On the Road, United States

Vernita Falls

There are no pictures, because you are driving and you have to keep going. No pictures but what will burn itself in the memory centers of your brain, just like light burns onto the chemicals of film, the chemicals of photo paper, for you to pull out at a later date and remember. No pictures but what you make on your mind, and what you recall from it because something you see now, through the windshield, tickles something you saw before, in a picture, in a museum, through an airplane window.

90 takes you over the first set of mountains, into the fog, by the sleeping ski slopes, and out the other side. Past Vernita Falls, Dallas Road, Coffin Road, the famous (who knew) Teapot Dome Gas Station. Out past the vineyards, the apple groves in the process of being harvested – apples so big and ripe you can see them from the highway – past the wind turbines and burned fields. Frequently, you want to stop, take a photo. Frequently, you wonder who names these places, and how.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Vernita. She died two weeks, almost to the hour, before I was born. In her honor, my middle name is her first name – because my mother didn’t think Vernita was a nice thing to do to a girl in the 70s. But who, out here, in Eastern Washington State, who knows when, had this same uncommon name, and gave it to a waterfall I don’t have time to stop and see?

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Onto 84, crossing the gorge into Oregon, you travel behind a truck filled with sweet onions, their papery skins flying off behind and a waft of onion scent trailing you both over the border. The land dries, the wind flies, dirt dances up into whirling dervishes of land, lost in its own silent prayer.

Occasionally, an ancient barn will crumble by the roadside. Next to it, the new one, the house built in the years between the two. Occasionally, next to it, nothing but land, nothing but the hills, and the freeway, nothing but these dilapidated remnants of America’s agricultural past. Sometimes, the remains are of a cabin, no town near, no river, no….nothing, but the skeletal remains of Manifest Destiny’s westward expansion and the casualties that came with it. Dead dreams by the side of the road. Road kill of a different kind.

And then a car on fire, fully engulfed in flames. And then a strip mall: Kohl’s, Best Buy, Starbucks, Target. You could be anywhere, but you are here, wherever it is. Soon it is southern, eastern Idaho, northern Utah, the Snake River cutting deep through high dry mesas, creating a fertile green farming valley. Somewhere, the rock is volcanic, black and sharp, and then everything is red, rust-colored. Out 80, into the mountains, the snow fences begin, lined up and waiting for the weather to come like a farm of solar panels waiting for the sun.

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And then Wyoming. Wild, wonderful, heart-breakingly gorgeous, with the green aspen turning gold and the black trunk of cottonwoods striking out behind yellowing leaves, along the riverbeds, up the valleys between hills. Trains snake through the canyons, hug the red-rock cliffs, slither low on the prairie behind the scrub brush and sage, carrying the loot of virgin land. They fade into the distance the same way Vernita Falls faded behind you, the same way the distance fades into fall – nostalgic, fogged over, waiting for weather to come.

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