the woods and what I thought about

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I got a craigslist ride down I-5 and from there I hitched on a road that ran wide, narrow, wet, and then dry past a couple little towns and through some bottle-brush doug-firs to get to Paula, who’s living in the woods. The people who picked me up hitch-hiking were number one, a retired plumber with kidney failure and number two, a fourth-generation mill city logger and his handsome sons. The retired plumber with kidney failure drove an old, old oldsmobile and held a blond chihuahua on his lap that was as fat as a two-liter bottle and had a snout like a hedgehog. The old, old Oldsmobile smelled the way old, old, oldsmobiles ought to, like stale cigarettes and freezer burn, and the back seat was full of groceries, melting ice-cream and pizzas and such. The man had diabetes and all the medications he took for diabetes had made his kidneys fail, he said, and then shrugged like, oh well, one thing for another, I suppose. He’d moved to the area from California, because California had so much crime and was really like the end of the world, and in this area the air was fresh and green and you could pretend that the end of the world wasn’t happening yet. The road we drove in the oldsmobile traversed the fat cleft between two mountains, where the river had been dammed and the trees had been cut over and over again since before anyone could remember.

That man dropped me off and I waited awhile and watched the sun sink before the logger man and his handsome sons picked me up. I had to wait for them to get off work. But then they came, right at the strike of almosttoodarktohitchhike, Dude In A Pickup Truck and his sons who did not, yet, have their own pickup trucks, but worked extra hours at the window finishing factory to save up money. Dude eyed me warily through the car window and his little wife, Roxy, rolled it down. I got in the extended cab with his handsome sons who smelled of youth and wore their dirt-biking baseball caps low over their eyes, and pulled their cellphones from some crevice of their clothing now and then to text their girlfriends. The man told me that he and his wife had thirteen kids, eleven adopted, only two girls, and I listened hard to his dialect, noticed how he and his sons said “seen” instead of “saw”, “was” instead of “were”. Just like the people in rural Alaska. He even said “warsh”, like my grandpa. “My great-grandfather homesteaded just up that hill,” said Dude, pointing a big red finger across the road, “and that makes my son fifth-generation Mill City.” We turned off the road and he took me on a little tour through the three-street town, pointed out the boy scouts taking down the flag at city hall, waved at everyone. He cut logs, he said, his father cut logs, they had always cut logs…

He was going to drop me off at the gas station to await my fate in the gathering dark, but like they always do he said no, I’ll take you all the way. “I was an EMT here for seventeen years,” he said, “you wouldn’t believe the times I’ve had to scrape people up off this highway. We got drugs, we got… we got all kinds of things. It used to be safe here. I lived here forty-two years, all my life. There didn’t used to be so much crime. Salem told people that they couldn’t get assistance unless they lived so far from the city so they moved out here. It didn’t used to be like this.”

“I bet there aren’t jobs out here,” I said.

“Oh no,” said Dude, laughing and shaking his big red face. His sons laughed, as if I’d told a really good joke. I laughed too. “But you shouldn’t be out here hitchhiking. I don’t want to get a call in the middle of the night to come scrape you off the road.”

“I appreciate you concern,” I said, staring vaguely out the side window at the rain. “But most violence is contextual, it happens between people who know each other, and in families. I don’t believe in monsters, out cruzing the streets, looking to victimize somebody random. And anyway, the good news is that it’s almost always people like you that pick up hitch-hikers.” I think the man liked to hear that, but I couldn’t really tell. His wife was silent, sitting low in the seat in front of me. She swung her hand over, and offered us in back a plastic bag of cinnamon rolls. I said no thanks. They also offered me a diet pepsi, “had a whole cooler of them in the back,” and I said no, although afterwards I though I maybe should’ve said yes. One trick I’ve learned over the years is that although I don’t drink that shit, strangers are often greatly put at ease when you accept a gift of beverage from them, and you can always tuck a soda or a can of beer into your backpack “for later” and then ditch it somewhere after you get dropped off. As the road shrank into a ribbon of wet asphalt between walls of thick conifers I sent a few text messages and eavesdropped on the conversation between son and dad.

“I want to fish that stretch of river on so-and-so’s of property. Will you put in a good word for me?”

“Hmph. Put in a good word for you. You can fish it, isn’t nobody gonna care. He’s got twenty acres.”

“Well put in a good word for me.” (to me) “Great thing about tubing this river, you can find all the little spots where the fish hide.”

(dad)“It’s too late to tube the river.”

(me) “Water’s cold, huh?”

(son)“Water’s always cold. We get the bottom water from the dam. It’s the cold water from the bottom. You could do it in a full-body wetsuit! Or a dry suit!”

“Sounds fun.”

We got to the hippie hot springs resort where Paula works and Dude’s face was blank as he pulled down the darkened gravel road to the gate. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but I wondered. This place had been here, had been a hippie hot springs resort since before he was born, it went back and back and back and he said he didn’t know the story of it, but I wondered. I wanted to ask him outright, ask him how he felt about the hippies and their hot springs, how he felt as a hunter, as a logger, as a rider of snow-machines (They won’t let us ride snow machines up this road, it’s too noisy, at least that’s what they say), as a Dude in a Pickup Truck, as a forth-generation mill-city resident. But instead I heaved my backpack out of the truck bed and said thank you and waved goodbye, wishing that I’d at least accepted the pepsi.

The mountains were cold. And black, like the very inside of the night. Amazing there are any pockets left, anywhere, without the pollution of electric light. A wrinkle in the earth, a gutter for the water to run through, a great river. Salmon. I carried my things across the footbridge into the hippie village, mist gathering around my ears, beading off the tip of my nose. In the dark all around was a lace of even darker, the lattice fingers of the doug-firs and cedars, hanging overhead and shaking, dripping, giving form and substance to the night. Paula’s cabin was a little A-frame way back in the woods, backed up against the ink-black dark, held close inside the moonless morning of the night. I found it arms out in front of me, stumbling over the wet matted alder leaves and through vague fallen fences whose borders I discerned by watching the way lighter black shadows made prison bars along the ground. The moon, I thought, was surely rising.

Paula’s A-frame was a dear wooden triangle with a small narrow porch, like a short hobbit’s house in the deep, dripping woods. I fumbled in the dark, found the lamp on the wall, cast a ring of yellow light, and fired up the propane heater the way she’d told me- turn on the valve on bottom, pump a few times, flick the pilot light. A blue flame leapt up and the pale window-curtain fluttered in the warm draft. I sat down on the futon and spread out my things, pulling out my book of stories that was new. Paula was working in the kitchen till eight, making gluten-free muffins and lentil soup, and massive steel carafes of cinnamon tea. Outside the trees dripped, and inside the air was still and quiet. Heat poured from the heater. Like the underside of the world, a forgotten fold… I felt the rubberband around my skull snap, and fall to the floor. I made a mound of pillows and leaned back, turning a page in my book. There was no longer anything but this.

When Paula got off work she fed me leftovers (cauliflower in almond sauce, gluten-free pot pie) and we sat on her futon and talked, and pulled books from her shelf, and put them back, and Paula had an old copy of the new york times spread on the floor that she was reading cover-to-cover, and I read a national geographic article in the yellow lamplight- it was about army ants. (ants are blind, did you know? as they walk their tidy routes, they rely entirely on scents and pheromones for communication. [I thought of you, of all the ways there were of talking that didn’t use words. Of when language fails me…])

Paula had a yoga class at seven a.m. and work after so she rose early and disappeared. I had no plans but to be a vessel for the quiet peace of the forest and so I burrowed deeper into the woolen blankets and slept for eleven hours, letting it fill and fill and fill me. When I rose the cabin was dim, and outside bars of yellow light cut through the clearing and burned up the shaking edges of the trees. The sun! The glorious sun! And the lichen! Swinging like mint-green Christmas tinsel. And the moss! A damp carpet, fresh on the bare soles of my feet. And the chanterelles! Gone slimy now and pumpkin-orange along the edges of the path. And the steam! Rising from rotted logs, hollow, mossed-over, sprouting frail alders- the steam! Rising up to meet the sun. Shot through with glory and morningtime, I put on my shoes and set off into the forest, eating the last of the cold leftovers first.

