delicious Flathead cherries from a roadside stand, scouted more locations, shared a piece of peach pie a la mode at a weird restaurant, and chilled out watching people swim and play at Lakeside’s Volunteer Park.

That evening, we went with veterinarian Sandy Anderson and her husband, Clint, to Glacier National Park, where Jim photographed Sandy just as the sun was beginning to set. It was picture-perfect.


We had more time the next day to explore Glacier. We took some short hikes, had a picnic (with the rest of the cherries), and drove the length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, an engineering landmark completed in 1932.


Dave and I have driven this road before, but it was no less spectacular the second time around. Apparently it takes 10 weeks to plow this road in the spring, because up to 80 feet of snow can fall at Logan Pass, the highest point on the road.


At the eastern end of the road we stopped for lunch at the Park Café in St. Mary, where I had possibly the best piece of pecan pie a la mode ever. (Sandy and Clint told us the night before that they often drive the 3-plus hours to the Park Café just for the pie.)


On our last full day in the Northwest, we drove back to Seattle: through western Montana, across the “neck” of Idaho, and across the width of Washington. We did have time to take a side trip to Mount Rainier National Park – a real treat because I’d never been there before. We saw more wildfires in the distance, but the park itself was unscathed.

I’m home now, missing the lower humidity, picturesque beauty, and abundant coffee huts of the Northwest. But glad to be back in Iowa. And happy to check four more states off my list.


1 comment so far

  1. janice jack on

    Enjoyed this very much. That is one part of the country I haven’t seen and am hoping to travel there sometime in the near future.

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