Flower Forager’s Motto: Never Pass Up A Good Side Trip
Though I have nothing against freeways, they don’t exactly lend themselves to a sense of intimacy while they’re funneling you past places at seventy miles an hour. They’re too big, too fast and too necessarily, impersonal. So I was smiling when finally I turned off of I-90 at Vantage to drive southward along the Columbia River.
Highway 243 is a familiar old two-lane, one I’ve travelled at least a hundred times since adolescence, a back road that transports travellers through immense riverine sand dunes and along basalt cliffs, past venerable, Priest Rapids Dam, arid vineyards, lush orchards and long-forgotten train towns with romantic names like Beverly. But despite its favored status in my imagination, Highway 243 would only carry me about twenty miles this trip before I needed to turn south once again, at Vernita Bridge, onto Highway 24 where it connects Grant County with Benton County by crossing the Columbia River and then skirts the western perimeter of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This is big, open, sun-baked country. Strange country. Visible in the far distance from Vernita Bridge are several mysterious, plutonium production buildings dotting the poisoned, off-limits landscape. Perhaps you’ve heard about some of the things that went on at Hanford over the years. Nuclear warheads, atomic energy. And far beyond those buildings, you can just make out the famous, 300 foot, chalky, white cliffs of Hanford Reach. Highway 24 forks just a few miles south of Vernita bridge. There, Highway 240 heads off to the southeast, past immense, treeless, Rattlesnake Mountain toward the Tri Cities while Highway 24 turns sharply west and eventually runs straight into Yakima.
This side trip wasn’t merely a joy ride or an itinerant roll down memory lane. Back home, my overgrown garden and I were in desperate need of a new orchard ladder. And the Yakima Valley, home to some of the most productive tree fruit orchards in the nation seemed like just the kind of place to find a really good one. So I drove Highway 24 out through the vast shrub-steppe landscape, past magical sweeps of ground-hugging Phlox and then turned south, yet again, onto Highway 241. Destination, Sunnyside, WA. Orchard country.
I hadn’t driven more than a couple of miles from the turnoff and was heading up a narrow, winding stretch of especially lonesome asphalt, when out the window to my right I began seeing immense washes of blue flowers and yellow flowers bobbing in the breeze. There were thousands of them, tens of thousands even, and they seemed to vibrate within all that brilliant, Eastern Washington sunlight. I pulled onto the shoulder as soon as I could safely manage it and began rummaging around for that second, smaller vase I’d tucked in a few days before, thinking myself pretty “Road Bouquet” tricky. Heh, heh, heh.
The barb wire fence was strung surprisingly tight, but easy enough to get over. And there on the other side, eureka, a hillside so full of wildflowers that I could actually hear the buzz of all those industrious bees working it as soon as I exited my car.
One for me, ten for you, one for me, ten for you, I counted, traversing back and forth along that flowered hillside as if it were a grid, and pulling only a tithe of the freshest looking bloom stalks from their deeply buried bulbs, wanting to be sure to leave plenty for the bees and for next year’s regeneration. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t bother with the yellow beauties growing all around them: Descurainia incisa, aka, Tansy Mustard. For some vague reason, I only wanted those stunning blue wildflowers. Just a fistful, mind you. I wanted to take them home and study them in the early morning light at my kitchen table, with a cup of coffee in my hand. I wanted to watch them open and fade with age. They were quite beautiful to my eyes, but I’ll admit it, beyond having grown from bulbs, I didn’t have a clue what they were.
Enter Mark Turner, author, teacher, photographer, wildflower expert . . . and friend. I have been meaning to get a copy of Mark’s Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest book for quite a while now, but when he told me just recently that he was working on an iPhone/iPad version of it, in partnership with the University of Washington Herbarium, and said that it would be released pretty soon, I decided to hold out just a little longer for the, uhh, “E” version. Of course, that decision didn’t help me one bit, this trip, but rather than beat myself up, I decided instead to e-mail Mark a close-up of the flowers in question and then follow up with a phone call. Despite what he describes as “a general problem with picking wildflowers”, preferring them left in place, Mark responded promptly to my inquiry with a definitive answer, Triteleia douglasii, and then, generously offered me a peek at several of the page mock-ups for that new iPhone app, as well. (I can say this much without risking the friendship or torture: IT IS VERY COOL! Which means if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to check in at Mark’s website from time to time to find out just when this electronic wildflower identification guide, aka, iPhone App becomes available, ‘cuz really, aren’t you less likely to forget your cell phone on a road trip than a guidebook?)
Now, to wrap up this winding tale of the road and complete the circle, as promised; I did make it safely on into Sunnyside, eventually, and then down the road just a few more miles to Marchant Ladders, in Grandview. (If you’re at all curious about that part of the adventure, be sure to check out my blog post over at A Photographer’s Garden Blog.)
Finally, ladder procured and secured, I headed for home like a road-weary horse headed for the barn. I drove up the valley, through Yakima to Ellensburg and there, once again, merged onto that speeding blur of traffic known as Interstate 90. No more detours, this trip. No more two-lane highways or gravel roads, or vases to stop and fill with roadside treasure. Just a smile on my face, the urgent call of home, of loved ones, and several new memories. I drove toward the sun and as I did I kept glancing over at the passenger-side cupholder, at that Coke-bottle-green vase nested safely within it. For there, with their feet in cool water, beneath the late-afternoon shadow of a new, twelve foot ladder tied to my roof rack, a fistful of stunning purple/blue wildflowers, shimmered and swayed, dancing with my imagination, keeping time to the vibrations of the road.