We stood atop the ridge, looking down at everything and nothing all at once.
The everything: Three towns, self-proclaimed cities, separated by rivers, but splayed out before us, a quarter-million people all in sight.
The nothing: The same.
While the veterinarian spent the afternoon repairing her dog’s leg, we spent the day driving about bouncing between the towns, looking for a way to spend the day. Our eyes kept being drawn to all the chains, to the many eateries that our eyes glance past here, if we see them at all. To her, it served as a memory of a bullet dodged, a near encounter with living the next town over, more than half an hour away.
To me, though, it reminded me of a different nowhere town, where I spent a dozen years. A place four times the size, but seemingly equally bereft.
That night, with her dog still under the doctor’s care, we went to dinner with our hosts. The negotiations on where to eat landed us on a Texas-themed chain steakhouse, a chain I think I went to once, in that other city, a couple decades ago when there was seemingly a new themed steakhouse opening on a particular stretch of road every week.
The problem with our planet is that it’s round. And if you run long enough and far enough, you’ll wind up somewhere you’ve already run away from.
Atop that ridge, in the distance, we saw something that looked like sails, shooting up from the land. After staring for a while, we realized we had mistaken steam for a solid, and what were were staring at was the Hanford area, home to more radioactive waste than the rest of the country combined.
In college, I had a roommate who grew up in the town in which we stood, who was fiercely defensive of the work done at Hanford as part of the Manhattan Project. She insisted that site was where The Bomb was built, and cited her high school’s mascot, the tactlessly named Bombers, as evidence to that fact.
I countered with a story of my grandmother’s youth, of how her father was an optometrist working in Oak Ridge, examining the eyes of the men whose work would lead to two of the most destructive moments in human history. One night, he mistakenly left his filing cabinet unlocked, and was interrogated by security the next morning.
A few years ago, I held what may be my family’s only remaining relic from his work: A copper pin, smaller than a penny, acknowledging the small role he played in the larger endeavor. It sits in a safe deposit box, with my mom’s finest jewelry, even though it will likely never be worn again.
I read an article last month about the Elephant’s Foot, a mass of radioactive material in the heart of Chernobyl, and the man who has spent more time in its presence than any other. Remarkably, he seems to be alive and in reasonably good health, despite exposure levels that should have killed him in mere minutes.
But just because a thing isn’t lethal doesn’t mean it can’t be toxic.