In the Hills of Joseph, Part 5: Notes from the Empty Quarter
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
By Douglas Imbrogno | july 20, 2012 |
To get home from the Fishtrap writer’s workshop, I must cross several eco-systems, bio-regions, time zones, and — in more hallucinogenic moments — historical eras. Let me explain.
It takes a a full day of travel — about 17 hours in total — to cross from my friends’ door in Enterprise, Oregon, where I stayed another week after Fishtrap, to my front door in Barboursville, West Virginia. The first five hours are by car, since Wallowa Lake, where Fishtrap occurs, is genuinely far away from everywhere else. My workshop instructor, Luis Alberto Urrea, noted that the long journey it takes just to get to Fishtrap is part of the power and magic of the experience. This is true and not at all sentimental. In a prior post on Fishtrap, I called it a “Rivendell of words,” but this was not much of an exaggeration (though, unfortunately, I did not spot Liv Taylor there). Wikipedia serves up Tolkien’s imaginary place as “an elven outpost in Middle-Earth.” While I met, I think, only one possible elf at Fishtrap, the niche of Wallowa lake and mountains is where — were I an Elf-lord — one would seriously consider founding an elf-burb.
If you come from the East, as I did, one of two options for winding your way to Fishtrapistan is to land in Boise, Idaho. It’s a pancake of a city surrounded by frying-pan prairie which goes on and on and on and on. The empty lands stretch for hours into eastern Oregon. Then, voila, a burst of mountains tippled with snow — the Wallowa Mountains, framing the blue-dark waters of Wallowa Lake. The mountains are centered by the brawny shoulders of Joseph Mountain, named for Chief Joseph, last leader of the free Nez Perce, before his band finally succumbed to the U.S. Cavalry, in fevered pursuit of their brazen act of trying to remain non-treaty Indians. Plus, we white folk wanted the Wallowa Valley and white folks’ destiny — when they see something they want — is, of course, to manifest it, come what may and grab the howitzers. And they did. Grab the howitzers. And the land.
So, I am home now. And the humid West Virginia air, followed by a stormburst of cool rain this morning, is so different from the hours spent crossing out of Fish-Rivendell-trap, and then into arid wastelands, as to be disorienting. A few notes from the Empty Quarter.
Passing out of Joseph, Oregon, one last time, I see a Pentecostal church sign with today’s message to the world. It poses what seems an incomplete admonition to passersby: “But God showed His love for us while we.” Really, that is all it says. Did the sign-guy have a plumbing emergency back home before he could finish? Does the pastor want us to finish the line? While we what? Screwed up? Certainly that. Went and had a beer or smoke? That, too.
I ponder the ineffable sign as I show my back to Wallowa County, regrettably, piloting my rental car eastward. The exit out of the county is as spectacular a drive as I have had in many a year, a serpentine plunge through wall-to-wall green canyons, full of the resinous smell of pine and tamarack, with streams that crash and tumble beside the road. Rivendell-ish par excellence. But while Wallowa is a fairly fecund place (thanks to a billion sprinklers), there lies an empty quarter between Joseph, Oregon and Boise, Idaho, to which I’m bound to don wings for West Virginia.
I head into it, hundreds of miles of undulating scrubland to the horizon. At first, it smells for many miles like sage, a pleasant spicy tang upon the air, so I assume wild sage perfumes these empty places. Not so empty after all. Then, it just smells dry. Soon, I pass a sprawling, muddy cow-lot big as many football fields. Thousands of the creatures roam about, stinking up the neighborhood for miles, with that bovine, poopy tang which crinkles up the nose and makes you apply a few more miles-per-hour to the pedal.
