Last Stoplight

The I-90 viaduct left intact the historic railroad building and other period architecture in the lovely town of Wallace, Idaho.

I usually avoid interstates, but my meandering along secondary roads is limited this trip. I have to be in Golconda, IL, by June 2 for a birthday party. I’m clocking many miles on the longest interstate of them all, I-90.

The interstates are a legacy of President Dwight “I Like Ike” Eisenhower, the first president I remember as a child. He thought it would be dandy if Americans could “See the USA in their Chevrolet” (to quote the Dinah Shore theme song of the day) and drive coast to coast with nary a stoplight. He and his battalions of engineers hadn’t reckoned on the people of the small mining town of Wallace, Idaho. The last stoplight between Seattle and Boston shone defiantly in Wallace.

The plan had been to tear down Wallace’s buildings — they were old, after all — and ram the freeway through the narrow Silver Valley. Wallace citizens staged a two-front war: they sued the government demanding an Environmental Impact Statement under legislation that’d been passed only recently. At the same time, they quietly had every building in town listed on the National Historic Register. They held off construction for 17 years, finally getting a viaduct that cost $42 million. Wallace’s elegant 19th and early 20th century structures remain intact.

The last stoplight was retired in 1991 with great ceremony. It now lies more or less in state at the town’s mining museum. Harry Magnuson, one of the leaders in the fight to save the town, gave a eulogy as the stoplight was laid to rest, concluding:

“And today, we can be thankful that we live in a society in which we can make things happen, a society in which we all have the ability and opportunity to make a difference in our world.”

First Salmon

Colville Tribes fish hatchery employee shows chinook smolts to students from Inchelium

If you’re heading out on a cross-country road trip, your first stop should be at a beautiful place close to home. That way, when you discover you’ve forgotten something important, you can return for it without too much backtracking. More significant, no matter how exotic the sights on your journey, you’ll remember that home is beautiful, too.

My shakedown cruise for this year’s cross-country sojourn was a night at Bridgeport State Park on the Columbia River, just 45 minutes from my house. A friend and I spent the night in my camper van so we’d already have that drive under our belts, giving us 45 minutes more sleep before the 5:30 a.m. First Salmon ceremony at the adjacent Colville Tribes Fish Hatchery.

The park is beautiful: lush green lawns, plenty of space between camping sites, trees, birds, walking paths and views of the rugged cliffs that border Rufus Woods Lake, the reservoir behind Chief Joseph Dam.

But what caught my heart was the ceremony. An early morning sun highlighted cascades of water thundering over the dam, landing in a tumultuous spray. Prayers were sung in a language I don’t understand, yet the message of thanksgiving was as clear as mountain spring water. Elders spoke longingly of their fishing traditions before dams on the Columbia blocked fish migration. The massive concrete structure—“Chief Joe,” as the locals call it—loomed in the background as native fishermen stood on a steel platform, struggling to net that First Salmon. The scene was a pale imitation of the ancient fishery, yet it represented hope and determination.

This year’s ceremony was especially meaningful. The hatchery was promised when Grand Coulee Dam was constructed in the 1930s.  That promise wasn’t kept until this century. The hatchery was completed in 2010. The tribe released its first ocean-bound smolts —1.8 million Chinooks — in 2013. Those are the fish returning this year. Sadly, there won’t be many of them. Tribal biologists forecast a seriously diminished spring chinook run, due to a variety of environmental issues.

Ultimately, the tribe plans to release 2.9 million smolts annually.

“Mother Nature always has something to say about that,” smiled one of the tribal scientists, adding confidently, “We’ll get it figured out.”

The First Salmon ceremony is deeply spiritual, also incorporating the science, culture, history and politics of the fishery. We listened to speakers as the fish was roasted on sticks over a fire. Then a small bite was given to each of us — about 150 people.

“It is our sacrament,” a tribal member said to me. Just as that mysterious connection with the divine is celebrated through the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion.

When the dams were built, it was not simply a food supply that was lost. Salmon nurtured the soul of a culture that had thrived for thousands of years. That soul still flickers with life, just as this year’s First Salmon thrashed in the net before giving its life for the gathered people.

Passing the Torch

The Native American man was calmly describing his lifetime of encounters with prejudice, first as a little boy at the movie theater, then at school, later as a Viet Nam vet, and just last week, in the Walmart parking lot. He’d been sipping his morning coffee and reading the paper when someone yelled at him to go back where he came from. Racism is not without its irony.

As he was speaking, a student seated near me bowed her head, her long blond hair shielding her face. Even so, I could see tears streaming as she silently wept.

It’d been an emotionally fraught day — the local “Stand Against Racism” event at Wenatchee Valley College-Omak. Faculty member Livia Millard began by clarifying what race is all about: “a false classification of people … not scientifically true.”

If you live in the United States, your race is determined by your ancestry. If you live in Brazil, it’s determined by your skin color. In the U.S., said Millard, five primary racial colors — white, yellow, black, red, and brown — date from Revolutionary times. They alter like shifting sands depending on the  latest court ruling or U.S. Census Bureau decision. People of Mexican ancestry were considered “white” until the 1930s. What it took to be “black” varied from state to state.

“People considered white now may not be by the 2020 census,” suggested Millard. If race is so nebulous, how can it be so deeply ingrained?

One after another speakers reflected on the tragic results of racism from perspectives across the spectrum:

  • the near-extermination of American Indians and a culture representing 10,000 years of learned wisdom about the land and its inhabitants;
  • the struggle to overcome “imposter syndrome,” described by a high-achieving Latina who couldn’t believe she’d ever belong no matter how many degrees she’d earned;
  • xenophobia that has historically tainted immigration policy and remains alive and well today, and;
  • “environmental racism” — industrial dirty work located where marginalized populations, such as minorities, try to live. For example? We heard a first-person account of events at Standing Rock from a man who’d been there and will return.

By the end of the day, the crowd had dwindled to just a few of us watching the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary, “13th,” a hard-hitting exploration of America’s prison system. Our land of the free has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. African Americans and Hispanics represent 25 percent of our population and 58 percent of our prison population. With privatization of those prisons, we’ve established a new era of slave labor. Literally.

Only a handful of us remained for the question and answer session after the movie. The Native American man spoke and the blond girl silently wept. As I was leaving, I touched her shoulder and murmured my thanks.

“I’m old. My eyes are hardened and dry. I fear I’ve shed all my tears,” I told her. “I’m thankful that you’re able and willing to cry.”