Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The way things are in Washtucna

I checked out of the Moscow hotel early, meeting my daughter at 6:30 to swap keys so that she could go to sorority rush. Hopefully the last bits could be solved by noon, but the problems started immediately. Software conflicts kept her computer off the college network, XP SP3 broke the Windows Installer, a cable was broken where her rabbits had chewed through. The temperature rose 20 deg F each hour; I fixed each problem in turn.

DSC09899 StitchBy 4, the computer was working, her email accounts were configured, the mirror was hung, the DVR was ready for the network. She had dinner plans, so I gracefully packed up, gave her a last hug, and intoned the father's benediction: Do great work; have fun; I love you.

Simply getting things moved in and hooked up is much less than I should be doing, but I know it's everything she needed.

I put the scrap box into the car, checking the skies to the west. The horizon was hazy behind dust blowing in off the hills. TomTom chirped in: six hours to Seattle, arriving past midnight. Lovely. I turned out of town, along rolling country roads dotted with farm trucks and motor homes, each struggling with the rises and turns. It wasn't going to be easy to keep up the time across the distance.

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The high wedge of a thunderstorm appeared to the south, black against the golden hills. I sped across the front of it, keeping it safely off to my left. But, as skies darkened and the road curved south into the storm, I gave up the race. Not the Olumpic spirit, I know, but I was getting tired and hungry. The road signs said said that I was near Washtucna, WA: the last town for another 30 miles (in any direction). 'not very Dutch, I thought, smiling.

Did I mention that the Netherlands Yngling team finished with Silver yesterday?

In fact, I don't know what the Dutch might make of the empty endless plains, the arid golden hills, the utilitarian train-stop farm towns. Washtucna was typical of these tiny communities: one wide street flanked with a few silent businesses, 250 people, looming grain silos, some industrial fuel pumps. It's quiet and empty, a "Last Picture Show" ambience. Warm, hot wind raised a curl of dust along the street; a lean dog watched me, immobile, from the sidewalk. Okay, maybe it's more Clint Eastwood than Cybill Shepherd. I parked, then picked up, put away, and locked up the car with a city-dweller's caution.

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Lightning struck to the south, and the wind rose: the storm must be just past the hills. A brown smudge that I'd mistaken for smoke outside of town began to grow. In minutes, it became a vast column of dirt, rising and expanding ahead of the rain. I retreated to porch of Sonny's.

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Contact lenses are the worst thing to wear in a dust storm: I tried to grab a last picture and ducked into the restaurant. It turned out to be empty, like Washtucna: just the woman tending the fryer and me. The building rattled and the hanging icicle lights swayed and jumped in the wind outside, but, for an hour, we played out the timeless ritual of the traveler and the innkeeper.

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Where was I from; was I just passing through? How long had she been here; how is the "Famous Chicken and 'Jo" plate? Do many folks come by; it's early in the evening. Maybe they're avoiding the story; we need the rain.

The place is cozy, dim, cluttered, neon-lit. Light refracts through bottles on the shelf; three flyswatters hang in a neat row near the window. The jukebox sputters out a 40's tune now and again; she says the kids never let her play it. Two teenagers pus the door open to ask if they can use the bathroom. She sends them back into the storm because people have to be 21 to be in Sonny's.

I felt a bit sorry for them: who would ever check, or care, if a kid relieves himself in an empty bar on a Monday evening. Maybe it would be different if they learned to like 40's music?

She cleaned counters and cutlery; I drank my Kokanee. We talked about her time in North Carolina and about the future of places like Washtucna. She thinks the retirees, looking for cheap housing and quiet streets, will save it. But the grocery closed last year and nobody wants to drive 30 miles for supplies. 'better to load up monthly at Costco. Still, 'nobody locks a door in this town. Her son and daughter have gone on to bigger cities to the west and south. We share thoughts on empty nests and grandchildren.

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The dinner arrives, a deep fried half-chicken and quartered potato. She brings out some sour cream for the potato since I'm from Europe. Funny, because the Continental touch is the mayonnaise out next to the catsup for dipping. The chicken is delicious: crackling crisp outside and breathtakingly hot. "South-Beach"-style diets would never allow this, but the Lipitor will clean up the mess. I smile at the moral hazard.

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Sonny's doesn't serve dessert, and the storm was abating, so I decided to push on towards Othello. She gave me a few recommendations for roads and lodging; I gave her 20 for a 12-dollar meal. 'a bargain either way.

The car is streaky with brown dust, cut in patterns by the rain. 8 pm, and the only lights in town are the still the swaying icicle bulbs at Sonny's. And the only person in town is the one sitting in front of the restaurant, contemplating a cigarette. The dog is still staring at me, immobile, from the center of the street. I pull wide around him and out along the road west.

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