Changing State

I hadn’t put much thought into all the other passes. Passes much steeper and longer than Rainy, Washington, or Loup Loup.  I’d never seen them. But, they still existed.  And we had to get over them. Shortly after Tonasket the map informed me about Sherman Pass–a formidable 5,575 feet pass.

We started our climb up Sherman exhausted. The day before we cut off the main bike route to go through the Aeneas Valley and, in order to get back to Highway 20, spent several hours on exceptionally steep gravel roads with frequent cattle guards.


I wanted to take the detour because my parents lived in the Aeneas Valley in the early 1970s. They built their own log cabin, grew a lot of their own food, and made what little money they had as small-scale dairy farmers. They named their Holsteins after their favorite (and least favorite) teachers from the Catholic schools they both attended from elementary school to high school. Sister Mary was their favorite cow; her brass and leather cowbell now hangs in their kitchen as a decoration.

A little less than a year ago, my mom gave me a large stack of old books related to farming, building log cabins, and self-sufficiency. These were the how-to books they read before and during their time in the Aeneas Valley. The pages of the books were turning brown and yellow and, although it was obvious they hadn’t been opened in decades, I could tell they were heavily used at one point. There were notes in the back of the books with ideas about how to situate the cabin on the property, a drawing of how a gravity-flow water system might work, and a reminder that one acre equals 43,560 square feet. Sean and I started spending our weekends reading these books in our 1,000 square foot mother-in-law. Then, we started checking out as many books as we could from the library related to self-sufficiency. Some of the books we especially liked are: Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour, and a few books about the tiny house movement.

These books provided endless fodder for good discussion during our free time–but the books also brought up some uncomfortable issues. The main issue seemed to be a feeling that we might be missing out on something. Or, separated from something. That there was this other way of doing things that never occurred to us because it wasn’t normal. On a more basic level, we were just really excited about growing our own vegetables. Our discussions about changing our lifestyle became more and more serious. And then, last December, we decided to tell our employers we would be leaving our jobs. It was strange because we didn’t really know exactly what we were going to do yet. Our friends wanted more details. We showed them permaculture books.

We’re still not sure exactly what we want. We know we’d like to grow a lot more of our food using permaculture methods and build (or remodel) a home so that it’s as “green” as possible (e.g., passively heated and cooled, solar for electricity, and maybe some kind of on-site greywater treatment). I hesitate to even say “green,” because in my mind we’re a lot more motivated by the idea of exploring smart, affordable home design that will allow us to never pay water, heating, or cooling bills again. The catch is that we don’t want to go live in the backwoods. We’d like to live in or near a community, ideally a walkable/bikeable community.

Back in the Aeneas Valley, I was struck by how isolated it felt.  After turning off the highway on to Aeneas Valley Road, we essentially had the road to ourselves. A few pick-up trucks went by, we saw a wild turkey cross the road, and eventually we pulled up to a small general store that looked closed. The valley was stunning that day, but it was too quiet for me. And, it was too quiet and isolated for my parents.



After several years, they needed new challenges and income streams and moved away. Sean and I didn’t actually bike up to where their old cabin sits. I promised my mom I would go back with her someday to look at it together. But, we stopped at the bottom of their old driveway and took a picture.

The next day we made it over Sherman Pass and through Kettle Falls and Colville–towns that appear to be the heart and soul of Washington’s logging industry. On our way out of Colville, black clouds rolled in bringing thunder and lighting.



Out in these rural places, dogs chase bikes. Usually we can bike faster than the dogs and I don’t think the dogs actually want to bite us–but it’s still disconcerting. Outside of Colville, we were about to get chased by a dog when we heard someone bellow: “COPPER!  Go home.” Copper, the dog that seconds before was transfixed on either my back tire or my ankle, stopped bolting towards us. The middle-aged man who yelled at Copper was more friendly with us.  He inquired about our route, informed us that he was training for the STP (Seattle to Portland), and let us know that we were just 20 minutes from the Colville Bike Hostel.

The Colville Bike Hostel is free. Last year, seventy cross-country cyclists stayed there. The couple that runs the hostel only asks that you sign the guest book, put a pin on the map to show where you’re from, and clean up after yourself. We were the first cyclists of the year to stay there and had the place to ourselves. We showered, played an intense game of air hockey, ate a good dinner, and slept well. Reading the guest book was fascinating. There were people on short two or three week tours, many cyclists going cross-country, and a few “Forest Gumpers”–people that have been travelling for years on bike, either back and forth across the country or around the world. One man that signed the guest book last year started his bike tour in 1997 and is still going. He wrote that he likes “the peace and quiet of the open road.”  It’s unclear where he put his pin on the map.



The next day, we pushed on through our last Washington State county: Pend Oreille. We went through towns named Tiger, Ione, and Usk. We passed through the Kalispel Indian Reservation and finally across the border to Idaho.



1 thought on “Changing State

  1. Nice to meet you in Rexford, MT. Safe travels, let us know if you need to spot to stop.

    Anita and Keith Johnston

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