Thursday, 15 March 2012

Lost in the Palouse

"Where to now?"

I leaned on the truck's hood and stared at the back of the ram's head, but my chromed companion remained cast in silence.

A magpie burst out of the waving grass half a hundred yards away, caught a blast of air, and banked screeching over the rise.

We'd been down this road before. Three times, in fact. I smoothed the road atlas open, holding it down against the gusts, and frowned. Everything irritated me; the filth on the fender, the reek of hot engine, the sun's glare on the page beyond the shadow of my hat, and the persistent smell of rain.

And the wind. Especially the wind.

We wanted south; all the roads ran east and west, switching back through vales of hilled prairie. Even those tracks the map promised would eventually plumb out, bowed to peer pressure and veered east.

The first time I'd come to the golf course, away out in the wheat, I'd trundled slowly Magpie (Pica pica) (11)past, rubbernecking like a kid at a carnival. Then the dorms. Three times I retraced my route, tried another, and three times ended up back on campus.

Where the hell was this? Either I'd gone all the way around the world, and come back to Pullman, or this was Moscow. But the map didn't go to Moscow, so either theory was plausible.

I knew from my college days that the University of Idaho was just a projectile puke from WSU. And as neither is often mistaken for a Mormon school, to say no more, the highway between was reputed to host more drunken tragedy than any other seven miles in either state. So solemnly and reverently was this fact repeated in the residence halls of Bellingham that I've never insulted it with research.

I sighed west, over the giant surf of the land. Now I was navigating by lore and legend, like the Polynesians of old, checking my work by the smell of the sky and the taste of the sea. And in this I was at a decided disadvantage, for unlike those ancient Pacific voyagers, who plied their watery heritage with sublime confidence, my own ancestors had left me blind and deaf.

Palouse hills in may 2010And so it is that to this day I judge I've been to Moscow, because that's where it was and that's where it had to be. But who knows? Maybe there's some anomalous college out there, some phase-shifting Hogwarts of the prairie, into which I thrice blundered, and lacking any real sense, called the University of Idaho. Like Columbus, perhaps I'd stumbled on something much grander than my mercantile imagination could grasp, out there off the charts, and will go to my grave as big a fool.

The wind whistled through the ram's helix, ruffled my shirt, batted my hat. I tugged the brim down and thumped the hood through the atlas.

"Anywhere you want," it replied.

I jumped, and the wind shuffled the pages back to one.

"That's where to," said the bighorn.

"Anywhere you want."

(Adapted from Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands, copyright RK Henderson. All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Dodge Ram hood ornament by Christopher Ziemnowicz; magpie in flight by Ken Billington of Focusing On Wildlife; Palouse hills by Bala Sivakumar.)
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