Interstate East West

by Adrian Shirk 


“The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward…His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


               -James Joyce, “The Dead,” from Dubliners




Mama, mama:


The darkest part is that it did us nothing—

our prehistoric search through valleys, sick. 


In quiet rage, I thought you might be fading,

the way you peered in shallow pools, dark.  


            You were thinking quietly,

One by one they were all becoming shades.


            And did I learn this later? That you

were not so much asleep, as floating.

            When I cast my line you couldn’t bite,

            a sturgeon now, you’d found your depth.


            Though prodded, closed-mouth you remained:

                        Better pass boldly into that other world

                        than stick in this sick mud and bottom feed—

                        I’d rather skim, you thought.


I’d rather mill slowly through the murky depths.




Photograph #1: Bonneville Dam


Her and I;


rings of drizzle hair, our faces

against the hatch of  the open

back car, and it begins to pour.


Not an hour in, and we rest stop, though this

has always been the way she’s taken leave.


Bathrooms under the iron turbines, puddles

gather on white tile. I sit on the cool seat,

my bladder burns, tulip skirt at my feet.


She asks me:

            Why does it hurt?


I can’t answer without mentioning

passing water post-coitus, but what

does this do but make me feel other?

I want to be touchable, like an infant.

She nods, winces.


No boys now; just mama, just girl.


She runs ahead, ducked beneath rain,

to the tanks where rainbow trout braid,

and salmon peek from ladders they brave:


Those brave old fish, set to dress their eggs,

tucked like pomegranate fruit under old, broad stones:


Celilo Falls was seventy-five miles east of Portland, the untamed volume of the Columbia River dropped through a maze of basaltic islands and narrow channels creating ideal fisheries. The mid-Columbia Indians, the River People, have lived and traded at this sacred site for at least 10,000 years. Using lines, spears, and long-poled dipnets while standing on rocks and precarious wood platforms, they fished the falls for the abundant runs of salmon struggling through the turbulent waters on their way upstream to spawning beds.


The falls flattened with the dam, and now,

fat, the River people live on a sliver of muddy

land to the side of I-84—


One longhouse, five sadhouses.


Now she is bright-eyed:

            Let’s go see the sturgeon!


Their pond: palled in weeds, rain hits the surface clean.

Two glide towards the glass, then sharply turn.


The flat, gray girls mature slowly, sexual

fruition coming at a trite human pace.

My body, porous like their gamey meat,

shucking my childlike, bedroom-eyed face.


Their ovaries, large in size

are coveted for caviar. Caught

in nets, then switched

like leather, beaten until tender.


Because of its eating habits, sturgeon accumulate toxins in its flesh as it feeds. They feed on any sort of organic material found while scavenging; this includes raw sewage, dead fish, paper mill wastes, and plants sprayed by pesticides.


One man stands on the dock

and fingers bent, whistles—


The oldest one, Herman the Sturgeon of all state lore,

seventy-six-years-old, eleven-feet long,

rises to the surface.



Photograph #2: The Condon Hotel


Eating an apple,


freshly showered, she hides her face,

knees pulled up on the bed we share—


She wants to walk, slow through town.

Full of sudden vigor at the front door:

            Oh, come on. Come on!


Old men at the post office counter; we giggle as we cross doorways,

open; make fun of misspellings on drugstore fronts, and later


we walk slower, slower to the strip’s turf-edged end,

where the windmills loom and creak in threatening repose.


We take a broken sidewalk, the sun

meek behind the giant blades, and I

argue that people are tricked often into mediocrity, and she

makes soft noises in response; non-noises, and I say:

            What? Tell me what you’re thinking.


Passive like whistling, she says:

            It’s just harder for some people.

            Some people don’t have a choice.


The sun sets, forgodsakes,

my whole point is that they do.


Earlier that afternoon, the roads

were bare: mid-afternoon, just us.


She spoke of her student, the boy

who had turned the apartments to ash,

years ago. I’d seen him in the news,

wearing sunglasses at his court date.


I thought, she taught these children her entire life,

her eyes twitching from behind her shades—


And then I said out the window:

            Look; we are the only ones out here.


She looks forward, never straight,

the road narrows and swerves, slows

us down, and I look back out window,


west, the sun sets: we’ve been on this road

alone for quite some time, east.


And then I said:

            Wait; is that owl alive?


Hatch-back stopped, sputtered, spit; she craned toward

my window. Middle of the empty road, we watched—


Great horned owl sits

swivels head, annoyed

flies to farther branch.



Photograph #3: Lone Rock, City Jail


Jail bait, wrists crossed, seventeen-years-old, me.

Mama, drove through thickets, lost, landed here, she.


Playing chicken with the cows

on a long, scary road—


Olex school house, baby graveyard,

unflinching she stands

asleep between

each stone.


One step, she screams, the quails

lift like sugar from the wheat stalks, fleeing.

Olex is in Gilliam County. The community was named after Alex Smith, a resident, but misspelled in transmission. The latitude of Olex is 45.497N. Elevation is 1,020 feet.

In Lone Rock, by the old jail house

she took my picture, saying:

            Jail bait.


Old town woman watches as

mama and I find the rock behind the church.


And it’s just that—




Photograph #4: The Painted Hills


Rolls of colored sand, like bands of scar tissue

left by lava, layered and aged and layered. 

Her arms crossed behind her little back, 

she admires—my hands to the red basalt.


She seems to be shrinking, getting older, feet flatter,

And I’ve never noticed but she takes such big steps.


The weathering of volcanic ash under varying climatic regimes resulted in vividly-hued rock layers of red, pink, bronze tan and black. Walking on the hills is strictly prohibited. Please respect the landscape.


She says:

How about a little

cap - puc - cino?


I’ve no words to speak the solace

in her sound pronunciation.

It’s uterine; the possible just prisms:

her caffeinated incantation.  


And now the quails chicken us,

pluck, pluck, pluck behind the bumper.


We are headed somewhere warm, with bowls

for mugs and biscuits, warm.


Endless, it means we are

going to stop for

a second.


But we stop and she falls flat. Before too soon

she’s ordered Earl gray; could have had anything.

Gray hairs curl like wire around the shoots

of her fine ears, and I expire for a hot mug,

Chock Full O’ Nuts.



Photograph #5: Main Street; Mitchell, Oregon


A bear in a chain-link cage,

half-way through town.


She looks in, laughs.


The ragged sign reads clear:

            Bear’s mine. I’m Joe. I come

            and wrestle with my bear sometimes.


Mama circles slowly. Wrinkled hands clasped behind

the small of her small back. A way to make silence,

to deflect my shrill tone—she makes a shield,

a smooth, soft plane, and smiles.



Questions asked but kept at bay,

unanswered, I ask the bear—


So to the bear, I say:

            Be mine.


Rain warps the cordwood flat, lying

in the vacant lot. Bear rubs against

the chain-links, rattles like summer

baseball, the season yet to turn.


Awoke that morning in a wooden room.

Boarding bathrooms—the cold, white seat.

Dutch blue flowers on the paper, wall


where my knees touch—stings needles to pee,

but no boys now; just mama and me.


She says:



Below the window

Eight o’clock in the morning:

Joe unlatches cage


Photograph #6: Ritter Hot Springs’ Trailhead


CLOSED from Labor Day to Memorial Day weekend.


We pause, adhering to the silence begged by law.

Wind howls the highway’s blasted cliffs.


I say:

Bah—it’s close enough to Memorial Day.


William Neal McDuffee, an early packer between Umatilla and the John Day Valley mines, discovered the hot springs, named for him, on the Middle Fork of the John Day River. He homesteaded up on the flats southeast of the spring.


Down the steep crag, slowly stumbling,

her sensible shoes kicking up dust.

Hands clasped in front of her mint green raincoat

and fleece leisure sweats for cute green legs.


Abandoned, soda fountain collapsed,

eager, red barstools facing the rubble

in an alpine valley, where the plumbing still works.


Walk on the veranda, use bathrooms and piss.

Cedar shakes crumble, infection persists—


To reach Ritter required courageous determination to brave the old road that followed the backbone of the hill and ended with the dramatic climax of a steep 5-mile downgrade. The road was narrow and places to pass were rare. A few cars did roll over on the road, but there were no serious injuries. In spite of the challenge of reaching Ritter, people went for a day, for days or for weeks. They stayed in the hotel, or the cabins, or camped in their own tents. Many from Baker, Heppner and even Portland returned year after year for vacations and cures. Most of the winter guests came for their health. Victims of all types of rheumatism, skin disease, stomach trouble and other ailments sought relief from their afflictions.


Sulpher water still pumping

into the mineral blue pool.



Photograph #7: Sign; Rooms & Board


Taken from the broken doorway

underneath the arch.


Hands on her hips,

she purses her lips—


Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up at the staircase.


She takes a piece of petrified oak,

holds it up to the day, her face a cloak

of things I want to know, too bored to ask—

my voice lost in the depth. 


I say:

            Why do you think no body’s fixed this place?


Rooting around, only tall grass and roadrunners.

Over the crick, we cross on a log—


A woman was standing near the top of the first flight in the shadow also. He could not see her face, but he could see the terracotta and salmon pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife.


Weaving in and out of broken shacks,

like Link’n Logs collapsed she walks with plated face.


And I wrestle from site to site, through razor grass,

clutching the beams, my mouth agape and black with stars.


Awe eclipses annoyance.

I forget the urgency to make her emote.

I forgive the dam, and sink.


 Photo #8: The Solid Fist, Christian Youth Center


Girl in prayer, knees bent.


Breakfast in a five-and-dime, flapjacks, dime-sized, day.

Nickel-weight eyelids over time, soft skied, gray.


The night before, out loud in the hatchback’s bed

I read her Joyce’s “The Dead,” swaddled

in a red plaid Coleman bag as darkness advanced.

