The Sweet Life, Domanico Cellars – Prosser, Washington
The sun shone brightly earlier this morning, its rays penetrating everything in sight with life affirming energy. The fact that it was shining at all was a miracle to us. You see, so far on this trip, Elisabeth and I have experienced ten days of nothing but rain and cold. The weather man told us that this is the wettest October on record for the state of Washington – ever.
His charts and graphs meant nothing to us, though. We only knew that the permeating wetness had lingered far too long. If we were to keep pedaling in it, that is.
Elisabeth and I understand that rain is not malicious, and that the beauty of the Cascades depends upon its steady rhythm. But as this particular season of Washington rain has worked its way beneath our layers of rainproof clothing and sought residence in the seat of our very souls, I must admit to imagining it to harbor a willful intent.
On the first day of our journey, as we pedaled our way out of the city of Seattle, the sun shone for us. “A good omen,” we told ourselves. But the next ten days held nothing but rain, which has chilled Elisabeth and me to the bone. Even though we purposefully made our way up and over the Cascade Mountains and down the reputed “dry side” of Washington, we have yet to bask again in the warmth and light under whose influence our journey started. Until today.
Today, we were simply thankful that light has returned to our lives, for we had begun to believe that the gray that had descended over all of Washington might never lift.
But as I stood in the side yard of Jason Domanico’s home (at his vineyard, Domanico Cellars ) this bright morning, drinking hot coffee from a round mug and looking out at the orderly rows of Jason’s Malbec, Syrah, and Limburger grapevines, the gold leaves of his ginkgo tree were illuminated as if they were lit from inside like a Japanese lantern.
“My God, how beautiful,” I thought, at once feeling guilty for ever complaining about the weather.
Way off in the distance, a few remaining clouds poured over the tops of the Horse Heaven Hills (so-named for the herds of wild horses that still roam there). The clouds move so swiftly that I thought a white river had taken up residence in the morning sky. I could feel those currents grab ahold of me. They said, “It is time to pack your belongings and depart. Follow us into the valley.”
Yesterday, Jason loaned us his car while he tended to his vineyard. We went in search of a U-Haul van to implement Plan B.
“Plan B?” you say?
Yes. Plan B.
Despite this morning’s brilliant light, Portland, our next stop, and the whole of Oregon, through which Plan A would have had us pedal, are both destined for more wet weather. We, on the other hand, are destined for California. Via Plan B, as follows: On Thursday, we catch the Amtrak train to Sacramento, where we shall encounter warmer temperatures and dryer days in which to pedal. Sadly, we relinquish our ride through the Columbia River Gorge and down the coast of Oregon, but we can put that back on our bucket list.
Before we departed, this morning, U-Haul loaded, Jason suggested we bypass the Tri-City area (Richland, Pasco, Kennewick) altogether, on our way to Portland, and take a more scenic route over the Horse Heaven Hills to connect with the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.
Elisabeth could tell I wasn’t warming to Jason’s suggestion, and I finally told her why: I felt compelled to make a stop in Kennewick. It might have been indulgent, but I had a desire to retrace a piece of my personal history – and this seemed to be the only opportunity I might have to do so.
As I have mentioned, when I was five years old, my father moved my mother, my sister, and me to Kennewick, Washington . The company he worked for, Continental Consolidated (one of five prime contractors for the first nuclear plant ever constructed in the United States) in Jacksonville, had sent him to be a project manager on the Hanford Nuclear plant in Washington.
That period in my young life holds some of the happiest memories my family ever experienced. And for me, our time in eastern Washington left a lasting love of the west and the great outdoors. A young son of the South, that early exposure to the Cascade Mountains and those enormous western skies changed forever how I viewed the world. As I became older, I spent a number of years in both New Mexico and Colorado. I always attributed my desire to live in the western states to my time in eastern Washington as a young boy.
Being this close to Kennewick was a temptation I could not resist. I felt drawn towards the hot flame of my youth. Whatever mystery lay inside that rubric was a feeling I needed to ferret out.
