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Some Things That Might Happen When You Move

You might, at the beginning, underestimate the work of moving. In the weeks that pass between buying a house and moving into that house, you might begin the process of sorting and packing. You know you haven’t done enough, but still, you might look around each room and think: that won’t take very long to pack. You will be wrong.

On the day you actually move from one house to another, you might be disturbed by the wreckage. It’s not that you expected things to be orderly. In fact, you’re the one who advocated for a move that would span several days. Let’s just move the beds, you said, and a few boxes of things we immediately need. Then we can come back and pack the rest. But this means you are left with a house filled with dust bunnies and all the things that have been hiding under the bed for many years: flip-flops and luggage and photographs you took in college. This does not look like a house that can be tamed. You might wonder how on earth this house will ever be clean and empty.

You might be impressed by how prolific the loose Legos are, and the k’nex and the marbles. You never stop finding them. They are in every single corner of every single room. You fill your pockets with them. They often carry dust and stray hairs. They are so prolific that one afternoon, as you are cleaning out the empty fridge, you find what looks like a loose blue k’nex piece stuck in one of the mounts at the back of the freezer. You will stuff it in your pocket with the other k’nex. Later, when you find the other blue piece on the other side, you realize that these are not k’nex but parts designed to hold a tray in place. You might feel foolish for a moment.

One night at the new house you might decide to make tuna salad for dinner. You know you’ve got bread, mayonnaise, and salad greens. You even know where the tuna cans are. You might not realize until after dark, when you’ve got the mixing bowl on the counter, and the mayo, and the pickles, that the can opener is still in the kitchen drawer of your old house.

You may find that packing is demanding work. Doing so invites deep existential quandaries, like: Why am I reluctant to get rid of this dress that doesn’t fit me? and Do I really need two ladles? By the end of each day you might be surprised by how tired you are. You might fall asleep next to your toddler, drooling in your clothes.

You may realize, for the thousandth time, that you and your partner have different attitudes about stuff. You would like to see 90% of it go away. It may be hard for you to decide which things to part with, but if someone were to do that job for you, you would thank them. Your partner, on the other hand, would like to keep things like cracked dishes that cannot be repaired. She would not thank someone if they secretly took boxes of her stuff to Goodwill. Not that you tried or anything. No really, you didn’t. Still, you will have to find a way to live with each other. You just bought a house, after all.

You might find that your hygiene standards change for the weeks that you are still packing and unpacking. Those pants that you painted in last week might turn out to be the only ones you can find. Go with it. One morning, you discover that they have worn out between the thighs. Don’t worry; no one will notice. You might rifle through one of the many garbage bags filled with clothing until you can find a hat that will cover your bedhead. You might wear your garden clogs everywhere.

You might discover that it takes only 10 minutes to set up internet in your new house even though the directions say to give it two hours. This small victory might be compromised when, on the same day, you spend hours battling with the brand new dishwasher. Though you got it to start yesterday, today it won’t. You press buttons, consult the manual, and still it won’t go. You take a break from trying, but can’t get it out of your mind. Why won’t it work? you keep asking yourself. Finally, at the end of the day, for reasons that will never be clear, you hit some magic combination of buttons and the thing runs like a Cadillac. Tomorrow you will have to figure it out all over.

You might be surprised by how fluid the word “home” is. In the days leading up to your move, you find it unimaginable. You will keep thinking that something will happen to prevent you from moving into the new house. It’s not that you don’t want to go, it’s just that your imagination is limited. Only two days after the move, you will marvel at how easily the shift happens. Sure, your stuff is in boxes. Sure, you still haven’t met the neighbors. But already this feels like where you live now. Your kids, who were anxious about the move, seem to barely notice that they’ve left something behind. Instead, they jump on their new beds and sit by the fireplace as if they have always inhabited this space.

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Like Walking in the Dark

It’s night by the time we arrive at the camp. The office is closed and outside, beneath a single porch light, there is a piece of paper with my last name and cabin number: C7. R, my companion, has been here before. She picks up a map and traces it with her finger. We load our bags into a cart and wheel it along a dirt path.

Even with R’s flashlight, I find it hard to get my bearings. Small green lanterns mark the edge of the trail, but don’t offer enough light to illuminate the grounds. I can barely make out the edges of tree trunks, the outlines of cabin roofs. If I chose to be overwhelmed, I could be. Instead I choose to believe that our cabin will reveal itself to us eventually. I keep following R’s lead as she shines her light on cabin porches, trying to find the row marked C. Eventually, we do.

Though there are forty cabins, it feels as though we are the only ones here. The grounds are silent. The whole forest is still. I am walking through a world I’ve never visited before, a world that will be revealed to me once the sun rises. There is a magic in that.

*

Three weeks ago, Kellie and I bought a house. We’d been looking for a new home for more years than I can count. I can’t count them because we moved in out of looking; we moved from casual to serious to casual and back again. I’ve thought about writing an essay titled “A Tour of Houses We Almost Bought.” There have been a lot of them. Often we looked at a house and decided: “This makes sense for us. We should make an offer.” But then we didn’t follow through.

“I guess we’re not buying that house,” I’d observe a few days later.

“I guess we’re not,” Kellie would agree. “Should we?”

We were waiting for a feeling. We weren’t sure if that made us foolish or smart. I’m still not sure. But this house we’ve finally chosen is big in every sense. It is a big house on a big piece of land. It is wide-open pasture and a big-sky view. But, more than anything, it is big in what it will demand from us. Right now Kellie is giving her life to the walls and the floors, readying them.

In some ways, it feels like the house chose us, like what we were looking for all along wasn’t some practical place that would suit our collective needs, but a place that would challenge us to dream and grow.

I spend my days now flitting back and forth between work and one home and the next, chasing my kids around, delivering food to Kellie who is covered in plaster dust, wondering when I will find the time to put things in boxes, to actually organize us for the imminent move. I’m not sure when this move will happen. I’m not sure of anything right now. I feel caught in the motion of change, but mystified about what that change will bring, about what it will feel like to land in this new place, to wake up there, to make dinner there, to watch my children play there. It feels a little like walking in the dark.

image credit: ehoyer, Creative Commons License 2.0

The Horse of Change

Last week, after learning that wildfires were destroying the area near our family cabin, I went searching through old photos. I sat alone at my desk, clicking through snapshots on a thumb drive, and when I came across this one I chortled.

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It surprised me, this photo.

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students that the most satisfying surprise is the surprise of recognition, the surprise of I-should-have-seen-that-coming-but-I-didn’t. That’s exactly how this photo felt to me: of course there was a horse in the window. That used to happen all the time.

One summer these horses roamed the valley and we watched them from a distance. We’d see them trot towards the creek at the bottom of the hill, or we’d drive by them in the meadow on our way down the mountain.

The next summer, Kellie bought a metal trough and filled it with fresh water from our well. The horses discovered this and every morning we had company. Just as the sun rose over the hill, I’d wake to the sound of them munching and nickering. They hung around the cabin for an hour or more, sidling up to the porch or the outdoor sink, pooping in our driveway. When I watched them from inside the cabin or when I went outside and stepped cautiously between them, I felt like I was the guest and they were the residents. I felt this way because it was true.

horsesKellie claimed that it was practical to have horses eating our grass, and I know that she was right. Tall grass becomes a fire hazard once it dries. But I also know Kellie well enough to understand her motives. She bought and filled the trough because she wanted their company.

The horses visited us at the cabin for two summers and then, the following spring, their owner sold them all. The land seemed awfully quiet the first summer they were gone. I would wake to a sunny day and watch the wind move through the grass, watch a bluebird perch on a mullein stalk. No one was tromping through; no one was munching.

By the next year I had all but forgotten the horses. Instead, I watched my baby learn to scoot himself across the floor. I fed him applesauce and oatmeal. I carried him on long walks. When I remembered that there had once been horses, my mind placed them halfway down a hill, living their own horse lives far from us. I forgot about how well we’d been acquainted.

horse2After the surprise of this photo, I spent some time marveling at how I could forget something so big as a horse in my window, how something so vivid could be buried so deep.

Slowly I remembered all the other lives I’ve led—my own life in three-year increments, iterations of me that felt permanent but were not.

