(Download as PDF: EOY letter 2010)
Dear family and friends,
Last week Wallowa County was all blue and white and 0 degrees Fahrenheit. On my mid-day walks with squeaking snow underfoot, my mustache would freeze to my beard, and the tug of inch-long icicles trapping my mouth in a circle of hair-frost kept me from talking too much. For those of you who, like Mr. SS in Connecticut, think I do – talk too much – feel free to skip to the last page, where I have provided an Executive Summary.
I haven’t been in touch much. I sent no letter last year. I let emails at home molder in my inbox. I ignored messages from Facebook saying “You have 3 friend requests,” or “MB posted a comment on your wall.” I don’t even know, really, what my wall is. A fine pass to come to for one who made a living for 20 years in the computer trade.
I’ve been walking because I can’t run. I can’t run because I recently had hernia surgery, probably from dismantling 220 rock campfire rings in the mountains this summer. When I wasn’t wrestling rocks, I was gathering garbage. A fine pass to come to for one who was, not long before, an Executive Director.
You may recall that, in 2008, I spent the “summer” in the Canadian Rockies. Forty days of rain and snow, incessant bushwhacking, and all that. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done,” I said at the time. Well, sometime between that hike and May 2010, I changed my mind. During that time I was consumed by work in my new role at Fishtrap, a literary non-profit based here in Wallowa County but serving a regional Western audience. After working for five years as its Development (fundraising) Director, I’d been drafted to fill the founding Executive Director’s place when a year-long search came up empty-handed.
Fifteen diverse programs, 4,000 participants, and all of two and half employees to make it happen. It would have been impossible without the efforts of many board members, advisors, and volunteers, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. But working in the midst of so many people requires a generous store of qualities I seem to lack. I was unhappy in the crowded kitchen, and reluctantly resigned, leaving the organization in May 2010. It felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done.
March 2009: Fishtrap had been hosting dozens of events based on Jack London’s Call of the Wild. I thought a winter camping trip – something tangible – would be a good way to hook the local cast of JDs. Paul and Todd and I haul in nearly all the gear beforehand on the nearly flat 4-mile trail. Camp is a little village of canvas wall tents with wood stoves. The kids manage to turn the easy snowshoe hike into a 7-hour marathon, their smoke-riddled lungs and dysfunction-addled hearts slowing them to a crawl.
One 15-year-old girl, the most incorrigible of the lot, defiantly sits down in the snow about a half mile from our destination and announces she will go no further. The sun is setting. The others pass on by. I stand there and look at her, waiting, and say nothing. She’ll figure it out. She will either pick herself up and walk for another ten minutes, or she will stay here and die. She figures it out.
For the next two days, the kids help cook and clean, build snow forts and throw snowballs and sneak off into the dark spruce trees to smoke. The second night, we have a campfire and, while my hands slowly freeze, I read aloud to them. To Build A Fire. On the way out the next day, they joke and laugh and declare in voice and action their new-found strength. Afterward, they all agree: “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
At Enterprise Elementary School, Jacob, a seven-year-old with an open face and doe eyes, picks up an atlas. We look at a world map. “Do you know the continents?” I ask. “Yes.” He points to Alaska. “This is Enterprise.” We turn to a page that shows the Pacific Northwest. “This,” I point, “is Enterprise, and this,” I trace with pencil tip, “is the Columbia River. Have you ever been to Portland? You know the …” “Big lake!” he exclaims, eyes shining. I think about all those dams and Celilo Falls, once the richest salmon fishing grounds in the world, buried by 400,000 cubic yards of concrete. But I nod. “You’re right. That’s the Columbia River.” I feel like a liar.
Working at Fishtrap, surrounded by writers and writing, I found myself with little time to read for pleasure. Write I did – memos, proposals, grant narratives, correspondence – emails by the thousands and thousands. Perhaps all of those salmon that once crowded Celilo Falls have come back as emails, hatching, coursing downstream and upstream, spawning, dying. And, perhaps, to the degree emails spawn misunderstandings, as they can so easily do, that is our retribution for emptying the rivers.
