Entering Elma | field notes from the Pacific Coast

Daybreak at Mosquito Creek backcountry camp, Washington Coast


By the time I got to Kalaloch they’d stopped serving breakfast and were turning things over for lunch, not in a rush to seat anyone. We were backing up in the lobby, I was second, a party of one. The lodge is a reliable place to use the bathroom on the way out to the coast and the food is exquisite. It’s not just the fact there’s nothing else around, they seem to really care. But the service is slow, it’s like no one wants to go as fast as everyone else. That’s why they moved to the peninsula. That’s why I go there, to slow down.

It wasn’t noon but because they were serving lunch that legitimized me ordering a beer. They offered samples, and I followed my server to the bar, picked a handle and committed to that, a pint. I ordered a smoky elk burger with jalapeño aioli, sliced red onion, tomato, lettuce, fries. Were it breakfast I would have gone for coffee as I had none breaking camp four hours prior, I wanted to get out of there before the Belgian girl woke up.

I washed up in the bathroom, got the blood off my hands, had a good look at myself for the first time in a few days, a click down from tawny port, kind of a ruddy-orange, brown. My lips were sun burned and my eyes puffy, layered. And my hair was like a twist cone, the way it wrapped around, the way some guys take a lot time and expense to make it look like that.

I got my journal out and continued on with my beer. There was a seat by the window with starlings doing fly-bys, dipping into the Fuchsias on the deck. It was all socked in with fog, and cool. Just a few miles north it was sun but when I pulled down to the coast it was consumed by a fog bank, that’s often the case. And the lodge guests were still hopeful in their sandals and light summer sweaters, but wore a general malaise on this holiday weekend when it was supposed to be sunny everywhere else. And that’s the cruel joke of this place. The deck chairs most days sit there empty.

Two couples in their 50s or 60s got seated by me and we nodded hello. I tried to insulate myself from the nearby dialogue. It wasn’t hard to pinpoint exactly what they were all about by what they ordered and how they specified it. I wanted to preserve the great ideas I had before they were lost. It was a hardbound journal Charlotte picked out for me for my birthday that said TRUST YOUR CRAZY IDEAS on the cover. That was good, I had a lot of crazy ideas. More that, than trust.

But I’d written many pages longhand for the first time in a couple months. I’d switched to digital, trying to learn the art of taking notes on my phone, which isn’t much of an art.

The two couples were close enough I could hear them debating the elk burger, which I’d just set upon with force. They were nervous about the aioli though, and I realized one of the women was British by the way she said jalapeño (she made it a hard “J” like JALO-peño), and the guy opposite her, who reminded me of Hemingway with his thick, white beard and mischievous look: he was trying to talk her British husband into a beer but the British guy kept balking.

I asked if they were Scottish, I thought I could tell by the musical lilt in the woman’s voice. They were all in different stages of accepting their age I think. The British woman looked like she’d waited all her life to be that age, she wore it well. She was like a cartoon grandmother with her sweater and glasses and possibly, a wig. Her husband had a tattoo on his forearm that was all military, I think an anchor that was blue-green. And he turned to talk to me a full 90 degrees and described where they were from, near Yorkshire.

I went back to my burger and beer and they, their order-making. The British woman had her phone out and was trying to understand it, was trying to establish a connection to the lodge network. They were concerned about roaming charges. I was trying to not get involved. And then they got to wondering exactly where they were, the name of the town, so they could label that on a photo or selfie. It was sad, watching the elderly try to adopt the conventions of youth.

The Hemingway guy had asked if I was a writer when they came in, I don’t know how it came up, but I said without hesitation yes, a kind of matter-of-fact admission, and then felt good about myself for committing like that.

They were trying to figure out the spelling of the place and Hemingway gestured to me, said ask the writer, he probably knows.

And I got most of it out but second-guessed myself at the end (was it Loch or Lock), and laughed, the Scots were confusing me…and then Hemingway’s wife, who seemed to be fighting her advancing age or possibly taming, or delaying it: she asked what is it I write (books?), and I later thought it was a sense of hope in her voice how she asked, that maybe they’d met someone famous they could tell their friends about…they were on the edge of having a good time but not quite there, you could tell by how they’d resigned themselves to the fog, the tone in their voice, how they debated drinking before noon and what that would mean for the rest of their day, a resignation to plans not going as planned.

I said memoir and field notes; I’d been out a few days and didn’t want to waste my battery so I was going old school with paper and pen. I wondered if the Brits knew what that meant, they probably coined it.

After I paid I gave the British woman a copy of my receipt with the spelling of Kalaloch at the top, I went back into the fog, calculating the time to Aberdeen and Olympia, and home.

But a bit up the road I started nodding off, I wished I’d gone for caffeine over beer: all the sameness of the scenery and the heat from the sun had me drowsy, along the shoulders there was nothing but Scotch Broom and sword ferns…the same tape playing over and over, no-name towns, forest road turn-offs, nowhere to nap. A few times I felt myself slip, but it jarred me awake with adrenaline and that would last a few more miles before it happened again.

I pulled off at a gas station in Aberdeen and filled up: a beautiful Saturday afternoon, right in the middle of town, no one around. The only shops that looked new or busy sold cigarettes or cannabis.

I got the idea for a Red Bull, I’d never had one but heard they had a lot of caffeine and sugar. I reached for the first size I saw but it was small, and each row descending got bigger until the fourth, a 20 ouncer, for $4. I told the clerk it was my first one and he said, you mean ever and I nodded, and he advised I go back for a 12 or 16 instead, but I said I was having trouble staying awake and he said that makes sense, just take it slow.

By the time I got to Olympia I was playing cat and mouse games in the passing lane, or the the inside lane that sometimes gets co-opted for passing on the left, even though you shouldn’t: there was an Acura and a few Jeeps I went up against all the way north of Tacoma, outside of Puyallup—before I pulled off for the country road toward Auburn and Hobart, the 18.

I got into Issaquah ahead of schedule, with time to stop at the liquor store for a six-pack and a couple bottles of Rosé—and when I pulled into our driveway Charlotte was crying, had stepped in dog shit and didn’t say hello really—and the cottonwood blooms were gathering like snow in the garden beds, and though it was a Saturday all was quiet, and there was no one else around.

This is the first in a series of posts I’m preparing from three days out on my favorite stretch of the Pacific Coast: 48 miles of uninterrupted coastal hiking up rope ladders and overland trails through old-growth forest, some beach hiking and rock scrambles. The posts don’t need to be read in order, and I’ve started with the end of the trip coming home, yesterday. Thanks for reading! — Bill


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Love songs, prose, for the Pacific coast

How the clouds hung on the horizon off the water and made two lines, I thought they were grinding their teeth. All the mountains ground down from the pressure of the sky pushing on them and the earth, where they could not stay forever. All the mountains ground down to sand and what remains of them, for dreamers to run their hands through…to lose themselves in the steady rhythm of the tide, to hope for the moon when the sun goes down and marvel on how it makes the waves bejeweled, how the moon holds no light of its own but just reflects it, and brings a sense of cold or company, depending on your point of view…I longed to go back to the coast, I thought of it all…thousands of birds released like souls to spill out through the sky, I wanted to go back and let go, for a time.

Photo by Loren Chasse, Oil City, WA (July, 2015)

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‘One more time around’

Now there’s a new sound in the back yard, the sound from the cottonwood leaves when the wind comes in from the west, and all those tiny hands clap, and remind me of the tide coming in or going out, a schedule I don’t have to worry about, I couldn’t control if I tried. And the moss on our rocks has gone gold-brown like so much of the countryside I remember from the Scottish highlands, all that scabrous land over the hills, and no trees between the ground and sky.

We walk our property barefoot and I cast empty beer cans about, then collect them before work in the morning, think better of it. My dad and mom have been here before to visit, though not together as they’re divorced, and in the long summer afternoons both of them found a similar spot back by the chicken coop to read, and I find myself doing the same after work, with my phone to grab work messages, or to take notes for my blog, or just tune out if I can to the sound of bugs, birds, and leaves..before they get that dry rattle of summer’s end, when it doesn’t take much to pull them down.

