I grew up and went to school in Washington State, then moved to San Francisco in my 20s, so I’ve been driving Interstate 5 between Washington and California for many decades. A working person who needed to get to my destination as quickly as possible, I concentrated on driving as fast as I could without attracting the attention of the highway patrol. With luck and a supply of No-Doz you could reach Seattle in 12 hours. I didn’t stop except to pull off and sleep or get gas or food. Now that we are retired and have time to appreciate our surroundings, Holly and I can take several days for this trip and we’ve acquired a new appreciation of I-5 and the various watersheds and ecosystems it runs through.
North of Mt. Shasta, the landscape changes quickly from forest to sagebrush country and reminds me of my hometown, Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. We usually come through in August and it’s an entirely different experience in April. Brown and dry in summer, the sagebrush and scrub are blooming! We travel back in time when we drive north in the spring, watching trees and flowers in earlier and earlier stages of bloom. Invisible in other seasons, fuchsia redbuds dot the roadside. The deciduous trees have not yet leafed out and the hills are green. Golden maple and oak catkins cascade from the trees. The mountains are still covered in snow. I rediscovered a volcano in the rear view mirror–a snow cone! We found it on the map–McLoughlin, 9,495 feet. It’s usually bare in August and we barely notice it.
We stopped at a museum in Yreka, which had a fine exhibit about local Indians, but then next the exhibit about mountain men noted that they were “heroes in a virgin and unpopulated land,” essentially negating what we had just learned about the native population. Weird. It seems like the different curators didn’t talk to each other.
Interstate-5 from about Stockton, California, to Portland, Oregon, follows the track of the Siskiyou Trail, an ancient Indian footpath connecting California’s Central Valley with the Pacific Northwest. You summit four mountain passes between Yreka and Ashland, Oregon. The highest is Siskiyou Summit at 4,310 feet.
Like many other roads, I-5 follows rivers: the Sacramento in California up to Mt. Shasta. Once over the Siskiyou Mountains you hit the Umpqua, a wild river flowing through lava rock. But I-5 in Oregon mostly sits in the green lowlands of the Willamette river valley. You drive past farming operations and a section that claims to be the grass seed capital of the world, with signs telling us the type of grass grown in each location. I love this and think there ought to be a law requiring farmers to label all their crops so drivers don’t have to take their eyes off the road and risk accidents trying to figure out what is growing alongside.
The best thing about driving to Washington on I-5? The volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains! Views of Lassen and Shasta are followed by glimpses of Washington and Jefferson. I love when Mt. Hood comes into view as you approach Portland, and then from the bridge over the Columbia River you can see both Hood and Helens. Then Rainier and the top of Adams as the massive river turns north at Portland and the highway follows the Columbia River basin into Washington State. Is it because I grew up in the shadow of the Cascades that these snow-capped mountains resonate so deeply with me? Driving north on I-5, I feel them calling me home.
By Molly Martin