West vol. 3: The people you’ll meet

Halfway Grade

4 Mile Road, Idaho

9 September 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

I got a late start out of Pasco, and night was falling by the time I reached the hills between the Snake River and Walla Walla.  I came up the rise to find a looming signboard detailing the many things I was forbidden to do once I’d started down the long stretch of private road ahead.  I hadn’t realized the track to Walla Walla was farm property, and I wasn’t sure what I was getting into by embarking down the road when it was already getting dark.  With fifty miles between Pasco and Walla Walla, I’d be walking through the night.

As I hesitated, a man parked his car by a water truck on the roadside.

“Excuse me!” I said.  “Is this the way to Walla Walla?”

“Yes.”

“Is it all right if I go this way?”

“Yes.”

“Even though it’s a private road?”

“Yes.  This is the road to Walla Walla.”

So I whisked off into the dark and a sweeping gust of rain, and he turned his attention back to the truck.  The sage awoke to the rain, and I dried as I walked on past sprawling fields, a forest, irrigation rigs hissing, anonymous utility sheds by the roadside.  The cart bounced and growled over the gravel, and every now and then I saw lights miles away on the Columbia.

In the dark, size and distance are hard to judge.  Something was rumbling out in the fields, and as headlights swept over me, I stepped aside to look up at the driver of the water truck.  He looked anxious.

“Do you need a ride?” he asked.

“No, I’m okay – I’m walking across the country.  Thank you, though!”

We waved, and he drove off.

For the next several hours, as I rolled up and down and up and over the swells in the washboard gravel road, the rumble and the blazing yellow headlights of the tanker truck roamed through the night around me – watering here; watering there; watering, it seemed, most everywhere.  Every time the truck got close, I turned on my headlamp and stepped out of the way, and the driver leaned from his window and asked if I was all right.

A few days later, I had just reached the eastward foot of the Blue Mountains when a man shouted at me from a pickup truck across the road.  The next morning, I found myself looking down on the fields and forests of the Grande Ronde Valley from the back seat of his ultralight aircraft – deer ducking in the long grass and flocks of birds streaming underneath our wings – and in the evening, among the Persian carpets and Hendrix posters of the barn loft, there I was, inexpertly whacking a djembe while my host, in between bursts on the flute, urged me to play with more feeling.  Earlier, he’d introduced me to a Jethro Tull record at a volume that shook the house and made the carpet ripple.

“You have to turn it up to eleven!” he said.

I have found hospitality, generosity, and kindness over the past month, and over the past six hundred miles, in extraordinary measure.  Unexpected friends, pilots, hosts, cart engineers, artists, counselors, and masters of the fine arts of burrito, waffle, moussaka, pancake, and salad manufacture have made my progress toward the Rockies not only possible, but fun.  The walk has become an extended conversation, with a tangle of laughter, advice, and wonderings working its way along the shores of rivers and the slopes of mountains.

It’s midnight.  Tomorrow I head for Emmett, and from there I aim for the Sawtooth Mountains.  I’m told it’s cold there, and that the sunsets are spectacular.

Hope things are going well,

Owen

Next: West vol. 4: Desert moose

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