Sunday, August 12, 2007

Day three: the suburbs of Mordor

We spent all of day three in the Buick seeing new sights and revisiting older ones to see if we still liked them. We chomped on chips and drank cold Starbucks and watched the world go by.

The best thing about the whip is that you can forget about it. You have no sense of movement or distance as it glides noiselessly along the highway. It's like a house with a steering wheel. The only thing that would make it better is if it were a motorcycle, and I was on the motorcycle instead of sitting in an old persons car that looks like a police undercover vehicle, but life is harsh like that and we can't all be ballerinas either.

There's a winery or two (or more) in every little town in Eastern Washington lately, I swear. Some of these places are just spectacular, too. Huge gracious main buildings surrounded by vineyards and usually fronted by an ornamental garden, beautifully landscaped and designed. We enjoyed them from the road. I mean, we have t-shirts and we don't like wine. But maybe next time...some of them have NW-fusion cuisine and live music now. We'll just order beer.

Thanks to Google Earth I was able to do a flyover of possible routes and destinations and so discovered that our original plan to visit Grand Coulee Dam for the evening laser show was a really bad one. For one thing, the show sounds like it kind of sucks. When I first read 'laser show' I thought 'Cool! Like Laser Floyd back in the 70's! But no, it's the freakin' history of hydroelectricity in Eastern Washington followed by a patriotic salute, kind of like the one they do at Iron Mountain. And, NO.
Secondly, there is nothing at all between Wenatchee and Coulee City except BLEAK.

Now a little bleak is fine. Moderate bleak is even kind of a relief, especially if you've been traveling through crowded towns. But two solid hours of moonscape in 110 degree heat is just plain contraindicated. Still, we took the highway east up as far as the Alcoa dam. It turned out to be one of the best parts of the whole trip.

As you travel east the mountains get older. Recent sandstone blown into curving shapes atop recent basalt laid over recent sediment gives way to ancient walls of strange geometric columns called basalt needles. The forms run parallel, as though a rake had been dragged...mostly vertically, yet bent and swerving like eelgrass from the press of their own weight and the crush of gravity. Just the strangeness of it, the impression of enormous age and weight, the strange artificiality, the weirdly regular fallen sections lying like the broken columns of Roman temples, is enough to rivet your attention and make you fall silent. We turned off onto a rural access route that ran parallel to the highway, shut off the AC and opened the windows. The smell of the hot stone blew through the car.

As you keep going one vast wall of these formations rises and reveals another beneath, and eventually another again, with huge bands of soft tufa between them.
You can almost grasp the magnitude of one huge catastrophic event like this, some distant volcanic eruption spreading a vast, deep flood of white hot liquid stone for miles and miles across the surface of the earth. When you're confronted with layer after huge unimaginable layer of this stuff towering overhead, stuff that was once a flaming mass of molten rock 70 feet deep, the effect is enough to obliterate any sense of yourself that might remain.
You can see the age of the earth here. This is basalt so old that is has actually begun to crystallize...lying atop another layer even older than the first...and another.

Soft brown rock doves, feral pigeons and every kind of swallow and bat have carved small holes all across the bands of tufa and live there in colonies. Even along the most barren stretches they seem to thrive on the nearby highway traffic, working the eddies stirred up by the vehicles passing to catch the bugs and seeds that get thrown up. With the same effect, driven by temperature differences, happening all along the face of the canyon walls, these little animals seem to have a pretty good life.
The Columbia River runs along the base of these formations and here and there farmers have found enough room to grow orchards. The ground around the trees is full of foraging quail. The fliers play in the mist from the overhead irrigation and catch bugs, cleaning the trees.

Malaga is the location of an aluminum plant owned by the same corporation the Biker works for. The place is fucking enormous. They have their own hydroelectric dam across the Columbia river. We wanted to take pictures but there was a security camera mounted near the only turnout, and we didn't want to end up at Guantanamo Bay.*

The town of Malaga itself is largely composed of slum. That's the only way to put it. It's a trailer slum in the middle of the desert. In a way it reminded me of Tijuana...this squalid dump of a place, full of wrecked cars and blowing garbage, all roofed in corrugated tin and squatting in the dust, surrounded by hills crested with palaces.
What happened here? It's not location; theres no lack of jobs nearby; there's the river commerce, the highway, logging, agriculture, the huge bastard aluminum plant for heavens sake..? What makes one place out of a group of similar places the designated shithole?

So yeah, we'd been playing with the idea of maybe moving. We do this every year, and every time we get just a little more serious about it, but we both pretend that it's just idle curiosity. Malaga was kind of a reality check, though. It's the only place where we could afford to live. And sorry, but I've done slum already. Slum sucks.
Even though it's a slum in the middle of the most amazing countryside...

*a couple of months ago that very thing happened where the biker works...hidden security cameras spotted a guy out trespassing on the reserve and taking pictures. this happens all the time; the place is on scenic coastline. hell, i've done it. they're usually pretty mellow about it. this time HOMELAND SECURITY suddenly appeared out of nowhere. the scary thing? turns out the guy really was a spy.
true fact. scary fact, too.


  1. FN , sounds really cool , I love all the dramatic rock formation stuff.We dont really get these sort of trailer park slum in the UK , I guess because there isnt the space , but I would like to see one , did it have tumbleweed ??? or is it not that desserty . I want tumbleweed in my dessert trailer slum , and a few cacti :-)

  2. Wonder if they would let you post from Gitmo. Probably not, so no photos was a good idea.

  3. Beast: it was totally deserty, if the desert was populated by meth zombies. there's cholo cactus here and there, and a type of small tumbleweed that cracks loose and blows around (nothing like the big hummers in Arizona though) was sad; we got all excited when we ran into tumbleweeds blowing across the highway just like in 'High Noon'. OO! The West! mostly it's grassland and sagebrush, a beautiful pale, pale jade green shrub that grows to about waist high.

