I went back to the apartment today to do some more cleaning and bring home most of the little detritus left behind in the rush of a move. When I moved the doormat to sweep the front entryway, I found this note:
I chose not to post its contents here. But I did read it. It wasn’t signed but I’m pretty sure I know who it’s from.
Kivi has a friend who lives in the apartment upstairs and across the breezeway from us. The girl is the same age, a skinny, dirty-blonde-haired child who is usually left to her own devices. Her mother is divorced and has a live-in boyfriend, from what I’ve been able to gather. I never see the adults except in the occasional passing out front, while on their way from a job or school. They don’t seem to take much interest in the girl or her doings. The girl is a troublemaker because no one takes an interest in guiding her. Always throwing trash around, marking the playground equipment, being loud, etc. But she is also very bright, and if given the benefit of the doubt, one could call her clever and mischievous. She is desperate for friends, but her troublesome nature drives most of them away, including my daughter, because she influences the other kids to get in trouble. Parents like me have done our part, too. We have done the necessary thing–maybe you should give that girl some space–because we want to guide our children in the right direction. But I don’t even know what that is, especially on days like this.
So, this note. It’s a page and a half–long by ten-year-old standards. It begins by relating in sweet detail the first moments of friendship between this girl and Kivi. A befreckled redhead dancing down the aisle of the bus–my daughter– and the first tenuous and risk-laden words kids dare when they are getting to know each other. What’s your name? Where do you live? Where did you move from? Do you like Monster High?
The note descends into sadness, though. It wonders why Kivi is never around to play. It asks if they are semi-sisters, or distant friends, or not friends. This small missive in teal ink, unafraid to pose the questions adults learned long ago not to ask. It hurts too much to know the truth sometimes. Or to acknowledge it. The internal constant questioning so ever-present in young minds. Always examining. Still brave and innocent. No adult coping methods like resignation or denial or….
And then we moved. Again. We loaded our things onto the truck, in search of a better life. The apartment was just a life boat for eight months, until we could buy a house. I put to the back of my mind and buried the idea that yes, I was tearing my kids from their friends again. Taking them away, to yet another new school, and the struggle of making new friends again. Taking them from their apartment friends, and the bonds and memories that are bound to fade. And that is the greatest guilt. The deepest second-guessing. Am I doing the right thing? Is it worth it? Will my kids remember this as a great adventure? The one I sell it to them as? Or will they blame me for taking them from their dear friends, the ones they started this journey with back in Colorado? Will they hate me for taking them from their apartment friends here that they learned so much from in their new state of Washington? I feel guilty because I’m not only responsible for hurting my own kids, but it’s my fault in a way, too, that their friends hurt. Their friends have every right to hate me, too. Will they understand someday? Is the pursuit of ‘a better life’ really as noble as we all believe it to be? Or is it better to keep our shared souls and secrets close to us? Should we have stayed, because our ideas of happiness that we chase are ghosts? How big can our circle stretch?
I grieve because this is the price tag hanging on the shrink-wrapped, shiny package of ‘a good life’. And I don’t have enough in my wallet.
Author’s Note–this is chapter 5 in the ongoing saga of my trip to Washington in 2014 for a family emergency. Scroll down or dig through the archives to view previous chapters.
Bumping and bouncing along Sand Creek Road, I guide my doughty old CJ-5 along the rock-strewn ruts. The trail climbs the shoulder of a ridge, and soon we emerge from the shaded cool of the forest into a large meadow at the top. Through a few thin trees we can see the low, rolling hills of the Medicine Bow mountains, and farther on, glittering through the late afternoon haze, the Desolation Peaks and part of the Neversummer Range.
In the passenger seat, she grips the ‘oh-shit’ handle in fervent, white-knuckled prayer. Her thick, auburn hair, cut just shy of her shoulders, sparkles in the sun as it whips, without restraint, in the breeze. In a khaki-colored denim jacket and blue jeans, she flashes a broad grin at me while the wind rushes through the trees like the roar of a distant crowd at a football game. Occasionally a small, green offshoot thick with the scent of pine reaches in for a swipe at her cheek.
I bring the Jeep to a stop in the middle of the trail. No sense pulling off because, after all, who is around? Just us and the dark and lovely woods. The exhaust ticks as it cools and a fly buzzes through the space between our faces and the windshield. It circles a few times, maybe drawn by the smell of sweat, before flying off toward some fate only insects know. My long-time friend from fourth grade slides out of her seat and walks into the grass to climb a small hill. She holds a flattened hand palm out to her brow in a salute against the sun, looking, searching, admiring. When I see her turn toward me, expectant, I, too, ease myself from behind the wheel and walk to her.
“It’s so beautiful.” She whispers.
“Why are you whispering?” I ask.
“Shh. Don’t ruin it.”
We stand together on the hill in silence, watching clouds swaddle distant peaks like mothers caring for babies. Who is the elder? The wind carved and jagged upthrust of rock, or the ephemeral ever-present vapors, recycled endlessly from sky to land to sea and then back again?
If the mountains and the sky above have a lifetime of lifetimes to tell their story, we two humans on the hill have none. In the metronomic sway of branches we can see our clock is ticking. I lean over until I can interlock my fingers with hers and for a moment we stand together, united in the moment. But it is only a moment.
She sighs and wriggles free and hops toward the road in a weaving navigation between gopher holes and tussocks of grass.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. I already know.
“You know.” She is hiking back in the direction we came, not to return to her seat but down the trail by foot, soon to disappear from view behind a stand of trees at a bend in the road.
The truth is I never forgot the precious times in Sunday school so long ago, passing notes and seizing every chance at a touch, or a smile, or a few words together. Stolen, small moments of love and sin so delicious, yet so utterly laden with risk in our simple, fourth-grader minds. But, after a time, her parents convinced her she could do better than a trucker’s son, and so we drifted. She to homecoming queen, and I to, well…
“Where are you going?” Shouting so she can hear over the wind, but she doesn’t answer. With a final, sad smile thrown over her shoulder she is gone again, just like so many years ago. My stomach knots with the certainty I have lost her again and can never follow. I call out one more time.
“Where are you going?”
She is gone. But the mountains are still there.
