Snarky Cat   2 comments

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Paul and I have an odd relationship with Spokane.

Spokane is pretty.  But on this, our second car trip to the area, finding our way around was no easier than the first.  We’re sure we could discover something interesting if only we could find our way to it.

The city and metro area are spread out over a wide area and distances seem long thanks to three rivers (the Spokane, Little Spokane and Columbia) running through it.  Finding one’s way around is surprisingly daunting despite the city’s grid layout.

Spokane struck us as a conservative family values sort of town, a place where people love their guns and Jesus simultaneously, drive pickups and wave the Red, White and Blue.  Indeed, Spokane is the birthplace of Father’s Day.

This city – at least the parts we saw – seemed pretty white bread, more like a suburb on steroids than a city.  I know it has funky locally owned eateries; we saw them on the Food Network.  I’ll just be darned if we can find one in a sea of fast food and other restaurant chains.

Spokane’s original reason for being was as a fort, then as a railway hub for the Northern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, and Great Northern (now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe) railroads.  Many railroad landmarks were demolished in the 1970s to make way for 1974 World’s Fair.  A big park stands where the rail facilities and fair once stood.  Spokane remains the smallest city to ever host a World’s Fair.

Arriving with plenty of daylight to spare, we stopped for the day in Spokane because of its convenience.  Much of Washington State between Spokane and Moses Lake is a big empty filled with ranches, farms and forbidding terrain with few places to overnight along the way.

The following morning, Paul and I took off for what we hoped would be the last leg of our trip before crossing the border: Spokane to Bellingham.

Crossing the Cascade Mountains through Snoqualmie Pass, this trek promised to be more difficult than the stretch crossing the Montana Rockies.  A former high school classmate now living in Washington gave us a heads up:  days earlier snow gave way from a mountain, causing an avalanche that buried a car passing by on I-90 below it.  Fortunately no one was killed or even badly hurt.  For us, my classmate said, Snoqualmie Pass was the best option.

On the drive out of Spokane, I spotted a funky locally owned diner – the kind previously seen on the Food Network – perched on a freeway frontage road.  No way could Donovan and trailer could fit into its parking lot.

Oh well!

Montana is notorious for treacherous, badly maintained roads.  Keeping roads in good shape is a challenge, given that state’s weather extremes.  Over the past several years, Montana upgraded several main highways.  Paul and I found Montana’s Interstates to be in far better condition than those in much of Minnesota.

Nothing prepared us for the stretch of I-90 running across Washington State’s Palouse region.  It was easily the noisiest road driven since we acquired Donovan.  Parts were rutted.  Steering became a challenge.  Once again, we were driving into strong headwinds.  Roaring road and wind noise agitated Destiny and Carter.  They cried relentlessly.

From there it only got worse.

All four of us needed to chill.  We exited at Ritzville.

By appearances from the freeway, there isn’t much to Ritzville, a farming and ranching community.  A collection of nondescript 1940s – 1960s houses stood in the distance.  Just off the exit, a Subway, Perkins and Taco del Mar awaited travelers.  Wedging Donovan and trailer into those parking lots proved impossible.  Dining in Donovan isn’t an option;  vehicles are not dining rooms.  Did we really want to eat “white bread” food anyway?

I had a cunning plan.  Driving off the ramp, a sign pointed the way to Casuela’s Grill Family Mexican Restaurant.  Like Yogi Berra said, when you see a fork in the road, you take it.

Our chosen fork took us past a lovely park with walking path and small golf course into the heart of old downtown Ritzville.

The town used to be a major regional shipping point for wheat.  Back in the day, it must have been prosperous.  Downtown Ritzville, now on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts a rich collection of storefronts dating from the 1880s through the 1920s.  Ritzville’s most modern downtown structure is its art deco movie theater (appropriately named The Ritz); its best preserved is the Carnegie Library, still serving its intended purpose.  Most distinctive of the lot is the Queen Anne-style Gritman Building with its corner turret.

Ritzville is sleepy much of the year, but emerges from its slumber during the summertime.  In addition to its two museums, it has abundant public sculptures, a water park and hosts three annual events:  Ritzville Days, the Ritzville Blues Festival and the Wheat Land Communities Fair.  Ritzville is a happening place; we just caught it snoozing as we drove down its mostly deserted Main Street.

Casuela’s was open, but empty.  We hedged on going in.  The place was neat as a pin, clean and inviting.  What the heck?  We’re here.

Within minutes of finding our seats our cheerful server (and co-owner) brought menus and a generous supply of freshly fried tortilla chips and salsa.  Rich herb and spice notes and generous chunks of fresh tomato, onions and sweet peppers greeted our palates.

Casuela’s is not fancy; not all furniture is uniformly styled, yet it is comfortable and inviting.  Its main dining room is painted a cheerful turquoise and decorated with handcrafted items and textiles from Mexico.  It appeared as if the owners decided to avoid going into debt to decorate – not a dumb move for an independent restauranteur in a remote small town.

