Yearend letter 2014

Sometime early this year I came across a couple of quotes, probably at the bottom of somebody’s email: “Nothing ever happens until you leave home.” “The difference between a dream and a goal is a date.” Those two notions stewed in my head until I picked a date and left home and went to Scotland, a place I last visited in 1973.

I was seventeen then, the lucky recipient of a high school graduation gift from my parents – a six week trip to Europe with the American Institute for Foreign Study. We spent three weeks at the University of Aberdeen, taking classes, going on field trips, and eating fish and chips sprinkled with salt and vinegar and wrapped in newspaper by knuckled old hands contorted with arthritis. There were about 200 kids from schools all over the US, which made it a cross-cultural trip in more than one way, this being my first exposure to soft-drawled girls from the Deep South, including one named Letitia who taught me one or two lessons, but not the kind I was hoping for.

One afternoon Jim Conroy, our robust and ruddy-faced field trip leader, took a bunch of us kids on a field trip by bus somewhere up the coast to gawk at puffins and kittewakes, and at some point on the long ride back to Aberdeen he realized that he hadn’t done a head count and yes, had left one or two of us behind, and the bus driver, who was probably thinking about getting home to a good Scottish dinner of neeps and tatties and maybe some blood puddin’, had to turn that bus around and drive back up across miles and miles of rolling brown and olive drab heather moor, and we picked up our missing people and Jim Conroy reached into the pockets of his tweed britches and pulled out a giant fistful of good hard British currency, pounds and pounds in both weight and value, and shoved it into that bus driver’s hands without once looking to see how much of his own money he was giving away to make amends.

But when I returned this year, my friend Becs, raised in the Highlands, warned me that you mustn’t offer money to a Scot who has done you a favor, no matter how big, because that would be seen as an insult, the notion being that the favor was just to be expected, and you would do the same for them, wouldn’t you? Well, I said, thanks for the advice, Becs, and went off on another one of my ridiculous longish hikes through the rumpled and boggy Highlands, and about one week into that hike I did someone a pretty big favor when I was greeted by name by an utter stranger and drafted to help with what turned into a helicopter rescue of a hypothermic, overweight and underprepared English (aka foreign) accountant who’d taken a bath in a storm-swollen Scottish burn, and just about ruined my knees and got hypothermia myself in the process, and sure enough nobody tried to give me any money for my trouble, which I nearly had more of when at the end of the hike I had to cross an honest-to-God bombing range to get to the Cape Wrath lighthouse that looks out at the Arctic Circle.

It wasn’t until after I took a bus and a boat and a bus back to Tom and Becs’s place that I realized I had left my raincoat somewhere behind. A raincoat, you might have heard, is not an optional article of clothing in the British Isles, and after lots of head scratching I figured I’d left it at the Smoo Cave Hotel, where I’d eaten fish and chips and drunk beer brewed in the Orkney Islands to celebrate my survival crossing the bombing range. And those folks at the Smoo Cave Hotel put my jacket on the bus with a driver who delivered it to me on a street corner in Dingwall, where, forgetting Becs’s advice but remembering Jim Conroy’s act 41 years earlier, I tried to tip the driver. He would have none of it, but he didn’t seem insulted either. Maybe he wasn’t Scottish.

We left the British Isles, back in ‘73, and flew to Venice, where we boarded a large, leaky cruise ship staffed by young Greek sailors who were soon enjoying a cross-cultural experience with the one hundred or so American girls on board, which prompted Letitia’s boyfriend back home, a Tennessee gentleman of some means, to haul himself to Europe to stake out his territory.

At the farthest reach of that trip, we visited Israel. I remember reaching down and out the bus window to buy my first-ever fresh fig from a little Palestinian boy. A group of 20 or 30 of us, including some crafty New York City girls, went on a walking tour through one of those narrow, crooked 1000-year old streets crowded with shops and food vendors, and our guide, ruddy-faced and robust, who told us his name was Moses, which could have really been his name but was more likely a tag he laughed about later over a beer with his friends, he appointed me the sweep, and I was to come get him if we lost any of our group in the confusion of it all.

