The rain pulses on the roof of the trailer in the post-midnight darkness. Occasionally the precipitation pauses, and I fall into a light sleep. Then the wind blows and the ample moisture that has gathered in the Sitka Spruce tree next to the camper falls all at once like a waterfall. I awaken—no deep sleep tonight, that’s for certain. My imagination rambles through memories rather than being adrift in dreams. I think of the times I camped with wife and children, and earlier, with my own brothers, mother, and father, before and after we migrated from Pennsylvania to California. The thought arises: now here I am in Oregon. The unforeseen events that led to a second migration of my own come to mind like scenes in a novel.
I’m in a sequel to the preceding stages of my life. The structure of the story that’s being written by my actions, thoughts, and dreams is vague, but it’s there—I can sense it as the framework of my experience in the same way that I can analyze plots, themes, and symbols when reading literature. As an undergraduate I learned how to discern the hidden, organic bones of prose and poetry. Decades later I recognize the same infrastructure supporting my lifespan. Art reveals everything if one takes the time to remain patient and pay careful attention. I can see the losses and gains, the rise and fall, the slow sections and the rushing moments that force me to keep turning the pages. The book of my life is not physical. I can’t tell how many chapters remain before I reach the end.
I know that my conclusion will not be “and they lived happily ever after.” That was supposed to have been the finale of the previous volume, but it didn’t finish that way. This follow-on will take me to a place where I have never been before.
These half-awake musings fill up the anxious wolf-hours of night before dawn. As the rain rides the wind from the Pacific along this harsh, indifferent coastline, a voice arises in my head once more: be still and know—be still. There is no end. The wanderer has no fixed abode.
The dead trees no longer refreshed by the moisture in the understory. The soil destroyed by fire and washed away. What was that neologism I came across recently? Solastalgia— a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.’ Is that what I’m feeling? I try to be calm while the sky refreshes in a tinge of grey, morning light. The slow drip of moisture on the rooftop fades away. I hear Paul stirring at the other end of the trailer. The secure scent of coffee arises. The wolf-time lapses, and the gift of another day begins.
More oatmeal. More coffee. Then I walk through the campground. The rain has freshened everything. Wet forest smells mingle with the scent of the sea. Cool air aids my process of awakening and I recall that I did have a crazy dream last night: a conversation with a trio of old women whose faces were altering and merging, all of them looking at me benevolently. The Three Fates, I assume, though there was no spinning wheel or scissors. I remember something I read by Martin Shaw in his book, A Branch from the Lightning Tree: “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.”
Myth and story. Life and death. Wandering, learning, exploring. Moments of love I still bear for those who have passed out of my life to the other side. Aches that can’t be healed that turn to gratitude. Those are the lessons of the stillness. They surface in my dreams, anxieties, and daylight actions every day because I am more aware of how they all fit into a single epic, layering on top of one another like a series of palimpsests, some partially erased but still decipherable.
I reenter the trailer. “How about we explore Carpenterville Road this morning?” says Paul.
“Why not? It’s no longer raining. Let’s go.” There is mist drifting in the constant wind. The moisture calls us out to the road and fresh sights under somber skies. No sun, but a beautiful day.
Less than a mile north of Harris Beach we make a right turn. It’s a road to nowhere, a ghost road to a ghost town, the former route of Highway 101 back when it was known as the Roosevelt Highway, now Oregon Route 255. We twist and turn and climb. There’s no traffic. The mist deepens as we gain altitude and I engage the intermittent wipers. Tree branches hang sullenly over the road, the leaves opaque green, dripping with moisture that splatters the windshield. Here and there I see a house, a farm, or a lumber operation. The views of the ocean are obstructed by clouds. I’m reminded of Ireland—the time when I traveled there with my wife to Sligo and visited the grave of William Butler Yeats at Drumcliffe Cemetery. All that’s missing here are the Celtic crosses.
In 1921 the town of Carpenterville was founded at the high point of the road. Before the highway was realigned and the town was cut off from 101, it contained a post office, public school, a lodge and restaurant. 35 people lived there in 1940. Today there is nothing I can see that marks that a town ever existed, presumably at the highest point of the road—Burnt Hill Summit. We pass a sign for Windsong Ranch and cross over Whalehead Creek. The road is paved but I have to be careful to avoid occasional potholes filled with rainwater.
It’s a forlorn place. The specters of my wolf-hours are still hanging around like voiceless loiterers. There’s no sense of menace or anxiety, only loneliness, even though Highway 101 is not far away. It’s down below us someplace, invisible. I wonder if I could hear traffic if I pulled over and opened a window. The road turns northwest and drops in altitude. The clouds lift and then we see the ocean, slate-grey and impassive. I feel as if I am enfolded between dreamscape and landscape.