And so I went back to albums by Alice In Chains, a band I admired but often distrusted, to see how it would hold up, and with Chris Cornell gone I’ve relapsed to that era’s music, probably not alone in that.

And videos from that time in the mid 90s—but I think some things, many things, are just better left in the past.

Now there’s all happy sun icons on the weather forecast, and I set my first out-of-office since I started work again last October: going to the coast alone for a couple nights of beach camping and hiking, a camp called Mosquito Creek which sounds horrible but isn’t, and a place called Oil City where there’s no oil, and no city…and sometimes it’s true about names, you can’t trust what people call things.

We fell asleep with all the windows open and the sky went from pink and orange to lavender and indigo, and in the morning it did the same in reverse, and the heat came on, and our eyes were all puffy but we made it out Monday morning, and came back home to cook the salmon and potatoes, to finish off the last of the wine from Sunday—and in the morning to look for the moon again, just a trace of it in a sea of blue, easy to miss but filling in, sure to come back tomorrow.

Photo credit Loren Chasse, Portland, OR.

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Jupiter’s Beard in B minor

I wound back up Cougar Mountain, the A7, the seam air shaft to primrose mine—and there at the end was a pit, a deep hole in the ground with a large rock bearded in moss, dripping, making cave sounds. And a rustic bench built by a boy scout troop in honor of someone, I sat by it and wrote. I remembered what I could of the time I took Dan to the Sound Garden sculpture on the point in North Seattle, but couldn’t imagine what it looked like, could only remember the haunting, deep sound it made, “sonorous,” making whatever music it could from the wind it collected, for anyone passing by. Are we all instruments like that?

A few weeks now since I’ve been up the mountain, now it’s all leafed out and green, and with the recent rains it feels jungle-lush, even the birdsong seems thick…how the songs thread the branches to make a circle of sound up above.

I sat by the mineshaft hole but didn’t look down and thought about Dan, my old friend from Pittsburgh who transitioned from male to female after that visit and maybe planned to tell me he would but didn’t for some reason: and instead sent an email he copied and pasted that read like a form letter explaining why he was doing it, the plan, perhaps we’d still be friends—but that wasn’t half as important as everything else he had to consider.

I left the mineshaft and the trail bent east to Clay Pit Road where it opens up and you can see the Cascades—and I hoped my mood would change with the light but it didn’t, and when I dropped back into the forest it darkened, the trail was like a tunnel and snapped me back to a dream where I saw myself lowered into a river and knew the water would be cold, and imagined that moment of transition between the immediate pain and sensation on the other side, once you’ve gotten used to it and it feels good…and I moved like I was in a luge on my back with my arms on my chest, and at the end rose up, felt myself standing, and sensed someone beside me there on the shore.

They cordoned off the Sound Garden sculpture after 9/11 because it’s by the NOAA facilities and maybe a security risk—poetic, we couldn’t get to see the art for fear of violence or war—but there were quotes from Moby Dick inscribed in the nearby steps, the kind of writing that makes you feel uplifted and small at the same time, that teases out the truth of the human condition, how small we can feel at times.

And I thought more about identity, what I learned in theater about method acting: how you were given a role but maybe you couldn’t identify with it so you had to find some analogous experience and use that in its place: you had to imagine you were putting yourself back to some specific moment in your past, relive that. I think when I hear Chris Cornell sing he was doing that. Maybe you allow yourself to inhabit some imagined space, and vice versa, that space inhabits you. And there’s power and danger to that, a black hole.

In the dream of my life there’s a lot I can’t remember and I probably assume more meaning than I should, though it’s better to assume and expect more. Others will expect less.

Along the side of the trail the Devil’s Club is just sprouting, leaves opened like palms gathering fuel to feed the thorns, and thicken the stalks for winter.

