Last week I had the chance to spend a few days in central and eastern Washington, first as part of our last trip in the 2015 class of the Institute for a Democratic Future, and then showing my Mom what people love about Washington state. When she got off the plane and I was thinking about what to show her, I decided to start by driving an hour out of the city. More than any other place I’ve lived, people here love Seattle for how close it is to other things–mountains and the ocean and rolling fields and deep, dark woods. The quiet love San Franciscans have for Golden Gate Park and New Yorkers have for Central Park, I have seen Seattlites demonstrate for parks and hikes an hour or more out of the city.
So I got in my bright-yellow car and drove my Mom to the nearest mountains. We took Highway 90 into the Cascades, fresh with spring growth. The first time I made that trip was over a year ago with Matthew, on a drive to Montana for a week exploring Glacier National Park. That trip was in April, so the Cascades had literal cascades of ice-melt and rainwater pouring off of their andesite cliffs. I remember miles of little waterfalls, just pouring down around us as we drove through the first of two mountain ranges we needed to cross to get to our vacation spot.
This time, we didn’t need to leave the Cascades, but explored for a few hours within them. We found an unnamed creek and collected some lovely rocks, as we do. We found a Pacific Crest Trail and some insistent signs about how my Discover Pass was no good tender for getting access to that lovely walk. We gossiped about the rocks and found a few delightful specimens.
Like my home mountains in California, these mountains are all igneous, meaning made from magma under the ground that rises high and may burst into open air or not, but eventually cools. We saw lots of these cliffs, slowly being broken-down by evergreens that march nearly to the bare crowns of their heads. We passed a few formations that might be cirques, the most dramatic evidence of Washington state’s glacial past.
Cirques are easy to identify on sight–they look like the Matterhorn, because the Matterhorn is a cirque. To understand why they look like looming crescents, it is necessary to divert briefly into an explanation of glaciers. There are two kinds of glaciers; I have lived on land shaped by both of them. The first and most dramatic are continental glaciers, the kinds that squished the Appalachian mountains around Pittsburgh under 8,000 feet of ice. Those are the kinds that heaved all of the best soil down from Canada to the U.S. midwest, ensuring decades of fruitful crops from the best topsoil in that part of the continent.
Though less dramatic in their massiveness, alpine glaciers make up with delicate impact what they lack in size. There are a few shapes that let us know when a mountain range has been shaped by alpine glaciers. Think of these mountains as peaks of ice cream and an alpine glacier as an ice cream scoop, scooping down a mountain range as it grows and then scooping back as it shrinks. Like an ice cream scoop, alpine glaciers can leave the sides of mountains with concave sides and valleys with U-shaped bottoms, as opposed to the V-shaped bottoms a river-shaped valley would present. Now think about the untouched parts of a fresh carton of ice cream that has just had its virgin scoop, think about the flat top plane. Those edges might curl down a bit, hunching over the concave part of the scooped-out ice cream. Like the edges of the scoop, mountains that have been shaped by alpine glaciers can sometimes have tops that look like droopy-crescents.
This happens for exactly the same reason the ice cream carton would have those droops. Because once that valley was full of glacial ice, it would have looked like a flat plane of ice, with a little bit of mountain sticking out of the top. As the glacier receded, it took pieces of the mountain along, but could not get that top-bit, so it was left, hooked and bare.
On the trip with my Mom we saw some maybe-could-be-cirques and we discussed them excitedly. On the trip out to Eastern Washington, I excitedly talked about the stunning formations we saw and my non-geology-nerd passengers politely slept. We are a family of rock-hounds and on the trip out to the bottom right-hand corner of the state I was the only one of that breed. But that didn’t matter, because the rocks were glorious, though I was driving and so have no real pictures.
A friend who is a political director for a local advocacy group told me I would love the rocks in Eastern Washington and she was right. There were incredible basalt formations, tall columns of quick-dried lava that formed hexagonal pillars. Like natural monoliths, they expose themselves through the sides of hills and decorate people’s gardens. They are stunning, and I have only ever seen them in one other place: Devil’s Postpile in the Eastern Sierras in California has these same formations.
It was a long weekend of driving, but like other people who live in Seattle, sometimes the best days are spent far from the sounds and smells of the city, surrounded by rocks shaped by centuries of fire and ice.
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre