Monday, July 2, 2012

A Mile a Minute

 I have a clear memory, from when I was about five, of driving with my Dad in our '49 Ford pickup. We turned off the gravel road onto the paved highway, probably headed into town from his old home place, and he gently let that old truck have some rein. The windows were down and the truck smelled like a sunny warm mixture of grain and grease and oil and tobacco and horsehair upholstery.

After a couple of minutes he pointed to the ivory face of the speedometer and said, almost reverently, "We're going 60 miles an hour. That's a mile a minute." I don't know why that moment has stayed with me so clearly. For him, there was something special about going that fast - a mile a minute - and so it became magic to me.

Years later when I flew for a living, a mile a minute became three, then four, then five miles a minute as I worked my way up the line into bigger, faster airplanes. But these were just variations on a theme I learned in that '49 Ford.

And so it's been again on this ride. A mile a minute is the perfect pace for my new friend "Grace". That's the name she's chosen for herself. A mile a minute: a smooth, easy, ticket-proof pace, just right for being awed by the scenery, just right for riding all those 40 mph curves with no need to brake or downshift or do anything to kill the mood.

A perfect match, too, for my love of old two-lane backroads. We did try (or rather, were forced to try because of geography) some time on I90. It was awful. Grace and I were a rolling speed bump as Montana ranchers blew past us in their 400 hp diesel pickups pulling four-horse slant trailers, adding a solid 15 mph to the posted 75 limit. Deer Lodge to Missoula was our limit and we turned south to Lolo to pick up the Lolo Highway, the original US 12 west to Lewiston, ID. 
Such a hardship.
US 12 runs about 300 curving, wildly scenic miles from Lolo, MT to Walla Walla, WA. The pavement is rough in places, bearing the scars of hard winters and rough maintenance but the road is well engineered. At a mile a minute, there's no need to slow for any but a handful of corners and all the time in the world to be awed by the Clearwater River as it carves its way to Lewiston and its confluence with the Snake River.

On the Washington side of the Snake River west of Lewiston ID / Clarkston WA the road wanders through the valleys of the Blue Mountain region of southeastern Washington. The hills flanking the road are soft, gentle, almost sensous in the warm twilight. Farmland has never looked so fine.

At a mile a minute, I had five hours to enjoy this organic old road as it wandered through an under-appreciated corner of the northwest. I savored every minute of it.

Our mile a minute pace took Grace and I from Deer Lodge, MT to Ellensburg, WA today, a bit shy of 600 miles. I have no idea where those miles went, or where they came from. But we did it, somehow, our shadow chasing us for hours, right up to the motel door, drawn first by the setting sun and then the rising near-full moon.

Home is a day away now, two hundred forty miles, two hundred forty minutes at a mile a minute.