The dream dissolves into the glossy pattern of wood on the ceiling of my little nook. I roll up on an elbow to slip my phone from the table. 5:10am, it says. I lay back and tap my way through a check of the weather. The dream plays over and over again in my mind, so vivid, and I find myself longing to see her once again. Hear her laugh and watch the shine in her eyes. Maybe an hour of internet will make me forget.
At six-thirty, I hear the creak of the floor and dishes clinking downstairs. After dressing, I pad down the narrow stairs in my socks. At the last step, I misjudge the depth of it and tumble into a heap on the landing with a bruised shin.
“Oh my goodness! Are you okay?” Jane, Frank’s wife, leans out of the kitchen doorway.
“Ugh. Yeah, think so. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. You had an accident.” She says.
“I was apologizing for the racket.”
“Nonsense.” She declares. Who uses that word anymore?
After I recover and stand up, I slip into the kitchen.
“Everything is self-serve in this house. Bowls are in that cabinet,” she points, “—and silverware in that last drawer there.”
“Oh, thank you so much.” I spot bags of cereal on a shelf in a small dining nook off the kitchen. Frank is already there. He pours cereal from two different bags into a bowl, and then tips a jug of milk into it.
“Morning.” He doesn’t look up from his milk.
“Good morning.” I sigh. I won’t wake properly until ten or so.
“Fantastic, yes, thank you.” The truth is, it’s the best sleep I’ve gotten in probably a decade. Long years of dogs that I married into, and a restless wife, and now children who wake in the middle of the night with nightmares or potty breaks has done its damage. I can’t remember the last time I slept as well as I did that night. I’ve been awake barely twenty minutes and can’t wait for evening.
Today we will drive across town to the apartments my parents had reserved. We are to meet a leasing manager there to see if they can transfer to a ground-floor apartment. A tangled mess of red tape and paperwork await, and since my parents may not be in full possession of their wits, I am tagging along to assure things go smoothly. This is akin to giving a man a second shovel with which to dig the same hole.
After breakfast I rinse my bowl and step onto the back deck. I just want some fresh air. Frank’s home is large and low, a seeming bungalow with a heritage from the ‘30’s. The eaves reach out to give shelter from sun and rain, and a front porch stretches the full width of the house. The front yard is lush and green and overgrown, and a long row of conifers borders the property on all three sides. There is barely a hint of neighbors or even a city on the other side. God, look at the trees. I have never seen trees so tall. If I smoked the butt would drop from my gaping mouth. Clouds set aglow with early morning sun scud by just over the treetops, and above those, sapphire patches of a perfect clear sky open outwards to infinity.
Frank, Jane, and my parents soon come bustling out the side door. Off the deck we’ll step, onto the driveway. I help Don wrangle his oxygen into the Jeep, and in the back my mother is alone after I wrestled the recalcitrant oxygen tank into the house the previous evening. Frank and Jane will lead us in their car.
Easing backwards into the street, I shift into ‘Drive’ and accelerate to follow Frank.
“Oh!” My mother grunts with alarm behind me.
“You’re gonna want a right at the stop sign, and then a left, and then it kind of curves around, like so,” Don gestures as he talks.
Frank takes a left at the stop sign. We follow him without turning again for five blocks. Then a right and downhill.
“Well, I guess he’s taking us a different way.” says Don.
After a ten minute drive, Don guides me into a near collision before I opt to gracefully ignore him and depend on my own intuition. Frank has bumped into the parking lot of the housing complex. With a hard left I follow and ease into a spot beside him.
The apartments are two-story buildings sectioned into two spaces on the ground floor, and two on the second. The ground floor is perfectly level with the sidewalk. The top floor, however, is accessed via a set of welded steel steps, thirteen in all. Unlucky. You can see this in pictures on the website. Why did they choose a second-floor apartment?
At the leasing office, the light is on. My mother turns the handle and enters first, followed by Don, then Jane and Frank. I bring up the rear. Introductions and handshakes ensue.
The leasing manager is Jessica Alba. Well, more accurately, her doppelganger. Possibly an alien clone disguised as the actress in order to catch us off guard. She returns to her desk to sit primly in a creaky chair and push a dark lock of hair behind her ear. I take a seat where I muse on the possibility of subduing this obviously nefarious nymph before she can kill us all and feed us to her pet. I let my mind wander for entertainment like that. It’s what I do.
“So, I understand you would like to switch from the lease you’re in now, to a new one?” Jessica begins.
“Ah-huh. That’s correct.” My mother, punctuated by the wheeze-click of Don’s oxygen regulator.
“Okay, so first we’ll need you to fill out and sign this Notice of Intent to Vacate, and also this Request for Exemption.” Jessica retrieves a few forms from a drawer of the desk and slides them toward us. “Once those are approved, then we’ll generate a new lease.”
It is at this time I become aware that Frank has not advised me he intends to press home the attack. I watch in horror as he swivels all his guns to starboard for a broadside. He is on the edge of his seat.
“Look, lady. We’re not gonna mess around with any of this bullshit. If you’re trying to pull something on us, I’m an architect and I know all the attorneys in this town and most of ‘em in the state of Washington. We will not be treated this way.” The muzzles of his guns erupt in fire and sooty black powder fills the air with an awkward silence.
Jessica Alba barely flinches under the blast wave. She meets Frank’s stare, then turns her gaze to the old lease on her desk. I can see her furiously tapping out a signal morse code. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. We have engaged the enemy. But outwardly she is a cool customer, and remains focused on the business at hand. She turns back to Frank.
“Mr. Densmore, I understand your frustration, but in order to handle this we have to first void the old lease before we can put you in a new one. And it has to be approved by my supervisor.”
“I’m sure there’s a process they have to follow. We just have to work through it. Let’s not get too fired up just yet.” I offer.
Frank relaxes in the chair. Jessica explains the process (for the third or fourth time, I’m sure of it). More uncomfortable silence interspersed with small talk while they fill out the forms. Finally, we leave Jessica in the smoking hulk of the gun turret while we exit to abandon ship. I’m positive whatever chance we had at a ground floor apartment evaporated with my distant relative’s fusillade. Send a damage control party and advise at once.
With the wreckage in our wake, we roll on. We’re off to WalMart to pick up sundries and a newspaper. While the oldsters wander the aisles, I feign a need to shop for souvenir toys, so I head to the back of the store. I pull Jessica’s business card from my pocket and dial the number. Maybe an apology will patch some of the holes.
“Abbey Drive Apartments, this is Jessica. How may I help you?”
“This is Commander Avenger of the Galactic 3rd Fleet. Power down your weapons and prepare to be boarded. Hey, this is the Irish Avenger. We just met at the office to talk about the Densmore lease transfer.”
“I will die before I surrender to you, Commander! Oh. Yes. What can I do for you?”
“I intend to take your ship as a prize, enslave your crew, and seduce you while we lounge on the pleasure planet of New Hefner. Surrender now or be destroyed. My relative Frank was totally out of line back there, and I wanted to apologize. I don’t believe in stuff like that and it was completely rude, given their situation. They should be more thankful.” I say.
“Never! You will never take me alive! Prepare to self-destruct! It comes with the territory. I know they’ve had a tough time. I appreciate you calling, though, Mr. Avenger. Thank you.”
Well, fine. If that’s the way you want it, then. Beam that woman to my quarters and destroy her ship! Also, someone call the galley and send up a nice Riesling, say a 2044 vintage. You’re welcome. Sorry again. Take care.”
Fantasy. Sometimes it’s the only salve that gets me through.
It’s afternoon already. We head toward home to eat a quick lunch of cheese and crackers. We figure it’s time to drive down to the marina to get some fish, so while the women stay home, Frank, Don and I pile into the Jeep again. Northward from the house, out onto the small peninsula beside Boston Harbor.
“Bah-ston hah-bah. We got to take the cah to Bah-ston. Where ah we, old man?” Frank jokes in his best imitation of an east coast accent.
“Why do they call it Boston Harbor?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they liked tea. Or hated taxes.” Frank says.
“I’ve always found the people of Washington to be very easygoing.” adds Don.
At the marina I park on the grass directly in front. A wooden ramp leads to a boardwalk and a large dock with picnic tables scattered on it. Ahead, the dock stretches into the harbor with boats tied off at either side. While Frank goes inside to assess the seafood situation, Don and I walk slowly toward the end of the dock.
People say the sea has an odor. The flavor of salt. I’ve never sensed anything besides a swampy smell which reminds me of old creature movies. Maybe the sea has the power to romanticize the senses. Certainly it commands us to dream. It compels us to wonder what is at the horizon. What is in store for us while we reef our sails and heave the wheel over? I could spend a million words on the sea, but they would still never broach the surface and form an island on which I could reason it all out. All too often we are flotsam at the mercy of the wind. Where does it drive us?
Don leans on a post while he watches the gulls swoop and dive in the harbor. I can hear him inhaling the air-steady breaths through his nose. Sensing. Remembering to the time of his youth and his childhood here. It’s as if every lungful is medicine he is desperate to take in. Maybe the moon’s ancient and inexorable pull can draw the poison from him like a poultice. Soak up the age and fasten once again the wrecked tissue inside. Let the water minister to you. Let the tide be your healer.
Beyond him, the water sparkles in the afternoon sun. I can see another spit of land over there, so close and yet I couldn’t swim to it. It rises green out of the water and I wonder if we can go there tomorrow. With a few more steps on the swaying dock, we come to the end. I perch the camera on the weathered wood and set the self-timer for a picture.
After a short rest I follow Don in a slow walk back toward the small fishermen’s shop and shore. Frank is there waiting, with a large plastic sack in his hand. Inside, encased in crushed ice, are two of the most beautiful and largest salmon I’ve ever seen. Caught that morning, he says. We’re gonna filet these and marinate ‘em. I’ve got a treat for you.
Through the wide open suburbs of north Olympia we cruise, waving to strolling retirees and children and other cars that pass by. We lose the sun when we drive under a canopy of huge stands of ash, cedar and pine. Past an old logging area, bare except for stumps that stick up like gravestones. Back down the avenue leading to his house and into the driveway. Now is when we will rest.
Old Sol has long passed the noon meridian, easing toward the western horizon and the vast Pacific Ocean that dodges our glance out beyond the Olympic range. I help Frank prepare the fish. He is going to smoke it and will rise every two hours overnight to monitor the process. So tender and sweet. Be the best fish you ever had. But I have to stay up to make sure it’s perfect.
With thoughts of salmon and survival swirling in my mind like eddying currents, I open the door to go in and leave Frank reclining in a patio chair. Inside, the lights are on in a warm glow that spills from the windows onto the driveway. Now is when we will rest.
There are a thousand quotes about travel on the internet, and they are all bullshit.
Do not try to lecture me about the magic of the road. About how a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Well, no shit. I had a counselor tell me to take baby steps. I had an alcoholic girlfriend say to take one day at a time. I had a brother advise me once to break things up into manageable pieces. Well, all my pieces are shrapnel. None of those folks are in my life anymore. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to discover where all the little bits belong. Each day brings one less breath and I am angry.
The truth about road trips, about journeys, about driving, is that for each of us it is different. I recall many years ago, after poring over every book I could find of Edward Abbey’s, a definition and a picture formed of Moab, Utah, in my mind. I imagined a single paved highway piercing a speck of a town, with maybe a dusty lane or two branching off from it for the few citizens who lived there. Maybe that was true, long ago. Now, though, well, we’ve all been there. Even I finally made it there. It’s two lanes in each direction of nearly ceaseless traffic of every sort, with a maze of side streets crammed into the canyon as if every Jeeper there used a prybar in a team effort. It took me half an hour to find booze to take back to camp. So went the idyllic mirage of Moab in my mind, poof, wiped by the dirty washrag of reality. So it goes, here, too, on this road.
The truth about the Irish Avenger is that he is selfish and lazy. When my aunt suicided in February of last year, I drove my mother to Iowa for the funeral. Jeannie had been the cool aunt, the youngest of seven children. She was bright and bubbly and decorated her kitchen with chickens. But I spent little time thinking of her. I watched the miles scroll by outside the chilled glass, dreaming of the history of the country that passed. Decrepit old buildings chewed by sun and wind. Gigantic aerial turbines on grain covered hillsides turning like Don Quixote’s windmills. Waving me off. Deflecting. Driving me away. From what? From facing the inexorable fact that there is an end to each of us?
The facts of life and death are tedium to me. As children we all learn there is a limit to the fun. We beg of our parents that we don’t want to die. We have nightmares. And then we grow up and accept it, but really we’re pushing it out of our minds, aren’t we? We get on with living and then one day we’re in a nursing home, looking forward to chocolate pudding when something lurches inside our chest and the end comes. We die with a look of surprise on our face. Why? We knew it was coming. Did we spend our lives absorbing as much beauty as we could? Or do we use the busyness (not a misspelling) of the day to forget our clock is ticking? Am I so afraid to face the dread of the final finish that I’d rather turn and look out the window? Did I dishonor my aunt because I chose to eschew gazing on the pale rider and instead admire the weathered woodgrain on old fenceposts?
Now, here, on the road heading westward toward the sea, the silence inside the cab is a vacuum that draws in reflection. A coalescence whirling around my head of memories and an assay of all that has happened before. Beside me, Don shifts in his seat every now and then and wheezes occasionally. I drive in dread that every sound he makes will be the last. What will I do if he slumps and goes cold? With his sternum busted open, will CPR even work?
Behind me, my mother dozes. Sometimes she wakes and looks outside.
“Chris. Where are we?”
“Coming up on Moses Lake.” As the scenery passes by, so, too, does a map inside my mind. I know exactly where we are at all times. I suspect this is so with many people who own an offroad vehicle. Sprague and Ritzville have already fallen behind us. Tick. Cross them from the list.
“Is there a gas station there?”
“Probably. You need to stop?” I’ve already asked frequently, and no takers. Hell, I’ve got twenty years on them at least, and I can’t go that long. How do they have such bladder stamina?
She mutters to affirm and leans her head against the window. How can she sleep with the buzz of the road pummeling her skull like that? I could never sleep in a moving vehicle. But finally, I can ease it up the off-ramp and cruise into the parking lot of a hilltop gas station. Quick stretch of the legs, anyway. A thirty minute evolution of egress from the car, snack and bathroom break, and settling back in to our seats sees us accelerating through the graceful curve of the interchange until we rejoin the interstate.
On, on we push. Ever toward the sunset we go, escaping the desert plains and farmland of the Evergreen State. Whoever named it that must never have looked eastward past the Cascades. Soon we are dropping southward, and the great Columbia River comes into view on our right side. While I imagine Lewis and Clark in their boats, plying their way toward the Pacific (they actually took a course some miles south of here), we descend into the valley until, turning west again, we cross an archaic but beautiful steel bridge. Over the green water we go and uphill. Before us, the forbidding Cascade Range looms. I scratch my beard and grip my imaginary rifle, considering the route that will take us toward the dense cluster of Seattle and Puget Sound. On, oxen! On!
Soon we are upon Ellensburg. Again we call a halt. This time for gas. I want to top off before coming into Seattle. We decide we’ll make the last leg a straight-through shot—no stops– from Ellensburg to Olympia. After the tank is full, I pull the Jeep over to a parking spot. The chime on the door of the convenience store squawks in annoying peals while I hold the door for my parents. I ring up a bottle of Coke for myself and take up station near the restrooms to wait.
“Rental car. Where you from?” The voice from behind me calls out and I turn. A fifty-something man in a Carhartt work shirt and blue jeans torn in the left knee eyes me from his seat at a small table beside the window. A thin curl of blue smoke wafts from a cigarette clamped between two of his fingers.
“Colorado.” I answer. What else should I say. You? And how are you? What are you up to today? I’ve never been at ease engaging strangers.
“Eh.” He grunts. “Had a brother lived there before he died. Cancer.”
“Oh? I’m so sorry.” Sad people are so eager to tell their story, but lose track of how to tell it. It’s not hard to discern the hurts in people, if you listen.
“Twenty years ago.” He says, as if to explain and dismiss. Unspoken is the discomfort in introductions we both know to be true.
While I wait, Gail the blue-jeaned man and I manage a small conversation. He was a truck driver for a lumber company before he quit because of a disability. He doesn’t mention what it is, but seems able enough. I watch his steel blue eyes light up under a shelf of wiry black hair flecked with gray when he mentions his time in the military. Just a shade this side of monochrome, this character. Black, gray, blue, Army olive drab.
“You’re a long way from home.” He smashes the butt in the ashtray and pulls another from a shirt pocket. Scrub of the tiny steel wheel on the flint brings back the fire.
“Yeah, I’m up here for a family emergency.” I throw my thumb at the restrooms, where my parents are just emerging. “And to find Bigfoot.” I add.
I’m half-joking about Bigfoot. During drives in the woods with my kids, I used to poke fun, making sure they kept an eye out for him so we can give him snacks. I hear he likes Pringles. He does not, dad! But on a hike a few years ago something clacked rocks back and forth and followed me out of the woods. Maybe it was him. Maybe not. But why dwell in the realm of normalcy? Is there any harm in entertaining the notion? Writers think about Sasquatch in the same way normal people sit down to watch TV. I explain all this to him.
“Bigfoot. He’s out there. You make fun but there’s shit out there, man.” Gail’s eyes bore into mine while the glow in his new cigarette flares under the duress of his lungs.
“Really? Have you seen–?” I begin.
“You ready to go, bud?” Don taps my arm and sets course for the door, his oxygen lines dragging on the floor behind him.
“Yep. After you.” I hesitate. Maybe Gail will answer, but he seems already on to another train of thought. “Take care, man.” I say. I walk to catch the door for my parents.
“Take plenty of Pringles. He’ll find ya. Good luck.” He calls. One last glance and a nod to him before I push the door wide. A friend made in the space of two cigarettes.
When I start the Jeep, my mother asks for heat. Outside, the air is moist with impending rain. Soon we are down the road, dodging clouds that bounce into the valley.
The last push finds us speeding past Cle Elum, my first encounter with Pacific Northwest place names. After that, a steady procession of places like Keechelus Lake and Snoqualmie Pass blow by. Late afternoon finds the trees growing greener and taller by the mile. After dropping off the western flank of the mountains, we’re through North Bend and coming up on Issaquah.
