After waiting a full five minutes for the lodge’s hot water to kick on in the shower, I wash my hair twice with 2-in-1 Shampoo and Conditioner. Autumn sits on the shower floor, folding and unfolding a damp washcloth. We are on a girl’s trip to track down Dad, who lives off-grid in Northern California.
Sometimes I don’t know if my writing frees or pains me, if it liberates me or holds me captive. We tried watching TV but turned it down to hear the creek outside–Patrick Creek–a tributary to the Smith. Now I bounce Autumn on my foot, trying to soothe her toddler boredom, and somehow keep my pen to paper, too. I’d say she can’t sit still, but the same would have to be true for me as well. (Proof: I couldn’t stay put on the farm this weekend. I simply woke with the urge to ramble home.)
I told myself it was justified to see Dad. Steve gave me his blessing, and then tried to suggest routes and game-plans. But I already had it mapped out in my mind; we’d get a hotel room closest to home. Hiouchi Motel or Patrick Creek Lodge.
The rooms at Patrick Creek Lodge have mission-style furniture and vaulted redwood ceilings. In the past I would have camped in the van or a tent or on my best friend’s couch in Crescent City. But the pandemic has changed everything. You know that.
Driving south on the I-5, the words “Do whatever you have to do to feel alive” came to mind. So maybe that’s what this is really about, more than seeing Dad.
I’d forgotten how when we travel, it upsets Autumn’s natural rhythm. She gets antsy and angsty and now she sits across from me indian-style on the white 70s-style bedspread. “Let’s talk,” she says so we talk about what’s outside the window: bushes, trees, lights, leaves. There are no other cars in the parking lot and I am uncertain if there is an overnight watch person or not. The friendly fellow who checked us in said he was “locking up and heading home for the night.”
A couple and a lady stumbled out of the bar around 7:30 p.m., piled into a full-sized pickup and drove south toward Gasquet (gas-gee). Other than that, crickets (metaphorically of course, because it’s winter in these woods). The temperature registered at 34 degrees but it was sunny and t-shirt weather all day. Of course we only got out at a rest stop somewhere near Riddle, Oregon.
Pacific madrone and redwoods, that’s what I came for. Other than to connect with Dad, the man who raised me. Pacific madrone with its smooth chopstick bark, the redwood groves already shooting up toward the sky, just seven or ten miles into California.
When the sun set we decided it would be best to surprise Dad first thing in the morning, rather than an hour or two after dusk. Dad, like me, is better in the morning. Freshest and sharpest and most optimistic. We both like to have our coffee, too.
As a girl, Dad took me to this very lodge once for breakfast. The waitress seated us by a window where we could watch Patrick Creek flow by. A small porcelain ramekin held strawberry and grape jelly packets. I chose grape jelly to smear on my sourdough toast, not because I liked grape best, but because there were just two choices: grape or strawberry. I knew that a better family, one that would come in next, would have a little girl or boy who would prefer strawberry, and that kids from better families always got what they wanted because of people like us. I knew that my going without kept everything in balance.
The grape jelly kind of tasted like the liquid cough syrup Dad sometimes had to force down my throat. He’d either pin me down on the cabin floor, knees holding down my kid-arms, or convince me that if I plugged my nose I couldn’t taste it, so then I’d just drink it myself. I hoped that kid enjoyed his strawberry jam, whoever he was. I was in heaven just with the butter alone and the creek flowing by.
Dad sometimes liked to elbow his way in to a class above our own–the ski lodge at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, riding elevators in the business district in San Francisco, the fine dining restaurant in The Wharf where we just ordered appetizers, then sheepishly paid and left. Dad has a penchant for experiences he can’t quite afford, and if I am being honest, so do I. But at least it’s a penchant for experiences, not a penchant for things.
“What are we going to do tomorrow, mama?”
“Well, we are going to get up…”
“Use the restroom?”
“Yes, use the restroom.”
“And then what?”
“And then we are going to make mama some coffee and Autumn some breakfast.”
“Yep. And then we’re going to take a walk down to the creek. Patrick Creek.”
In my minds eye I can see the dirt path leading from the lodge, then along Patrick Creek, and under a bridge to where the creek forms a confluence with the middle fork of the Smith River. In a past life, before Autumn, I would make a pit stop here to pee, take a toke, and hop on boulders. The middle fork of the river meanders southeast through mossy canyon walls until it intersects with the south fork of the river. You head up the south fork, and that’s where I’m from. I was raised in a single-room cabin that burned down in a fire in the year 2010. Now Dad lives in a fifth-wheel his ex-girlfriend gave him.
“And then?” Autumn asks.
“And then, after our walk, we are going to see Grandpa Rob!”