I remember, for instance, the years I spent trying to get pregnant and how stark my world seemed then. How the chance of a baby felt like the fur mouse on a cat toy, alternately in reach and then so far away.

Or I remember when my first child was a newborn, and everyone kept saying “It all goes by so fast,” but instead those days slogged along. I nursed my baby every two hours, and then nursed him before bed for three hours straight, and then woke up in the night to nurse him some more. The whole process was in equal measures sublime and boring, precious and frustrating, and I thought it was my new forever-life.

Nearly every reality I’ve lived has felt permanent. Every reality has been temporary.

Our cabin, as far as I know has not burned down, but the world it occupies has been forever changed. Last night I dreamed that we returned to the land with our children and discovered that the surrounding hills were still burning. This is not far from the truth.

I do not know what we will find next time we return. I don’t know what landscape we’ll see on the seven-hour drive, if it will be ash, or scorched trees. I don’t know what I’ll see from our cabin window—to what extent the view will have changed.

I will say this: I am grateful to bear witness, to still have four walls and a porch in Okanogan County, to have years ahead of me to see how green forges a path through char and ash, to observe the cycle of devastation and regeneration. I know that it is a luxury to be at once connected to and distant from disaster: my loss is peripheral—something I love has shifted, but it has not left my world forever.

In three years remind me of the time before the fire. I will have forgotten by then.

The West is on Fire

Our Cabin in Winter

Our Cabin in Winter

This morning, moments after I woke up, Kellie greeted me by saying, “It’s all over.”

“Huh?” I said, rubbing my eyes and starting the kettle.

“Our cabin,” she said, and explained that Aeneas Valley was evacuated overnight. Our cabin currently sits between two rapidly growing fires.

Just last weekend we had traveled there with a weed whacker in the back of the truck because the fire season was well under way, because it was already a bad one, because we were overdue for our annual fire abatement—and also, because we love it there.

interiorWe left on a Friday morning, the same morning that lightning had started dozens of small fires. Some of the fires had grown into big ones. As we drove through Chelan, the air grew increasingly thick with smoke. The parking lot of the elementary school was filled with fire trucks and mobilizing crews. Spectators lined up on one side of the bridge, shielding their eyes with their hands. As we crossed the bridge, I saw what they saw: a bright red fire descending down a not-so-distant hill.

For a mile we drove through smoke as thick as fog. When we finally turned North and traveled along the Columbia River, the air became suddenly clear enough that we could see again, and I felt just as suddenly that we had emerged from a place we shouldn’t have been. My sons pointed out the window, watching as a helicopter descended and filled its red bucket in the river. The bucket looked so small—like an overfilled water balloon—that I wondered how it was even worth the effort.

“That bucket carries 350 gallons,” Kellie told us. She speaks from experience. For nine years she fought fires on a helitack crew. Any time we hit the road during fire season, I can see something like nostalgia rise within her, a former way of being, woman vs. fire.

We traveled for another eighty miles, but the smoke never fully cleared. When we arrived at our cabin the air was visibly hazy. Kellie got out of her truck and surveyed the horizon. “That’s not good,” she said. She pointed to a puffy white cloud. It was mostly blocked by trees but steadily growing. Our kids ran wild around the cabin, but I stood there watching as Kellie narrated the cloud to me. There, where the cloud looked brown, living things were burning up. There, where white smoke fed the cloud, that fire was burning hot. I stood there transfixed. Without Kellie’s help I might not have even noticed that cloud, but now the more I looked the more I understood it as a living growing thing.

“Should we even stay?” I asked her. It was six o’clock already, and the sun would soon sink on the other side of the hills.

“It will cool down tonight,” Kellie said. “We’ll watch it in the morning.”

I spent the night awake, imagining the fire creeping towards us, the phrase “fast as wildfire” in my head, but when morning came our land was magically clear and still. Stump, our two-year-old son, played on the porch while I drank my morning tea at the picnic table. My heart filled. Usually being in wilderness feels good, but there’s angst at the edges. It’s a little too hot or a little too cold, or you’re swatting away at black flies, or your kids are fighting, or one of your dogs keeps putting his nose in your crotch. But this morning the sky was blue and the air was just cool enough. The smoke had settled. The fire clouds from yesterday had disappeared.

RocksKellie spent the day whacking down dry grass and raking it into piles. Together we moved the piles to a tarp and dragged them away from the cabin. Every year we had done this. The idea is to create a safe un-flammable circle around the cabin, but to be honest it feels more like dropping a penny in a well.

That evening Kellie said to me, “If there’s anything you want to save, now’s the time to grab it.” It took me a minute to realize what she meant. She meant that even though the air looked clear right now, even though I had relaxed my guard, I should prepare to say goodbye. I should save any object I wanted to keep. Kellie pointed to a painting of a mountain goat we’d found at a thrift store, and an antique wooden goblet that featured an elk. These were her choices. I agreed with them.

Only two weeks ago, I wrote about object attachment and how, if you asked me what three things I would save from a fire I wouldn’t know what to choose. As it turns out, that was accurate. As I looked around the cabin, the things that I wanted to save were the walls, the floor, the woodstove, the porch. The actual cabin. There wasn’t any individual thing I wanted, just all of things, together.

Earlier in the day it had occurred to me: this cabin was the one thing that Kellie and I have bought and made together. Kellie and I had been a couple for three years when we decided to buy raw land. We spent months driving around the state every weekend looking at parcels. We bought land where we did because it was cheap and wild and beautiful, even though it meant driving three hundred miles on the highway and another six miles up a rutted dirt road. We paid a local jack-of-all-trades to build a cabin: four walls and a loft and some windows. We’d do all the finish work ourselves.

For at least three years we spent seasons full of weekends making that drive to put in floors, build an outhouse, install a deck. I’m not handy, but I can follow directions and Kellie can give them, and so when I look at the floors I remember installing the boards with a pry bar and a nail gun, and when I look at the ceilings I remember trying to hold the sheets of plywood steady, one at a time, while Kellie nailed them to the beams.

We were probably halfway through this years-long project when Kellie and I got married in front of family and friends, but when I look back on things it feels like that cabin is the thing that married us. Because driving six hundred miles together every weekend, and drinking beers on the front porch as the sun sunk below the hills, and arguing about whether or not that board is hung at an angle, and trading off two-minute solar showers, those are the things that bound us.

fireOn Sunday afternoon, the day before we had planned to leave, we drove eight miles to the general store for ice cream. As we pulled into the dirt parking lot there were people watching the most recent blaze. The fire was climbing up one side of the hill, and it was clear that soon it would descend on the other side. The store owner said he would stay open all night. Further in the distance was another fire cloud. These two fires were expected to combine and grow. A couple in a Subaru pulled in next to us as we watched the fire and ate our ice cream.

“Is anyone fighting that?” a tall man in his thirties asked Kellie.

“There’s no one left to fight it,” Kellie said. “The whole west is on fire.” We watched as a single airplane zigzagged in the distance, but so far there was no parade of fire trucks, no clear and obvious rally like what we’d seen in Chelan.

sunThat night I took a bath outside as the clouds changed color and I felt as lucky as I ever have to be nestled, naked, in the mountains. Though I knew that fires blazed less than ten miles away, the air was clear and it was easy to believe that all was well, that it always had been and it always would be.

This morning, after Kellie shared the news about the evacuation and the growing fire, as I slowly woke up and tried to believe what I knew was real, I thought about our cabin floors again, and our walls. From the beginning we knew that we risked losing anything we built on that mountain, that wild fires blazed every year and missing them was just a matter of luck. Still, we didn’t build a cabin we could bear to lose. We built it as if we planned to pass it on to our sons, to keep it in our family forever. We loved every beam and every plank. We cut our pieces carefully and laid them out true. And I realize that is exactly how I want to live.

The Objects We Hold (and the ones that hold us)

When Smoke, my first son, was one year old, I wanted him to attach to a lovey. I had read somewhere on the internet that it was a useful thing for your child to develop an attachment to an object, that it would help him feel more secure when you couldn’t be physically present. I pictured him taking comfort in it when I left him at the daycare center. I pictured him snuggling with it as he slept.