And sure enough, a couple of those crafty girls from New York disappeared into a deep and dark shop with hand-made textiles and ceramics and brass trinkets and every other manner of artifact designed to catch the eye. I cautiously poked my head inside that cavern and saw the two girls trapped in a sort of military engagement, so I ducked back out and shouldered through the crowd of criss-crossing locals with their arms full of produce and found Moses and told him we had a little problem, so he strode back to that store, parting the sea of humanity with me following in his wake, and I watched him negotiate with the storeowner for the release of our captives. The merchant claimed, of course, that the girls had been shoplifting, and maybe they had been and maybe they hadn’t, and maybe the merchant was crafty too, I’ll never know, and Moses didn’t know, or maybe he did, but at any rate he reached into his robe, and he pulled out a pile of shekels to satisfy that merchant. Later, at a shop in safer territory, Moses invited me to pick out anything I wanted as a thank you for my tour of duty, and I settled on a little hammered copper plate, which still collects my pocket change each day when I return home from the utterly safe streets of Enterprise.

After getting my raincoat back, I flew not to Venice but to Chamonix, France, a tony little mountain town that sits 12,382 feet below Mont Blanc. You can ride a crazy cable car up to a restaurant that sits on a giant spike of black rock called the Aiguille du Midi, and from there climb to the summit 3,000 feet above. Some people, including a French trail runner I met who thought I was from Great Britain, may snub the mere hills of Scotland, but there are 282 of them, called “Munros,” over 3,000 feet above sea level, which is just about where you have got to start from to climb most of them, and that without use of a cable car. Lots of Scots have climbed them all, including the fellow who roped me into helping out with that helicopter rescue, and that is probably a far sight harder than climbing Mont Blanc once from the Aiguille du Midi, although probably equally pointless, especially considering that half the time you can’t see two feet from the top of one of those Munros, what with the weather coming in off the North Atlantic all the time.

I went to Chamonix because I had a friend there who is a hot shot mountain guide and speaks French a hell of a lot better than me. We walked the Tour de Mont Blanc, circling the mountain, stopping at gites, auberges, and refugios – places with a roof and a bunkroom and afternoon wine or beer and family-style dinners and something that the Continentals call breakfast but the Scots surely scoff at, and in the course of that week-long jaunt we passed through corners of Italy and Switzerland. I left my good wool shirt at the refugio in Italy where I thought I had become part of the caretaker’s family, but they never did respond to my email about the shirt, although they did thank me for the picture I sent them. Those Italians.

So I bought a new shirt and rode trains across southern France, stopping to look at castles and play petanque and drink aperitifs at outdoor cafes and watch girls in dresses riding bicycles with baguettes and bouquets tucked in their baskets, and got to the small town of Hendaye on the Atlantic coast.

I had it in my head to go on one more ridiculous long walk, this time along the spine of the Pyrenees, to end at the Costa Brava with its hillsides terraced with Roman vineyards and its beaches facing Asia across the Mediterranean Sea. I walked down to the beach, skinny dipped in the Atlantic Ocean because the locals were, and started walking up into the Basque Country. This was no remote wilderness venture, because western Europe basically has no wilderness, although there is some rugged country to be sure. There were trail runners in tight and gaudy spandex and Spanish families with men wearing white-framed sunglasses and smelling of cologne, and cows and horses and sheep, also smelling and every single one of them wearing a bell, so I sometimes had to wear earplugs in my tent. And there were gites or refugios just about every day, but I chose to sleep in my tent, and only stopped at those mountain huts for a little bit of conversation and to eat omelettes served with bare naked pieces of good French bread.

That summer turned out to be the coldest, wettest summer in the Pyrenees since 1934. My tent was punctured by a hailstone the size of a golf ball. A good Scot would probably say, “Och, it’s just a wee thing,” and would pick up that hailstone and play nine holes right then and there. But I’m no Scot, and sometimes all that kept me going was the prospect of seeing Homer’s sun, “leaving the waters of the splendid East, leap up into the firmament to bring light to the immortals and to men who plough the earth and perish.”

Which I did – see the sun leap up, that is, over the warm waters of the Mediterranean – from the summit of Canigou, where I met a band of grubby itinerant grape pickers, four men and a woman, who had a few days off on account of the unusually wet and cold weather, and on account of increasing automation, which you cannot blame on climate change. They climbed the mountain in sandals and ragged sneakers, and carried a puppy and not enough clothes. The woman, a blue-eyed Lithuanian, pulled out a cow’s horn and blew three long loud notes that echoed off the Crete de Barbet, jagged and dark in shadow. She sang songs and sounded a tuning fork in the sunrise.

