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Entries in Washington (15)


Blue Highways: Pullman, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We make a little diversion out of Idaho to an airfield in Pullman, Washington so that William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) can take a small plane flight with Fred Tomlins over the Palouse and the Snake River Canyon.  It gives us ample time, given Tomlins' reminiscences about the Vietnam War, to think reflect on war - both those who make it and those who fight it.  To see where Pullman lies in relation to Moscow (not far), fly over to the map!

Book Quote

"After his [Fred Tomlins] afternoon class, we drove nine miles out to the airfield at Pullman, Washington.  Pullman, home of Washington State University, and Moscow are the 'U cities.'  We rented a Cessna 150 and flew southeast toward the lower Snake River Canyon.

"....He pulled out and leveled off.  'I'll show you the Snake River Canyon.  One of our great rivers and almost unseen because it's so hidden.'  He nosed around toward the setting sun.  'I was just thinking about one Christmas day in Viet Nam.  Sounds piss-poor to tell it, but we were on a bombing run to Laos because Nixon said we couldn't bomb in Nam on Christmas.  The nape - napalm cans - had been painted like candy canes.  On the ADF radio they were playing Creedence Clearwater singing 'Rollin' Down the River.'  I sang all the way.'  He looked at the altimeter and pulled the nose up.  'I guess the war was a hundred-thirty-billion-dollar waste, but it was a hell of a time if you lived.'"

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 1

Downtown Pullman, Washington with part of Washington State University. Photo at The Evergreen Scene blog. Click on photo to go to host page.

Pullman, Washington

I'm going to start this post with a few words about Pullman, Washington.  I've never been there, but it's very close to Moscow and therefore, both cities have major universities for their states as LHM says.  In addition, they are land grant universities.  I had heard the term "land grant" in describing a university and how it came about, but I never really understood what it was about.  Due to the demand for agricultural education, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts were proposed and eventually signed into law by Abraham Lincoln.  Subsequent laws were signed extending the program to the southern states after the Civil War.  Each state was granted a certain amount of acreage based on its representation in Congress, and could use that land or proceeds to start a university.  Today, each state has at least one land-grant institution.  Washington's is Washington State University in Pullman, and Idaho's is the University of Idaho in Moscow.  In New Mexico, where I live, our land grant university is New Mexico State.  A list of all the land grant universities can be found here.

I also want to make mention of the area that LHM is traveling through in this chapter.  The region is called the Palouse.  It is a very fertile region, primarily used for growing wheat and legumes (and perfect for land grant universities to teach agricultural skills).  The above-mentioned Fred Tomlins, with whom LHM met with in Moscow, says that the Palouse is 200 feet of fertile topsoil, and his claim that the land was the first to sell for over $1000 an acre is supported by the fact that the first efforts to grow wheat in the area were so successful that it led to a mini-land rush.  The population at one time was larger than that in the Seattle area.  The region is also famous for lending its name to that famous American horse, the Appaloosa.  Though Spanish in origin, the American Appaloosa was distinctly bred by the Nez Perce tribe.

Okay, that's the extent of the information I wanted to impart about the region.  Now, I'm going to divert into a reflection on the topic in the quotes above - war.  Occasionally, I will ask myself why I have a certain opinion or feeling.  My feelings on war are mixed.  I'm not specifically a pacifist, as I believe that people have a right to defend themselves.  I also believe that occasionally, there is a threat so great that offensive action is necessary to confront it.  However, given all circumstances, I would like to believe that fighting or going to war is the action of last resort.  I have occasionally involved in war protests, especially against those wars that I failed or wasn't able to understand the rationale.

But every person who has an uneasiness with war, and that includes most liberals, must confront the fact that there are levels of war and conflict.  There is the planning, strategizing and executing of war which is usually done by political elites according to their own rationales, and there is the actual fighting of the war, which is done by those in military units on the battlefields.  Those who fight have a range of reasons for being in the military, but in our modern volunteer army and increasingly in these difficult economic times, there are men and women for whom the call of the military is not just a duty but also a livelihood.

Too many times, I've seen people who oppose wars vent anger on military personnel, rather than those who plan and execute them.  And too many times, I've seen those who fight come back, sometimes wounded physically and psychologically, and then get ignored by the society that asked them to go on its behalf.  I have been guilty of this lapse of judgment, if crime is too harsh a term.

