By Marcy Stamper
Although the title may seem pedestrian – well, automotive – The North Cascades Highway: A Roadside Guide to America’s Alps is a beautifully illustrated compendium about the geology and natural history of the storied road that takes us to what many consider “our” mountains.
As writer, photographer and explorer Jack McLeod says in the book’s introduction, “Thousands of drivers cross the North Cascades Highway admiring the views but not knowing the place.” One of McLeod’s goals is to encourage people to look more deeply, to lure them out of their cars and onto the trails alongside the roadway – and even deeper into the mountains he loves.
“Views through the window are impressive, but our moving car separates us from the world outside,” he writes. McLeod also hopes to help people understand what they’re seeing as they pass through these geological wonders.
McLeod explains that he conceived of the book when a friend asked him the names of the peaks towering over them. As he tried to answer that simple question, he found himself increasingly curious about the geology and about the zoological and botanical wonders that inhabit those mountains.
That curiosity led McLeod to a series of essays about his explorations from the highway, organized from west to east by road mileage – the way many people experience the road. He starts near Rockport and travels 82 miles to Mazama. He even includes small maps letting readers know where they can park to examine the phenomena he describes, and whether people should face east or west to see them. Some essays include suggested hikes.
But that superficial itinerary doesn’t begin suggest the sights, sounds and smells McLeod discovers along the way. He delves into the human history of the mountains, providing photos and stories about abandoned miners’ cabins, old ranger stations, and fire lookouts in the Cascades. He notes that today the human mark on the mountains is less permanent, as people climb mountains, camp and canoe, and write and paint, different ways of appreciating the grand landscape and the tiny details at their feet.
McLeod tries to convey the powerful yet intangible aspects that attract him and others to the North Cascades – to breathe the mountain air or “simply be still and hear the landscape speak.” He is still enough to observe and photograph everything from minute plants and mosses to thrushes, ravens and salmon.
Some essays are devoted to an individual peak or river. McLeod digs into tectonics, evidence of earthquakes and volcanoes, and into the role of glaciers in carving the mountains.
His ruminations are brief but wide-ranging enough to spur curiosity and tempt the reader to do more exploration, whether in books or on foot. A series of appendices provides more details about geological forces, including how to read the record of vast sweeps of time, how to interpret geological maps, and even where to find examples of geological events at mile markers along the road. Labeled panoramic photos even satisfy the initial quest to know the names of peaks seen from many points along the road.
Much of what emerges is McLeod’s joy in exploring the mountains and in researching the book, as he satisfies his curiosity about rock and water and human artifacts.
The North Cascades Highway should awaken a new perspective and remind us, whether from expected seasonal changes or less-predictable mudslides, what a privilege it is to have such ready access to such rugged mountains.
The book is published by the University of Washington Press (2013) and costs $26.95.