Coming down I stopped for the first time to look around and heard a nearby waterfall, a steady, soft stream and imagined the same, soothing sound a mother would make over a crib, the way Dawn did when the kids were really small and scared, and she’d just bob them and hush in their ears, and let them know it was OK, and they could fall asleep to that.

And Loren told me about a dream he had that was more like a visit from an old girlfriend, from grade school, there was some healing in that dream for him and her: she was gone now but he imagined her older too—and how complex and unusual the human mind and heart, that puzzle of potential only we can solve for ourselves.

I got tired of it, and decided it was time to split the wood. We had a tree taken out by the front door and there it was in a stack in the driveway, looked so much smaller reduced to a dozen rounds.

Every time I looked at that stack the idea of splitting it got further and further away—but I was grouchy for no good reason, it was starting to get hot, so I dragged the sledgehammer and the wedge out and set the first one, and the wedge went right through on the first strike, it cracked like an egg, and I moved onto the next, and faster, and soon I had a messy pile of logs going—but forgot to take off my rings and got blood blisters, and the first one opened and I started to get sap stains stuck to the handle with the blood—and I took off my shirt and my hair was getting long in my face and before I swung the hammer I imagined a crazed look like Hulk Hogan right before he goes in for the kill—and the sound the metal wedge made, the iron hitting the concrete, the wood cracking, and me, grunting—it was time to let all this mourning go.

I went inside to wash up, regarded my look in the mirror, swollen and pink from the heat: the dog licked the blood off my knee and smiled, and there was no amount of old in me.

Photo credit Loren Chasse, Portland, OR.

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“Superunknown” | eulogy for Chris Cornell

Before this car I owned just two: an ’84 Thunderbird and a Toyota Celica I got for $500 and abandoned in Philadelphia. The Thunderbird was a gift for college graduation but I wasn’t responsible enough for a car and I knew it; I sold it under-market to a stoner who played Spanish guitar at the open mic I hosted, “Peter Sluk.” And Peter was under the car working on it, when it collapsed on him and he nearly died.

The Celica belonged to the owner of a new age shop next to the cafe I managed in Oakland, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh near Carnegie-Mellon and Pitt. He just wanted out of it. He asked if I could come up with $500 and I did, and though it was held together by bondo in the rear, inside it smelled of leather, and felt tough.

When we left Pittsburgh I drove across the state to Philadelphia and had a cassette of the band Soundgarden’s “Superunknown,” and played that tape for a year or two maybe, and then never again. So when I heard the singer Chris Cornell died last night and they started playing songs from that era it took me right back, as music can.

My friend Mike moved to Seattle before I did, in ’92. He’d mail me letters and music; Soundgarden was emblematic of the Seattle sound. They had this metal quality but seemed undecided if they were that, or punk. And the record stores (same problem with Pearl Jam) didn’t have a place to put them yet, so they got put in with Metallica and Guns n’ Roses, but they weren’t that, at all.

Of all of the rock and pop star deaths in recent years, Chris’s moved me the most. I was in our driveway on a foldout lawn chair when I heard it was confirmed as suicide, and I broke down. Maybe it’s the news of suicide, or that it’s on our psyche now, I don’t know…or perhaps for the first time I connected the dots on what was going on with his voice and the songs he wrote, it made sense in a new way…as really real.

There was an afternoon in West Seattle I was pumping gas at the 76 station on Fauntleroy I could have sworn I saw Chris Cornell there doing the same, in some impeccable late ’60s muscle car. The memory is bad: I see the car as tangerine colored, but maybe that’s the 76 logo that confuses things. He could have just been anyone made to look that way—but there’d be no one who could sound like he did, not ever again.

Now the crows are circling over the driveway because the cat’s got a mouse or vole in her mouth, and it’s become some ‘thing’ with the crows and the cat: it’s unclear if they’re corroborating or in conflict, but the crows are onto the fact our cat is a good hunter, and sloppy about the remains, so they come in as the cleaners. And I wonder what dark comment Chris Cornell would make about that, and his raspy laugh, and wish I could know.

