Into the trees

Published 12:45 pm Saturday, December 7, 2013

by James D. Howell

The San Joaquin Valley of California is the irrigated, vegetable growing capital of the United States. Over to the west, San Francisco, and the bay area, beckon.

The settings for John Steinbeck’s books and Ansel Adams’ photography call out for investigation. Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley is to the west and Adams’ Yosemite National Park is somewhere in the high Sierra Mountains to the east. Unfortunately, time does not permit a casual look; it’s all a blur passing in the summer sun.

Beyond Redding the road begins to climb and there’s the promise of a close-up look at mountains that have been visible for some time. Trees appear abruptly as the climb starts from the valley floor; the air blowing through my open window becomes cooler, sweeter. The unmistakable smell of Christmas trees brings a smile to my lips.

Snow-covered mountain tops rise from lower hills in the distance; the road begins sensuous twists and turns alongside a riverbed. Railroad tracks appear and disappear with passing miles. This is territory I’ve only seen in movies. I can picture log trains with only three huge logs to each car, with hero and villain fighting, leaping, and wrestling atop the logs in a well choreographed dance. I see river rafts caught in rapids, barely averting sure death only with the daring, superhuman courage and strength of the hero. I feel the weight of log jams in swollen rivers and saw mills churning out mountains of lumber. I envision log flumes reaching for miles down a mountainside, disgorging logs into a river. My spirits are high, lifted by the sights and smells of a new world.

I can sense some hesitation in my engine and I know it’s been way over a thousand miles since a tune up. I decide to stop along the way and do a “plugs and points” quick change. A sign announces Dunsmuir just up ahead and I pull off into the short turn lane and backtrack into the town proper. I take an immediate like to this logging town. It’s situated beside a fast flowing, rock-strewn river, smells of fresh cut timber and has a Western Auto store right on the main street. I pull into a riverside parking area, walk over to the store, make my purchase and am back in the parking lot in minutes. It takes about an hour to change the plugs and points and I’m back on the road north. The engine runs smoothly; I relax a little. I will not forget the name of this delightful town.

Near Grants Pass, Ore., the highway weaves alongside another fast flowing river. Signs identify it as the Rogue. My mind sees Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe and Rory Calhoun on a log raft fighting the current, and each other, in the movie “The River of No Return.” I don’t quite remember the plot, but the river is beautiful and compelling. The territory just outside my window fits that description perfectly. I slow down a little and enjoy magnificent views. A part of my spirit stays alongside the river when I leave Grants Pass.

I fall in love with the Pacific Northwest. The highway from northern California to Seattle is nothing less than spectacular. River valleys narrow and widen into vast fertile farmlands and orchards; the air is cool and inviting. Small towns and large seem to accommodate weary travelers without pressures or worry.

Traffic and population increase dramatically when I approach Portland. Portland sits astride two rivers – the Willamette and the Columbia. Downtown is mostly on the Willamette; the northern edges border the Columbia. Just across the Columbia is Washington state. This wide flat area was traversed by Lewis and Clark on their expeditions of discovery, almost a hundred years ago. In town and elsewhere are monuments and institutions that proudly carry their names. The Willamette and Columbia current is fairly fast and sailboats have difficulty making way against the flow.

The Columbia’s waters have also been tapped for hydroelectric power, for war and peace. Far upstream, the Hanford Project was a main contributor to the nation’s nuclear effort during World War II. A high school classmate’s father was involved in the construction of that facility, and all the accompanying secrecy.

I arrive in Seattle and find my way to Sand Point Naval Air Station without difficulty. It’s a beautifully maintained, everything green sort of place.

The visiting officer’s quarters are a welcome sight, and I sleep well. Tomorrow will be “deliver the car” day. I’ll drive it to the docks at Seattle for preparation and shipment to Adak; the next day I’ll leave for distant Alaska by air.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at