The Northwest: Security and Warmth, Yet I Flee

Posted on August 8, 2012

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A most Midwestern of greetings from my makeshift desk in the attic of a dilapidated little stucco house in Pierre, South Dakota. Since my last post, which was really a prologue to this trip, I’ve managed to haul my ass through two time zones and over the bulk of the American grazing lands. Now, but up against corn country and a major geographical shift out of high plains and prairie, I’m confronted with the fact that I’ve shirked my writing duties for about a week. Granted, it’s been a busy week …

It’s about 2 AM here at the moment and I’ve just returned from a midnight tour of the bluffs and plains beyond Pierre with my host after his pizza delivery shift ended. For the past two days, I’ve spent the better part of nine straight hours driving, punctuated with stopovers of cultural fascination and geographic wonderment. And before that, I busied myself with a blitz of visits to friends in the northwest. But I can’t hold off on writing any longer; my notes are getting too long, and I must write something down. I need to be up around 8 to finish my checklist for Pierre and start another nine hour drive (towards Oskaloosa, Iowa, of all places), but I’ll try to set out here some notes on my wanderings in the Pacific Northwest at least.

Commentary Commence: This post is, I feel, the least interesting. Things will get much better as I transition from the Northwest to the Plains States in my next post (hopefully in two days). Skip the next 8 paragraphs, down to the bolded text to pass by the worthless filler and updates and get to the real meat of the post.

When it comes to describing my homeland, the state of Washington, I can be a real curmudgeon. My language softens and the bile empties out from the back of my throat the further west one travels in the state. And I have a secret, passionate love for the rocky grey beeches of the Puget Sound. But for the most part, I suppose I’m not the best emigrant spokesperson for Washington. Still, any who have heard me hold forth on my homeland will know that I admit this much: it is a beautiful place, and beautiful insomuch as there is such a massive shift in the landscape that I can love the west of Washington as a distinct and alien world from that I knew in the east growing up.

The first leg of my trip was a study in that internal ecological diversity. Well, actually, the first leg of my trip might literally be titled “The Quest for the Car,” as it was strategically planned around the need to pick up my old high school ride from my mother’s new residence in Olympia, WA. I will admit that I was a little worried about the car itself, given that the last time I drove it, just before moving to New York in the late summer of 2008, the gas tank dropped out of the bottom of the car. I can also recall, in earlier times, the light and low frame of the little Chevy Cavalier getting gusted back and forth on the lanes in low-lying, narrow, windy valleys. So I decided that this leg of my journey should be a relaxed and observational one, given that the drives ahead would be bone-breaking to begin with and that the Cavalier, though adequate, would not be the lap of luxury. That in mind, I shelled out the extra $20 for an Amtrak ticket as opposed to a Greyhound fare, hoping that I could just watch the scrubland roll into the hills into the mountains into the valleys and rock beaches.

Mr. Murphy and his Law, though, had other plans. What I wound up getting was a time-lapse study of the Spokane train station as I waited while my train’s one-hour delay turned slowly to a seven-and-a-half-hour delay. Well-heeled yuppies coming in from the west for retreats into the blue mountains or a weekend at their lake home in Idaho (and consequently, their stocking of the small pools of Liberalism in that state). Leathery men and women up from the trailer parks, wheezing with the artifacts of life in the poorest parts of Spokane: rampant tobacco abuse, diabetes, and jaws weakened by the physical corrosions of dap and chaw. Hutterites in from the north and east, hair in starched white bonnets and shrouded in their geometric, drab prairie dresses.

By the time we boarded the train, I was running on two hours’ sleep over a span of 48. I faded quickly, but could not sleep long. The old man to my right, it seemed, had one of those overactive prostates, but did not want to relinquish his window seat, so I rose every 45 minutes for him to practice the uncomfortable ablutions of the elderly. Those punctuations of sleep and waking, though, provided a rather trippy experience of the massive shifts in Washingtonian ecology. Close eyes to the dense pine forests and valleys on the western edge of Spokane, wake to the semi-desert and scrublands around Moses Lake. Konk out as the scrublands drag on towards Euphreta, wake to the apple orchards and gorges outside Wenatchee.

By the time we hit Wenatchee, I decided all hope of sleep was lost. I noticed an elderly woman, sitting with her daughter and two grandchildren, fumbling with a AAA guide for information on the region. Just to keep myself awake, I leaned over to inquire what she was looking for. She wanted to know a bit more about the region and were we in the Cascade Mountains, and had she missed the Columbia River Gorge? I decided it would behoove me to play tour guide for a few hours.

It turned out I had on my hands a gaggle of Minnesotans, insufferably attentive, fascinated by the slightest bend of the Wenatchee River as it plunged through Cashmere, and deeply thankful for everything from their seat to their grouchy, sleep-deprived, piss-poor guide. So I pointed out the various pines, the ski slopes and little Cascade towns, tried to recall the altitudes of passes, and gave my best estimates for the time from Sultan to Everett.

The Minnesotans departed in Everett and the train, now all but empty, dipped south along the coast towards Olympia. Wide awake, I pulled out a book Hannah gave me a while back—an anthology of travel stories, which turned out to be composed mainly of Arctic and Arabian exploration disaster tales—and tried to read, but wound up just staring out the window and little skiffs floating up and down the hard western shores. Amongst the little islands of the San Juan, I spotted Whidbey Island, once a bastion of small farmers and the Aryan Nations, but now a pleasant place for a hike. I recalled a time some years ago when I went out to the Island with a Nepali visitor and we ran along the ridgeline in our jackets and watch caps, from south to north, until we hit the end of the one-way trail and decided to run down the loose sand of the steep decline. He tumbled down and into the thickets of sea vegetation washing up onto the shore—the same thick greenery my uncle once taught me to cut so as to transform it into a Pacific didgeridoo. I saw a few of the horn plants washing up against the shore that day. Then I dozed off.

