Story by Knute Berger | Photography by Matt Mills McKnight
Since last November’s election, it’s seemed more important than ever to get outside Puget Sound’s blue bubble. Political divisions have made it harder to connect with one another across the state. We decided to venture out from our “socialist hellhole” and learn more about our fellow Washingtonians: how they live, the problems they face, what they think we ought to know.
So, we did what Americans often do. We took a summer road trip. Crosscut’s photographer Matt Mills McKnight and I chose to follow U.S. Route 2 — or Highway 2 — across the state. We put some 1,400 miles round-trip on the odometer.
We talked to farmers, fruit growers, ranchers and a Bigfoot entrepreneur. We encountered a wildfire, toured farm worker housing, talked to Donald Trump voters, chatted with a young man who was walking across America on foot and watched a horseshoe-pitching competition. Oh, and we learned that some small towns still shut up tight on Sundays.
Highway 2 is the northernmost U.S. highway in the country. In Washington, it runs from Everett on Puget Sound to Newport on the Idaho border. It passes through a stunningly beautiful microcosm of the state — from the green river valleys of Snohomish County, through spectacular Cascades scenery over Stevens Pass, and down through the orchard country of Wenatchee. It then heads up to semi-arid, half-mile high plateau country — land of hydropower and wheat. It cruises to Spokane through farm towns like Wilbur and Davenport, then pokes north and east through piney Pend Oreille County. It hits cities, towns, dams, farms, climbing rocks and places of geologic beauty like Dry Falls. The road is a seam that cuts through the Cascade curtain to link east and west, wet and dry, Red and Blue.
It’s a major highway, yet retains much of the old two-lane character that writer William Least Heat Moon called a “Blue Highway” for those character-filled, old-time roads marked in blue on old gas station maps; roads that tempt the vagabond. Highway 2 was a pioneer effort, the first major state road to connect the state end-to-end.
Parts of the highway are designated as National Scenic Byways, including the southern part of the beautiful Cascade Loop; it’s still a crucial transportation corridor sometimes called the High Line. It’s slower and less busy than Interstate 90, which accommodates folks in a high-speed hurry. That leaves Highway 2 a perfect drive for those who want to get a feel for the contours of the land and our state.
No single road trip can define a place visited or a town passed through. But our thought was that “flyover” country is better driven through, explored and observed; that reaching out is better than hunkering down.
One thing we found is that people seemed delighted to meet Seattleites who showed curiosity about their lives and places. We found hot sun, fresh air and landscape; places where density more often refers to the quality of rock formations than zoning.
In Wenatchee, we had coffee with Kelli Scott, the new editorial page editor of The Wenatchee World, a great family newspaper with a huge legacy: largely through the newspaper’s advocacy, Grand Coulee Dam was built. The 36-year-old Scott, a member of that family, is a Democrat editing for a largely Republican audience, and it’s a challenge with differences of opinion easily reduced to rancor and cries of “fake news.” She’s trying to understand her readers while sticking to her progressive perspective on issues like healthcare and women’s rights.
She asked us why we were making our journey. I told her we were looking for hope in a divided time — ways of reconnecting. “Communicating outside our bubbles is a good thing for media,” she observed in a subsequent column, “for the country, for all of us.”
Over the coming week, we’ll be sharing some of what we found and experienced along Washington’s great connector. Ride along.