Okay, this wasn’t a crazy road trip like some.  I’m not Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove for days to allegedly kidnap and/or murder a romantic rival.  We’re the same age, but- well, we have slightly different priorities in life.

What we have in common is the marathon drive instinct, she for a much more exciting reason. Despite a summer torn apart by too much work, I was determined to co-present at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association annual conference in Bend, Oregon. I couldn’t attend the whole 4-day conference, so I would drive down one day, give my presentation, and drive back.


Sure, this wasn’t an audition for a shot at fortune and fame, but it meant something to me.  It meant telling the story of surviving- and succeeding at- a project shot full of wild and whacky stories.  At one point, an agency peer emailed only a subject line: “You will get a call about a dead whale.” I wasn’t fazed. After the endless carnival that proceeded that email, no big deal.  A dead whale. Next crazy card in the spinning Rolodex.

I wouldn’t include the suicide in my presentation.  That was too hard and too personal.  It’s not the first time by far I’ve been a bystander, a stranger and witness to someone else’s tragedy, and it cut deep.  “Why me again?” ran through my mind for as long as I could hear the man’s voice in my ears: a voice hesitant and soft, no longer demanding. His voice asking about my life and my future.  Only a few days later, I understood the changed tone, the questions about a tomorrow that he would never see.

I almost quit then, but remember, I’m the boring one, not the one who makes hell-bent-for-leather road trips to stalk a competitor in a high stakes romance. I soldiered on, hollow inside, until the voice faded,  and then dutifully filed all his correspondence for the project record.

No, my road trip was a day driving myself numb through white knuckle weather, sheeting rain and road spray obscuring big rigs that would suddenly emerge dark, huge, and very close.  Bands of blinding sun streaming in from the west would puncture the storm clouds to turn the spray waves from speeding trucks into eye-burning glare. The parade of semis and monsoon clouds cleared as I drove east over the mountains, but then the road started to twist and wind around itself.

Finally, I dropped into eastern Oregon, much like eastern Washington: out of the storms that stall over mountains and into expansive and sunny drylands spinning away from me.  I relaxed, but felt oddly anxious and disappointed, because I couldn’t keep driving.  What I usually do on road trips is keep going, camping and staying in motels for the occasional shower, unwinding and forgetting who I am, day after day.  Long road trips are in my genes. This was only one day.

bridgesOregon has few wayside rests, so I was relieved to find Peter Skene Ogden Viewpoint.  After hours of focused driving, I needed to stop looking at a road whipping past.  I needed to walk.  I immediately encountered the most disturbing warning sign I’ve seen yet, before the overlook that has killed “many dogs”, graceful retired bridge, and a historical kiosk. Looking over the cliff, I could almost hear the barking of ghost dogs.cliffsign

The conference presentation went well, as expected.  Unlike many who rank public speaking right below disease and divorce on the Agony Scale, I enjoy it. I attended the rest of the last day, which ended at noon.  I had decided to stray east a little more and visit the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds.  I didn’t have my good camera- I’d stupidly put my hand on it at home, then decided it would just disappoint me not to keep traveling and really use it. But I had a phone, and it would do.

The excursion would add several hours onto my trip home, but it would let me stretch the down time a little.  As I was driving through Bend, a project member called because a reporter needed something.  Patching through meant sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on one phone call after the next, with people staring at me like I might be a jilted and deranged lover, or a woman on the verge of divorce.

Over an hour passed before it was settled, and I should have driven straight home.  I should have done the sensible thing, but I just couldn’t.  I drove east away from the busy Redmond/Bend corridor down a wonderful lonely road to John Day.  As expected, almost no one was there- me, and of course, a couple other guys by themselves.  It’s always that way for me.  I walked every trail I could find, knowing it was foolish and the time was passing, but lured on by the scent of juniper and sage, and color and rocks and fossils.


The rest of the drive home was just plain long, and sometimes hard.  I didn’t realize the road that drops to the John Day was designed by a crazy, drunken miner for impatient, balletic mules- or something like that.  It felt like those car commercials where a stunt driver demonstrates power and control you will never need crawling in city traffic. With dusk settling, little deer herds everywhere tried to kill me and themselves by leaping forcefully into the roadway on hairpin turns.

People in Oregon are wildly friendly compared to Washingtonians, making you feel like a vulnerable and paranoid refugee.  They pump your gas in Oregon, so you have to remember to smile, and not to hide your wallet as if the guy approaching you wants to cop a five or rob you.

The smiling, cheerful lady at the gas station took me on a tour of the candy and energy bars, and even celebrated my purchase of a gooey-sweet mocha from the coffee machine and a bunch of bad chocolate.  She gave me a complimentary extra candy bar for the drive home. That sugar and caffeine helped when I hit rain at dark crossing the Columbia River Gorge and drove the rest of the way through increasing downpour as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Finally, I reached home.  I crawled into bed and curled up under soft, thick blankets, waiting for the feeling of motion to fade.  I wasn’t in custody, ragged and running on adrenaline, with that chewed up, wild-eyed realization that my little adventure had changed my life forever.  No, I was home, quiet, with a sprig of fragrant juniper on the nightstand as I drifted off to sleep listening to the soft hooting of a great-horned owl, with red-streaked hills in my dreams.ph3