I set out early on Labor Day a few years ago for a drive to no specific destination. At the time I am living in a paradise of green and soft, gentle mist west of the Cascades in Washington state. My plan is simple: get out the map, trace a route, fill up the tank and go.
After leaving Seattle and driving east on I-90 for 130 miles or so, I point the truck south on 243, a route that skirts along a high ridge beside the sluggish Columbia, once-raging river now docile as a house cat. I see gulls gliding overhead, winging off toward the service station at Vantage and the bridge over the river, in search of scraps left by travelers. Looking for a better view, I turn my wheels to the right and coast off of the blacktop onto a little strip of sand that looked like a driveway.
Big mistake. After I reach the top of a small rise, I realize I’m not going much further. I slam into reverse, trundle back down the hill, and bury the tires deep in the sand.
I spot two flat sections of board about 3’x2’ that look like manna from heaven. Surely there’s a patron saint of stupid drivers shaking his head somewhere beyond the cloud-scrubbed September sky. Can I wedge the boards under my tires far enough for rubber to grab wood and pop me out of this pit? I try to ignore the swarm of gnats, slog through calf-high sand, grab the boards and jam them as far under the rear tires of my little truck as I can manage. I climb back into the dusty cab and pop the emergency brake, shift into first, rock the gas and clutch, lurch forward—and crack those boards right in half.
Okay, how about using the board to dig out my buried tires? The more I dig, though, the more sand floods in, like some Sisyphean dream. Nothing to do but walk back to the station across the Columbia. Just five miles or so, right? No sweat—it’s not even that hot. I’m sure I can find some help . . . 1:00 PM on Labor Day . . . right?
Luckily I don’t get far before a truck with an old Jeep on a flatbed trailer stops. Though the driver looks at me like I’m an idiot, he’s too polite to say so and instead says pleasantly, “is that you stuck back there?” I tell him yes, and he climbs out of his cab and produces a well-worn tow rope. Just then another truck pulls up and offers help, so we hook up my frame to his bumper and—SNAP. The tow rope breaks. While we take the longer end, back the truck up, and tie the remaining length around my frame again, the kind woman in the passenger seat of the good samaritan's truck reassures me that everything is all right. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you about stupid—I went mud-hogging with bald tires once. Talk about getting stuck.” That’s great, except . . . who said anything about stupid?
Eventually I’m out and on the flat surface of the blacktop again, offering profuse thanks to all. I begin driving south on 243 again. As I skirt the river gorge, I am headed toward names on a map that possess a strange drawing power: Schawana, Saddle Mountains, Horse Heaven Hills, Desert Aire. This is desolation, and it is good. Irrigated orchards crowd beside the road, in the shadow of the Saddles, stark vertical bluffs with huge drifts of sand and dirt piled halfway up their sides. The colors on this clear day are fantastic—light and shade together, the hilltops bright and the gulleys black. The sky is shifting shades of blue, gray, white, dun: inhospitable and beautiful.
As I drive the great loop toward the Hanford nuclear site, my senses become more acute. The hexagonal basalt columns that make up part of the hills stand out like sentinels. Magpies, brilliant black and white with small heads and long tail feathers, streak by. On a low hill, across from the tiny outpost of Desert Aire, four white letters elevated on posts read H-O-P-E. The tops of the mountains look like upstrokes from some giant paintbrush, hazy with dust and the glaze of midafternoon.
I cut east on highway 24 toward the great unknown—the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant. (The story of that place could, and does, fill volumes.) Here is real desolation. Five, then 10 miles without seeing another vehicle, though I can see the plant itself off to the right from some distance away, looming up out of the arid land like a shrine to power and industry. Signs draped on the barbed wire fence warn: “NO TRESPASSING;” “AREA CLOSED.” The scrub-brush prairie cradling the road reminds me of north Texas, except for the gentle hills to the left and right; covered with dead grass like dust-colored velvet; they look as if they’re soft to the touch. Here too, the shadows and the sky are many colors.
The sun is getting lower in the sky, and the nose of my truck is pointing into the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. Bouncing down the rough gravel road that leads into the area, I notice birds lighting at the mouth of a shallow cave in low basalt bluffs, its edges stained with white droppings. The scrub prairie here is pierced occasionally by dark outcroppings of rock, largely composed of those same hexagonal pillars I saw by the mountains. Cattails grow in the marshy ground by the roadside. Sounds are muted: birds singing, a unseen plane in the haze above, muffled gunshots. The air is dry, slightly warm, the sky cloudy with streaks of blue.
As I trace highway 24 back north I manage to get lost somewhere in the broad prairie between Othello and Royal City but know I’m heading west; the white monolith of Mt. Rainier in the southwest corner of my windshield tells me so. I’m still a long way off; that’s one large mountain. All around is corn, irrigated fertile farmland, stacks of hay bales like a child’s blocks, empty apple crates, and high pale sky. I flash by Royal High School and a cemetery where a woman and young girl stand in silent tribute before one of the headstones.
I drive home the same way I came, in silence. Something stays with me, under the surface, beyond reach. A disturbance kicks up a cloud of birds off to my right, and they wing off into the distance. The light is fading, and I don't know when I will ever be this satisfied again.