“See Grandpa Rob?” Autumn repeats, in her high-pitched voice. It’s as if the higher pitched her voice, the more likely she will get an answer she’s satisfied with.
We haven’t seen Grandpa Rob since Father’s Day–five months ago–when we met up with him halfway between his home and ours and ate salmon bagel sandwiches on the bank of the Umpqua River. He didn’t eat much that day, and it worried me. But I am always worried about Dad: worried about him driving distracted, worried about him choosing nutritious over junk food, worried about the steel parts collecting on his property, worried about his future. But mainly, I’m worried that he’s sad, and that I had something to do with that sadness.
Autumn is snoring now. She is laying on her back, mouth slightly open, arms and legs splayed, sleeping off the day. Today was a big day. She said the word “California” and dealt with her mother’s impulsive need to “connect with her roots,” enduring what turned into a 4-hour drive. She kept asking for “Nana” and “Grandpa Norm,” her father’s folks who she is more acquainted with than Grandpa Rob. Dodging fallen granite from rock slides in the road, and manuevering corners I haven’t seen since Aunt Dort’s memorial in March of 2018, I tried to explain, “No, honey, this is mama’s family. Mama has family too.”
“No, I wan’ see Nana.”
I don’t know what to expect in the morning. That’s the thing about mama’s family. It’s the reason we pulled back at dusk, instead of gunning it forward. In the past, I slept on riverbanks or friends couches, desperate to connect with my dad but not willing to endure his lifestyle off-the-grid, which due to his disability and a variety of factors, has degraded some through the years.
But my soft place to land has always been these hills, fog hanging in the treetops like ghosts, white fingers wrapped around the branches of the evergreens. This place hasn’t moved an inch since I left home. Oh, but it has. I’ll be lucky if I can still recognize myself in the mirrored reflection on the water.
I close my journal, place my writing pen beside it on the nightstand, and open up a new Sun Magazine. Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “The Only Real Story” jumps off the page:
“A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wiser or safer than its habitat. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place.”
I didn’t know what to expect in the morning. I didn’t know that we would arrive just in time for coffee, and that Dad would pour me two steaming cups, before hitting the trails just outside the doorframe.
I didn’t know that Dad would be fine, not sad at all.
I didn’t know that we would hike the land of my youth until noon, with Autumn on his shoulders.
I didn’t know that we would crouch by the rivers and streams and say blessings.
I didn’t know that I would harvest bay laurel and Dad would locate a field of matsutake mushrooms.
I don’t know that when no one was looking I would press my forehead into the earth, addicted to the feeling of the damp soil crushing into my third eye.
I don’t know that Dad would go on and on about God, as he always does, and I would just gesture at the nature all around us as if to say, “Yeah, but…this.”
I didn’t know that it would all be intact: the land and the dad, just as I’d left them.
Nature will carry on
outside our picture window
despite her obvious difficulties
Acting out, she is, off in the distance
in California, always, and Houston, again
The birdsong this morning
sounded just like seagulls
and I wondered, if while in slumber,
some ocean made our pasture
Nearly 150 countries worldwide participated in demonstrations during the first day of the annual Global Climate Strike week (Sept. 20-27th). The following are photos of the youth-led demonstration at Eugene Oregon’s Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza outside the Lane County courthouse on Friday, September, 20th.
Thank you for viewing my short photo essay. It would be an understatement to say I have respect for the organizers of these demonstrations worldwide. I echo their sentiments. I feel/fear for our future, too. I feel for our today. If you know better, do better. If you don’t know better, snuggle down in your bed and read National Geographic regularly. Tune into NPR during breakfast. Google the climate crisis. Talk to an educated person: a scientist, a concerned youth, a farmer about the weather. Kids are pointing out the facts and we as leaders (in the home, in our communities) need to be considerate, consistent, and demonstrate our own common sense in concrete ways to help them. We can set clear examples of how to be gentle on this earth. We can grow out of our habits, on micro (personal) and macro (governmental) levels.
For sustained local involvement in Climate Strikes in Lane County, Oregon, hook up with:
You’ll never be alone in your mind again. I forget who said that about becoming a mother. It wasn’t me, but I totally get it.
It is the afternoon at our home in Walton. We drove to town this morning–Autumn and I–for a work function during which, when it became my turn to talk, someone gracefully had to take the baby. They bounced her around the office while I gave my piece.
Afterward, I was scheduled to meet with my boss but my five month old wouldn’t have a minute more of it. We got back on the road, a forty five minute drive home. Autumn fell asleep immediately and I pulled into a Dutch Bros for an iced coffee that I consumed in a matter of mere minutes. $3.50 plus a tip down-the-hatch. I hadn’t had time for my morning coffee in our rush to get out the door. Absent of my ritual, a pounding headache loomed.
