Pacific Highway South: Best American Strip City


Pacific Highway South: Best American Strip City

by Matt Briggs

Walking the Dog

I live across the street from a swampy vacant lot. Cottonwoods grow on the lot’s margins, and around the lot there are houses, apartment buildings, highways. There are a lot of people who never see one another.

A bird’s nest, empty most of the time except during the spring migration, clings to the cottonwood closest to my subdivision.

I’m not exactly sure what my stretch of suburbs is called. There is a sign on the arterial, but there is a sign at each of the three intersection of my neighborhood at the arterial and each one says something different. Pinewood, I think mine says. There is an Oakwood, and a Mapleleaf, too, I think. Inside, though, the same three house plans have been built on top of small knolls, in dells, in a steady ranks up the slope of a long hill. Overgrown trees hold ferns in their the crook of their branches and rotting birdhouses Some of the houses sit among clumps of gigantic fir trees. The generation of maples that must have been planted when the construction crews first installed the units have matured and the city is cutting them down, leaving smooth, whitish flat places where there had been trunks.

There are few sound of people in my neighborhood. Just the sound of the cold wind moving through the cottonwoods, the hollering of some neighborhood girls as they walk down the street; the sound their voices make fill the empty yards. The airplanes moan as they pass overhead. The traffic rumbles and hisses on Pacific Highway South. Even though my neighborhood is populated with people, everyone remains indoors. Christmas lights appear at night, strung during the day maybe, but there nonetheless to cast their light on the empty streets.

I walk my daughter’s beagle through the empty neighborhood. She stops to shiver and poop on someone’s lawn and I pick it up with plastic grocery bags from Safeway. They are so thin I can feel the poop, still warm and fragrant, and then I reverse the bag around the poop and tie it into a knot. As soon as she is finished with her business, she rakes her paws across the ground, scattering moss and grass, and then she pulls on the leash. I pull her back and finish tying off the poop. We wander through the dark neighborhood. I wouldn’t come out of the house if I didn’t have the dog to walk. Outside, though, the sun has just set and it is dark but Puget Sound glows purple under the dark blue of Vashon Island. A jet passes close overhead, silent, except for the rush of air. Banks of lights flash. And then it is gone and still around me there is the sound of moving people and the houses are full of people and I am among them on the empty streets.

Interstate Five

At no point is Pacific Highway South more than five miles west of Interstate Five. A Datsun Z80 honked its horn at me while I was in the left hand lane on the Interstate, the fast lane, doing a little over seventy-miles-an-hour. I do miles-an-hour just as I might do drugs or do something that is as tangible as table salt. I became a little mad. The Z80 veered around me and went down the freeway. I was a little mad and wanted to get in front his car and cut him off. I wasn’t livid or anything but I wanted to teach him some civility – that is how I thought about it, only it wasn’t as articulate as that – it wasn’t that I wanted to teach him anything except I felt a little ashamed that I was in the fast lane and I wasn’t driving fast enough, that I wasn’t doing enough miles per hour.

I don’t really like driving down the freeway at seventy miles-an-hour even in light traffic. On an empty highway it is sort of nice, but among traffic going anywhere from fifty miles-an-hour to over ninety it seems like I am going to slam into a car at any second. The surface of the freeway itself is scarred with high-speed gashes, long streaks of rubber, broken pieces of bumper on the shoulder, strips of split tires, hunks of metal, and dropped garbage from overflowing loads: cushions, blankets, fragments of plywood. For the last several weeks I keep passing the front end of cars. Near the Martin Luther King Way exit, the front end of an Acura sports car lay on the shoulder, the entire thing with the license plate and everything. For several days it lay against wall. Then it had been carefully set on the ground. Several days later it was gone.

I have yet to see a wreck happen on the interstate, although I see the aftermath of wrecks in various state of clean up once a week or so on the interstate. Usually it is in a region of merging traffic mixed with high speed and low speed streams of cars. The wrecks cars are pulverized. Their front ends mashed. Their doors ripped off. The interstate is motion, a realization of the fluidity of location promised by the first highways.

Last week an ambulance headed to Harborview passed me. I could see it a mile behind me on the freeway coming through the traffic. Everyone pulled over and slowed down to fifty miles-an-hour and then it kept by as it passed I finally heard the siren and then it was kept moving through the traffic causing it slow and move to the right as it inched its way at eighty miles-an-hour closer to the medical center. At the Boeing Field and Airport Way exit, a tire on a detached semi-truck exploded. The explosion shook the cars on the freeway. Tiny fragments of rubber scattered into the oncoming lanes, against the cement barriers. Blue smoke hung over the concrete. The sound and smoke suddenly made the entire freeway remote, the site of industrial activity. The majority of the tire peeled away from the semi and flew directly up and then fell into the red sedan following the truck. The truck jackknifed and luckily wasn’t pulling a trailer. The sedan behind it had by this time started to stop because of the length of rubber. I kept moving and moved a lane over, watching phone book sized pieces of rubber slide across the freeway and them I passed in front of the truck. The entire flow of traffic abruptly stopped behind the truck. A half-mile further down I-5, I had the entire place to myself. I did seventy miles-an-hour all to myself.