“Issaquah?” Don says. He sounds concerned.
“We were supposed to turn back there, then. Route 18. Snoqualmie Parkway.” He informs me.
“Huh. Want me to turn around?”
“Well, it would have saved you going through Seattle.”
I had planned on going through Seattle anyway, mostly because the lure of the sights had drawn me in, and other than being more travel time, I saw no negatives.
“No, don’t turn around. We can go through Seattle. I want to see it.” My mom, from the back seat. The big oxygen tank by this time has quieted long ago, and has no opinion.
By this time traffic has picked up and we are swimming with all the other salmon on the evening commute. We flow through the south end of Bellevue and across Mercer Island, where a long bridge spans Lake Washington before dumping us onto the sweaty, coffee stained brow of downtown Seattle. Now the swarm of cars is intense, and I get a single brief glance of the Space Needle (the star-tower-poky-thing, so named by my seven-year old while reviewing pictures before the trip). The map rerouted in my head, I watch for signs that indicate an exit for I-5. We course into the turn, bearing southward, without incident.
Darkness has fallen, and my first memory of Seattle will become a glitzy mix of sparkling city neon, streams of red tail lights and glittering headlights, and green highway signs. We flit under notices for Renton, Kent, and Federal Way. Off our right shoulder sloughs Sea-Tac airport like a loose scarf, the blinking lights of aircraft like a halo of fireflies left behind a speeding bicycle. Down through Tacoma, around the bend and up over a hill past Joint Base Lewis-McChord—a hive of scum and villainy to hear Don tell it. My mother is drifting into sleep again when Don’s cell phone rings. Where are we? Nisqually, heading your way. Which exit? 109? 107? 107. Got it. See you soon.
Finally. Rest is on the horizon. Exits for Olympia come into view. It’s 8:30pm when I follow the off-ramp into the northeast side of town. Dark offices and isolated streetlights trace our path until we’re easing down quiet side streets. A hard right at Frank’s mailbox while he stands like a ghost beside it, holding a flashlight. Marshal us in, sir. Taxi to the gate. Wheels stop. Engine stop. Thud of doors. Greetings and hugs in the misty rain.
This pilot is exhausted. Frank points the way up narrow wooden stairs to the attic guest room. I heave my luggage onto one side of the bed and turn down the other. Strip off stale, road-trip clothes and climb in. Stare at the ceiling and chat in a quick phone call to the wife and kids. We’re here safe. Tired? Yeah. Tell my dog hi. Okay, love you. Bye.
At least I have paid my way through this day. I reach to turn the small bedside lamp off. Outside, on the roof a few feet from my head, I listen in the dark while the Pacific Northwest pelts the asphalt shingles in wet drops. I can almost trace them in their course downward, trickling, luscious and quenching, until they thump their way through the metal gutters to the ground below. If a single glob of moisture started at the peak, it hasn’t found the earth before I am adrift in dreamless oblivion.
“June 23rd (Thurs.) We can see the mountains this morning and from the appearance, I should think they were about 20 mi. off, but found out by inquiring, they were 150. One of the highest peaks was Long’s and another Pike’s. In the snowy range today, we passed an encampment of U.S. soldiers, stationed on the bank of the Platt, for protection of Emigrants, I suppose, and encamped on the Bluff without water, wood, or grass.
–Overland/Oregon Trail diary of George Edwin Bushnell, 1864
“Being within six miles of the land, saw an entrance in the same, which had a very good appearance of a harbor; lowered away the jolly-boat, and went in search of an anchoring-place, the ship standing to and fro, with a very strong weather current. At one, p.m., the boat returned, having found no place where the ship could anchor with safety; made sail on the ship; stood in for the shore. We soon saw, from our mast-head, a passage in between the sand-bars. At half past three, bore away, and ran in north-east by east, having from four to eight fathoms, sandy bottom; and, as we drew in nearer between the bars, had from ten to thirteen fathoms, having a very strong tide of ebb to stem. Many canoes came alongside. At five, p.m., came to in five fathoms water, sandy bottom, in a safe harbor, well sheltered from the sea by long sand-bars and spits. Our latitude observed this day was 46 degrees 58 minutes north.”
–Captain Robert Gray’s ship’s log entry, U.S.S. Columbia, 1792
“Dean took out other pictures. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness.”
–Jack Kerouac, On The Road
When the flight attendant announces our descent and imminent landing—or crash, whichever you’re inclined to believe—I fold my laptop and stuff it back into its bag at my feet. Out the window, low clouds slip over the wing, obscuring my view until we emerge below them. Some ten—maybe eight—thousand feet below the land sprawls dingy, wide and flat, covered in unremarkable scrub with an oozing smear of a city just heaving into view. God damn it. The bastards have flown us to Greeley.
But the old Colorado cow town has never seen traffic volume as I am witnessing now. As I gaze eastward out the window, the city disappears into the haze at the horizon. Below, where Interstate 90 stretches like a long, ebon thread through the south side of Spokane, cars jam their way into the city. The wing tilts upward as the plane banks to turn into the pattern of Spokane International Airport. International. The dismal scene below, like Greeley, gives no hint of anything international whatsoever. But then, the young woman in the seat next to me is Japanese, so in a weak moment of globalism I lend them the benefit of the doubt. Little do I know I would fly home in the companionship of 40 Czech university tourists. The Asian woman smelled (and for that matter looked) much better.
The Great Aluminum Bird screeches to a smooth landing. In a few minutes I escape from the canned, dry air of Frontier’s flagship, into the terminal to retrieve my luggage. Then I stride eastward, down the long corridor toward the rental kiosk.
“I made this fucking reservation a week ago. The car should be here. Goddamn you people always screwing shit up.” The tall man clad in business professional seems ready to erupt out of his collar, not dissimilar to St. Helens three decades ago.
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t see it here in my reservations. I can get you in a car but all I have is a compact.” The clerk behind the counter is professional, but I can see the desperate cynicism in his eyes.
“I reserved a full-size. Look at me, man! I’m tall. I have to have the space.” Stanley Steemer huffs in exasperation.
“Again, I’m sorry, sir. All I have is compacts. There’s nothing…” He stares at the computer, doubtless in a soul searching moment debating the merits of murder.
“Fine. Give me something to sign and get the damn keys. After this, I’m done with you people. Hertz. Avis. Anything but you.” The tension in Stanley Steemer makes him seem ready to spring from where he stands. I approach and get in line behind him while allowing an extra wide berth in case he decides to bolt. He may not even look behind him.
In a few seconds Tyler, so says the name tag, has completed the transaction. Stanley Steemer storms away for the lot where the rental cars sit. The doors close behind him and he is out of earshot.
“What a jackass.” I say as I move forward to the counter.
“Another day in paradise,” Tyler forces a small grimace. “What can I do for you?” My effort to put him at ease seems to be working.
“The Irish Avenger*. You should have a compact reserved in my name.”
Tyler bends to his computer and begins to scroll through the list.
“Yep. Here you are. Chevy Cobalt.” The mouse clicks and he opens the contract.
“At least, my wife reserved a compact. If you happen to have a four-door Jeep Wrangler with four inches of lift, some knarly tires and a winch, I’d be glad to upgrade.” I add with a grin.
He glances up at me and laughs. “Nope. No Wranglers. You drive a Jeep?” The angry friction from Stanley Steemer melts from his demeanor.
“I have a built-up Cherokee. Kinda the redheaded stepchild of the line, but she takes me anywhere I want to go.” I always feel awkward bragging up my ride. The old XJ isn’t nearly as built as some I’ve seen.
“I’ve got a TJ. Pretty much stock but it’s hard to buy Jeep stuff on an Enterprise paycheck.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. Toys are spendy. Well, at least the Cobalt gets a lot better fuel economy. No way could I drive my Jeep all the way up here anyway.” My suitcase falls over and I bend to replace it in its perch against the counter.
“What brings you to Spokane?”
“Family emergency. My parents got in an accident while they were moving. I had to come up so I can help them complete their move to Olympia.” I explain.
“Oh, man. I hope they’re okay. You’re driving to Olympia?” He asks.
“Yeah. It was cheaper to fly here and get a car than to fly to Seattle. And I like road trips anyway.”
Tyler’s brow has furrowed and he is furiously typing and clicking into his computer. Then he retrieves a pair of keys and slides them across the counter while I sign paperwork. Then I look at the key tag. 2012 Jeep Patriot, it says.
“I think you made a mistake. This is the wrong car.” I show him the key tag.
“Nope. No mistake. Free upgrade. Thanks for being cool.”
I raise an eyebrow and smile again. The power of a kind word.
“Well, he was a jackass.” He continues. “The Patriot’s the best I could do. I’d have given you a Wrangler if I’d had one. Have a great trip, Mr. Avenger. Good luck to your parents.” He clasps my hand in a quick shake and shoves a sheaf of papers into a bin.
I’m no brand fanatic, but as far as I’m concerned, any Jeep is a J and a P with ‘kick-ass’ between them. Its bronze paint shimmers in a rain that’s just begun to fall as I climb in. Luggage stuffed in the back, I push my Starbucks into the cupholder and surge onto the freeway toward the hospital. Dual lane exit onto Division Street. Past another man on a voyage of his own, maybe like me, with a neatly trimmed beard and holding a cardboard sign on the corner, bound for Boise. Past the bawling skid steer struggling in a dirt patch like a high-centered cockroach. Past the dirty, greasy sludge in the gutter from a recent snow pushed there by an old International plow—the same one, probably, as I saw sitting in the empty lot a mile back with all the lonely traffic cones.
When I park at Sacred Heart Medical Center, my sister rings across the phone. She is safely back on the ground in Denver. Her two weeks of support are over; mine are just beginning. The good news in this is that my stepfather, by this point, has survived two heart attacks, three separate deaths on the table, and a single ten-hour surgery. After fourteen days of intensive care and rehab, he is conscious and talkative. In fact he has already hit on three nurses, none of whom are wholly thrilled with him.
“Hey,” he says. “Next time will you stay and have coffee with me?”
“Don!” my mother gasps in disgust from one of the visitor chairs.
“No, Mister Densmore.”
“You’re beautiful, you know that? Oh, to be young again.”
“I’ll see you in two hours to get your vitals.”
“I should slap you.” says my mother.
When she sees me in the doorway, she jumps to her feet and embraces me.
“Oh, my Avenger is here.” Tears. A long hug, then I move toward the bed.
“Well, if it isn’t Crash Densmore.” I grasp his hand, careful not to shake the I.V. too much. The irony is, he earned the moniker ‘Crash Densmore’ long ago when he broke an Air Force plane while landing it after a maintenance check. “I see your reputation is safe.”
If it weren’t for his shock of thick, gray hair piled on his scalp, I wouldn’t recognize him. Don is emaciated and shaky when he reaches for a drink of water. He can’t laugh. If he coughs, his eyes go wild with pain and he fumbles to clasp his chest. The sternum was sundered in the surgery. Aortic alliteration, that. When he speaks his voice is a weak squawk, like an underpowered saxophone. In addition to the I.V., of course there is the heart monitor—the silent digital spike of the cardiac waveform, no different from the plunge of sand in an hourglass. The nurse call button. Myriad side tables and plastic containers.
We spend the late afternoon and evening chatting about the accident. I learn that Don’s brother Frank managed to arrange for a new moving truck free of charge. My parents’ belongings have already been transferred and driven to Olympia, but remain in the truck. My first assignment is to promote my stepfather’s discharge from the hospital with all due haste and drive the two of them on to their new apartment in Olympia, some three hundred miles away. I’m certain he’ll never make it.
While we talk, a doctor arrives to announce his intent to use my stepfather as a teaching aid for a group of med students. Half an hour passes while they ask questions and take notes. Of course, none of the female students escape without a merciless flirting.
“I should slap you.” My mother, again. On second thought, he’ll be fine.
Outside, raindrops pelt the window while I gaze over the city. The flutter-buzz of Spokane’s Medstar chopper throbs through the glass as it approaches for a landing on the roof.