On the drive, I listened to NPR’s coverage of the climate crisis. I took a slidelong glance at my plastic Dutch Bros cup and straw. I could tell you I usually order hot coffee, which at least comes in a paper cup. I could tell you that yesterday I’d dutifully carried my reusable blue coffee mug from REI, but it wouldn’t soften the blow. I literally drove past droves of teenagers skipping class to raise awareness of the climate crisis, protesting outside the City Courthouse. I honked, in a pathetic attempt to join them. I honked four friendly honks and waved. But I was, clearly, part of the problem. I may have reused my coffee mug yesterday, but today was a brand new day.
Back at home it was 70 and sunny. Autumn had not roused from her nap, so I opened the door of the minivan I swore I’d never own and paced around our property racking my brain for what I should do with my newfound freedom. At least once, I checked on her to make sure she was breathing (it’s a mom thing). It’d been an unusually long nap. I checked the mail. Refilled my coffee. Eyed the mint and the other outside herbs. I wondered if, possibly, there were time to write a story.
Timidly, not sure to get my hopes up, I shook a large, fuzzy blanket out on the back pasture, under the trees. Autumn, still in the van with the door open, sleeping, was within eye and ear shot. It was the first warm day of Spring. I remembered how her father and I met on the first warm day of Spring several years ago. We’d walked his dog, Honey, who has since passed. She’d died in my arms, actually.
I grabbed a large yellow notepad I use for reporting in our small town. I grabbed my iced coffee and a pen. I grabbed a large mason jar of water and a pillow for when Autumn woke and needed to nurse. Writing is hard with a newborn because you can only get down so many words so ideally those words would be good.
I can do hard things but not easily, I wrote. A sort of mantra lately. I wasn’t sure if it was holding me back or what.
I kicked my Chacos into the grass.
70 and sunny. Never alone in my mind again, I wrote.
I managed to fill a couple of pages with words under the shade of a Rhododendron bush, in the shadow of our hollow. I wrote some short little clip of my life at this time. Of our life. A regular work day. Then back to the hollow. I didn’t find the time to remove the cheesy brand placement that never should’ve been there. The Dutch Bros. The REI. The Chacos.
I didn’t find the time to say I’m more of a Hillbilly Brews, St. Vincent De Paul, Birkenstock-type of gal.
But maybe I’ve changed.
Autumn wakes and cries. Selfishly, I dart my eyes toward the van but keep on writing. I’ve just gotten to the part about the protesters skipping school. I don’t know what I’m trying to say but I think I’m capturing some glimpse of time. Another Spring. Another season. Another mom scrambling to keep her brain together while teenagers point to the real, true issues in the world like the climate crisis. The admiration I have for them. The shock of not standing there with them. The vows I make to reduce, recycle and reuse. How, in reality, I put Autumn in disposable diapers at night because they hold like a gallon of pee and don’t wake her.
When Autumn does wake, I will lay by her side in the sun on our fuzzy blanket and feed her for up to thirty minutes. Hogs do not mind this, humans sometimes do. I am required to do this five to six times per day. A wise aunt recently told me, “Remember, our children do not ask to come into this world.”
It is not easy being a mother. It is not easy being a child. But it is 70 and sunny and somehow we are perfectly undone and barreling toward some unknown, likely very disorderly reality. Not an easy pill to swallow for a perfectionist-ish like me.
The minute I pick Autumn up, her crying stops, like a faucet. I may not be everything, but I am everything to her. Like the Earth is for those teenagers. We cannot see what they see–perhaps too close to the elephant we have been our whole lives. But those kids, well I guess they see their mother barreling into space and away from them, toward her death. Resources squandered. No soft, natural place to land on. The very real possibility of her milk drying up. They see their mother leaving, being held hostage, in great danger.
As a mother, the burdensomeness of the responsibility is only a matter of perspective. I take off my shirt. I let the sunshine warm my shoulders. I really struggle to reach down within my core and retrieve what I truly am as a woman now: a mother. Not some worker. But being a mother is harder than being a worker. Mothers don’t get breaks. I wonder how very tired the Earth must be. What relief it will be to her when she implodes. But she is probably one of those mothers who’s made for it. Not like me.
On our drive through the “country” to town, I got stopped for construction three times. It was bumper to bumper the whole way. I stared out the window at the trees, the forests, the wild. We don’t even know how to live out there anymore, I thought. At the bell of my alarm clock this morning, all I wanted to do was lie around and nurse my daughter. Instead, I slapped some powder on my face, I put on a skirt and I hustled. I ignored that animal instinct. I’ve been successfully rewired. It goes against my new role as mother. Is the Earth starting to think differently, too?
