Remembering the Desert
14 April, 2003 / 9 September, 2016
I remember the smell of summer rain on sagebrush and sand, jackrabbits scurrying away as I hiked through the desert, my socks filled with sharp stickers designed over thousands of years to attach to passerby. I remember stagnant and funky backwaters of the big river, filled with green scum, pollywogs, frogs and mosquitoes. We slept in the desert and never had a thought about rattlesnakes slithering into our sleeping bags. It was cool in the early mornings before the sun rose high. Later, the same sun burned and bleached everything not shaded by the cottonwoods lining the river. When the wind raged, sand choked the air like a colossal Saharan demon, filling my eyes and lungs, working its way through walls and windows, coating everything inside and out. I remember the desert: big, empty and quiet.
I grew up in Richland, Washington, in the lower right-hand corner of that state, a place that looks nothing whatsoever like Mount Rainier and that has no Space Needle. Geographers classify this area as “shrub-steppe” with most of the Columbia Basin and the Hanford Reach qualifying as desert. Folks who’ve never been there look puzzled when you say “Washington” and “desert” in the same sentence. This is an empty place thinly populated with coyote willow, purple sage, rabbit brush, jackrabbits, coyotes, rattlesnakes and very little rainfall. It is dry here, with average annual precipitation amounting to less than ten inches. What alters the landscape is the Columbia River flowing through the sand and soft brown hills on its 1,200-plus-mile journey to the sea. Thanks to FDR and the US Bureau of Reclamation, Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942 and began to support local farming via an intricate web of canals and irrigation ditches that feed water to fields of potatoes, wheat, hops and sugar beets, and orchards of cherries, nectarines, peaches and later, wine grapes. The Columbia River runs more-or-less southward from Canada, across this arid “channeled scabland”, then takes an abrupt turn west at the Oregon border and heads toward Portland and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The Columbia also provides power to millions of consumers, supplied by eleven dams in the state, even as its natural wild flow was throttled back to form a feeble string of etiolated ponds. The Columbia drops more per mile than any other American river, making it a true hydro-electric gem. Woody Guthrie made us famous in 1941 when he penned the song “Roll on, Columbia Roll On” as part of New Deal “progress”. “Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on, Columbia, roll on.” In ’41, we weren’t yet concerned about cheap energy promoting conspicuous consumption or where our waste would go.
As a kid, I recall the Columbia Basin posting high temperatures every summer that didn’t dip below 100 degrees for three or four weeks running and winters that fell to a dry, bone-chilling sub-zero for nearly as long. The wind howled relentlessly, removing roofs, sending garbage cans skyward and gnawing nerves. Growing up at 46 degrees north latitude was great for kids in the summers, as it remained light until ten o’clock or later. Beginning each summer, we burned terribly, sporting bright red first-degree wounds that gave way to layers of crispy skin peeling off like diaphanous sheets of paper. By July, we were dark brown and impervious. I had never heard of melanoma in the fifties.
For centuries, native Yakama people lived near Richland, Washington at the confluence of the Yakima, Snake and Columbia rivers, hunting, gathering and harvesting spawning salmon. When Lewis and Clark passed through, there were an estimated fifty thousand native inhabitants along the length of the Columbia. Scientists suggest that sixteen million salmon swam up river to spawn then, nearly three times the total US human population at the time. By the 1840’s, missionaries and white settlers had introduced scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles, decimating the native populations.
In 1904, Richland was founded as a small farming town and remained that way until World War II. In 1940, the population was less than three hundred. By 1950, Richland had grown to nearly 23,000 residents, as a result of the massive and frenetic Manhattan Project build-up. In 1943, The Project acquired 588 square miles of desert (about half the size of the state of Rhode Island) and began construction of nine nuclear reactors along the banks of the mighty Columbia, which supplied water for the down-river communities of The Dalles, Portland, Vancouver and Astoria. River water was used to cool less-than-perfectly sealed power reactors, then returned to the river to head west. What was called the “B Reactor” is best known for being the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Plutonium manufactured at B Reactor fueled the first nuclear test at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and powered the deadly “Fat Man” bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, killing 60,000 to 80,000 residents. As kids, we were taught to be proud of this.
After Hanford reactors were decommissioned at the end of the Cold War, decades of manufacturing had left behind 53 million gallons of high-level liquid radioactive waste and an additional 25 million cubic feet of solid radioactive waste, and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater beneath the site, according to reporting by Physicians For Social Responsibility.
The desert home of my birth remains one of the most toxic places in the world.
By comparison to its neighbors, Richland was a rich town–not in terms of financial wealth (though the substantial federal investment did not hurt) but more so in its education, organization, social structures and civic commitment.
Richland, for the most part, was deliberately created, almost overnight, through a feverish effort and no small investment, led by Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Project, early during World War II. It was a planned community intended to provide homes, schools, infrastructure, churches, social organization, markets, security, bridge clubs, Cub Scout troops and bowling opportunities for the thousands of engineers, chemists, physicists and construction workers and their families brought in to build a radioactive necklace of nuclear reactors in the barren desert along the Columbia River upriver from town. The hundreds of square miles of empty land encompassing those plants was called Hanford, or “The Area” locally, and was administered by the Atomic Energy Commission.
