Gretchen Staebler Commentary: Shunpiking Around Lewis County on a January Afternoon

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My East Coast friends think it rains here all the time. Well, it wasn’t raining on Friday. After the fog burned off, I grabbed my camera and jumped into my trusty 1998 Honda CRV, boasting more than 200,000 miles on the odometer (including my cross-country drive last summer when I moved home to Lewis County, traveling on as many backroads as I could manage), and went shunpiking into the blue sky yonder. 

I ran across my new favorite word “shunpike” recently: “avoidance of major highways in preference for bucolic and scenic interludes along lightly traveled country roads.” One who avoids major highways is a shunpiker –– who spends sparkling January afternoons shunpiking.

I leave my house on Seminary Hill and go up and over the back side, heading east toward Hanaford Valley. I follow the roads in one direction until they dead-end, then turn around and go the other way. I have no place to be and no time I must get there. 

As I traverse the hill, I keep getting glimpses of Mount Rainier –– aka The Mountain –– that, in spite of growing up on this side of town, I didn’t realize was visible from here. Each time its white-snow-against-cerulean-sky self flashes between the trees, I gasp, surprised every time. 

In the valley, I drive past an alder grove that sparkles in the afternoon sun, casting reflections and shadows in and around the flooded creek that meanders through the emerald dale. I mosey by active red barns and picturesque moss-covered, falling-apart ones. A raging creek at the end of Little Hanaford Road tumbles through tall meadow grass, headed for the Pacific Ocean. 

When I set out, I didn’t know my mission was going be looking for mountain views, but I become a camera-toting shunpiker obsessed. The Big Hanaford power plant arguably has the best views in the county. I have probably seen it from there, but so long ago I don’t remember. It takes my breath away. 

But beyond the plant and up and over another fir-covered hill, a clearcut promises an even better view. I park outside a logging road gate, duck under the barrier and walk up the little hill to a 180-degree view of the mountain and snow-powdered foothills. Why have I not known about this? Just a half hour from home!

I turn right on Big Hanaford Road, braking at a yard full of exotic birds — peacocks and such. Random. The road ends, and I go back and follow it in the other direction.

 Edging into Thurston County, the sign indicates I am headed for Tono, a ghost town no longer visible but still on the map. In Bucoda, I turn south and, crossing the Skookumchuck River, back toward Centralia.

Once on North Pearl Street, I turn left over the viaduct to Ham Hill. I smile at a memory that tugs at the edge of consciousness of my sisters and me begging Daddy to drive home from church “the long way,” around the back road to Seminary Hill. 

And wouldn’t you know, I get caught behind a school bus at the foot of the hill. I follow the bus, larger than the one that took me home from school in the 1960s on that very same route, all the way up and over the hill. Welcome home.  

Next sunny day I am shunpiking through the far western end of Lewis County. It really is a pretty fabulous place to live. Now, if I could just find someone to pay me and my camera to shunpike.

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Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called “My View from the Garden” at myviewfromthegarden.blogspot.com.

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