I’m driving my kids into the deserts of eastern Washington where it’s near wildfire season with no appreciable rain in 30 days, and we stop at a Texaco near the town Vantage, and I think surely that smoke in the distance can’t be anything to worry about, somebody must be doing something about it.
The kids are really excited though when we round the bend and come upon it, right there by the road: raw orange flames just gorging the sage brush, a team of guys with radios and sunglasses on the scene running or waiting for more help, and Lily thinks to add it to the text message I send Dawn when I hand the phone back and ask her to tell mom we got in safe, which requires a few follow-up messages explaining the fire really wasn’t a concern, but probably was.
We pull up to Brad’s cabin hungry, needing the bathroom, the kids with fruit punch Gatorade mustaches and Brad on the porch mixing a drink with his childhood friend Jim, who looks like Ted Nugent or Tom Waits.
Jim has a ’73 Plymouth Scamp, a pistachio-colored two-door hardtop with some rust on the sail panels from that winter he had to let it sit and it got plowed in, primed to be repainted but his friend who was going to do it died that fall, killed at a four-way by a kid who ran the stop sign and it seemed too much to finish the job Jim said, so it just sat and hasn’t been the same since.
I adopt a country style of driving on these roads with my hand slumped over the wheel but not gripping it, just resting it there so I can give the two-finger salute and a little head nod to the other drivers as we pass; everyone says hi in the country, they kind of expect it, and I turn it into a game and sure enough everyone follows suit.
We sleep in the screened-in porch which cools off nice at night and you can hear the silica mine trucks criss-cross back and forth sure as the tide, and I listen to my kids snore and lay there late into the morning waiting for them to stir.
Charlotte asks what’s that sound and I explain it’s some kind of beetle or locust or cricket-thing that’s making that scratchy squeal, which she likens to a bee buzz but not quite.
At the cabin, there is the lake and a small patch of beach rights Brad’s got as part of his property, 15 wooded acres that require occasional thinning to minimize concern over fires. About 10 trees were dead out front and one of his nephews came out with a friend and felled them, left the rounds by the spreading dogbane that attracts the Monarchs, who flap and meander there.
I give thanks for the four years of swim lessons we gave the kids, driving them to the Y twice a week and sitting there on our smartphones while they huffed and puffed there way along and looked at us each time they were done to see if we’d seen. They can now screw around at the lake and jump off the dock without life jackets, without me worrying as much.
I drive to the country store in the town of Valley for Froot Loops, bug juice and ice — they’re all guys inside and they all know each other, worker guys with hats and boots getting their lunch like they must every day, somewhere to go. There’s one woman and she works behind the counter, has a smoker’s voice and calls me sweetheart when I leave.
The silica mine trucks are the same color, a gray-white like bone, and it’s all the industry in Stevens County, makes me real careful we look both ways when we climb up to the shoulder from the lake and the kids cross the road with their pink floaty devices.
Before we go, Brad takes us for a walk on the property past the ice house to the old road his great grandfather used for planting potatoes with an ox and a harness and a plow, and we walk to the north end of the property to the Lantern Tree, where legend has it Williamson Black was out in a snowstorm one night trying to rescue a dairy cow that was floundering in the snow, and hung a big old tin can on a tree branch and left it there, and so it remained for a good hundred years or more, and marks the edge of his land.
My kids are all bit up and burned in places and starting to complain about the walk though, they want to go back to the lake for a last swim, so Brad offers Charlotte a piggy-back and there I am again, following Brad on the trail with him carrying more than I, more good memories than we can take back.