God (a misguided exhortation considering I’m an atheist). Why? Why didn’t they exercise? Why did they put that awful crap in their bodies? Memories of lumpy white gravy on the stove and two-liter bottles of Pepsi—black, liquid sucrose, at its essence– haunt me. Fried chicken from a bath of oil in the pan. A thousand regrets at once flood over my synapses while I take all this in. I curse myself. Why didn’t I tell them? Argue? Fight? But I remember. I did. You should eat better, Mom. Go for a walk, you two. At every holiday meal. And then the philosophizing. The justifications. Do we walk down the street of life ignoring the shadows in the alley, and hope for the best? Or do we look our killer in the eye and laugh, knowing we’re ash no matter what we do? Where is the bravado we trumpeted in our youth? Not here. Here, in this cold stateroom we’re writing another check and hoping it clears the bank. Bargains and barter with blood.
After a restless night in a hotel across the street, it’s back to the sixth floor—the cardiac department—to await the infernally leaden pace of the hospital bureaucracy. Seven hours of hell—ironic in a place with so many statues of Jesus—pass. Finally, the papers are signed and the wheelchair and armloads of clothing and supplies are ferried out in the chilly air to the Jeep. It’s 3pm. My best guess is a good five hours to Olympia. Don sits up front beside me swathed in blankets. My mother occupies the back seat, along with a very large tank of liquid oxygen.
“What’s this?” my mother gestures toward the tank, which hisses and boils loudly in the seat beside her while she buckles in.
“It’s the oxygen you asked me to pick up across town.” I say.
“Why is it doing that? Why didn’t you put it in the back?”
“It fell over on the way back here, Mom. The safety valve went off. And it wouldn’t fit in the back.” Quite frankly, when the tank fell over during a turn I nearly peed my pants as I drove, expecting to be frozen solid or blown to pieces at any second. A frantic call—would the phone set it off? — to the oxygen supply store allays my fears only slightly.
“It’ll quit after a while,” they say. “Just tip it back up. Don’t worry.” Sure. Who, me? Worry?
And so, we’re off. My stepfather with an oxygen cannula and hose snaking from the back seat and a vest which holds a defibrillator strapped tightly to his bare skin. My mother muttering under her breath about her impending doom from “that damn oxygen tank”. And the oxygen tank susurrant and burbling beside her in indignant reply.
Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
Six weeks prior to the hike in the Staircase, on a September morning much like this, my phone erupted in an electronic warble and vibrated off the desk. Mom-Home, it reads. I push my steaming plate of four fried eggs on toasted slabs—typical writers’ breakfast– to the side.
“Hey, mom.” I answer.
“Hi, honey. Watcha up to?”
“Oh, the usual. Breakfast and work. How ‘bout you?” I eye my food, hoping the call won’t take long. Her calls never do. It’s her nature.
“Well, we just got back from the doctor’s. Don’s lungs aren’t doing so good. The doctor said the altitude is preventing him from getting the oxygen he needs. So I called to ask if you’d help us move.”
“Move?” My fork clinks on to the porcelain of the plate.
“We’re moving to Washington—to Olympia—where Don’s brother lives. It’s at sea-level and we think it will help his breathing.” She grunts while I listen to her adjust a pillow in her recliner. She is always in her recliner.
This will be an undertaking, I think. She is sixty-two, and Don—my stepfather—in his seventies. She is overweight and diabetic. He has bad lungs and a history of heart attacks, although he is much more able to move around and perform common tasks like mowing the lawn or fixing the car. She struggles to walk. They are both old stones, rounded and worn by the waters of time. They are the kind of pebbles now resting on the beach after a long, long trip downstream.
In the weeks after the phone call, I put the novel on hold to help them pack boxes and thin their dense collection of furniture. A quick weekend garage sale. Phone calls and contact info to friends. Lease cancellations. Then, their last day. The moving truck is loaded. Their small Ford Ranger on a dolly behind it. He will drive. She will navigate. It will take them four days with a hotel stop each night. The route they’ve chosen takes them northward into Montana, then across Interstate 90, ostensibly to avoid the mountains of Utah and Oregon. A last rainy morning on Friday sees a tearful farewell while the gangbangers look on. The date is October 10th. They are on their way.
The remainder of the weekend passes like a cheetah in the grass, filled with karate and swimming lessons for the kids and a little time leftover to work on the renovation. Then, Monday comes and we are into the frenetic work week, my wife off to her accounting job, and I to see the kids to school and work at home. Each night my parents call to report their progress. Their last call was in Spokane. They are off to find dinner and thence back to the room to sleep. In the morning they will try to push through to Olympia, so they have to be up early. We love you! Tell the kids hi! Drive safe! Have fun!
Thursday morning around ten the phone rings again. Mom—Cell it says.
“Chris, I have bad news.” She reports without preamble. Her voice is quiet and shaken.
“What’s up?” I sit up straight in my chair.
“Don had a heart attack and we wrecked the moving truck. They flew him to the hospital in Spokane. They don’t know if he’ll make it.” She is distant and matter-of-fact.
“Oh my God. Are you okay?”
“I’m banged up, but I’m fine.” She has always hidden her hurts from her children. A parent still feigning strength for their offspring. “I had to take the wheel but the truck went in the ditch and rolled anyway. All our stuff was in there!” She bursts into tears.
I console her and learn that an off-duty EMT had been behind them when the accident happened. The nurse performed CPR on my stepfather until the helicopter arrived. He was whisked back to Spokane, where he is already in surgery. The truck is destroyed and their possessions scattered on the side of the muddy berm beside the highway.
When my mother is summoned to a medical conference, she hangs up. What now? I call my wife, and we go to work on a plan.
“I can’t leave work, but they’ll be flexible. You have to fly out there.” I hear her sip coffee between sentences.
“So, what—you’ll take the kids to school and then go in to work?”
“Work is cool. I have a lot of time built up I can take off. I’ll adjust my schedule and start looking for airfares.” She is calm, cool, and collected. I’ll probably get sex tonight. So hot.
And so it begins. Over the coming days we trade many phone calls with Spokane and family around the country. My sister flies up first for support, so it’s decided I will arrive in Spokane on the day she returns to Colorado. Quiet whispers of wonder in sleepy children as they walk with me to the TSA screening line in Denver. Hugs and kisses goodbye. Lonely walks through the early morning concourse. The smell of dirty carpet and stale air in the jetway. Duck through the aircraft door. Stow carry-on and strap in. Window seat.