Later, we lunched together on the patio outside the gite below, where the puppy chewed on my shoeless feet and Matias, bare-chested, missing teeth, with hair on its way to dreads, carved a wedge of Camembert with a giant wooden-handled Choix Opinel folding knife. While we talked politics, he waved the knife around to make a point, and I said, in my best French, “Jamais disputez avec un homme avec un grande couteau.” Never argue with a man with a big knife.

Seven weeks after skinny dipping in the Atlantic, I walked into the Mediterranean Sea wearing shorts, because the locals were. Except you don’t necessarily always want to do what the locals do. While our group of kids was waiting in some whitewashed, sundrenched coastal town for our leaking cruise ship crawling with horny Greek sailors, a couple of us boys jumped off a 50 or 100 foot cliff into the Mediterranean Sea because we’d seen the local boys doing it. Only after we jumped, the local boys upped the ante by climbing onto the flat roof of a blockhouse that sat back about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff. They would run off the roof, clear the edge of the cliff, and arc into the sea. I could recognize a home court advantage when I saw it, so I folded my hand and lived to jump into the Mediterranean another day.

I walked down the coast into Spain, from one little tourist town to the next, until I got on a bus and then a train and, after a few detours, ended up in Barcelona, where I stood in line with the throngs to walk inside the Sagrada Familia, a ridiculous perpetually unfinished tribute to Spanish architectural monumentalism, masquerading as a tribute to God, complete with piped-in Holy Music. Walking back to my apartment past cafes with people drinking endless cups of coffee and smoking endless chains of cigarettes, I stumbled on a merely large cathedral. It seemed like a country cottage. I stepped into the dark and cool interior, which took me back to Venice in 1973, where, walking back to our hotel very late one night, the streets dark, the canals quiet and lapping, our small group of teenagers from the land of purple mountain majesties and amber fields of grain saw a little church. We snuck inside the darkened temple, and listened in silence to the sound of one old man playing Vivaldi on his violin.

* * * * *

Six years after that first trip to Europe, while living in Portland, Oregon, I learned that my girlfriend’s coworker’s wife had once dated Jim Conroy. Four years ago, in my dining room, I watched Becs meet a Wallowa County friend and discover that, 50 years ago in Scotland, his dad and her mom had dated. This spring, I took in a housemate who, it turns out, had once worked at a ski area with my friend in Chamonix. I guess it really is a small world, which makes me get half a notion to go back to Europe, and not let 41 years go by this time. Who knows who I might meet.

Well, I don’t have room to tell you how that fellow in the Highlands knew who I was, or what happened at the pub with the six-and-a-half foot tall Belgian, or about other well-meaning but ill-considered favors I have gotten mixed up in, like borrowing a chainsaw, without asking, from a hunting camp festooned with bottles of Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey, in order to help out a hapless Portland (aka foreign) fellow who’d gotten his truck high-centered on some lodgepole pine saplings, and who also did not offer to pay me for my trouble, which was considerable especially when I went to return the chainsaw, and which offer I would not have refused. These stories will have to wait until I have time to get around to them, which, according to the same logic that assures me I have money in my bank account as long as I have checks in the checkbook, should make me immortal.

Only I know I’m not, now that some of the hairs on my chest are starting to turn white, and neither is Moses, or was Moses, because that was in 1973, remember, and Moses was in fighting trim, and I sometimes wonder whether he got called up later that summer when yet another war between the factions in the Holy Land broke out. And we’re all still fighting, so I call it a win when I remember to be kind to the person sitting next to me.

Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth

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Yearend letter 2013

Friday the thirteenth of December 2013 lived up to its reputation, because when I bumped into Ralphito, as he is now known, he told me that the Odd Fellows Hall had a little problem, which would not be all that unusual, since it was built in 1920 and had a healthy dose of what some folks call “deferred maintenance” but which in the old days we just called “neglect.” But since we did, with the generous help of several philanthropic foundations and our main tenant, the Soroptimist Thrift Store in the basement, put about $100,000 into the structure, including a new roof and insulation and three new one-ton ceiling beams which took a crane and twenty-five volunteers and a handy window and a bit of fancy maneuvering to get into the building, plus a case of donated beer afterwards, which come to think of it means one volunteer didn’t get a beer, because 25 is bigger than 24 (but let me tell you, that odd man out was not me), we expected that we’d taken care of most of the problems.

