No Confirmation Required

January 18, 2022, 5:24 am Last Homely House (reading room)

A thought: doing things for the sheer joy of doing things. No reason other than the making. Gathering thoughts, visions, and emotions together into forms of art: words, images, sounds, some organized and others random. All of that with no expectation or need of validation other than the doing of it. No transactions. No monetary gain. No emotional return. Only the process. No goal other than the creation.

Is that purity or reality? Is it a rejection of profit and motive or is it the actual core of creativity? If it is the latter (and I believe it to be) then how does one live in a culture like ours where confirmation is measured at best by the temporary pleasure of ego stroking and at worst by the shallow endorsement of monetary worth? Because any way you measure the result of the process, all of it is impermanent, even the doing. Eminent art that endures through centuries is dwarfed by geologic time. Bach and Shakespeare will not survive the heat death of the universe and the end of entropy.

No—it’s all in the crafting. In the pure grace of it. The fun of it. The joy. For some reason that I’ll never fathom, that is where I have arrived. In fact, where I have always been from the beginning.

These thoughts arrive after an hour of meditation, which came after another 4:15 am wake up out of a dream that was so utterly stupid that I gave up trying to sleep. (My rest had already been punctuated by wakefulness.) In the dream I needed to catch a ferry to “Alameda” and after walking slowly across a familiar beach (recognizable from countless other ludicrous dreams) and through a rundown casino populated by sinister criminal characters and worn down down on their luck folks standing in long queues for no evident purpose, I looked across a hopeless, ugly, colorless landscape that revealed no path to my goal. It was not an alameda, no promenade shaded by trees. I awoke swearing—angry at the dream because it was hopeless and meaningless.

Yet I am encouraged by the realization of joy having nothing to do whatsoever with our cultural madness. What I do here in this journal, what I do in the studio, as well as the actions I take during the day in sustaining my existence here in the unconventional and mystical Pacific Northwest require no validation. They are things in themselves. Ding an sich. As they are, they are what they are—Isness. Little bits of the Kosmos. That’s all. Not quite Kant—but also more than Kant. Numinous, not philosophical. Reality, not sophistry.

Perhaps all my experiences are a lingering dream, sometimes stupid, sometimes sublime, cresting to moments of elation when my heart opens to everything and words do not suffice. My past is present. My future is unclear, but overflows with hope and gratitude. Everything I do is a totem from the day before, revealing a path that meanders to the next present moment.

The poem of the mind in the act of finding   

What will suffice. It has not always had   

To find: the scene was set; it repeated what   

Was in the script.

                               Then the theatre was changed   

To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

Of Modern Poetry, Wallace Stevens.

The Brookings Effect: 4

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.

Paul at Arch Rock Viewpoint

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

Arch Rock – April 2021

Photos by Richard Gylgayton

The Brookings Effect: 3

Friday morning. I’m eating oatmeal for breakfast and reading my morning email. Richard Rohr again, this time a meditation containing a quote from Stephan Harding, Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College in the UK. “The Work That Reconnects is conceptualized as a spiral that maps the journey to Gaian consciousness [or deep connection with the living Earth] in four stages.”

I know that phrase, The Work That Reconnects. A couple of months back I read a book by Joanna Macy: Active Hope. The subtitle attracted me:  How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. That’s where I came across Business As Usual, The Great Unraveling, and The Great Turning. Since finishing that book I’ve been meaning to dive more deeply into the content of those axioms.

Though I’m currently sitting comfortably in Paul’s trailer, working my way through a bowl of Quaker Oats, I’m reminded of what is going on outside—climate change, mass extinctions, economic disruption, all topped off with a pandemic and three and a half million deaths due to the virus worldwide. It’s all right there in the Harding quote about the four stages:

The first is gratitude, in which we experience our love for life. Next is honoring our pain, in which we learn how to suffer the pain of the world with others and with the world itself. Then, in seeing with new eyes, we experience our connection with life in all its forms through all the ages. Finally, in the last stage we go forth into action in the world as open human beings, aware of our mutual belonging in the web of life, learning through feedback in our social and ecological domains.