    Joe: actually thanks for the reminder; there ARE photos and I have to run down and get them back from the developer. my mainframe is no longer speaking to my digital cam so we clicked it oldschool and had them printed to disk.

  4. I'm up to my "arse in alligators" as the saying goes...
    But I forgot to tell you I'd left a little something for you at Idle thoughts.
    Gotta run or I'll get detention!

  5. Move to the outback that is Mississippi. Then we can both adorn ourselves in poofy skirts, and 40's garb and scare the heck out of the townspeople.

  6. OK, I didn't have to do detention so I'm back for a proper read.
    I could visualise, so sharply, every mile along your trail.It was almost as good as a trip of my own.Still gonna run the border guards next time I'm up that way.
    Oh, and ditto the request for pics.

  7. "What makes one place out of a group of similar places the designated shithole?"

    It's not confined to America, I've seen the same thing where I've travelled, too. I wouldn't automatically blame the Aloominum plant either, because I've been to places where there is one giant industry, but it is surrounded by a mini-paradise (Jonkopping in Sweden comes to mind).

    The real answer is probably that shit sticks, and not just to blankets, it sticks to itself, so all the drifting shit that wanders past gets trapped, and in turn catches more wandering shit, and so on.

    Wonderful descriptions of the countryside, really makes me wish I was there as well.

  8. Anonymous7:48 AM

    Its sounds like its fantastic and really weird... they have their own hydro-electric plant but can't deal with a litle slum in some way? It sounds like a real eye opening trip...

  9. I couldn't get over sagebrush when I first saw it in CA. Excellently Western.

  10. You are such a wonderfully descriptive writer, FN. Maybe you should take some time exploring that area and doing a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek-style descriptathon of all the natural wonders, large and small, you see there. Hell, with your mad scribin' skillz, you could do that about your back yard!

    The problem is, first you inspire me to write, and then I think "there's no way I can describe things like FN, so I give up." I will say that your thoughts on the rock formations made me think of our trips to Volcanoes National Park in HI. Except in that case, instead of compressed, eroded and shifted old molten earth, it's new, warped, piled, cracked and steaming molten earth. Huge and so awe-inspiring it made me dizzy and I had to sit down and cry.

    Can't wait for Day 4!

  11. So this spy guy...was he dressed in black? had a sharp pointy nose? I think I saw him in a Mad Magazine once. bwah ha ha ha.
    Query? Did you drive through Wilbur or Davenport? My honey's old stopming grounds.

  12. I'm with Beasty on the rock formations. I'd also love to see proper tumbleweed.

  13. **** has made own tumbleweed from contents of dyson****

  14. It is perfectly acceptable to slum in salubrious surroundings. It makes you an arty boho.

    Slum in a slum and you are nuthin' but a redneck loser.

  15. cb: um, ok. bitch.

    dinahmow: i hope you're wearing underpants!

    awaiting: compromise...we'll all move to alaska and everyone will consider us urban sophisticates and throw money at us just for walking in the door.

    dinah2: oh, don't try that, they'll call out the dogs! go up the hill about three miles.

    sopwith: but in that case everywhere would have the same amount, right? the Biker blames absentee landlords. i blame france.

    muttley: yeah...strange.

    ara: lacking only a rattlesnake curled up around a longhorn skull leaning against a broken wagonwheel! sounds like a tattoo.

    danator: you BETTER write. i have no idea what i'm doing. comparing our stuff is like comparing a trained public speaker against someone who can burp the alphabet.
    btw i loved your movies. it made my poor mainframe bleed, but i played every single one. DAMN! DOUBLE DAMN! ULTRA DAMN, EVEN!

    gale: nope, he was an officer in the hungarian military who joined an extremist group. and re wilbur and davenport...i have to check google maps now. we might have!

    tick: apparently the basalt needles are the same thing as the Giants Causeway in Ireland, except there you're walking on top of the sections and in eastern Wa you're looking at the length of them.

    beast: i've knitted a new girldog out of the contents of mine. lets put them in a jar together and make them fight!

    garfy: what category do meth zombies fall under?

  16. The needles, is that where Captain Jack from the Modocs made his stand?

    Did the spy wear a tux and have a fast BMW with rockets that popped out of the roof?

    welcome to the nation BTW

    first and last nations.

  17. That differently orientated hexagonal crystal thing is interesting. I didn't know that.

  18. Get thee to a winery..or not.
    If it was a Rummery or a Whskery I would stop.

    The homeland security thing is a bit disconcerting.
    What exactly are they making out of alume-minium as the Brits call it. Scuds? Exocets? Nukes? Must be something with a bright, yellow, label that reads WARNING:
    Harmful if dropped on urban dwellings. May contain unstable isotopes with a halflife of 10,000 years. If accidently activated Duck and Cover!!

    I love traveling in those comfy 'ghost' cars. It is what separates us North Americans from the 'crowded' Old World. I believe that most of our superiority complex stems from our ability to squander fossil fuels in comfort.

    I sure hope that you are playing Lindsey Buckingham's travellin' theme
    "Holiday Ro-o-o-o-o-o-o-ad", oops that will probably be stuck in your head now..sorry.