LHM's quote brings this out quite profoundly.  Fred Tomlins, aware of the irony of having a good time and singing the lyrics to Proud Mary while dropping destruction on Laos, still says that war is "a hell of a time."  And when you read through the rest of this chapter, you find in him a man who has had a little trouble adjusting to life in a small city in an agricultural area.  He craves "simplicity" and hates "going slow."  Instead of flying at Mach 1 ten feet off the ground, he looks forward to watching a game show on television in the evening in order to make it through another day.

This is the irony of war.  For some people, their time in the military is the most meaningful experience of their lives.  There are those politicians and leaders who, for good or not-so-good, manipulate our servicepeople's needs and desires for their own domestic and foreign political ends.  There are those who, ostensibly to make the world more peaceful, who shun our servicepeople as bad people when they come back.  I have struggled with this myself.  Is it fair to blame a soldier who is just doing his or her duty for the horrible things that happen during war?  Certainly there is a spectrum between pacificism and committing war crimes, but in the middle is a blurry line where duty to one's country and unit crosses over into atrocity.  That line is tenuous, and shifts so that one person's horrific crime is another's act of heroism, and the brave deed of one day is the rage of an out-of-control soldier on another.

A year ago, at a downtown bar, I sat near a person who I realized quite quickly was very drunk.  The bartender had cut him off.  He was a veteran of the second Iraq War, and despite my discomfort he began to talk to me.  As I listened to his story, I saw a tragedy on so many levels.  He had been sent to Iraq.  In the service of his country he had killed combatants, and also women and children, in a response to an attack on his unit.  It messed him up terribly - he wept as he kept repeating his story while pointing his fingers like a gun and pantomiming shooting a child.  Multiple tragedies.  I asked him if he was getting help at the VA, and he said that the VA just gives him meds but he needed more than that.  It was too hard, he said, to get an appointment with a psychiatrist.  While I couldn't verify his story, I could see his PTSD on full display.  Layers of tragedy.  It made my wife, who was with me, cry and for a moment, we both raged at those who sent him into that situation and who seemed to not care one whit about him now that he was back.

I've never faced that choice.  I registered for the draft when I was eighteen, but now I'm too old to be drafted or to volunteer.  I'm acutely aware of the sacrifices my parents, relatives and their friends made during World War II, but I will never have to make that same commitment unless the U.S. is really desperate.  As I do more reflecting, and am some years removed from my black and white, either/or thinking, my thoughts on war have become more measured and complex.  I still think that many wars are unnecessary and will continue to be angry and opposed if I cannot be convinced that a war is absolutely needed, but I'll save my ire for the leaders, and understand and honor those who, for better or worse, not only fight on my behalf but believe in their mission.

Musical Interlude

The song which I felt fits the post is Rich Man's War, by Steve Earle.  To me, it highlights all the choices that face people going into the military.  It's a job and occupation, yet your life might depend on those high above you making the decisions.  As the song shows, it also accounts for the people on the front lines that our enemies throw at us.

If you want to know more about Pullman

City of Pullman
Moscow-Pullman Daily News (newspaper)
Pullman Complete City Guide
Washington State University
Wikipedia: Pullman
WSU Daily Evergreen (campus newspaper)

Next up:  Potlatch and Tensed, Idaho


Blue Highways: Clarkston, Washington

Unfolding the Map

It's the last stop in Washington with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), and we make it a doozy by pulling out our inner nerds and comparing legends of American exploration with fictional legends of galactic exploration.  What do I mean?  Read on, Littourati, read on.  Oh, if you want to place Clarkston in an earthly context, warp on over to the map (yes, that's a hint about what to expect).

Book Quote

"At the east end of the Clearwater basin lay the twin towns of Clarkston, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho.  Clarkston used to be Jawbone Flats until it became Vineland, then Concord (the grapes, you see); in 1900, the town took the present name to parallel Lewiston across the river.  The historical pairing is nice, but give me Jawbone Flats...."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

The Queen of the West steamboat docked at Clarkston, Washington. Photo by John Harrison at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's website. Click on photo to go to host page.

Clarkston, Washington

I've only started really looking into the Lewis and Clark expedition since they've been a big part of this chapter in Blue Highways.  Other than knowing from history courses taken in high school that Lewis and Clark explored the large area of land then called Louisiana that was purchased from France by Thomas Jefferson for the United States, that it's purchase doubled the size of the United States with a stroke of a pen, and finally that the addition of the vast territory and its exploration gave impetus to the U.S. belief in manifest destiny, I didn't know much more about particulars of the expedition.

In fact, Lewis and Clark's expedition was one of three commissioned by Thomas Jefferson after the purchase to confirm the boundaries and explore the unknown interior of the new territory.  The others were the Red River Expedition and the Pike Expedition.  However, Lewis and Clark's probably became the most famous since they pushed all the way to the Pacific Ocean and not least because of the participation of Sacagewea, their female Native companion and guide, whose bravery and resourcefulness became an inspiration for 19th century women's rights movements.

When I think of the Lewis and Clark expedition, however, and try to think of parallels that would make their challenge and accomplishments more real to a modern audience, the only comparison that I can draw is (and I know you'll really think I'm a nerd for this, Littourati!) Star Trek.

I can hear you groaning now.  Star Trek?  Lewis and Clark?  Really?

If you get past the initial fit of laughing and snorting, I am perfectly serious.  Why?  Because for all intents and purposes, Lewis and Clark set out on an expedition into an alien world.  Nobody knew what, or who, was out there.  Based on fossils that had been found in what was then U.S. territory, Thomas Jefferson even warned Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for living specimens of mastodons and other living relics from the Pleistocene Age.  They might as well have been taking a spaceship to some other planet - that's how unknown the new territory was.

Star Trek's theme goes something like this:

"Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  It's (five year - TOS) (continuing - TNG) mission:  to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where (no man - TOS) (no one - TNG) has gone before."

Make a few substitutions of words, and you have the mission of the Corps of Discovery, the official name of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  They headed out into what was then a huge, unknown (to Europeans) frontier.  They were to seek out new life through collection of scientific specimens and through observation.  They were to look for new civilizations and peoples in a world that could prove just as hostile and alien as any that Kirk and Spock encountered in their television galactic wanderings.  Lewis and Clark, in many cases, literally went where no one had gone before.

Unlike the explorers in Star Trek, they didn't encounter anything of the extra-terrestrial variety.  They did not see any mammoths or mastodons, since those species had been extinct in North America for nearly 10,000 years.  Like the Star Trek crew, they did meet Native Americans.  Yes, that's right.  Kirk and crew in Star Trek find a planet where American Indians had been transported by an alien race called The Preservers.  Lewis and Clark instead met Native Americans on the natives' own territory.  Both Lewis and Clark were veterans who had fought with and against Indians in the East, so they had some familiarity with tribal cultures.  However, as they went farther west each tribe they encountered had its own culture and customs, and Native culture was so unlike European culture that it really must have been like meeting an alien race where there are few commonalities other than a shared humanity.  Sacagewea, a Shoshone woman married to a trapper who accompanied the expedition, turned out to be incredibly helpful to them as a guide and go-between.  It is interesting in this particular chapter of Blue Highways that given the clashing of worlds that must have happened each time the expedition came in contact with natives, LHM writes that Lewis and Clark's conduct, especially toward the Nez Perce, was so well-conducted that the tribe didn't fight white settlers for 75 years following the expedition.

Unlike Star Trek, in which the Prime Directive is a major principle that guides and limits the crew of the Enterprise in how they deal with alien cultures, the Lewis and Clark expedition was under no such restrictions.  In Star Trek, the Prime Directive mandates that Federation personnel cannot interfere in the internal development of alien civilizations, especially those less advanced.  This serves as a way to create tension as the Enterprise crew determines how to best study and interact with less advanced civilizations.  It also provides another element of tension in Star Trek plots if they accidentally contaminate, or try to undo the contamination, of alien races.  There was no Prime Directive for Lewis and Clark, and they interacted often and frequently with native tribes.  They could not help but make contact to gain vital supplies such as meat and salt.  LHM relates a story, a clash of civilizations type story, where an Indian man, derisive of the expeditions reliance on dog meat, throws a malnourished puppy at Lewis.  Lewis throws it back at him, and then grabs the native's tomahawk and lets him know in no uncertain terms that he will punish such insults in the future.

However, most of their encounters went relatively smoothly.  Europeans were generally unknown in the area - this would change after the expedition.  And like the Enterprise crew, which could use advanced technology to smooth its way and occasionally threaten the peoples they ran across, Lewis and Clark were able to use products of European civilization like matches, magnets and magnifying glasses to impress and mystify natives.  Just as Star Trek had Dr. McCoy who often used advanced medicine to the advantage of the Enterprise crew, Lewis and Clark also used medical techniques to win over various native tribes.  Though none of the expedition was formally trained in medicine, they knew enough about dressing wounds and draining lesions that they won the goodwill of many of the tribes they ran across.

Star Trek is also infamous for the "redshirts."  These were Enterprise crew members, usually dressed in red uniforms, whose plot purpose appeared to be to die and thus demonstrate the terrible predicament facing the crew.  The Enterprise seemed to have an unlimited supply of these redshirts, and it makes you wonder, given their fatality rate, why anyone who signed up for Starfleet would ever agree to wear that uniform.  The Lewis and Clark expedition, by contrast, had remarkably good luck in potentially hostile territory.  Only one soldier on the expedition died, possibly because of appendicitis.  The only violent encounter, which occurred with a native tribe called the Piegan Blackfeet, was over the Piegans fearful interpretation of the Corps dealings with other tribes that would end their monopoly on guns and the balance of power with neighboring enemy tribes.   As the Piegans tried to steal the Corps guns in the middle of the night, they were discovered, chased down and in the struggle two of the Piegans were killed.  Other than that, the only other near fatality came when one of the Corps shot Lewis in the butt in a hunting accident.  He recovered.

I hope I haven't gone too far out on a limb comparing the Lewis and Clark expedition with Star Trek, but there certainly are parallels that can be drawn, as well as significant differences.  Both the fictional galaxy-exploring expedition and the actual American West exploring expedition had similar goals.  In the end, Lewis and Clark accomplished so much that a greater understanding of the dangers and potential resources of the newly purchased territory was achieved, and the frontier was pushed farther back.  Without them, a young United States might not have achieved its goal of a coast-to-coast unified (dare I say it?) federation.  Unfortunately, it also led to the gradual end of traditional native life and the loss of their traditional lands.  Lewis and Clark paved the way for a nation, but also began the inexorable destruction of traditional Native life as the explorers opened the frontier to the settlers.

Musical Interlude

What could be better, in a post that references Star Trek, than a video of a tune "sung" by Shatner himself.  And Bohemian Rhapsody, no less!  Enjoy!

If you want to know more about Clarkston

City of Clarkston
Hells Canyon Visitor Bureau
Wikipedia: Clarkston

Next up: Lewiston, Idaho


Blue Highways: Walla Walla, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We arrive with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in a city that serves as a funny laugh in a lot of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.  It seems to have a lot of nice things going for it that belie its name.  The strangeness of its name leads me to think about some other interesting place names in America, and takes me off on a risque and prurient little exercise - so read on with caution!  If you want to see where Walla Walla is located, go to the map!

Book Quote

"The future passed eastward to Walla Walla ('little swift water') with its many small streams instead of navigable rivers.  Outsiders may laugh at the name until they consider the original one: Steptoeville.  Walla Walla, a pleasant little city of ivied college buildings, wasn't at all what you'd expect of a town with a name that sounds like baby babble."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

Main Street Walla Walla, Washington. Photo by Gil Langley and posted at the National Trust for Historic Preservation website. Click on photo to go to host page.

Walla Walla, Washington

I remember Walla Walla always being a name to laugh at. Bugs Bunny used Walla Walla at least once in the animated short Transylvania 6-5000 as he casts a spell against a vampire.  In another Warner Brothers Looney Tunes involving a baby mouse delivered to Mr. and Mrs Sylvester Cat, another cat trying to get the mouse poses as a salesman, by the name of Carl, for the Little Giant Vacuum Company in Walla Walla, Washington.

I currently live in a town that has also been the part of a longstanding Bugs Bunny joke.  Every time Bugs tunnels and shows up in an unexpected place - like Pittsburghe, Transylvania in Transylvania 6-5000 or Scotland in My Bunny Lies Over the Sea, he always laments that he "must have made a wrong toyne in Albuquerque!"  Now that we have our interchange fixed in Albuquerque, I'm sure that less people are making wrong turns here.