I bought a special lovey for the purpose, as if none of the stuffed animals or blankets we owned would do. It was a small velvety toy, a cross between a blanket and a doll with a wooden ring to hang onto. I would put it between us as we nursed, hoping that it would take on smells and associations, that it would transform into something magic, but it never did. Smoke never gave a shit about his lovey.

Nearly two years later, I met with a new therapist and mentioned that parenting a toddler sometimes exhausted me. She asked me about my bedtime routine with Smoke and I explained that I read him a few books, turned out the light, and then lay in bed with him until he fell asleep. She cocked her head, furrowed her brow, and commented, “Oh, so you’re basically a human teddy bear.” There was contempt in her voice, as if I should have known better, as if I were letting my kid pull one over on me.

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I carried her comment around with me for days. I still carry it. It seemed she thought that the teddy bear was the real thing, that my body was the substitute, and not the other way around. I never went back to her.

Stump attaches to objects in ways that Smoke never did, but they are never soft things. He attaches to plastic Nerf guns, to measuring tape, to wooden hammers, to a golf ball that he found in the middle of a field. He attaches to things he can throw or things he can use as a weapon. He takes these items to bed, and cries in the middle of the night if he wakes up and discovers they’ve left his grasp.

These items don’t replace me. Instead, they seem to provide yet another layer of security; they give Stump a sense of dominion. The message is: I can defend myself at any time.

saber

I’ve been wondering what it means that when it comes to object attachment I am more like Smoke than Stump. If you ask me what three items I’d save from a fire, I will draw a blank. If you ask me how attached I am to my current home or my childhood home—the two places where I’ve spent over a decade of my life—I’d say “not very.”

I say this about myself, and yet—and yet—I have a hard time letting go. Sometimes I still think about a tank top that I left behind at a hotel in France fourteen years ago. It had no sentimental value, but it was flattering. There’s an envelope with twenty-five dollars in cash that I misplaced somewhere in my house long before I had children. I still keep an eye out for it.

This house that I live in, the one I claim I’m not attached to, seems to also be a house I cannot leave. I spend energy daily resenting this house for its shortcomings. The bedrooms are tiny. There’s no storage, no privacy. Our kitchen table seats three people, and we are a family of four.

table

But so far I haven’t found a house that I will leave it for, not easily at least. For years, Kellie and I have looked at homes, toured places with guest rooms and built-in drawers. But the yard is always too small, or the neighborhood’s not quite right, or the living room floor is Pergo, or there’s no good place for the dogs. I start to wonder how anyone buys a home ever, how anyone with kids manages to upend their life, pack all their stuff, and move to the other side of town.

I often blame Kellie, who is openly attached to every single thing she owns, for our lack of action. But if I were being honest I’d tell you that something in these walls must have a hold on me.

Everyday Superpowers (and Superlimitations)

Do you know that feeling of being overtaken by a wave? One moment you’re happily body surfing, watching with curiosity as a wave takes shape and approaches, and the next moment—wham!—you’re underwater, being dragged across the sand by the current. You’re not in any real danger—the water is about two feet deep—but you are sore, and also: embarrassed. You stand up and look around to see if anybody saw that. You wade a little deeper and try to see if it’s possible to discreetly tug at your bathing suit and rinse some of the sand from your craw.

Dear Reader, that’s exactly what the second half of April has felt like. Here’s my best attempt to break it down.

  1. I caught a cold and tried to ignore it. We had a lot going on (see #2) and so I told myself this illness would take care of itself. I continued to eat cheese, drink wine, to miss hours of sleep, to live as if I were feeling fine. And when, after a full week of this, the cold turned into asthma and irrepressible coughing, I just bumped up the dose on my inhalers, and waited for the meds to kick in. But that didn’t work either. Gradually, over the course of the second week, my asthma got worse, not better. I woke every morning coughing and gasping for air. The inhalers took the edge off, but they didn’t pull me out of illness. It turned out I needed a doctor, and Prednisone, and rest.
  1. Kellie and I found a spacious mid-century house priced at the very upper edge of our price range. We’ve been on the fence about buying a house for years. We both want more space—we want things like a big room where the kids can mess everything up and be crazy loud and we can close the door—but the thought of a bigger mortgage makes us both tremble in our boots a little bit. We kept making decisions and then doubting those decisions; we took turns staying up all night; I spent an hour on the phone with a mortgage broker, and hours at the kitchen table with a pen and scrap paper and a calculator. Kellie and I kept calling each other at random moments during the workday to re-discuss the finer points until finally we decided to GO FOR IT!—and then, once again, we second-guessed ourselves. After hours of further discussion, we made an offer, and were amazed at how peaceful we finally felt. We went to sleep imagining our family spreading out in a house with two floors.

