River Theme | Field notes from the Pacific Coast

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

I walked barefoot to the edge of the creek with my beers and built a dam for them on the edge and dove in. I came up, gasped, felt the sense my heart would stop. There were a couple hikers the size of my hand on the shore watching me. I was too proud to come out cold. I dove back in and did the opposite, I swam up the mouth of it.

The high tide was coming in and the creeks are tidally influenced, but I couldn’t tell if it was pulling me into the ocean or pushing me upwards. In most places it was shallow enough I could stand, the water came up to my chin. I thought it would be good for my feet, to toughen up—it was all river rock at the bottom, mossy slime. One of my toes felt like it was cut though, I couldn’t tell it was so numb. It just felt like a piece was flapping each time I moved and I tried not to think about it and didn’t want to look.

I went up the mouth further. I wondered about that, “mouth,” if I was using it right. If the mouth was where it ended or began, at the source. The part you have to ford narrows to a choke point just wide enough you can’t jump across. So hikers do the same thing, they come to it and stare, circle for a bit and sit, take their boots off, cross in their sandals or bare feet.

Up the creek it narrowed and got interesting, how it darkened in areas where the sun filtered through the leaves and lit up little coves with big rocks and mossy beards, shit dripping here and there. The sound of the ocean replaced with bird, forest sounds.

I moved with determination now, I was in. I’d just spend the rest of my day in the creek. I had all the time in the world. It seemed like time had stopped, I didn’t have anything to do. Those people behind me were out of sight now, gone. I wanted them to come join me, to meet them, and I also wanted them to fuck off. I wanted this all for myself. I went further and further around the bend to where a tree collapsed and made a perforation. It was hard to walk when the water got shallow and most of me was out of it, only knee high or so. My feet were killing me so at times I got down and crouched, moved sideways like a crab, tried to use the undertow. I couldn’t understand why it seemed to pull me inland rather than push me out to sea. I imagined that choke point was a straw and the ocean, the face of an animated cloud in the sky, some animated cartoon like Mighty Mouse, the cloud sucking the water through a straw with its cheeks expanding and collapsing like a blowfish. That blowfish was in my grandparents’ house in Bethlehem framed in their basement, they bought it at the beach one year.

I didn’t have my glasses on so it was hard to make things out but there were little private beaches that looked like they got no human contact, so I ambled up one to rest, newly evolved: and there were prints on the beach, prints the size of my hands I couldn’t identify, I wasn’t good with prints. And I looked into the brush and thick forest, and there was newfound malice in the trees now, something watching me, upset with me playing in its water.

I walked on the rocks for a bit barefoot but it was easier in the water so I got back in. No amount of it made sense, no common sense at all. If I turned my head too fast sometimes I got benign positional vertigo (“BPV”) which released crystals in my ear governing balance, gave the effect of acid trails but worse, the sense the world was spinning but your feet were no longer attached, an eternal fall. I was getting some of that but couldn’t tell if it was fatigue or wonderment, the can of beer I had, who knows what. I hadn’t slept right either. I was so excited I’d driven well over the speed limit coming out, almost got stopped but didn’t.

And I came to another turn, kept thinking I’d find something more around the corner. It was a shit-show of fallen, leaning trees and rocks in the water, boulders, pristine ferns. Places you could get out on a trail along the banks and walk, to make better time.

I fell again and it was a slow, embarrassing fall: the kind of fall that happens in stages and at the end makes you feel old and defeated. I was on my side on the rocks and felt stupid, a new kind of stupid. I looked around and there was no one still. I imagined the mouth, the source, whatever it was, from wherever it came, 20 miles up a river valley on a goddamned glacier and what was I thinking, trying to make it mine. There was one more bend in the distance I considered, but turned back. And then I got to feeling really tired for the first time. I’d been swimming a half an hour maybe, I didn’t have a watch.

And there was the river theme, this attraction to water, this energy flow. It cut through the land and fed into the ocean and out there, where the sky and water met it was endless. You could go there and get lost, disappear. That felt soothing sometimes, when I was stressed out or distracted. You could just look at the sea and let go, disappear.

I felt that fatigue from the time I worked in a river, I spent a lot of days in one with a salmon research crew, measuring the size of rocks and crap like that. It was dull, tedious work, science. We had to carry a lot of heavy gear and wear dry suits and boots with no-slip soles, and standing in a river all day with the current on you, you don’t realize how much energy it takes to just stand until you get out.

