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Memories of Water/The Wolf Pack

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I didn’t want to go without everybody, because I knew how wonderful it would be, out there on the water, and I also knew I would be filled with the worst kind of guilty longing if we weren’t all there together. When you are a part of a pack, like ours I mean, you operate in a pack mentality—one for all, all for one. So if we went, we would go together. I tried to explain this to my Dad, and he knew what I meant (he, of course, being of the pack mentality himself, and for the longest), so when the first place could only rent out two kayaks he went and found another spot that could rent out four—two doubles and two singles. That’s six, for all of us.

We have to go now, he tells us (we are in the Montana’s Artist Cooperative, admiring pottery and antler bangles, as one does) and so, we set our things down and go in a flurry of single-minded intent. KAYAKING. The rental place is housed in a yurt. I am so excited to go—this is the thing I’ve been wanting to do, the whole trip—I drag my kayak out first on the carts they provide and immediately run over the sign. Which the renter pointed out so we didn’t hit it. No matter. We are going.

Lake McDonald is familiar to me, but only a little, and I find myself trying to remember it like one strains to remember a dream. It was fifteen years ago that we were here, more than half of my life, and still—the impression is still there in my memory, so that the many-colored stones glimmering beyond the surface of the water and the mountains looming in the distance are like a kind of homecoming. Shoving off, the cold water baptizing our feet as we wade in, I am overwhelmed by a sense of peace, laced with an undercurrent of rippling joy.

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I don’t know why but I love the water, sometimes—most of the time I want the trees, and a trail, and a mountain view or two to satiate the hungry part of my soul. And other times it’s the Adam's ale—a yearning for the rumble of a deep river, the babble of a brook, the gentle lapping of a lake. In the water is renewal, a cleansing spirit, the source of life that the tall, memory-laden trees of the forest can’t quite inspire. Mountains are time, water is the motion—all of the dips and curves and valleys of the dramatic landscape before us were carved by the water.

We paddle out onto the lake, wide and still before us, drawing ever nearer to the crown of peaks that circled us in the distance. It is overcast today, and just as well—we have the flat expanse to ourselves, and the mountains too, moody and shrouded in blue. We are a trail of ducklings, winging our way across the lake after my parents, sharing a double. Closer to the shore the water shimmers in ombre-dipped shades of green, the bottom glinting clear and visible through the depths until the water finally tickled the very bottom roots of the trees jutting out from the land. The light is patchy, out here where we are, on the bottom—a flash of submerged log or brown bottom appears sometimes, in a shallow spot, but mostly the depths are hidden, a secret unto the lake.

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Now we scatter—my Mom paddles to the shore, to see if there’s a moose, while my Dad stretches out and takes a nap. My sister is off a little ways, farther out—Sam and Garrett are spinning in wide circles, arguing in spurts about who should paddle. It is peaceful, a rhythm to it, our pack out here. I know my place, when we’re together, I am anchored and set free to sail by the quiet assurance of my family. A gift, we are to each other. The world, a gift to us.

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Among the Wildflowers

What I really want to remember are the wildflowers. There’s such a small window of time, breathlessly short, to catch them—the alpine spring a frenetic blanket of color in that inhale’s worth of space, between the harsh cold of winter and the searing heat of summer. But we caught it, or at the very least, the tail end of it, and more than any of the peaks, or the trails, or the lakes, or the mountain goats, that’s what I want to fix forever in my mind’s eye—the gentle bobbing of Indian Paintbrush as we breeze by, the sturdy puff of bear grass, a field of Glacier Lilies drinking in the sun. We couldn’t have planned it better if we had planned at all, which we didn’t, not really. Our rafting trip was thwarted by a river with no water, the spirit sucked out of it by an early summer and field irrigation, so we had to gently let our dreams of living by the rhythms of water (at least for a few days) die. We were reluctant, to say the least, to entertain anything but fishing until last light as our modus operandi for this family vacation—but time, I have come to realize, is not always kind, and so we must make the most of what we set aside.