I walked all day in the forest, and it swept the city from my brain. The forest, forest, forest, said my feet. I picked up strands of false-usnea and pulled them apart. I hopped on top of steaming logs, I marveled at the light that bounced off stones in the bottom of the stream. Every other step I thought of you, a strand of golden thread, but the ones in between were mine. Boundaries! I thought, Imagine it! Focus! I thought. The cold clear waters of the morning! Oh if this was my life!

I got back as Paula was getting done in the kitchen, running teacups through the dishwasher, pressure-washing pots. We stripped and climbed into the hot springs, water like a smooth hot stone that you swallow, that warms your insides, the hidden crevasses of your bones. I dunked down to my chin, paddled my arms around, and thought of you. Paula is crazy so after we soaked we jumped into the freezing river, even though she has an ear infection. Then I got back in the tub while Paula stood watching the sunset, dripping naked in the cold evening air, as the light draped cherry-red and sweet orange in the cleft between the mountains. Who needs clothes, I thought, when you have this pie-shaped slice of sunset? A secret hollow all to yourself? Who needs anything but this…

For dinner we cooked beefalo and chard and spread it on corn tortillas, and had a salad of massaged kale, and a pomegranate split open, dripping red like blood on little plates. Various older hetero hippie men cycled in and out of the kitchen during our meal, talking with us about such subjects as crab fishing and electromagnetic radiation. One of them offered us wine and we offered him beefalo, and he settled down at the table, the three of us and an old copy of Joy of Cooking, from which I read post-dinner digestion stories titled How To Fill Thirty-Four Glasses Of Champagne At Once By Stacking Them In A Pyramid Shape and The Effects Of Hard Vs. Soft Water On Yeasted Breads, respectively.

After dinner we retired to the A-frame to explore, once again, the world of printed matter that was Paula’s bookshelf, which, this dark and windless night, and in the light of my new-found focus, seemed an impossible treasure-trove of wealth and which held books that, suddenly, rang like bells to us, stories from far away and narratives that clipped along like galloping horses and poetry- Poetry! As if I had never imagined it before! A shelf of books, a shelf of books in which to fall…

We read, and Paula told me about her life. Up at dawn, yoga, maybe a run to the mountain-top if she has time, then to work in the kitchen, chopping carrots, kneading bread, stirring pots of steaming things with great wooden spoons. And after work, her little home, the yellow lamp-light, her art materials spread out across the floor, a rumpled yoga mat, books to read- so many books to read! And soaking! And then to bed, to sleep like a dark rock’s underside, a sleep to heal the weary soul, a sleep that builds, that calcifies, that grows solid as a stone.

Paula was reading Julie of the Wolves, my favorite book from childhood. We talked about befriending packs of wolves, whether or not we thought that was something that could really happen. Paula missed Pearl, suddenly. A few minutes later the book dropped from her hand and she was asleep. I switched out the light. The forest was still silent, the air still vastly dark. The world was not ending. I lay in the dark for a few moments and thought about my friends, our focus or lack thereof, our thoughts that fly like skittish birds, that refuse to touch down, feet that don’t believe in solid ground. I thought of how much was possible and where, and how to make it all fit together like Lincoln logs. I knew I was just sifting things, waiting for them to fall into some sort of pattern that made sense. I thought of the golden ratio, which is tattooed on my forearm and which guides me, like a magical sort of compass. One of the men in the kitchen during dinner had told us that our emotions, apparently, do, or maybe should, follow that ratio- which is approximately three-fifths. As in, three-fifths of our time should, in the end, be used up exalting over the magic and the beauty of the world, confounded at its brilliance, laughing uncontrollably in wonder at a single, inexplicable ray of light on the mossy forest floor- and the other two-fifths of our time should be used thinking about and attempting to process the really heavy shit- war, genocide, unrequited love, housemate drama. This made sense to me, and I clung to it in the dark, imagining the spiral turning round and round, time spinning off like a ball of string flung into the air. So much was unformed, and so much was already over- and here I was. Was I the spiral’s eye? Were we, each of us, the spiral’s eye? And was that history, falling below us into nothing- our tailings- and when we come around again, everything, every single thing, is different.



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how the woodz make me feel



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steaming log



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colloidial silver



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headstand at the portal to infinity



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5 thoughts on “the woods and what I thought about

  1. god. this strikes my heart so deeply, i miss the oregon woods so much i guess there are tears on my breath.

    beautiful writing, and pictures, thank you.

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