Tonight, in an hour, the Space Needle will go dark from 9 – 10 as a tribute, and maybe there will be some who didn’t know him before who will know him now. Maybe that’s what we all want, on some level, to be known. From what I can tell about Chris, it wasn’t a commercial or fame-thing, but probably something a lot deeper.


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“In the midst of life we are in debt, et cetera”

Wednesday, that day time slows every week, with Lily on a late-start for school, the possibility we could all sleep in until 7:30 but never do, a day I work from home with Charlotte on early release, meaning she gets off the bus about 1:45 and Lily doesn’t leave until 9—so the work day gets compressed to about three hours, but I’ve learned to get a lot done in small slices, the same with my writing, I shoe-horn it in whenever I can. Charlotte at the bus stop picking at the holes in my shirt, “Modest Mouse,” and again her face goes by in the window pulling away, I turn and head back to my computer. And the dog follows, circles and collapses in her cushion bed, and I screw around with PowerPoint and can’t stop wondering how good things are now, which won’t last forever, and I tell myself not to get too attached.

Eight months of rain: the driest stretch expected starting tomorrow since last September. The bistro lights come on in the morning again, confused by the light, assuming it’s dusk, though just past 6 AM…and winding the road down to work with the windshield wipers on high setting, on the freeway at the highest…and surely by now, May 16, it shouldn’t look so much like winter still: with all the leaves and birds out it has the trappings of spring, though the sky can get such an unsettling dark, it hardly matters. Dawn quips “I think I’m depressed,” and I relate, driving in—an undercurrent of unease with the world, like everything is laced…”a low-flying panic attack.”

But then it opens up in the afternoon, a sun break they call it, and on our driveway it’s warm from the sun, a few degrees more, and dragging the lawn chair with a beer, settling in…perhaps this is middle-age: the dog and cat curling in by my side…everyone else on our street is off to work or retired, or stay-at-home, driving back and forth to the store…though it’s close enough you could walk.

When we left our first house I gave all my albums to our neighbor Curry, nicknamed after the MTV VJ Adam Curry because he looks like him, the one with the puffy hair who sat slouched on a stool talking about bands, about videos…Curry got my PIL and De La Soul LPs, all my Smiths records except one I set aside, the double LP “Louder Than Bombs,” a collection of singles I got around ’86 or ’87, the only way to hear it was to put it on the turntable…and the record never skips or gives me trouble because the vinyl’s worn down from so many plays…and could I have imagined myself 30+ years ago, that one day I’d be here in the den of some house in the suburbs of Sammamish with the same music playing…a beard and a dog, a cat, two girls, a wife…a gig with Microsoft, a company I didn’t even know…my friend from 5th grade Loren a few hours away, in Portland—and me with love handles from Northwest IPA’s, a sweater I bought in Germany, graying…and the bees outside on the spring blooms look like they’re testing for ripeness how they touch down and skitter across the surface, and then move on.

“The passing of time leads empty lives, waiting to be filled.”

And in the book I’m reading, the author (who’s in the Himalayas, high country) describes something called an “air burial” where they leave the corpse out on a rocky crag to be consumed by wild beasts. And when it’s just the bones, they grind it down to a powder and mix it in with the dough, and put it out for the birds so there are no remains, not a speck left.

And I think about the baby rabbit our cat killed I put in the trash but took out so the crows could get it, and was glad when I returned I only saw a few flecks.

What of these things we’ll leave behind? For whom, and why?
For pretend?

Better to be consumed wholly, for me.

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‘We’re a happy family’

We craved some intimacy with each other that was probably sexual in nature but we didn’t know how to express it yet so we stayed up late talking on the phone and fell asleep next to the handset, and when the sky got light in the morning we checked to see if the other one was still there, and both of us were.

I wiped the drool off my mouth and she mumbled back, and we made plans to meet, we hadn’t even seen each other yet: she was friends with a girl I’d just started seeing but somehow, got on the phone when I was trying to reach the other girl, and there was a huskiness in her voice I liked, and she sounded mischievous, moving in on her friend’s new boyfriend, me. I interpreted that as an advanced level of womanhood and it turned me on. The deceit made me feel dirty, in demand.

