Drove up I-5 today to a work site outside the vanished town of Dryad and the fading one of Doty, Washington.
I've visited this site now perhaps ten or fifteen times. to the point where the drive up the highway and then west down the valley of the Chehalis River is hardwired into my head like a map.
North along the east margin of the great river to where it bends west at Longview, then the easy slalom through the low hills that make the rumpled skirt of the Cascades to the outskirts of Centralia, where the shades of Wesley Everett and Warren Grimm seem to roil the gray fog that hangs in the valley like an uneasy conscience.
Uncle Sam's billboard grin seems more sickly than usual, grimacing at the idiocy of touting the government "shutdown" as a great idea for balancing the federal budget.
Yesterday I sat through one of those interminable safety classes and enjoyed one of those death-on-the-highway sort of scare videos about driving. Among the more ridiculous claims this treasure made was about driving as a demanding and attention-absorbing task.
As I turned off the highway I was reminded that, instead, driving combines perhaps the two worst elements of any human task; relentlessly grinding boredom with sudden, completely random, occasional hazard.
Unless you're a complete idiot or some sort of driving-geek driving a car on the open highway requires almost no conscious thought. Speed and direction are managed by autonomic reflexes of hand and foot, and the awareness of the surrounding vehicles is almost completely negated by the lack of relative motion. You sail along at over a mile a minute with little or no actual attention to the physical act of driving.
Its only at that moment when the unimaginable happens, when the lazy routine of pedal and wheel suddenly freezes, when the scream of tires begins and ends in the sudden collision of metal and plastic like an immense door slamming down the end of a distant hallway, that you are violently recalled to the great inertia of a thousand pounds of mass propelled at tens of miles per hour.
By then its usually too late.
But, still; when the fog parts and the sun shines golden through the maple leaves, when the wheels hum and the dappled shadows pass like flickering fingers over the glass it's hard to remember that the danger is there but not there - not gone, just busy somewhere else.
The east side of this to-be bridge is called "Dryad" but is not nearly so much a place as an idea, the remnants of a place, the scattered tag-end of busy lives and workday worlds. The little white church sits, hands folded, in the autumn sun, patiently waiting for a congregation that will never return.
The schoolhouse, on the other hand, has chosen undignified life over graceful unlife in the form of tacky Halloween decorations by the door and two beater cars in the drive. The paint is weathered and the lawn is ragged; the overall impression is "lived-in" but in a hard, grinding sort of way.
The old building crouches under its sparse tree canopy with a sort of sullen and smouldering vitality that rejects the vanished town that has already disappeared from around it, denies the children now elderly that have deserted it.
In the brushy streamside forest a single male picoides woodpecker forages for the last of the season's insects among the devil's club and the hawthorn, his bright crown just another red spot among the turning leaves.
West of the work site is the living town of Doty, said to be home to some several hundred people.
This seems frankly excessive unless all the people living in the small outposts and farms outside the town are counted in. The small general store that serves as post office and town center balances at the edge of hardscrabble and twee, between dusty cans of spam and ranked beers behind the cold glass doors, the faded paper books of hunting and fishing regulations, and the precious postcards and storybooks of the Olde Dayes.
The black safe in the back corner recalls the the real old days, the first decade of the old century when the Doty and Stoddard Company ran the town and the town stank of raw lumber and coal smoke.
But the great days ended in the Depression and the company folded in 1929.
In the late autumn afternoon the town looks placid instead of moribund, drowsing in the golden drifts of fallen maple and the lingering greens of fir and cedar. It seems to dream not of today but of a yesterday freed of uncertainty and fear, from the reality of hard work and poor pay, of mean company stores and shoddy company houses.
A yesterday, then, that is no more real than the future, as the empty streets of Doty now fill only with the scratching brawl of fallen leaves of a long evening drawing on towards the night.