After a rough night of fitful sleep my conscious mind awakens to the sound of the sea and the penetrating aroma of fresh coffee. I open the trailer door, take a few deep breaths, and walk around the campground. No one is out and about, though there is a recreational vehicle parked at almost every site. Years ago, when I camped with my wife and daughters, there were always more people in tents than trailers. Perhaps people are looking out of windows to assure themselves that the world is operating in the usual way before going outside. I can’t blame them for being cautious. What we consider as normal changed to something else one year ago when the Covid-19 pandemic started. I think of Paul’s rule: “that’s not camping, not if you’re going to hide indoors all the time.”
My brother and I have other plans for these next few days—an exploration of the Rogue River & Siskiyou National Forest. We will attempt to discover a pure view of this southwest corner of Oregon. Today I’m looking forward to a slow drive on a poorly maintained path, which, for a brief moment, surfaces in my awareness as a metaphor.
Brookings was founded as a lumber town in 1906. Today it’s a a community of 6500 people, most of them retirees from California. In 1942 it was the site of a Japanese aerial incendiary bomb attack, one of the Lookout Air Raids. A substantial forest fire was the intention, but observers on Mount Emily spotted the smoke and suppressed it before a larger crew arrived and extinguished the threat. Twenty years later the pilot returned, invited by the citizens of Brookings in friendship. He honored the town with the gift of his family’s ancient Samurai sword—which flew in the cockpit with him on the day of the bombing. Today it is displayed in the Chetco Community Public Library.
We drive through town and note that in addition to fast food, gas stations, and an enormous two-story Fred Meyer grocery store, there are at least five marijuana dispensaries. For some reason that strikes us as hilarious, and we crack jokes about stoned and spaced-out California Baby Boomers moving to Oregon to avoid sales tax. We fit into that category, though we are sober as we make a left onto Winchuck River Road several miles south of town.
County route 896 parallels the graceful meander of the river as the sun burns away the ocean overcast. The unincorporated communities outside of Brookings boost the population total up to about 13000 citizens, and many of them live in well-maintained, understated homes along the county roads that become logging thoroughfares in the national forest. We transition from smooth pavement to irregular dirt on forest road NF-1107 and climb into the mountains. A plume of dust floats behind the car and clings stubbornly to the rearview window. Paul navigates with the Avenza Maps app on his phone. We’re searching for a viewpoint where we can stare at the forested landscape and listen to the silence.
As I drive I contemplate what I read while having breakfast in the trailer—a daily meditation email from Richard Rohr, whose words often sync with my own musings:
The world is one unified system. It cannot be separated into fragmented, saleable parts. The Eurocentric view of property ownership requires us to see the land as being disconnected from us. This view separates us from the source of life. The Indigenous view recognizes the land as kin [as did my spiritual father, St. Francis], as part of the lineage of life that we are all connected to. Thus, we have an obligation to care for the land in the same way that we would care for our human relatives.
I’ve also been thinking about my father and mother these last few weeks. Those reflections are evolving as a memoir of my early encounters with the immanence of divinity in the natural world. My father captured the landscapes of those memories in photographs that he displayed with his slide projector after dinner, before my brothers and I were shooed off to bed:
As I watch, I remember standing at Glacier Point in Yosemite, the valley spread out before me like a sacred map. My imagination recalls what I beheld: clarity in all four directions, all the colors of the world spreading through my perception, through cold air above the granite mountains in a pale blue sky embossed by dramatic clouds cruising inexorably across the horizon. I recall an indefinable sensation—I did not possess the vocabulary to describe it then—a divine presence, but not personal or judgmental. A sense of gratitude and wonder arose within me at that moment, and later—whenever my mind and soul opened to the natural world.
My camera bag is in the back of my car, but we don’t find a suitable vista for photography. The road is bordered by trees on both sides that obstruct the view, so there is no opportunity for panorama shots. At times I find it beneficial to gaze at the landscape without holding a camera—it reminds me that the present moment is a perpetual constant—stretching from the past that is always in my mind into a future that I can only anticipate. Making photos is one approach to the practice of art, but every so often I have to set composition aside and remember that gently seeing and breathing is in itself a creative act.
We find a spot to pull over, get out of the car, and stretch. Paul takes a picture of me standing next to Dark Star. I breathe for a few minutes, silently, out, in, out, in, out. We’ve twisted, turned, climbed, and I’ve lost track of time. We can see green forests for miles, patient under clearing skies. The woods fade from sight in a diffuse curtain of fog near Brookings on the western horizon. There are no bald spots that reveal areas that have been logged and abandoned. I’m content in knowing that this part of the forest that crests the Winchuck River is untouched—for now.
I have no idea what time it is. The slow road has brought us to a serene, liminal space. My reveries are interrupted when I realize that I’m hungry. Time to return to the campsite and eat lunch. We roll back down NF-1107 , and the road seems familiar—no longer an unknown track. The dust obstructing the rear window blows away as I turn back onto US-101 north and reach the speed limit. The sky has cleared. The sun is dazzling. There is a chill in the air. A slight sea breeze buffets the car.
In this southwest part of Oregon the wind can streak down the slopes of the mountains at furious speeds, a katabatic airstream that is cited as the Brookings Effect. The word katabatic stems from the same Greek root as katabasis, which expresses several definitions inferring some type of descent—into the darkened underworld, depression, or a journey from the interior of a country to its coast. The latter meaning reminds me that there is often a delicate fringe of myth vibrating at the edge of my awareness, as if I am in a deep-time tale of my own.
After lunch I sit in the sun and read Stephany’s thriller—a page turner with many breathless twists and turns, frantic action, nasty villains, and two well-drawn, sympathetic protagonists whose fates combine in an epic plunge through treacherous territory. I rarely read that type of fiction, but her story compels me as a welcome break from my own quest as I sit next to the Pacific. The waves spill onto Harris Beach and the wind hastens through the trees. There is no peril in this landscape—only a deepening calm at the edge of the continent. I close the book and sink into a nap—until the temperature drops as the sun is occluded by clouds.
During a discussion after dinner, Paul and I decide to repeat our search the next morning, this time along the Chetco River, which divides the town north and south along the shoreline and debouches into the Pacific at the Port of Brookings. I’ll be looking for another unspoiled view of the Siskiyou Mountains. As I examine the verdant forest displayed on the satellite map I have no idea that the view from the ground will not be what I expect.
Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on the earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us.Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree
Notes on the text: