A Clean Break

Three miles west of Lake Easton, the landscape abruptly changes. There is a clear line, west of which the trees are tall and lush, mixed deciduous and pine, and east of which the trees– all pines– are short and evenly spaced, sprouting from pale, soft dust that smells of hot sap. Seconds before I realized this, I swung off the trail, unhooked my tow-belt, and abruptly dashed into the trees to relieve myself. It was there, squatting in the fine, sap-smelling-dust looking back they way I’d come that I saw it: the line between east and west.

For days, I’ve been rhuminating on where Eastern Washington begins. Is it at the crest of the Cascades? Snoqualmie Pass? The Columbia River? Somewhere in between? Is it abrupt? Would I notice it? Or is there a protracted zone of change…a defacto Central Washington? For that matter, what defines “Eastern” Wasington? Is it a line on a map? A shared ethos? A unique environment? Perhaps it is all of these, but as I’m learning none is a complete, or completely accurate, definition.

Several days earlier, after emerging from Snoqualmie Pass tunnel, I noticed ecological differences from the west side. There were no salmon berries, the handful of thimbleberry brambles offered only green pips, and the leafy green, mossy undercanopy was replaced by waving grass, a profusion of daisies, and clusters of orange, speckled lilies. As I headed south along Keechelus Lake, I was struck by its barrenness in stark contrast to the emerald forest fringed lakes of Western Washington. I noticed these changes slowly though; despite my attention to the east-west shift, these were subtle changes.

The shift just west of Lake Easton is abrupt– it comes on as quickly as the realization one needs to pee after removing a 70 lb tow belt from one’s waist. As I made my way east around Lake Easton, and into the town of Easton, other things appeared abruptly as well. Trump 2020 flags flew from front porches. The Hitching Post– the local general store– proudly proclaimed “All Lives Matter” on its reader board. Here was a clear political and ideological shift from the last town I’d transited west of the pass.

I looped down around the south end of the lake and back up the east side to Lake Easton State Park Campground where I met Rod and set up camp in preparation for a rest day and a day of slackpacking. I enjoyed a day of rest, though I was taken aback by the sheer number of people in the campground, the amount of campfire smoke they sent up, and their willingness to hang about in shared bathrooms gabbing without masks on in the age of covid. I made liberal use of el baño natural at the park, lest I come into contact with too many people, and was, quite frankly, happy to leave the park and the people in my rearview.

The trail east out of Easton saw more changes, most notably dusty, sun-exposed path. Serviceberry and elder trees crowded the trailside, interspersed with occasional cluster pines, none of which provided any shade. This barren trail sparingly offered up sun-loving raspberries and currants. I walked 13 miles to Cle Elum, 8 miles past Cle Elum to Ponderosa Backcountry Campground, and a final 18 mile day to Ellensburg, all in 80+ degree weather and full sun, save a short shady canyon on the afternoon of day two. I love the heat, but my my fair skin doesn’t tollerate so much sun exposure well. Every few miles a creek-side oak or bushy grey willow would cast a small shadow on the edge of the trail, and there I would hunch, chugging water and electrolyes until my skin grew cool again. Then I would venture out to eat as many miles as necessary until the next meager patch of shade.

The trail surface east of the Cascades provides its own challenge. The further east I traveled, the deeper grew the gravel. As I pulled out of the Yakima River gulch and onto the final straight, ten mile stretch into Ellensburg, the gravel became so deep I was forced to lean my entire body weight into the tow belt, grinding my feet through the gavel to the packed earth beneath and pushing off hard with each step. My calves quickly knotted and my thighs burned. Pulling the cart uphill feels like a sprint: short-span-large-muscle-exhausting. This, pulling on flats through deep gravel, is more like an endurance event; it goes on and on, requiring continual coordinated exertion, wearing away at the small muscles and causing fatigue to creep up on one’s entire being. I was wearing thin. My rests in the shade grew longer, the recovery gained there less complete. The final four miles of the day dragged on interminably.

It came as some surprise, then, that it was not I that broke there in the sun and the gravel, though something did. Two miles west of Ellensburg, while pulling through one of the many narrow gates on the path, the cart’s left tire caught briefly, and I felt something give. Turning in the tow belt to examine it, I watched the left tow bar snap cleanly in two. The loose bar end fell into the gravel and sent up a final puff of dust before resting there.

I thought briefly of kicking and screaming, or maybe crying, but like a toddler with no witness to their tantrum decided that was useless. I thought about calling Rod to share the news, or an Uber to come rescue me, but quickly dismissed those options as well; both would mean yet more time spent in the full afternoon sun. After rejecting all of these options in the space of a minute, I did the only other thing I could think of: I grabbed a cam-buckle anchor strap from my kit, threaded and buckled it through the front cart frame, tied the loose end to the tow belt, retrieved the broken bar from the gravel, and trudged on. It was the fastest way I could see to get to the rest and shade that awaited me in Ellensburg.

Somewhere out there, I think I entered Eastern Washington. Maybe it was west of Lake Easton, where the trees changed. Maybe it was in Easton where the politics changed. Maybe it was where I exited the gulch– rounding the last, low finger of the Cascades and walking out of the river valley that runs between. Or maybe it was in that hot and dusty stretch of gravel behind Thorp Fruit and Antiques Market– a landmark many Google reviewers attest is the official demarcation of the Eastern/Western Washington divide. Despite keeping a keen eye out, I could find no place where Washington breaks cleanly in two like the bar of my cart. I can find no single point where West becomes East, rather I have seen and walked across many lines this week.

I’m in Eastern Washington now, but the most important line I’ve crossed this week isn’t geographic; it’s in me. The Wander Wagon is out of comission. I’m sunburnt and sore and don’t know what exactly comes next, but none of that matters. I’m not angry or disappointed or even frustrated with where I’m at. I’ll take a few rest and research days. I will return to Seattle during those days to fabricate and test-run new parts. I may be forced to slackpack or even backpack the rest of this trail. Who knows. Who cares. The only way is forward.

One thought

  1. Ah, the ebbs and flows of the landscape within oneself. I believe the usual result of this is, how you say… “growth.” Proud of you for sticking this one out. You’re one of the most resourceful people I know, and come hell or highwater, you will move forward. You always do.

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