There are lots of funny and strange place names in the U.S., and it's interesting that LHM tries to seek these places out.  He mentions a few in the opening paragraphs of Blue Highways, such as Why, Arizona and Whynot, North Carolina.  While Arizona has the only Why, there is also another Whynot in Mississippi and a Ynot in Montana.  Some of my favorites are:  Hopeulikit, Georgia; Knockemstiff, Ohio; Humptulips, Washington; Tightwad, Missouri; Ding Dong, Texas; Boring, Oregon; Spread Eagle, Wisconsin; Toad Suck, Arkansas; Lizard Lick, North Carolina; Roachtown, Illinois.

Of course, there are some names that tend toward the prurient.  I remember in my early 20s being tickled by the place name of Climax, Michigan.  I could envision all kinds of marketing ideas for the town based on its name (Come to Climax for an earth-shattering experience!), but before you judge me too much, I was a young and horny twenty-something at the time.  Intercourse, Pennsylvania is always referenced when it comes to funny place names in the risque genre.  But there are plenty of other places that have such suggestive place names.  If you can't get past first base in Romance, Arkansas you might try Sweet Lips, Tennessee.  But if you are really desperate for some fun you could go to Hooker Hole or Vixen, Louisiana.  From Dicktown, New Jersey or Penile, Kentucky you might search out Sugar Tit, South Carolina which, of course, leads directly to Big Beaver, Pennsylvania.  At this point, you might get so excited that you find yourself at Erect, North Carolina or New Erection, Virginia.  Once there, it's hard to avoid Intercourse, Pennsylvania.  Of course, if you go too far too fast, you might enter Climax, Minnesota, or blast through Dickshooter, Idaho but in either case you won't be able to avoid Cumming, Georgia.  After all that action, you'll probably pray that you don't end up in Conception, Missouri, where you'll sweat out nine months hoping you don't see Baby Head, Texas - unless that's what you wanted all along.  Of course, you might just strike out everywhere, and end up in Blue Ball, Ohio.

There are plenty more place names that you can have fun with.  Here is a list I found on the internet that highlights some interesting ones by category and then lists interesting place names by state.  I think I might leave this post here, since I don't think that I can top my little risque story using place names.  A shorter post than most, but since I don't know much about Walla Walla, I'll keep it short and sweet.

Oh, one more tidbit.  There is a town in Austria called Fucking.  The pronunciation rhymes with "booking" but you can imagine how many times the town signs have been stolen by English-speaking tourists.  The town got its name because a Bavarian nobleman named Focko supposedly founded the town, and the name means "place of Focko's people."

Ok, I'm done!

Musical Interlude

The Offspring, a punk band, wrote a song about Walla Walla.  Well, more specifically, it is about someone going to prison at the Washington State Penitentiary near Walla Walla.  It's the only song I could find remotely relating to this post.

If you want to know more about Walla Walla

City of Walla Walla
Discover Walla Walla (blog)
Downtown Walla Walla Foundation
Experience Washington: Walla Walla
Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine (blog)
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (newspaper)
Walla Walla University
Walla Walla Valley Daily Photo (blog)
Welcome to Walla Walla
Wikipedia: Walla Walla

Next up:  Clarkston, Washington


Blue Highways: Wallula, Washington

Unfolding the Map

Wallula, in William Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) estimation, is a town that once had potential but is now a has-been.  I'll look at the concept of being washed-up and of being "a contender" in the context of life.  To see where Wallula sits either living or languishing, depending on your perspective, take a look at the map!

Book Quote

"Old Wallula was one of those river settlements you can find all over the country that appeared destined to become key cities because of geographical position.  Sitting at the confluence of the Walla Walla with the Columbia and just a few miles downstream from where the Snake and Yakima meet the big river, old Wallula was a true joining of waters (the name may be a Nez Perce word meaning 'abundant water'), although if you lift your gaze from the rivers you see desert.  Astride the Idaho gold rush trail, Wallula began well: riverboats, stagelines, railroads, two highways.  But money and history came through, paused, and went on."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

The Columbia River passes through the Wallula Gap as seen from Fort Nez Perce near Wallula, Washington. Photo by Glenn Scofield Williams and hosted by Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Wallula, Washington

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

Terry in On the Waterfront

Remember that line?  It's Marlon Brando's character Terry bemoaning his fate as a washed up fighter who took too many dives and never got his shot at fame.  Many of us have had the feeling at least once in our lives.  What might I have been?  To what heights might I have risen?  If I'd only gotten that chance I deserved!