I have always loved aviation, but I am ill-at-ease with flying commercial. It’s irrational and I don’t know why I’m nervous. The last bustle of passengers settles as the 737 pushes back from the gate. Groaning jackscrews reverberate through the cabin as the flaps are set for takeoff. Outside I see the ailerons rise and fall when the pilot puts the yoke (Boeing old school—none of this electronic Airbus stick business) through its paces. Soon we are rumbling down the taxiway, headed for runway 27 and the crisp, sunrise-lit blue skies of the Front Range. Long dawn shadows cast by the empennage onto the wing. Long line of dusty jets queued like corpuscles in a cerulean vein, bereft of oxygen, behind us. Long histories of my parents playing on the silver screen of my memory. Long ago when we were young, filled with hope, and strong. The red cells must flow. The heart must pump. Sometimes, we must bleed.
The jet turns onto runway 27 and, without even a stop, we coast for a few yards while the pilot cycles up the engines. A pause at maybe 1/3 throttle, then a roar when he pushes the levers to full power. Out the window, the fading green grass of autumn at the side of the tarmac blurs with speed. Ahead of the wing, inertia concocts a lump in my stomach when the nose pitches up. A lurch, and the heavy moan of the tires falls silent. Hydraulic whine as the gear comes up and clunks into its wells. Low groan of the flaps retracting. Off we go into the wild blue yonder, to a place where maybe I will burn.
Author’s Note: Close-Hauled Into the Squamish is a series of essays detailing my trip to the Pacific Northwest in Oct/Nov. of 2014.
Squamish (n.) A squamish (also known as an Arctic outflow wind in winter months) is a strong and often violent wind occurring in many of the fjords, inlets and valleys of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.
Close-hauled (adj.) A ship rigged in such a way as to beat or work to windward, with the true course tacked ten degrees to port or starboard of the base course.
Long ago we have left the pavement, Frank and I. Now we bump along in Frank’s old red Toyota, bracing ourselves against the rutted near-two track of Lake Cushman Road. Far from my home in Colorado, we forge into the forest some dozens of miles west of Olympia, Washington. We splash through puddle after puddle until I lose count—I swear I had been counting—while beyond the instrument panel we struggle to discern our course. Above, a misty October rain pours on the hood and on the roof.
Up, up, up, we drive or so I think of it as up because that is what I’m used to in Colorado. Altitude is life. Here, now, though, we penetrate the muffled, damp domain of the Olympic Peninsula. Elevation is different when your starting base is the sea. We are headed to hike to the Staircase Rapids, if the sodden land will allow it. The weather obscures much of the scenery, and so in my mind I make up for it. Mentally I plant trees and wet shrubbery beyond those immediately visible in the ditch as we pass.
After what seems hours we arrive at a small parking lot. At the far end a gate made from steel pipe blocks traffic from a wide bridge, but the bridge can be crossed by foot. I wait near an old phone booth while Frank uses the outhouse. I sniff and watch raindrops collect on my nylon jacket like jewels, beading up and rolling to my waist, where my jeans absorb them. Frank emerges, and across the bridge we go. Beneath my thumping footsteps the Skokomish River rushes by in a turbid mutter. A warning to look out for Sasquatch?
Off the bridge now and onto a footpath, we approach the trailhead proper, and a wooden sign. Off to my left through the mist I can discern a ranger’s cabin. Behind it a pickup is parked beside a rust and moss covered propane tank. Inside the building a yellow glow fills what appears to be a spartan kitchen. I see no evidence of life, though. No human form, other than Frank’s, to reassure me. Onward we walk into verdant, flooded wild lands, with trees taller than my dreams and water enough to quench the Sahara.
Frank doesn’t say how far the rapids are. The path is hard packed gravel dotted with puddles every few feet. Thick roots wind through it, necessitating a step occasionally and a close eye given to the ground so as not to trip. It’s impossible to avoid brushing the trunks of trees or a fallen nurse log, and soon my jeans are soaked. It’s not overly cold, though, so the worst I risk is chafing my legs. We speak seldom. Frank has hip problems and so we must stop every few hundred feet to rest. In the all-encompassing green, quiet drips pelt us and vaguely, through what must be ancient groves of fern, hemlock, and cedar, the Skokomish rushes by.
At a large outcropping of boulders, we decide to turn around. Frank rests again while I step onto a small promontory that juts into the river. Careful not to slip on patches of moss, I squat at its point and glance upriver, then down. Frank is lost to view behind me, and I imagine myself as some time traveler, mistakenly sent into prehistory. Through low clouds I see the dark flanks of mountains that rise up on either side of the river, and not too far away Slate Creek, a tributary bearing news from the peaks, splashes into the Skokomish to blend its knowledge with its larger cousin. A shaking of hands at the confluence, so to speak.
And, while I take it in, my thoughts turn to my parents, who I left behind in Olympia for the day. The drama of the accident and the hospital stay is over. The wreckage of the moving truck has long since been towed away, and the broken carcass of their little Ford Ranger sits in Frank’s driveway. They are resting, waiting to hear from the manager of their new apartments when they can move in. Their apartment must be traded out for one on the ground floor since my stepfather is in a walker for the foreseeable future. Oxygen bottles and a heart monitor surround them. A stack of bills and forlorn suitcases by the front door. Indecision and uncertainty piled like dirty dishes in the sink.
The stink of the jetliner has barely blown from me while I muse in silence on the river. Then, I stand up and walk back to Frank, who waits, expectant, by the trail. Without a word we begin the hike back to the truck.
“There was a small incident. We will be back in business shortly.”
So says my technical guru, Switchdoc. A small incident. In reality my website went ‘POOF!’. So here is the new one. I lost all my previous content, but fortunately no one pays attention to this damn thing anyway, so I can start over. And start over I shall!
I’m hoping to keep this more streamlined, by showing the blog on the front page. You can click around to check out other stuff, but it’ll be a few days before I have this mess cleaned up and presentable. Bear with!