This I wasn’t expecting: a homeless man on the shoulder of the North Cascades Highway, so settled that his encampment included a small Weber barbecue. But there he was in Marblemount, the last place you can get gas before making the push over Washington Pass and descending into Eastern Washington.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I had just slowed down to 25 MPH, mindful of the ticket I got the last time I exceeded the speed limit on a country road in Washington. Ahead of me on the gravel shoulder was what I can only describe as a contraption: a metal framed cart on wheels piled high with stuff. As I pulled past the cart, I saw what lay beyond it: a container perhaps six feet long and four feet high, covered with a grey plastic tarp, and in front of it, a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, his wiry gray beard extending down the front of his jacket.
Then he was behind me. I’d rounded the corner but couldn’t get the image out of my head. Was he a local who’d come on hard times? With only 200 people in the whole town, why wasn’t someone helping him? Had he rejected help, preferring to live outdoors? Or was he a stranger who’d been dropped there by some trucker, who then decided not to move on? Should I stop and ask?
I didn’t. By then I was a mile down the road, anxious to begin the climb into “the American Alps.” The old man (who for all I know was my age) was someone else’s problem.
I’ve read about the tent encampments under the freeway in Seattle. Homeless activists in Sacramento have been protesting a no-camping ordinance. But somehow I expected the North Cascades Highway to live up to the legend I’d built around it.
My parents sometimes took this route when we visited my grandmother in Yakima, my aunt and uncle in Wenatchee, or my mother’s best friend in Colville. Taking Highway 20 added time to the trip, but my mother turned it into a seasonal pilgrimage — stopping to cut vibrantly-colored branches for her fall arrangements, or to harvest mounds of wild blue elderberries, plump with juice, to make into jelly.
At first, driving east on the North Cascades Highway, I’d seen what I’d expected: clapboard houses dwarfed by candy-colored rhododendrons, jade colored rivers sliding past moss-covered railings, white dogwood blooms on branches reaching as if for alms, grey exhalations of mist drifting up tall peaks. My past was intact.
Before long I noticed things that hadn’t been there in the 70s. The modern Armed Forces Career Center occupies choice real estate in Burlington. A few miles along, parked in the driveway of a farm, is a semi-trailer wrapped with an image of three silhouetted soldiers next to the legend, “Never forget.” When my father last drove through, with his military identification sticker, no gas station attendant would ever have told him, “Thank you for serving.”
The drive-through espresso shacks are new, along with the Indian casinos and chainsaw-carved statuaries. (Bigfoot and eagles seem to be popular.) And — this being Washington — prominent green crosses glow next to dispensaries with names like the Skagit Valley Collective and the Marijuana Mercantile.
But the Douglas firs and red cedars and white dogwoods and purple lilacs and monster rhododendrons and mom-and-pop donut shops and pasturing sheep and black cows and sleek horses and blossoming blackberries and galloping rivers and proud peaks are still here. So I embroider them into my mental tapestry: my father in the front seat, piloting; my mother next to him, arm resting on the door, eyes scanning for wildflowers or birds; me in the back, the skin of my thighs stuck to the vinyl below my favorite cutoffs, the ones with the suede side laces and butterfly applique on the back pocket.
For more information about the North Cascades Loop click here.