I floored it to the office, to the child neglect organization I work for. But it was worth it. Because our topics drive a good cause. The world is crumbling, but that is beside the point. For us anyway. We all have our causes, and our limits, sadly.
How many exhausted mothers, fathers and children did I pass on route to the office? How many of them would rather have been somewhere else? In their own metaphorical hollow somewhere?
How many other parents have no weekend, and work late into the night? How many other folks in the country have gotten so incredibly entwined, despite their best efforts, in the go-go-go, American daily grind? How many others actually sit in the forests that they pay to own?
70 and sunny.
Never alone in your mind again.
Here. Now. Home.
Autumn lays in the sun with me. She nurses and when she is done she fusses not once. She taps my leg with her foot as I write. Lightly. She is mesmerized by the hum of nature (and, if I am being honest, the highway in the distance). She notices the breeze and the butterflies and the grass. Am I a bad mother because she is more familiar with the indoors than the out? Or might I be let off the hook because it is the first day that really feels like springtime in Oregon?
Autumn’s feet tapping moves to my right elbow, jarring my pen and lettering as I write. We do this for minutes, me writing, her jarring. I am obsessed but finally I get the hint. We lie on our backs, mother and daughter, on a large fuzzy blanket and stare at the towering branches of a walnut tree. There aren’t even buds yet, but behind the branches is an azure blue sky. There will be buds, I tell Autumn. There will even be leaves, you’ll see.
While being realistic,
hold your dream up to the light
take a few moments to inspect the thing, its foundation
see what you have built and
where you’ll need to go yet
identify the soft spots
the weak spots
an’ fix em
grab your pen and paper
plan the steps you’ll need to take
examine your toolbox, keep it handy,
keep it close
don’t be open, but be rigid
for some it is the opposite—
for you it is not.
a natural born rebel,
reign yourself in
come to like it
come to love it
come to need it
you are a parent now
it is different, but better
be rigid in your intentions
this is how you will accomplish them
do not let others distract you
even those you lie next to
they have their path and you have yours
respect your differences
honor your path
be a woman just because it’s fun remember what you care about
like your new child,
grow with everyday
grow better posture
experiment with clothing and hairstyles again
do you and don’t let anyone
take it from you
with their grave,
again, be a woman
just because it’s fun remember what you care about
make a mantra if you must you is smart
you is kind
you is important
take the quotes on your
Yogi tea bag to heart
you always did
you always have
why stop now?
make art of work
make art of love
make art of parenting
do not forget the lessons of your ancestors
which were: be bold, be bizarre, and begin again
begin anew everyday if you must
queen of the comeback, kid
hold your dream up to the light
that longtime dream:
I want to be a writer when I grow up
or a dancer
hold space for that little dreamer
notice the steps she took to get here
notice how culture has made room for
man’s accomplishments and goals,
less for woman’s
notice when space is not made for your
dreams, but don’t waste time complaining
clear the space yourself,
“this is my space”
say “these are my dreams, mother, wife or not”
say “yes, my dreams. They take up space and they take up time. Yes.”
say “now or never. Here to stay or gone forever.”
hold your dream up to the light
see how it radiates and shines
The sky wasn’t pouring, but it was crying. I decided they were happy tears. Happy tears for our happy trails. The sky wasn’t black yet either. No black clouds were present, but it was loud. The storm will pass, I thought to myself as we marched, our eyes squinting at the rain drops, marching beside serpentine outcroppings lined with manzanita shrubs and pine trees.
My dad was telling me about the painter from Eureka who he had found dead on this trail a couple of years back, a woman, he told me. Of course I remembered the event. It had been him, Brandon, and Miran who had found her. Brandon and Miran had taken off when they’d found the body, practically running, to tell law enforcement. But my Dad kept on hiking. Later, Dad was briefly considered a suspect in the case but quickly dropped based on his reputation: harmless.
Now my dad hiked in front of me, in his efficient hiking-boots (one of the only luxuries he allowed himself) and his ancient exterior-framed backpack that he’d written Hare Krishna on with a thick black sharpie. As we hiked he told me the story again–deeper than he had the first time–which had initially been over a telephone conversation when I was in college in Arizona.
“Brandon found her first,” he said, “then we all saw her. The bugs had gotten to her. Her head was up here in the brush,” my dad pointed, “and her legs were over here, on the trail.”
We were standing looking down at the spot with our hiking boots turned toward where her body would have been.
“She wasn’t very old. But she wasn’t young either. I guess she hurt her leg and couldn’t make it back out. She might have starved to death,” he said.
