Overcast skies and light rain were the atmosphere of the day, which could only be described as seasonal Washington weather. Today was an on-time day and Aria was ready to get going. The fresh mountain air had no doubt brought a spring to her step and an eagerness to see what we would encounter next. Or maybe this was her way of preparing for another day of mountain driving with twists and turns. Either way, it was time to go.
I departed on 90W and after about 20 minutes, the mountains had disappeared, the land was flatter, speed limits were higher and the road was straighter. I couldn't help but think that we had returned to North Dakota except here, there were horses instead of cattle. Just as I got settled in for what appeared to be a long, uneventful, journey the road bent to the right and around the corner, we came face to face with a large mountain range with white tips. Boring drive over.
I decided to leave the comforts of 90W and take a few side roads that included another Highway 12 and was supposed to include a trip around Mount Rainier but due to the time of the year, a part of the pass was closed and I had to improvise and use Highway 12 in order to continue West. It was either that or backtrack to the main highway; I hate backtracking.
As I looked back at this moment and decided I was going to continue on Highway 12 I couldn't help but think that the road did a half smile and a chuckle. Highway 12 could best be described as sarcastic. It teased by taking me through quiet towns, smooth roads, mountains in the distance and slower speeds. It went through the national forests, with a rapid river flowing next to it and there were plenty of places to pull off and take photos. I also chose this time to get my bearings and figure out the best way to get to where I needed to go.
But, low and behold, I had no signal. Unknown state, area, and road with no signal, as peaceful as it was to have the silence there was also the fear of something going wrong and not being able to reach anybody. I let out a deep sigh as I put down the phone. The river splashed hard against a rock in the distance and the low clouds around us slowly became thicker. This was Highway 12 asking me; now what are you going to do? What any other prepared traveler would do, thanks to my parents, pull out the atlas and figure it out, old school.
I found my location and made my plan of action, took a few more photos and headed on out. I continued on with a few more stops for good photos and to let those more familiar with the road pass. Then a thought occurred to me, this really wasn't that bad of a road, at least, for the first 10-15 miles. The views alone made it worth it. Slowly, the roads became steeper, curvier and wetter. Oh yes, it had begun to rain and I had to climb up which only meant this rain would be sleet or snow very soon.
This Highway now became dangerous; not only because of the curves, which continued to get sharper, the climbs and descents were getting steeper, and now the weather had turned to snow. These were the worse conditions to be in and Highway 12 had the nerve to continue to have pull-offs with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, river streams and low clouds rolling in. I couldn't look away from the road for a second because everything changed that quickly.
One turn had no rain but wet roads, turned again and was dealing with a curve that had a warning speed of 20 mph, turned, and visibility had dropped to zero. Yes, zero. A zero visibility on the ground, on a straight road, I was familiar with could be tense but doing this on a mountain was just downright terrifying. What the hell was I doing up here? Suddenly backtracking was looking like a really good idea but I had to keep going.
To be surrounded by giant trees and mountains and in one turn they disappeared made it feel like I had entered the Twilight Zone or a Steven King novel. But if I could survive this, in the next turn I now had unlimited visibility, which was a good thing because up ahead was a tunnel.
At this moment a scene from The River Wild pops into my head. Kevin Bacon and Meryl Streep are heading down the gauntlet, Kevin looks to her and says, “Are we going down that?!?” Response: “You bet!!” I let out a long sigh and continued forward. I entered the tunnel only to see up ahead the sun's rays giving more light to the area unfortunately just enough precipitation had fallen that it caused a glare on the road which reflected into my windshield and I was unable to see the road in front of me. I did know there was a sharp turn after the tunnel but couldn't see it. At the last minute, the clouds blocked the sun, the glare disappeared and I saw the turn in time to make it. If not it would have been a long and bumpy ride down the cliff.
There were also warning signs to let me know there was "rough road" ahead and "large potholes". Both of these warnings didn't do the road justice, fill it with speed bumps and it would have been smoother than what I had encountered. So now I had to deal with a rough road, large (correction) huge potholes, slick roads, rain-snow mix, sharp turns, steep descents and climbs, a blind drop down the mountain on one side and hard rocks on the other. Oh, and I must not forget the "rock slide area". Sure, why not, I needed to be on the lookout for something else, nine things just wasn't enough.
Even though all of these obstacles were in front of me, the tension began to subside as I remembered I was in no rush to get anywhere and began to take my time, I also hadn't seen another vehicle for miles which was a good thing, unless... nope, nope, nope, I refused to let my mind go there and continued forward.