The day we drove into Glacier was hot and clear, the big sky state proving itself to us over and over again as we made our way North towards the border. Outside of Browning we tumbled over each other in our eagerness to get out of the car, the first sight of the jagged line that etched the Continental Divide into the sky an invigorating, to the point of fervor, sight for each of us—and pack mentality is tough to beat, especially when it comes to expounding on the virtues of elevation, something we were all quite moved to do.

My Dad said to me, before we left, I am a little scared to have you in Montana, because I’m afraid you may never leave. All the way up on the drive he picks out hollows to build in, places of almost desperate solitude, and I understand. But for me it’s the mountains I want to nestle into, not so much the wide open space, it’s the high alpine that sings the siren song of my heart. The high alpine and her flowers, that’s the thing—our first day was a dizzying array of the creamy white stalks of bear grass against a bed of green grass, the yellow dots of glacier lilly carpeting a meadow at the foot of an enormous, glacier-wrought peak. How appropriate, is what the setting seems to say.

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My Mom is particularly fond of a small purple flower, for whom we don’t know the name of. Every time we stop in a store she flips through the flower books to try and find what to call it, an elusive little watercolor smudge amid the tangle of chroma that race across every spare few feet left open to the sky. Indian Paintbrush captures me, the spiky bottle bloom a harkening back to the old cabin, and the Elkhorns, and this too—it comes in my favorite color, red, but apparently also fuschia-pink and an orangey yellow that I’ve never seen before. Every time I see one I squeeze it into my memory, in a desperate attempt to, as always, remember. And for as much exclaiming over this one, or that, for all the flowers we take pictures of, I know too we each spot ones we say nothing about—those are the ones we keep close to our hearts, a treasure for our own, something small and quiet to look at when no one else is around. You know those things, don’t you? When you see a hawk spiraling in the sky and don’t point it out, his show a private one, or when a particular tree calls only your name? You know those things.

A grizzly bear lumbers across a low meadow, near the road, the huge, tawny shoulders humped and menacing even from the relative safety of the car—his lumbering gait belying none of the strength in each paw. What could he be doing down this far, we wonder, a little chilled at the sight of him, as much as we are thrilled. Eating the tubers of wildflowers, the ranger tells us later, they love the roots.

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Can I capture them, these sweet things I love so much and work so hard to cultivate in my own surroundings? I think probably not. They are something better experienced than described (as are most things, I think, but it’s still worth trying). Because flowers are exuberance, a pure kind of natural joy, a riot of life and color and scent for the sake of it, and for what? To keep on keeping on, to keep the species alive. I wrote, in my journal, at the end our first day, full of our own laughter and light, our lives lit up by flowers---everything is beautiful and it is so good to be alive.

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Hood Dreams

IMG_6435Lately I've been drawn to Mt. Hood, an irresistible urge toward the monolith that dominates our skyline. Maybe it's the weather, which has been more August-y than June--the mountain "is out" almost every day, a spearhead of white against bluebird skies, looking almost like a backdrop, so impressive it's surreal. Visibility keeps it at the forefront of the mind, drags out the desire to seek higher ground. Maybe it’s the season itself—heat makes us all a little cagey, summer is the season for wandering. Or maybe it’s just me, and the particular penchant I have for Wy’East.

I know there are many places ringed by mountains like Hood, but I've never met one so dominated by a peak like Portland is. Even Seattle, with Rainier, has the Olympics competing for attention. Unless Mt. St. Helens is also out, Hood is the one we all turn to face in awe, the almighty made real in stone and ice. I feel adrift when there is nothing in the landscape to anchor myself to, no landmark to count on. Though I'm terrible with directions, anyway, it is comforting to have the mountain always at your shoulder, as a testament to the idea that the world is much bigger than me, and I am so lucky to be one small part of it. In Louisiana, the city spread out to meet the horizon--you could fall into the sky it was so flat. I was plagued by a kind of uneasiness that is born of instinct, an internal animal part of my heart that couldn't settle down in a place with no elevation.

It’s no wonder to me that the Native Americans in the area, from the Puyallup to the Klickitat, had myths around the creation of Mt. Hood and the spirit within. One of the sons of the Great Spirit, Wy’East, was made into Hood after a particularly heated argument with his brother over a beautiful woman, Loowit—all three were smote, but mountains were raised in their honor (Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams). I say this because you can feel it, when you’re on one of them—that feeling that something is alive in the bulk beneath you, a great power suppressed.

