Friday, August 26, 2005


Walla Walla was full of families of students, so we stayed in a motel ten miles south, across the Oregon border. Milton-Freewater is a haphazard town of some five thousand souls, strung along several miles of freeway.

It's near desert, here. Rich farmland and orchards, where it's irrigated, but otherwise a country of huge bare golden hills. Mountains, you'd call them, if you didn't have the Cascades and the Rockies to compare them with.

There's a little river that runs through the middle of the town. You would think, in this water-starved country, they would make much of it -- but it wanders unnoticed through backyards and behind parking lots. I thought at first it must be an irrigation canal, but after watching it a while, I'm convinced it's a natural river, running happily in its own bed. The townspeople simply have no interest in it.

I ate breakfast this morning in a fortress-like windowless building, which was surrounded by a wide moat of asphalt. A neon sign said "open" but nothing pointed to an entrance. There were two doors, identical blank steel doors, at intervals in the brick wall, but they both looked so much like a backdoor into the kitchen that I walked on around the corner of the building. Nothing. Back to the blue steel doors. I peeked in through the three-inch wide, murder-hole window. What I could see looked like a standard small-town restaurant. I went in.

A dismal breakfast. A slick gelatinous egg mass, pitted with pinhead craters, apparently more deep-fried in vegetable oil than than scrambled, and those frozen grated potatoes similarly fried. The sausage was okay. The coffee was watery even to my taste.

The waitress grudgingly replenished it a few times. "That must be a really interesting book!" she remarked. She repeated this remark at every refill, giving me the opportunity, I guessed, to explain my bizarre behavior and assert some normality. I smiled and nodded vaguely and went on reading.

Walking back to the motel, I paused again to marvel at that little river. Dark green and cool, running rapidly through the middle of town, full of merriment even in late August. It takes no more notice of the town than the town takes of it. I'm not quite sure what it's laughing about -- some long slow joke gathered from the bare hills, I guess, drawn from the little chattering snow-melt creeks of Idaho. It's shockingly real in the middle of this phantasmal, jerry-built town.

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