The doorbell rang at around 7 am. I was already dressed and ready to go. I had been awake since five, my head buzzing and awash with thoughts.
One of the kids beat me to the door but Nick followed quickly behind, yanking on his dressing gown. Outside we found a woman in her forties who had gone in for the fourteen-year-old Barbie look, with rouged cheeks, thick blue eye shadow, long blonde hair and matching nails and lipstick in bright red. She was somewhat distressed and it took a few moments to figure out what she wanted.
Her car was outside towing a U-haul trailer that she had managed to jack-knife. Her solution to her predicament had been to try to de-couple the trailer and then turn the car around in the direction that she wanted to go.
I assumed she was a neighbor but it soon became clear that Nick had never seen her before in his life. She was on her way to California, and had come to pick up some boxes from a friend nearby, and had taken the wrong turning to end up in Nick’s dead end street. She had tried to reverse round but had made a complete arsehole of it.
She’d followed the unhitching instructions but was not strong enough to turn a particular handle. We went to have a look, by which time her friend had turned up. He came over and said that he’d love to help but wouldn’t be able to on account of being both physically and mentally disabled. His breath suggested that he was also alcoholically impaired but, whatever the reality, he definitely wasn’t going to be much use.
There followed half an hour of vaudeville where very little progress was made, and the Barbie woman just became more hysterical. She was only able to calm herself by repeating out loud: “It’s not as bad as New York. Nothing’s as bad as New York.”
Nick’s suggestion throughout had been that he attempt to reverse her car around with the trailer still attached. The woman was insistent that this was just not possible. Each time she tried, she just enmeshed her vehicles more deeply into the bushes of the house across the road. If it weren’t for the fact that the mess was blocking his drive and preventing him going to the office, I think he would have just given up trying to help.
Eventually, a combination of Nick, Gabrielle (who had come out to remind Nick that he was now late for work), me, and the disabled boozer persuaded her to let Nick have a go.
Patiently Nick manoeuvred the car and trailer away from the bushes and got to the point where the trailer was pointed down his neighbor’s sloping drive. The woman became highly agitated and asked him to stop. She wanted to de-couple the trailer there, now that it was in a perfect position for her to return to after she picked up the boxes from her friend. She didn’t want to have to drive to his house with the trailer because she’d have the same problem turning around there.
We pointed out that it would be very unwise to de-couple the trailer on a sloped driveway that led down to a very expensive looking house, but she was having none of it. As far as Nick was concerned, she was now in a position to drive off and he could get out of his house so, despite her near-to-tears protests, we told her she now had to sort herself out.
Driving away from Nick and Gabrielle’s was an odd feeling. I was now on my own until I got back to New York in a month’s time. Notwithstanding the possibility of staying with some friends of friends along the way, the harsh reality was that I wouldn’t now see a familiar face for another four weeks. And the events of the previous day hadn’t warmed me further to the prospect of such isolation. I’d used up all my mates, and I wasn’t even half way round.
At Everett I turned east for the first time in ages and began the lengthy journey home. I tuned in to National Public Radio and remained engrossed for the rest of the day. We were starting to get the reaction, which was acute from everyone but also varied.
At the calmer end was a discussion of how this would end the moral relativism that had engulfed the western world. Elsewhere, a number of parents called in to note how inured their children had been to the images of the previous day, which seemed so familiar from the small screens of TV and game console. At a baser level, already there had been surges in both flag and gun sales. And at the fringes, some were getting exercised about when professional sporting events were going to resume.
Washington is known as the Evergreen State, and this appeared true for the first part of the journey down to Wenatchee. The tree-line went all the way to the top of the mountains. I was now in another vehicle-free part of the world as I headed towards Grand Coulee and the dam that is the largest concrete structure in the world, made up of a cool 10.5 million cubic yards of the stuff.
Today it seemed somehow even lonelier than when I had been on the deserted roads earlier in the trip. Bang on cue, the trip’s first ball of tumbleweed bounced across the road in front of me.
The dam itself was certainly very large. In terms of height and length it’s the same as the Golden Gate Bridge, but about five times as wide at the base. I drove up to a ridge where there was an official viewing point. With not a soul in sight, it afforded a magnificent view of the structure and the surrounding valley.
It was all quite subdued, like the whole of the state. Even allowing for the previous day, there seemed to be something very gentle and civilized about Washington. I got the impression that only middle-classed folk lived there. It was the only state I had come across that offered free coffee at its resting lay-bys on the highway. Consistent with this was the state’s individual read on the ubiquitous warnings against highway litter. Here there were no threats of incarceration or massive fines, just a “Be a good citizen. Don’t litter”. In similar tone, there were also signs that read “Please don’t drink and drive.”
The drive through to Spokane was fairly uneventful, but did give me my first exposure to Savage World, a radio show syndicated throughout the country and hosted by one Michael Savage. At the best of times, it was probably a reactionary vehicle for the spouting of extreme right wing sentiment but yesterday’s events had raised the host’s vitriolic bile to boiling point.
He had a three-minute segue that he played at the top of each hour where he made a speech with the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background. In it, he demanded to know how many had died and what was the government going to do about it.
He then cited five or six (Arab) nations as the known perpetrators of terrorism and suggested in no uncertain terms quite what the military should do in revenge. He finished the salvo off with a blasting “It’s a war, stupid!” and an exhortation to put your hand to your head (“if you’re in a car, pull over and get out”), while he let the remainder of the anthem play out.
He dismissed anyone who rang in (it was supposedly a talk show) with conciliatory views as soft in the head and then cut them off. One caller rang in to question the benefit of Savage spitting blood lust and was met with a “You should have been on that plane and seen where waving the constitution in your hand as it crashed into those buildings got you.”
He blamed all the events of the previous day on the spineless left-wing intellectuals who were haters of America. He wanted to know which of the country’s leaders had the stomach for war. He was sick of nobody showing any emotion, declaring himself to be scared to the point of rage and hatred.
He accused the government of all being on Prozac. Singing God bless America on the steps of Congress had failed to impress. He was demanding instant unilateral action. FDR had declared war immediately after Pearl Harbor, so why not now? We needed “to get Texas in the White House, and Connecticut out of it”.
Along with this anger, he was stirring up a theory that the government and the media had formed a deliberate pact to keep the number of casualties from the people. “They” didn’t want the truth to be out, or for people to show passion. “They” wanted everyone to behave like Colin Powell, “like an usherette at the cinema”. He then read from Revelation, describing the impending conflict as a battle “between civilization and a 1000 years of darkness.” It was astonishing stuff to listen to.
Sandpoint in Idaho was my goal for the night, but I hadn’t got around to booking anywhere in advance. I drove around town for a little and found a motel within easy walking distance of what appeared to be the centre. Apropos nothing obvious, it was named after K2. The woman on reception told me that unfortunately they only had a smoking room and seemed surprised when I told her that would be fine.
For inconveniencing me to this extent, she offered me a special discounted rate of thirty- five bucks. She was probably a bit irked when she called by five minutes later to drop in some ice to find me happily puffing away as I made some telephone calls.
I called Adam in Tucson about the friends he had mentioned. I’d not managed to say hello before he told me he thought that America needed to make like the Brits during the Blitz, when they just tidied up and got on with life unabashed, and threw their hats in the air when the Queen Mum popped round the manor to have a gander. After a brief further analysis requiring a Master’s in political science to understand, Adam confirmed that all was set for Wyoming and Massachusetts.
The woman had returned to the reception, which I could see out of the window of my hut. I thought about going to enquire about local hookers and where to score some crack cocaine. Well not really, but I thought I might as well have done given the disdainful reaction that I’d got used to whenever I asked where I could get booze.
I needn’t have worried. She embraced my question about alcohol with enthusiasm and described a number of local watering holes in detail, and then gave me a card that entitled me to a buy one get one free deal at the micro brewery around the corner. She told me to avoid a certain brew that had got her totally spannered on only a couple of pints the previous weekend.
The place was called the Pend Oreille Brewing Company, after the lake nearby which was shaped like a hanging ear apparently. It was a very fine bar with very fine beer. The barman was called Chris and had a voice like a fog-horn. Or perhaps it was louder than that, it was hard to tell because my eardrums were numb after about ten minutes.
About a dozen others were in the bar that night and the TV was predictably tuned in to CNN’s coverage of “America under Attack”. I followed the debate on the subtitles. It was live and some clever technology was translating the sounds into writing as it went, making the odd mistake when a word was pronounced with a bizarre accent. The machine went into meltdown when the interview turned to a Muslim cleric and became impossible to follow.
I was almost relieved at the excuse to look away. My head was starting to pulsate from media over-exposure on the subject. In the last 40 hours, I had spent very little waking time not listening to or watching news coverage and analysis of the events. I looked around the bar, but everyone there was in conversation with someone that they’d come with, and didn’t invite intrusion.
The one exception was an old soak at the end of the bar who had come in with a handful of the same cards as me and was crying into his beer because he felt he was still owed at least one more gratis pint. Chris showed very little interest in serving him another whether he paid for it or not, and I felt much the same in terms of conducting conversation with him.
This part of the country was supposed to be a cradle to extreme right wing fervor, but I saw and heard none of it in the bar. Nobody was shouting for nukes, and the few snippets of conversation that I strained to overhear suggested that the general hope was for calm circumspection and no knee-jerk response.
These people would probably have been as shocked by Michael Savage as I had been. Chris, with volume that would have done Ian Paisley proud, bemoaned with a shake of a head the first reports of reprisals against American Muslims: “That’s the tragedy. Now anyone with a moustache and dark skin is going to end up with a problem.”
I asked Chris whether the pint pot glasses hanging behind the bar were for sale. He shouted back that they belonged to members of the mug club and had to be earned, not bought. Underneath them was a cabinet with other glasses and a T-shirt or two. I asked Chris about those things and he hollered that there was where the stuff on sale usually went, but that none of the stuff I could see actually was for sale. They were last year’s mug club glasses and official T-shirts. He reckoned he might have a vest around the back that I could buy, but he didn’t know where to find it. All in all, he didn’t seem too desperate to have his till ringing that evening.
I didn’t know if my chosen tipple was the brew that had incapacitated the receptionist, but she was right to warn me about the strength. After four or five pints I was positively teetering and decided to call it a day.
It was a relief that the motel was only one block away, or I might well have ended up spending my first night outdoors. The woman was still on reception when I got back and waved knowingly at me as I staggered across the car park, rolled across the bonnet of my car and crashed through the door of my hut.