We've found ourselves on the mountain's flanks a few times this past spring--once, so hot and clear of a day it was almost alarming, and once, so deep in snow we hardly believed we were still in Oregon anymore. The hot day came first, oddly--we packed up the car with all three dogs and headed up old forest roads until we were all tinged with carsickness and exhilarated by the suddenly thin quality of the air. The sun shone down greenish through the trees, so dense was the forest when we started, until we broke out onto a steep cliff, the trail a narrow ribbon winding through to meet the West face of Hood, looming so hugely we could almost touch it. We marched through, a line of dogs and people, until we reached Muddy Fork—the split in the river that roars out of the belly of the beast, Wy’East, himself. We spread out on rocks and listened to the clamor of the water over rocks, let the sun sink into our desperately pale skin and felt deep calm sink into our bones while we sat and basked in the glory of the white peak above us. On the trail home, I kept looking over my shoulder back at the West face growing smaller, the uncomfortable feeling of being watched tickling the back of my neck.IMG_6391

By the time we hit snow on our second trip up this year, we had already tripped our way through the old dollar lake fire burn zone—our teeth set on edge by so many ghostly trees, the forest rendered eerie without the familiar smell of pine, the shade of gently waving green and the absence of bird chatter. It was a relief to breathe in the sharp, wet feel of ice, when we broke out from the burn and surveyed the valley from our position, knee-deep in snow. But then, looking up with eyes on the verge of snow-blind, the top of the mountain, where we meant to go, was shrouded in a thick shawl of white, a rocky face jutting up into air barely visible through the cloud.

We found a patch of bare ground below a tree, ate, and left. We were the only ones up there for miles around, but I had the feeling someone wanted us to go.IMG_6579

I’ve been flying a lot lately, and it gives me shivers to see the string of them—Mt. Hood, Helens, Adams, Jefferson—lined up on the fault, their white-capped peaks like a string of pearls across the green of the valleys. If the light’s just right coming in you can see the shoulders of the others sitting ghostly beyond Hood, a haunting reminder of the power of the earth below our feet. My tension from travelling always eases, seeing it though, a stalwart bulwark that tells me I’m home.

Of all the mountains in the world, the millions of peaks that range out forever, I know which one is mine—in the same way that we all hold in our hearts the landscape of our roots. Surrounded by mountains in Montana a few weeks ago, my Dad says to us, a little wistful—it looks just like Baker Valley, but bigger. You can see it in the way my Mom gravitates towards paintings of Southern Oregon, you can tell in the way Darren lights up at the ranch, which looks so much like the mountains in Utah. None of us can escape the topography that shaped us, we carry it with us, seek it out.

For me, it is here—the sun on the river at dusk, the sound of rain on a wet street outside, the Mountain on a clear day. I love many places dearly, hold so many clutched to my chest, but there is only one place that tugs inexorably at my being—only one peak etched into the verdant green walls of my heart.

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First Walks

IMG_5979The first walk when we get to the ranch is always my favorite. Whenever we leave, the quiet settles back in around the cabin and across the hills, no dogs racing across the fields after squirrels, no tractor trundling up the road. We can be a startling presence here, no matter how strongly we believe we belong. But our noisy humanness makes for good wildlife viewing, a good chance to see what’s out there while we’re gone—once we pass through, all the animals go to wherever they go when they hide, and we have to work harder to see them. Ten or so turkey are on the road when we get there, fluttering their wing tips at how uncomfortably close the truck is, and we crawl over the gravel, trying to get a count before they disperse. They head into the timber, almost all jakes except for one—the hobbler! my Dad says, pointing him out as he lurches up the hillside. A birth defect, I think, he explains as we make our way to the garage. He walks on his knuckles, the claw is bent over—he curls his fingers into a gnarled fist, demonstrating—but he’s old, his waddle hangs low, he’s made it for a long time. A wizened old hobbler gobbler indeed. IMG_5700The cabin is as the cabin always is, which is to say there is a thin line of dead bugs outside the door and the distinct scent of pine logs and still, quiet air inside, an opened sleeve of saltines ready in the cupboard. There is something soothing about this sameness, a return to the inside pieces of my heart, when we’re here—standing on the porch, looking out at the road curving away into the little valley we call our own, well. You know what it means.