 And then the next day we learned that we’d been outbid.

  1. I had an essay go live that I was excited to share with the world—and within an hour of its release, I just wanted to hide beneath my covers. The essay was about the exhaustive decision-making process I went through with Kellie when deciding to have our first child. (See similar decision-making process as represented in #2 above. This is how we roll.) For a couple to negotiate different views on having kids struck me as a normal phenomenon, and it just plain never occurred to me that someone would read about that experience and judge me.

But twenty minutes after my essay went live, a commenter accused me of being emotionally abusive to Kellie, of coercing her into having a child. A whole thread of comments followed debating my character—was I totally reprehensible, or just a little bit manipulative? This was the real sneaker wave of April. I hadn’t predicted this reaction, nor could I have anticipated how totally raw and exposed a bunch of online commenters would make me feel.

To make things worse, the website where the essay appeared was set up to email me a notification every time someone commented. Throughout the day, I’d check my email and my heart would race each time I saw a comment notification. I held my breath and clicked on it, wondering what awful conclusions the most recent readers had drawn about me. It felt kind of like this:

Film: Repulsion, 1965

Film: Repulsion, 1965

  1. Two days after the comments fiasco unfolded, my car started rattling. It began a half a block away from my house as I was preparing to drop off my kids and continue on to work. Though the rattling was undeniable, I tried for a moment to pretend it wasn’t happening. I asked myself if maybe I could possibly just keep driving to work?

The answer was no. Within the next half block, the rattling got progressively worse, and I parked on the side of the road to investigate. Was my car about to explode? Or maybe it was something simple—was my muffler dragging on the ground? No, but my front right tire was completely flat.

Kellie had forgotten her cell phone that day, so I was on my own. I left the car where I parked it and walked the kids a mile to the bus terminal downtown. This involved alternately corralling Stump and carrying him against his will.

Later that evening, Kellie replaced the flat tire and as she lowered the body of the car back down over the brand new wheel, it slowly became clear to us that the spare was flat too. I filled it with my bike pump and drove it directly to Les Schwab—which had closed. I left it to sit and deflate overnight.

  1. When I came home the next day from picking up my car with brand new front tires, this had happened:

gutter

Actually, this one just turned out to be a cosmic joke. When Kellie came home, she fixed it in twenty minutes.

 While all of this has been going on, Stump has been cultivating a superhero alter-ego. He’s reached that stage in life where he wants to be—needs to be—a superhero all of the time. He wants to wear armbands day and night, and won’t take them off for the bath. He wants to wear a cape over his t-shirt. To Stump, this isn’t about wearing a costume; he’s claiming his personal style.

superheroIn the midst of a sleepless night last week (see #2 & #3) I realized that this was exactly the way that I needed to see myself, that even though I’d hit a point where I felt tired and wounded and embarrassed and tired again, I needed to put on my armbands, put a cape on over my work clothes, cultivate my everyday superpowers, and surrender to my superlimitations. It was two in the morning at that point, and as I lay there I took stock:

Superpower: My body can heal itself.

Superlimitation: I actually have to slow down and help it.

Superpower: I am capable of radical oversharing. Lately, the more I write, the more it seems like this craft is about discovering the most revealing, vulnerable thing that I am capable of saying and then saying it.

Superlimitation: I am completely unable to control or even predict how that writing will be received.

Superpower-limitation: I’m the only one who can save me. On the morning of my flat tire, I called Kellie’s work office to tell her about the problem. “I can’t get a hold of her until the afternoon,” he co-worker explained. “That’s fine,” I told him. “I made it to work already.” “Oh, so you don’t need rescuing?” he clarified. When I got off the phone, I realized how badly I’d wanted rescuing all week. I wanted someone to make my asthma go away, to get rid of those critical commenters, to wave a magic wand and give me a new house that suited all our family needs without a mortgage. But at the end of the day, it’s just me in my sweaty human clothes lifting my fists to the sky like Superman, trying to up-up-and-away myself.