May 2009: I join siblings in closing down the Florida home our parents had lived in for 20 years. We emptied the house, figured out what Dad would need in assisted living, and divvied up everything else among ourselves, the neighbors, and dozens of passersby attracted by the “Free Stuff” sign out on the main road. It got to be a game, betting on whether this or that piece of jetsam would be snatched up by a passing beachcomber. While some people sniffed and padded warily around the word “free” – what’s the catch? – others were generous with their thanks. After all was said and done, there wasn’t even a full pickup load to haul away. On the other hand, there was a 28-foot rental truck which it fell to me to drive 5,000 miles – up the East Coast, across the Midwest, finally to Washington, Oregon, and Idaho – dropping off furniture, refreshing old friendships, and breaking off only one massive tree limb along the way.
August 2009: Lacey, a former high school chum of my daughter’s, asks me to officiate at her wedding. “You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving,” said Victor Hugo. “The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness.” I feel like Lacey’s uncle. Looking at the fine young groom, I think, You be sure to do better than I did.
Jody and David, friends of friends, ask me to officiate at their wedding at Edgefield, a former “poor house” and now brew-pub resort outside Portland. A guest of the two families, I have time to read for pleasure and highgrade blackberries from the enormous patch. “A journey is a person in itself,” said John Steinbeck. “No two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. A journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Back home, at my third wedding in as many weeks, I am simply a guest. A slightly champagne-addled guest. The outdoor reception is perched on the edge of thousands of steep feet falling to Joseph Canyon. While the bride and groom, seated, are busy with this and that, I call out to the band, “How High the Moon!” They oblige, and we dance, Lauren and Sarah in her wheelchair and I, usurping the married couple’s right to the first dance, while a half moon rises against the sun-and-shadow-striped canyon walls across from us.
Somewhere there’s music / How faint the tune
Somewhere there’s heaven / How high the moon
There is no moon above / When love is far away too
Till it comes true / That you love me as I love you
Somewhere there’s music / It’s where you are
Somewhere there’s heaven / How near, how far
The darkest night would shine / If you would come to me soon
Until you will, how still my heart / How high the moon
September 2009: I come home to find my cedar Adirondack chairs swapped – gone – replaced by dirty and broken white plastic lawn chairs, and a flamingo in the tomato pot. A day later, the flamingo, noose around neck, black stars for eyes, is hanging from my neighbor Katie’s house.
With a group of Fishtrap writers, I float the Snake River in Hells Canyon for my first time. Evening. Steady steady brush by of river ripple, rasp of crickets, the querulous piping of a canyon wren. Behind the grinding beach strewn with broken shells, the ground rises in prickly pear and coarse bunchgrass sprays. Across the water, the dark rock wall of Suicide Point. Our river guide pulls out his hand drums and I my flute, and he and Laura and I play in counterpoint. After a while they stop, and I turn to face the wall across the water. Behind me bodies sprawled, curled, seated and nodding in pale moonlight. Shards of cold white light on the black noise of water over stone. I play simple melodies, breath transformed into a low and large canyon wren. I stop and listen to the river, its voice amplified by the sudden space I have created. It’s a trick of the ear, perhaps. Music opens the ears, so that the voice of the river can then pour into the opening so created.
That winter, it seemed like a river was pouring into the great hall of the Odd Fellows building. The nearly flat roof had sprung massive leaks, which we captured with tarps and buckets and tubs and garbage cans and a submersible pump which disgorged a dirt-and-tannin-stained fluid into the sink. One night I pulled guard duty. In between bailing, I lay awake on a cushion in a side room filled to overflowing with carved oaken thrones and dust-rimmed renderings of forgotten politicians, accompanied by the music of a thousand drips and the strips of streetlights piercing the long and tattered drapes.
