The ordeal at the border put a big dent in the day’s schedule. As we ride into Washington, the sun looms threateningly low in the western sky. We stop at the Texaco to shake the nerves from our bodies and use a much needed toilet. To not look like a total mooch, I fuel my bike before asking the attendant for the key. A curious looking fellow of my own age, I don’t think he cares one way or the other. He directs me around the side of the building without even looking up from the counter. The two metal doors look beaten and bruised. Painted tags of mischief rise and fall over a dozen dents. Different color lines leap from door to wall and back again. A vent at the foot of the door is so smashed, I doubt it vents at all.
I unlock the men’s room door and gag. A smell of death floods from the room. If an air freshener were ever made of human feces, this bathroom smells worse. I’d turn around and look for other options, but the long ordeal at the border has left me pinching and dancing.
Holding my breath, I step inside. The door shuts behind me, and the dim, sputtering light over the sink does its best to illuminate the room’s filth. I lift the seat with my shoe and remove as little gear as possible to do my business. A sign over the toilet warns in broken English against putting paper towels down the toilet. By the thick cloud of flies buzzing around the nearby rubbish bin, I think people have taken the order too strictly. They put ALL paper in the bin. I ready myself to hurl but think twice against opening my mouth; whatever is in this air will taste far worse than anything already digesting in my stomach. I flush with my foot and exit in a rush. Pushing down my breath and lunch until well away from the side of the building, I finally take a breath. Another man approaches with a different key, and he’s lucky enough to enter the women’s room. Welcome to the United States of America.
We grab the makings for dinner inside the store before heading out. The attendant take’s Ben’s Loonies, and I’m just happy to see ounces and dollars on products. Ben knows of a free campground in the hills along the first part of Highway 20. By the time we make Omak, night fills the sky, and I spend more time looking to my GPS for guidance than the signs ahead of me. We miss a turn off the business route and end up perpendicular to a wall of emergency sirens heading north on Highway 97. This close to the Canadian border, I can’t imagine a disaster that would warrant such a show of force. Once the road clears, Ben finds our way onto Highway 20 west, and we eek a few more miles out of the day.
I repeat the thoughts of a warm sleeping bag and a full belly while the road climbs higher into the hills ahead of Okanagan National Forest. Ben sees a sign announcing our accommodations for the evening and signals to turn right. I take the lead down the dirt road and shine a freight train worth of light onto our path. Four miles later, we see signs of Rock Creek Campground and make ourselves home, alone, along the quiet Loup Loup Creek. Nearly three hundred miles and twelve very long hours since we started the day, we’ve found camp.
To celebrate the day, I grab the bottle of Banrock Station Shiraz from the Texaco station. I look to Ben for a cork screw, and he has none. I grab my multi-tool hoping beyond reason it will save us this shame, but it unfolds into everything BUT a cork screw. What are our options? I vaguely remember Matty describing how to open a bottle of wine with a shoe, but I certainly did not listen intently enough to recreate such a feat. I offer to crack the neck over a rock. Even with a bottle of Australian wine, Ben doesn’t think we’re Aussie enough to drink shards of glass. Our last ditch effort is to push the cork into the bottle, and we do just that. Ben fashions a fancy wineglass from the top of his soft drink bottle, and we cheers to each other, Matty, and improvisation.
The upsetting scene at the Texaco station must be long forgotten because my stomach longs hungrily for dinner. While Ben muscles around the picnic table cutting vegetables and meat into a fine spaghetti feast, I find a suitable grassy flat for my tent. Politically speaking, this is its first night camping in the contiguous United States. Geographically, it’s camped in much rougher conditions than this quiet little mountain hollow of a campground. I don’t complain, though, because a free camp anywhere in the world is my favorite kind. Legal just makes it all the better.
While walking around the sites, I come to appreciate last night’s abundance of firewood. Where we had to climb over piles of it along the lake, here it all stands quite erect — complete with bark and leaves and clearly in no hurry to fall into a fire. In a forest with so many trees, I expect to find a fair amount of dead wood lying about the ground. Other campers must have thought the same because I’m lucky to pile enough kindling to even start a fire. I walk clear across camp through six different sites and find barely a stick. When I return empty handed to find Ben spooning a giant can of tomato sauce into noodles and vegetables, I forget the fire altogether. Dinner smells absolutely amazing. We grab the bottle for another round, and Ben divides the meal between us.
The wine hits perfectly on an empty stomach, and I feel great! Inspired by new energy and the grace of a crazed lumber jack, I grab the camp axe from my bike and hack a dead tree hiding in the bushes into a hefty pile of firewood. Ben doesn’t even object when I turn our camp into a raging inferno of heat and light. We somehow manage to eat the entire meal, drink the entire bottle, and burn the entire pile of wood. Once too cold to stand the outside any longer, I beg off for bed and wish Ben the best of dreams. Tomorrow, we ride to Seattle.
