Yesterday I went on a hot and hazy journey. You might have heard that we’re having a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures hovering around 100°, and that we’re being smoked out by the fires in British Columbia. It’s not as bad here as it is in the Bainbridge Island area, where a friend told me today that he couldn’t see across Puget Sound for the smoke. But it’s hazy and greyish and the sky has an unhealthy gauziness to it. Plus it’s icky sticky hot. Staying indoors with the air conditioning cranked seems the prudent thing to do.
Nonetheless, yesterday I went on a 200 mile drive through it all.
It was such a still day that even the windmills were powerless to churn up the cough-inducing mix of smoke and dust from the last of the wheat harvest. The wheat is mostly in, but the last harvesters are toiling away, and the trucks hauling the wheat down to the Seattle Grain Terminal are plying the roads. It’s the kind of drive where all you see is wheat, interspersed with scrubby range land, and punctuated by startlingly few homes. A lot of the way I had the road absolutely to myself, and I admit that I reveled in it.
When I drive like that I don’t have the radio on, no CD, just the whoosh of the car in space. Sometimes I sing to myself, sometimes I don’t. It’s a time for freedom, for just keeping my eyes and ears open and being glad to be on the planet another day.
I was going to Clarkston, WA, for my work. The work part was good. Very good, even. But the town was discouraging, at least to an outsider. I asked one of the guys I was interviewing where the pretty part of town was, and he allowed as how there really wasn’t any. It’s a town of about 7,000, plopped down in what we’d call the middle of nowhere. In French you’d say it’s at the fin fond of Washington, which means more or less the furthest depths, and to my ear captures the situation better. It’s a town that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, which makes it sound pretty.
I took this picture at a tiny park in town, and for once the picture looks a lot better than real life, hence the power of Instagram (I imagine). This looks bucolic, but in reality it’s kind of tucked behind an industrial area, an afterthought. Clarkston also just a bridge away from Lewiston, ID, which is the most inland seaport in the U.S. Amazingly, it’s located 465 river miles inland from the Pacific, separated by eight locks and dams. Tens of millions of tons of wheat pass through this port, on their way west, quite a bit of it headed for Asia. That makes it sound imposing.
But in reality, it looks like this. A small and dusty town perched on the edge, one where you can still get burgers and shakes delivered right to your parked car. There’s a lot to be said for that, and there are things you could say against it as well. I could say that nearly all of the students attending the community college there qualify for financial aid. I could say it’s a place where two years of community college studies will get you a job at less than $20 an hour, whereas if you took that welding degree and hopped a plane to Texas you’d likely start out at $80,000 a year. It’s a town where a hot and dusty traveler might not get offered a cup of coffee. That’s how on the edge it is.
Of course, I was only there for three and a half hours, so what do I know? Four hours on the road, less than that to try to capture the feeling of the place, the dreams of the teachers and students of that college. To understand why they are there, of all places on the planet, other than an accident of birth. Why do people stay there, in a town that wheat built? What did I miss, in my laughably short time there?
Well, I can say that I didn’t see anyone kiss, although they must. I didn’t see anyone vote, but it’s Trump country so that’s probably just as well. I didn’t see the town’s beating heart, and so I’ll go back. I’ll keep looking, but I’ll be prepared to be disappointed. I didn’t see a single sign advertising gluten-free anything.