I stayed too long at a Starbucks outside Spokane trying to get a post done. As I left the sun was setting, and I didn’t have much time to make it to the Grand Coulee Dam. My parents were in their RV and parked at a campground not far from Grand Coulee, and we were hoping to catch the evening laser show at the dam. I knew I didn’t have time to get to the campground, so I called to tell them I’d meet them at the park itself.
I made good time and arrived a few minutes before my folks. I walked around the visitor’s center playing with the exhibits meant to teach kids how dams work. I already knew how dams worked of course. I’d learned the last time I was at the Columbia River, on Day Two of my trip when I stopped at Bonneville Dam in Oregon.
My folks arrived and we grabbed some warm gear out of the cars. We knew the laser show was a good half hour long, and it was getting chilly. I wore my sleeping blanket around my shoulder like a shawl. I was getting used to being prepared for anything.
Colorful lasers shot across the flat cement faces on the dam and the show began. It was narrated by the low, booming male voice of the Columbia River itself. He spoke at length about his own power, wildness, and might. He told us the history of the region, and how it was once used by natives before the white farmers came. Then the top soil dried up. He explained how the huge Columbia Basin Project, which built over a dozen dams along the Columbia River, also helped the country get through World War Two. Most of the story was told with a slow, authoritative pace, but he sped up when he started to talk about how the dam was built and how it worked. This was a shame because these were the parts that sounded most fascinating to me. Did I hear him say something about hand polishing the granite bedrock so they could lay the original concrete? I’ll never know.
Near the end of the show there was the obligatory homage to American prosperity and ingenuity. The song “They’re Coming to America” played over the speakers and the laser images showed famous American symbols and landmarks.
“Far,” Neil sang, “we’ve been traveling far.”
The first thing shown in the montage was Mount Rushmore, where I’d been just ten days earlier.
“They’re Coming to America.”
Next up was the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., and I thought about standing in the spot in Pennsylvania where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.
“Oh, we’re traveling light today.”
There was the Liberty Bell, whose Wisconsin replica sits in the Madison Capitol Building and looks down on the labor protestors who sing there every afternoon.
There was the striking image of the Statue of Liberty, and I thought about seeing that same statue in Las Vegas, in Birmingham, and on the side of a lonely highway in Nebraska.
“Home, to a new and shiny place.”
A bald eagle flew across the screen, like the pair my parents and I had seen that afternoon flying over Kootenai Falls, or that one perched on the side of the road in Minnesota, or in that birdcage in Dubuque.
“They’re coming to America.”
It took me four months to see America and here it was, flashing before my eyes.
Today. Today. Today.
After the show I joined my parents back at the campground. I pondered the significance of spending the first and last nights of my trip near the banks of the mighty Columbia River. I closed my eyes thinking, “This is my last night on the road. Tomorrow I will sleep in my own bed again.”