Richland, in every measure of the description, was a “company town”, with the bosses originally being the US War Department, then the AEC and its dozens of contractors. Today, the US Department of Energy oversees Hanford.
Hanford was a mystery to the kids I knew. Most of us had at least one parent working for one contractor or another out in those grey buildings in the desert. None of us had ever been out there, at least until the day in September 1963 when they closed all the schools and bussed what seemed like the entire town through the guard stations, past the chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, past the first two domes, to N Reactor to hear President John Kennedy speak, with the wind blowing sand into our eyes. Two months later, Kennedy was dead. Kennedy’s impact on me, his voice and presence, even as a distant speck in the desert, has endured as childhood mythology, in no small part because of this event.
For many of us, this was the first time we saw where our parents worked, and in most cases, possibly the last. One could drive Highway 243 through The Area, on the way to Spokane or Seattle, but along that barren desert highway were billboards warning “Do Not Stop! Take No Pictures!”, with ominous images of spies and mushroom clouds. As kids, we may have asked mom or dad what they did, but their answers were typically vague. Dad left in the morning, boarded a bus (after sitting on a bench with painted warnings about not spilling classified secrets to the cartoonish man in a dark trench coat and natty fedora) and was whisked off into the desert. He wore a radiation badge and once a week, had to fill glass bottles with urine and leave them in a metal carrier on the front porch, often next to the glass bottles in wire carriers left by the milkman. The “pee police” would collect these and presumably test the contents, vigilant to safeguard workers’ health.
In retrospect, for those uprooted and brought there, Richland in the forties and fifties must have felt like a commune or an intentional community, or the first day of being away at college, with thousands of young physicists, chemists, engineers, construction workers and managers relocated from all over the country and plopped down together in the middle of a Mad Men nowhere. They brought with them their education, urbanity, social mores, religion, The Knights of Columbus and the ladies auxiliaries. Local schools were outstanding and most every kid was interested in science. Everyone was white. Most were Protestant. I was part of a Papist minority, but never felt outcast. The culture was so homogeneous that when my friends and I started our first newspaper in 1970, we named it “The Wasp”, with tongue (and social critique) firmly in cheek.
The house my brother and I grew up in.
As parents in the eighties, we were quite protective and guarded with our three young kids, fearful to let them stray too far out of sight for any length of time. But in Richland in the 50’s and 60’s, my folks thought nothing of letting us take off on bikes for an entire day, touring miles from home, or exploring the mud flats and reeds of Wellsian Ponds or venturing across the Bypass Highway to collect pollywogs or defying death in reckless bicycle or skateboard antics. When I was nine, my pal Dave and I packed his folks’ ski boat with sleeping bags and fishing gear and chugged up the river to troll for steelhead. We planned to be out two nights and we needed a convenient campsite on the riverbank. We were not quite Huck and Tom, what with the twin Johnson 35-horse outboard motors, but we were adventurers nonetheless. The river was wide and slow moving and the air was typically hot, still, and dry. Wide blue skies followed us up-river, with nothing but Russian olive and cottonwood trees, sage and willow along the banks, the sound of the river flowing past the boat. We were utterly alone and completely unafraid. We beached the boat on the mud bank and had just begun to unload when a military jeep appeared above us with two plain-clothed fellows with handheld radios and dark aviator glasses who made clear we had passed an important but invisible line across the Columbia, and we needed to move on back down river. Nice enough guys, it seemed, but oddly, they were not surprised to see two nine-year-old kids commanding a motorboat and appearing to plan to spend the night. They never asked where our folks were or why we were out there all alone. We never knew how they knew we were there. We never spotted a chopper. Did they have radar? Special binoculars? Some other Flash Gordon device for sensing heat in young Catholic boys? All it meant to us was an hour’s lost fishing. All it appeared to mean to them was they had averted a minor security breach and had successfully kept America safe.
Years later, I sat on a hill in the desert and my psychotropically-enhanced visions of 1984-inspired governmental conspiracies, electronic surveillance, civil-rights-crushing technologies and a big-brother future likely not yet invented took on vivid, colorful, lysergic shape as I stared north, pie-eyed, in the still, cool hours before dawn. Past was becoming future. Without a name or a face to attach yet, I imagined a Snowden-like character in my colorful paranoia. Where I lived certainly contributed to that hallucination.
It never occurred to my friends or me that we were growing up in a very unusual place.
In the late fifties and early sixties, Richland was riding bikes to the Science Center where we could practice moving little “radioactive” wooden blocks around inside a large Plexiglas cube, using only the mechanical arms similar to what the real Hanford guys used. There was another box with heavy-duty rubber gloves mounted in the sides, allowing us to safely reach in and manipulate the dummy fuel cells and “waste products”.
Richland was the Atomic Bowl, and at least twenty other businesses named Atomic this or that. The converging ovals graphic, the logo for all things nuclear, was ubiquitous and benign, and was embraced by local stores, schools, civic groups and even a golf and country club. It was the logo for progress, security and middle-class stability. The denial was complete.
