It’s dark and hot. Well, not quite dark yet. And not that hot, here by the river. It’s hot in Portland, I think. I’m glad I’m not there.
I want to talk about the things I’m afraid of. What are you afraid of? These are the things I’m afraid of-
-mental illness (my mom is schizophrenic)
-sleeping in the woods alone at night.
And just for contrast, here are some things I’m not afraid of-
-taking rides from strangers
-riding freight trains alone when it’s really cold out
-sleeping in an empty lot on the edge of town
-sleeping in a patch of trees next to the highway
-sleeping under an old trailer, in some industrial sprawl, in a really big city in a “bad” part of town
It’s pretty unfortunate that I have such a phobia of being alone in the woods at night. Take my current situation, for example. I just moved all my stuff into this room off the kitchen, which is meant to be my home until November. A room right of the kitchen. The kitchen where I work. And upstairs, the lodge where guests sleep. All night long, the sound of stomping feet. And at six a.m., the clanging of metal bowls as R. mixes flour and crisco for scones. The room is stuffy and dark, and the window hasn’t been opened for months. One wall connects to a shower, and there must be mold in that wall, because it smells like the worst dank basement in that bedroom. And I just happen to have a wicked mold allergy. In the center of the room is a queen-size bed, sunken in the middle and made up with a coral-colored bed sheet. A lumpy pillow, a nightstand with a lamp. An overhead light that gives a sick yellow glow and whines with electricity.
Basically, the hotel room of your nightmares.
Outside, the weather is sweet and the forest is full of soft mossy clearings. I could string a hammock between two massive hemlocks, each of them around 700 years old. I could throw up a tarp, curl up to sleep with the babbling of little brooks. Hell, I even have a tent!
I could, if I wasn’t so afraid of sleeping alone in the woods at night.
This morning I hiked with JJ and Paula, who were visiting. We hiked up and up, huffing and puffing, then stopped in some shade to eat celery sticks and talk about what causes disease. Paula did yoga in her underwear. At one point I pointed over at the ridge in front of us-
“Just over that ridge to bagby hotsprings!”
“Let’s do it!” said JJ. “Later this summer!” He also suggested on the hike that I go to Vermont in winter, that we rent a cabin together. We’d wear wire-rim spectacles, we joked, and sit at our typewriters facing opposite walls. I can’t focus with your clacking! I’d yell, as he pounded away on his typewriter. You’re ruining my novel! He’d shout, as I pounded away on mine. We’d toss crumpled paper at each other, and every so often we’d ask- What’s another word for ‘pine bough’? or “Help Me With This Metaphor”.
JJ wants to work in the village, but they’re not hiring. I told him that if he wanted to squat in the woods, I would bring him kitchen scraps. As we walked, we talked about the different ways it was possible to live in the woods. The places you could go. How straight everyone always is. Whether or not you work for free.
Paula told us stories of her time in Europe, tromping around with Madeline. Madeline only ever wanted to eat ice cream, and Paula had to put her foot down now and again, and enforce her need for Real Food. That’s because Madeline is like a balloon, floating way up in the clouds. Balloons don’t need heavy things like fiber. They are light and fanciful. They only need ice-cream, and they don’t pack very sensibly.
Paula told stories about Europe, and in my head there were stock photos, dusty and yellowed, of French patisseries and old old churches and painted skulls all lined up in a row. Glossy thick pages, like from an old encyclopedia. I have never been to Europe. It is the Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, and it is spotty and outdated, and we all have a copy in our heads. So as Paula talked I asked a lot of questions, like-
“It’s a real old little village? What do the people do for money?”
“A real old French bakery? Or like for tourism?”
Because Europe is where Madonna lives. And so I don’t believe the hype.
Paula also went to Austria, for her cousin’s wedding. Her cousin is related to a young village post-master of days gone by who once married a prince. Because of this, the wedding took place in the mountain village where the post-master once lived. Paula was forced to shave and also buy an expensive gown, in spite of the crisp new Banana Republic suit she had brought along for the occasion, which she never would have bought otherwise. Shopping for the gown, she said, was traumatic, and the wedding took place on a high mountain lake. The groom arrived via speedboat, spreading wake across the water. Cheesy music played. Afterwards there was a feast of bratwurst.
Paula and Madeline also went to Amsterdam, but not to Spain. Paula said that in parks in france one often sees teenagers dancing, practicing the sort of dance from that Yelle video, the one where guys in high-tops dance in front of big letters that spell YELLE.
Paula related most of these stories over breakfast in the village this morning, before the hike. Breakfast was cream of wheat with French toast, none of which I could eat. I made myself some Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Steel Cut Oats, and poured coconut syrup over them. (Gluten Free Oats?! How does Bob do it? Black magic?) Sarah-The-Brilliant-And-Talented-Other-Cook had put out cantaloupe balls and frozen raspberries for the cream of wheat. We’d found a forgotten stockpile of frozen raspberries, in a trash bag, at the bottom of the deep freezer. We were running out of food, and R. was out shopping.
Paula related stories and we sat in the sun, where it fell on the picnic table in front of the lodge. The air smelled like dust. We all kept interrupting each other, because it had been so long and we were so excited to see each other. It was hard to hear any one story all the way through, or not get them all mixed up together, like leftover rice and beans.
Paula and JJ left after the hike to drive back to Portland, but first we walked to a waterfall on the river, and jumped in the water where it pooled clear blue around some sun-warmed rocks. The water was panic-inducing cold. It was the kind of cold where you think- the only reason this water isn’t frozen is that it’s so fast moving. After jumping in I squatted on the rocks and felt a lot of happiness. Paula & JJ sprawled like seals, diving back in every few moments only to bob out and scramble onto the rocks. Finally I said my goodbyes and walked alone back to camp, through the sweet silent woods. I came upon my favorite part of the forest, a place where the ground spreads out flat and open, and the trees are like great pillars of moss from some sci-fi movie, or something. Something from the future or the past. And then I had a thought- what if I built a platform? If I was up off the ground, I wouldn’t be scared to sleep there alone at night, not in the least. Especially if my platform had a little ladder, and I could pull it up. But this was all forest service land, and that sort of thing was illegal. But what if I built it quietly, a good ways from the road? I could take a different path every time, so as not to make a trail, and no-one would suspect I was there. I could bike each morning into the village, to make it faster.
What a wonderful fantasy!
I got back to the lodge, and made dinner. Sarah and her visitor made a cake, and frosted it with shredded coconut and butter, which I ate out of the bowl, on a frozen raspberry, as a consolation prize for not being able to eat the cake.
R. came back later with the usual- bags of shredded cheese, conventional romaine, dried wild mushrooms, five pints of melted ice-cream and two venus fly traps. And some beets for me, per request. We rushed the melted ice-cream to the freezer, and Sarah tripped the venus fly traps with her finger.
I’m sleeping in the old bunk-house tonight, the one on the edge of the village, where ghosts of little boys who will only eat pb&j on white bread thankfully do not occupy the dozen narrow bunks. I’m in here now, writing this blog on my computer, in the sunken armchair that smells like dust and is surprisingly comfortable. Through the window I can here the sounds of people celebrating- it’s one of the instructors’ half-birthdays and so everyone is in the shack with the pool table, drinking and shouting and making the best of the summer-camp like atmosphere. But I am in here writing, because I don’t like to drink or stay up late shouting or playing pool.
This is what I like to do.
I think they like me anyway, which is good.