First—after we eat questionable hard-boiled eggs and feed the dogs—we take to the fields, which Farmer Lee has recently planted. Alfalfa from last year has grown in bunchy, low patches across the furrowed ground but what we’re looking for is evidence of the seed that was just sown—a native grass and plant mix that Lee says is going to take this year, as long as there’s rain. Crouching low over the field, we dig with tentative pointer fingers through the clodded dirt, hoping that a week is enough time for even just one those sweet grasses to unfurl from the seed and seek the sky. Here, Dad look, I say, and show him the two miniature green leaves—looking impossibly delicate against the expanse of this wide earth we stand on—but stalwartly growing anyway. That good be something! and we walk away proud of those little plants, beating the ground squirrel and seven-year drought odds just by getting started.

The first walk starts in the field and takes us winding through the ranch, disturbing all that big peace and quiet with the very quality of our being. At the pond, we startle a rangy Canadian Goose out of the water—he takes to the sky in a flurry of honking, both dogs staring wistfully as he beats the air. His mate is hiding in the reeds, we discover a few seconds later walking around the far edge of the murky green, she has a tight nest woven with a clutch of milky blue eggs tucked inside. She takes off too, the honking now reaching a raucous fever pitch as it echoes off the ridgelines, and we lengthen our strides while calling the dogs off the nest (Dexter, his little brown nub of a tail rigid as he points the eggs (dare I say) doggedly), only to be met with the talons of a Tom who has been startled off the road and interrupted in his flight path towards the timber by us (the disruptive, disruptive humans).

Turkeys, as it turns out, are very ominous flying dinosaur birds when they put their minds to it, even though their gobble is a noise I find very, very silly.

IMG_5956The red-tailed hawk from the upper field comes to see what all the fuss is about, landing on a branch not far above us while we make our way out towards the second piece, and sees fit to add his warning screech to the cacophony of noise already erupting from every flying creature in a two-mile radius. It is raptor city, my Dad says, waving a hand overhead as if to ward off them all off, and we don’t seem to be welcome here.

On the second piece, when the road starts curving up to meet the trees where they touch the sky, it starts to snow a little, spitting ice from pearly gray cloud cover. Mister Owl glides across our path, silent and deadly, to perch on the other side, from which to better watch us pass. I have my head down, on account of the snow, but my Dad sees him (he is better attuned to these things, I have discovered) but I catch the tail-end of his whisper flight through the trees, and I can feel his cool and steady gaze on our backs as we keep walking.

IMG_5662My Dad still asks why I want to come out with him, which baffles me. How many times, how many ways, do I have to say the reason is this, all this, always—the chance to see an owl in daylight, to watch the wind whip new cheatgrass flat across the hill, to feel the tangible connection to something larger than myself, to see the glory of all the universe has to offer spread out at my feet. To shed the cagey feeling that wells up too often in the city, held in as I am by concrete and commuting, to walk and not see another soul for miles. The same reason you do, I want to say, but then again—we all have our reasons, things to run from and to. Different shades of the same color, though, and we’re all painted through with pictures of this landscape.

This too—I learn more out here, walking around, than I have most anywhere else. I’ve been following my Dad through the woods for as long as I can remember—first at the old cabin, when I had to look up at the teasel by the nut hut, to now, hiking up to an elk wallow my Dad found last spring. These are the times that live deep in my chest, at the center of my soul, where I pick up the things that I think I must have always known—that ponderosa pine smells like vanilla in the sun, what an elk track looks like, how to follow a game trail—and new things too, the difference between pacific ninebark and bitterbrush, how many gallons of water a day juniper trees pull out of the ground. It’s a homecoming of sorts, these first walks—all of them really, whether I’m eight, deer hunting with a hammering heart and Rachelle and my Dad under a tree while coyotes yip just beyond us, or 23 and chukar hunting a hard ridgeline in Cottonwood Canyon . Back to land, back to my family, back to myself.IMG_6019

