Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Sky at the End of the World

1980. Early one Sunday morning, I walked into town as usual, down the road above Puget Sound. The Spar, in downtown Olympia, was the only cafe that opened early enough for me, and I walked the two miles down there from my tiny house, of a morning, to sit by the windows and write my great American novel, or my college papers; or to banter with the iconic waitresses, who had grown old with the cafe, having started as teenagers in the 1940s. It was now more a haunt of college students and state workers than of loggers, but it still served the sort of breakfast that keeps a man on his feet to set choke and fell trees all day, or puts a pot belly on a college student. Eggs and hash browns and sausage. Hot, watery coffee slapped down at my favorite booth before I even sat down. It was the first cafe I loved, taking no more notice of holidays than I ever did, opening at five every morning, a place where I could write for three hours, plied unobtrusively with coffee, while the sun rose and the rest of the world caught up with us.

It was a strange, dim, yellow morning. I'd never seen a sky quite like it, a dingy, gray sky, old and tired. The sky at the end of the world, I thought. Skies in Olympia were gray far more often than not, but it was always a fresh gray, mist and cloud rolling in from the ocean, darker and bluer when it was carrying extra rain, but always new. This parchment-yellow was odd and unsettling.

My steps slowed a little as I crossed the stone-balustraded bridge over the southern tip of the inlet, into the little downtown. The morning was growing darker, not lighter, and yellower. A fine drizzle began, That was entirely to be expected, here at the pivot of the Olympic Penninsula. But this drizzle wasn't cold on my face. It was dry and gritty. It seemed almost like snow; but it almost never snowed here, and certainly never in May. Little particles were landing on my coat sleeves, and they neither melted nor evaporated. It was drizzling fine, beige particles of sand.

I hurried on to the Spar, where they no doubt would know what was going on. A forest fire, possibly. But I knew what the ash of forest fires was like, and I knew the smell. This was nothing like that. It had no smell, unless maybe the dusty smell of an ancient, untended house. Maybe some port installation had caught fire?

Downtown was empty. No cars on the streets. For once I regretted being unplugged, having no TV or radio or daily paper. Other people clearly knew something I didn't. I arrived at the Spar, anxious for bright lights and human fellowship.

The Spar was empty and dark. Scrawled in felt pen on a piece of cardboard, stuck on the glass of the door, was the single word: "CLOSED."

I turned around and hurried home. By the time I got there, the oily dust had gathered, like a fine snowfall, on every flat surface. I was coughing, and my eyes were watering.

It was days later that the weather cleared enough to be able to see, off to the southeast, the new shape of Mt St Helens. It had been the most elegantly symmetrical of the great, free-standing peaks of the Cascade Mountains. Now it looked, for all the world, as though a giant had stooped down and bitten off its head. It was no longer white: it was a dirty grayish yellow -- a low, ugly, lopsided stump against the sky.

No comments: