Posted by: John Adams | July 9, 2008

From Ainsworth Street to Unknown Gods

Portland was gray and drizzly on Saturday as we left. It was softly raining as we rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, got dressed, and began to load my Trooper full of everything I owned. By the time we were done, the truck looked as though it might burst, with no space left unoccupied except for the three seats soon to be occupied by us.


Josh and Jesse got up early to hug us and wish us a safe trip. Luis had already gone to work, but texted a goodbye from there. Everyone looked happy and excited. We were ready to hit the road. We took a couple pictures, hugged a few necks, and took the Old Portland Highway down to I-205. From there, we hit I-84 eastbound toward The Dalles and watched as the scenery changed rapidly from suburbs to the cascading waterfalls and Lord-of-the-Rings scenery of the Columbia River Gorge.


Once you get past the mountains, the climate in Oregon goes from wet and green to dry and brown. One side of the mountains is carpeted with evergreens and the other side looks like an animal without skin—all the rocks, like bones, are exposed underneath. The sun shines more on this side of the mountains, and our moods go up as the road opens up before us and we pass the furthest points we have ever been out on this highway.


We make a bathroom break in Hood River, stopping for just a few minutes. Once we’re back on the freeway, we are flagged down by some desperate looking motorists who have pulled to the side. I pull the Trooper over to the shoulder, walk back a ways, and find that they are talking loudly with a lady who is trapped in a car that has flipped upside down into the median. They say she was right in front of them when a deer darted out onto the road. She swerved, flipped, and ended up upside down in the middle of the highway.


A few minutes later, with the emergency vehicles still on the way, she works her way out of the car. A few moments later, a pretty college-age girl with blond hair emerges from the vehicle, looking dazed but unhurt. We walk quietly away as the highway patrol car with flashing lights pulls up. I wonder aloud whether we might not have been the ones stuck upside down in the median had it not been for our bathroom break in Hood River.


I-84 winds along the Columbia River until Pendleton, when it makes a southeasterly turn to cross a small range of forested mountains. We stop for gas in La Grande, and make another stop in Durkee, a tiny town that can’t have more than 200 people. Something in me responds with joy that such tiny, remote places exist in the world. When you live in the city for too long, you begin to forget that there are places without department stores, buses, or sidewalks. There are men and women who live most of their lives surrounded by few people and a lot of nature, out of the swing of the major events in human history. They take life in more like people did when the world first began, surrounded by silence and vast spaces of untouched nature. There is an appeal to this kind of solitude. I think to myself that some day, I would like to own a cabin in a place like this, a place I can retreat to when I need to be reminded that the city in which I live is not, and never will be, my true home.


Oregon turns into Idaho, and the green changes to brown once again. There is a major city, Boise, with an airport and shopping centers, and then are vast stretches of arid land broken by green irrigated fields. Eventually, we reach Twin Falls, where we exit the freeway and make another gas stop. From here, we go south, following highway 93 into Nevada. The highway runs over a beautiful canyon that nearly takes my breath away. I can see a road zigging and zagging its way to the bottom, where Twin Falls has built a city park. I wish we could stop, but we are saving our time for the Grand Canyon. As the main drag gives way to a country road not unlike the ones I’ve been down in North Carolina, my conversation with Bernard turns to childhood. He tells me about growing up poor, how his father went from job to job, and about how he and his brother would make fun of poverty in order to blunt the pain of being poor. I tell him about growing up in Haiti, about how kids would run up to the car windows and shout racially charged insults through the glass.


“That’s a lot of suffering to grow up with,” Bernard says. “It’s not half as much as what most people there experience,” I reply. “I went from being hurt by people to hating people to feeling empathy for people who do hurtful things. The old adage that ‘Hurt people hurt people’ is true. It doesn’t make what they do suck less, but we’re all lashing out in some way against the brokenness we see in this world.”


I mention that Bonhoeffer spoke of forgiveness as a form of suffering, since it involves bearing up under the injustice of the pain that others cause us rather than holding what they did against them. There is silence for a while, until we cross the Nevada state line and stop to eat peanut butter sandwiches. All three of us have headaches from hunger, the heat, and squinting into the sun for several hours, and the sandwiches make us all feel a lot better.


Soon, it’s time to hit the road again. We watch the sun paint the Nevada sky and enjoy the sweeping Cowboys-and-Indians scenery of red hills and fields of sagebrush. The road dips down into Wells, where we hit I-80 eastbound, going through miles of desolate, flat land with no human touch for as far as the eye can see. There are chuckles as we pass a sign for “Shafter, Nevada,” and groans at the milepost signs which tell us how much farther we still have to go. Finally, we pass through some rugged hills and across the state line into Utah.


I don’t have Chris’ number, so we walk up and down the main drag in Wendover, past garish casinos with flashing neon lights, looking for some place that has Wi-Fi so I can retrieve the number from my e-mail. No luck. Finally, I call a friend, give him my password, and ask him to read me the number.


The first thing Chris says to us when we meet him is, “Where do you want to eat?”


“Anywhere,” we reply in unison.


“OK, let’s go for steak then. Then we’ll see about finding a place to put you up in.”


“Put us up?”


“Yes, my daughter’s at home with a black eye she’s not keen to show off. She and her husband have been having problems for some time now, but this is the first time it’s turned violent.” No guile or pretense with Chris, just honesty and openness. I like him already. We go out for steak, and afterwards we tour the casinos, where Chris does much of his pastoral work, roaming the huge parlors, meeting new people and checking up on people he’s met.


“In a town like this, where the economy is so dependent upon gambling, people who don’t even want to work for the casinos are often forced to make ends meet. It affects a lot of things, even the way people sleep. These casinos run 24/7, so many parents don’t even know their children that well, since they’re working graveyard and the kids are living during the day.”


As he speaks, Chris points out people at poker tables and slot machines, people he knows. The more he speaks, the more his love for them becomes obvious. He calls out the name of a young man who walks right past him as though he didn’t hear him. Chris goes after him and talks to him for a bit. He gets the number of a girl who hasn’t been to church in a while as we look around the casino, amazed at the sensory overload of bright lights, live musicians, and chirping slot machines. Chris points out that there are no clocks or windows in casinos. They want people to forget about the outside world so they will be more inclined to gamble away their savings. He says he’s seen people lose thousands upon thousands of dollars in one night.


“This place is like the carnival Pinocchio ran to when he escaped from Gapetto,” I think to myself. “All of these bright distractions to keep people just busy enough so no one can stop and think about ultimate things, like why we’re here or whether God exists or whether the money we’re all hoping to win would actually make us happy.” All around, people with eager looks rush to attractions being manned by employees with the hollow look of sadness in their eyes. There is no future in Wendover, only enough money to keep working to pay the bills that prevent them from ever leaving Wendover.


As we exit the casino, I remark to Chris that the whole experience we’ve just had must have been something like Paul taking in the sight of all the idols in Athens. We have just toured the idols of the city. Perhaps the hollow look in the eyes of the casino workers was their desperate hope that there might be an unknown God to be found.


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