Except that it turns out there was this one piece of plumbing that none of us knew about, where in retrospect we think those old Odd Fellows had put in a drinking fountain, because they had fancy ideas back when all the fraternal organizations, which are mostly dying off now, were in their prime. Because those old boys had figured out that this piece of plumbing was problematic when the weather would get cold and freeze things and then warm up and thaw them out, and that is when old cracked galvanized pipes will give you trouble, they had installed a stop and waste valve to shut off the water to this one particular piece of plumbing.

But the one fellow living who knew about that stop and waste valve neglected to tell anyone else about it, and probably forgot all about it himself, life being full of other expectations and obligations, until, when the water was caving in the new insulation over the Soroptimists’ donation sorting room and destroying their new floor and dumping about a foot of water down in the Odd Fellows sub-basement, (the basement below the basement, one step closer to Hell), why then when Ralphito got that one living fellow over to the hall, he remembered that stop and waste valve and they pulled all of the dolls and clothes and knick-knacks that people had donated to the Soroptimists off the lid where that valve was hidden and they turned the water off, and then pumped out most of the thousands of gallons of water that had done all the damage, but even then there was still a bit of a mess, and then I bumped into Ralphito on the street and he said we have a little problem over at the hall.

We’d had a work party planned anyway for Saturday the 14th, to do some more gussifying of our building with its newly beefed up and insulated and painted main dance hall, but instead we put on our heavy work gloves and descended into the sub-basement, where the old boys had installed a pot-bellied wood stove and had decided to store all the scrap wood they ever came across, including acres of ponderosa pine slabs with the bark on but coming off, and strips and chunks and slivers of leftover two by fours, and everything in between, of which the bottom foot or so was as waterlogged as some old Spanish galleon that had sunk to the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle.

But there wasn’t any gold bullion down there, I can tell you that, because I and five other boys, every one of us well over fifty years old, except for one who’s not even close to fifty and who didn’t show up because he was busy drinking mimosas for breakfast with a couple of friends of his, we handled every chunk of that wood and all the little bits of ponderosa pine bark and sawdust that had turned into black waterlogged crud, about two cords worth, or two hundred fifty six cubic feet, which we fished out of that sub-basement like a chain gang slaving away in the hold of that sinking Spanish galleon, and we filled up about a dozen truckloads and trailer loads of crappy old mill ends and slabs and chunks of waterlogged wood, constituting, when they weren’t waterlogged, an unholy fire hazard, so, as Ralphito said by way of consolation, it was something we should have done a long time ago.

Other than the fact that I slipped and fell down twice in that muddy goo, it was all right, because all the wet kept the dust down, and there I was working side by side with one Brother who I’ve known for about 30 years and used to own the OK Theater and would complain just incessantly about what a yoke that place was, it being built about the same time as the very same sinking Spanish galleon we were bailing out, and then he finally sold it after 18 years, and no sooner did he sell it than I caught him lamenting how sad he was ever since he “lost” the theater, but I caught him on that one and he’s never used that language since.

And another Brother who I’ve only known for maybe 10 or 15 years, him and his wife being newcomers to the county, and he used to be some sort of professor over on the west side, and he likes to take the long view in any conversation, which is that in the long run we’re all dead and the earth’s just going to be a lifeless ball floating through space or consumed in the eventual explosion of the sun, so what exactly is all the fuss about the environment and social justice and climate change and Obamacare and just about anything else you can think of? This used to bother me some, but lately I’ve maybe come around to his point of view so we get along all right, which is a good thing when you’re standing in the hold of a sinking Spanish galleon handing load after load of mill ends to each other.

And then there was the Brother who just recently returned to the county after an absence of maybe twenty years and I visited him and his family once or twice over there in Salem, which was an all right place to live but it wasn’t Wallowa County, so when the kids got off to college he got himself back here, and since he got back we’ve played music once like we used to in the old days, when we played old-timey and Irish music and even formed a band called the Celtic Cowboys and made a cassette tape which is now a collector’s item, and some hard-drinkin’ cowboy bar over in the mill town of Elgin heard about us, but heard the Cowboy part more than the Celtic part and wondered if they could pay us to come down and play our music some Saturday night and we just said, “Thank you very much, but we don’t think so.” It felt good to play and sing with my Brother again, and we sang the Milwaukee Blues, which always was one of his favorites and mine now too, and it felt good to be working side by side with him.

