Friday, May 25, 2012

On The Road With Friends

Biggs Junction.
Doesn't that sound like a name for a place from one of those old cowboy movies? Doesn't it make you see a dusty, lonely railroad station in the middle of nowhere, dust devils ambling across tracks that start somewhere beyond the horizon and lead into an unformed, unknown distance? Isn't "desolation" knit into those two words, don't they whisper to you that this is their real name?

Biggs Junction is probably the last place in the US you'd pick as a tourist destination. And yet, I wanted to go there, and badly. Here's the reason why.
Last year, before I went on my long trip across America to visit Twitter and Facebook friends, a conversation on Twitter happened that made me want to see that place more than anything else. I had just introduced a friend from Portland OR to my Ellensburg WA friend, and they were chatting about meeting up somewhere for lunch. Somehow, Biggs Junction was mentioned. And my Ellensburg friend, Jane, who is married to a trucker and has seen many, many places, moaned a desperate "Oh Lord!"

I, as a bystander, across the Atlantic and all of America, the European, googled Biggs Junction, and this is what came up.

nowhere to go

The thing to read here are the comments from "nowhere to go" and "poker slim".
This place I wanted to see!
Some more twitter moaning, and the sentence, "But there's NOTHING to eat in Biggs, just greasy, awful fast food!"
See, here's where unbiased googling comes in. My American friends, who didn't have the smallest inclination of ever going to Biggs, perked up when I pointed out that there seemed to be a really, really nice restaurant in Goldendale, not too far away from Biggs.
Even Sue from Vancouver who so far had loudly protested that she would stay in Ellensburg and wait for the rest of us to return  - or not - was suddenly quite willing to come along,

So we went.

Along the Yakima River, on the old Canyon Road, and the landscape was enough to make me, the German, gape. So much open space, so much... COUNTRY, and not another car or human in sight.
We drove for hours, and nearly always there were the mountains marching away to our right.

I shouldn't say mountains, or you'll think of a mountain chain. This is what we saw:

Volcanoes. Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens.
All this space...  it made me feel as if I could stretch out my arms and lift off, stretch out and drift away in the hot, country-fragrant air until my fingers touched the snow on those mountains.

At some point, the hills closed in on us, we were driving on a winding road through arid land, bushfire land, and the trees and grass were so dry I could smell the smoke even though they weren't burning, almost as if they were having nightmares of a fire that hadn't happened yet.

It came as a relief when the land dropped away, quite suddenly too, and the gorge of the Columbia River opened up before us.
What a drama!

There it was, Biggs Junction. Perched on the side of the river, caught between highways and a railroad track, forgotten in the middle of nowhere.
All roads lead away from it, lead into kinder places, and the river rushes by on its way to the Pacific.
We crossed the bridge and stopped outside the trucker mart.
Heat welcomes us, dry, relentless heat like a wall that dared us to step forward, leave the comfort of the car. There were no other tourists. No one goes to Biggs Junction as a tourist, only me, the insane German. There were some trucks, some cars at the gas station across the parking lot. No one looked up from their business of refueling, getting a cold drink or dashing to the washrooms, no one cared about the surroundings they were in, intent on getting away as fast as possible.

Sue, as always the one with the most determination, said that I needed a souvenir. Anything, even a napkin, a paper cup, but something that said, "Biggs Junction".
We went into the mart.
There were no souvenirs. Biggs doesn't exist on the souvenir map.
The store manager came up to me after I'd circled the store for the third time and asked me if she could help. I said I wanted a Biggs Junction souvenir. She was ready to reach for her phone and call the cops.
Bemused, she shook her head. No one, she said, no one ever had asked for a souvenir before.
"This is like a prison," she told me, "Everyone wants to get away."
Back out on the baking parking lot, we looked around.
A MacDonalds, a Burger King, a gas station, the mart, and this little jewel of a motel:

"Psycho," Sue mumbled, "That's such a Psycho setting." (And took out her camera to take this pic.)
The longer I stood there, the number I got. The constant drone from the highway along the river had a hypnotizing effect on me. I was ready to lie down right there on the oil-stained, baking asphalt of the parking lot and go to sleep.
It was hot, and it was lonely. Jane, leaning against her car, started to hum "Hotel California", and that was when we all moved at the same time, jumped into the car, and drove off.

"Maryhill," Jane suggested, and so we went.
It's a museum now, but it was built by Samuel Hill, the same man who dreamed up the highway along the Columbia River.
We sat on a bench in the shade of some pine trees, right at the edge of the gorge, and looked down at Biggs, now across the river, and its cave of metal and asphalt.

Right below our feet, among the gorse and dry grass, bees and crickets were battling the dull hum of the highway. The heat was just as relentless as it had been down there in Biggs, but it didn't smell of gasoline and sweat. There were peacocks in the park, sculptures, neatly trimmed grass, clear paths. A defiant stand of civilization against the cruel call of the desert wilderness around it.

"Lunch," Susan suggested, looking at her watch, and we left.
We turned our back on Biggs, the river and even Maryhill, and drove off to Goldendale and the Glass Onion (the restaurant I'd found online).

I can tell you this: If you EVER - for whatever reason - happen to be near Goldendale WA, STOP HERE.
Trust me on this. Do it. You'll have one of your best meals ever. And I'm not talking about the normal American fare, either. This is a jewel of a restaurant, and they'll serve you amazing food, fresh food, local produce, and all of it utterly delicious.
I'd go back all the way to Biggs just to have lunch there again.
This was dessert:

I know. It looks amazing. It WAS amazing.
We came out of that place with smiling faces. No one complained about coming to Biggs anymore, this had been so worthwhile.

It's been a year now since I was in Ellensburg, visiting Jane, her sister-in-law Susan, together with MY Sue from Vancouver. Sadly, I won't be going back this summer. There just isn't enough time.
But I have to go back.
Not to Biggs, mind you, or even Goldendale.
But to see my friends.