We continued down the cream-colored trail, there were dark polka-dots where rain drops had hit. I’d traveled fifty miles today to go on this trip with my Dad to Doctor Rock.
We will reach Doctor Rock, rain or shine, I thought to myself and tried to shake the thought of a poor woman dying here all alone.
Eventually, the clouds lifted. We watched the sky turn blue upon blue. Jerry sang Jack-A-Roe in my mind as we watched the sky turn to blue. My dad was telling me about the rocks now, the same jade-colored serpetine rocks that I had to dodge while we drove up the “go-road” to reach the trailhead. My Chevy Cavalier had scraped the heads of those rocks one too many times. I wouldn’t be surprised if my oil-pan sprung a leak. Still, I wouldn’t change the day for anything. I shook it off, but it wasn’t easy.
We stopped at an overlook. We saw hill after hill after hill and valley after valley. We saw ridge after ridge, the fog hugging them loosely. The fog hung over the streams, providing a clue to a water source that would otherwise be overlooked. I felt like a Yurok Indian. Only because I knew it was a scene that more Yuroks viewed than any white man ever did. The white men liked town. We were white men, but we were different somehow. Dad made sure of that.
I was surprised to find the trail wasn’t as long as I’d expected. It only took us an hour and a half to hike in. Dad had been here plenty of times before, I never had but I’d expected it to be a long hike for some reason. Even though the hike wasn’t all that much of a challenge, I could see the appeal in coming here. Out here, the solitude was so great that Rock Creek, where I was raised, seemed like a bustling social center. We hiked at a fast pace, stopping only to drink water. We watched the shrubs and pine trees as they turned from green to scorched black. Shortly after the woman’s body had been found and the authorities had removed it, a fire ran through. And as we kept hiking, we saw that every tree was scorched. We were walking over ground that crunched.
“It’ll all be back in no time,” my dad said.
I nodded, already there were bushes sprouting up. Hope.
In no time, I thought as I pictured the shrubs growing three feet tall in thirty-seconds flat, sprouting hearty trunks and growing and climbing right before my eyes. I laughed inside—trippy.
Soon, the scorched ground gave way to a few hundred feet of rocky slope.
“Yeah, this up here aint a good spot for the handicap or elderly to be walkin’ on,” my dad said.
I didn’t bother to mention that the elderly most likely wouldn’t be out here hiking at all. I kept it to myself but was slightly irritated inside. I was twenty three years old. A college graduate. I had lived in and been to more cities and places than my dad ever had. In short, I was foolishly overrating myself. I knew nothing. I stretched to keep my mind open.
Then, when I thought about it more I remembered my dad saying that the Native elders liked to come out to Doctor Rock to meditate and practice rituals. I humbled myself. I watched my feet hit the path.
About that time we heard some noise coming from above us, coming from on top of a strait, granite slope. It sounded like a person jumping to their feet. We looked at each other. We’d both heard it. We looked up at the slope but couldn’t quite see to the top. We waited a few moments, shrugged at one another, then kept on going. I could see greenery up ahead, and a large outcropping of rock. My dad pointed at Doctor Rock. Then he pointed at Chimney Rock. They were rocks like you would see on the ocean, right off of the shore. They were giants, rugged, looking like two heads protruding from the miles and miles of bushy, coniferous forest.
“Tell me more about Doctor Rock,” I asked him.
“It’s sacred. The Yurok’s don’t like no one comin’ here but the Natives. No white man. But I know that the creator doesn’t discriminate against no one based on the color of their skin. It’s what’s in your heart that the creator sees–it’s what’s in your soul. He don’t even differentiate between who’s white and who isn’t. That’s a human concept there, and it aint right. But I know where their comin’ from wanting to keep the white man out. Some white men don’t belong here. I’ve had loggers tell me stories about them getting a bad feeling up here. A feeling like they’ve never had before. They must not be in-tuned, in-touch with the area.”
“Who made this trail?” I asked, ignoring the thought to mention that the woman from Eureka was white.
“They?” I asked.
“They, the Natives.” My dad said.
Soon we were upon patch after patch of morel mushrooms. There was an entire ravine filled with them. We stopped, put down our packs and picked about forty mushrooms, storing them in a plastic Safeway bag.
“Let’s pick more tomorrow Dad,” I whined, “I want to pick a bunch but I want them to be the best that they can be, the most fresh. Let’s pick them on our way out.”
The thunder started roaring in the east.
“We’re not far from the cabin,” my dad replied. His expression said my decision was fine with him.