Sixty pages later, we stared outward, silent.


Just silence from us both, floating.


What had Gabriel Conroy meant by:

            The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.


Deep fried food loses its fun

in the narrow shoulder of a cowboy pub.

No windows, it rains, false light for sun 

over day-glow paintings of cowboy grub.


This isn’t novel anymore—

Onion rings. Coffee. I’ve run


out of things to try and make her say.


Photograph #9: Ukiah Curiosity Shop


Two small square buildings,


windows papered and broken,

on a half-moon main road.


Her slow, momentless strolls, eliciting

non-event nods. I stroll by her side,

can’t decided what it is I want to say.


What is the occasion of this walk?


A sandwich sign:

            Milkshakes and pie


She gets the

cap - pac - cino

look in her watery green eyes.



The Sturgeon


“People go out of their way sometimes, just to come here and sit at this table, and look at all of the birds,” the waitress said, laying menus in front of the elderly couple. “We’ve got more kinds in this here area than any one place!”

As she had done so many times, she placed a field guide of North American birds on the table, but the couple didn’t notice.

            “What can I get you?” She asked.

            The old woman winced, and clasped her wrist. “Oh, I don’t know….”

            “You got milkshakes?” The old man bellowed.

            “We do,” the waitress said. “We do. We got chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, mint, cookie, and a special black-raspberry.”

            “I want that one,” he bellowed again.

            Looking to the side, the old woman murmured. “Just bring it in two cups.”

            The waitress brought them their shake, and the man gulped it down liberally. He said, “I still remember the first milkshake I ever had, like it was yesterday.”



Mama never knew—

No, this is not true.


It’s that mama knew

that broke our hearts.

That mama synched in many parts

and simply looked askew.


We found a homestead, she said

Go on, go ahead.


What is the occasion of this poem?

I step inside—

Here were saber-toothed tigers

and camels before the continent split.


Inside, nineteen-twenties wallpaper,

split from the dryrot walls, holes in the

floor and rattlesnakes nesting, stiff.


Me, standing in the doorframe, hair

blowing greasy in front of my face.


            “My husband always says that, too,“ the waitress said. “About remembering his first ice cream cone. There was a creamery he used to go to when he was young, not too far from here. He remembers the vanilla ice cream being so rich it was yellow. And he always ate it with maple syrup.”

            “Eh?” The old man said.

            “And he still takes syrup with everything!” The waitress laughed. “His parents owned a maple farm; the stuff is practically in his blood.”

            “A farm?” The old man winced, sipping his shake. “Yes, we’re selling ours.”

            The waitress realized he hadn’t heard most of what she said. She jumped she jumped the tracks and followed his train. “Y’are, are ya?”

            “We’re old,” he practically yelled this, wearing a purple cream mustache.

            His wife smiled weakly, her fingers wrapped around her glass.

            “We was farming fish and sturgeon,” he said.

            “Oh?” Said the waitress.

            “We got a sturgeon who’s older than us; and he just keeps growing. He’s just been growing and growing all these years. And we been shrinking at the same damn rate.” He wiped his upper lip. “It doesn’t make no damn sense.”

            “I never liked that sturgeon…” his wife warbled from her seat.

            The waitress was still. She didn’t know what to say. She’d seen a sturgeon before, once when she was a kid. She’d driven across the state with her parents, and they’d stopped at a dam on the way. There had been a series of shallow, muddy pools at the dam, holding different kinds of fish. Most of the sturgeon were dark colored, and just a few feet long. They sliced through the water, slow, like dull blades. But there was this one sturgeon, seventy-six-old, and he was light grayish and maybe eleven feet long. He had his very own pool, though the space mocked his size. She’d been haunted, watching him swim around like that; this enormous, prehistoric fish, milling so slowly through these lonely, murky depths.



Photograph #10: Grain Elevators


Wheat factory water silos shadow,


looming like windmills, or rural radio

towers shaped like Men from Mars.


One old lady takes us in her B & B, at the other side

of town. Talks about her cats, her cowboy, dead,

her marriage and her children and the women

whose hair she used to dress.


But mama: her distance is thick, too far

to engage, leaves me weak over our final repast.


The slow walks get slower. My words flake off

like cherry blossoms from the nearby trees, and

I’m mad, can’t say what I mean. What I mean—


Sunlight spreads over hills like sheet cake, frosts

the grass bright green—I leap; she watches, laughs.


Later that night, tucked into beds on opposite sides

of a room, dim and gauzy with age,


smashed face sideways, she speaks like she breathes:

Did I ever tell you about the Semples? Eugene Semple owned the Washington Territory, which was Oregon, too—your great-great-great-great-grandfather. His wife ran away with a businessman—I guess Eugene was kind of a wet blanket—and well, she took just the one baby and left the three remaining girls with Eugene. In textbooks, they call him a widower—but he was ditched.


Like this, she falls asleep—

eventually I follow;


His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


a sturgeon now, she’d found her depth.