I had a visitor this weekend. It was 24 hours in heaven. 24 and an extra 10 that we squeezed in by holding hands while we slept.
I hiked out to meet her on Friday night, a warm dusk falling over the forest as I walked the road to the parking lot. Three miles of trees so big, if they fell on the trail I wouldn’t be able to get over them. I’d be stuck on the wrong side of a wall of wood, unless I walked to the base of the tree and climbed around the root ball, massive rocks twisted out of the dirt and my sandals filling with churned-up earth.
No trees fell on the trail, and I got to the parking lot just as she did, stepping out of her Volvo in an olive polyester dress with a calculator watch for me, two thawing yogurt tubs of bone broth and a rear derailleur cable. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed, tried to juice her like a bunch of celery. She went to pay the forest service fee to park overnight, and I set the time on my new watch, liking the way the big plastic strap felt around my wrist.
When we started back it was already dark. “You have to walk in,” I had told her, and now we were. The trees were like roman pillars, the dirt road a river of dusk. Here was a cave in the rock, there a light in the woods. Some campers, stamping out a little flat space for their tent. I held her hand and tugged her along over the rocks, her bags balanced awkwardly on her back. We talked of the things that had scared us as children, until I got spooked and couldn’t anymore. Aliens. Alligators. Deep water. Things under the bed. The drawings from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark- a pig dripping hair. A dog dripping hair. A horse dripping hair, wearing a woman’s shoe. Also there was Pennywise the Clown, sending up balloons from the sewer grate. Sharks.
It was dark, but the moon kept us from the Blackest Night. And then we rounded a rutted corner and there was the village, energy-efficient light-bulbs burning in the eye sockets of deer skulls, the smell of cookies in the air. Above us were the stars, folded between forested ridges and diluted with moonlight. Look where I live! I said. Look where I live!
I pulled my Visitor into the lodge so we could rustle up a snack and I could put some amaranth on to soak for breakfast porridge, in the warm spot above the stove. Sarah and Megan were in the kitchen making cookies, huge steel bowls of dough and wooden spoons stirring, 5 pound bags of chocolate chips and piles of fresh grated ginger. They smiled and I showed them my new watch, we all talked a little too loudly and I made a cup of tea, some brown rice toast with hummus and olives on it. My Visitor had a flower in her hair, and it made her seem so ornate, against the soft light of the wooden walls, my flour-stained trouser shorts and the beaten grass of the yard, where the dry road disappeared into darkness.
We slept on the top bunk of one of the bunkbeds in the bunkhouse, a couple feet across and with little railings, so we needn’t worry about pushing each other off in our sleep. I showed her the bathroom that smelled like a gerbil cage (sawdust and pee! A composting toilet used improperly!) and then we climbed up the wooden slats of the bed, bedding down under an old sleeping bag that unzipped to make a thick comforter, pilfered from the store-room on my first day here.
The next morning we lay in bed and processed, using vague words to talk about things we didn’t even understand, mostly just letting out emotions like opening the stopper on a tea-kettle. I’d been too excited to sleep very well and afterwards I knew this was going to be one of the bad days for me, filled with anxiety attacks and exhaustion, like dragging a lead weight attached to my ankle but with moments of freedom, easy and nice, giving me nuggets of hope to finger in my pockets, looking forward to the day when I won’t feel this way anymore, when I can finally restock everything that Portland took out of me. Why do I ever leave the country, which is the only place I find happiness and contentment, hope and inspiration? To meet nice friends like my Visitor, I suppose. One day life won’t be such a balancing act, like scrambling across the teeter-totter at the park, laughing and moving too much and then not enough, the middle always the hardest place to find.
I got bored with feeling hopeless and we went to the garden, to help K. plant several flats of starts she’d gotten in Portland. She had Red Russian kale for me, beets and chard, broccoli and a tomato plant. None of us knew what we were doing so we clawed at the old beds with a rake, dug holes for the starts, sprinkled cottonseed meal inside and watered the dry earth, our plants wilting from shock in the hot sun. “Oops,” I said. “I guess we’re not supposed to plant in the middle of the day.”
We decided it would be fine.
“Isn’t there lead in this soil?” I asked. “Wasn’t this a lead mine?”
“There’s lead in the water,” said K. “But only a little. It’s not so much that it’s a big deal. There’s just lots of minerals in it.”
“It’s actually been shown that there are no safe levels for lead in drinking water,” I said, forever the know-it-all. “It’s not such a big deal for adults, who have finished growing, but it’s very, very bad for children. Even the tiniest amounts affect the way their brains develop.”
“Oh,” said K. “We get a lot of school groups here. We should probably do something about that.”
“Yeah,” I said, as we mounded wet soil around the starts with our hands.
We got tired of talking about environmental toxins and K. and I talked about how hard it was to make plans, how strange it seemed to us when friends wanted us to commit to trips several months in advance and how wonderful it would be to live in the village over winter. My people, I thought. My people. The spring in Portland had found me feeling more and more alone, with friends slowly compromising and becoming more and more like the city and less like something else, and no solitude or sunlit clearings to be found anywhere, as if they had never existed, as if all that mattered were words and buildings and the things inside buildings, pieces of paper and the sound of voices and brightly colored clothing, and the coming and going and changing of ideas, a whole commerce of this, walls and furniture made of this, food that was made of sentences, a pillow of words to sleep on.
I don’t want ideas. I don’t want to eat sleep and drink human civilization, or the churning dishwater that has become human civilization. I want to eat one thing at a time, on a nice log somewhere, all alone.
I realize how privileged I am, these days, to even be able to escape the toxic polluted space that we all live in. Although I do have to eat conventional romaine and drink water that has (a little) lead in it.
Later in the day we walked up to Sacred Rock, where the Indigenous people of this area gathered to have rituals and what-not, looking out over the confluence of two clear streams, at what would later become a lead and copper mine and then a wilderness area, somehow preserving the whole watershed and all that they had had- not that they could have it anymore. There was something incredible about sitting on this warm stone and seeing the sun set into the cleft of the ridges, and knowing that this was the same view that the Native people had had when they had come here since forever ago. It was like looking at a faded photograph. This Is What They Saw. With the rest of the story cut out- just that photograph, sitting in an empty desk drawer, surrounded by a scalloped white border and with faint, slanted penmanship on the back.
My Visitor said, “Convince me I should stay another night,” and I said,
“It’s dark now. You’re trapped. Do you want to walk out alone on the road in the dark?” My Visitor wanted to have horror-movie roleplay in the bunkhouse, Just For Fun, with scuttling noises and a flashlight lost in a dark corner, but I wanted to cuddle instead, and not bring anymore creepy vibes to the badly-lit cabin than it already had. So we cuddled on the top bunk, and talked in tired voices, and made shadow-puppets on the ceiling with my headlamp, a dog and a man with a big nose and a goatee. And then I fell asleep, filled with love and good will, the pinball-machine of anxiety finally gone and a little hope spread around me with which to envelope my nice friend.
At dawn she left to walk out on the road alone, the three miles through the forest with her bags piled on her back, reading a book along the way and stopping to drink from a flowing stream. When she woke to leave it felt painful and wrong like tearing a half-healed scab from the skin of your knee, but after she left I fell back asleep, sleeping the sleep of kittens and puppies, waking and hugging my stuffed narwhal and feeling alive, finally.