Richland was fathers up and down the street being serious inventors and tinkerers. Their garages were true laboratories, with neatly organized shelves stocked with trays of vacuum tubes and switches (no transistors or circuit boards yet), servo motors, auto parts, gyros, radio controls and at least one new gadget that was intended to make life more automated, and as a result, easier. (It wasn’t until many years later that Gerry Mander debunked the fifties promise of a life of luxury through science, gadgets and mechanization in his book The Absence of the Sacred, and made the argument that all these things actually sap our time, money and energy. But as Gerry was still a kid like me, no one had gotten this message yet.) So, in many Richland households, these innovative devices were in use, and the creators’ wives and kids usually knew just what to do to make them work, whether aiming the control just so, or whacking the thing in the right spot, or taking the batteries out and putting this one in first, then the other one, and it should work just fine. To be sure, Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown could have lived on my street.
Richland was The Bombers, the local High School Sports teams, which then and there, and forevermore, meant basketball. The Richland Bombers basketball teams were legendary repeat state champs, which, I later appreciated, utterly rankled fans and boosters from Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane and other much larger towns around the state. In Richland, basketball was religion, much like in the small places in Indiana, North Carolina and Kentucky where latter-day dynasties were built and from whose teams basketball heroes hailed. To my pals and me, Art Brewer, Ray Stein, Ken Webb and the rest may as well have been Jordan or Byrd or Magic, names none of us had yet heard. Every day in summer and winter, through snow, wind and rain, we shot baskets and played half-court in one kid or another’s driveway or (for the better-off) on their paved backyard court. We narrated our own games and took on our heroes’ court-bound personas: “Brewer to Stein, wait! Roosevelt steals…No! Stein steals back, down court to Webb in a blistering fast break. Bombers score!” We listened to every game on the radio and when there was a chance to actually enter Bomber Gymnasium in person, it was a peak experience I recognized, long before reading Maslow, and knowing there was a name for such ecstasy. The gym was sold out, every game, and packed with an enthusiastic, unapologetically partisan hometown crowd. The “Visitors” never had a chance.
At the opening of every game, and at half time, a ritual was replayed, over and over again. On the wall of the gym hung the Bombers’ enormous green flag, in the center of which was an imposing gold mushroom cloud. Against this backdrop, the Bomber cheerleaders carried a green and gold bomb into the center court jump circle and performed their intricate dance routines around it, with green and gold skirts. As a micro-culture, we embraced not only this new technology that would light and heat our homes, but also the terrible events that came before. Questioning these shared values was not tolerated.
But that’s just what we did. With the first issues of The Wasp in 1970 (our amateur alternative/underground publication) we questioned local belief structures and challenged “my country, right or wrong” attitudes regarding nuclear weapons, war and poisonous power generation. We experienced some success, mainly because we wrote well, attributed our statements and quotes and avoided swearing, a sure-fire way to get shut down. But it was not a winning cause.
I left Washington in 1973, renouncing and judging the place I was born. The blind company-town attitudes were restricting. I was embarrassed to actually know high school sports stars who married the cheerleader, tried triple-A baseball, got the girl pregnant then ended up drinking too much and working for the local beer distributor. It was too small for me. When I left, I failed to appreciate the desert I had grown up wandering about. Obvious as it was, I never really considered I grew up a desert kid.
I rejected all things nuclear in a most vocal way, especially the culture of denial and boosterism in Richland and the surrounding towns that allowed otherwise intelligent people to dismiss the downwind incidence of cancer at rates five to twenty times higher than average as being coincidental or the product of Western Washington liberals’ communist-inspired fantasies. People were being made sick and were dying, and I was angry. Nobody wanted to hear about it.
I had to move to California to actually realize I’d lived in the desert, never having given it serious thought. Friends introduced me to Castaneda and Joshua Tree National Monument, which opened an immense wonderland in my heart as big as the real one accessed through Hidden Valley: a mystical world filled with open space, magic and reverberations of ancient wanderers’ voices.
Don Juan spoke about “power places” and I was sure I understood this, especially when visiting the California deserts. But I had forgotten about my own desert home. Could there be power in the Columbia Basin other than as a result of fission?
Later, on a road trip to Washington, I drove down the barren desert highway along the Columbia River, thirty miles above Hanford. I passed a bend in the river between Vernita and Vantage, which I’d driven past hundreds of times. Basalt walls rise vertically on both sides of the river, dark and imposing edifices with smooth beaches and backwater ponds bounded by reeds and scrub brush along the banks below. I stopped and sat for hours, hearing voices, sensing past inhabitants, imagining the timeless imprint of thousands of human footsteps. Native people, Anglo explorers, ranchers and farmers, season after season, fishing, camping, caring for the babies, telling stories, looking at the sky, sharing the knowledge of where the fish feed and knowing things would stay the same forever. Of course things changed, but that hot afternoon, the desert and the river came alive and I truly saw my first home with fresh eyes. And I remembered it: Big, empty and quiet.