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No room at the canyon

The thing about sleeping at a truck stop is that the trucks stay running all night. Outside on the gravel lot behind the Flying J service center in Ellensburg, Washington, the soundscape of idling diesel engines was comical, like being inside a factory. But inside the Airstream you could almost imagine it was the sound of a river.

We had tried to sleep on the shore of the Yakima River that night, in Yakima Canyon in central Washington. We’d researched it ahead of time and there were four public campgrounds along the canyon road, so we were’t too worried about finding a campsite. We’d also read that this was a popular spot for river tubing, especially in late summer. This was a fact that we should have paid more attention to in retrospect.

We entered the canyon around sunset. One by one we pulled into each campground, and one by one, like Mary and Joseph in a Toyota Tundra, we were turned away. Every campground was filled to capacity. RVs and tents of all sizes were there, fires were blazing beside the “No Campfires” signs, each group seemed to have their own sound system blasting music, and tubes and other floating apparatuses were stacked everywhere. The scene was a zoo, and there was no room in it for us.

We spoke to a nice man at one of the campgrounds, and he told us he’d reserved his site a year in advance. He suggested we could try parking behind the Flying J up by the freeway, and that’s what we did.

We pulled around between a flat bed truck and a car carrier and heated up some stew that Courtney had cooked that day in preparation. This was not where we planned on spending our night, but we didn’t let it get us down. The trucks were loud, but they kept to themselves. We were the only travel trailer around, and in that way we had found greater solitude here than we’d seen down by the river. We had everything we needed; warm food, warm beds, each other, and two brand new river tubes we’d just picked up in Portland.

The next morning we woke up early, picked up a couple alcoholic seltzers from the Flying J, and drove straight back to the once-raucous campground from the night before. Only now all the partiers were fast asleep; the only sounds were the rushing river and the birds. We parked beside a tree in the empty day-use lot, unhitched the Airstream, made a hot breakfast, and with the help of an outfitters we hired to move our truck, we tubed the Yakima River.

The water was perfectly cold and the current was fast. We hitched our tubes together and ate sandwiches as we cut the 6 miles through the high basalt canyon walls and cattle fields, waving at other flotillas of tubers and steering around the drift boats casting for trout. The alcoholic seltzers were just delicious, and we were happy.

When our ride was over we had time to kill before our truck would be shuttled back to us. There were a couple of middle-aged local women sitting in folding chairs in the water by the boat ramp, smoking cigarettes and talking about how things used to be. We thought they had the right idea, so we fetched some more refreshments from the Airstream, pulled our tubes into the quiet of the shallows, and sat in the river, watching the people floating by, like a parade celebrating the last days of summer.

—August 18, 2018

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