It started with innocent curiosity: to know the names of the peaks lining the scenic North Cascades Highway—80 miles of winding roads in northern Washington State that bring you up close and personal with mountains, through canyons, and over lakes. Driving from mile 97.6 to mile 180, nature lovers will encounter native wildflowers, timid deer poking through the trees and snow glistening amongst the mountaintops. And that’s just the first five minutes.
The North Cascades Highway: A Roadside Guide to America’s Alps is a worthy introduction to that beautiful route. Written by Jack McLeod, a poet and geologist from Everett, Washington, the guide infuses geological history lessons, philosophy, and stunning photography, providing a glimpse into the author's giddy soul.
The story begins with the Cascade's first original miners, Skagit people, nearly 8,000 years ago. The natives mined chertz to manufacture tools (similar to quartz). In his free-ranging history, McLeod takes us forward to the 1950s, when the mountains lay bare gems a different sort, inspring sections of Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums.
Alternately poetic and scientific, McLeod takes us on a journey, mile for mile, providing insider tips on hikes and informing us of the intricate geological background of glaciers, mountains and rock.
“I sit. Time slows," McLeod writes. "My senses waken. I’m glad for this dry patch under the giant red cedar.”
The book threads through places like The Needles (mile 172) where you can see "sacred remains of tectonic collisions . . . igneous rock including forty-eight-million-year old Golden Horn granite with vugs of crystals." At mile 179.6, you come to Mazama Junction with the first traffic light in 60 miles and the only one in the entire county. At mile 131.7, McLeod is “startled by the stunning teal color of Diablo Lake. . . . [N]ature doesn’t always follow the rules we perceive as natural . . . . What you see today may change next month. Or tomorrow morning.”
With his driving tips, Sunday looky-loo’s will be able to safely identify where to pull off, observe the stillness and snap a few postcard-esque photos.
"This book is based on a highway," McLeod says, "but it is about what’s on the sides."