Archive for August 2017

Help In The Night

August 12, 2017

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Last night, the eve of my birthday, managed to be one of the most desperate nights of my life. To set the stage, I’m spending the week in a sweet little vacation rental on one of the more remote parts of the island, with water on both sides of the house.

Because the Perseid showers are always my birthday gift from the universe, I went out on the back deck about 10:00 to look for meteors. Because it had gotten a bit chilly, I closed the door behind me. Because I’m an idiot I didn’t see that although I had unlocked one lock to get out, there was another, waiting to ambush me. Twenty minutes later, no meteors. Also, I’m locked out on a deck that’s right over the water. All of the windows are locked, and my phone, keys, wallet, and glasses are inside the house.

No point in screaming for help, as there’s no one home in the houses on either side of mine. I remembered that there was a little door from the deck to the parking area. It was jammed and only opened about 12 inches, but I knew it was either jump in and swim, or squeeze through that door, even though I was mortally afraid of being stuck in there all night, or possibly for the rest of my life. I ooched and scooched my not-at-all-small way through, bending the wooden gate as much as I could, and finally as I popped out the other side the door came free of whatever had been blocking it.

So then there I was, in the pitch dark, with no neighbors home. I stumbled up the road toward a house that had lights on in the upstairs bedrooms and rang their bell. A silver-haired woman who looked to be in her late 60s came hesitantly to the door, wearing a housecoat and slippers. I pleaded for help. I must have looked either so honest or so distraught that her sense of danger was overcome, and she let me in. I think her name is Reenie, although I wouldn’t swear to that.

She and I proceeded to try to find the number of the rental’s owner, who lives in California. Apparently it’s unlisted. I called 911, and the nice policeman gave me some numbers of locksmiths, who don’t answer their phones at night.  Reenie called AAA, just in case. No luck. I called my former neighbor Denys, who lives about four miles up the road, is 84 years old, and goes to bed early after a few Manhattans. He still has an old-school voice answering machine and I yelled into it “help, Denys, wake up, help” about a dozen times, but no luck. Reenie kept urging me to break a window, but I told her I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Totally freaked out doesn’t begin to describe how I felt, and it was now after 11:00. No keys, no phone, no glasses, no wallet. At least I was fully dressed and had shoes on.

Intrepidly, Reenie grabbed a flashlight and a huge hammer and went out, still in her pink-flowered housecoat, to break into a stranger’s house. In the event she had to hammer like a lumberjack because the door turned out to have double-paned safety glass, made to entirely resist break-ins. She did succeed, finally, we exchanged heartfelt hugs, and I was home.

I had hoped to get the glass replaced today without any need to confess to the owner what an idiot I was, but no, there’s no glass place anywhere around that works on the weekend. Meanwhile, poor Denys got up this morning, saw his answering machine light flashing, heard my cries for help, and arrived, pale-faced and grim, at my door.

Because he was a builder and contractor all his life, he set about removing all the shattered glass and trim pieces, and closing up the opening temporarily. First thing Monday morning I’ll show up at the glass shop and hand over my credit card. But before then I have to call the owner, which, I can assure you, I absolutely do not want to do. I’m always a model guest, taking care of things as if they were my own. It’s almost more than I can bear to admit to being an idiot.

And now I’ve told the whole world. And also, it’s my birthday. Reenie and Denys, you’re my best gifts ever.

Smoke And Sand

August 8, 2017

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I wept all the way from Walla Walla to Vantage. Not because I was sad to leave my new home for the old one, but because the land was awash in smoke. My eyes streamed, my nose stuffed, and cars appeared like shape-shifters, making me blink furiously and wonder whether I needed new glasses. When I climbed up to the high desert around Ellensburg the smoke lifted off the roadway, but the mountains were still a blur. Through it all I kept the vision of the island clear in my mind, and hoped against hope that the skies would clear.

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Seattle greeted me, wearing a gauzy grey little wrap. I could see the island across the sound, but dimly.

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If you were reading French Letters last year, you might recognize this view. You might remember it with a blue sky, blue water, as I do, not floating disembodied on the page as it is here. This is the back yard of the sweet vacation house I’m renting for the second time, a place that feels oddly like home, whatever the palette.

