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18 June, 2011


Earlier this week, I had occasion to cruise Palouse country. Or Palus if you prefer--it still sounds the same. It means the region and the Palus tribe to themselves and their neighbors in Sahaptin languages, and falls within frontier rules for spelling of "pelouse," the French word for greensward, which also makes sense in this land of grasses. This is but one way in which the Palouse is hard to pin down.

Palus Country

Driving the roads through Palus country--261, 127, Whoopem Up Hollow Road, and others--you experience the shifting lay of the land, the tricks or perception and perspective. Rolling hills cradle valleys flat with silt and sand and wiggling only sidewise, canyons reach deeper to find big rivers. The hills have a bag of tricks to hopelessly confuse the traveler who strays off the beaten path, and bewilder even those who don't. They come in all sizes, but the hilly region is vast, so you start to think they are all a little bit different, but mostly the same. Often, nothing else breaks the horizon to provide scale, and what appears to be another smallish hill may take much longer to drive up or around, prying loose your visual from temporal.

Even with my habitual crutches--maps of paper and ether, memories of the satellite view pored over early in the morning--I found it easy to get disoriented and to doubt myself. Though the terrain undulates wildly on the human scale, all but the most detailed topo cartography fails to capture it; maps flatten the country to a degree that they are nearly useless for recognizing any one hill. Only where there is a big butte or where water has sliced deep below the surrounding hills do the contour lines reveal much. Except for the Snake's coulee and canyon runs, the rivers and streams tend to be the only level terrain, serpentine as you fly over and look down, but generally with less vertical relief than the cottonwoods lining them as they meander through flat-bottomed valleys.

Rivers Snake Through It
It is possible to wander the hills without ever finding the waterways, though, especially before the roads pierced the region. On foot, you may think you are following a draw that will eventually lead to a rivulet to a creek to a river, but you are just as likely to run into another hill. Go ahead and climb it, and see the next hill, but not much more. Only a few buttes offer you enough height to view over the country, and they are much farther away than your eyes lead you to believe; you may succumb to dehydration or frustration before ever reaching them. Life sustaining rivers like the Snake, the Walla Walla, and the Touchet hide below the horizon (a little easier to find than the Giant Palouse Earthworm), and of course the Palouse with its magnificent falls.

Inscrutable vermiform script crawls across the sky. Maybe prophets can read it.
The good news for wayfaring strangers is that navigation by landmarks is not all that necessary. The sky is huge, and unlike here in Olympia, visible most of the time. The sun ans stars broadcast directions. Jet trails and clouds seem to hang forever in the same spot on some days.

But for the most part, no wanderers roam the hills. Small roads wind among them, bigger roads shoot straight through. The Palouse is mercifully free of truly big roads, though, and even the main throughways like Route 12 are two lanes most of the way. The summer heat coaxes tar from them, and when the sun hits it just right, it shines. Mile after mile of squiggly lines, like Arabic writing under my tires--the moving car reads, and having read, moves on. Or maybe Tibetan script, my truck rolling over with it's prayer wheels.

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