Cold is the kindest four letter word I can use to describe the morning. Stepping outside, I hear grass crunch between my near frozen boots and the very solid dirt. Ben’s tent sounds quiet. That boy used to be the first out of bed even ahead of Matty. Forget sleeping like a baby; babies are restless. Ben sleeps like a teenager. We later huddle around bowls of hot porridge and bounce in place to stay warm. The charm of camping in a free campground wears off when it’s deep beneath the tree canopy and away from the rising sun like this camp. When we’re fortunate enough to have a clear day like today greet us in the morning, we eagerly soak in the sun and charge our souls with warmth. Here, beneath the trees, the sun goes to waste warming some other campers smart enough to sleep in a field. The cold saps us of any positive thought for the day, and we hastily break for the road. Fortunately, the four miles to the highway ride faster than they did last night. We pass several other very usable camp sites along the way that were hidden in the dark of the night, though not one looks any better than the last.
As we ride west into the North Washington Cascades, the terrain changes from golden grass to rain forest. We slip into the quiet little town of Winthrop and feel turned around by a century old facade. A real boardwalk lines both sides of the street and connects several little storefronts for a quarter mile or more through town. Aged fuel pumps and hand-painted signs stand out as relics of the past but fit perfectly with the scene. Captivated by this gem of a find in the middle of nowhere, we park the bikes and explore. The stores offer modern services, but they look and feel quite rustic. I pull Ben into a bakery and buy us a snack. We sit to ourselves on wooden stools and eat over the sound of others talking and carrying about the day. It’s quiet here, and everyone seems to know each other. The cute barista steams milk across the room, and a television plays the news. But despite the fight between modern and old, I feel a plethora of genuine comfort in this town and around its people. A fellow on the street smiled when I said hello, and the baker behind the counter found excitement in telling of the day’s pastries.
If I thought to look for a cell signal and call my parents during the fiasco at the border, I don’t recall it now. Nor did I look at the Texaco station while fighting to hold down my insides. The best I could do is post an update to Facebook that we arrived. I pull my iPhone from a pocket and enable the data network. More emails than I care to mention flood the phone. I fight with myself over letting the rest of the world interfere with this amazing little town, its gold-rush era feel, and the feeling I need to call home. Ten days have passed since our last day in Prince George. Ten days have passed since I last spoke to my parents or told the world of my whereabouts. And by a quick glance at the emails coming in, ten days are too many.
I tap to make a call and stuff another bite of pastry into my mouth. After several rings, the answering machine takes my call. Not leaving a message is rude, so I send word of being safe and on our final leg into Seattle. About ten minutes later, my parents call back, and Mom swears at my being out of touch for so long and sends her love in a way only parents can do. We talk for a good while about my travels through Canada before I end the call. I promise to video chat once I arrive in Seattle. Ten days are too many she says again before hanging up and leaving me to roll my eyes at Ben. Parents of the new traveler better get used to this, I think to myself. By the time I get to South America, ten days will seem like a gift.
We ride through the Cascades behind a train of traffic. At one point, I lose Ben when he passes a travel trailer. There’s no room for me to pass too, so I hang back and travel with the slowpokes. The beauty of the Cascades beams from every inch of the terrain. Far from the desert that greeted us at the border, these hills look rich with life. A blanket of green rises and falls beyond sight. Birds of prey soar above the canyons. Below, water etches its way across beds of rock and fallen timber. I catch up to Ben at the Diablo Lake rest area. The parking lot screams with activity. Kids run about along the perimeter from viewpoint to viewpoint. A caravan of travelers park in formation at the middle and step outside for a group photo. Others climb into the vehicles and drive away in the other direction. From the far side of the lot, I hear bathroom doors creek open and slam shut.
Eager to find solace in the quiet beauty of the wilderness, I look out from the viewpoint to the trees and hills. Five hundred feet below, a tug pushes a barge across the still water of Diablo Lake. Above its wake, high tension power lines stretch from one side to the other. Diablo’s beautiful turquoise hue reminds me of the glacial fed Lake Moraine in British Columbia. Finely ground rock, now a fine powder after millions of years beneath the weight of a glacier, stays suspended in the water to create the rich color. Like little mirrors, they sparkle and reflect the greens and blues of the world above. Somewhere out of view, the power lines connect to Diablo Dam. The concrete monstrosity holds strong against this beautiful well of water, the tug, and every last little mirror of suspended glacial silt. I wonder if the people of Seattle know the beauty behind their electricity. Like the lumber shipping from the forests of British Columbia, here too a pretty piece of earth goes into fueling our lives.