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And this is the front yard, peculiarly pale, mysteriously bleached. I should add that the two bodies of water are not more than 100 feet apart where this house sits, on a sand spit that we had all better hurry up and appreciate before it goes under water as the sea level rises inexorably.

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When I arrived the table was set for four, although I imagine that my guests and I will always dine outdoors, smoke be damned.

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In French you’d call this a house les pieds dans l’eau, with its feet in the water, and that seems apt, as I stretch out after my long drive with my feet over the scummy backwash of the ebbing tide on the lagoon side of the house.

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Night begins to fall, almost imperceptibly, the grey deepening, a few lights coming on. Still I don’t go inside. This is the first time in weeks that I’ve actually been cool while out of doors, and it feels fantastic, even though it means having smoke instead of sweat clinging to my hair.

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A smoky moon rises. This day is done.

Where Wheat Is King

August 4, 2017

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Yesterday I went on a hot and hazy journey. You might have heard that we’re having a heat wave here in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures hovering around 100°, and that we’re being smoked out by the fires in British Columbia. It’s not as bad here as it is in the Bainbridge Island area, where a friend told me today that he couldn’t see across Puget Sound for the smoke. But it’s hazy and greyish and the sky has an unhealthy gauziness to it. Plus it’s icky sticky hot. Staying indoors with the air conditioning cranked seems the prudent thing to do.

Nonetheless, yesterday I went on a 200 mile drive through it all.

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It was such a still day that even the windmills were powerless to churn up the cough-inducing mix of smoke and dust from the last of the wheat harvest. The wheat is mostly in, but the last harvesters are toiling away, and the trucks hauling the wheat down to the Seattle Grain Terminal are plying the roads. It’s the kind of drive where all you see is wheat, interspersed with scrubby range land, and punctuated by startlingly few homes. A lot of the way I had the road absolutely to myself, and I admit that I reveled in it.

When I drive like that I don’t have the radio on, no CD, just the whoosh of the car in space. Sometimes I sing to myself, sometimes I don’t. It’s a time for freedom, for just keeping my eyes and ears open and being glad to be on the planet another day.

I was going to Clarkston, WA, for my work.  The work part was good. Very good, even. But the town was discouraging, at least to an outsider. I asked one of the guys I was interviewing where the pretty part of town was, and he allowed as how there really wasn’t any. It’s a town of about 7,000, plopped down in what we’d call the middle of nowhere. In French you’d say it’s at the fin fond of Washington, which means more or less the furthest depths, and to my ear captures the situation better. It’s a town that sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, which makes it sound pretty.

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I took this picture at a tiny park in town, and for once the picture looks a lot better than real life, hence the power of Instagram (I imagine). This looks bucolic, but in reality it’s kind of tucked behind an industrial area, an afterthought. Clarkston also just a bridge away from Lewiston, ID, which is the most inland seaport in the U.S. Amazingly, it’s located 465 river miles inland from the Pacific, separated by eight locks and dams. Tens of millions of tons of wheat pass through this port, on their way west, quite a bit of it headed for Asia. That makes it sound imposing.

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But in reality, it looks like this. A small and dusty town perched on the edge, one where you can still get burgers and shakes delivered right to your parked car. There’s a lot to be said for that, and there are things you could say against it as well. I could say that nearly all of the students attending the community college there qualify for financial aid. I could say it’s a place where two years of community college studies will get you a job at less than $20 an hour, whereas if you took that welding degree and hopped a plane to Texas you’d likely start out at $80,000 a year. It’s a town where a hot and dusty traveler might not get offered a cup of coffee. That’s how on the edge it is.

Of course, I was only there for three and a half hours, so what do I know? Four hours on the road, less than that to try to capture the feeling of the place, the dreams of the teachers and students of that college. To understand why they are there, of all places on the planet, other than an accident of birth. Why do people stay there, in a town that wheat built? What did I miss, in my laughably short time there?

Well, I can say that I didn’t see anyone kiss, although they must. I didn’t see anyone vote, but it’s Trump country so that’s probably just as well. I didn’t see the town’s beating heart, and so I’ll go back. I’ll keep looking, but I’ll be prepared to be disappointed. I didn’t see a single sign advertising gluten-free anything.