Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Sea so Big

I know a girl. She's a good kid who grew up in Eastern Washington and has spent most of her years somewhere in the eastern region of the state. She can be silly or serious, engaged or wandering, rooted on the ground or have a head in the clouds. She knows Jesus and follows him even when things tells her not to. She's a good kid.

She's listened patiently to my ramblings about the disgraces of The Milwaukee's abandonment; how I perceive the management to have acted inappropriately and in the face of obvious facts. She's listened to me pine for a better alternative than driving across the state of Washington on I90, or hopping on a passenger train in Spokane at 2 in the morning. She's listened and been fascinated by my recounting of the tale when I stepped into a darkened tunnel #45 in the Saddle Mountains and found myself to be in the presence of something far bigger than myself. All of these things she's listened to and internalized, but she'd never been to the graveside itself.

Then, on a cool spring day, we were there at a place called Pandora. The grasses of the Palouse had yet to awaken from their winter slumber, and a harsh wind cut across the prairie toward the Bitterroot Mountains. Old telegraphy poles stood near the bottom of the fill and a hawk circled far away on the powerful currents of the wind. The feelings of solitude and loneliness were strong as we walked the grade. She said, "I feel anxious."

I felt it too, as I had many times before. There's a sadness here and among the ruins of other places where time has long past them by. A friend of mine described the feeling as a "quiet reverence" that seems to cry out from these lonely places of old. The girl I know had found the real Milwaukee Road and witnessed what's left of it. To me, it represents a truth far larger than we like to admit. We try hard to convince ourselves that we're in control, to cover up the obviousness of our smallness with noise, lights, and technology. But we can't escape forever. The quiet solitude and cutting winds of the places we've forgotten quickly point out our folly. We're constantly reminded that, "Lord, your sea is so great, and my boat is so small."

I know a girl and she's a good kid.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Another Long Hard Lesson Learned

Several years ago I sat in the back seat of a small sedan, headed west on I90 across the state of Washington. The rolling wheat fields of the palouse gave way, as they always do, to the harsh scablands and desert of the arid center of the state. Sagebrush and harsh sun mark the summers in this part of the country, and mock Washington's "The Evergreen State" slogan.

As I90 began its descent into the Columbia River Valley, my thoughts turned to an old friend we'd soon see again. Just as I90 plows its way up the grueling west slope out of the Columbia River Valley, the Milwaukee Road begins its assault on the Saddle Mountains just a few miles to the south. The old roadbed passes names with no places, like Doris and Cheviot, and crests its 2.2% grade at Boyleston, then crosses I90 at Renslow as it parallels the interstate into the Kittitas Valley. In different times, passengers aboard the Columbian or Olympian were treated to views of Mt. Rainier as the lush Kittitas Valley region welcomed them into the land of the Cascades.

Now travelers are treated to the same view, but from the independence of a 4 lane superhighway. The interstate exits at Ellensberg reflect the times: a background of beautiful mountains - drowned out by the noise of fast food chains and gas stations. The Resourceful Railroad sits as an underused bike trail while people crowd the asphalt with cars.

Standing on the abandoned right of way near Cheviot and looking back over the sagebrush and sand, the quiet and solitude of the moment screams out against the noise we build up around ourselves. To me, there is a sadness that these choices reflect and it's all summed up in the loneliness of this old Saddle Mountain grade. As the world fills up with suburbias and parking lots, little pieces exist to remind us that it doesn't have to be that way. Beautiful mountains don't have to be lost in the noise of fast food chains, interstates don't have to be the only way to travel and see the country, and the quiet of the Milwaukee's corridor across the west doesn't have to be a finality. But as long as it is, and as long as they are, then I guess it's just another long hard lesson learned.