The grate-covered mineshaft seam

I tried to lose myself in the woods again and came upon the grate-covered mineshaft seam, a grid of rebar set above a dark, mysterious hole. It looked like a mouth in the ground yawning, dripping. I balanced on the rebar and leaned down to see what I could see…but got spooked and stumbled off, reminded of that scene in the story It: and what was it about our fascination with drains, caves, and underground holes? Why couldn’t we help ourselves from looking down?

I was stuck on my writing project with a character named Jan Gilbourg, a political conspiracist who fled Sweden to finish his novel and was convinced the secret service was after him. I house-sat for Jan in Port-Vendres the night the power went out and it was just me and his old dog Brickie. Jan with his close-cropped graying hair, the hairs on his nose needing trimmed. In his letters I can still hear the clipped staccato of his Swedish English, his conspiratorial tone, the truth of his government’s corruption and how he would reveal it all before the election. Jan, convinced they were after him even here in the south of France: look, where they broke the lock on the door and rifled through my desk…we weren’t quite sure what to believe. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

The night the power went out I lit candles and stayed up late on the typewriter feeling the same paranoia as Jan. The circling winds and rattling panes. It’s like being there alone I inhabited Jan’s mind, or he inhabited mine. Pacing the perimeter, checking the access points. Jan’s house was three stories high with multiple decks, an elevator, a small patio cut into the side of a cliff. Something about the rock face made me feel cornered, exposed. The look of the obelisk in the port with the clouds racing across the moon and the coming rains. No one anywhere. The first time I’d seen maggots, in the refrigerator, in a jar of fish jelly or some pink, Swedish thing. Reminded of that scene from The Shining when they realize all the writing Jack Nicholson’s done is just mad gibberish. All those pages just patterns of words. And mine about the same, that night.

Now Jan the memory, the character, flickers in and out. And my identity, my realness as a writer, the same.

Charlotte and her fascination with conspiracy theories, one about a man who allegedly inhabits our dreams. Thousands of people have given the same description of him independently. You can find the sketch on the internet: he is nondescript with small, beady eyes and dark, short hair. No beard or mustache. But there’s something menacing about him. Why’s he in our dreams?

Charlotte asks, have I seen this man in my dreams and I say no, worse: I’ve seen him in real life. Many years ago, in Pittsburgh. But he did unspeakable things, he was a really bad man. He’d just sit there in the cafe where I worked with his coffee and I’d sometimes catch him from across the room staring at me. Those eyes, just cold. Like he either had no soul or if he did, it’d been compromised. He carried that behind his eyes. What was he doing in our dreams?

It appeared the cat had gotten sick in Dawn’s office some time ago. I sat on the sofa eating a bagel with almond butter and got the oils all over me. With little concerns about anything there was no hurry, so I just sat there chewing. It was easier to write around writing, to distract myself with holes covered by grates. With no work and just time everything felt harder. It bloomed around me like a cloud and inside that I did in fact get lost.

 

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The intensely masculine act of splitting wood

I fantasized regularly about having a good woodpile. For me, woodpiles always represented a unique combination of order and comfort. Everything in its right place. But after three days of splitting wood every part of me hurt. On the third day my neighbor joined me and after thinking about it for a minute, I said you can have the rest. And then I showered and went for a beer. Continue reading

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The last Sunday in September

Portland musician's houseThe drive from Portland to Seattle on a Sunday morning in early fall. Fog lifting, leaves changing, the look of the clouds. Later how the fire consolidated down to a few logs glowing red. The pink in the western sky and the feel of the moss on the roof of our chicken coop. Staring deep into the coals as it grew dark, headlights coming up the road, the sound of tires on gravel. The crinkling of the wood burning and the peeping sounds of birds quieting down until it’s just the occasional car passing. How the silence fills that space. Like it was always there, and just given a chance to return to itself.

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The last day of the fair

Going to the fair was less about going to the fair and more about reliving past times we wanted to hold onto. I’d never noticed it before, but all the rides were basically the same. In the same positions even. I stood waiting while Charlotte and her friend rode the ride and I looked to the sky: the sounds of the screams and the murmur were the same, but the clouds were different. Continue reading

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Kaleidoscope of life and death on the PCT

PCT, Washington section between Snoqualmie and Chinook PassOn the fourth day we rested only a couple hours from the last camp, still in the burn area. It was already getting hot by mid morning and I got there before Brad, eager to secure a camp. There was a stream right by the trail with a pipe sticking out of the ground trickling into a pool where you could crouch and bathe. There was that sound, the trickling, and then another collection of sounds: the dead trees cracking. That, and no other sound.

