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Volume 17, Issue 5: Ferro Equus

Between Mountains

Brendan O'Donnell

Clouds overwhelmed the sky. I swerved over to the side of the road to get out and stare. Cumulus, sharply etched against the blue in the cold autumn air, towered above the land, piling up as the westerlies shoved them toward the Bitterroots. The sun shone and glared off them as if off fresh-driven snow. A tiny airliner, oblivious, contrailed northwards directly across their path. They drifted calmly, unnervingly—a massive, holy, silent explosion.

What a waste they were—such a pile of ice and air and water and dust, and not a drop of rain to be had from them. I got back in, pulled back out onto the westward highway, one eye on the blacktop and one on the clouds. After ten miles of driving, just on the other side of Pullman, they had thinned out some, with the clear, blue sky visible now in larger tracts, no longer crowded. The land below rolled past, the sun-yellowed wheat stubble standing in stiff, endless ranks curving around and over the Palouse hills, already buzzcut by harvest. The ditches on either side of the road abounded in thick reed canary grass, with blades the brown-edged green of October, the seeded head whipping about in the wind. I banked along a superelevated U.S. highway curve across an intersection with a shy, empty county road, which disappeared between the first two hills it could find.
Some miles west of Colfax, the highway ascended a long grade over a surge of Palouse to a far-ranging view of the country. Deciding too suddenly to take in the view, I came to a skidding stop in the gravel shoulder with my car at a twenty-degree angle from the road surface. I all but threw myself at the door to keep it open as I disembarked. It slammed itself shut as soon as I had my feet, which, when I looked, were next to a dark green Russian thistle—the common tumbleweed—turning an autumnal purple on its way towards dying and tumbling off across the road. I felt the sun on my face and looked over the land. To the south, the hills rumbled down to where the plateau cascades into the Snake River canyon; above and past the canyon, another heap of cumulus smashed up over the Blue Mountains. Descending haphazardly to the west ran a horizon-bound sea of yellow hills, the mustard-colored shadows of the thinning clouds scattered over the loneliness stretching quietly out into the distance. Every hill in sight bore the civilized marks of agriculture, but what a terrifying, unpeopled sight it looked. I drifted back south over the quiet to the tower of weather above the Blues, ten times the height of the mountains, eighty, a hundred miles distant, and utterly silent. I stared until I could stare no longer, and my eyes were not filled with seeing.
I fell back into my car and piloted it downhill. Every few westward miles I passed a farmhouse, attended by outbuildings, tractors, and the only trees to be found on the land. The towns hid off to one side or the other of the highway, indicated only by signs pointing down quiet county roads. The sky thinned of clouds, and the ranks of stubble ordered across the round-topped hills thinned beneath it. A gust of wind plowed into the fender, and I tightened my hand on the wheel. Another time of year, and the wind would be seen in the hills, coursing through the young green wheat in S-shaped surges. The wind drives the clouds over the Palouse so the wheat will grow, and then drives them away to make way for the sun, which ripens it yellow. And it blows away the dust and the chaff of harvest time, until the fields have emptied of anything else to blow away. In the curliecue scribbling of tractor tire tracks in the low autumn stubble, the wind cannot be seen, but only felt.
Over a swell of hill, and around more superelevated banks, and the land itself emptied away. Here were the scablands, ancient water channels, choppy gouges through the earth left when the flood erased the soil and the hills that were here. Here the water had made a desert, and the road swept through it on a ledge below the bluffs and above a narrow, ragged plain. I spied out a promontory of columnar basalt upthrust from a rock-lumpy field and stopped across the road from it. A static zap shot out from the car door in the dry air. The noontime sun struck down on the land, and the basalt knob was streaked with hard, black shadows, revealing nothing. The snap of grasshoppers in the tinder-dry grass preceded me as I stepped up a skinny slope through a cleft in the knob. It was steep climbing and I stripped down to my t-shirt. A bead of sweat fell off my nose onto my dusty boot, a splatter of clean in the dirt. I reached the top. A blast of wind, cool autumn in its teeth, struck me immediately, sending a chill all the way around my back. I pulled my longsleeves back on to keep the wind out, but they did nothing, even though the heat of the sun shone out of the nearly featureless blue sky. I braced myself against the rushing air and looked over the land. It was the victim of a sudden and awful violence, the tumult of the water that ruined it still plainly evident. The only water now sat in the glass-placid Palouse River, in places only as wide as a boxcar is long, bounded by the thick brush on its banks. Its grandfather was a stream whose terrible width was measured in miles, an unimaginable movement of water. It ripped columns of rock from this place to lay them down 400 miles away in Oregon, and left only enough dirt for a rabble of houses to populate it. Madness, I thought, to try to make something of such a wasted place. When I turned to go, a magpie wheeled up out of the grass below and glided east, leaving in its wake the way of a bird in the air.