In the spring of 2010, I visited my daughter Angela, a graduate student in San Rafael. Because poet Gary Snyder would be coming to Summer Fishtrap, and because I subscribe to walking as meditation and medication, I set out to circumambulate Mt. Tamalpais, following the route that Snyder and others pioneered in 1965. I got off to a late start, my walk was brisk and hardly meditative, and I wondered if that is how I have gone through life, always thinking, “I’ll get it right next time.”
May 2010: I left Fishtrap, but not before fulfilling a personal commitment to an old friend – to edit and compile the essays she’d written about Mary, a wiry ranch woman who, until she passed away in 2007 at nearly 90, had lived a frontier lifestyle in the Imnaha River canyon. How frontier? They did just about everything on horseback. Grew all their own food. Had no electricity until 1965. When Mary’s uncle bought the first car seen down in those parts, a Model T, he drove it into his shed, hollered “Whoa!” and continued on through the back wall and straight into the Imnaha River. Mary preserved these stories in a collection of “five year diaries,” with 20 lines on a page, four lines for each of five years. She kept 12 of those diaries: 60 years worth. Hence the book’s title: Four Lines a Day. It was a fine feeling to help bring a project to fruition.
In June of 1980, I’d arrived in Wallowa County with an understanding that I would be working for the US Forest Service as a backcountry ranger in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. It was not to be. Impressed instead for office work, I left after two years. Now, 30 years later, I was being offered, for real, a job as a backcountry ranger. No email, no complicated interpersonal office dynamics, plenty of exercise and fresh air. How could I refuse an opportunity to complete the circle?
Some people seem to think wilderness rangers wander around weaving wildflower chains and writing poetry. This wilderness ranger was a glorified garbageman. My job was to find campsites, record their exact GPS locations and the extent of “resource damage,” clean up any garbage, dismantle structures, and remove campfire rings, at least the illegal or redundant or stupid ones. I was also to educate visitors about no-trace camping and perform trail maintenance. In the course of three months, I found 466 campsites with 622 fire rings.
Statutory Wilderness is supposed to be “an area of undeveloped land … retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” That is why places like The Palace, a corrugated tin shed I found, stuffed with old tarps and motor oil jugs and baling twine and broken styrofoam coolers, are an abomination.
First hitch: Working in Hells Canyon, I pull 76 ticks off me in four hours. I lose a tent stake in the cheatgrass and medusahead. It’s accompanied me for 40 years and 5,000 miles, and the loss pains me.
Hitch #2: I stop by historic Red’s Horse Ranch, an inholding where Hollywood stars used to fly in and party with their concubines. A caretaker tells me, with religious certainty backed up by numerous indicators including the life and death of George Burns, that the world as we know it will come to an end in 2015. I half believe him. It would spare me the trouble of figuring out what I’m going to do with myself when the field season comes to an end.
I am required to carry a two-way radio and check in twice a day. One afternoon I can’t raise Dispatch despite the fact that I can see the Point Prominence repeater off to the north. A co-worker, who is a couple of ridges over inspecting trail work, cuts in. “Bombaci, this is Brown. How long have you been out?” “This is day eight,” I reply. “Then you don’t know this,” he says. “Last Sunday the Forest Service office burned to the ground.”
Brown is a guy who can look you straight in the eye and drawl a tall tale without telltales, no touching his nose or looking away or letting his mouth creep up into a grin. I stand there in my wet boots and sweat-stained uniform, staring at the radio, wondering. Surely radio protocol forbids screwing around on the airwaves. Can Brown possibly be risking the wrath of Dispatch just to jerk my chain? This can’t be true. It was true.
Hitch #4: Six of us work together to move an ancient cast iron air compressor on wheels. Used in an old mining operation in Norway Basin, it looks like a 1920s vintage tractor, only much heavier. The thing weighs at least a ton, and we need to move it out of the wilderness. It takes us all day, using block and tackle and mechanical advantage and all of our strength, to move it 200 yards. I name her Mabel the (Im)mobile Compressor.