So off we went, bicycles stowed inside in our fifteen-foot U-Haul van, headed towards Kennewick on a different kind of adventure than the one on which we had first embarked.
Searching In Kennewick
Inside of forty-five minutes, an interstate sign announced, KENNEWICK NEXT THREE EXITS. Going on instinct, I took the middle exit. Sure enough, no sooner had we turned onto a city street, a deep well of emotion rose up inside of me. At that moment, although I was obviously a man of sixty navigating my way into the city of Kennewick, I felt for all the world like a boy of five tightly clutching that steering wheel.
To be honest, I had no plan. I didn’t know where I was going, as I did not have any information regarding where my family had lived during that time. I queried my mom before I departed St. Augustine, but she could only recall, as I did, the Welch’s grape vineyard down the street from our small house and that, in the fall of 1961, I attended a Methodist kindergarten in Kennewick. (Oddly, I still remember my teacher’s name, Mrs. Mertz, but not the church where the school was located.)
But one memory from that time is ingrained in my mind: We lived for a brief three months at the Ballerina Motel, while my father looked for a house for us. I remember its swimming pool, surrounded by a rock wall – and, more importantly, the motel owners’ six-year-old daughter, Julie, who took me down into the basement of the motel many times in those three months. There, we sat for hours behind stacks of laundry and rollaway beds, while Julie practiced kissing me. How can any man (or boy), young or old, forget a memory like that?
Before we left Florida for Seattle, I researched the old motel to see if it could possibly still be in existence. I did not find the motel, but I did find an old post card and a motel room key from the Ballerina (Room 234) for sale on eBay. Sixteen dollars. A cheap price for a memory, I thought. On the key, beneath the name of the motel was a location: CLEARWATER & HWY. 14.
I was unsure if Clearwater was a street or a section of town. When I attempted to track it down online, I could find neither. Highway 14 runs along the north side of the Columbia River Gorge, the road Elisabeth and I had planned to pedal on towards Portland, but it no longer comes into Kennewick. Now, it begins just off interstate 82, some 35 miles away.
This morning, as we drove into Kennewick and found ourselves sitting at a stop light, I exclaimed to Elisabeth, “This is impossible. How in the hell will we ever locate that old motel? It’s as old as I am!” Then, as the light turned green, I noticed the thoroughfare sign swinging in the wind: Clearwater Avenue, it read.
I headed left towards the Columbia River, and about a quarter of a mile farther on, I felt a tingle start inside me. There was something about the surroundings that felt familiar, although nothing actually appeared to be as it had been. I could not have told you anything about our location other than this: I felt as if I had been here before.
A Relic From My Past
I was about to say that very thing to Elisabeth, when we approached another stoplight. Across the intersection was a two-story motel. The sign out front said Econo Lodge, but despite the years that had passed and the buildings that had sprung up around it – including a Walgreens across the street and several strip centers on either side – I felt certain I was looking at the freshly painted Ballerina Motel.
For a long moment, I was completely dumbfounded. I was like a person who has just discovered they have won the lottery and keeps reading and rereading their numbers to be certain. I said to Elisabeth, “That’s it, honey. That has to be it! Look at the roof line. It’s the same.”
Where the old pool had once been, there was now a long rectangle of gravel, but the OFFICE sign, which hung over a door on the western end of the building, leapt forth from the recesses of my mind like the year was 1961, instead of 2016.
“Holy crap! Can you believe that?” I exclaimed, as a couple of tears ran down my cheeks. At that moment, the light turned green, and we continued through the intersection, but just then Elisabeth shouted, “There’s the REI store!”
Earlier, when it was clear we were making a stop in Kennewick, Elisabeth had googled an REI location here since we both needed to exchange our rainproof booties – mine because they were torn and hers because they were too small. So it seems that we would have found the Ballerina Motel anyway, because REI, my sixty-year-old self’s destination, was directly opposite the motel where my five-year-old self had had his first (and second and third . . .) kiss.
We ate lunch at a tasty spot up the street called Sterling’s, and Elisabeth said, “Why don’t we stop at the Econo Lodge and see if they have any pictures of the old Ballerina Motel?”
For a moment I hesitated, thinking that maybe I would learn that I was wrong, that it was not the old place I thought it was. If that happened, this part of my history would dissipate into the thin air of the desert, and the elation I was feeling at having found it would be forever lost.
Elisabeth, sensing what I was thinking, urged me again. I agreed. As we stepped into the lobby of the motel office, a young Hispanic girl welcomed us. “Need a room?” she asked.
I politely said, “No, but I have an unusual question to ask you.” When she didn’t flinch, I just blurted it out: “Do you know if this was ever the Ballerina Motel?”
Her face lit up and a smile appeared as if it had been lingering there all along. As if asking a question, she said, gently, “Not many people would know that?” Briefly, she and I were locked in a special discourse. It seemed as if I had uttered the name of something sacred, and she was hesitating to see if I was worthy of the information she held.
“But I would,” I replied. “I lived in the Ballerina Motel for several months when I was five years old.”
Apparently, that was enough for her, and she offered the confirmation I had been waiting for.
“My name is Danielle,” she began. “I am the motel manager, and I did some research a while ago, because I wanted to know the history of the place where I work. Yes, this has been several different motels over the years, but the Ballerina was the first,” she said, happily. Then she added, “It’s a good thing you didn’t come twenty minutes later, because my relief person would have known nothing of your request!”
I wanted to reach out and hug Danielle, but instead I introduced Elisabeth and myself and told her a little of my time at the Ballerina. I asked about the pool, and she said someone had crashed into the rock wall, and so the present owners had filled it in, replacing its depths with the rectangle of gravel.
When Danielle mentioned that the basement is still the location for all the motel laundry, however, I didn’t mention that that is where my kissing practice with Julie took place. As I believe Danielle would understand, some memories are better held tight, than shared.
Going Home Again
I understand that there are things in our life that truly come only once and are not meant to be recaptured. Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.” But I believe as well that the past holds a key for each of us. My visit to Kennewick and the old Ballerina Motel was a pilgrimage that needed to be made. The rain and the cold that challenged us – and all the people we have met along the way – somehow prepared me to find my way back to this place so I could better understand the arc of my life.
Before today, the only link to this time was a memory of a five-year-old boy, a post card, and a sixteen-dollar motel room key that jangles in my pocket. But as Elisabeth and I make our way out of town past the Horse Heaven Hills and a sky so big it feels as if it could crush us if we let it, I believe the view ahead is much clearer for having looked back.
Returning to Kennewick helped me remember the happiest time in the life of my family. Once we returned to Florida in the late fall of 1961, there existed a tension and an anxiety in the world and in ourselves that I don’t believe we ever named. For each of us, something had been lost.
In my first grade class in Jacksonville, I would sit under my desk with a backpack beside me, as I and my classmates performed drills to test our preparedness in case of nuclear war. The same atom my father helped to harness at Hanford had become a threat that had the power to subdue the entire world. In second grade, I watched along with all the world as John F. Kennedy was laid to rest. Five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and Dan Rather reported nightly on the onslaught of death from Vietnam.
For a long time, my family seemed to just exist, fending off the tensions of the world and the tensions in our own lives, instead of enjoying one another like we used to. My parents never seemed as close as in the days when we picnicked as a family high in the Cascades or enjoyed outings at Lake Chelan and Mount Rainier. My sister fought daily with my mother over rules and protocol and a philosophy that leaked from everywhere like a sieve. It was, after all, the 1960s.
Life in our home became its own kind of desert, dry of the emotion and love I had known during our time in Kennewick. In my own mind, I dreamed of the freedom I knew just a few years before – the crisp air of a high mountain meadow and the sense that I could be a man someday if just I wore a bigger pair of cowboy boots. After Kennewick I lost that freedom and stumbled, like so many, into a steady mire that robbed us of our identities.
The fact was the world had changed.
But I have this: For a brief period, Kennewick, Washington, was the happiest home my family ever experienced. To relive that, if even for a few short hours, feels very good.