Ben and I ride the rest of the afternoon through the Cascades and turn south at Rockport. It’s while riding to Darrington along the Sauk River I sense another change in our surroundings. The trees grow taller; the greens shine greener. At one point, we ride through a towering tunnel of evergreen and the scent of earth, mulch, and water overwhelms me. Along the river, moss grips to everything. The trees fight to climb into the light, but the carpet of undergrowth holds tight and pulls even the stoutest of trees back to the earth to die. If not for the paved road before me, I’d feel trapped in the jungle of Jumanji.
By late afternoon, we’re traveling west to the interstate. I try hard to make mental notes of the beautiful sights we pass, but my focus sits firmly on a hot shower and a roof over my head. When we reach Interstate 5 in time for rush hour, I think twice about spending the next few weeks this close to civilization. Ben leads the way into the city, freeing me from navigating this unfamiliar path. Yet still, I’m left to sink or swim amid a thousand rushed and angry drivers. The GPS in front of me promises we’re only an hour from our destination. Traveling at a ridiculous speed just to stay safe in traffic, I watch Ben and keep tabs on everything around me. When a vehicle takes my safety buffer like a personal invitation to cut me off, I bight my cheek and slow down. It happens again, and again, and before long I taste blood. The stress of it all festers deep in the muscles of my neck and shoulders like acid on flesh. The last hour of the day feels like a week of riding. When we exit the freeway at Roanoke and turn onto 10th, I literally count down the moments to getting off the bike. Ben finds our parking space nearby the apartment, and I slowly climb from the saddle. My neck aches, my back aches, my eyes ache, and I’m terrified of traffic. Ben jokes about doing it again, and I send an evil glance his way.
Welcome to Seattle.
We waste no time with introductions and quickly get the proper business done first. Showers all around. I’d take two, three, or even four if I could. For starters, this water is much warmer than the lake water in British Columbia.
Matty cleans up pretty good! He’s all shaved and well dressed having been in town three days ahead of us. Even that flip of hair about his head whips this way and that when he smiles. I’m introduced to my fine hosts Jakob and Katie. Later, I’ll meet Marie. The six of us have the next two weeks to party and enjoy the finer comforts of city life in the Pacific Northwest. Ben and I crack open a beer each, and tell of our adventures through Canada without Matty, of nearly getting caught at the campground, of the fiasco at the border, and of my near nervous breakdown traveling the freeway into the city.
The first night in town, we just relax. I’m wriggled into playing Risk for the first time, and the game literally eats the hours of life out of us. It’s some terrible hour of the night later when half of us have begged off to bed, and I find myself playing Katie and Ben. I’m just getting the hang of this game! We soon tire and quit the game after agreeing to a three-way world domination peace treaty. All the world’s problems solved — just like that.
The next morning, I’m tempted to go all out and enjoy the vast and unexplored concrete jungle alone, but Katie and Ben recommend a guide. We fall into Katie’s car and find a great brunch spot a couple miles from home. The commotion at street level bombards my senses as if I feel every sound and hear every sight. Cars and trucks fight for position with busses and cyclists. Motorbikes rumble by with as little regard for their size as the box trucks that blindly pull out of alleyways. While in line at the diner, people shout between each other or into mobile phones. Little white wires pipe music into the heads of others. Along the sidewalk, Ben and Katie try their best to hold my attention. They’re talking about something, but I can’t filter through the other million noises around me to know what it is. When we sit down to breakfast inside, people squawk at their loudest just to talk across a table. Six cooks in white clank pans and shout orders; a lone server tries her best to keep the very full diner in order.
Going from several weeks in the unbelievably remote and calming wilderness of Canada to this cacophony of noise and energy has me sick to my stomach. I manage to cram a pile of hotcakes into my mouth and hurry Ben and Katie along too. Once back at the apartment, I count body parts and brain cells just to make sure I’m still in one piece.
Ben promises to take me to REI today. I spent the morning trading emails with The North Face about my broken shoe. Somewhere in the Yukon between the snow and rain, my shoe sprung a leak. A crack in the upper rubber near the toes has since been a daily frustration. I wake each morning with a dry foot and end each day with a wet one. They are ready and willing to replace or fix my shoe, but I have to send them the shoes first! I can’t very well go about riding, walking, and living without shoes, yet my only option for a free warranty claim with The North Face is to do just that. Frustrated, I call REI.
At first, I apologize. The broken shoe is no fault of REI, and they shouldn’t be dealt this burden. I tell of my tour and plead for forgiveness. I think the lady on the other end of the line laughs when she asks why I would feel so guilty returning something to REI when the 100-percent satisfaction guarantee gives me that freedom! Secretly, I think of the few times I’ve abused that guarantee by returning very satisfying gear simply because I no longer needed to own it. She tells me to visit any local REI and tell my story to Customer Service. They’ll take care of me.
