Last time I crossed the Blue Mountains, it was with fists clenched in fear of the November dark. Today, it’s in broad October sunlight, with a different kind of terror.
Last time, I was on a desperate race against time for a little corner semi-detached between SE Belmont and Hawthorne streets. I was chasing the first of December…each day before reaching that house was a day less to assuage my broke, jobless misery in the comfort of a friend’s furniture that would be all mine until Christmas.
I’d only just that day got past a windstorm that closed down the interstate the night before. I refused to get a motel room until the last possible minute, instead pacing through the Laramie Travel Center on Exit 310, refilling my thermos flask with hot water, the tea bag inside getting weaker and weaker, staring at keychains and souvenir shot glasses and challenging the wan sun to improve the weather before it turned in for the night.
This time, I’m on my way to share a 6-bedroom vacation home with a lot of Seattlites on the coast of Arch Cape.
The Pacific Northwest is a like a mitten on a naked arm. It’s entirely socked in around Portland with damp but dependable temperatures, which drop to a dry, unrelenting cold just as you get east of Multnomah Falls. The transitional point between these two parts of Oregon is a confused mass of greasy fog obscuring a snarl of highway through dry, tree-pocked hills…nowhere worse than the seven-mile, six percent downgrade just past exit 228, known as Deadman Pass.
I didn’t know that, when last I made this drive, because by the time I crossed the border from Idaho, it was too dark to see the “Welcome to Oregon” sign. All I knew was that I still had four hours to go, until I had a house all to myself.
This time I’m crossing it, it’s mid-afternoon, the hills are drenched with sun and practically photogenic, especially when the light hits the camera lens square in the eye. The winding road slings the car forward like the child on the end of a whiplash chain.
Last time, I got up at 6am after a resentful night in an overheated Super 8 room, with less than $60 to my name, ate my last tin of sardines for breakfast, and only made it as far as Boise by nightfall. I peered with glassy eyes through the fog, fighting off drowsiness with fear of sliding off the rain-slicked road.
This time, despite getting up at 6am, I’m not even drowsy. I’ve had cheese, crackers and chicken salad, at least two naps in the last nine hours, thanks to the man who’s occupied the driver’s seat for the majority of this trip.
Last time, I could barely make out the nets that held back avalanches from the sides of the lurking bluffs.
This time, I can see creeks galloping in whitecaps over stones, a gravel pit with a post-industrial tower emblazoned with an American flag, a train threading its way through a cleft in the hills and underneath the highway.
Last time, I stopped for gas somewhere outside Hermiston and couldn’t get my headlights to turn on again.
This time, we stop in Baker City around 3pm. I use the bathroom, and come out to find him smoking a cigarette against the mural, a lottery ticket held between his fingers.
Last time, I made my way down the precipitous drop through the pass by tailing a semi, just close enough to where if I spun out of control, I’d at least be able to guide myself into a ditch before hitting his bumper.
This time, the pass’ tight curves make for an exciting course, with a beautiful view opening out through each hairpin turn.
I gab on to about how petrified I was, last time I drove this road. He leans over to kiss my neck—he does this almost every time I tell him I was scared, or am. He holds my hand and sings to me. Sometimes, I sing back.
Last time, the Columbia River was discernible only by its cold reflection of the moon.
This time, it yielded up the warm colors of the lingering sunset, looking like a Navajo blanket stretched the length of the gorge.
Last time, Portland was like the shock of a bed after getting home from a nightmarish party.
This time, it was like the lights strung across Mulberry Street on Columbus Day.
Last time, my fear was that I wouldn’t make it to the house where I could be safely and comfortably lonely.
This time, I’m afraid because I might never be lonely again.