I’ll not speak much of my time in Olympia—it was spent in silence for the most part, packing the car and making sure that all worked properly and visiting with my mother and her current beau in their home out on a road deep in a forest out of which calm bucks and does sometimes crept, unafraid of the gentle men and women therein, to eat the lower leaves from the trees in neighbors’ yards. Nor will I speak of the journey from Olympia to Seattle, save to say that it passes through the narrow but constantly populated strip of land that controls the politics and culture of Washington (and produced a particularly atrocious early American Idol contestant), and is particularly uninteresting. Although I arrived just in time to miss a shutdown of the northbound road in response to a biohazard spill, so bully for that.

As for my time in Seattle: I spent most of my time at my Aunt’s house in the neighborhood of Wedgewood north of the University District. It’s a lovely house, long lived in, growing apples and plums and very strange spherical cucumbers. The garden self-sufficiency is part of the crunchy Pacific lifestyle, which necessitates absolute recycling and keeps a fridge well stocked with hummus and whole grain bread purchased from bakeries down the road with great neo-grunge era street art on the side. It’s also an aging house, which in the winter lets in the airy chill from beyond that makes you want to crawl deep under a down cover or stay in a hot shower forever, and in the summer lets in the scent of fresh cut grass on a warm day.

Here’s where I’ll actually write something of interest I suppose, something of real introspective worth. One morning, I woke and groggily hauled myself over to the shower. I let a burst of hard, boiling water hit my face, gasped, and turned to let it stream down my back as I wiped my eyes and nose. After blinking the water from my vision, I looked up to a plastic basket at the back of the shower and saw a tangle of plastic shark toys, a rubber duck, and an Elmo doll holding a shower towel.

Those toys belonged to my cousins (three and five years older than me, respectively) as children. They’ve been hanging in that basket, I suddenly recalled, during each of my visits to their Seattle home as far back as my memory could stretch. It’s an incredibly sweet image, the cuteness of the toys itself and the sense of stability and serenity that they represent. I suddenly choked up a bit, feeling an odd pit in my guts.

I do not do well with cuteness. In one of my earliest memories, I am a child, five years old, huddled amongst a pile of stuffed animals. Each one of them was given to me by some family member or friend, intended to bring some warmth or comfort in the recovery room, where my mother lies innate after her stroke. Huddled in my pile, I watched processions come to pay their last respects. One woman says her final goodbye, says that she will see her in heaven. It made me angry. It made me very, very angry. In fact, I often look back to that as the day that God died for me in a practical, felt sense. It’s an experience I won’t dwell on here, but it comes to mind every time I look at a stuffed animal, or some relic of childhood. Cute is a haunted thing for me.

The stability within that cuteness, it appeals to me. There’s a sense of safety in that home, a place that one can always return to. In fact, it’s the association I have with the whole of Seattle. I just don’t think I’m cut out for it … for a life in such a stable place. Not now at least. This trip was, after all, motivated in part by my nervous energy and itinerant nature. When not engaged and constantly moving, I languish. There was a lot of instability in my life growing up, and I learned to thrive within it. It’s a type of freedom. So while there’s an attractiveness to this place, it also scares me. Too sedentary, too safe, too much like something I’ve always fetishized, but do not wish to know close enough to let it let me down.

Part of that itinerancy leads me to too easily shed friends, mainly by failing to maintain contact after I move. I’m also using this trip to make a real effort to correct that tendency and face my history of severance and free-floating. For days, I bounced around Seattle meeting up with friends I’ve not seen in four years or more, often finding them to have become such strong, charming, and intelligent people in the intervening time that now I wish never to lose touch with them again. Now that I’ve left again, we’ll see how that newfound desire for consistency holds. But friends, I’m calling upon you to help me hold to it.

Anyway, onwards to Portland. After a late night at a bar with a pit fire in the Freemont neighborhood of Seattle (which can give Williamsburg a run for its money re: bartenders impersonating Jack Sparrow and young, unwashed 20-somethings), I slipped out early in the morning to drive down to Portland with my aunt as a passenger. Both of my cousins, the younger with his girlfriend in tow, and my aunt and uncle were converging on the house of a relative on their side of the family (non-blood to me), and I was tagging along for a stay during another friend blitz.

Crunchy, granola lifestyles, it seems, run in the family. As we sat munching on the most tart and delicious blueberries I’ve ever eaten, fresh picked that morning, while a slab of pork slow cooked on the grill, I recommended South Asian mountain ranges to my hiking, rock-climbing uncle (a tall, silent man whose demeanor suits my conversational style quite well—if I did drink, I’d like to just sit in silence and have a beer with him in the evenings). Teas and fruits and chili jellies and meats, gourmet foods, I stuffed myself materially and with jovial, familial conversation. Then, after one last friend blitz, I set off back towards Spokane, trailing the southern edge of the Columbia River, from its lush greenness until the dry hills past Hood River, through dozens of miles of wind turbines and around the dip and bend of The Dalles, up to Umatilla, north into Washington, through the Tri-Cities into the plains of the Palouse, until I hit the pine forests again.

In two days’ time, I hope I can write about the subsequent journey through the plains—the long haul drives, the stunning beauty. It will be a much more poetic post than this one, scattered as it was (but it did get me caught up). By that time, I’ll be through to corn country and the northwest territory region, done with nine hour drives and sore knees. For a while at least.

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