Places Like This
Patty SomloThis morning, stepping out of the car, we were the only people on the road. Sun still climbing in the sky broke through the curtain of hemlock and old-growth fir, a band of pale yellow light flickering across the pavement. Everything silent.
A sign down by the junction where this narrow winding road began said the road was closed eleven miles up for construction. That might have kept people away. Itís also edging toward Fall, with school about to start, and the campgrounds look deserted.
In any case, we start up the trail in the hushed silence hours before the sun has inched its way overhead, and all we hear is the occasional ragged squawk of a jay or a crow. Before long, the trail has climbed out of the shade into unguarded sun. The sky is a deep blue that makes me glad. We are hiking through a lava field, the trail on both sides bordered by meadows of black basalt. I can easily imagine the eruption that occurred, when the mountain blew and tossed down all this debris. Itís a perfect seventy degrees. Thereís hardly a breeze.
And suddenly it hits me. The ache. Right in the middle of my stomach. I donít know whether to laugh or cry or just be grateful that the sun is shining and weíre walking on a trail through a lava field headed for a waterfall. But all I want to do is go back there.
I never thought it would be hard to leave. Hadnít I been leaving places my whole life? Thatís how you live when youíre a military kid. Only now, years and years after wrapping dinner plates in newsprint and slowly settling them in the box or standing in an empty living room trying to get my voice to bounce off the wall, do I see that all the leaving mattered. When life requires you to pick up and go, you acquire the skills of a nomad. Not only can you quickly take down the tent and pack your things before the next storm starts, but you know how to move your mind in an instant from where youíve been to an as-yet unknown location.
Strangely enough from where I now stand, I can say that I never saw myself staying in one spot. In my early twenties, I landed in California, neither by design or plan. After a year of living in a small stucco house with a layer of old turquoise paint peeling off the outside wall, my boyfriend Marshall and I packed a U-Haul attached to the back of our bright orange Nova and headed out from New Mexico toward the desert. Before we arrived, I couldnít have known that San Francisco would become my home. Even when I lived there, all twenty years to be precise, I kept thinking one day Iíd leave. Thatís the way life had always been, so why would San Francisco be different?
In the meantime, I fell in love, with my husband and with the place, over and over again. When I say the place, I mean more than the city, though I was infatuated with San Francisco from the first moment and havenít gotten over it yet. Living in Northern California, you fall in love with the landscape Ė ocean, dry golden hills and rocky headlands -- and with the air itself, shrouded in fog. I canít help but recall this poster that used to hang outside the old movie theater in the tiny town of Monte Rio, set along the Russian Riverís banks. ďNorthern California,Ē it said. ďYou know when youíre there.Ē
And thatís the source of the bellyache. I have trouble explaining it, even to myself. What I can say is that something used to happen to me there. Iíd watch the fog soften the landscape, like a Zen painting, and it made me understand why the Beat poets, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and the like, all flocked there, to gaze at their navels and chant. Iím prone to a nervous agitation, worrying about the most inconsequential things. In other words, I worry about everything. There are places, though, where I feel as if Iíve stepped into a full body massage. Northern California. You know when youíre there.
We used to stay in a place right out of a childrenís book called Jasmine Cottage. The bed was a platform carved into the wall. My husband Richard called it the train bed. I had to step onto a little stool to hoist myself up.
A miniature wood stove kept the place cozy and warm. We brought Pavarotti and New Age music with us. Iíd wake up early to sip coffee by myself in the adjoining room. A window seat looked out on the garden. Sometimes I could hear a rooster crow or raindrops patting the small panes. The room was surrounded by glass, square panes framed in white wood. It was like sitting in an indoor garden.
If the weather was all right, we would hike out past lagoons to the beach. Weíd wait along the trail to watch egrets glide down and stand perfectly straight, like thin, bright white folded flags, eyes fixed on whatever small fish drifted just beneath the surface of the stream. In one place, California brown pelicans hung out, slapping their huge wings against the water and lifting awkwardly into the sky, looking at any moment like they might tip over and careen back down. If we were lucky, sunlight would have warmed through the fog and Iíd watch the water shimmer under the half light. Thatís when Iíd begin to cry.
I never exactly understood the sorrow that welled up out there, arms holding me up as I balanced my hands against the sand. It was a kind of gratefulness, to be in a place where I felt so much. There, it seemed as if the curtain that normally separated me from the world had suddenly been yanked aside and I found myself standing exposed, a wind of wet air soaked in the smells of seafood dampening my skin.
My military childhood taught me more than to be afraid. I learned to keep my distance. This habit started early. I recall when the curtain wasnít there and we lived in a little house, the year I entered first grade. That place was a paradise, surrounded by exotic plants Ė hibiscus and wood roses, a koa tree, and even a banana tree with wide shiny green leaves and fruit curled like small yellow fingers. We moved the following year but only a short distance away. For three years, I breathed in the aroma of plumeria, as I strung the yellow-white flowers into leis, interspersed with lavender orchids. After school and on weekends, I body-surfed in monstrous waves and danced the hula. One day my father came home to our little duplex, where you could stand on the porch and see the gray ships docked in Pearl Harbor, and said we had to leave. This time we would be leaving Hawaii for good.
The ground got pulled out from under me that day, and ever since, Iíve only felt it under my feet at certain times and in special places. Through the years since, Iíve collected places like bright bits of cloth saved to sew into a quilt. I learned to let go, again and again, bringing down the curtain that separated my feelings from a place. Each time I left, the places Iíd been got shoved further back into my memory. But then, Iíd sit on that Northern California beach, the slap of pelicans beating their wings against the waves in time to the rhythms of my heart, and return to some authentic home, as if I had never left.
Itís the feeling Iím missing more than the place. Iíve experienced it in Northern California, more than anywhere else. The time of my life might have been a factor. Starting in my early twenties until I turned fifty, I lived, except for one brief break, in that place. All the relationships that didnít work out, friendships, jobs, hopes and plenty of dreams are scattered there. Even more than that, I could tell a thousand stories of my life and they would all be set on the rocky headlands, in the fog, and watching a golden sunset bathe the brown hills on the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The year I turned fifty, though, the place turned on me. I wasnít alone. Anyone who couldnít afford Northern Californiaís overpriced lifestyle had to go. Richard and I chose Oregon. It seemed similar enough. But after twelve years, Iím still trying to give Northern California up.
Yet there is something here in Oregon and itís starting to seep in. If I look inside, I see myself surrounded by trees. Instead of sunlight in this mind picture, there is a sheltering darkness. Though nearly all of the old-growth forests in Oregon are gone, places like this one exist, in the Three Sisters Wilderness, just up the winding road from the hamlet of McKenzie Bridge, with its namesake river and one grocery store. Here, the impressive ancient trees can still be admired. After we cross the lava field, we step into a forested section and the base of the trees is as wide as a family. I make Richard stand smack against the trunk and try stretching his arms around its girth, so I can snap a picture, like one of those old logging shots they display on Oregon cafť walls. When Iím done, I step away and lean my head back. No matter how far I arch my back, I canít see the top.
We start walking again, with me in the lead. Iím aware here Ė and Iíve felt it in Oregon more than any other place Ė that we are in a silent place. All morning, we havenít seen or heard a single other human being. No oneís voice is being projected into a cell phone, as if the listener were a million miles away. Thereís no whoosh of passing cars or a barking dog and no rap music with its vibrating bass to prey on my nerves. The only sound I hear is my boots crunching scattered leaves that have dried and fallen onto the trail, occasionally broken by these thoughts drifting through my mind.
This isnít the first time Iíve found myself on an Oregon trial or alongside a creek and marveled at the fact that weíre alone. Though I gave up backpacking long ago, Richard and I take our compact car out one-lane gravel roads to reach remote trailheads where we can vanish into the woods. What surprises me again and again is how close to the city we can be and still feel as if weíve come into wilderness.
Today, the other part of this placeís sheltering darkness is missing, and Iím grateful for that. Iím speaking, of course, about the rain. On a day like this, you would never believe weíre hiking in a normally sopping wet place. Thatís the other source of my bellyache. Iíve long been prone to depression and the unending dribble of rain can drag me down. But when the sun shines here, a happiness surges through me so strongly I feel as if I might explode.
Lately, Iíve been thinking about leaving. I admit, I have considered going to a place full of heat and light, where a narrow earth palette shades the rock, from tan to dark brown to burnt orange. But my mind is fighting back.
When I put myself in that place, the next stop along the road, my mind lifts me up and sets me down in the middle of a forest. Pale green moss drips from thick winding branches, like wizardsí beards. Red, orange and brown mushrooms carpet the damp earth. And though the silence is profound, I can hear a tapping, barely more than a faint patter. When I look up, I see that a light rain has started drifting down.
In my daydream, I stand on the damp earth and then I take one cautious step. But before going on, I decide to look back. Thatís when I see that my boots have left an impression of my feet in the earth here.
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