May 4, 2007

BELLINGHAM, Washington – Home from Italy and NYC all of one night, I slingshot 2.5 hours north for another reading: Single State of the Union this time. En route, I drive through Skagit Valley, the gothic stage set of my childhood. In Alger – extreme $hitkickerville – the angst goes into double-jeopardy overtime. One of my best friends may move here. Could I just swing past the lakefront rental and have a look-see?

I dial Phoenix, Arizona. "How bad is it?" Ed asks.

"Really, really lovely for meth lab territory. And all-you-can-eat chicken as you booze to death in the crossroads bar."

"You know I don't drink."

"Death by barbecue then."

"Now that almost sounds attractive."


Glazed with jetlag and old nightmares, I take to the podium. "Age eleven, I skidded around the ferry terminal," I intone. "Sugar-propelled, I hummed and hopped, watching my reflection in the windows: a small, fierce blonde child superimposed on saltwater.

Hang on – that would be the terminal in this very city. My wanderlust birthed right here, as I gawped at the Alaska ferry.

Bellingham has much to answer for. Really and truly...

Epiphany aside, I continue."Skagit Valley was chock full of bubbas, who scraped low-riders over speed bumps and blasted jacked-up trucks across cattle guards. The women adjusted their home perms over drip coffee: 'That Castleman girl, why, she's grown real pretty for such a nerd. She doesn't even look like ET anymore!'

"Back in the day, they gossiped about hayloft date rapes and drunks drowning in agricultural ditches, maybe the odd passion crime in them thar hills. Then Interstate-5 brought gangbangers and artisanal cheesemakers to northwest Washington. Kinda made everyone miss the stink of pea silage, to be honest.

"I am not a true daughter of this earth. But I moved here young enough to bear its brand. I've raced 100mph over the salt flats. I've climbed glaciers in the same county where I primped for my junior prom. I've seen my reflection fragmented by blackberry brambles in flooded fields. The scent of this coast signals home to me, more clearly than any channel buoy.

"No matter how far I run, Skagit Valley shadows my side. I can't escape saltwater and cedars, any more than I can escape my impulsive self."

"Nor would I want to, it seems.


Some reporters from the Skagit Valley Herald corner me afterwards. "Please don't beat me up in the parking lot," I plead. "At least use a bar of soap in a sock – doesn't leave marks... or so I'm told."

"We loved it," they insist. "Now you write a book of your own, so we can give it lots of ink."

I know the gun-rack ratio in that county. I'm not going to argue.

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