Soon there was a clearing and the cabin. We stepped inside and ate some snacks. I etched my name on the wall, next to roughly fifty others. Outside the rain poured down, down, down. T. Van Dusen ’09. We ate trail mix and cheddar popcorn, listened to the rain fall, and watched the tin roof of the cabin leak. The rain let up soon enough.
“You wanna go to the Golden Staircase or Doctor Rock?” My dad asked.
I didn’t really know what the Golden Staircase was. He’d never mentioned it until now. My dad continued to tell me.
“Goes all the way down to the mouth of the Klamath.”
“A staircase made of what?” I asked him.
“Gold!” He told me with a toothless grin he couldn’t withhold. I knew he was kidding. I also knew I wasn’t going to walk all the way to the Klamath Glen tonight. That would mean hitchhiking back to my car which was way far out of anyone’s way. Either that or hike against the mountains tomorrow, up hill. Besides, we came for Doctor Rock.
“Doctor Rock,” I said to him.
“Alright,” he said, and we were on our way.
It wasn’t much further and we were there. We hiked through massive fallen, burnt cedars. We hiked through a meadow with pink, white and wine-colored blooms. It started raining again. We were at the base of the rock, facing its beautiful, moss carpeted body. Rain was running off the top of the rock like a woman going at some serious crying. We started scaling the boulders on the bottom. I immediately lost my footing on a slippery rock and smacked my face strait into the boulder in front of me–solid rock to my cheekbone. It would leave a bruise. We reached a clearing; the rain was coming down harder.
“Dad, we really shouldn’t even stand up at this clearing.”
I was thinking of the lightning, even though we hadn’t seen a bolt all day. He knew what I meant.
“Yeah, I agree,” he said. “See that moss over there?” He pointed to a ledge covered with heavy moss.
I gave him a nod.
“That’s where we climb up.”
“I don’t know Dad, it’s too slippery, don’t you think?”
The ledge was steep and very high. I knew that traditionally that’s where the Native’s would go–to the very top of Doctor Rock–but it really was very high and I wondered if there would be shelter for camping.
“Don’t you think it’s too slippery Dad?” I continued.
“Ohyeah,” My dad said, concurring that there was danger.
We made our way out of the clearing. We were at the base of Doctor Rock in a cocoon of rock and shrub-like trees. There wasn’t much wiggle-space, and it had started to rain harder.
“You wanna stay here while I find us a better spot? We’re not going to the top right now, and you don’t want to get your bag wet.”
He went on and I crouched under a rock overhang. Calmly, I sat down between our two backpacks. To the left of me was a rock crevasse, and a huge crack. I could see a clearing next to it. I knew if I did a little crawling I might find a grotto, where the crevasse and the clearing meet. I traveled a little ways, cautiously.
“Terah!” My dad’s voice echoed from inside the crevasse, from where I would have found the grotto. “I’ve found a much better spot!”
The spot was an elongated grotto, four to eight feet wide and over two stories high. Rain trickled down the walls, streaks of it. The streaks were so peculiar looking that I took off my damp mitten, touched the wall and licked my finger just to make sure it was what I thought it was.
The grotto was stocked with a pile of firewood, dead oak. That was nice of whomever, I thought to myself, very nice of them. There was a fire-pit. I built a fire using damp papers from my notebook. It was already late-afternoon, early evening and given the rain, we weren’t going anywhere. Might as well warm up by the fire, I was thinking. The smoke billowed right out the open roof of the crevasse, like a chimney, not once getting into my eyes. I am thankful, I thought to myself. Meanwhile, my dad was moving the firewood pile closer to the fire.
“Dad,” I said, slightly annoyed, “I’m sleeping there, remember?”
“Well, you’re not gonna take up this whole spot are ya? You’re not that big,” he said, joking as usual.
“No, but I don’t want to sleep right next to it,” I said, sounding like a kid again. I did not love this side of me. This side of me that struggled to connect with my father. This side of me who carried around annoyance and resentment from childhood. The rigid side of my otherwise free-spirit.
But I also didn’t want to attract spiders by spooning with a log.
“We’ll just get up and gather more wood from the pile as we need it,” I finished.
My dad raised his eyebrows and said, “Hey, you don’t wanna be walkin’ all the way to the wood pile when it gets dark in here. Interesting things happen out here. Scary things. Whhooo-oooo!” He howled.
This is why I like my dad, I remembered, because he knows that I like to be scared. I am his one and only child, and I am thankful. I am his world. Always have been. Always will be. It’s not every kid who can say that.
It took me an hour or two to get dry. Cave fires don’t get very large, pushed up against the wall like they are. I was happy to find something to occupy my time, if an odd source of entertainment. It was something and nothing all at once–getting dry.
