Leaving Bellingham with a stomach-full of breakfast quiche that wouldn’t have made the cut in a retirement home cafeteria wasn’t the best way to start my September 11 but it was all I had. The restaurant recommended to me by the
motel desk clerk turned out to have a 40 minute wait, unless I wanted to sit in the lounge next to the loud, pudgy blonde who had already started drinking. I didn’t. Instead I ended up eating the unfortunate quiche at a nearby Tully’s Coffee, just around the corner from Deseret Books (now selling the Mormon-approved Harry Potter alternative “Janitors”, in case you’re interested).
My target for the day was John Day, Oregon and traffic was heavy as I drove I-90 east. All the things I love about interstates – sudden lane changes, yuppies in SUVs whose engine power far exceeds their driving capabilities, and the idiots going too slow infuriating the idiots who want to go too fast – were in abundance until traffic thinned out just short of Ellensburg, which was, fittingly, when I had to break south.
Green forest gave way to sunbaked yellow grass as the landscape changed and the mercury rose. Just south of Yakima there was a family clustered next to a car that had broken down by the side of the road. The eldest son, a tall, slim, bespectacled kid in a yellow T-shirt was holding up a small handwritten sign and even though I couldn’t read it at speed I more or less knew the content: “It’s broke, we’re hot, this sucks. Please.” I kept driving and I don’t know why – I can still see that poor kid standing in the sun with a disappointed look on his face as hundreds of people drove their air-conditioned cocoons past him and his family.
In 2001, America was rocked by a sucker punch that shook the country and its people out of their insular, capitalist stupor. It reminded them that the people around them were neighbors and friends rather than competitors, stepping stones or dangerous lunatics. Ten years later, to the day, and no one, myself included, could remember that message long enough to stop for a family of five in obvious need of help.But hey – they remembered to put up flags along the highway.
The interstate eventually gave way to state highways, long, empty roads through farmland that stretched off to the horizon. The sky was a dark grey, threatening rain, and the air was rich with the smell of soil and raw onions. Dump trucks filled with these, thousands of fresh, fragrant bulbs would pass by at intervals and the smell would become almost overpowering.
As I passed into Oregon the smell of farmland faded and the temperature rose to to the low 90s, which was cool in comparison to the previous weeks according to Mike, a gas station attendant in Pendleton. Oregon is one of only two US states, New Jersey is the other, that doesn’t allow you to pump your own gas, and so Mike’s job is to run around outside in 100 degree heat for 9 hours while enjoying the heady smell of gasoline.
“This is fine,” he said, sweating and lying through his teeth. “The breeze helps.”
Just outside of the Battle Mountain Forest on Highway 395 I saw another drama played out by the side of the road. A bright white motorcycle lay on its side at the edge of the gravel and EMTs were clustered in the high grass just beyond. Next to the ambulance was a cop car, it’s flashing blue and red lights unnatural among the yellows and greys of the landscape. Three other motorcycles were parked further down the highway, their riders standing together just behind the EMT crews. It looked like a group of white-collar guys on a motorcycle trip and their faces had the hollow, disbelieving looks of people who have never seen something go so bad so fast.
Suddenly slowing down seemed like a great idea.
Until I saw this sign: