Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
Spring came and went without travel, without social gatherings, without going out to restaurants. Summer arrived, but there were no art fairs, no wine tastings, no picnics on the beach with friends. At the risk of sounding like Scarlett, fiddle dee dee. Covid, covid, covid. This virus is spoiling the fun at every party this year.
The wildfires piled on the agony as thick, choking smoke blanketed much of Washington, Oregon, and California. You dared not go outside even to howl at the moon, which glowed an eerie red. By mid-September, with no end in sight to either the pandemic or the fires, my pent-up wanderlust erupted. In defiance of the experts’ advice, my husband and I set out on a cross-country driving trip, following roads “less traveled by,” looking for beauty to feed our restive souls and adventures less fearsome than fire and disease.
When you go through the same routine day-in, day-out in the seclusion of your own little bubble, you forget how various the world is. You forget the jolt of surprise you get from seeing unexpected sights and discovering the very different ways of living and thinking a few hundred miles beyond your front door. The scenery changes along with the political signs, the attitudes toward personal safety, and the fare available on the local radio stations. “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” we say to Reacher, the Norwich terrier who accompanied us on our odyssey.
We first meandered through the peculiar, undulating hills of the Palouse region, marveling at the colors and shapes of the vast agricultural fields, as if cruising through an abstract painting. We proceeded south along the thousand-mile Snake River and descended into Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, where unnamed roads branch into dramatic side canyons and signs warn of steep drop-offs, ranging bears, mountain lions, and bison. From the tiny hamlet of Imnaha we climbed toward the Hat Point overlook where fierce winds contort the trees and make it difficult for humans to stand upright.
The smoke from distant fires was visible as we continued on narrow, twisty roads, dodging a herd of cows as cowboys on ATVs wrangled them to lower pastures for the winter. Blackened hillsides marked the path of recent blazes and we felt lucky we hadn’t been trapped in those flames. We dined in our dog-friendly motel on indifferent take-out washed down by Snake River Valley “Chicken Dinner” white, vintage 2018.
Wending our way south, we stopped at the spot where Evel Knievel attempted his cliff-to-cliff jump of the Snake on his rocket-powered motorbike. Before he became famous, Evel worked for the Anaconda Mining Company in Butte, Montana until he did a wheelie with an earth-moving machine and drove it into Butte’s main power line, depriving the city of electricity. I thought about the mindset that impelled Evel to perform his daredevil stunts and how the physical and cultural terrain of a place can influence a person’s psychology. You can’t help but wonder what it’s like to grow up in one of those bleak, horizonless Montana or Wyoming towns where the career choices seem limited to coal mining, oil refining, or cattle ranching. Maybe the 18-wheelers roaring past on the interstate instilled in Evel a reckless yearning for speed and dangerous leaps across empty space.
Our excitement came in the form of a deer that attempted to commit suicide by bolting in front of our car; an angry bull that charged us as we navigated the bone-jarring, unpaved road to Green River Lake; and a glimpse of a distant grizzly that appeared distinctly irritated with the crowd of gawkers pursuing him with their cameras. Knock wood, we managed to avoid infection, fire, and deadly wildlife encounters and returned home with brightened spirits and a passel of travelers tales to sustain us through the long, boring winter ahead. Here are some snapshots.