Monday, January 9, 2012

There and Back Again

U.S. Highway 26 was almost free of snow on the high saddle at Government Camp.That's not usual for early January, and it wasn't what I was expecting.

I had made a special journey out to the office in Beaverton to pick up the big Chevy lift-gate pickup because it had the snow tires on. For all that the big bastard drives like a barge in a heavy surf I didn't want to drive over the Big Hill in my usual little Ford Ranger which, in contrast, skitters and slides like a Gresham hootchie-mama's CFM pumps over a patch of black ice when the roads turn slick.

But the snow didn't even start until well past Rhododendron, and all up the western slope of the Cascades I could see rock and soil exposed along the roadcuts, and even inside the woodline beyond only a dusting of snow lingered in the shadow, a reminder of the warm and cloudless days we'd enjoyed in November and December.

So I rumbled along with the steel-spiked tires doing God-knows-what to the poor bare pavement all the way over the crenulations of the Cascade crest; past the big shoulder of Mount Hood at Government Camp and the thinly-visited ski areas there with their skeletal chairlifts creaking and swaying emptily up and down in untenanted procession, past the junction where 26 begins its long descent and Highway 35 turns north and east to the valley of the Hood River, and then up over the Blue Box and Wapinita passes that guard the gate to the Deschutes River plateau.

I've driven this way many, many times. I've driven it in the height of summer when the forests are lush and green all about me, in autumn down corridors of vinemaple red as lust, red as jealousy, in the winter through a covered way of snowbanks stratified by the glacial passage of the plows, in spring with rain slashing the mists that blow through the deep firs and dark hemlocks like smoke from some unquenchable fire.

I've always loved the moment when, like an unexpected special effect in some nature film the hunter-green of the Cascades forest pales, the trees shrinking and thinning, until suddenly you're driving through the gray-green sage short through with golden lodgepole pine and field-gray juniper.

It's the rainshadow desert of the Cascades, and it never fails to delight me. Vistas are suddenly measured in miles instead of feet and inches, landmarks are mountains and valleys instead of individual trees. The poverty of the Warm Springs reservation is invisible in the barren deserts and rangelands between the climopause and the canyon of the Deschutes River so the pleasant illusion of unspoiled wild lands can beguile the traveler until the long descent through the eons and the conquest begins.Warm Springs is the usual huddle of neglect and indifference; the dilapidated prison-camp huts of a Stalag for a civilization. I note that the Tribes are building a new casino along the highway; clearly the Grande Ronde's big money-spinner on the road from Portland to Lincoln City is proving to be too much for the old Kah-nee-tah - too far off the highway, too much work for lazy, greedy white-eyes to travel off the main road to lose their pension checks. The shiny new walls and gleaming metal eaves seem to sneer at the dumpy houses nearby.

Even the Rez has its winners and losers.It's been some time since I was in Madras. The old farm town is the usual curious mixture of death and rebirth; big new Safeway and Sonic drive-in north of town, but in the old downtown newly-empty windows. The Salvadorian place has failed; too bad, I liked their food. I note that the China Palace, home to chow mein that would embarrass the Safeway just up the road, is still here. No accounting for Chinese in a land where the only Chinese are working in the restaurant; it's just lucky there's no fucking Panda Express.

Somehow the road between Madras and Redmond manages to combine the worst of Eastern Oregon driving; never interesting enough to keep you alert, never straight and simple enough to make drowsiness safe. The short winter day is ending as I loop around central Redmond, noting that the parking lot of the ginormous new WalMart "superstore" is full to bursting. The mere existence of that WalMart always irks the shit out of me (not because of any special WalMart evil; my feeling is that Americans have every opportunity to take their trade elsewhere and don't - I never shop there if I have any alternative - so the success of these places is our own choice) because I know that the old WalMart south of town still stands empty and will for decades. The Bentonville bastards preferred to pave over a perfectly good farm field rather than re-use their old site. The good people of Redmond have chosen to enrich them, and that's their choice. But I can't forget, or forgive, that cold, empty expanse of wasted asphalt and now-worthless concrete sliding into the early night ahead of me.The black bean beef at Cindy's is savory and good, and my travel-read has taken an unexpected turn for the better; you never know with Prachett whether you're getting twee-but-challenging or just-fucking-twee and this one is turning out to be T-B-C.

The oolong tea is smoky, and the Sunday evening service is prompt and friendly. The takeaway box has a smiley face and the legend "Have a Nice Day" embossed on it.

I mean to call my family, but after reading several chapters and deciding to close my eyes "just for a moment" I fall soundly asleep in the hard Motel 6 bed and wake, confused and still wearing my reading glasses, at midnight.

I'm a little surprised that my left hip isn't acting up; I haven't taken a painkiller and shake it a bit experimentally but it refuses to attack. I find myself asleep again in mid-shake.

I am walking along a broad porch in a sunny white house. Fine sand scuffs beneath my bare feet, and I can feel rather than see the iron heat of the tropic sun on my skin. Far away surf booms and sighs.