Some miles west, I found myself marveling at the spaciousness of the scablands; unless the Palouse lets you atop one of its swells, it walls you in and hides everything. The scablands only communicated hugeness, and having nothing to hide, hid nothing: the road for miles ahead of me lay plainly in sight. Nor did they yield anything, save for the giant sagebrush, loneliest of plants, like wasted and decrepit oak trees that gave no shade. Their yellow flowering seed-heads tinted the dusty green swaths behind the pitiful barbwire fences stringing the roadside. The empty gravel paths of two abandoned railroads ran arrow-straight through the brush on their way through the wispy settlements of the coulee bottom and past disintegrating corrugated-metal grain elevators. Grain elevators, in a desert! Why even put one up in such a land—a land given so little, and just as relentlessly refusing to give anything back! The road turned towards the bluff and past a stretch of fence. A pile of skull-sized tumbleweeds, a bone grey tangle, had heaped itself around one fencepost. The road found a part of the bluff to climb and ascended out of the ragged grandeur of the coulee. At the top I found, overlooking the desert, sparse lines of wheat stubble arrayed beneath the sharp blue sky.
That road intersected the four-lane highway at a town called Connell, where I turned southwest on it. The four-lane plowed over high desert almost in a straight line. To the immediate west, the land slowly opened itself in another chasm, with startling slashes of green visible on its disheveled terraces. An irrigation rig slung itself down from its pivot point, flinging streams of water into the wind, misting its crop and the sagebrush cowering at field's edge. At coulee bottom a grain train, a mind-numbing mile and a half of brown cylindrical hopper cars, shoved westward around a long curve. The highway came parallel to the railroad and I rolled down the window to listen to the diesels' aggravated snorting. Beyond it I watched farmland fight desert. Green occupied every surface level enough to fling water over, but every steep place was cluttered with brambles and crumbling rocks. As the four-lane neared the city of Pasco, the crops claimed more and more land, even to the point of fruit orchards and vineyards. Just on the outskirts of town, I watched a small plane fly over a great blank fruit-packing warehouse as it descended out of the featureless sky. Here was the sky, as unyielding as ever, and here was the land, filling a cavernous warehouse with vegetables.
Across a bridge spanning the dammed expanse of the Columbia, and I turned west onto another four-lane. To my right, a riverside park rested in the shade of the aging leaves on its trees, while at my left the grey sagebrush staggered out of dust and rock in plain sight of the strip malls and houses of Kennewick. The town slowly gave way to a long slope. Near the top, a tumbleweed paused in the path of my car, and disintegrated beneath my front wheels. In the mirror, I saw its tatters tumble into the ditch. When I looked again ahead of me, here was the top of the hill. To my right, the Horse Heaven Hills, speckled with sagebrush and swathed in places with burnt-black grass; left, the Rattlesnake Hills, a crooked line making for the northwest. Between them, the Californian expanse of the Yakima Valley flanked the silver meandering of its namesake river with an orchard-green and harvest-yellow patchwork. Above it, the westering sun descended towards a horizon-wide wash of clouds.
The four-lane played with the river along the length of the valley. It crossed it near a town called Prosser, where a dam and pumping station drew the Yakima out of the river and into the orchards. The valley lies in the lee side of the Cascades, and the mountains scrape all the rain from the skies, leaving only six or eight inches to fall on the orchards. Yet it was a land trellised with streams; the highway traversed the berms of a thousand ditches and canals, all busy weighting the dark orchards with fruit and the fields with vegetables. Leaves filled the land, but either side to the north and south ranged the Horse Heavens and Rattlesnakes, quiet and waterless, hanging like a threat over the fruitbearing expanse. At Union Gap the highway and river cut through the Rattlesnakes, emerging at the southern edge of the sprawl of Yakima, the city. The clouds I had seen from the hill above Kennewick now made a pale grey skin over the sky. At Selah I left the four-lane for the river-side highway that followed the Yakima through its canyon. Here the brown hills made good on their threat, and closed the fields out, leaving only the talus that crumbled off their slopes and into the black waters of the stream. The sky above was a shut eye and a closed mouth. The canyon took on the dark of dusk. The road bent with the river through the Manastash ridge.
A raindrop hit the windshield, as solid as a piece of gravel, clearing a spot in the dust on the windshield. More joined it, until I ran the wipers. I rounded the last bend of the canyon and the Manastash fell away as the Kittitas Valley opened up before me. Willow trees, blazing yellow chandeliers, stood by the river whipping in the wind. The flat grey sky broke up, shards of blue cloud trailing veils of rain across the tree-covered ridges in the distance. The sun struck from behind at the fringes of a ragged mass of mountain-torn cumulus, setting fire to its edges, overwhelming the world with the brightness of its glory. I stopped the car and hung out the window to look at it, too small, too inadequate to behold the sight, seeing it nonetheless. The wind drove a bead of cold water straight into my eye.

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