Pacific Highway South

Interstate Five replaced an older highway, Pacific Highway South. For a time, I-5 shared signs with the old signs of the older highway and then, in 1964, the Washington State Department of Transportation engaged in the great Highway Renumbering and isolated the remnants of Pacific Highway South. The old highway remains where it would have been too expensive to replace. It is a slough of pavement, filled with backwaters and eddies and slowly moving traffic. Just as cattails and lily pads grow in the brackish water of a slough cut off from the current of a river, trailer parks and office parks appear on along the length of the slow moving highway.

At one time, Pacific Highway was known as Primary State Highway One. It was the beneficiary of the first federal assistance for state highway costs under Woodrow Wilson’s Federal Aid Road Act. In 1917, the Washington State highway department under James Allen created the innovation of the straight highway providing for safe and high speed rather than the winding scenic highways that had been built along older routes. Allen used superelevated curves to offset vehicle momentum on curving roadways and created the 20-foot highway. As a then state-of-the art road, Pacific Highway South cut a straight swatch from Seattle to Tacoma, and along its length cities grew in the forest and farmland, and between the cities grew dumps, trailer pars, and housing developments.

Man in the Storm Drain

My daughter noticed a man living near the storm drain lake near our house. The storm drain lake sat behind a chain link fence and collected the run-off from the city streets, the strip mall parking lot, and Pac Highway. The water sits in the pond and slowly filters through the gravel to the McSorley Creek running in the green belt near the highway. McSorey was a Scottish immigrant who established the first farm in the 1870s. The creek runs down a steep gully and passed through tunnels beneath side streets. Finally it comes out at the top of Saltwater State Park. The park includes a stretch of beach from the shore line, but rns like a nervous system in thin belts through the entire neighborhood. The green spaces hold the sound of the creek, birds, and frogs. The green belt behind our house was near the creek’s headwater. A man lives in the forest.

We left the house one day to buy Slurpees. We cut through the vacant lot, between the clumps of blackberries, across the field that had been bulldozed and then overgrown with scotch broom. An old aluminum truck trailer split and rusted and accumulated spray paint. An old couch collapsed in the rain and sun. We passed a bundle of rags holding a man sleeping under a stand of maple trees. At first I thought he might be dead. I realized it was the man who I’d seen on the sidewalk a few times, mostly in the early morning when I was on my way to work. He slept now curled under his rags. He had a puffy, grey ski jacket, blue jeans stained with dirt until they were the color of asphalt, a knit blanket rolled into a garbage bag. He wore a knit cap. His skin was shiny at the exposed edges, his nose, his cheeks. He was covered with long, grey and brown strands of hair. He had a shiny hand over his face as he slept. We walked past him without disturbing him.

The 7-11 parking lot has trouble. The asphalt was laid in a haphazard way so that it has peaks and valley and stray pieces of garbage collect in the folds, cigarette butts made fuzzy in the damp, straw wrappers, bus transfers, and slivers of lotto tickets. The pole for the bus stop lists and is surrounded by a heap of butts. The cement slab in front of the 7-11 holds unidentified stains, nicotine from Kodiak chewers spit, caffeine and coffee grounds from spilled travel mugs. Prostitutes work the intersection. Pimps and dealers loiter near the payphones, an historical gesture since they are all equipped with cell phones.

Inside the store with its worn but clean yellow linoleum, the slick wieners circle on their oiled, rotating bed. My daughter inspects the long aisle of candy. She eats Wonderballs, a sphere of Nestle chocolate with tiny, sugar tokens inside in the shape of famous Disney characters. She gets a Slurpee in the day-glow green cup with a day-glow orange straw – electric blue raspberry. We pay and cross the sidewalk and encounter then the McSorley Stream on the other side of the highway, behind the strip mall. In this space – undeveloped, lies another empty fields. At one edge of the field there is a stands of trees that leads into a forest. In this forest people have been dumping things for twenty years. Unlike a country dump, as a dumping ground this material finds itself in heaps convenient to the existing roads. Local kids have set up old chairs in room like spaces. Some old pallets have been set up as a stage.