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Notes on Spring

My Mom says she can hear the plants growing in springtime. Standing outside, boots streaked with mud and sweat clinging to the back of my neck, I think she might be right. It looks to storm later, the sky a funny silver I don’t trust, and I want to get the rest of this soil amended before it hits. I don’t know the name for the tool I’m using here, I took it from my parent’s garage and then I broke the handle*, but it has four or five curved fangs of rusted metal that I’ve been hacking at the dirt with for the last hour and a half while alternately heaving bags of compost and potting soil into the bed. It isn’t that hard of work, but the air is very still in anticipation of the weather to come, and so I am filmy—not quite sweaty, but not quite cool, either. Reminds me of New Orleans. I planted honeysuckle last year in this same bed and it never bloomed, but then again, it didn’t die either. New Orleans gave me filmy skin, and also honeysuckle fever, so that now no good weather is complete without that sickly sweet smell drifting through the air, and I planted accordingly. No growth last year, but this year I can tell already they’re going to explode, and the yard will be awash in those delicate, stark white flowers, more potent than a thousand perfumeries. I can hear them too, right now, in the quiet before the rain comes back. Dashes of light green pepper the vine, promising growth anew, holding secrets that will be revealed, I feel sure, come summer.

Born a daughter of spring, it’s a season I feel particularly beholden to—it has a dreamy quality I love, where trees burst into flowers and the ground erupts into green, but is also marked by a frenetic energy that I feel pulled by, a magnetic draw towards awakening out of the deep sleep of winter. Easter is in this season, a reminder of renewal I love. And it’s the season that marks how I grow, too—it’s the season I look down at my roots and up at my branches and say I have done well, I am here and strong and getting bigger.

Spring has come early this year, not so much earlier than other years, but early enough that I am already dreading the long, last hot days of August that will bleed into September, where the fern-filled world I love so much will be burnt dry by the sun.

Rachelle and I are going to build bat boxes. Or I am going to build bat boxes—she agreed it was a good idea. I want them to come live in our yard and eat the billions of tiny bug bodies that will fill the air once the real good weather comes. It didn’t get cold enough this year to kill any of them, you know. We are doomed to having bug-filled smiles after bike rides to the farmer’s market, doomed to breathing them on accident when we laugh too hard during barbecues.

What I love about spring too is the smell, the earthy damp of new life born of seeds, fostered by the dying bodies of the plants that came before them. Winter here is too much filled with decay, the rainy scent of mulched leaves, but spring takes that smell and lightens it with the heady scent of dark green. I’ll get inside and wash my hands, dig the dirt out from under my fingernails, but it will still hover around the periphery of my nose—that green smell.

Before I quit for the day I sit on the edge of the porch and throw the ball for Cedar in earnest—I’ve been tossing it half-heartedly while working on the soil, and now I give him my full attention, until the bluebird comes and all three of us are startled to find the other there. He throws open his wings to put on the breaks, tossing his wee feet out in a pantomime of a predator, and then decides this is no time for fight. He carries on flying, landing in the bumpy pine at the back of the yard, tweedling hot. His feathers reflect the sky, a little, so he shimmers in the gossamer light of an almost born spring storm. Cedar is interested, for a second, and then we play ball until my shoulder hurts.

Boots I leave on the porch, they are chewed in the back where Cedar took to them and so muddy even I know I shouldn’t bring them in. The sliding glass door rakes open when I tug, leaving a barely wide enough space to get through—it’s been sticking, the track is off. I squeeze in, call for the puppy. He is outside getting splashed by the first drops of rain, the very edge of the storm moving in. Come on buddy, I say, and as I rake the door back shut, I hear a cacophony outside—rain hissing, plants sucking in rain, an audible pop as new buds appear from thin air, branches whooshing out to meet the rain, the quiet creak of flowers as they open their eyes on this new, wet world.

Inside it is a quiet gray, and all I can hear is the hum of my own engine and the gentle snore of my sweet puppy, who has already fallen asleep in the corner of the kitchen.

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