Day 1. 1/11/16. Starting Odometer: 142172. Final Odometer: 142380. Mileage: 208.
The Columbia river runs in a nearly perfect east-to-west line from the eastern edge of Washington and Oregon to the Pacific Ocean, cutting those two states off for more than 300 miles. For most of that length, it descends into the Columbia Gorge, and on both sides, formidable mountains and sheer cliffs tower above the river in both directions, occasionally jettisoning runoff in picturesque waterfalls. There are volcanoes littered about on both sides of the river, and between two of them, an ancient rockslide that changes the river’s course briefly. The native Americans who settled this region called that the Bridge of the Gods, caused when two omnipotent deities fought for the love of a third.
I don’t fight. I run away. That’s not to say that I can’t fight; I’ve just lost the taste and desire for it. Driving as far and as fast as I could away from Portland, leaving the wife, the kids, the career, and everything else in the rear view mirror, all I could think was, “I’m free.” No more fighting. No more arguing. No more conflict with anyone. Just me and the road, the dead gods to my right and left watching with impassive unconcern.
Well, maybe more than a little impassive unconcern. The Columbia Gorge is a wind-tunnel. Air flowing down the gorge reaches hurricane-force velocities at times. Just a month prior to my trip, a windstorm had torn up more than 80 trees along the length of the gorge, and the freeway had been closed in places while road crews repaired the damage.
On this day, the wind battered me so hard I was pushed across lanes multiple times, making me both grateful that there hadn’t been another car or truck in that lane when it happened *and* fearful that there would be the next time it happened. It was raining, too. It always rains in Portland. I hate it.
Somewhere past the Dalles, the biome changed. Quite literally the landscape changed from towering cliffs with tall trees littering both sides of the river to a treeless savanna. The cliffs were still there, just the trees and dark grass were gone. It was a startling change of scenery. The clouds lightened. The rain stopped. The gorge became a serene river as still as glass.
I had done it.
I had escaped Portland.
I found a rest stop and had lunch.
The grasslands eventually gave way to the high desert: a flat, barren plain sparsely covered with scrub and sage brush. The Columbia turned north, and so did I. I crossed a bridge into Washington, and as the sun began to set, I found Kennewick. Cortana helped me find the site of Fruitland Elementary, where I’d gone to kindergarten and 1st grade. They call it something else now.
It’s been 40 years since I was at Fruitland, and I don’t know if the school looks like it did when I was a kid. I thought I recognized landmarks through some sort of psychic memory, but it may have just been desperation and nostalgia combining to find any connection with my past. The truth is, I don’t remember Kennewick at all.
I remember bashing my chin open on a bathtub, and needing stitches that permanently altered the look of my face. I remember playing in the skeletons of new houses as tract homes went up around us (Kennewick has grown up a lot in the last 40 years). I remember Pat Owen, and hearing that he had burned his house down. I remember Fruitland Elementary, and the red ant hill outside its doors that became the source of my childhood war with ants.
I remember going to the river and watching boat races. I remember my parents doing Amway, and having meetings at the house that my sister and I needed to be very quiet for. I remember seeing Rhett Butler tell Scarlet O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I tried that line on my dad and he said, “Well, I do.” I remember the spanking that immediately followed that.
But the town where all that happened is hazy. I was five. Who remembers streets? Houses? I lived in an upstairs attic, I think. We lived near the edge of town, I think. I once wrote KFD in chalk on the backyard patio and my mom thought I was scribbling graffiti or gang symbols. “It means “Kennewick Fire Department,” I told her.
The local bank gave out piggy banks in the shape of George Washington’s head, in plated copper. I loved that bank. I never kept more than a couple cents in it, but I loved it. It was the only thing I took with me when we left Kennewick (besides Eddie Teddy), and I remember leaving Kennewick when we moved to Wisconsin.
I remember believing that I had come from another planet, an exile of a world that had been attacked by a domineering, warlike people. Eddie Teddy was my protector. I told everyone I met that I would return to my home one day, and that my sojourn on earth would be — I hoped — short. In many ways, I always wonder if maybe it had been true, but that my people failed to liberate our planet, and so I am trapped here on earth in a body that’s not mine, experiencing a life I was never intended to live.
My wife used to say that part of my problem was that I had no idea who I was. I can believe that. I remember all these things about Kennewick, but I don’t remember anything about the city itself. How much more of my life is that way? A constant stream of memories disconnected from the person who experienced them? I am a man in search of myself, running from my past, looking for a reason to find tomorrow.
I drove until I got tired, found a rest stop, and pulled over. Except for the rumble of big rig engines coming and going in the night, it was silent. I went to sleep, hoping to remember the dreams I had had when I was five, the world was new, and all I knew of this planet was a little town in the middle of the deserts of Washington.