And another Brother who isn’t exactly an Odd Fellow yet but there he was, helping out, I think he got hit pretty hard this past year when his good friend, maybe his very best friend, up and died from pneumonia not much beyond 60, and that friend was a friend to all of us too, and every time I saw that friend he had a smile and a laugh on his lips and it was a shame that he went so young. That hit my Brother pretty hard so it felt good to be working side by side with him and ribbing him about not having the good sense to just walk away from this dirty nasty job since he wasn’t even an Odd Fellow, and all the while me remembering how some 20 or 30 years ago when I was younger and more foolish than I am now this Brother and his wife threw a Halloween party and I showed up as a pirate complete with a fifth of Clipper Ship rum, which, in pirate-like fashion, I proceeded to drink, and then drove down to the Fireplace for a bit of dancing, but not before clipping the corner of his little blue impeccable Fiat on the way out his driveway, and I’m not proud of that or of driving while being three sheets to the wind and heeling way over and taking on water, but I’m getting close to 60 myself and who knows when I might go, or when any of us might go, so I might as well up and out with the truth right now so as to give you the real story, ugly as it might be.

One thing I can tell you is that my Brother never would let me pay him for the damage to that little blue impeccable Fiat, which he continued to drive for some number of years, him insisting that it wasn’t worth the money it would take to fix it, and I thought and always have thought that was pretty big of him, and I was probably thinking about that in the back of my mind as we swabbed out that hold. And then there was Ralphito, who I’ve known just about since I moved here back in 1980, and who has gotten me into enough trouble by planting ideas of one kind or another in my head, that I better just stop talking about him right now.

The first time I fell down in the hold I sprained my left thumb, and it hurt bad enough that I took off my glove and inspected it and flexed both it and my right thumb in order to compare the relative degrees of pain and make sure I hadn’t broken it. My right thumb provided a good yard stick because I did break it on July 1 while working for the Forest Service, or Forest Circus as many people around here are happy to call it. I was way out near Lord Flat, which, to get to by vehicle, you have got to plan on a full day of driving and use four wheel drive low and not look too hard over the edge. When a six inch diameter meat pole that was tied up about ten feet off the ground with baling twine and fence wire fell all of a sudden onto my thumb, which was busy working on that fence wire, it shattered the last bone into three pieces, and although I didn’t know for a fact at the time that it was broken I distinctly remember hearing a little voice say, “I think maybe I just busted my thumb,” so I splinted it with an empty plastic mechanical pencil lead container and a few wraps of duct tape, and that worked well enough that for the next day or two I finished up my business cleaning messes out there on Lord Flat before putting that big Forest Circus rig back into four wheel drive low and driving back to town with the truck bed full of garbage, and went to the doctor and got to see the picture of exactly how many pieces my thumb had been shattered into.

So I spent the next few months wearing a splint, only the doctor’s splint wasn’t nearly as good as mine, and in fact when the doc, who happened to be a Brother too, saw my splint he admired it and said he would buy such a splint from me if I were to go into the business of manufacturing them. Whichever splint I happened to be wearing at the moment didn’t keep me from keeping on the job, which consisted of a lot more plain unpleasant heavy manual labor, moving big boulders and logs around in a valiant but I am afraid possibly vain attempt to keep people from destroying the wilderness through ignorance or not caring, which is how, maybe, we cause most of the damage we inflict in all realms of life. But then again, in the end it’s all just going to be a lifeless ball floating through space, so No Worries.

In between bailing out the Good Ship Odd Fellow and misadventures out at Lord Flat, I kept busy with African drumming, and going to dinner at some friends’ cabin where I was treated to a solo trombone performance, and missing my 40th class reunion but making my friend’s 60th birthday party where we mostly played music and drank whiskey but not too much because we are none of us too young anymore, and housing two young Whitman College lady student interns who learned how to sew on my sewing machine and kicked my butt once or twice playing soccer, and having a little unnecessary accident that resulted in an unnecessary trip to the ER in my first-ever ambulance ride during which the EMT rightfully complained to me about the state of education these days and which privilege cost me more money, even with insurance, than I even want to think about, but in the course of which I did learn that I have a heart abnormality called a Right Bundle Branch Block and now I carry a little card in my wallet saying so.

And going to my adoptive niece’s college graduation up in Spokane where not one single student in a graduating class of over 600 bright and promising and hard-working young men and women got a four-point and I admired that and thought that’s the way it ought to be, four-points are way too easily come by these days, and afterwards that niece and her family came out to where I was camped by the Spokane River which was running high in flood stage and we sat around the campfire, and that’s the way it ought to be, too.

And besides that I had to get a new passport, which gave me reason to compare my new photo to my old photo and gawk at the difference, and then I used that passport to go for my third time to El Salvador, this time without my friend Gilligan but with some other folks including Ralphito, and maybe the most electric moment for me was while we were driving out to the little village of El Progreso, which drive rivals that drive to Lord Flat, and recognizing one of the little corrugated tin-roofed shacks by the side of the jungle road and hollering from the back of the van to the driver, “Halto por favor, Don Julio!” and Don Julio stopping on a dime, which was easy since we were climbing up the mountain on that rutted dirt road.

I opened the sliding window and leaned out and yelled, “Ceci!” and Ceci, whose round and angelic face reminds me of my friend Flipper, she looked at me and saw the beard, which has since gone away, but which fortunately I still had at that time, and she recognized me because of that beard, despite the fact that we had not been in any kind of touch for eight years, she and her husband Ademir and their five kids just being campesinos and not having email or even a handy post office. She came up to the van and we hugged with me hanging about halfway out the window, but we didn’t say too much because I can barely speak any Spanish nor her any English, but we said what we had to say with that hug.

And I saw Mama Hilda and Papa Angel and the little village didn’t look too different, which is to say dirt floors and tin roofs and corn and beans and coffee plantations and a woman, someone’s relative no doubt, cooking up pupusas by the dozen in an earthen oven and I wished we could have stayed for some of those pupusas and conversation to go with, but we were in a rush and I had to leave about a week sooner than I wanted to.

After a two-week hiatus during which I tried unsuccessfully to fight off a nasty cold I caught on the airplane, because that is what everybody blames when they get sick on a trip, even if they didn’t fly, my daughter Angela and her boyfriend got me a round-trip Amtrak ticket from Portland to San Francisco and back so I could visit for Thanksgiving, and I had a sleeper car compartment called a “roomette,” which is right because it measured 3.5 feet by 6.5 feet, but I spent most of my time hobnobbing in the dining car with its white linen, or the parlor car with its feeling of a 1950s roadside café, and enjoyed first rate service from the staff, including a couple of wine and cheese tastings and the pleasure of being accosted every time I headed up to my sleeper car. “Are you staying in one of the sleeper cars?” they’d ask, because they were just making sure I wasn’t one of the riff-raff riding in the coach cars, trying to sneak into the Promised Land of the sleeper cars, instead of trying unsuccessfully to get a good night’s sleep in a coach seat on a seventeen-hour train ride, which I have done in the past and it wasn’t too comfortable.

I had a good visit with Angela and for her birthday we went to the horse races because it was Dollar Day and admission and hot dogs and beer were all a dollar, and the minimum bet was two dollars, and they give you a little book explaining how to bet, which was a good thing for me since I had never been to the horse races before, but now I know exactly the difference between win, place, and show, and what a trifecta is, and I bet on two races and won both times and would have walked away three dollars richer than I walked in, except I bought a hot dog and two beers, so it was a wash.

In October I met up with most of my siblings and we all visited my dad at his adult foster home in Washington. He’s now working on 86 years old but he doesn’t know it, just like he doesn’t know that he’s the last one left, all his brothers and sisters gone now, and his wife our mom has been gone six years, but that he remembers because she’s not there by his side, although remembering that doesn’t keep him from sometimes enjoying a little kiss with one of the old ladies who live there. One such kiss we all witnessed, which was wonderful in part because, the two of them maybe thinking they were married to each other, they were, in a way, paying homage to their spouses, even though her spouse is still alive and well.

I played what was probably my last cribbage game with Dad, because when he stops to think about counting his hand he just can’t do it anymore, he who taught us all how to play and who hand-crafted each one of his four kids cribbage boards in the shape of a 29, which is the most points you can score in cribbage but is so rare I’ve never seen it happen. I was ahead but on the last hand he got sixteen, which is a pretty good hand even if I had to help him count it, and he beat me by just one or two points. And I suppose in the end this place is just going to be a lifeless flaming ball, but in the meantime I am enjoying my friends and family, and trying to do a little good work here and there, and casting about for a kiss once in a while, and I hope you all are too.

Yearend letter 2011-2012

2011-2012:  Nothing Happened
(Download as PDF:  EOY letter 2012)

Nothing much has happened in the two years since I last wrote, other than poisoning myself, in the mountains, in the winter, in the dark. It was an accident, or maybe not.

I’d gone camping in January 2012 (I know, madness to begin with) along with a pair of Supposed Friends, snowshoeing into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Cocooned in my tent, I used my tiny stove, which burns denatured alcohol, to cook split pea soup and hot cocoa. Green gruel, then brown gruel with flecks of green gruel in it. Mmm. By 7 pm, with nothing decent on TV, I was asleep.

