Feb 23, 2010

The One Where We Saw A M*****-******g Eagle

Friday 19th - Day 12

Actually we saw the eagle yesterday. But I mention it today because when we told the lovely lady at The Lewis & Clark Motel this morning she couldn’t have been less impressed. It was like someone visited Liverpool and said "I saw a scally today." But sod her, because it was amazing.

We were coming over the Bozeman pass (5819 ft) and just ahead of us on the side of the road was a bird which seemed to be about the size of a Labrador. It was picking at the carcass of some road kill with its back towards us and something, maybe the sound of our car, made it take off. Holy cow it was huge, its legs were so beefy they could have filled Wayne Rooney’s shorts. As it started to fly off we pulled alongside it and each passing second brought its head into clearer view. We already knew it was an eagle but the thrill wasn’t complete until we could see it’s snowy white head and bright yellow beak. It took about 5 seconds to get past it but it was such an adrenaline rush… “Look… it’s an eagle, it’s an eagle… oh my god it’s a mother-fucking eagle!!!” Trust me, no other profanity fitted and no other profanity has ever been more appropriately used. The beast looked like it wouldn’t hesitate. It was the cock of the mountain and the king of the air and it didn’t give a toss who knew. Wow. The woman in the motel said “I guess it must be impressive if you ain’t seen one before… I grew up seeing moose in my back yard.” I’d like to say something derogatory about growing up in the middle of nowhere, but I can’t because her middle of nowhere is ace.

And whilst I'm tidying up... I also forgot to mention that when we went to the hot springs, I had to buy a pair of hot spring appropriate shorts first. We stopped in a town called Livingston and went to one of the busiest thrift stores I’ve ever seen. It was right next door to the Chemical Dependency Treatment Centre so I guess it was well positioned. I bought a pair of North Face shorts for $2 and couldn’t help but think of Paul Calf’s immortal line “I’m not wearing dead man’s pants.” (Pants, dear American friends, means male knickers in the UK.)

Anyway… we passed over a few high passes on our way through Montana and I’m not sure where the Rockies started or ended. According to this map there are 66 separately named mountain ranges in Montana (it does what it says on the tin) but on the big map it just says Rocky Mountains. Regardless, they are beautiful and snowy February is just the time to see them.

Friday’s plan was to make it as far west as possible so we wouldn’t have so far to drive on Saturday to make our appointment with Seattle Postcarder and genuine one-off Zeno Seiler. We had three destinations in mind. Each in a different state. A pathetic 210 miles would take us to Missoula in Western Montana. A more impressive 366 miles would land us in Coeur d’Alene in the middle of the narrow Idaho panhandle. Or if we pushed on just another 33 miles we would make Spokane in western Washington.

Nanci Griffiths has a song called Midnight in Missoula. Unfortunately it’s from the later part of her career. The part that was built upon the truly sappy From A Distance rather than the great new wave of country honky-tonking tunes she was slipping out in the 80s. I expect many will disagree with me, but Nanci used to be cool. How cool? Well, cool enough to do acid with Townes Van Zandt. And that Nanci would have been right at home in Missoula as, between 2004 and 2006, the north west of Montana reported the highest rate of illicit drug use in the USA, with 9.5% of the populace being lovers of Marijuana. They loved it so much that in 2006, voters in Missoula County passed Initiative 2, which set possession of pot to be the lowest priority for law enforcement. Funny thing was… marijuana arrests actually went up in the next 2 years! Old habits die hard for cops I guess.

But we flew (see what I did there) past Missoula and as we crested what was surely the Rockies we began to come down to earth in Idaho. I don’t know if it was coincidental or if the border marks a real change in climate, population and landscape, but Idaho was instantly different to Montana. It was bathed in sunlight and the mountainsides were covered in firs and small houses. The state is known for growing potatoes (there’s even a candy bar called an Idaho Spud) but in the panhandle they dug coal and metals not spuds. The narrow valley that leads to Coeur d’Alene looked like it had been populated during a gold rush with houses crammed in, in no discernable pattern on the hillsides.

Coeur d’Alene literally means "heart of an awl" but no one really knows how it got its name. It is in a beautiful spot though, based around a large lake, surrounded by pine covered hills that hold several ski resorts. When we passed through, the sun was shining and the temperature gauge was reading 50° F. It looked idyllic but we passed on through because…
1) There aren’t any good tunes about Coeur d’Alene (the most notable is by Dean Magraw who is one of those guitar virtuosos whose talent is only matched by their pointlessness) and
2) Coeur d’Alene used to be home to an annual march by the thankfully now bankrupt Aryan Nation.

So Spokane beckoned. A place I’d never heard of before I began researching this trip. Never even heard it mentioned. Which is why I thought it was pronounced Spok-ANE, as in window PANE. But the e is silent and it’s pronounced Spok-ANN as in Ann of Cleaves. I ought to have heard of it I guess, it’s relatively big (200k population) and it was the birthplace of Bing Crosby. It was also the site of the 1974 World's Fair but I have no real idea what the World's Fair is. I just know that sometimes a city will say hey we hosted the World's Fair like it’s a big deal. Maybe it is. If you stick Spokane into iTunes you’d find about 25 tracks named after the town, but most of 'em are crap… except this one.

Now if Tom T. Hall doesn’t want to be in Spokane then neither do I. That feeling only intensified as we drove into town on insanely busy four lane roads that had beggars at every intersection (they even have drive-thru begging in America). We’d just spent 4 days in Wyoming and Montana… we couldn’t cope with this.

I had one more place up my sleeve. A town called Ritzville another 61 miles west. A two bit hayseed town that somehow became immortalized in a song by Seattle Grunge pioneers Mudhoney. As time was on our side because we’d made great progress today, we went for it and pulled into town at about 6. I wanted to like Ritzville. I really did. It has what is surely the world’s only quilt & liquor store.

But Ritzville didn’t like us. There were two motels that we weren’t scared of in town. And we had a coupon for one. When you stop at rest stops on the Interstate they have these free magazines full of coupons to get a discounted stay at a motel. We had one that would get us a room in the branch of America’s Best Value Inns in Ritzville for just $40. But there was a real nice looking independent motel called the Empire and it said rooms from $36 on the sign outside so I asked there first. The guy said a room for two would cost us $43 so I showed him my coupon for his rival which was just 100 yards away and asked him if he wanted to match that price. He shook his head said he couldn’t. What? For three bucks he was going to throw away a booking? I didn’t care about the three bucks as much as I cared about not checking into a motel run by a simpleton. It wasn’t like it was high season in a popular tourist destination. So off we went to America’s (and Ritzville’s) Best Value Inn. There was a sign on the door. “Back by 7. Sorry for any inconvenience.” What? Well we know a sign when we see one (and this one was taped to the door so we couldn’t miss it) and pressed on. I could have gone back to the Empire, but pride and common sense made a further 45 mile drive to the next town inevitable.

Going back to Ritzville, don’t ask why
It’s as good a place as any to go and die

We spent the night in a town called Moses Lake. There are a couple of tunes about it on iTunes. One by an act called Janie and Joe who I have nothing to say about. The other is by a band from Utah called Forgotten Charity. They have 97 fans on Facebook and their song The Ghost of Moses Lake is pretty good in a Postal Service kind of way.

Apologies for the long bloody post. But it was a long bloody day. 500 plus miles.

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