Look at me, for example.  I have had lots of dreams in my life.  Some of them, dreams I had when I was really young, were unrealistic and were rightfully discouraged, destroyed or set aside.  I had the usual childhood dreams of being a football player or an astronaut.  Of course being a somewhat wimpy kid with glasses, asthma, a huge overbite, and a lack of coordination made those dreams a little difficult to achieve.  Later, as I grew into my body and some of the other issues were addressed, my dreams became a little more realistic, but only marginally.  In high school, my fascination with space led me to want to be an astronomer.  But sometime, a guidance counselor set me straight as to the career prospects of astronomers so my fascination just stayed a fascination, but nothing else.

My first real "I coulda been a contender" regret could be traced back to college.  I entered my freshman year as a computer science major.  My whole first year I took classes that taught me how to write code in Pascal, the popular programming language that was used to teach students about computer programming at the time.  My chosen major and I didn't get along.  I had a 1.8 GPA as I entered my sophomore year, and one last class in programming killed off any illusions I had about being a computer scientist.  That was too bad, since now in my late 40s I have found that when I put my mind to it, I can write programs that work.  The map that accompanies this blog, for example, is a direct result of my being able to understand basic code.  I inspiration from javascript examples I found on the internet, but by cobbling those pieces of code together and through trial and error of seeing what works and what doesn't, I made a passable Google map that I could use to portray Littourati journeys.  Still, every so often I have that what-if moment.  What if I had stayed with computer science?  Would I have been a Bill Gates or a Sergey Brin?  I'll never know, but I still wonder...

There are other things that I regret.  Don't tell my wife but I've sometimes wished that I had been more adept at dancing when I was younger.  I tell my young male friends now, and they never listen to me, that if they want to have more options for dating they have to learn how to dance.  Most women I know love to dance.  Most men I know do not.  Yet, what's the harm in learning something new and opening up opportunities to meet people?  Had I known how to ballroom dance, or swing, or salsa when I was a young man looking for fun and companionship, I would have had a hell of a lot more dates and probably a better time.  I would have been a contender, despite my awkwardness, with the ladies.  Besides, I've discovered that dancing is fun!

I regret sometimes also that I am not working in my chosen field of teaching political science.  I love teaching.  I love being able to connect with people and introducing them to concepts and to new ways of thinking that they may have not or been unable to consider before.  I love getting people excited about something.  I live for opening someone up to new concepts.  And I must say that I get to teach - I'm teaching an online class and a face-to-face class this spring.  But I still find myself regretting sometimes that I'm not in a political science department somewhere teaching full-time.

But that's the irony about regrets.  The only reason we have regrets is usually because we aren't happy today and we look back on the "missed opportunities" as unexploited gateways to a better life that passed us by.  In reality, unless our lives are completely horrible, we usually follow the paths we tread and we find the good, the joyful and the wonderful in them.  We may have the occasional regret when we are under stress or something has gone wrong and it's only then that we think that we "coulda been a contender" with some other life.  In fact, in getting where we are now, where I can write a post on being a contender and you can sit and read it, then we were contenders and we contended well!  We got our shot at a title and we made the most of it.  We could have taken shots at other titles, but we didn't.  Who knows what might have happened had we taken another path and fought another fight?  Instead of standing, we might have been on the mat.

I watched a Twilight Zone episode recently, notable for the starring role of African-Americans in this episode, about another washed up fighter who, through the powerful wish of a little boy, gets a chance to be the fighter he always wanted, instead of the has-been he is.  On the mat after being knocked out, suddenly he finds himself declared the winner.  The young boy tells him the fighter that he wished really hard for him to win.  However, the fighter can't believe that the wish is actually responsible for turning his fate around, and refuses to believe.  At the end of the episode, he is back on the mat and has lost the fight.

