I hear people here pine for the woods all the time. They long to get out of the fray. But me, I’m like some modern day Rip Van Winkle, waking in Walla Walla to find a world of wonders…”
by ana maria spagna
Late one afternoon I rode my bike from my rented house in Walla Walla, where I’m staying for a few months, across two main thoroughfares, past well-tended lawns with raked leaves piled high by the curb, onto a paved bike path by the creek. Sunlight shone gold on tall grass mid-stream where geese stood grooming, a hoard of them, maybe fifty. On the horizon, wheat fields rolled, cupped by shadow, and clouds gathered black, gray, and white.
Near the creek, ball fields shone green, and seeing green that time of year, nearly Thanksgiving, was one of the shocks of living away from the mountains for the first time in two decades, nearly as shocking as when I learned city workers would eventually collect all those leaves in the gutters. Who knew?
I passed a man with a shopping cart, a reflective vest, and a white beard. I passed a young woman on a skateboard, her skin pink with cold. I watched small dogs off-leash sniff gravel. Suddenly across the ball fields an animal raced, a dog I presumed, a big dog, a dog with a white tail like a flag. Not a dog, a deer! My heart leapt, so pleased.
But I didn’t realize how late it was getting.
When I turned around the world went dim, and I hadn’t brought a light. What was I thinking? When had I ever left home after dark, or even near-dark, without a headlamp?
Then I remembered: streetlights.
I’d forgotten about them, and the way they glowed at intervals between the old houses, the small houses, the not-fancy houses with kids’ bikes and toys still strewn in the yards stirred something in me. As a kid in suburban California in the ‘70s, I ran with the neighborhood pack. We played ball in the street and hide-and-seek in the shrubs. We ran barefoot on asphalt way past dark, small kids and big ones, mean ones and nice.
Now through windows, televisions flickered blue, and somewhere spaghetti simmered. The nostalgia was almost too much. But not just nostalgia. The fact of streetlights moved me. Who made this happen? Regular people. They collectively decided to pay the taxes and pour the concrete to light the shared space.
And not just streetlights. So many things in town wowed me anew: parks with playgrounds, public pools, libraries, and often enough, on Saturdays, a parade. For Labor Day, for Veteran’s Day, for pioneers days, and god knows what. I hear people here pine for the woods all the time. They long to get out of the fray. But me, I’m like some modern day Rip Van Winkle, waking in Walla Walla to find a world of wonders.
When I got home from my bike ride, I switched on the tiny radio station run by students on the campus where I teach. I’ve taken to listening obsessively. The much maligned post-millenials delight me. They see through to the heart of things and though they’re still taking it in, all of it—so much of it nonsense—they know how to laugh. The songs they choose don’t always mesh, and sometimes the silence or the banter goes on too long. It’s a mixed bag, a thoroughly unexpected mix, an almost-always exuberant mix, and it is, I’ll admit, an antidote. To TV. To NPR. To Twitter. To the world in shaggy disarray.
Sometimes I fret. Who doesn’t? I wonder: what will come of us? Of all of this: the parks, the pools, the bike paths, the libraries? Who will fund them? Who will maintain them?
Regular people will, I tell myself. We have, and we do, and we have to, and we will.
The thought gives me comfort, like watching a whitetail stot across a too-green lawn or once-red maple leaves being suctioned into a compost truck, like listening to student DJs giggle over the absurdity of the word “ontology” or imagining the first snow, not too far off, drifting into the streetlight glow.
(illustration: john richen)
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes happily in remote Stehekin, Washington, where there are no phones, no stoplights, no taverns and no churches, but a very pretty river and many many trees. Her book, “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey” won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. More from Ana Maria Spagna can be found on her website as well as in the Vault of Smoke.