1202--1024xAnd dreamt I was wandering in a clean and sunny cityscape, open and bright, deserted but for a group of people loitering in a plaza 50 yards away. Then, from a puff of smoke, like a 19th century charlatan, there materialized a redheaded man in a dark suit – clean shaven, trim, athletic – looking straight at me. I knew him, knew he must not see me, knew he had seen me. I ran, but in no time was caught. He plunged a syringe into the back of my right hand. Feeling an electric painful poison invading my body, I awoke with a scream.

Winter. Cold. Dark. Mouth parched. Need a drink. I reach for the water bottle and take a swig. And proceed to make a series of “animal noises” (my companions would later say). In my groggy terror, I’ve mistakenly grabbed my bottle of stove fuel – grain alcohol that has been intentionally poisoned in order to discourage hobos, vagrants, bums, and backpackers from drinking it.

I don’t know how much a lethal dose is, but I do know I’ll never snowshoe out of the mountains before the poison does it work. In nothing but my long underwear, I bolt out of the tent, spread my feet, bend over, and repeatedly stick my finger down my throat, retching green and brown gruel into the snow. Sometimes I can taste the denatured alcohol coming up.

A song comes into my head , one we used to sing in the old days, when I was young and new to Wallowa County. We would gather in someone’s cheap but drafty rental farmhouse with an ugly, cavernous Blaze King wood stove roaring, to drink beer, play music, and sing songs late into the night, while small, dirty children ran amok, eventually to crash on piles of coats in the corner.

The red-headed stranger from Blue Rock, Montana, Rode into town one day.
And under his knees was a ragin’ black stallion, And walkin’ behind was a bay.
The red-headed stranger had eyes like the thunder, And his lips, they were sad and tight.
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside, And his heart was heavy as night.
Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, He’s wild in his sorrow, He’s ridin’ an’ hidin his pain.
Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, Just wait till tomorrow, Maybe he’ll ride on again.

But my redheaded stranger had not ridden on. No, he’d reached into this world and steered my hand to the wrong bottle, the bastard. How had I crossed him? Why did he want to kill me?

After twenty minutes, I am chilled and, I hope, emptied. No sound comes from my Supposed Friends in their tent. I imagine them on their backs in their sleeping bags, eyes staring into the dark, waiting to hear the muffled thump of my body hitting the snow. Thanks a lot, guys.

Back to bed I go. There’s nothing left to do but go to sleep and see if I wake up. In the morning, one eye is completely red. I’ve burst a blood vessel from the sustained effort of forced gagging. Either that, or the poison is doing its work. After a breakfast of thin oatmeal – tan gruel – we snowshoe up to Horseshoe Lake, walk across the frozen mile-long surface, staring at gray peaks creased with snow, and, a day later, return to town. I make a phone call. 1-800-222-1222. The guy at the Poison Control Center tells me a toxic dose of denatured alcohol is two ounces.

Dreams. In May of 2011, having re-upped with the Forest Service, I’m back in Hells Canyon. In my little yellow standard-issue Rite-in-the-Rain journal, I rite, “6 am. Been lying awake in the tent since 5. Dreamt of horses streaming through the woods, chased by distraught owners.”

August 2011, now up in the high country. Horse packing into the Eagle Cap to clean up some nasty camps, Boss puts me on Duster, a one-eyed roan. I’m not sure what this indicates about my standing. At times we lead the pack string off-trail, through steep-sloped timber and hanging meadows, to avoid deadfall. Duster stumbles on a sloping rock and falls to his front knees, pitching me onto his neck. I hang on. He plunges into a hole hidden by grass. I hang on. He’s constantly veering toward his good side. I’m enjoying the hell out of myself.

P1020466--1024xWe camp in a meadow at the mouth of Trail Creek, putting up a lightweight electric fence. “The problem with these things,” Boss says, “is that the elk walk through them, and then there’s nothing to keep the stock in.” In the morning, the fence is down, and the horses and mules are gone. We start the search. I head for the thick timber on the far side of the meadow. And see our horses, streaming through the woods, coming back home. I have been here before.

Nothing at all happened between the end of field season in the fall of 2011, and the redheaded man’s attack in January 2012. No, I take it back. My housemate and I threw a Halloween Party, attended by the Devil With The Blue Dress On. Some people thought it was creepy, although I can’t imagine why.

