Crossing America: Tough talk, tears, on trail to New York
Seattle Times staff reporter
For those of you just joining me, I'm driving from Seattle to New York City, in a rented Expedition, talking to people along the way to find out how they — how we — are dealing with Sept. 11. Driving is my way of dealing. This leg of the trip began in Ellensburg and ended in the Idaho Panhandle, as President Bush seemed to be leading the country to war. By the time you read this, perhaps it has started.
The mood out here seems more hawkish than in Seattle. A morning stop at a roadside espresso stand offered this handwritten sentiment on a piece of cardboard: "Time to kick Terrorist Ass."
The young woman inside the booth looked perfect in a farm-raised, milk-and-toast kind of way except for her pierced tongue. The gold knob bobbed as she talked.
She said her customers have been nicer since Tuesday. People needing coffee can be "kind of impatient." But the usual small irritations have seemed, well, small. "I guess it takes something like this for us to treat each other better."
The gold knob bobbed good-bye. The SUV headed for brown foothills that gave way to yellow fields, vast seas of wheat. A loop through the small towns of the Palouse found the same co-mingling of renewed civility and angry spit.
Having a common enemy will do that.
Towns make only cameos in the rolling landscape, appearing and disappearing in a moment. They are clusters of thoroughly lived-in but tidy homes, guarded by silos that rise up like friendly missiles.
The downtowns of Moscow, Colfax and Palouse were lined with flags, one every 50 feet, as if the mother of Fourth of July parades were about to break out.
In the college town of Moscow, under a locust tree, a couple of students discussed what they would do if drafted. "They don't do that anymore, do they?" one said.
Outside the town of Potlatch, Jonathan Stelzer was hanging clothes to dry in his back yard. He's 30, a fiber-optic technician who doesn't own a television. Waste of time, those things. He listens to radio.
"They wouldn't ask me to fight," he said. "I'm too broken up."
Four years ago, a car accident shattered his back, legs and pelvis. He had to stuff his own entrails back in his body. He's held together by metal and plastic. But he concedes, "This is a very good time to start a war, as long as they do it right."
The Expedition wound through the Palouse, criss-crossing the Washington-Idaho border, cutting through rolling hills of wheat. There's probably nothing more peaceful than an ocean of wheat blown by a gentle wind.
Coeur d'Alene sits up north, a gleaming town of boutiques on the shores of a vast lake. We were contemplating another cup of coffee when the man on the Harley passed on the road.
Men on Harleys don't have girlfriends; they have women, and his woman sat behind him, holding on. On the back of his motorcycle fluttered an American flag.
We followed him. He turned a corner, then another. Two blocks, three blocks, four blocks, and we made our move. The Expedition pulled up alongside the Harley. I rolled down a window. He looked over. He was wearing sunglasses.
I motioned him to pull over.
To my shock, he did. We parked and I walked toward him, reciting a silent prayer and wondering who would feed my dog after they found my remains in a ditch.
He had black hair, olive skin, a granite chin. Big arms. Black leather vest. Black T-shirt. Big, black boots. I extended my hand. He shook it. He assessed me. His woman assessed me.
I told him my story and asked about his. His name is Miguel Cabeza. The woman is Gaye Rabe. They have kids together but are not married. They live in Coeur d'Alene and were riding a 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic, which he built himself.
I asked about the flag.
Cabeza said he was a veteran. He served in the Army in the '70s, just after Vietnam. He put the flag on his bike after "what happened in New York."
He said he'd been watching a lot of TV, and the other night, he recognized a former neighbor from California. The neighbor was describing her son, who was a passenger of the plane that went down outside Pittsburgh.
Cabeza said he tried to contact the woman after he saw her on TV. All of a sudden, Cabeza's face contorted and his bottom lip quivered. His voice broke. He turned away and when he turned back, his eyes were wet behind his shades.
Then with a voice deeper than before, and tightened jaw, he said, "We need to make a strike. We need to strike back."
Woe to those on the wrong side of this anger.
As we pressed east, on roads that ribboned through oceans of wheat, Cabeza's words rode with us. Faces in passing cars all seemed a little wet behind their shades.
Two thousand six hundred and eighty miles to go.
Editor's note: It is an American tradition to take to the road when we are restless or need perspective or just need to move. Reporter Alex Tizon and photographer Alan Berner got in a car after last week's terrorist attack to make their way East. This is his second report. Alex Tizon can be reached by message at 206-464-2216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.