Stuck in Cle Elum

I had been apprehensive about the trip to Spokane for some reason. Even though I have been over the Snoqualmie Pass hundreds of times, I have never driven myself, and this driving myself with my less than brand new car through a region of ice and snow suggested to me the dreadful possibility of something happening. Indeed, something dreadful did happen.


The majority of my trip (while I was in motion) involved traversing a frozen landscape at a numbingly fast speed. Passage over the Snoqualmie Pass was simple. The road was clear. I covered the stretch of roadway where boulders had dropped from the decaying granite cliffs. I hardly noticed that I had come to and then passed this location. The gradual drop down to Easton was free of ice. Once I passed beyond Ellensburg, the asphalt on the freeway froze, frigid vapor welled up from the empty canyons, and the tone of the tires changed from a kind of faint whir to a hard grind. When I stopped at a remote passenger rest area, a cinderblock house on an empty plain filled with the massive irrigation tractors draped with beards of frozen fog, I became aware of how far beyond anywhere the middle of Washington State was — not that it was empty but rather like the periphery of a mall parking lot the only people eking a living at the edge were the types who did not desire company or the squash of bodies or the company of people to whom they could share their ideas. The middle of Washington State has an industrial vacancy.

I finally arrived at Auntie’s Bookstore and they had my novel, Shoot the Buffalo, lined up in the mass paperback rack alongside the latest Michael Crichton and Ann Rule. I’ve always fantasized about having a rack-sized edition of my work.

The event curator had failed to list my co-reader, Polly Buckingham who I was reading with and as a person local to Spokane the only one likely to attract an audience. In fact, all of the audience had come to see her. I kept reminding the event curator there were two readers. “But where are her books?” the woman asked. “She hasn’t published a book, but she has published stories,” I said. “Listen to her.” The woman rolled her eyes. The woman then introduced Polly as poetess, unpublished, and the curator mused the audience would be guinea pigs for whatever Polly was going to read. I was miffed. I said to the curator that I was glad to be reading with her. I was glad to be a guinea pig or any other rodent. The woman scuttled off the stage and then Polly read. When Polly finished, the woman had me sign books, a man collecting photographs of authors for the Spokane Museum had me pose in a variety of poses, and they they kicked out of the store as they were closed, thank you for coming.

As we were going across town to get a drink, an overworked girl in her early 20s who was eating a gigantic cookie presumably large enough that it impaired her field of vision failed to stop at a red light. Polly who was gingerly driving on the ice through a green light failed to notice the car. It clipped the front of the truck. I screamed I think. It wasn’t a bad accident due to the fact that the streets were frozen and both drivers were moving at barely perceptible speeds.

We pulled to the side of the road and some drunken Spokane man yelled from one of the pubs, “You better call the police.” So we called the police. The officer arrived and had us loiter on the ice for an hour while he filled out paperwork. While we waited, the overworked girl produced a plastic ice scraper crowbar from her car and tried to pry the lid open on her car light. The plastic ice scraper crowbar threatened to snap, so she stopped.

The next morning I left early. While cruising through the desert in the middle of Washington State, which was about 10 degrees below freezing, both my brake and battery light came on. “Funny,” I thought. In Ellensburg (thee hours of driving at 80 miles an hour on ice) I stopped and then my car wouldn’t start. I bought coffee. I prepared to call a tow truck, and tried my car one more time and it started. So I kept on my way thinking I would get it looked at first thing after I got home. But just outside of Roselyn the power to my car died and I coasted to stop on the ice-crusted median, managing to pull into the safety of a truck weighing station. I spent 24 hours in Cle Elum wandering around the frozen streets while the service station installed a new alternator.

I talked to a man who had grown up in Preston, a tiny community in the Snoqualmie Valley about five miles from the tiny community in the Snoqualmie Valley where I’d grown up. His town has since disappeared, absorbed into the suburbs, the tiny downtown vanishing when the the mill was torn down in the mid-1980s. We looked around us at Cle Elum as it was and as it wasn’t going to be soon. “Where’s a bookstore?” I asked.

“They don’t have one,” he said. “But they are going to need one.”

My unease over the trip was warranted.

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