Back in the early Eighties, I fell, like Alice in Wonderland, through some hole in the cosmos and landed in a magical place, for a few perfect days. My portal was a sudden unplanned vacation/retreat, which I’ve been re-creating recently, geographically, for my novel. My fictional character and I share this point on the map, but our maps differ more than any choice of satellite or terrain views offered by Google, because she’s imaginary, whereas I could, and did, actually touch that sweet place on our earth.
North of Spokane, Washington, the small town of Chewaleh lies southwest of the Pend Orielle National Forest lands, below a mesh of mountain ridges, rivers, valleys. My sister’s husband and his friends had a contract that summer to salvage copper wire from disintegrating telegraph lines. They took their trucks and hoists, chain saws, and wenches off at dawn to do this manly work, while my sister and some of the other men’s wives kept a camp for them by a creek running through a forest up in those mountains. Somehow, I got invited to go spend a weekend with this salvage camp gang.
I resist reading my journal from that time, not wanting to relive my day-to-day labors or my petty annoyances with the other women, their pets, their babies. Such grounded truths would muddy the magic of my memories, which are as crystal clear as the water in that cold mountain creek. I remember amazement at the forest, because it contained not just the usual pine trees and wildflowers of Eastern Washington, but also Douglas Firs, vine maples, and many soft ferns and mosses generally not found on the dry side of the Cascade Mountain Range. Inside these mountains, the western slope’s rain zone supported this mixed East-West vegetation. The blend of climates delighted me.
Remembering my baby nephew, running before he walked, lurching around the creek and the campfire, falling only on the soft forest soil, yet still breaking one of his new teeth. Remembering the fire, the early morning chill, the long wait for coffee that burnt our mouths. The sun sneaking in through mossy-limbed trees. From the Chewelah newspaper, we read aloud, police reports and want ads, making everything hilarious, just with the lilt of our voices.
An afternoon, a day off for the guys, and we emerged from the forest into a warm meadow, thick with tall summer grasses. Laying around, smoking, drinking, telling our stories like theater. Listening so well to one another. John, raised by a high school English teacher, had Shakespearean tales for us. We acted them out, surely wrong, but with great roars of laughter. The men had a band called “The Rank Strangers.” Their country-western bluegrass style was as thrilling and odd as the mossy desert fauna.
At sunset, falling into a sun-warmed tent with Paul, the mandolin player. Making love like music, like mossy laughter. John and Paul, now both dead, drugs and motorcycles. And yet, they’re magically alive, singing, in my memories.