In three days we’d come about 45 miles already, the last two especially hot and dry. We’d toughed it out through the driest section of trail, about 11 miles with no water, had to haul it, and didn’t plan well enough…so we went several miles rationing out a liter.

The night before I’d been despondent, and Brad gave me the last of his water and reminded me about the magic beans I had. They were a kind of “sports bean,” a jelly bean with electrolytes. I drank Brad’s water and ate the bag of beans and soldiered on to reach camp at last, another 18 mile day. We did two days like that and then on the fourth day decided we could spend the day resting.

But what kind of place was this to spend the day. I realized the ground where I laid my pack was burned so bad it smudged it black like soot from a candle. It got all over your hands and sleeping bag too, anything you touched turned black, including the trees. They’d been burned alive, many leaning or hollowed out to where the only thing keeping them standing was maybe a root or two, just barely. Brad said we could probably push these trees right over.

It didn’t seem like a safe place to camp, I knew that. I studied the nearby trees within range of our tent but all of them were basically fucked. It could be like a javelin or spear, one of those branches falling through our tent. Some of the trees looked like grilled plantains split open, the peels charred, the fleshy meat underneath orange-red.

Feels kind of bleak, I said to Brad. All this death. And it did: a burned out forest years later, crumbling still. But Brad said there’s a lot of life here, too. Along the stream, alpine flowers in yellow and purple-blue. Mountain ravens, some strange insects too. One, a wasp-looking thing with blood-red legs and a black cape that came picking through the bark looking for something to eat. We were here the night in their land, a part of it and apart from it too.

I asked Brad if he thought it was okay to camp here. I deferred most responsibility to Brad, which wasn’t fair. I think given the choice, he would have kept going but I was worn out from the last few days and needed a break. There was no shade at the camp and as the sun got higher, we’d have to get creative finding some. We couldn’t really use the tent as it got well over a hundred in there. We wound up laying our bags out in the long shadow of a tall dead tree and then as the sun angled its way down we shifted our bags in the shadow like hands on a clock, slowly clicking through the day.

We got to talking about death, the chances of it. Brad said the way I look at it, it’s about risk and the actual odds of it happening. Freak cases of people getting struck by lightning: a woman getting hit by a meteor while sitting in her living room. A group of girl scouts wiped out on some field trip. There was only so much you could control. We resigned ourselves to that, to fate. And Brad told the story of being on Rainier, that route where you have to go under the ice cliff, the fact that it could give way any time and you just have to hurry through and hope it doesn’t. Maybe spread out in case it does, so the whole party doesn’t get it at the same time.

All that made me feel more alive somehow. It felt foolhardy at the same time, but a dark part of me felt clever, like I’d outsmarted death. There was no whistling sound of a tree broken off and come to flatten us in the night. No moon, no wind. Brad snoring, shifting in his bag. Breaking camp in the morning, boiling water, saddling up for the next one.

I went on ahead and came to a ridge where the burn continued, it went on for miles, all those blackened out trees twisting and standing there still. The trail curled around to a pass and disappeared. There was no one in any direction, just me and the sky and the land below it. And I knew my time was like that too, but it didn’t feel that way to me one bit. It just felt like it would go on forever.

 

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The phone can’t see what’s really real

Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Mount StuartThe month wore on. Though it was cool at night I left the windows open to hear the rain slap the patio. The light was different now, and struggled to make it over the trees. The grass had gone to moss with the scant mushroom popping up, autumn’s blooms. They were just putting out Christmas stuff but it was hardly even Halloween. Continue reading

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How I spent the back half of my summer, unemployed

I took my time shaving, flossing, folding the laundry and putting away dishes. I took long, indulgent showers. In short, I slowed down. Stopped checking my phone. Went through things in the garage, reread old letters, threw out none. Sifted through old photos, threw out lots. Cut back the dead in the garden and sorted it, bagged it, tied it for removal. I’d been away from work so long, a good six or seven weeks, I didn’t even feel off, I just felt removed. I had to wait in line longer than expected at the pharmacy and didn’t get upset. Running errands I took the long way. I listened to the afternoon radio show. I cooked stews and deep cleaned the refrigerator, bought a fresh batch of candles, replaced worn pillow cases, started building a disaster recovery kit but stopped short. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I rotated the house plants in the windows and fed them ice. I restocked the liquor cabinet, pressure washed the patio, sent out RFQs for an arborist. I deleted low quality photos from my hard drive. I got my eyes checked. I blew leaves and made kindling with the last of the wood, took the hammock down. I mailed a book to my uncle. I learned the difference between mezcal and tequila. I sharpened knives. I stood outside in my socks under the eaves as it rained, admiring a rainbow. There was so much life to be had outside of work it was hard to believe I ever managed to do both. I savored my time and knew its scarcity and loved it hard.

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