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November 16, 2008

Short Distance Contrasts

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

We went to Yakima Friday for a visit with Nancy's kin and returned the following afternoon. Driving time from Seattle is around two and a half hours -- less, if you make no stops and push the speed limit envelope by ten percent.

Less than an hour east of Seattle you are cresting Snoqualmie Summit at a little more than 3,000 feet above sea level and entering Eastern Washington. Douglas Fir trees begin to give way to pine as you descend from the pass. Then the pines become more scarce, tending to forsake lowlands for the wetter hilltops. By the time you've peeled off from Interstate 90 to I-82 and leave the agricultural Kittitas Valley, you are entering sagebrush country: a desert, essentially. And Yakima is still the better part of half an hour away.

One of the things that comes with the territory if you live near the Pacific Coast is the contrast between a damp, forested coastal strip including bodies of water and, to the east, desert with mountains or high hills establishing the division. Down around San Diego, the verdant part is paper-thin, whereas up here in Seattle the wet, green part is more than 150 miles wide. Thanks to large, irrigated agricultural areas in central California and Washington's Columbia Basin, the desert is less visible to casual travelers. And of course trees can be found at higher elevations such as in the Sierras and Rockies as well as the hilly country around Spokane and the Idaho Panhandle.

Elsewhere in the country, a two-hour drive will almost always yield comparatively moderate change. For example, you could begin at Port Chester on Long Island Sound and wind up someplace in the Catskills. You would have traded shore for mountains and hills, but the nature of the vegetation wouldn't be particularly different. There would be no transition from thick forests to desert.

In pre-freeway days, the drive to see the contrasts would have taken longer. My rule-of-thumb is that intercity freeways cut driving time around 50 percent compared to the old two-lane highways with truck traffic days. Therefore the Seattle-Yakima run might have required five hours. I remember the pre-I-90 days when the route was called US 10. In the late 1940s the four-lane stretch petered out a few miles shy of North Bend and then it was two-lane road nearly all the way to whatever your Eastern Washington destination might have been.

We would often take a lunch break in an old mining town 85 miles east of Seattle called Cle Elum. We usually lunched at an old cafe with wooden booths, a soda fountain counter and pressed metal ceiling. I'd have a hamburger or perhaps a grilled cheese sandwich. The restaurant had probably folded by the time the freeway opened, the freeway making Cle Elum less necessary as a resting point.

As a matter of fact, I didn't bother stopping in Cle Elum for many years on the assumption that the place was pretty much dead. Actually, that's not quite so. I had read a newspaper article back in the 80s that dealt with people who lived near Cle Elum and actually commuted to the Seattle area to work. Psychologically, that seemed odd because Cle Elum was "over the mountains." But on further investigation, the town is 70-75 miles from Microsoft's headquarters, only a little farther than Olympia is, and with a lot less traffic. The only downside is the fact that winter weather can block the pass or make the drive a chore if one has to chain up to get through snow or packed ice. Assume a risk window of four or five months.

Recently, I've been stopping off in Cle Elum again. That's because Nancy hates to sit in the car for hours on end. And it seems like Cle Elum is okay so far as travelers' amenities are concerned. My big discovery is the Pioneer Coffee Roasting Company located in an old brick building on a side street, half a block off the main drag. They process their coffee on-site and have a rustic coffee shop complete with a bookshelf and internet connection.

Best of all, they consistently have the most attractive female barista corps of any coffee place I know of (check out the photo on the link ... hope it hasn't changed). The clientele ranges from folks in cowboy outfits to attractive ladies with big rocks on their fingers.

Travel is indeed enlightening.



posted by Donald at November 16, 2008


At high latitudes a short drive can change climate enormously if it takes you uphill. In the West Highlands of Scotland, at sea level there's arable land and the pasture grows almost the year round. Drive a few miles inland and up 3000 feet and you're in subarctic tundra.

Posted by: dearieme on November 17, 2008 9:16 AM

How does one drive across Washington without breaking out in laughter? Pe Ell, Satsop, Nisqually, Klickitat, Enumclaw, Colockum Pass, Cle Elum, Ronald, George, Krupp, Irby, Farmer, Yakima, Walla Walla...

For massive change in a short distance, Eritrea probably has everyone else beat. Asmara isn't all that far from the Red Sea, maybe 60 miles, but sits at an elevation of nearly 8,000 ft. It's also supposed to be chock full of Fascist architecture. Literally Fascist.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on November 17, 2008 10:35 AM

I should warn anyone interested that the 60-mile Red Sea-Asmara trip will probably take you a bit longer than the 2-3 hours from Seattle to Yakima-- though it might go faster in the downhill direction!

Spain is similar. Seville is only about 100 mi from Gibraltar, but I didn't make the trip when at the World's Fair because the train connections were indirect, and took the better part of a day.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on November 17, 2008 10:55 AM

Here in Sunny Central Texas, a two-hour drive could take you to the Gulf Coast, the Piney Woods of deep East Texas, or the perimeter of the Hill Country.

Posted by: beloml on November 17, 2008 4:44 PM

On our trip to San Antonio a couple months ago my wife and I drove south about 150 miles to Laredo. There was nearly no noticeable change in the terrain or vegetation. A day or two later, however, we drove less than 20 miles north of San Antonio and it was like a different world, very hilly and much more heavily wooded.

Posted by: Peter on November 17, 2008 11:26 PM

The Olympic peninsula rain shadow is an especially dramatic case of that: Sequim only gets about 18 inches of rain a year. Meanwhile, just 90 miles to the west, Forks receives over 120 inches of rain a year.

As the crow flies you'd only have to go about 60 miles to get from 18 inches of rain to 200 inches, though there'd be a lot of up- and downhill.

The most dramatic US case is in Hawaii, I think.

Posted by: John Emerson on November 18, 2008 1:54 PM

The south island of New Zealand is hard to beat for sharp climatic/topographical contrasts. At the southwest corner of the island lies Milford Sound, one of the wettest places on earth (something like 250-300 inches of rain a year). But drive a couple hours north and east, and it's semi-arid.

And then there's the Death Valley to Mt Whitney contrast Bill Bryson marvels over in his Lost Continent. It's less than 100 miles from one to the other.

Posted by: mr tall on November 18, 2008 11:44 PM

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