In November of 2008 I spent a week guest teaching nonfiction writing at the University of Idaho. I was accompanied by my aging guide dog “Vidal” a yellow Labrador retriever who’d retire the following month. He was still a good worker and a boon companion though straight off I found he was a vehicle for rubicund creationists who were holding a mini-convention in the Best Western. You know this hotel: a pasteboard phantasm of breakfasts, carpet deodorants, bad plumbing, a cocktail bar straight out of “Breakfast of Champions” with faux paneling and lava lamps. And the creationists who admiring Vidal would step in front of us to ask if I understood the earth is only 4,000 years old? “Nice doggy, nice doggy, sir, do you know the earth is only 4000 years old?”
Cheapness in architecture means you can’t get three abreast in a corridor so Vidal couldn’t find a way around creationist one who for the sake of nuance I’ll call Decimus Tite Barnacle. “Well, you know, ” I said, “I’ve things in my refrigerator that are older than that.” And Old Decimus wasn’t having it for he proclaimed this was no joke and I said, “excuse me but doggy gotta poo poo” and shoved him aside. This was day one in Moscow, Idaho; hour one. The first ten minutes. Outside was no better. The town smelled of rotting plants.
The students and faculty at the university were marvelous. We had lively, imaginative, and altogether useful conversations about writing, life on and off the pages, good books to read, the uses of curiosity. I loved everyone I met who had even the slightest interest in writing. And then there was the Best Western. Each night I’d return to a cloud of disinfectant spray, drunken creationists, overly solicitous waitresses in the grim dinette who thought that being blind I might need spoon feeding and who said “god bless you darling” when I’d ask for a fork.
Of this waitress clan I’ve met many and let’s not be sexist some are men, though yes the general “prole” nature of the thing is the thing, barbers, doormen, cab drivers, the maitre de, all believing the blind man is going to come apart like a bad banjo right before them and so they radiate a good natured panic at the sight of you.
At the university they thought I knew a thing or two. In the hotel I was a lost lamb of god.
By day two I was informed that the odor on the wind was rotting potato plants. Vidal and I walked up and down and he scented the air and my sinuses filled and we discovered that every third storefront in town was some kind of Christian venue–reading room, fortress, safe house, donjon, turret, bunker, for some of them were below street level like tattoo parlors. Yes and there were despoiled Christians outside each establishment who “loafed” as Walt Whitman might have it but they had no love in them and would step into our path and say things like: “You know Jesus is watching you, don’t you?” Or, “What did you do in your past life to wind up this way?” The stink of a million potato plant corpses like a sand storm.