News says a nor’easter bears down on the East Coast, with talk of early surprise snow, records broken, batten-down-the-hatches. Yesterday morning here breaks more clean than messy, with rose sun peeking through well-defined clouds, and maple leaves big as your head shining with golden light. There are no storms here but those of our own making, and I don’t plan on those. Today is a hike and fun.
As weeks go it’s been a good one, though I don’t feel well physically and am realizing I haven’t since September’s weird sickness. The overwhelming fatigue and mental fuzziness has abated, and having lived with this I know hiding inside in fear of it helps nothing. Not having made the break to my new place-meaning, living in it–is becoming embarrassing, or at least to certain friends (especially women) who can’t stop laughing. But that can happen after the hike. Today’s brief sun window is meant to be spent outside.
We are accompanied by my friend’s newly rescued greyhound. Like all greyhounds, the dog stands like an overanxious extraterrestrial, staring at things with a look of worry and when moving bumping into things. The dog has mastered stairs in a couple weeks and is being introduced to nature. He doesn’t know how to jump in the car and his owner makes him wear a baby blue doggie sweatshirt. Nothing like a martian dog for interest.
Monte Cristo is an abandoned town the county and Forest Service have washed their hands of. It’s north of Seattle the the east of Granite Falls and Darrington, lost inside the Mount Baker National Forest along the Mountain Loop Highway. It’s a common Western setup: a notable feature of untrammeled nature reclaimed from an earlier century that mowed things flat, surrounded by quaint little towns keeping up through daytripper money what grand stone promenades were built by mines or logging. Signs point here and there but the design is more intended for you to stop for lunch and ask exactly where to go. The gorgeous young thing, all country innocence and worldly wonder, confirms it’s just a left at the sign seen earlier. “It’s crazy beautiful out there now,” she says.
Two years ago I went to Glacier National Park. Montana pushes it as the southernmost example of what Alaska is like: all grandeur and remoteness without the Pepperidge-Farm-type call to simpler, quieter times. It is grand, to be sure: high peaks, trails around a scarp that goes straight down, glaciers out of time you can see shrinking before your eyes. But another Seattle guy on the Going to the Sun Road bus was clear-eyed: at home, we are spoiled by a surfeit of grandeur. And he was right. Once you’ve seen Rainier and the Cascades, Montana is nice, but not that.
I don’t compare things to Montana but to the Northeast of my fuzzy youth. Ontario and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey have leaves like this, streams like this, and more modest mountains called “hills”. Tromping through them with my grandfather as he sought out turkeys with a bow and arrow, or jumping through the leaf-covered ground in my grandmother’s woods, these places had magic and deep time. Reading The Deerslayer in high school I could sense it, down in Texas’s blazing humid forgetting–feel that same deep time that humans skirt like mayflies.
It has been a good day, fun as fun is modest for adults. The dog doesn’t mind tromping along the gravel paths or walking through the cold water running down an old railroad grade. Monte Cristo is out beyond a large, roiling stream so we defer the ghost town, but take in the views of rocks and leaves. The peaks are already generously dusted with snow.
All of it is fine and beautiful, but something comes out as the light fades. It sounds like running water underneath the leaves, their damp skeletons lifting with the light’s weight gone. It is something from a long time ago and right now, or something that is always there.
Thanksgiving 1989 has me on the train from Boston to Philadelphia. I am meeting my grandmother and staying with her for the holiday. Emerson College, the very expensive arts school I immediately had second thoughts about, cemented my decision to abandon it with its policy of closing the dorms at noon Wednesday and forcing me to fend for myself. A surprise snowstorm has all of New England beside itself, and the train is packed with young people no longer excited who just want to go home. We get in at 3am, almost eight hours late. My little chicken-spry grandmother has waited patiently all this time, hugs me, walks with her determined, head-down charge to the car. I remember her telling me I laugh like my dad.
My grandmother works and Thanksgiving is one of the restaurant’s biggest days. We have a very early breakfast together, the wee hours having turned to farmer’s morning, and she leaves for work not to return until late. When I wake up midmorning the house is deserted, the furnace clunking and bubbling on. Like all holidays I have set it aside for papers I must write. I turn on the massive plastic television and watch a few minutes of the parade still going on despite the weather, now just a bus ride away. Then I spread my papers and books and Tandy 200 laptop across the kitchen table and get to work.
My grandmother’s dining room lamp is like a chandelier from a saloon, casting a deep yellow light. Outside the sky is heavy and navy blue, trees black against it and the snow. The paper comes together neither slowly nor quickly, I remember, and my grandmother’s little dog sits and watches patiently. I remember breaking off midday and taking the dog for a walk.
The snow is total. The little dog runs off into the woods and bounds back into the road, and all I hear is his breath. No cars come, no planes fly, and at midafternoon the world is blue half-light. Trees loom up like remnants of an ancient fire. What I remember now writing this is that utter, dense quiet.
Twenty years on I remember that hollow time, like a ghost living in a ghost’s dream. I finished the paper and went for a long walk in that long dusk from three until five or so, shoes crunching on snow, the cities glowing to the south and east. Nothing moved but the little dog and me, and the dog was happy.
Now I feel the same: a thin ice feeling, walls closing in feeling, everyone a hologram and only you are real and alone. There is no reason for it. I don’t know why it comes.
It’s not Monkey, not the chattering insistence of things to do and thoughts to keep the mind forward. It’s a wordless, deeper thing. You are lost and always have been. All the halls are always empty. You will always be walked by and wrapped in your quiet. Dusk falls and I talk about it, this sense of doom from nowhere I thought I had made progress against. It was bright earlier–should I have gotten a lightbox to boost my mood, like I’d been hinted at for years? Would I have wanted a divorce if I’d had one? No, no. You were having problems in Texas from the start. Plenty of light there.
Talking helps and doesn’t help. Looking at it squarely and questioning it, being with it, helps. The car’s smooth motion, finding the freeway and falling into the city–these help. The dog starts yowling and howling like someone is beating him with a shovel. It’s normal for greyhounds, I am told. He eats out of the cat box too.
Somehow it is better. I recognize I don’t feel like it’s Saturday night–no sense of freedom or lightness or fun–and seeing that I can see that fear that is not of anything but just is. My breaks away from it have been longer and longer, and I can breathe and feel light and remember what it’s like to feel that way–feel that way now. It is more new than old. When you are here, that’s all there is. Right now, that is what I most need, and what pulls away from the ledge. The fear is a false gravity but it’s still too easy to fall in.
Arriving, I get in my own car. I am there now, not when it was beside some other white-painted garage, when I had left some other friend’s house, said goodbye to some other dog. I have a book for another friend and call him, and deliver it to him. It’s fun to see his house with the furniture moved since I was there last and the little sensor box he has made. It’s Saturday. It is right now.
It’s all right, Gram and your little dog. I know you are there, but I need to think of you later. I am not quite strong enough yet.