This is the last gasp, I thought, the final dying breathe of the Great Plains. They’ve been with me since Day Two…never-ending expanses of prairie grass and sweeping hills that seem to roll into infinity.
The plains knock on the doorstep of Glacier, they lay siege to Devil’s Tower, they use the Badlands as their doormat and Yellowstone and the Tetons as their decor. But when I finally crossed the Washington state line, I knew they were gone. Washington is a land of spruce trees and Dave Grohl and coffee. But just outside the actual town of Starbuck — ahem, the actual town of Starbuck — I realized something: the view hadn’t really changed. If anything, here in eastern Washington, I was in some deeper, stranger version of the prairies that I’d been seeing for days.
The scenery around Spokane will trick you for a moment. The city lies on the state line with Idaho, much in the way Memphis does to Mississippi. Crossing that line, your vision is inundated with spruce trees and small mountains and a quant town that screams college basketball and macchiatos. However, if you leave the city limits, the prairies instantly return to engulf you.
I’m glad they did. The temporary greenery was giving me a bit of a nostalgia trip. Because of a business meeting and being expressly forbidden from arriving in Seattle until tomorrow, I knew that finding an overnight spot in eastern Washington was my best shot for an affordable night’s sleep. What I didn’t know, and didn’t expect, was to stumble upon a tiny state park in the Palouse River valley.
“We call it the Outback,” the caretaker said. “There’s really not much here. If you take the goat trails down past the railroad tracks, it will take you to the top of the falls.”
Here in the Outback, top is a relative term: the “top” of Palouse Falls is actually about 100 feet down into a river gorge. From there, the falls plummet nearly 200 feet down to the river below. It’s a serene and entirely unexpected scene that is invisible from the prairie floor. Unless you stumble upon this place, you’ll never know its there.
For me, this place is the final gift of the great grasslands that have taken me so far in just 10 days.
Tomorrow, I will reach Seattle. My road will go no further west. Instead, it will veer south through Oregon and California before taking that final, dreaded eastward turn home. Yes, I still have at least four weeks left on the road, but for some reason, the inability to keep going west feels bittersweet.
I never reached the top of the falls. I just took a seat, watched the sunset, and felt one brave, giant crow circling and soaring above my head. I don’t know what that means, but I do know that, like the plains, the crows have been with me from the start. At every good place, they’ve greeted me, like a dark-feathered good luck charm. I like to think it’s the same crow, and I’ve named him Gandalf.
Tomorrow, the first chapter comes to a close. Here’s hoping my luck holds for the Leg Two.