Which brings me back to LHM's quote.  He presents Wallula as such a place.  It could have been a contender because it had things going for it.  It had geography and gold rush money and all of the trappings such as steamboats and trains and highways.  It had money coming in.  But, for some reason Wallula didn't become a major place; it became an out-of-the-way town in the eastern end of a largely rural state.  Is that bad?  No.  It just is.  Perhaps some who live in Wallula wish for bigger and better things, but probably many who live there like it just the way it is right now.  Sure, it coulda been a contender, and coulda been something different.  Maybe Wallula didn't believe enough in itself and got passed by.  But maybe that's all just as well.  Maybe Wallula is just what it is supposed to be.

Musical Interlude

The first song that came to my mind with the theme of this post is the wonderfully melancholic Billy Strayhorn classic, Lush Life.  I am going to list the lyrics after the video because they are so amazing - Strayhorn wrote the bulk of this sophisticated song when he was only 16.  One wonders what he had experienced to be able to write such a song at such a young age.  To me, it speaks of loneliness, and of people washed up bedraggled on the shores of life and not willing to jump back into the currents and swim.  It's easier to be caught up in a backwater and "rot with the rest," as the song so poignantly states.  This version is by the incomparable Nat King Cole .  Though the photo says that it is from his 1958 album The Very Thought of You, the song was not on that album, so either this version is from 1952's Harvest of Hits or 1961's retrospective The Nat King Cole Story.

Lush Life
by Billy Strayhorn

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distant gay traces
That used to be there, you could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day...
Twelve o'clock-tails

Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for awhile that your poignant smile was tinged with the sadness
of a great love for me

Ah yes, I was wrong
Again, I was wrong

Life is lonely again
And only last year everything seemed so sure
Now life is awful again
A troughful of hearts could only be a bore
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it

I'll forget you, I will
While yet you are still burning inside my brain
Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be, while I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely, too

If you want to know more about Wallula

The Columbia River: Wallula
The Columbia River: Wallula Gap
ENotes: Wallula
Oregon History Project: Fort Nez Perce
Wikipedia: Fort Nez Percés
Wikipedia: Wallula
Wikipedia: Wallula Gap

Next up: Walla Walla, Washington


Blue Highways: Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We are riding and clenching our buttocks with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) as we hope to find a gas station somewhere along the Columbia River in Washington before we have to get out and walk.  Have you ever run out of gas, or almost run out of gas?  Feel free to leave a comment if you have.  If you want to see where all this butt-clenching is taking place, go to the map.

Book Quote

"On the highway again: at a cluster of closed buildings called Roosevelt, I noticed my gas was low.  The next town, according to the atlas, was Moonax five miles away.  Ten miles on, McCredie; fifteen, Alderdale; twenty, Whitcomb.  I drove unconcerned.  But Moonax was another Liberty Bond.  Same with McCredie.  Down went the needle.  I could see stations along the interstate a mile south across the bridgeless river.  No Alderdale.  I locked the speedometer needle on forty-five and my arms to the steering wheel.  A traveling salesman once told me that if you tense butt muscles tight enough, you can run on an empty tank for miles.  And that's what it was going to take.  Whitcomb was there, more or less, but the station was closed on Sundays.  Paterson, the last hope.  If it proved a ghost town, I was going to learn more about this deleted landscape on foot.  I drove, tensed top to bottom, waiting for the sickening silent glide.  Of the one hundred seventy-one thousand gas stations in the country, I needed one."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 10

Biofuel crops in Paterson, Washington. Photo at Washington State University's Biofuels Cropping Systems Research and Extension Project's site. Click on photo to go to site.

Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson, Washington

We've all been in LHM's position, haven't we?  We're driving down a stretch of freeway, no exit in sight, and the needle on the gas gauge (or the digital graphic readout) is actually below the empty line.  We are tense, hoping that over the next small rise, or around the next corner, we will see our salvation in the form of a road sign that tells us that in one mile we'll find gas, food and lodging.  Or perhaps, peeking over the trees, a Conoco or Shell or Valero or some other gas station sign.