For almost twenty years, a serial killer stalked the prostitutes on the strip. He discarded bodies in informal dumping grounds like this. When I first moved to Pac Highway, the Green River killer was convicted of forty-eight counts of murder. He had been allowed to kill for so long because no one wanted to disturb the privacy of the suburbs. Although the image of King County sheriffs pulling a tarp loaded with a body from a vacant lot continues to haunt the strip, no one seems to disturb the uncommonly large population of prostitutes. Houses are built with their back to the highway. Bodies continue to turn up.

We drink our Slurpees under the clouds and then cross back to our house. The mad man has moved on. He isn’t there.

I’ve seen the mad man a number of times. 1. He walked on the sidewalk with his coat on backwards. His sleeves hung loose from his hand and he swung them. He wore his stocking cap and shouted at the sky. 2. He walked from the Safeway strip mall down the main north south road passing in front of the development where we live. He had his head down and stopped to inspect something on the ground. 3. He left the 7-11 carrying a hot dog. He stopped at the bus stop and started to eat it. I was at the stoplight, and the light turned, so I turned toward my house.

He lives in the same space that I live, this plot of land at the head of the McSorley Creek.

Siskiyou Trail

The route of Pacific Highway follows the Siskiyou Trail, itself based on an ancient network of indigenous footpaths connecting Puget Sound with California’s Central Valley. By the 1820’s Hudson Bay trappers such as Peter Skene Ogden, Alexander Roderick McLeod, and Michel Laframboise used the route. In 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition traveled from the San Juan Islands to California. Along the route in 1948, the discovery of gold near Yreka brought thousands of Forty-Niners along the trail in search of their fortunes.

During this time, the terrain was rough and a traveler could only expect to travel 20 miles in a day with a mule train and horses. In the 1860s, toll roads were built, passable by stagecoach. The first telegraph line went through in 1864. The first rail line wasn’t completed until 1887. The Pacific Highway, a rough road allowed the passage of automobiles in the early 1900s. In 2000, it is not uncommon for a traveler to leave Seattle at dawn and travel 800 miles over the route, the entire length, and arrive in San Francisco at night.

Dog Attack A dog attacked my daughter’s beagle on Thursday while I took on her an evening walk. I want to say a dog attacked my family – but this sounds like the dog mauled everyone in my family, which it could have, but instead it only mauled the beagle. Although we all feel that we have been mauled, the beagle is the only animal in our family with teeth holes in her fur.

My daughter liked to announce that we are going for a walk with the dog by shouting “walkies” over and over again because her beagle begins to yowl and roll her eyes. Our beagle is a walk fetishist. Every piece of paraphernalia associated with the walk, the leash, her collar, plastic bags for collecting her poop, the front door handle, people putting on shoes, the word “walk,” everything becomes evidence to her that we are about to go for a walk. By the time my daughter says “walkies,” in her piercing falsetto, the evidence is clear and the beagle is about to crawl out of her skin.

Part of the reason that my daughter becomes so excited by the dog’s excitement is that the beagle is nonplussed about most things aside from food. Even her endless loitering around in the kitchen and under the dining room table is done with a kind of nonplussed, despondent waiting. At times, we’ve thought the beagle was depressed. But, she is purely docile to the point of being practically inert. My daughter plays with her and arranges her limp limbs, dresses her in old clothes, and one time stuffed her into the bottom of a sleeping bag and we spent ten minutes trying to figure out where the dog was. In short, she is a perfect dog in some ways for a five-year-old child, because my daughter would most likely have been at least nipped by a less docile dog. But, it is this sense of life in her brought about by the walk that excites my daughter. She often asks why don’t we have a dog that plays fetch? Because we have a dog with whom she can peel back the eyelids when she is interested in seeing what is behind eyeballs.

Our dog’s docility is a trade off, and one that I’m happy to make because I grew up in a dog neighborhood filled with farm fields and vast lawns and unleashed dogs who would sometimes chase kids walking past their houses. I learned to lean down and clutch a handful of gravel and this usually stopped the rush of the dogs, this gesture down to grab the gravel. But, I’ve had to throw rocks at dogs. Another time when I was my daughter’s age one of my dad’s customers brought his very friendly and sleek Doberman pincher to the house. Why is he called a Doberman pincher? Does he pinch people? While my dad and his customer tried out the merchandise, they put me out in the yard with the dog and the dog proceeded to chase me down and then somehow roll me across the yard. I just remember the dog nipping me, and I was getting tossed somehow. Maybe I was flailing around. And crying and screaming and the dog was nipping me, and finally my dad and his customer came out and put the dog in the car and went back to business. Perhaps as result of these incidents, I am not a dog person.

But, we don’t live in the country like I did when I was a child with plentiful heaps of gravel and vast lawns or fields. Instead, we live among reduced sight lines and hidden spaces, a region of asphalt roads, wooden fences, and garages. The space in the suburb where I live has been divided and broken down into even smaller chunks. My father asked why we had two rings of fences on our sliver of land. The outer fence was set to keep people from cutting across the lawn in their trucks. The inner fence was placed to have a place where a dog could wander without wandering off. This was helpful with our beagle because she smells things and becomes entranced by their smell and kept following the smell, and we were told by the pound this is often how beagles become lost. They follow a smell and then look up and are somewhere else completely. Our suburb is a compact region of subdivided, private spaces surrounded by motion, highway, freeway, shipping lane, and flight path.

This abundance of privacy breaks down all of the normal civic functions I associate with living in the city. A city to me is where there is foot traffic, people eating and drinking in street level places, a mix of businesses and living but in the suburb where I live there is merely privacy, there are merely front doors, wooden fences, and garages. There are asphalt roads in which people ride in their cars. Civic activity takes places at agreed on public sites, such as the churches, schools, the mall or the downtown parks, but these are all distances that require people driving there. As a result of this privacy, I do not know my neighbors, even though I’ve lived in my house for three and more years. I find contact with my neighbors slightly sinister, because their interest never feels neighborly but predatory. When Wayne came around my house, he asked a lot of questions about my daughter and really nothing else. He was missing a tooth. He wore an unwashed plaid shirt and peered through the windows of my house – into MY PRIVACY – while he asked his questions, which were not his business to ask. When Keith and his pleasant wife dropped off a loaf of banana bread in a tin we were obligated to return, we found they wanted to recruit us to their church, and get our daughter enrolled in their private religious school. I value the privacy as much as anyone. In the city, I shared my space with strangers. In the suburbs, I can connect my discrete location to other locations based on criteria different than proximity.

The beagle thought does not know about privacy. Rather she is vastly interested in the smells produced by the other dogs in the neighborhood, and I get the sense of her, her walk is a chance to break out of her cloister and socialize even it is primarily through the medium of other dog’s urine.

My daughter and I passed an open garage. We could see inside the garage to the person’s neatly staked U-Haul boxes, their lawn implements stacked on the wall, it was a bit like seeing that a button on someone’s shirt was open and that you could see their skin underneath. A tiny poodle with a golf ball in her furry mouth began to race toward us.

My daughter adores poodles because she believes they are playful and poodles, with their fluffy hair generally conform to an idealized version of “cute.” “A poodle!” my daughter said.

The beagle leaned toward the dog, excited to socialize with a real, live dog rather than a urine sample.

A very short, blunt nosed dog, a pit bull mix, or something, a dog that was essentially all legs, neck, and mouth darted from the garage. A man inside the house began to shout and wave his arms. And then, the mouth dog attached itself to the soft, fleshy underside of my daughter’s beagle. The mouth dog began to work its neck muscles. Rather than bite or fight, my daughter’s beagle made a started, docile yelp.

I started to yell and kicked the dog off my beagle. My daughter backed away and looked around at the houses for help. I kept yelling, “Go away! Get back!” I was yelling as loud as possible and the dog circled and then dove at my beagle again. By this time, I thought the dog had finally opened up the beagle’s stomach. Saving the beagle seemed improbable now. She was in pain, but she kept making soft yelps that I could hardly hear because I was screaming.

I kept kicking the dog, and it kept diving and this seemed to go along for a long time and I thought it was only a matter of time before the beagle was turned into hamburger.

Finally, the man who had been yelling pulled the dog back and took the dog inside.

I began to check the beagle, and I was amazed to find her soft tissue under her stomach intact. At first, I didn’t find any marks on her.

The man came out and began to apologize and for some reason I apologized for kicking his dog. He said the dog wasn’t supposed to get out of the house.

“Your dog is crazy, I said. “Why does anyone own a dog like that?” I kept thinking as I looked at this man who seemed like a very nice man, he was softly spoken and he owned up completely to the fact that he owned a crazy killing machine mouth of fangs for a dog. Did the fact that he had an animal like this make him feel safe? Did the possibility that his dog would kill a passing toddler make him feel any safer?

In a strange moment of contact, I asked the man for his phone number and he gave me to me written in shaky handwriting on a sticky note. “Well, it’s nice to meet you,” I said, “Even if this is how we met. I live just over there.” As I gestured I pointed across hedges, fences, garages, and houses full of who knew what private horrors. I might as well have been pointing to Ellensburg or Boston. I lived blocks away.

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