(This is the first in a series.)
This past weekend was the 40th reunion of the class of 76 at Whitman College. All my favorite people minus one were going to be there so it was shaping up to be something special. Walla Walla has always been a magical place to me, going back to my childhood when we visited my great Aunt Ann in the house on the corner of Shady Rill and Marcus Street, now owned by the college.
Walla Walla is a beautiful old town on the way to nowhere else. It’s its own destination. Whitman is a charming campus, which these days reeks of money. You could eat off the steps of the classroom buildings they are so well maintained. A private liberal arts college is essentially a four year summer camp for (very) young adults and in many ways we were cossetted at Whitman. Still our minds were valued by our professors and so we learned to value our minds and the process of learning. Everyone in my favored group has continued to learn and in various ways to give ourselves back to the world.
It was a mixed experience for me, being a college student. The further away I get from my college days, the more rhapsodic I feel about it. I was excited about the reunion but as date approached, regression sucked at me. I had a dream that everyone was mean to me and I went home early. In waking life, I closed off all means to a fast getaway by making plans to ride across state with one of my beloved group.
John’s (poly-sci major but he acted like an English major) plane from Boston landed late morning and we were on the road by early afternoon. A cross country (and assorted running events) coach, John was, is and always shall be a long-distance runner. Physically he is a piece of sinew with a head. Every inch is lean muscle. I fully expect he will one day be featured on the cover of a magazine I hope classier than Time as a 95 year old marathon runner with better time than say, the 70 year olds. He’s qualified twice for the Olympic trials in the marathon.
“So,” I, the artiste, cast around for how to phrase it. “The groups you work with: do the players already know the game and you work on training and technique?”
There was a change of atmosphere in the car: a mix of patience, exasperation and amusement. “Well, first of all they’re athletes, not players. And they run in an event. It’s not a damn game.”
“Don’t worry. I get that a lot.”
We drove across state via Yakima. It’s the loveliest way to go, especially now that you don’t actually have to go through Yakima. We never ran out of things to say. We were still talking happily when we crossed into Oregon. For those of you who don’t know the geography, the drive from Seattle to Walla Walla via Yakima does not involve crossing into Oregon. I have driven across state probably 100 times and I have never once strayed into Oregon, the border of which is seven miles south of Walla Walla.
“We shouldn’t be in Oregon,” I said. “How did this happen? Weren’t you watching the signs?”
“I was following you. I thought you were navigating.”
“I didn’t know there was even a highway to turn onto,” I said. “Everything always seemed to flow towards Walla Walla.”
We pulled over at the 395/730 junction to look at the map. A proper Rand McNally paper map. That’s who we are. Somewhere outside the Tri-Cities we missed a sign that would have taken us to Walla Walla and now we were south of Columbia River. But you know what? Next time I go to Walla Walla I am going to make this detour on purpose. I had no idea how beautiful was the approach from Oregon. We drove along the Columbia River through basalt monuments that are the Wallula Gap, the light causing the water to shimmer and now I wish I hadn’t talked so much as we came through. Words are for later—like what I’m doing now.
Once we were underway again I remembered that I had told Debi I would text her when we left Seattle.
“We’re an hour away,” I texted laboriously. I’m not good at texting. I have my father’s big thumbs.
“I’ll pick up your registration packets,” she wrote back.
“Get me one of everything’s that free.” That text took me five minutes.
Finally we were there at the home of Debi (English major) and Jim (Biology). There was funny, kind Bruce (German major) and his wife Helen (French but at UCLA). The only one missing was Mary-Ellis (English) and her husband Phil (I don’t know where he went to school but he is an attorney) who I was soon to see at the Green Lantern, a tavern famous among Whitties of our generation although we had never frequented it or in most cases, even been to it. At the Green they set us up outside where it was cold and dark but there was a fire pit and it was good to be together.
And the evening and the morning were the first day.