Eventually we find the highway when we reach the Pistol River Loop Road. The sky is still sealed by banks of somber clouds but the view up 101 is clear. I tell Paul I want to drive all the way up to Humbug Mountain and check out the campground in the state park. He agrees—it’s always useful to scout out likely camping areas ahead of time. It’s not a long drive, through Gold Beach across the Rogue River, then Nesika and Ophir.
Humbug Mountain appears to be a suitable place for a couple of quiet nights later in the summer. There are a few campers sheltered under the trees, partially protected from the moist weather. They wave at us, smiling. We turn south again. I pull over at the same turnout as last Wednesday and get out of the car.
This time the handout of vision strikes me full in the face. I live here now. This is my geography. Rugged like the country my ancestors left behind when the potato crops failed. It’s been three years since I left California. I’ve been cooped up for months. We all have. That’s what these days are telling me.
Yet the world does not seem right. All this beauty in front of my eyes is endangered. There is something I need to do. I still don’t know what it is, but I can hear it calling. Its voice is muffled under the earth. I’m going to have to dig for it.
Those thoughts occur in an instant. I return to the car, fully awake. Back to the road. Back to camp. On the way we stop at Windy Point to see the view of Arch Rock. People are milling around in the light rain but by the time Paul and I reach the viewpoint at the end of a short trail everyone has departed. We are standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a few rocky islands flecked with seafoam, one topped with a grove of Sitka Spruce trees. They will be there after I die, protected from fire and tree cutters—solitary sentinels protecting the edge of the continent.
My brother and I stand peacefully, gazing out at the sea once more. My parents are my ancestors now, I think to myself. My memories of them bringing us to California half a century ago are old enough to be my own legend—a story of decisions made by people who died long ago that brought me to this spot, on this day, at this time. It’s time for me to tell that story.
That Saturday night it rains hard. When I awaken I pack up my gear and start for home. Paul needs his own space. He’ll stay at Harris Beach for another week. The weather in Portland is dry, and I miss my own bed and kitchen.
The rain continues as I drive north, but it diminishes at Port Orford. By the time I reach Bandon the sky is clear and the sun is out. I drive by the Bandon Baking Company hoping that I can pick up some of those luscious cheese croissants, but the shop is closed again. I’ll try in May when we camp at Bullards Beach. I gas up Dark Star and then stop north of Coos Bay at William M. Tugman State Park and eat a cold bagel with cream cheese. I recall the time I walked Finn there as we traveled to Portland in 2018 to start a fresh life. It’s been 16 months since he passed unexpectedly. I have one of those unanticipated moments when grief surfaces and turns to grace as I think about all those I have lost.
East of Reedsport there is heavy rain on OR-38. The Umpqua River is wide there, and glows through the downpour, reflecting the muted light of the sky. I have the road to myself until the squalls descend. I stay in the right lane through the passing zones and let all the idiots go by. I generally drive right at the limit, but the conditions are not right for that now—thus tailgaters, all of whom deserve their own circle in Dante’s Hell.
I stop at the Cottage Grove rest area with the intention of taking a nap, but it’s crowded and there are folks that look untrustworthy hanging around, so I continue on without stopping. Traffic is heavy as usual between Eugene and Salem. That part of the drive is like I-5 in California. It seems to me that Oregon drivers are as unhinged as their northern neighbors in Washington these days—perhaps as a result of being quarantined for so long. I arrive home about 4:50 pm. Total trip mileage 881.5. Avg mpg just a shade over 30.
That evening while I am winding down for a deep sleep in my own bedroom I read a brochure issued by the Oregon State Parks administration advertising the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. In a sidebar I read that the Arch Rock landmark was the root of a legend regarding Coyote for the Tolowa tribe:
“Coyote—a frequent character who teaches ingenuity and explains the inexplicable—was left to starve on Arch Rock after playing a prank on the other animals and people. Undeterred, he cleverly made his way back to land by gathering a basket of mussels and throwing them into the water. Each mussel magically grew into a small island, allowing Coyote to use them as stepping stones to shore.”
He’s a smart fellow, that Coyote. I’ll follow his lead and see where it goes.
“Something I heard an archeologist say in Oslo about deep time returns to me: Time isn’t deep, it is already all around us. The past ghosts us, lies all about us less as layers, more as drift. Here that seems right, I think. We ghost the past, we are its eerie.”Robert Macfarlane, Underland, pg. 273