Not being in a rush, relaxed the mind but not the grip on the steering wheel. If I couldn't get any good shots while I was playing Russian Roulette with the road and mother nature, then I wanted off of this mountain as quickly and safely as...Oh look, a clearing and a pull off; photo op!!
I pulled off the second weather allowed for it and a safe one could be done but this also meant hitting a dozen more potholes and trying to find a level parking spot. I was able to get my shots, stretched my legs and looked ahead to the road before me. I took a long, deep breath, got back in the car and continued through the mountains and on the next turn everything became worse than it was before; I guess the first part was just a trial run?
As I continued down the mountain, something had caught my eye in the side mirror but when I looked again there was nothing there. I only slightly brushed it off because I knew I had seen something back there. I continued on and when I glanced into my rearview mirror, I saw a semi tractor-trailer behind me that came out of nowhere. So let's add that to the mix of everything else that was going on and with a second glance into my rearview mirror, I saw the Kenworth barreling down on me. How did I know it was a Kenworth? The emblem on the front of the truck was now the only thing visible in my rearview mirror. The sounds of his brakes could be heard echoing through the once silent forest.
Due to the current road conditions, there was only so much I could do to gain distance between the two of us but the endless turns and the slick roads made this near impossible and now we were on the descent of the mountain which had gravity pushing him down even faster. I finally saw the sign that I was looking for that stated: "Leaving The National Forest". I was about to be out of the mountains and onto a straightaway. Not that the weather got any better but at least I didn't have to worry about the large drop-offs along the side of the road. Upon leaving the mountain, I saw a small town ahead and pulled over to let the truck go by.
I was happy to say that, once again, I had survived a day of mountain driving. I couldn't get over how amazing Ella, my car, had been doing and Aria had been great about staying quiet as I maneuvered through the mountains. Although I was pretty sure she had her paws over her eyes and was saying a few prayers the whole way down. When I stopped for gas and a break, she was eager to get out and at one point I was pretty sure she kissed the ground.
But truth be told this route, despite the rough road, was one that should be enjoyed when the sky was clear and precipitation minimal. A lot of the pull-offs had placards to talk about the area and what could be seen around you. The scenic pull-offs would offer amazing views of Mt. Rainier and the others that surround the national forests.
All pull-offs had to be checked before entering and weren't marked until a few feet before them. I saw a few that could get you in but you couldn't get back out because there were still several inches of snow in that area. One car had pulled in to a snow-filled area and was hesitant on what to do because the only way to get out was to back up onto the Highway, and the pull off wasn't visible to traffic until they were around the blind corner and on top of it.
After surviving that mountain drive, I felt pretty confident I could handle just about any road that came my way. I'm not afraid to admit that there were several times I wanted to get off of that mountain as fast as I could which had me speeding and that was just a good recipe for disaster. If you find yourself in a similar situation, just relax and take your time.
I still enjoyed my time up there and look forward to going back one day when the weather is drier and the pass has been reopened. In the last couple of days, I've begun to realize that mountains are my calling and are something I want to photograph over and over again. I have the utmost respect for them and still find myself speechless at how quickly things changed up there.
The adventure continued as I headed towards Tacoma and the hotel I was staying at. I should have read the reviews more carefully because this was the worse hotel I had ever stayed at. It was next to a noisy, major highway and hadn't been updated in years, it was also in a neighborhood that was questionable at best. I headed in to get checked in only to discover that my room was at the end of a poorly-lit hallway that had my stomach in knots. Over the years I had learned when this feeling comes on, don't go any further. I returned to the front desk to ask for another room, only to be put into a room that was already occupied. A little back and forth at the desk had me in a non-pet room with an additional charge due to the extra cleaning that would have to take place.
Safety was more important than money and even though I disagreed with a lot of hotel's pet policy this one made me furious, especially, when upon arrival used wash clothes were still hanging from the shower. The room was outdated, the lock on the door questionable, the neighbors kept getting creepier, people were drinking in the parking lot on the tailgate of their pickups which was supposed to be where I walked Aria, which also had one street light. Needless to say, walks were limited, quick and done near the front of the hotel.
I'm one who likes to feel safe regardless of the time of day and I have to say there was some doubt with this hotel and even questioned the safety of the Internet. Today's drive had left both me and Aria physically and emotionally exhausted. I had always been happy to have Aria along on this road trip but was even more grateful she was there with me tonight
Driving across country can bring about some interesting situations. Broken down on a day by day basis enjoy my adventures and set backs along the way to some beautiful destinations.