Washington Calling

Washington is calling me.

I do not mean, “Pardon me one moment; I must answer an urgent phone call from the president.” I do not mean, “I wish to don shoulder pads and high heels and click-clack down the halls of Congress. I am not referring to the District of Columbia at all. When I say Washington, I mean somewhere bigger, somewhere greener, somewhere farther west. I mean Washington State.

Even now, I hate calling it that. To me Washington was Washington, our evergreen home. In Olympia, we saw orcas in the Puget Sound from our backyard. I learned that sometimes people call them killer whales—call them orcas. The “killer” part is mean, and the “whales” part is wrong: they are a type of dolphin.

We moved into the sound itself, to one of the San Juan Islands. Here, Washington was riding on the ferry—you could sit at cozy booths inside or brave the wind, holding the railing and watching the waves. Washington was field trips to pebble beaches where you clambered up to rocky tide pools and drew pictures of what you found inside. Washington was the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. It was the view of the harbor from our living room. It was learning in school that you get a zip code from first two letters of a state’s name: WA.

Washington was the minor thrill of crossing the border to Canada. My brother and I speculated about the misadventures we might have if we were daring, like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. We thought Calvin would hold up a sign to the window proclaiming help, i’m a prisoner, these are not my real parents. But it was my baby sister, too little to imagine such pranks, who came the closest to alarming the border patrol: one time she started crying, prompting the guard to inquire suspiciously, “Is the baby all right?” Once across, we would go to the Vancouver Aquarium, where outside, I chased the geese, and inside, my brother sketched the piranhas.

Washington was going to our cousins’ in Seattle for New Year’s. We ran around the house playing Wild Things (the grownups didn’t know we were the Wild Things, except for Uncle Dan, who was secretly our leader). Later, I learned that some people in Seattle are sleepless, but we stayed up to watch the ball drop at 9 p.m. (“It’s midnight in New York!”) and then went to bed. Washington was going to our cousin’s in Yakima for Thanksgiving. In the middle of the desert, there was somehow an orchard on the hill leading to their house.

In school we made three-dimensional maps of Washington, mounted on cardboard. The eastern desert was called the plateau. You can remember it because it sounds like plate, the teacher told us. I rendered mine in spiky yellow plaster. After Thanksgiving in the plateau, it was back through the Cascade Mountains. I shaped the plaster into round white peaks. The real colors were richer than I could show on my map: my dad and I went hiking on the base of snow-capped Mount Rainier and found wildflowers. Then we were back in the rainy coast. I summarized it with broad brushstrokes of green paint. If you could peel back the paint, peeking beneath the green needles of the treetops, you might see a raccoon washing its hands, the way I did in Northwest Trek Park. And then it was over the bridge to the Puget Sound, where one of the island dots was home. Sometimes we traveled to other islands, either by ferry or by the ominous Deception Pass Bridge. One year, during I Love To Read Month (February), we charted our reading progress on a map of the San Juan Islands. I had little patience with I Love to Read Month, but I liked that zoomed-in map.

My parents are from Virginia. What had prompted them to load the yard-sale kitchen table into a Mayflower moving truck, strap me and my brother into our car seats, and drive for a whole week, all the way across the spiky yellow cardboard country? “Pioneer spirit,” they said. I knew about pioneers from the Little House on the Prairie books. But I didn’t feel like Laura Ingalls: my life was normal, even when the millennium ended and the Wild Things chanted, “Y2K, Y2K, Y2K. The ball dropped at 9 p.m., just like always, and nothing changed. Until a year later, in 2001, when my parents poured some leftover punch from New Year’s and said we were going “back East.”

In Virginia, people said “Washington” a lot, but they always meant Washington, D.C. We had indoor recess at the slightest sign of rain. Everything went gray in the winter, and the kids called evergreens “Christmas trees.” I brought in pictures from Washington for an “About Me” project, including one of me and my brother and sister in a rainbow of tulips. My teacher asked if we had gone to Holland. No, just Skagit Valley. I learned that you make a zip code with the first and last letters of a state’s name: VA.

Some things in Virginia were the same, like the solar system. My favorite planet was Pluto. The glamorous gas giants were shrouded in mystery, but Pluto was small and rocky, like my tide pools: you could look at it and see what was going on. Pluto was so far away that it made Washington and Virginia seem closer together. I did two different projects about Pluto in the fourth grade, one in each state. I got my punishment five years later: when the astronomers declared that Pluto wasn’t a planet anymore, I was twice as sad as everyone else.

I knew a lot about Pluto, but the night before the state standardized test, I sat on my mom’s bed to learn Virginia history from an expert. “How lucky we are to live here, where all the important parts of American history happened,” the study materials announced. The textbook barraged me with places: The Lost Colony, Jamestown, Williamsburg, Manassas, Petersburg, Appomattox Courthouse. Named for the “Virgin Queen,” the state was also a proud “Mother of Eight Presidents” whose favorite son was Thomas Jefferson (at least in Charlottesville). Reliving her days as a tour guide at the University of Virginia, my mom started calling him Mr. Jefferson. The kids at school called him T.J.

My brother got a map assignment, two-dimensional and bigger than my terrain map. He had to outline the continental United States and mark important geographical features: Appalachians, Rockies, Mississippi River, Rio Grande, Great Lakes. He added Alaska and Hawaii into the Gulf of Mexico. Then he had to cut Virginia out of construction paper and glue it on, along with the states touching its border: Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

I started crying when he brought the map home. I made him outline Washington in shaky pencil in the northwest corner.

I don’t know what happened to my map of Washington or my brother’s map of the country. But my sister’s map hangs on our kitchen wall. She had the same assignment as my brother. “United States of America,” she wrote across the top, in Canada. The map shows signs of age: Maryland is flopping over and Kentucky is curling at the edges. No pencil outline marks the state where my sister was born. Nothing distinguishes the unmarked whiteness of Washington. Nothing, that is, besides the Canadian border, the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and the little indent that sets off the Puget Sound, our old home.

I want to go back. I want to stand on Deception Pass Bridge, rip the “State” out of “Washington State,” and hurl it into the water. I want to say Washington.

If you asked her in the pizza line in the Morse dining hall, Caroline would tell you she is from Virginia. Send her an email at caroline.barnes@yale.edu.

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