Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A drive, a drop, a debt incurred

By the end of the first full day of the ASLE conference, I was both exhilarated and despondent (Exhilapondent? Despilarated?): exhilarated because I was hearing so many wonderful writers reading their edgy, elegant, insightful essays and poems, but despondent because all my words were dammed up and I feared that I'd never be able to set them loose. So I went for a drive.

This was probably a mistake, given that I had spent the entire previous day in transit, had not slept well the night before or adjusted to the time difference, and don't see particularly well at dusk, but driving in the countryside soothes me and I needed some soothing. As I drove through the rolling green hills of northern Idaho, I kept hearing my father's warnings: "There's a lotta boondocks out there. Better be careful. A whole lotta boondocks." I drowned out his voice by trying to think of a metaphor to describe the peculiar landscape of the Palouse: it's like a crazy quilt constructed from angular patches of greens and yellows, tossed over a table covered with hard rolls in various shapes and sizes. Not a particularly elegant metaphor but at the time it was the best I could do.

So I'm driving south on highway 95 through rolling hills covered in green wheat as far as the eye can see, the hollows between the hills sometimes studded with groves of cedar, the sky gray with layers of rainclouds dropping lines of drops that evaporate before they reach the ground, the green waves below and the gray waves above standing before me like a watercolor encompassing the entire world, when suddenly the bottom drops out.

The Snake River merits only one dependent clause in John McPhee's monumental Annals of the Former World: "Just as magma moving under Idaho is causing land to collapse and form the Snake River Plain," and then he's on to another terrain entirely. What I know now about the Snake River is that it meets the Columbia River in Lewiston, Idaho, a city sitting in the Lewiston Plain, which stretched out before my eyes as an expanse of brown: brown stony flats, dry brown hills decorated with darker brown streaks. It was a lovely view--what little I saw of it.

I later learned that the twisty stretch of highway 95 that runs from the high green Palouse down to brown Lewiston runs seven miles at a seven-degree slope, which would perhaps have been a lovely scenic drive if not for the orange cones. Yes: that entire stretch of highway was being resurfaced. The new pavement was beautifully smooth but lacked some of the basic elements that make driving on a steep, twisty road safe, such as, for instance, edge lines and clearly marked lanes without orange cones intruding into them. 

Did I say driving soothes me? Driving without being able to discern the edge of the road does not soothe me, especially when there's a steep cliff that leads to destruction just beyond that edge. I had to keep one eye on the orange cones intruding from the left, one eye on the cliff dropping off to the right, and a third eye on the speedometer, while trying not to visualize the nightmare scenarios that would follow any minor error, most of them ending in fiery death.

Which is probably why I didn't see the traffic cop until he was right behind me, lights flashing. It took a while before I could find a safe place to pull over, since the shoulder was either covered with cones or leaning dangerously cliffward. I was vaguely aware that I'd passed signs saying "Traffic fines doubled in construction zone," and I knew I'd never find a way to disguise a traffic fine as a business expense. I calmly explained my panic at being surrounded by traffic cones in unfamiliar territory, and I must have seemed harmless because I got off with a warning. That's middle-aged white lady privilege for you!

I left, however, knowing that I owed a little something to the state of Idaho and the west, but how would I pay my debt? I found a way fairly soon--but that's a story for another day.

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