Friday, February 23, 2007

Pullman's Pull (Special Guest Post - Part I)

In the past couple of weeks, I've been reconnecting with PHS grads in the quest to spread the word about our upcoming reunion. A common thread has been emerging in our communications, and that is how often people have mentioned that the Palouse seeped into their very souls and never let go, despite time and distance. The following guest post was written by Jeff Worthy, now known as "Mr. Worthy" to the high school english students that he teaches near the Canadian border in the northwest corner of our state. Jeff was a friend, classmate, and fellow Military Hill resident, from Jefferson Elementary through the Pullman High years. His story (which will be brought to you in a few installments) reminds us that people who have lived on the Palouse and have moved away are often afflicted by an acute case of homesickness that may well affect us for the rest of our lives. - Jana

It has often been said in conversations regarding one’s past or childhood that “you can’t go home again.” I disagree with this statement, inasmuch as it applies to me, and, I suspect, to many others. I not only can go home again, but I must. It is a matter of spiritual survival. And, fundamentally, though I have lived elsewhere in body for fifteen years, I never really left in spirit the land which helped shape who I am. This land is the “Inland Empire” of Washington State--the Palouse Country.

There is a force that exerts itself upon me should I begin to draw close to this unique and unspeakably beautiful land. I have dubbed the force “Pullman’s Pull.” Similar phenomena are not unprecedented in nature. Salmon return to the same streams, sea turtles to their beaches of origin. There are obvious differences between what drives these animals and what I intend to describe here. At the same time, though my purpose in returning home may differ from theirs, I would venture to claim that the need is felt with no less intensity. Join me now, on a voyage to the Palouse, shown through the senses of a native son.

Where Interstate 90 branches off into State Route 26 is where I first see the name “Pullman” on a roadsign. I have just crossed the Columbia River at Vantage, and the road turns east after a slight Southern jog. I do not yet feel “the pull;” there is a slight tingle of anticipation, a quickening of the heartbeat at seeing my hometown’s name mentioned for the first time after several hours of driving, but nothing more is felt at this time. This rocky scrubland surrounding me now is not the Palouse. The Columbia River Basin Project has managed to irrigate much of the land and has made farming it possible, patches of rich, emerald green visible among the flat, brown expanse between the Frenchman Hills to the North and Saddle Mountains to the South. My foot presses down on the accelerator; I want out of here.

Royal City passes by on my left, and once again, after having driven past it countless times in my life (never having stopped), I wonder how either word, “royal” or “city,” applies to it. Nice people, I’m sure. No doubt there is a power here not unlike the one that draws me on, calling to its own native children, wherever they may be. The road veers to the southeast, and I cross from Grant to Adams county. Othello is not far off. Run down, rusted out mobile homes lay scattered about on either side of the highway every few miles, sheltering what must be hardy folk who eke out an existence from the land and what their labors can draw from it. I wonder for an instant what it is that keeps them here in such a lonely and desolate place. My rational mind steps in soon enough, countering back with a sharp accusation. Who am I to judge them? They see beauty here--it is their home. Few people I have met raised in Whatcom County can wrap their brains around someone’s wanting to visit let alone live in where I am ultimately headed. I can’t explain it to them. Could these trailer-dwelling laborers make me see the love they have for their own simple existence? Would they give it up if they could? Would it give them up?

Time for gas. Othello is a decent sized town, though I’ll see only the outer fringe of convenience stores and restaurants established to cater to passers-through such as myself. I pull into the nearest mini-mart/gas station and open the car door, the blast of dry, dust-strangled air which greets my emergence being sufficient to make me sit back down for a second. I thank the engine for enduring the air conditioning, gird myself, and step back out into the blast furnace. I’m even in the shade.

As I fuel up the car, I can’t help but feel a little nervous about releasing an errant drop of gasoline into the transparent flames of air swirling all around me. The heat is so oppressive you can see it rising in blistering waves from the ebony pavement of the surrounding parking lots. Trucks of at least a dozen different sizes, colors, and purposes trundle by, further fouling the air with the acrid stench of exhaust. Each one is like a worker ant in service of the agricultural queen that sustains this region. The drivers are the trailer-dwellers, a lot of them; migrant farm workers working hard at the only trade they know, used to the heat, grime, and sweat that is their daily fare. Well, I’m not. Time to go. Topping off the tank, I climb back in the car, fire up the AC once more, and pull back onto the highway heading east. I hope the tires don’t melt before I reach the next bastion of civilization. The road ahead is long and straight, shimmering in the midday assault of the sun. It is an asphalt channel carved through flat farmland which reaches to the horizon in all directions. Far in the distance I can discern an occasional homestead or storage silo. What quiet, peaceful nights the people stationed in this vast frontier must enjoy. I romanticize a little, I admit. The farmer’s life, despite the crop, must be a very challenging one in many respects.

I cannot personally verify this from direct experience, save for the ten days I spent in the summer before my Sophomore year in high school bucking fifty pound hay bales as a brief but brutal summer job. There is no better motivation for getting a college education than hands on experience in the physical labor that comes with working in a hayfield. After one day, my biceps were cramping every time I flexed my arms, my feet and hands were blistered, and I seriously considered not going back. However, having been raised never to quit anything I started, I returned the next day, and by day three, I had hardened enough to see it through to the end. Ten thousand bales of hay we moved in ten days, the hay truck only able to hold one hundred at a time. Jeez. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” right?

To spend your life in such a way would require being born into it, being surrounded by it day in and day out. It would then get in your blood and bones, and soon your soul. The farm’s “pull” would assert itself then, and leaving it behind forever would prove unconscionable. That’s just a theory, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who would fervently refute me. I’ll bet more than a few would nod and agree too.

Suddenly, I feel it take genuine hold--the pull has sensed the approach of one of its own, and like a lighthouse keeper who spies a ship at sea, it trains his light upon it to guide it in. I swiftly glide into the valley in which Washtucna is nestled, not even slowing down as I pass it by. I do, however, glance briefly to the southwest through the sleepy town, making a mental promise. Fourteen miles away is another small town called Kahlotus. Somewhere outside Kahlotus, in the center of a farmer’s wheat field, stands a tree. A photographer named John Clement, whose work I greatly admire, once captured that tree and field on film during or just following a storm, with a rainbow reaching down to the tree from the clouds above it. The photograph is called “Isolation’s Hope.” When I first saw that photograph in a book entitled Palouse Country: A Land and its People, I gasped aloud. It touched my spirit, capturing the very essence of my feelings toward this sacred land. One day, I promise myself, I will find that tree, sit beneath it, and just be, finding hope in isolation. - Jeff Worthy (end of Part I...check back soon for part II)