DWTBDO

And I finished the freakin’ sweat lodge, Gilligan.

1881--1024xBy April 2012, I was back in the field, working alone in Hells Canyon until the rest of the crew came on in June. Close to finishing an inventory of all the “trails” on the Oregon side of the canyon, we make a final push. Of course, I volunteer to do the last low-elevation piece, even though it is now July. It’s a hot, brambly, snaky hell down there, and we have only three days to do a four-day job. (“Crucify me! Crucify me!”) As we bushwhack through five acres of poison ivy, teasel, and poison hemlock, my companion, a young woman on her first trip into Hells Canyon, declares, “Let’s get the hell out of this fucking shithole.”

5907--1024xSo I did, taking a hiatus from rangering to go on a busman’s holiday: hiking the length of the Sierra Nevada range in California with my brother, Tork. We were joined for the first week by one “Kramer,” who lived up to his nickname, and for another week by my daughter, her friend, and Ashi the Stylin’ Pooch.

Along the way, Tork and I take a spontaneous side trip to Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Our choices are to climb 2000′ up the sheer north face (I don’t think so), or to go up the “tourist” route on the back side. Even that is steep. So steep that, years ago, the Sierra Club installed steel posts with 3/4″ steel cable handrails. So what if some of the steel posts have popped out of their holes? That was in 1919, and you can’t expect anything to last forever.

On the cables, there’s a regular traffic jam. It reminds me of that other tourist route – the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. “Get the Italian team out of the way!” I shout. Tork and I are fit, used to exposure, and acclimated – Half Dome, at 8800 feet, is 2000 feet lower than the route we’ve been hiking. But many of our fellow tourists are exhausted and scared shitless. The aisle between the cables is not quite wide enough for two people, so Uppers and Downers are constantly squeezing by each other. Some people are frozen to the cables, blocking the way of others.

6697--1024xSomething goes clattering down the nearly vertical granite, disappearing against the background of dark treetops 1000 feet below us. A sheath knife. A moment later, another object, bright and metallic, clatters down and disappears into a shallow crack right at my feet. A voice up above calls, “Don’t worry about it! It’s not important!” But it’s just right there, and I’m not going anywhere at the moment, just staring at the unlovely ass of the person in front of me, so I fish it out. It’s a police badge. No toy this, it’s well made of heavy gauge metal. I try to pass it up the line, but the person I hand it to says, “No thanks, we’re headed down.” So I pocket the badge, and figure I’ll find the owner when we top out.

Half an hour later, we’re there. The summit of Half Dome is like a big convex plateau, big enough to play a soccer game or two. A cluster of about 30 people are gathered near the highest point, doing dumb, illegal things like feeding the marmots and throwing objects off the face – the same face a pair of climbers are about to top out on. I walk toward the group, looking for the owner of the badge, holding it up and hailing them. “Special police?!” I holler. Thirty people freeze, turn as one, and practically reach for the sky.

Five weeks after starting, not having taken a shower once (although I did skinny dip in at least a dozen stunning alpine lakes), we arrive at the end of our journey at Twin Lakes Resort. Lost in a maze of beachcombers’ trails, we cannot find a bridge across our last creek. We’ve hiked and scrambled and climbed 300 miles through the rugged High Sierra, mostly off-trail, and we can’t find our way through a bunch of paths made by kids with plastic pails. The hell with it. We walk across the knee-deep estuary in socks and boots, find my truck in the parking lot, and prepare to leave. When I turn the key in the ignition, nothing happens.

Yearend letter 2009-2010

(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.

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To Build A Fire, March 2009

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.

Celilo Falls--1933-10

Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, 1933

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.

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Waynesville, North Carolina, May 2009

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.

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Hells Canyon of the Snake River, September 2009

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.

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Hells Canyon of the Snake River, September 2009

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.”

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Uncle Ira’s ill-fated garage, October 2007

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.

WMO fire

USFS Wallowa Mts Office, July 2010

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.

Garbage collected at "The Big Nasty" Camp,Eagle Cap Wilderness, July 2010

Garbage collected at “The Big Nasty” Camp,
Eagle Cap Wilderness, July 2010

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.

Camp "Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia",Eagle Cap Wilderness, August 2011

Camp “Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia”,
Eagle Cap Wilderness, August 2011

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.

Kai's birthday cake

Kai’s birthday cake

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.

*****

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

With affection and all the best to you and yours,