All of a sudden, to the right beside Interstate 84, a herd of black and brown cattle stampede my way. In West Virginia, our cow friends chew and amble on the steep hillsides of the Mountain State. They hardly have the flatland to ramble on like this. Then, I see the reason for this cow-a-thon. Two guys in tan cowboy hats and jeans, astride trotting horses, herd the cattle across a broad field. It’s a bucolic, unexpected scene. Then, my mind transposes things. Instead of 2012, it’s as if I’ve time-traveled, the interstate now a gauzy visage from the future, me floating down it like a ghost. I watch a cattle drive from 1878, cattle being herded west, into Indian lands. The cowboys spur their horses, flick their reins, nipping at the heels of the straggling cows pulling up the rear …
My attention rears up out of 1878. But I’m not necessarily back in 2012. Many miles onward, the emptiness reasserts itself. It’s a long way back to Joseph. A long, long way to Boise. There are a bunch of miles of nothing all around me. Then, I spot him. An old guy. On a bicycle along the right-hand bern. His beard is long, wide and grey, almost down to the handlebars, a real Gandalfian beard. The bike has multi-colored packs of supplies hanging off paniers on the back-wheel, drooping off the handlebars and sides. I see rolled up sleeping gear. Eating utensils. The guy is peddling, peddling, peddling. It will take him the better part of forever to get someplace where this something, way the hell out here in nowhere. Then, I’m past him, wondering who he is. Where he is going. He’s on a bike, but it could just as easily be a donkey. The eternal itinerant. Or a peddler rounding a corner, carrying his life with him as he heads between here and somewhere else. He is the ultimate non-famous nobody, in the midst of nowhere. Yet for a few minutes, he is famous to me. I wish him well.
The air smells dry and hot again. Hours on, I round a bend and smell it before I see it: a bend of the Snake River. We forget that water, streams, creeks, rivers: they have a smell and I don’t mean the smell of polluted waters. Back home in West Virginia, the woods and water intermingle aromas galore into the green, green hills. It’s hard to separate them out. Yet in the empty lands of eastern Oregon and western Idaho, as the Snake approaches, the bone-dry air turns a noticeable, well … wet smell. Earthy. A damp musk. It is a welcome aroma after so many miles and miles of treeless, orange-brown desolation.
I ask of this wilderness: why? Why, for whomever or whatever, designed our realm, is there such vast emptiness everywhere? What’s it for? Gazing, perplexed and hypnotized into the trackless, treeless, naked scrubland of eastern Oregon, I suddenly think of Mars. Which, if this landscape were a little stonier and more red — judging from the Instamatic photos flung back to Earth by successive Rovers — it could be a Martian one. Yet Mars goes on like this, apparently, for a whole planet. A single desert, planet-sized. What’s all this bigness about?
We howl about our human pain, even though we’re the size of half a pin-head, lost in unimaginable space. We write in journals, scribble what we see with paintbrush and with pen, trying to encompass this all-encompassing freight of vast nothingness. Then, the eyes grow tired. The mind wearies of trying to fit a scale to it. How do you find a meaningful role for our five feet and some inches of meat and water, sweat and shit, against a universe exploding ever more into new and vaster empty quarters?
I finally get myself to busy Boise. My plane lifts off for Phoenix and I shut the portal’s plastic window screen. I have no more need or ability to be transfixed by the aimless profundity, the enormous gravitas of enormity, of a thousand miles of nada. I leave it to the aliens, where they may land in secret. I leave it to the secret-est of secret agencies, where they may hide their most awful missiles and headquarters for world domination. I leave it to the stray survivalists, the bearded bicyclists of wasteland, the off-the-grid terrorists and loners who’ve abandoned society, counting out their hours and days in sagebrush and next hilltop.
I pass upon the fringes of these wastelands, listening to my music. Glad, at last, to smell the coming of the river, sparkling and wet, around the bend.
Then, Virginia Woolf plops into the armchair of my attention, quoting herself from “The Waves”:
“.. But nature is too vegetable, too vapid. She has only sublimities and vastitudes and water and leaves. I begin to wish for fire light, privacy, and the limbs of one person.”
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
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