I’m on a hillside on the eastern slope of the north Cascades just north of Winthrop Washington, above the Chewuch River. Bitterbrush has turned brown and the vine maple trees are golden. The aspen trees glitter green and silver like billions of dollars in different denominations of money. The wind is dry and warm. Last night coming up the driveway I saw a skunk in my head lights and there are so many deer in town it is almost comic. I even saw a giant bull moose loping through a hay field near the highway.
This is the country of my youth. When I was ten years old in 1963, my dad and I went on a pack trip here and two years later my dad sent me to work for the packer outfitter, presumably, to toughen me up. I worked in the woods for different outfitters from the time I was twelve until I was 24 and I moved to Alaska. I learned to shoe horses here and throw a diamond hitch. I packed mules and horses in the back country and rode saddle horses sometimes six or seven hundred miles in a season. I met Janice Morrison in the backcountry here where she was working as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service. I wooed her by bringing her fresh vegetables and fruit on horseback at the end of her ten day trips. I married her in 1977 the same year she moved to Sitka, Alaska to take a job for the Fish and Wildlife Service. It took me two months to join her, and another year for me to want to live in Alaska, so strong was the pull of the high Ponderosa Pine country of the North Cascades. In some ways my heart is still here.
Before my parents died they bought my siblings and I twenty acres here on this hillside, and we built this cabin. My parent’s ashes are scattered here. We’ve celebrated birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Thanksgivings, and many sledding parties here. Because of the distance from Alaska, I have not come down as much as I would have liked, but I’ve paid my share of taxes and some little bit of the maintenance. But as the years have gone by and as time takes its toll the long drive and the costs have made it difficult to keep up with. My siblings and I have decided to sell the place, reluctantly, and tonight I am nostalgic.
Sitka, Alaska is a place of rain and one very long protracted Fall. The Methow has four distinct and lovely seasons. Only the early Spring with it’s mud season that lasts a few weeks could be said to be unattractive for any length of time. The rest of the year has dry fine snow, or crisp mornings with warm afternoons. Recent summers have had hot forest fires with attendant smoke that have brought coughing and sore eyes. But today the early fall weather is beautiful with temperatures in the high sixties and fine colors. But again it could be my sentimentality that changes everything, for my heart taints everything I see around me. I was young and strong here. I discovered life away from my parents here: love and sex and adventure. Nothing viewed through that lens can be seen objectively. That’s why it’s probably best not to live here.
When I first lived here it was at the end of a long road and the people were loggers mostly and orchardists, there were a few ranchers and trappers. There was a sawmill. I remember a drunk driving his old pickup around and around the circle of the old town drag and my father pulling back inside the café and off the street. The drunk driver wore an old fashioned round tin hard hat and a dirty striped Hickory shirt with frayed sleeves. He was wild with red-rimmed eyes. I was scared and fascinated, just as I had been scared and fascinated by the mules and the one black bear I had seen in a medow.
Today the valley is populated by recreating tech millionaires from the coast. There is a cocktail bar and if someone is drunk driving in town there are just as likely to be on a fat tire bike. I’m done complaining about the changes. It makes me sound old. But I do notice blue collar work has become rather fetishized. The local horseshoer is now something special… a character…. someone to be revered rather than just another part of the community. The local horse trader is a pretty woman with colorful shirts and although extremely capable and physically strong and a top hand all around, she also performs her part for her clients as part of her talents, as does her husband a professional folk singer. I love this valley still, and of course my first boss, Jack Wilson who is long dead, and now lionized as a visionary of the cross-state highway was riveter turned mule skinner performer long before the highway was built. But even still, his need to be lionized has atomized into a kind of institutional self-conscienceness about the west in this part of the west. The family country house, is perfectly appointed now, and the country clothing is well selected. I don’t mind, but still… I’m not sure the authentic western lifestyle was ever meant to be so comfortable or so affluent. But… who am I to say? I was always affluent by cowboy standards, and now my feet are practically webbed from living in the rainforest country so I am by no means a range cowboy. I cannot hold on to everything in my life. I married an ocean woman, I didn’t know that when I saw her in the back country that first day in her ranger uniform, but I did. She loved Ed Ricketts and Between Pacific Tides and when she got a job offer to move to Sitka Alaska she was gone… in an instant. I was chasing her then and I have been chasing her for the last forty years.
The reading in Moscow, Idaho was a bust. No one showed up. That’s nobody. Zero.
This happens. It takes a certain alignment of circumstances to fill a room. My old friend who owns the bookstore was mortified, but when I think back on it I shouldn’t have been surprised. Her store does not tend to sell many mysteries and her events usually are on Wednesday nights and this was a Monday. Her events are typically sponsored by the University MFA program so she has a built in audience and that audience is not coming out on a Monday to see someone who is not going to be on any of their tests, or part of their program. I should have seen it coming… but I didn’t. I was upset, honestly for about ten minutes. Then I felt bad for her.
One guy showed up looking for a place to have a beer. She recommended a place and he split. I offered to read for him and he wasn’t having any. He wanted to get drunk. I couldn’t help with that.
She and I walked down to the end of the block and had a cup of tea. I read her the introduction to my new book of One Hundred Poems Of Winter which I had planned to read that night. She enjoyed that. I didn’t drink any alcohol for it didn’t feel like a special occasion and I didn’t want to risk the depression that could come along with being alone and drinking, particularly since I have run out of meds (and my clinic in Sitka won’t refill to a distant out of state pharmacy… apparently). She went back to close up her store and I walked back to the motel and called Jan who could take the call on the boat in Prince William Sound by standing on the top of the back deck and we talked for a while as I lay in my motel clean sheets and listened to the traffic rumble by on highway 841 (?) outside my window. I read her the William Stafford quote from his poem “Ask Me” from my essay:
Some time when the
river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made,
ask me if what
I have done is my life…
On a night like that, and too on a quite night on this hillside on the north Cascades alone, I think of my mistakes. So many. Books I have written and loves that have come to me unbidden, and followed, or not… lies I have told, or simply ill considered observations or remarks I have made in anger, are those things taken in total my life? The tree outside the cabin, is scarred and has dead limbs on one side. Surely much of its wood is rotten, its trunk is a home for woodpeckers and squirrels, maybe that skunk sleeps in its knotted roots. Is that my life, or is even that giving me too much dignity? I don’t know. The wind and rain must bring love to such a tree on this dry hillside. Ask me mistakes I have made… The same night enfolded Jan in Prince William Sound and me and the bookstore owner alone in our separate beds in Moscow Idaho, as well as all the people I still love and have no contact with on this noisy night by the highway.
Tell me mistakes I have made…
What the river says,
that is what I say.