Leaving Colorado Part 5: Homecoming

Leaving Walla Walla  Photo from wikimedia.org

Leaving Walla Walla
Photo from wikimedia.org

The last leg of our journey should have been easy. After two long days of solo driving, the trip from Walla Walla to Olympia—five hours on a good day—was a route I’d traveled at least a dozen times before. The distance was finite, reasonable—there would be no pushing on another hundred miles while the baby screamed. I wasn’t searching for the next hotel, I was aiming straight for home. It was waiting for us. It would be there.

And so we spent a lazy morning with our Walla Walla friends: eating breakfast, lingering over coffee, playing on the playground. I told myself that the late start would serve us all, that my children would be compliant passengers after their car-free morning. Maybe—I dared to think it—we would make it all the way there without stopping.

I loaded the kids in their seats and the dogs in their spots for our final departure at one, just as the sun was reaching its highest point in the sky. It was September, and the morning had been cool enough, and so I hadn’t thought about my broken air conditioning, or how it feels to drive through shade-less Walla Walla. And before we’d even past the city limits, just as the baby had fallen asleep, I noted orange cones down the middle of the road, and an endless backup of cars. Our black Honda, crawling along on the asphalt, became an oven. Thirty minutes later, when the traffic finally cleared, we had traveled less than five miles.

The four-year-old whined that he was “sweaty”.

The baby, who should have slept a full three hours, woke up and added his voice to the chorus of cranky.

The dogs panted, and shifted, and acted generally good-natured because that is what dogs are good for.

I drove for an hour and then stopped for Slurpees. Sugar cheered both of my children. I assumed that the worst was behind us.

Loose-Gravel-Trs-067

We were about halfway there when I started winding up the mountain road, and passed a sign that said Caution: Loose Gravel. I’d seen these signs before on bigger highways and wondered why they even bothered with the warning. The roads were always fine, it seemed to me, just an extra chip of gravel here and there. My bigger problem was the sun, which was no longer hot, but was blindingly bright when it cut through the shade of the mountain. I wore sunglasses and pulled down the visor, but the brightness still shocked me at every turn.

And then I hit the gravel. The brightness filled with thin white dust and now I really could not see. I slowed the car to twenty miles an hour. I could see about five feet in front of me, but not beyond. It was like driving in a blizzard. A sunny September blizzard. My four-year-old complained that he was bored, and that he wanted a snack. “I can’t see right now!” I told him, my voice tight with fear. “No, I said I want a snack!” he protested. I kept telling myself to just keep driving, to stay slow, to keep looking those five feet ahead. I kept telling myself we were safe even though it seemed we were in danger. The baby cried weakly and then quit, like he didn’t want to commit.

The dust blizzard continued for longer than I ever would have imagined. Occasionally, I’d drive through some shade and see just a little bit better and think: this isn’t so bad, and then the sun would blast out my vision once more. I kept thinking: how much of this road did they pave, as I rounded another mountain turn. Two miles? Five miles? Twenty? In the end, it felt like twenty though it can’t have been much more than five.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

It was nearly ten at night when we finally arrived in Olympia. Both of my kids were awake. After the dust blizzard and a stop for dinner, the baby had cried for nearly an hour, slept for twenty minutes, and then woke up to resume his screaming. Now, as the car pulled to a stop, he took a staggered breath and quieted.

As I parked the car, my phone rang. It was an old friend. “You home yet?” she asked. “You need anything?”

“I could use a beer,” I told her.

Within ten minutes she delivered. She brought another friend and together they passed around the baby and chatted up the four-year-old as I wandered from room to room with my open beer. In a daze, I laid out suitcases, fed dogs, put sheets on the bed, engaged in the chores of home. Because that’s where I was.

There was something empty about it. The place seemed to echo. We’d abandoned it all summer after all. But still, it was comforting.

Home is the place with the scratches in the floors, the smell you recognize, where even an unmade bed, an empty refrigerator bring ease. Home is the place where your friends come to deliver you a beer just because you need one.