There were all these analogies I couldn’t avoid, even a song I had in my head, “The River of Deceit,” by a band called Mad Season. They took the name after a saying in the Pacific Northwest, the time when psilocybin mushrooms grow wild in the fall. They were a supergroup with Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees guys and the singer Layne Staley was in Alice in Chains.

After Chris Cornell died the local DJs were telling stories from the ’90s; my friend Anthony said the first time Mad Season played a show in Seattle, at the Crocodile in Belltown, all these people were lined up on the street waiting to get in because they thought it was going to be Pearl Jam, a secret show. All the gear had the Pearl Jam stenciling on it and that was the rumor. But Layne Staley showed up and cut the line, there was no one in the venue yet, and he just sat at one of the tables and pulled out a switch blade and jammed it into the wood. There was a drug deal gone bad and a couple of the dealers were after Layne. They were trying to get into the Crocodile and the band management and Crocodile staff had to protect him. And then they played their first live show, and likely that song The River of Deceit.

I didn’t know what the song meant, or the words. But when Chris Cornell died the radio station played a live version of that song they did with the Seattle Symphony, with Chris standing in for Layne since Layne had died from an overdose a while back.

I was in my garage with the bay doors open, was in the driveway with a beer listening to it, letting it all sink in. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, but remembered it right away. The words, how Cornell sang them (“my pain is self-chosen”) spoke to me like he was saying something I could never say, like it was written just for me.

Mouth in Scottish, that word was inver. I learned that when we lived in Scotland one month, in November. We stayed in Inverness, the mouth of the Ness. It was so deep they said, the deepest body of water in Europe or something. You could drop London in it, or a mountain, I don’t know. No wonder they thought there was some prehistoric monster in it, you could lose yourself, go mad looking for it. A guy built some pod and dedicated his life to following it but turned up nothing, just a crap museum—we met, he asked where we were from, and that was more interesting than anything else they had on display.

And for that deep body of water and all there was beneath the surface unseen, you had to imagine something down there ominous. I thought the irony in that, Chris singing this song Layne used to sing, singing it like he was Layne, taking on his spirit, channeling him, his world of pain. I didn’t know anything about Layne but imagined he carried a cloud around him no one could see through. And we were all alone like that in our suffering, pain could become its own strange addiction, a wizard’s familiar, a source to draw power from, that convinces you you need it.





Categories: death, identity, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. i found the reference, thanks for the treasure hunt. also like your garage bay doors that open to the world. seems like a lot happens there for you –

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nothin’ like a river baptism to cleanse the old soul, eh?

    I think I recall that Staley fought depression for a long time, just like Chris. You have to wonder how many artists have it in the background (or their foreground, I guess). Like I just read that Diane Arbus was manic depressive her whole life. One of those sad ironies that serious pain produces great art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good morning! Ay-yup, in the New England colloquialism of Steven King, on the baptism piece. I have to thank you again for serving as some inspiration for me to do this project, through your diligence and discipline as a writer, we find proxies and gurus in the most unexpected places. Enjoy the day! I’m going offline! Yay! Bill


      • Hey, have fun in Offlandia! Just thinking I might inspire you is inspiring to me!


      • I broke my own promise, that sucks. But thanks. I did deep-clean the house, shop, and built a fire so there’s that. And I’m a couple fingers into a bomber of IPA, so I’m trying to settle down. I have Dawn on the caprese salad, so to speak.


  3. It’s lines like ‘hikers the size of your hand’ that keep me coming back here. Just waiting for the next one to drop. These isolated nature stories confirm my belief that the woods are no place for me.

    A lot of water in your writing. A *lot.* What do you make of that?


  4. Those thick woods on the Olympic Peninsula that grow like carpets right to the beach are so deeply mysterious, they do things to your head. The way you described just looking into them with those un-known prints on the beach—that gave me goose bumps. I’ve been in those kinds of woods alone only once or twice, and always feel a little vulnerable like that. Love this series of posts Bill. I’ve heard lots about that trail system, so I’m travelling there vicariously with you. Really excellent.


    • If you can, boy you should go there and check those trails out yourself. Some you can get to without much trouble if that discourages you (the long hiking or driving in). But I suppose to get out there is a haul, not much you can do about that. So glad to give goosebumps, yay! The imagination is a fun, sometimes dangerous thing right. Happy you’re able to check these out and read along, thank you. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

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