Friday, January 20, 2006


Lights. A snake of white and red twisting out of Beaverton, over the West Hills. Not quite night yet -- the gun-metal sky gleams blue here and there, indifferent to the lights below.

It seems something more of the natural than of the human world, these lines of cars making homeward. Watching from a distance you would wonder how they knew it was time to flock, what impulse brings them all out at once, like crows gathering for the night. It displays nothing of the supposed human monopoly on planning and deliberation. Did I mean to get in my car and drive home? Often I just find myself on the road, with no clear idea of how I got there. If I had to explain my intent, I would be at a loss for a few moments, and when I did produce one I'd have no confidence in it. Like the crows, we gather at evening -- there's a restlessness, a sense that to linger would be to invite disaster.

Light thickens, and the crow makes homeward to the rooky wood.

As usual, the traffic slows almost to a halt as it approaches the tunnel. I don't believe, again, that there's a rational reason for this; we just balk at going into the ground, we hesitate, and only the press of cars behind us keeps us going at all. I peer into the cars around me. I can't really see any people. In the cab of a pickup, a woman's lined, expressionless face is lit momentarily by a flaring match. The face vanishes, and only a glowing cigarette-end is visible.

A surge of light and noise as we plunge into the tunnel. It's brightly-lit. I could look at faces now, but, like everyone, I drive with tense concentration, with no eye for anything but the road and the cars. The real increase in danger is probably tiny, but the unnatural confinement, and sense of being on a lit stage, makes us all uneasy. We're all anxious to be out of the tunnel.

We emerge, and suddenly we are out of the country of freeways and housing developments and industrial parks. The exit lane ends at an ordinary downtown traffic light. This is Portland, "the city that works," as it smugly but truthfully proclaims itself. There are people on the sidewalks, and plenty of open shops. Everything has become human-scale again. Crows must feel just this way when they reach their roosting-grounds. All the irritations of social and family life lie before them, the bickering and crowding and posturing, but they've escaped the dread of some powerful, unknown, silent owl falling on them from behind.

I drive slowly through downtown, slowing to give people trying to exit parking-garages a chance to get out. Now that I'm free of the suburbs, I'm in no hurry to get home. I watch the people crowding the bus stops, the people working out in the gym at the Hilton, the people crossing the streets, the stately bicyclists in business dress and the hell-for-leather bicyclists in spandex. I float happily over iron gratings of the Hawthorne bridge, clustered also with bikes and pedestrians. The river glitters below us.

Now it's just a straight shot down Hawthorne Boulevard, an uncertainly trendy arterial. Past the Baghdad Cafe and the Fred Meyer. Clear down to Mt Tabor, which is neither a mountain nor tabor-shaped, but a small round volcanic hill, complete with cinder-cone and crater, smack in the middle of the city. We live nestled under its shoulder.

I pull in, under the huge maple trees in front of our house. Clouds roll over the moon. The stillness when I kill the engine is deep. I close my eyes and take a long breath. Home.

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