While waiting for our food, other diners arrived.  Some were locals – regulars who knew our server.  Another group was also passing through.  Everybody got the same friendly, cheerful service.

From Casuela’s large menu featuring a wide variety of dishes from across Mexico, Paul ordered an enchilada platter.  I ordered chicken enchiladas with Verde sauce.  (Verde sauce is my new BFF of Mexican cuisine.)  One order came with refried beans; the other with stewed beans.  Both came with an ample supply of rice that didn’t look very…Mexican.  It wasn’t red or overly salty, yet very tasty.

The food, including the salsa, was unlike most Mexican restaurant fare.  Except for salsa, Casuela’s uses relatively little chili heat in its recipes.  Those wanting a quick dose of chili heat are advised to get to know that bottle of imported Mexican hot sauce on each table.  The food clearly is Mexican; the seasonings in the recipes seem more Spanish.  Whatever…it was delicious, homemade and satisfying.  The two of us snarfed down everything on our table.

Casuela’s owners grew up in the central Mexican state of Jalisco, near Mexico City – Mexico’s crossroads for food.  That explains those Spanish flavors.

Prices at Casuela’s are surprisingly low.  Taco del Mar may be slightly cheaper, but hardly unique.

Casuela’s is remembered fondly and highly recommended.

On the road again, the choppy surface, vicious headwinds and loud road noise wore on the nerves of our feline kidnicks.  Destiny cried mightily as we headed towards Moses Lake and the Columbia River.  Carter was no happier.  Unable to go to Mom and Dad, he turned to Destiny for comfort.  Des was in no mood for him.  She hissed, then growled.  Out of nowhere, we heard something that sounded like the bark of a small dog.

Destiny barked at Carter.  A minute later, hisses, growls and barks escalated into snarls and a full-out fight.

“Hey, you two,” I said.  “Can’t we all just get along?”

Destiny and Carter calmed down for what seemed like a nanosecond before we heard another tiny bark.  “Hey, Des, cut the snark!”

We saw George, Washington that day, complete with George’s silhouette profile painted onto its water tower.  George was founded by a pharmacist named Charlie Brown.  (Only in America.)

Approaching Moses Lake, Paul and I stopped at a scenic lookout along the Columbia River looking towards the Gingko Petrified Forest.  It was a great place to take an exercise walk and give the cats an opportunity to mellow out before hitting the Vantage Bridge near Wanapum Lake and Snoqualmie Pass.  Photography was futile; the skies were too dark and low and the winds too fierce to capture the beauty.

Snoqualmie Pass is long and grueling, though at just over 3,000 feet not particularly high in altitude or steep.  Cries of anguish from both cats were the soundtrack of our crossing as the altitude increased, causing our ears and presumably theirs to pop.  The drive is beautiful for passengers, but not so much for drivers, who must remain aware of their surroundings and of nearby traffic.  Once past Moses Lake, low clouds lifted.  We could see distant peaks of the northern Cascades.  An hour later, the crossing was over.

It’s a different world west of Snoqualmie Pass.  The winter climate of the Cascades gives way to the temperate rain forest environment of the Puget Sound region.  Ornamental cherry and other flowering trees bloomed.

Destiny and Carter were happier now, though Des was reluctant to surrender the snarkiness.  We stopped for gas briefly in Bellevue before continuing on to Everett, where we stopped again for a walk near the Brown Bear Car Wash.  Neither of us normally pays heed to a car wash.  Brown Bear, with its impressive bronze bear sculptures out front, demands it.

Continuing north on I-5, we stopped in Sumas in Washington’s Skagit Valley for a bite at Bob’s Burgers & Brew, a statewide chain of pubs.  What started as a wrong turn on a drive between Seattle and Vancouver during our first trip to British Columbia in 2007 quickly became a tradition.  Sumas is roughly halfway between Seattle and Vancouver.  Bob’s gourmet burgers are not as cheap as those next door at Jack in the Box, but they surely are better.

Exhausted, we arrived in Bellingham, the home of Western Washington University.  This charming and lively community located on Bellingham Bay, north of the Chuckanut Mountains and west of Mount Baker and Lake Whatcom offers a dizzying variety of year-round cultural and recreational opportunities, attracting many visitors from Seattle and Vancouver.

Too tired that night to enjoy the temptations of Bellingham, we drove to our hotel and quickly called it a night to the delight of Destiny and Carter.

The following day was met again by high winds strong enough to keep many truckers off the roads as mature trees swayed violently outside.  No expeditions into downtown  Bellingham for us.  The four of us hunkered down as the winds howled.  Tomorrow would be the big day.


2 responses to “Snarky Cat

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  1. My mother is from Spokane and I still have relatives there. My Grandfather McBride worked for the railroad and after my mother graduated High School and prior to her turning 18 years old she could ride the rails for free. So she came to Milwaukee to stay at her sister’s boarding house. Lo and behold, my father was a boarder.

    My sister Maureen was just in Spokane last week!

  2. That’s quite a story. For which railroad did your grandfather work (I’m guessing Milwaukee Road)?

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