Hanford

With the general sense of neuromuscular time running out, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a car trip, overland, overnight, over before it began…my brother and sister-in-law being the time-efficient pair they are…to Walla Walla, Washington.  So, it wasn’t long before the orthopedic stresses of the road were behind me and I was in this strange little town in the middle of agricultural nowhere.  Walla Walla.  One of those names like Cucamonga no one can utter seriously.  Reminding me of a German Jewish relation’s quiet muttering over the London Times’ account of African genocide, that if these people want to be taken seriously, they would not call themselves Hutus and Tutsis.  Too late for that in Walla Walla.  Nothing to do but wallow in Walla Walla.  

An intact 1920s center of town, all brick and Midwestern looking, now dominated by wine tasting rooms, upscale restaurants and patisseries.  And at the edge of town, agricultural and pastoral reality, wheatfields undulating with greenery cropped finer than a golf course, the snow capped Blue Mountains in the distance.  This is where my nephew rides his bicycle during workouts.  Everything is a workout for him, I am convinced.  But that’s another story.  For now, driving through this budding velvet drapery of a landscape, I was imagining myself there.  I was quite a bike rider during my university days.  I would have come here too, cycling through the landscape at maximum warp, freshness and renewal the order of the day.

And in my mind, I am just emerging from Alan’s cab at Heathrow Airport, my reason for calling him again and again unclear, except that he is familiar, I have his taxi driver’s card, and much about travel is frighteningly erratic, particularly for a mostly paralyzed, aging man…. So having rolled backwards down the taxi’s wheelchair ramp to the curb, there I am in the middle of the airport waste, feeling how transitional this moment is.  My last moment in Britain.  But already, the airport’s crush of the world’s population has so diluted this few miles of UK as to make the locale unclear, vague as a shopping mall.  Which creates a sort of opening.  An aperture into what, I do not know.  Truly, one is neither here nor there.  The ‘here’ is all frenetic, earnest and anxious, passengers gnawing at the restraining bit like horses at the start…of what?  It could not be called a race, not really, but perhaps a steeplechase in which there are no winners.  Getting through security.  Which only serves to make everyone feel more insecure somehow.  Hapless inspectors asking hopeless questions, anyone discerning aware of how futile this will all prove to be, fighting the last battle, while some fiend somewhere is planning to poison the world’s cafeteria trays.  As for Alan, I still have his card in my passport case.  He leads me here, to this patch of concrete outside Terminal 1.  In a moment I will join the lemmings rush, of course, and a few moments after that find myself in California.  But for now there is this.  The puzzle of things.  What happens in the space between here and there.  This is a moment to take stock.  Or just take it all in.  This late age of human experience.  How it is possible to live in one world and regularly partake of another.  And what comes of this tension?  Except more tension.  Not that one needs to worry, because the travel gears are in motion, one of the Heathrow porters already pushing my bags into the future.

Where was I?  In the general vicinity of Pasco, Washington, my brother at the wheel, heading home.  The route is taking us north, mostly along the Columbia River, and for a wild, even primal, stretch, the Hanford Reserve.  One of the Manhattan Project sites from World War II.  A less obtrusive radiation disaster, waste gradually seeping into the river, reputedly home to radioactive bees and jackrabbits.  But famously off-limits for so long that this huge tract is one of the most unspoiled, pristine stretches of land in the western United States.  I am in transit with my brother and his wife.  We do not talk much.  Perhaps all of us feel this tension between here and there.  Is it the dangers of the road?  They are not slight, after all.  They are not even predictable.  Just last week, my brother tells me, an avalanche tumbled atop a family not unlike ours driving the next stretch of road over the mountains.  

For now, the Washington desert keeps opening up vistas, odd ones.  There is Seattle, Puget Sound with its islands and orcas, snowy mountains…beyond which is this.  A dry, cold, desert.  Even the vast Columbia River seems out of place.  The shore does not look riparian, at least not to me.  Shouldn’t there be cottonwoods and other trees hugging the banks, sucking up the precious water in these arid lands?  Apparently not.  The river ends, and the desert banks began.  That’s it.  As for the mountains, so there is no avalanche, there is snow falling on 17 April.  The snowy slopes look packed, waterlogged, ready to slide or melt or both.  The huge lake along the motorway is frozen.  And an hour later we are home.

Now the sense of in between is less mysterious.  I am in between here and Jane.  Also, not insignificantly, I am in between here and death.  By definition, a morbid thought.  And why not?  This awareness arises not only from my annual reminder of Marlou’s passing, but from the cross-country drive.  How many of these do I want to do before it’s over?  There is a limit, of that I am certain.  Everything runs out.  And watching the great sweep of roadless desert rise east of the highway, climbing into the mountains at Hanford, the very emptiness and inhospitable fact of the land presents puzzle and promise.  There is still wildness in America, key to our national soul.  And it thrives, give or take a gene or two, right where things have gone so terribly wrong.  Human control overreached, the next acts unfolding regardless.  Just as I have overreached my stamina, it becomes apparent trudging up my brother’s stairs.  Time for bed, someone else’s, but tomorrow my own, and most fortunately not alone.

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