Tim Woodward: The shortcut from hell

woodwardcolumn@hotmail.comOctober 13, 2013 

"You’ll save at least an hour if you go over White Pass,” a relative said in the voice of a spider to a fly. “We know because we’ve done it. At least an hour. Guaranteed!”

The conversation took place over dinner in Pendleton, Ore., where we’d driven that afternoon en route to the family cabin in western Washington. We’d made the drive countless times through Portland, but our well-traveled relative assured us that his shortcut over White Pass would have us there the next day in time to catch and cook lunch.

“It’s a good road and an easy drive,” he said. “A lot prettier than going through Portland, and compared to the pass we just came over (the Blue Mountains between Pendleton and La Grande), it’s nothing.”

A fringe benefit was that the route would take us through Prosser, Wash., the hometown of former BSU football star Kellen Moore.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to see where Kellen lived?” my wife said in the tone wives use to entice husbands into doing things against their better judgment. “I’ll bet they have pictures of him all over town.”

They did. Prosser is clearly proud of its hometown hero. We spent half an hour or so in Prosser then continued on to the pass.

Soon the road narrowed. Then it began to rise alarmingly.

“This sure doesn’t look like ‘nothing’ to me,” I said, fingers tightening on the wheel. “It looks higher than the pass we came over yesterday.”

And we were just getting started. The road continued to climb.

And climb.

And climb.

My acrophobia (fear of heights) is familiar to regular readers of this column. You’d think a person born and raised in Idaho would take mountain roads in stride, but there’s nothing rational about phobias. White Pass probably doesn’t bother most of the people who drive it, but for acrophobiacs it’s White Knuckle Pass. It’s the home and onetime training ground of Olympic skiing champions Phil and Steve Mahre, so we’re talking serious mountains here. Its neighbors include Mt. Rainier.

We passed lakes and waterfalls.

We passed rockslides.

We passed the tree line.

I think we caught a fleeting glimpse of a mountain goat.

Or maybe it was a yeti.

“You want me to drive?” my wife asked with a decided lack of enthusiasm. (She dislikes mountain roads almost as much as I do.)

I thanked her just the same, sure that if we tried to pull over to trade places, we’d lose control and the car would hurtle over a thousand-foot drop-off.

It was at about this time that the driver behind me started to honk.

“What’s wrong with that guy?”

“I think he thinks you’re going too slow,” she replied.

“Too slow? We’re going 15 mph!”

The guy behind us, incidentally, was the relative who had suggested the shortcut. He was at the helm of his motorhome, which is roughly the size of a Greyhound bus. And though I can’t be certain, I think he was smirking.

At last … the summit. People who aren’t bothered by heights think reaching a summit would be a relief for those who are because you’re no longer climbing — the worst is behind. That’s true, up to a point. It’s also true that the summit is the point at which all true acrophobiacs remember that they forgot to have the brakes checked and know beyond a doubt that they’ll fail at any second and send the car and everyone inside over a dizzying and fatal precipice.

To my immense relief, that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in part because our descent was blocked by roadwork. Lots of roadwork. For an uncertain but large number of miles, we alternated between waiting for oncoming traffic on what had become a one-lane goat path and creeping along in a line of vehicles traveling at 5 to 10 mph (if you ask me, an eminently sensible speed for mountain passes).

The relatives in the motor home had a different destination and turned off the goat path onto a normal highway before we did. So we never did get a chance to say goodbye and thank them for their time-saving tip. We had to content ourselves with a wave (my wife vetoed my suggestion for a volley of buckshot) and continued on to the cabin, arriving late in the afternoon.

Without the shortcut, we’d have gotten there three hours earlier.

Tim Woodward's column appears in the Life section every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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