Ahead of me is a high, white room where a woman lies on a white chaise-lounge. Her dark hair is unbound and sprawls across the white pillow, and the hot wind stirs her white chemise. Her lips are red as lust, red as jealousy.

I sit down beside her and a white wave of tenderness sways over me. I lift her hand, and press my lips to her palm; the center is soft and warm, but the pads at the heel and the base of her fingers are slightly rough with work. She opens her eyes, and the red lips curve up in a slow smile, and her long feet point and her toes spread as she arches her back.

The brangling of the phone wakes me to chill darkness.

It's only after I step into the shower I realize that there are no towels in the room. The terrycloth "bathmat" is rough and barely big enough to cover a Congressman's probity. The feeling of being not-quite-dry-under-my-clothes surfaces unpleasant memories from Army days.

There always seems to be a man sitting alone in a Shari's drinking bad coffee and staring at a computer.

The one in Redmond is short, and blonde, and his machine is a white Macintosh. A brief glimpse at the screen suggests that he is looking at some sort of spreadsheet, and the irked expression he's giving it suggests that it is not telling him something he enjoys hearing. He sits and sips and looks irked all through the time it takes me to order and finish my breakfast. He's still sitting there as I leave. He may still be sitting there for all I know.The work site is located in a semi-derelict strip mall wedged between a busy Fred Meyer store and the mess of streets that complicates the south side of Redmond. The pavement is deteriorating, the siding looks faded, and the little computer repair business that was going in Unit C has closed.

We're doing "open pit" infiltration tests in the sparse landscape planter between the east side of the parking lot and Canal Boulevard, and there's something rather sad about the scraggle of juniper and pines that have grown up around the perimeter of the lot. Someone took the time to carefully arrange roughly similar blocks of vesicular basalt around the edge of the low-growing junipers but time and neglect have displaced many of them; they now straggle and weave like a New Year's conga line in a Forties movie, raffish and half-dressed, careless knowing that no one watching it cares.Unlike the restless lands to the west the bones of Earth lie shallow here, and the unfruitful rock and sere, sandy soils are unwilling to accept water more than grudgingly. I suspect that the client will not be pleased with our results.

Although the day turns warm as the sun transits overhead the hour after sunrise feels colder than the pre-dawn dark. I've always wondered why, or whether it's just the effect of having less insulation; since losing weight everything feels colder now. I need some hot coffee so trudge across the street to the Starbucks kiosk in the grocery store.

I'm in line behind a little knot of high-school girls; it's a cliche but we might as well be two different species - homo geezerensis and homo juvenalis or something like that. I'm filthy and layered against the cold, they are barely dressed warmly enough for their classroom and spend much of their time fiddling with their cell phones. The barista is moving speedily to prepare their choices, all of which seem to require multiple pumps of this and cups of that. She seems to be relieved that I want no more than a cup of drip coffee. We agree that it's a nice day. The coffee tastes of earth, and sun, and I warm my hands around the thin paper cup. I smile at the girls who look back at me with neutrally not-unfriendly expressions.

Different species meeting at the waterhole; not in the same herd, not predator-and-prey, not different from each other that there is no real connection between them at all.

When I was in grade school one of the janitors in my elementary school had a short leg. I remember being fascinated by his shoe, which had a sole that must have been two inches thick, and his deliberate way of walking so deliberate that seemed like a parody of walking, with each foot planted firmly as if each step required thoughtful care. I realize now that what seemed like deliberation was probably nothing more than pain.

It occurs to me that I can't remember the last time I ran fleet and careless, unencumbered by pain, untroubled by dysfunction.

Walking back to my work I think perhaps I should find someone to make stacked soles for my right shoe, now that my right leg is like his was forty-something years ago.

Someone working in the insurance office across the drive aisle has called our Seattle office to complain that I am parked in one of "their" stalls, Seattle has called my engineer in Portland, my engineer has called me. I move the Barge, noting that of the five parking spaces on that side of their building only two had been occupied all morning, one of them with the Barge. Territorial instinct? Boredom? Why bother?

On the way back north another engineer calls. Can I go to John Day and look at a site where someone wants to raise their earth dam. I can; it's two hours east but not impossible on a sunny day not long past noon. But we don't have access, and the engineer is calling but has not had a reply. I dawdle slowly back to Madras, checking in, wait in the parking lot outside the handsome new Safeway. No reply. The sun is lowering, and I make a last call. Still nothing. Sometimes it's like that - first there's some work, then there isn't, or there might not be, or there's no way of knowing. The effect of not being privy to the business decisions that drive the technical work I do is that sometimes technical choices are made for reasons I will never know. It's a lot like being a private soldier in that way.

The late afternoon roads across the passes are wet with meltwater. Another warm day, a little less snowpack, another inch closer to a drought-summer; a worry for a distant day.

I am pleased that I was able to cross back over the Big Hill before nightfall; the sheeting runoff will be nasty in a couple of hours as night and cold turn it into black ice.A single sunray glides across Cathedral Rock, high up the south face of Mount Hood, gilding the white with gold, then orange, then red; red as lust, red as jealousy.

Then to purple, and then on into the dark.

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