Someone asked me some time ago why my username points to the Columbia River—why not the coordinates of Seattle itself? I said something about my fascination with dislocation & slippery identities; it’s that “catch me if you can” kinda vibe that’s very “on brand.” And all of that is true; I do indeed prefer to be pinned down &/or mapped out with at least some effort—quite literally miss me with that noise, as the kids might say.
But there’s another dimension to my choice of this particularly off-centered coordinate.
Before I ever read a thing about Nch’i-Wàna, a.k.a. the Columbia, itself, I was drawn to “the big river” as a symbolic fault line between antagonistic worlds; it’s a port & rite of passage between Eastern & Western Washington, and all the political significations that come with that binary. To my mind’s eye, this is different from the Beirut River only in scale & fractal detail.
I come from what the literature has called a divided city, so I feel an affinity with borderlands & their semi-porous negotiations. When I moved here, this river—this “organic machine,” as Richard White calls it—seemed like my new home’s application for membership with Nicosia, Belfast, & Berlin. Yes, a consciously dramatic comparison, though much less so these days, maybe.
But the more I read about the river itself, the more I learned about its many faces, the more I lived into the moniker I’d intuitively chosen:
“In treating the Columbia as a machine we have literally and conceptually disassembled the river. It has become to its users a set of separate spaces and parts. Fishermen see habitat. Irrigators see water. Power managers, utility operators, and those who run aluminum factories see reservoirs necessary to turn turbines. Barge owners see channels with certain depths of water. Environmentalists see brief stretches of free-flowing water. All stake a social claim to their part of the machine. None of them are concerned with the river as a whole.” (White, 1995)
That’s what much of this road trip was about: to introduce myself to the machine & take my place on the assembly line.
So, yeah, this is 47°N 120°W… But why did I choose these exact coordinates in the first place? I don’t actually remember.
I think I tried to look up the geographic center of the Columbia, as a nod to living next to the geographic center of Seattle—that’s what my profile pic denotes btw. But the numbers were just an abstraction that pointed to an idea without any real-life referent—until this trip, that is.
When we decided to travel to 47 North 120 West, I scoured Google Maps for an accessible spot that fit our itinerary & brought us right to the edge of the river; I found this place called “Sunland” with what looked like a park that seemed to do the trick. I didn’t want to know anything else—I didn’t even look at the satellite image because I didn’t want to ruin the surprise (though I did note the pizza place in town, in case we got hungry… 😅).
It may be difficult to believe that I emptied my mind of expectations, but I really did. I’d trained myself some weeks ago to let go of that instinct while shooting my first roll of expired film using only randomly-generated locations thrown at me by an app called Randonautica. I’m very much someone who likes to know things in advance, but I didn’t want that for this trip.
Like I said, this journey was about introductions & I sincerely wanted to make myself open to the river’s own telling of her story.
What we found at our destination was truly and audibly breathtaking; yes, I actually gasped. I don’t know what my subconscious still held on to in terms of expectation, but it was certainly not that windy road down that—what? What is this topography? A gorge? I don’t even have the vocabulary to express it.
As we made our way down to the water’s edge, we were met by smiley faces in expensive trucks and golf carts who waved at us with such a casual & relaxed air that it was almost eerie. This was clearly a monied location, but my mind wasn’t occupied by that—the sheer beauty of the place was too distracting.
Richard White’s book talks about geographies of energy, labor, and meaning—this was a slice of the river’s life that saw all three gently suspended on the surface, bobbing like the duck-like water fowl we saw floating past. The little babies kept trying to catch a ride on momma’s back. She didn’t seem to mind.
I came here expecting to “see” something; I did. What was this place? Some monocultural private development? How did it come to be? I don’t know. I definitely caught glimpses of these questions in the corners of my eye, but my mind really wasn’t occupied with any of that as we stood there by the river.
I touched the water & ate a mulberry from a lone tree growing on the shore. I heard the lapping of silence. I felt the breeze. That was enough.
A confession: there’s something I haven’t mentioned yet. A friend of mine channeled something during an energy reading months ago that made her cry. She said that my body was sad; that I wasn’t listening to it. She also heard this communication for me: “He is loudest when he tells his story of the river.”
I don’t know; I think I’m starting to get the message.