Furthermore, I thought about Dad and I, driving out to these mountains, just to walk around. Hoping we don’t see a mountain lion, or rather that a mountain lion doesn’t see us. Building fires and warming our food. Sleeping with only the sound of the water dripping from the trees. Getting closer to God. That’s what I viewed it as–closer to nature is closer to God. Whatever God is. If God was anything like nature, well I could dig it.
My energy had been all wound up. Tight like a braid. I was here to unravel, to grow, to accept, to get closer to my soul. Seems selfish, doesn’t it? In a grotto, a cave which truly belongs to the Yurok Indians and here I was thinking of me, me, me. I needed to talk to God. I wrote in my journal, and this is what I said:
Dear lord, trust me when I say the journey was the sacrifice, the rain. Now I pray for many things. I am one of them, yes, but so are you. By coming here I have developed a story. It has to do with your gods and your world. I will share it and it will spread like a fire. People will read it, and remembering you, will forget about the material world for a moment, they will join me in your cave. And I will remember you, the land as it was, and the people as they were, before all the chaos and the cities. The essence of what it really is to be human, animal, or something in-between. And I will be thankful. Come to me in my dreams, dear lord, Be With Me Like Light. I will see you for what you are, so long as your gods are pure and good. I am on your side, Doctor.
The sun set at eight but it might as well have been at seven because that’s when the cave got dark. My clothing was dry, my dad and I had exchanged words and dinner but I was heading quickly to bed, if early. I retracted into my sleeping bag. I always like to go to sleep early back in childhood when my dad and I camped “under the stars.” Sleeping outside was my favorite place to sleep. Soon, I was in a dream…
“Dad, dad, I think someone was just in here.” I said to my dad (in my dream). He was a few feet away in his sleeping bag and I was mummified in mine. “Dad!” I said again, he was still sleeping. It seemed so real.
“Well, go and find out who it is,” he said back to me, which is exactly what he would’ve said in real life.
It was daylight out. I slowly scrambled out of my sleeping bag and started walking out of the crevasse, toward the paper-white sky. When I reached the outside I was up on top of Doctor Rock. There was a shallow bar of sand amidst the blackened rock. There was a set of child’s footprints in the cream-colored sand and the imprint of a ball. The child had been bouncing a ball. But the child was gone, and the ball was gone.
Suddenly there was a hard tapping on my forehead, on my third-eye. Three or four times it knocked. Bang-bang-bang. I was trying to pull myself out of my sleep. I was trying to pull my head out of my sleeping bag to see who it was–to face the spirit. I expected to find a deer’s hooves, a wooden peg-leg, or a medicine stick—that’s what it felt like was tapping my forehead.
When I finally awoke, when I was actually awake and my head was out of the sleeping bag, the thumping stopped. Once my eyes adjusted all I could see was the wall of the grotto and a single black centipede a few inches from my face.
“Dad. Dad.” I said, just like I had in my dream.
“What.” He said back, not very warmly—more of a statement than a question.
“I…I need you to put some wood on the fire,” I said frantically. The fire was still smoldering, but barely. I was cold, but most of all I was kind of scared. The dream had been so vivid and intense. “Please, just put some wood on the fire and don’t go back to sleep until I go to sleep, okay?” I asked him, clearly alarmed.
My dad knew that I had gotten scared over something, a dream likely, and he got up and did what I said.
“Not until I’m completely asleep again, okay?” I asked again. I could be such a child. But the ball, and the boy, and now this centipede was in front of my face who I knew had tapped my forehead and who I knew actually wasn’t a centipede at all but an Indian Medicine Man with his medicine stick who was waiting for me on top of Doctor Rock. And the only way I could see him would be to climb up there but I wasn’t about to do that. It was dark and cold and slippery and I’m not a grown woman at all, I’m still a child, I thought in my sleepy oblivion.
The Medicine Man knew I was a coward. He didn’t have to come down here to see me shiver in the presence of him. He could watch me from the translucent ball that sat on top of his medicine stick, the ball that—like a gypsy’s—told him the future or the way things were or the way things had been.
Only his were truer, and more ancient, more meaningful, deeper than the average gypsy’s crystal ball. He watched me through his crystal ball medicine stick and he didn’t see my ugly sleep encrusted eyes or the knots in my hair like an old-man’s beard. He didn’t see my frumpy clothes or my clumsy character. The Medicine Man saw my soul and that’s why he reached out to me as I lay in the cave. My soul was brave when I’d said that prayer earlier and he’s noticed a hint, just a hint of curiosity as I prayed, mentioning his God and his World. I asked for him and then he came, but then I got scared and ran away.
