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Old 395 a gritty, bygone blacktop

By ERIK SMITH
Herald staff writer

It takes two hours and 15 minutes to reach Spokane on the new Highway 395, which is about enough time to find a good radio station, but not enough for boredom to set in.

This is hardly the way to see Eastern Washington. There's only one way to get the true measure of our wide-open spaces, and that's to spend mind-numbing hours driving through a brown land where the scenery doesn't change and the leading product is dust.

Just about every two-lane highway in Eastern Washington fits this description, but the problem is they all seem to lead to places like Colfax. The highways that actually go somewhere - like U.S. Highway 395, to Spokane - are being turned into gently curving freeways that take all the pain out of driving. Heavy traffic dispels the sense of loneliness. Turn up the air conditioner, turn on the cruise control and you might as well be home watching TV.

Well, there's still a route to Spokane that offers a glimpse of the real Eastern Washington, with the desolation, emptiness and middle- of-nowhereness that drives small children to ask, "Are we there yet?"

Most of the old two-lane highway still exists, twisting around hills instead of bursting through them. It's just that you have to want to find it.

It starts in Eltopia, with a 19-mile stretch of blacktop known as Blanton Road. It curves gently through rocky hills, then heads straight over the prairie to Connell. Before Highway 395 veered off on its current route in the mid-70s, you'd see slow-moving semi-trucks leading processions of frustrated motorists. Today, you might pass three cars the entire way. What you see is a sweeping vista of absolutely nothing.

Except maybe sagebrush, high-voltage towers in the distance, and wheat rippling in the wind.

This is a true Eastern Washington highway, all right, perfect for those popular pastimes of driving real fast and dumping things late at night.

In a single two-mile stretch of the highway in Franklin County, some 45 worn-out automobile tires decorate the ditch. Hunting for stop signs remains a popular sport: You can see daylight through just about every road sign along the way, and in one Franklin County 50-mph sign, the bullet holes pass neatly through the "0."

Fresh shells on the shoulder show this feat was accomplished from about 20 feet away and offer proof at least someone has driven the road sometime recently.

The old highway alignment takes you down Connell's main street, past grain elevators and brick buildings that have been baking in the sun since the turn of the century. Then it veers east again and continues another 17 miles.

It's more of the same, which is as good a way as any to describe the geography of Eastern Washington. It's flat. Not a tree in sight, except those surrounding the occasional farmhouse. Tallest things on the prairie are the dust devils whirling and spitting dirt into the sky. And everything is brown.

For some reason, highway planners failed to consider this road's tourism potential, and made it difficult to loop back to the freeway.

Where there used to be an intersection, the old highway brushes up against a wire fence along the freeway, then turns into a gravel access road that peters out in the hills.

To continue north, you have to cut over to the freeway one mile back, on an unmarked farm road.

You can't take the old highway loop into Lind anymore, either, but you can see it to your left, where it dead-ends against the fence.

Basically, you're stuck in the 395 traffic for the next 25 miles, all the way to Ritzville.

While you're there, you should stop at Jake's Cafe. This is because you are expected to stop at a diner when you drive the old highways, and Jake's billboards don't exaggerate one bit when they say: Clean Rest Rooms.

Once inside, you'll want to find a seat at the counter that allows you to eavesdrop on the loudest conversation. Overheard homespun wisdom is an important part of the old-highway experience. Recently, it was that the studs always seem to break off when you try to install a new exhaust system in your pickup. Four sweaty guys in a booth also observed a truck with a 283 is available in Spokane for $200, but you can make twice that by selling it for parts. One fellow in overalls pointed out his car has a V-6, even though most people think it has an eight. "I pegged it at 85, but I swear I was doing 130," he said.

"Probably would break a radar gun," a friend finally agreed.

Now, is this Eastern Washington or what?

From Jake's Cafe, you keep head ing into Ritzville on what once was called U.S. 10, past the feed stores and motels and out again into weed-and-wheat country. Basalt outcroppings start poking through the weeds near Sprague Lake, and atop the rocks, weather-beaten signs for Spokane's landmark Starlite Motel advertise rooms for $5.50. And then there are more weeds, more rolling hills, more nothing.

All but three miles of U.S. 10 still exist, and the gap is bridged by I-90.

Scraggly pines start showing up at Tyler, and by the time you reach the Cheney-Spokane Road, the countryside is positively woodsy. You climb into Spokane on the Inland Empire Highway, round a curve under the Hangman Creek Bridge, and emerge on Third Avenue.

In two blocks you'll pass a 7-Eleven, where you can buy a Jolt Cola, with all the sugar and twice the caffeine. The route is 148 miles, 15 miles longer than the new road.

At a pace that bears a resemblance to the speed limit, the trip takes two hours and 38 minutes.

It only seems longer.

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