Saturday, May 14, 2005

Crossing 49 

To reach route 25 to the Canadian border, where I will officially become a landed immigrant, you first head north on Route 23 at Ritzville from I-90, about an hour West of Spokane, joining 25 at Davenport about an hour later. The land here is virtually featureless, a gently rolling semiarid plain dotted with the occasional farmhouse, occupancy uncertain, and carpeted by irrigated cropland. This time of year the crops--alfalfa, corn, and the mainstay, dryland winter wheat--are barely visible, so the impression is one of endless lawns, patchworked together with equally vast expanses of tilled earth. Overhead, pillowy clouds dot the blue sky. The road itself shoots north like a bullet--you can literally see where you are going to be 15 minutes from now--like it can't wait to get out of here.

The occasional town that one encounters does not suggest a contrary impulse; in Harrington (pop 426 and falling), I stop to contemplate a City Hall gone vacant, its windows boarded up, a vintage 60s car parked in the Mayor's parking slot with grass sprouting around its wheels. The noon sun beats down on the town, which aside from a single garden store, consists of one empty building after another, their last gasps marked by desperate, incongruous additions to their 50s era signage ("Now Serving Espresso") advertising Maytag washer repair or Champion spark plugs. A few residents wander the wide sun-bleached streets, like ants among the leftovers of a week-old wedding cake. Harrington's county, Lincoln (13% below poverty level), went for Bush 70-30 in 2004.

Getting back in the car I pop Neil Young into the CD player:
There are colours on the street
Red, white and blue
People shufflin' their feet
People sleepin' in their shoes....

Every President, seemingly no matter how mediocre, gets a nod in my adoptive state of Washington, especially around here. Garfield, Grant, and Pierce have their own contiguous counties, as does the more prepossessing Adams. Pierce's forgotten vice president, William Rufus King, whose main claim to fame seems to be that he may have been President James Buchanan's lover, perhaps appropriately got the gay-friendly oasis where I have lived for the last 24 years.

At the other end of the Presidential spectrum, Roosevelt gets a more tangible emolument in the form of Lake Roosevelt, formed by the Grand Coulee dam, the first of the rural electrification projects that literally made life in much of Eastern Washington possible, one of the great public works projects, and still the largest concrete structure in the world. These gains were not without cost. There's grim poetry in damming a river named after the first European to practice genocide against Native Americans, and flooding 400 longstanding settlements of Colville and Spokane tribes under 400 feet of water in the process. Perhaps as an attempt at apology, each tribe got a county named after them. As for the salmon that spawned upstream of the dam for millennia, well....

The lake itself, ecological disastrousness notwithstanding, is an impressive spectacle that stretches 150 miles north, to within feet of the Canadian border at the 49th parallel, its waters near the dam an almost unreal azure blue thanks to the siltation that comes with damming the turbid waters of its source, the Columbia River. Aside from the almost Stalinistically named Electric City, however, the region shows little evidence of recent benefit from the dam or the lake. Not that the area is unproductive: as Route 25 flows over and around increasingly robust canyon headlands, one continually encounters orchards in the valleys producing the apples with which the Wenatchee region is identified. It's just that, more and more, the owners are absentee agribusinesses, and the laborers illegal migrants with few rights at all. What remains is, again, a shell of what once was. At quaintly named Fruitvale, decrepit mobile homes sprout like mushrooms amid the rotting heaps of long-abandoned farm houses. Fruitvale is in Stevens County (16% below poverty). A single roadside store caters to the affluent on their way to their houseboats moored at Miles, where one can also play electronic slots on the Spokane Indian Reservation adjacent. In 2004, Stevens County voted for Bush over Kerry 64% to 33%. No word yet on plans to rename Lake Roosevelt in honor of Ronald Reagan, but to look at the lake right now, doing so would be appropriate, and not just because of the surrounding economic desolation. The lake is running a substantial drought-induced water deficit: a bathtub ring 40 feet above water level currently encircles its shores.

The approach to the Canadian border is presaged by a change in the lake's waters, which increasingly begin to darken and ripple from the Columbia River entering it a few miles farther north. The terrain, too, continues its slow but inexorable rise, and Douglas firs yield to the higher-altitude Ponderosa pines. Finally, I reach the Canadian Customs building, which the customs officers directs me to enter along with my sheaf of papers documenting family members, all our family's belongings and their declared values, permanent resident visa (as yet unexercised), financial records, and various other proofs that I am not a miscreant or other person of undesirable character.

My immigration officer is friendly, but only to a point, and her questions carry an edge that seems intended to make me wonder if they know something about me that I don't. What follows is a period of tedium mixed with anxiety familiar to anyone who has depended on a bureaucrat for something vitally important. At one point Officer Jakes whips out a ruler and proceeds to measure, to the millimeter, the dimensions of my photo on the PRV Confirmation form, matter of factly telling me that the tiniest divergence may cause the application, a year and a half in the making, to be rejected by Immigration Canada in Buffalo. I hold my breath, and finally exhale as she pronounces the dimensions just within tolerance.

As this mini-ordeal drags on, I think back to the start of my trip, 8 hours earlier, at the on-ramp to I-5 near my home in Seattle that morning. Access to I-5 is controlled during rush hour by stoplights on the on-ramps that turn green and red according to a computerized network of sensors that monitor the flow of traffic. The goal is to minimize bottlenecks at the access points. Seattle rush hour traffic is no picnic, but the system, implemented in 1981 shortly after I moved there, does work, and only minimally inconveniences motorists queued up for their turn.

Carpools, however, are exempt from having to queue. Being a carpool is easy: you need carry only one other passenger. Carpool, and you have an uncontrolled on-ramp lane all to yourself. The public policy reasoning is pretty obvious: carpools subtract from the problem that the rush-hour controlled-access system is designed to mitigate, so as an incentive, carpoolers get to sidestep the (brief) impediment to merging with your fellow commuters.

Eight o'clock that morning was a typical rush hour, and I joined a queue of about 8 cars lined up at the light. As I waited my turn, I saw in my rear-view mirror that, of the half dozen or so cars that swooshed by me in the carpool lane, not a single one carried a passenger. Not one. Conforming to stereotype, nearly all were SUVs.

To state the obvious, scofflaws were shamelessly taking advantage of a perk granted to the socially responsible (of which there were apparently very few), and in so doing, were exacerbating the very problem the rest of us sitting in line were being asked to pay for. On this on-ramp, in other words, there were basically two classes of Americans: cheaters and chumps. We awaiting our turn were chumps, because we got to pay without benefit for conscientiously following the policy, while the cheaters in the "carpool" lane got to benefit without penalty. I found this somehow paradigmatic.

Officer Jakes awoke me from my reverie. "Everything seems to be in order, Mr. Kilbourne," she announced. "And now here's something from us." She handed me what looked like a tiny, cellophane-wrapped breath mint. It was in fact a Canadian flag lapel pin.

"Welcome to Canada."

And with that, a year and a half after our family reluctantly began preparations to leave a land already bent on cannibalizing itself, I got back in my car and drove north across the 49th parallel (the rest of my family to follow soon), into a land where Columbia River still flows.

corrente SBL - New Location
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The Washington Chestnut
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