But I was still living at home and neither of us were old enough to drive yet, so she had someone drop her off and there we met on the doorstep of my parent’s house, and she was what we called “built” back then (Dawn calls it developed early) and wore perfume, a winter’s coat and make-up, and smiled brightly: and my dad drove us to the restaurant and we walked down the steps and everyone looked up, and they pulled her chair out and I waited for her to sit, and then we opened our menus and began.

She had other plans later, a basketball game. She went to a different school. She was friends with the girl Jessica I liked and who liked me, but she had some things to say about Jessica that suggested it wouldn’t really work out for the two of us. And this girl, Kristin, was brunette, which I liked. Jessica had fake red hair. Jessica identified with the punk scene, as did I, and there was a Venn diagram where the two of us met in the middle through mutual friends, though we went to different schools. And there was an edginess to that: girls from other schools. Like you could do stuff and no one would know, or somehow girls were more exotic and appealing a town or two over.

I bought dinner, I don’t know how. It was the same restaurant I later took my first real girlfriend Marie, when I gave her a ring with the lyrics to a Police song on stationery folded inside the box and she cooed, and I was pretty much set for a while.

It was the same restaurant by the railroad tracks where my dad used to jog, the house in Bethlehem that was Tudor style, it had timber framing I later learned was called Fachwerk, a German thing.

We had a coal stove and dad found a cache of coal down by the tracks along the river, and bit by bit started hauling it back to the house in a rucksack, all summer: and when fall came the onion cellar was full of it, but when he lit the first fire we realized it’s the kind of coal that doesn’t burn, so he had to find a way to get rid of it, and threw a couple chunks into the baseball field across the street from our house into the outfield every morning, bit by bit until it was gone.

Things didn’t pan out with that girl Kristin or her friend Jessica. And I worried if I affiliated with Jessica I’d get beaten up or harassed by a large punk she’d gone out with before, who I’d sometimes see at shows around the mosh pit. I counted, and there were three bands I saw there before I turned 16: the Ramones, The Dead Milkmen, The Circle Jerks.

Her punk ex was large and deft, the way he moved around the pit, with a sidekick who was a real loudmouth and skinhead, who wore wife beaters and blue jeans, and shot his mouth off because he knew he had his larger friend to back him.

I stood around the edge watching them and sometimes got in myself. It was like a human blender; you had to go in the correct direction and get up fast if you fell so you didn’t get trampled. But people helped each other out, and I liked that. It was controlled violence, a real dance, therapeutic.

Jessica’s ex and his sidekick hooked arms and threw fists in a showy fashion that was likely ska in origin. It was self-conscious in hindsight but a thing of real beauty. At the Ramones show though, most of the crowd were bikers, a lot older, and stood back with sunglasses and leather jackets and frowned—and us younger ones in the pit had to be careful not to bump into them.

I bought a T-shirt at the show that said We’re A Happy Family with a cartoon setting of dysfunctional figures sitting around the table. I wore it to school and got comments, which I liked.

And I started to identify with music that was anti-this, anti-that, that didn’t fit in. It felt better around the edges; the jocks and popular types weren’t as interesting. There were people like Ed Morrison and Stefan Sanchez who wore eyeliner and combat boots and camo to school and talked openly about masturbation at the lunch table and I thought, these are my people. They seemed to have more going on, they were more in tune with themselves.

Now Lily is on her second boyfriend even though the first one didn’t materialize, it was all virtual. There was an exchange and some consent through the newly established norms but then he announced he didn’t like her after all (and then, that he was ‘only kidding’)…so we moved on from him to another, and now this one seems legit, though so much of their exchange is foreign to us, most of it exists on their phones.

And so the handset is dead…and what conventions from our pasts we try to assign to this generation will be challenged, as it should be.

And for however much we try to relate to one another it will only get more complicated the easier it appears on the surface…and intimacy, it seems, will become more rare, less natural…but easier to manufacture from afar.

Painting by Bernardino Licinio – Web Gallery of Art: public domain (1520’s).






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