I used to drive on a lot of out-of-state trips on a job I had.  I would go from Wisconsin to New York, or perhaps down to the DC area, or to Philadelphia.  And I must admit that I was not one who was very risky when it came to gas.  If I noticed the needle down to, oh, lets say an eighth of a tank I would find the next gas station and fill up.  However, when you're driving roads you don't know, the problem is one of making the right choice mixed with a little bit of luck.  At the time I was traveling, in the early 90s, the internet was in its infancy.  Cell phones were huge contraptions with big antennae that only wealthy people or government workers in security agencies used.  Atlases and road maps were all we had to inform us of what was ahead on the road.  If it was on the map, then it should be there.

But if you're LHM, or me at that time, you liked to take drives along the blue highways instead of the interstate.  And that meant taking some risks.  Because, like LHM, you might find that the map was wrong and a listed town was actually not much or worse yet, it folded up some years before leaving behind a collection of morose, empty and rotting buildings.  Because I wasn't much of a risk taker, I would actually fill the tank more often during these times, so I wouldn't find myself out of gas on a lonely stretch of road where I might have to wait.  In winter, this was even more imperative.  The last thing I wanted to do was freeze to death in my car.

But despite my planning, I too had a few sphincter-tightening moments where I wondered if I'd make it.  It usually involved being on a blue highway, and it usually occurred in a very rural, if not forested, area where there were few settlements, and often on a Sunday.  I can remember, butt clenching rhythmically as I drove past small town after small town where either there was no gas station or the station was closed.  I would longingly look at the pump and wonder if I could shake out a few drops from the bend in the hose that would get me perhaps a few feet farther down the road.  I'd then hope for the best and drive for the next town.  If I saw a sign for an interstate, I would head down that way because chances were better that a gas station might be at the junction and, because people traveled interstates on all days, might actually be open, Sundays be damned.  I can remember at least two below-the-empty-line moments where I was sure I would experience, as LHM puts it, "the sickening silent glide."  But it never happened.

In the pantheon of risk and reward, riding on empty is probably not as high up the chart as, let's say, summitting Everest or surfing a monster Hawaiian wave or hang-gliding or jumping out of an airplane or even heading out to hike in the woods on a day that looks like it might become vaguely threatening.  And today the level of connectivity we have has made it even less risky.  Looking for gas?  You probably have an application on your sleek new Android phone or your handy new IPhone that will tell you where all the open gas stations in a fifty mile radius lie and direct you by synthetic voice along the shortest path to the place.  It'll even tell you the price and may, because you used it, get you a discount in the convenience store on your favorite bag of chips.  Out of gas?  Just call your auto club of choice on your cell, or I just found out, if you are out of cell range you can buy a device that allows you to turn your cell phone into a satellite phone and it will use your GPS to guide your would-be rescuer to you.

But where's the fun in that?  Where's the sense of adventure and thrill, when you drive into a gas station on the last remaining fumes of your previous 87 octane purchase, that you beat the odds once more and lived through something slightly dangerous?  Something that might have made you get out of the car and depend on the kindness of strangers to get you to a gas station where you could purchase a gallon in a plastic jug and then find a ride back to your car so that you could get a few more miles back to the gas station.

I was always a lukewarm watcher of Seinfeld, because I had a love-hate for the characters who seemed to me to be spoiled and whiny even as I thought the plots were clever.  If you'll remember, each show usually had 3-4 story arcs going through them that all tied back together at the end.  In one story line in an episode, the character of Kramer is test driving a car with a dealer representative, and the car is on empty.  (to see the clips from this episode relating to this story arc, click here.)  They choose to see just how far they can go, if they can push the needle farther below empty than anyone ever has.  At one point, the salesman says that the experience has expanded his horizon more than anything and has given him a heightened sense of what's possible.  After all, we are at our best in our work, thinking and problem solving when there's a little risk involved.

Musical Interlude

I can't think about this topic without Jackson Browne coming to mind.  Browne's music was a staple during my junior high, high school and college years.  This is a nice live acoustic version of his song Running on Empty, though in the video the sound appears to be slightly off from his performance.  Still, it's a great song and would have been relatively new when LHM was driving around the U.S.  I bet he probably heard it on the radio in Ghost Dancing while he traveled.

If you want to know more about Roosevelt, Whitcomb and Paterson

Columbia Crest Winery (in Paterson)
The Columbia River: Paterson Ferry
The Columbia River: Roosevelt
The Columbia River: Whitcomb Island and Whitcomb
Wikipedia: Paterson
Wikipedia: Roosevelt

Next up: Umatilla, Oregon