I like to name things. Sometime early in the summer I started naming the most egregiously trashed campsites. It started with “Aqua Slag,” where some misbegotten cretins had burned a large polypropylene tarp in their campfire, leaving behind an alien crust melted to the rocks. This practice, I was to learn, was common.
The garbage and destruction was staggering in its wantonness: Firepits full of twisted masses of melted glass and beer cans (Keystone Lite the wilderness swill of choice), oxidized wads of aluminum foil, tin cans and oozing batteries stuffed into stream banks, trees garroted with steel baling wire or impaled by nails and spikes big enough to go in one of your ears and out the other. Moldy canvas tents, sodden camo jackets, rotten cowboy boots, bent tent poles, broken camp chairs, abandoned sleeping bags, electric fence tape, tin stove pipes, rusted-out sheepherder stoves, orange and blue and yellow baling twine, frying pans, coolers, horseshoes, shovel blades, cans of white gas and lighter fluid, propane canisters, rebar, angle iron, galvanized tubs. Tent stakes, which I commandeered.Usually the names would come to me as I stooped over fire pits, picking out the inevitable aluminum foil: Camp Cholera, The Pigsty, Dirty Little Secret, Camp Catastrophe, Tin Can Massacre, Three Stooges, Monkey Camp, Three Ring Circus, Open Sewer, Deadfall Camp, Highline Orgy, The Big Nasty, Utter Ursa Disaster, Minam River Canteen & Grill, Camp Desecration, Shit City.
After moving Mabel, the others left, but I continued up into the wilderness. In a high and achingly beautiful basin, I found a camp. Picket Madness. I filled my trash bag, folded it into the tarp they’d covered the firewood with, put the whole bundle on the seat of their commode (no squatting for this crew), tied it all up with baling twine, and lifted it onto my head. I set off down the mountainside, through false hellebore and delphinium and lupine glowing green and purple in the late afternoon sun, cumulus clouds occasionally throwing me into shadow as I walked, crowned with a commode, back to the mines of Norway Basin.
Two weeks later, after spending seven hours at the Not OK Corral, cleaning up its hundreds of rusted tin cans and whiskey bottles and D-cell batteries and enough melted glass to start a bottling plant, and dismantling two corrals cobbled from cut trees and baling wire, I move on at sunset. I am exhausted, but determined not to spend the night in that dismal place. I find a faint path marked with pink surveyor’s flagging, leading into dark timber. I move upriver in the dusk, pulling the flagging as I go. Sure enough, another camp. Second Little Pig’s Tinkertoy Village. They’ve left a hammer behind. As darkness falls, I use it to dismantle the wooden structures, starting a bonfire with the 2-bys and 6-bys and plywood. In the morning, I take the hammer, Mjöllnir the Crusher, with me..
But really, messes in the “wilderness” aren’t worth crying about. There are strokes and cancer and dementia for that. In recent years, my parents’ generation has been passing away. Uncle Vic, Aunt Mildred, Uncle Joe, Aunt Hazel, Uncle Jerome, Aunt Josephine, Uncle Sal, Aunt Marie, my mother … Living on the west coast, I’ve seen little of my extended family over the past decades, nor made it to any of their funerals. But I remember them, sometimes in dreams: I walk around the back of a building and enter an open Mediterranean space of pale green stucco – Uncle Jerome and Aunt Jenny’s house? Here are, it seems, all my relatives, working on the place. I am happy and walk up to Aunt Marie. She is vibrant and healthy. I hold her and we start dancing. She feels light as gossamer in my arms. We dance past her brother, my Uncle Vic …
Still, joy. Neighbor Katie got married, which brought old friends to town: Gilligan and Rubi and their two girls, Emelina and Alexandra. They dragged me up Rubi’s namesake, Ruby Peak, which the girls christened “Mommy Peak.” They left me with a freezer full of homemade pupusas (corn tortillas stuffed with squash or cheese or beans). We laughed a lot, and cooked five kinds of waffles and pancakes with Doug and Jodi and their clan.
Early September, and the mountains are cold. The camp sports terribly hacked trees and 250 feet of 3/8″ steel cable strung all over the place as hitching lines for horses. I’m just about to burn the picnic table when three horsemen come by. I’ve known the oldest for years. No matter. He sees the uniform, he sees red. He has nothing but contempt for the agency I work for, and, by extension, me. We’re nothing but a bunch of lazy, incompetent bureaucrats. He becomes nearly apoplectic before turning away in disgust and leading his horse down the mountain. I’ve been working like a dog from dawn to dark for the past three months, eating my dinner in the dark more often than not. I turn back to my task. The fire is ready.
My last hitch. I’m partnered up with Dan, an expert horse wrangler who teaches me patiently as we ride the Minam country, loading up our five pack horses and mules with garbage I have cached over the summer. I learn knots which hold well but untie easily. I learn how to load and unload the pack animals, how to take care of them first and ourselves last. I learn to know each horse and mule as an individual: my riding horse Sonny, with 25 years of bad habits from being ridden by many different greenhorns like me; Sally, the little mule with an autistic habit of rocking back and forth on her two front feet; Kate, a lovely 30-year-old lady of a mule, steady and true; Punky, a dark, shaggy, massive wild mustang mix; and the Black Mule who, warns Dan, “can and will stomp any critter that pisses her off.” I learn how to stay in the saddle when slow and stolid Sonny spooks at the shadow of a log and pulls an in-the-air 180. It’s easy. You hang on.
On our last full day in the wilderness, we ride nearly 3,000 feet down into the big hole of the Minam, work our way upriver, cleaning up caches as we go, and climb back up to the ridge, a 25 mile day. At opposite ends of the pack train we ride the Skyline Trail in the waning light of a red sunset. On our right the high peaks of the Wallowas fade to purple, to our left the distant lights of Baker City and La Grande seem to give birth to the Milky Way and a thousand thousand stars. Riding alone and silent in darkness, just warm enough in fleece and leather gloves, knees tender, walking the horses down the last steep hill back to camp, pasturing them, eating in the dark under the stars, lying down to sleep near the dull stomping of hooves, remembering the shooting stars above us while we rode those last few miles up on the skyline, trusting the animals to follow a trail we could not see.
So I got a hernia. It was worth it.
Back in 2004, a Scottish couple visited Wallowa County and hiked in Hells Canyon. They passed my tent, but we didn’t meet until a few days later at the Bookloft. I invited them to stay at my house, and, although brief acquaintances often die over time, Tom and Becs and I stayed in touch. In 2010, back they came to Wallowa County, twice, with two fabulously feral kids, Freya the Storm Goddess and Kai the Snow Leopard, in tow.
Becs wants to meet others in her line of work, so I invite a friend, Nils, over for dinner. He and Becs, with the rest of us looking on, talk about work and family. They realize they both have parents of mixed nationalities: their mothers are American, his father Norwegian and hers Scottish. Isn’t that funny? His father and her mother, it turns out, were both in Scotland at the same time, more than 50 years ago. What a coincidence! Her mother, says Becs, once told her that she’d dated a Norwegian ski instructor. Nils laughs. His father, he says, was once a ski instructor. How weird is that? “She told me his name,” says Becs. “Leif.” Nils looks at Becs and replies, “My father’s name is Leif.” A text message confirms the connection, and the two are back in touch. I kid you not. Life is hard, beautiful, and mysterious.
The Boyds stayed with me for several weeks. We ate “porridge,” we sat around campfires, we read Rikki Tikki Tavi and Just So Stories and pretended to be snow leopards and cheetahs and had birthday parties and rescued little animals from under the couch cushions and chased each other until the Mossy Old Troll collapsed in a heap.
The day before hernia surgery, I joined my cronies at the one and only Chinese restaurant in Wallowa County. My fortune cookie said, “Look forward to great fortune and a new lease on life!” I went under the knife as calm as could be. Later, convalescing at home, I puttered around, cleaning house. In the bottom of a box full of maps, I found the missing tent stake. Guess I’ll have another go.
With affection and all the best to you and yours,