Leaving Seattle traffic behind, I point my car eastward. The freeway climbs in curves and spirals up, up, up Snoqualmie pass, until, as I hit the summit, the terrain abruptly changes. Behind me to the west lies a lush, damp tangle of green, trees and vines thriving under a canopy of clouds. I imagine that if I were a giant, I could trace my finger up the black line of the freeway, and caress the foliage like a velvet bedspread.
As I start down the other side of the mountain, pine trees give way to endless rolling open ground, low hills painted in every shade of brown, tufted with dry scrub and tumbleweeds. Basalt rock formations thrust through the earth. The sky is higher here, and clearing rapidly–a blue vault from horizon to horizon that deepens in front of me, as the sun sets behind me.
So much sky! So much sun! It is a different world in eastern Washington.
The first Zip’s Drive In is in Ritzville. This chain of fast food burger joints doesn’t exist west of there on the I-90 corridor, but they become more plentiful as I continue east toward Spokane. Some trips, I stop in Ritzville on the way in and back.
Zip’s is to eastern Washington what In-n-Out Burger is to California, or the Butter Burger to rural Wisconsin. It is a local institution.
Zip’s is pure, small town American food at its finest. Malts, shakes, Papa Joe burgers, Belly Busters, The Big Zipper, and the fries—oh, the fries.
When I lived in Spokane, I could have Zip’s whenever I wanted. Now, it is a pilgrimage, a vitally important stop without which no visit feels complete.
I resist the pull and continue past Ritzville. It isn’t until the next day that Christie and I go through the Zip’s drive through, to order the absolutely necessary tub of fries and tartar sauce. I am passionate about the fat, crinkle cut fries, crisp on the outside, mealy and soft on the inside. I always start to eat them too quickly, and burn my mouth on the still steaming fries. And the tartar sauce—never was there such tartar sauce anywhere else. It doesn’t taste of pickle relish, or of mayonnaise, but is mysteriously tangy, with a hint of thyme somewhere in the mix.
Pure nostalgia. That’s what the fries taste like. Like any number of broiling hot summer days—a swim in the river, then a trip through the drive through wearing only a damp swimming suit, a towel shielding sunburned legs from molten hot vinyl seats, driving with dirty bare feet and the radio blasting. Or like a high school date on a winter evening–making awkward conversation while eating a cheese burger and fries in a yellow hard plastic booth next to a window dripping condensation, obscuring the trucks roaring in and out of the parking lot.
You can’t go home again, it is said. And I don’t want to really, except for a little taste every now and then.