When Ben and I walk into the Seattle REI Flagship store, I feel pretty good about my choice of membership. A giant banner over the counter reminds me their commitment to my satisfaction, so I step up with renewed confidence to return my busted shoes. The smiley young lady beneath the sign embodies the kind of customer service that wins my affection. I tell my story, explain my devastating experience with wet and cold through thousands of miles of Canada, and she sends me upstairs to pick a replacement. How cool is that? When I return, proudly wearing two very new waterproof boots, I put the box holding the busted shoes on the counter and warn against opening the box. Weeks of wet feet, dead skin, bacteria, and who knows what else have brewed into the most terrible of smells rivaled only by that Texaco bathroom. I’m serious. I hold the box shut and look her square in the eyes. Don’t open the box. Throw it away immediately. She gets the idea, puts it aside, and we process the exchange.
As if the REI satisfaction guarantee experience could get no better, she explains that I get to reuse the 20-percent off coupon from the busted shoes. Moreover, because I’m an Alaska resident, I don’t pay Washington sales tax. It gets better. I use the current member discount on a footprint for Ben’s tent and save him the tax burden also. We step out of REI feeling more than satisfied than ever.
Before heading home, we turn into a local Fred Meyer for supplies. Ben needs an air mattress, and I’m buying deodorizing insoles for the new boots. A loud speaker and flashing lights on the ceiling of the store direct us to a product demonstration and free goodies at the rear of the store. Suckers for free goodies, we walk our way to the back and form a semicircle with others around the elevated pitch man. All secret like, he keeps his voice low and waves us closer. He knows we’re bribed by the freebie and promises we’ll get it in short order. We just have to endure his terrible presentation and creepy innuendos. Before long, he starts in on a several minute pitch about dirt and hair and the terrible limitations of traditional lint rollers. In fact, he has one just below the counter and pulls it into view. Rolling the already overused tape over various dirty surfaces, he demonstrates just how terrible it is at doing its job. Clearly, the roller has lost its stick and will do no more until a brave soul is willing to get dirty himself and peel back a new layer of tape.
Not having cats or dirty clothes, I don’t relate. Others in the crowd do. They chime in and agree to burn the lint roller in effigy for all things inconvenient, un-sticky, and expensive. And then, as if the weirdo creepy pitch man could weirdo creep himself no more, he introduces his product — the Mr. Sticky. That’s right ladies and gentlemen. It’s an all-in-one, convenient, inexpensive, always handy, cat hair, lint, food, dander, dirt picker-upper that just so happens never loses its stick. I roll my eyes at Ben. The crowd looks skeptical. I just want my freebie.
He swears by the sticky power of Mr. Sticky, waves the red and white hand held roller out into the crowd, and encourages everyone to touch and feel its stickiness. Mr. Creepy demonstrates the product. He’s rolling velvet, corduroy, denim, ceramic, glass, and more. He even rolls the backside of his pants. Mr. Sticky sticks to hair, pet litter, coffee, sugar, dead skin, and all the dirty particles it can find on Mr. Creepy himself. The overhead camera zooms in on the roller, and the crowd goes wide-eyed.
The malady of tape rollers, he explains, is the tape. The tape loses its stick, and then we must wrestle a new layer into existence by peeling away the old. All the while, we cover ourselves in the dirt and hair and litter and nastiness we aimed to remove in the first place! The camera zooms in again for effect. From beneath the counter, he pulls a bowl of soapy water and leaves us to guess its use for several breaths. The crowd looks on curiously, and then in goes Mr. Sticky. Every piece of dirt, hair, and litter explodes away. Picture a giant horde of crawly things holding tight to a super hero as he’s nearly suffocated to death. And then by some miraculous feat, he bursts with strength and sends the attack outward in every direction like an exploding firebomb. The pitch man wipes the roller with a finger, pats it dry, and shoves it out into the crowd for testing. A brave person on the left touches the roller and lights up with excitement when her finger feels Mr. Sticky, sticky once more.
At this point, the pitch man gives us our freebie — a microfiber lens cleaning cloth. The demonstration is over, and now comes the price pitch. It’s just like on TV. You don’t get just one Mr. Sticky, you get two — no three! He waves around the finger sized Mr. Sticky, perfect for the pocket. And if medium and small all great, we’ll also want the giant Mr. Sticky. He pulls a telescoping broom handle from beneath the counter and pretends to roll the floor. And of course, if we buy today–.
I look at Ben, speak no words, and we each take our freebie microfiber lens cleaning cloth and run away. The rest of the crowd pushes closer to the counter with outstretched arms, vying for the deal of the day. Billy Mays died last June, and this creeper is successfully taking his place with nothing less than a product called Mr. Sticky. Only in America.