Awaken my third eye. That was the message I got. I can still feel the reverberating tap tap tap on my forehead as I write this. And the boy? I haven’t found out who he is yet, I don’t even know how I know he is a boy—but he is. I guess that’s what spirituality is. You know, but you can’t prove or explain it. For some of us, that is enough. That is something. It makes one thing ours and ours alone. Like our own unique journeys are. Explainable things are overrated sometimes. They hold no mystery or soul. Plus, there are one billion true things in this universe that cannot be seen—yet. My dad has always taught me to get out of my head and into my heart—only without ever saying that.
God Bless the woman who’d died here, I thought to myself as I lay down like a mummy in my sleeping bag, having just been visited by a Yurok spirit, clenching my eyes shut, holding myself tightly, and drifting back to sleep as my Dad generously stoked the fire.
I am not a grown woman at all, I thought, I am still just a child.
Foot note: Here is an alternate experience which I find deeply moving, written by the members of the Yurok Tribe near Klamath, California.
That’s what I told him in my latest attempt to avoid the possibility of heartache, like ever. It’s like, if I cut my own arm off it won’t hurt as bad. I will still be in control.
Everything is water and matter, water and matter. Work is matter, rest is water. He is matter, I am water. I am made of matter and water and my brains and my bones depend on its balance.
I run on land. I run away. But I am a water creature, a river rat, and a beach babe so I will make mistakes on land. My horoscope read water upon water upon water so watch out and before I even read part that I cried in the kitchen — more than usual, my tears hot in the soapy vat of dishwater. It was strange and not-common. I knew I was in the wrong because I couldn’t pinpoint, exactly, what was wrong. So I wished – slash – willed it away.
I went to the beach the following day. I thought of what I’d said, “all I know are new beginnings.” I’ll admit, I’ve known a lot of them…but I am water…and I am river…and I am a wave. Water is in a constant state of movement, whether it is flowing, seemingly stagnant, or percolating through the earth, through the matter. I am part of a whole as water. I need not run, because everywhere I go is with him. And everywhere I go is with you. Every new beginning is still part of the whole. Yin. Yang. Beginning. End. I come to understand this.
I didn’t grow up to be who I was supposed to be. I wasn’t supposed to have oily hair or a messy bun. But I’ve settled for it. I wasn’t supposed to have unemployment, compromised driving privileges, trust issues, or a dying cat – that’s some other woman.
I didn’t grow up to be tame-haired and golden. I didn’t grow up to be worshiped by a man, doted on, a traffic-stopper, a perfect-in-every-way kind of girl. I’ve never been that.
Not only have I been to therapy, but I’ve walked away from it (that’s worse, it means I haven’t been helped yet). But this story is full of half-truths. You know, maybe I did grow up to be who I was supposed to be (how could I not? I was in control the entire time) (even that’s a half-truth).
I was supposed to be a role-model, for one. All nice girls wish to be role models, that’s how you know you’re good. But I couldn’t even pull that off (half-truth). You know you’re fucking up when a child asks you, “Are you a kid too!?” Eye.
Things have gotten better since then. I feel in control (half-truth). I accept the messy bun. I let the teenage neighbor kids see my climbing-out-of-the-car-with-two-paper-bags-of-groceries-clumsiness. I wish sometimes the girl could look at me with that want-to-be-like-her-when-I-grow-up-awe. You know the awe. But I don’t think I am that woman. I’ve accidentally watered the flowers in a see-through gown, waving at the neighbors. I’ve fallen in a hole chasing after the dog. I am someone else, slightly off-set of that woman. The alternate. The sister story. The girl with the hair falling in her eyes, needing to be washed. The girl with the floor needing to be swept, scrubbed. The woman in the gray dented station-wagon. The woman with the budding, not blooming, flower garden. The woman with $4.50 in fines at the library. The woman who just signed up for the Adult Reading Program (because she hopes to win a tote-bag). The woman who used to work in retail and now works in manual labor. The woman with a college degree, who makes $11 an hour. The woman who would rather paint and write more than anything. The woman with a few pretty dresses that she never wears. The woman who has many friends over the age of fifty. The woman who is apprehensive of parties, but loves them once she gets there. The woman who thinks she knows herself so well (but has a lot to learn). The woman who writes personal stories on her porch in the sunshine. The woman who wishes for tan legs, but won’t pay for them, or sit still long enough for them. The woman who wishes for the luxury of travel, an open road, snacks, a band to follow, cold beer…a bunch of things that aren’t really her, but maybe…The woman who has a defrosted chicken for the crockpot. The woman whose man will be home soon. The woman with her dog barking and her cat purring. The woman with the messy bun, fresh face, bare feet, tall grass, summer sun. The woman, the actual woman, I was meant to become.