“Are you ready to head out?” Paul interrupts my musing. “There’s rain coming.” I nod, wash out my breakfast bowl, and drink the last of my morning coffee.

We head south on 101 again—not as far as yesterday. Before crossing over the Chetco River we turn left. These roads east of town all have multiple names: the North Bank Chetco River Road is also County Road 784 and becomes a National Forest road—NF-1376. We pass by Azalea Park, several RV resorts, a rock quarry, a small grocery store, and several neighborhoods of unobtrusive homes similar to those we observed the previous morning. We cross to the river’s south bank a quarter mile past Alfred A. Loeb State Park—closed to camping because of Covid-19. I make a mental note to check it out another time as it looks like a pleasant place to stay for a couple of nights alongside the Chetco.

At Miller Campground the road becomes another dirt track—the national forest road. We haven’t started climbing—we are still in the shade of trees on the wayside. I assume that the drive will be much like yesterday, but as we continue the forest thins out. The landscape changes as the elevation increases, and I realize that a forest fire has swept through here.

I have observed devastation like this but here there is a difference—no new growth. Not a single green sapling emerges from beneath the thousands of scorched dead trees. A ghost forest that no longer breathes, stretches to the horizon, north, south, and east.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” I say out loud. The road keeps rising and the full impact of the waste land becomes numbing.

This is dead ground. Black and grey. The former understory of the forest is a somber ochre brown tinged with pitch-black streaks marking the fire’s route. Dust wafts in the wind. Nothing—nothing at all is alive under a silent grey sky obscured by heavy overcast.

My camera bag is in the car, as it always is, but I haven’t the heart to pull it out and record what I am seeing.

We could continue but there is no point. We’ve reached the high road on the ridge. Mount Emily is behind us. It’s scarred as well. I can see a forest road cutting a conspicuous line on the mountain’s flank. The road in front of us drops back down to the Chetco. I imagine the beauty of the view that has been erased, that I will never see. The river winds east-northeast, a silver trail of reflected light making its way to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

“Let’s go back,” says Paul. “I’ve seen this kind of thing before. I don’t want to see it again.” He has traveled and camped extensively in the Western United States, Alaska, and the Southwest throughout his life. It’s difficult to accept the fact that this disaster is some kind of normal. I find a place to turn around and we return the way we came. Once again the mountains fade westwards towards Brookings, but this high ground is naked and fatally wounded.

We don’t talk much on the drive back to town. We stop at the Fred Meyer and pick up some ground beef, hamburger buns, and beer. The grocery store is filled with people meandering up and down the narrow aisles. Too many people on the planet, I think. And I’m one of them. As I stand in the checkout line I find a special edition Life magazine about all the Godzilla movies. The sight of it cheers me up and I add it to the grocery basket. My lifelong interest in a make-believe monster that destroys whole cities is sardonic.

I’m thinking that the fire that killed that forest must have come close to ravaging Brookings. I recall from my pre-travel research that a tsunami wrecked the town’s harbor in 2011—a tidal wave caused by an earthquake 50 miles East of Japan’s Oshika Peninsula. I pay for the food, beer, and the glossy biography of a cinematic kaiju, and we return to camp, subdued.

Paul spends time with his iPad researching the fire ands sends me a link to the pertinent Wikipedia article:

The Chetco Bar Fire was a wildfire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Oregon, United States. The fire, which was caused by a lightning strike and first reported on July 12, 2017, burned 191,125 acres (773 km2) as of November 4, when it was declared 100% contained. The Chetco Bar Fire area is subject to warm, dry winds known as the Brookings effect (also known as Chetco Effect), driven by high pressure over the Great Basin.

There it is—the Brookings Effect. The katabatic wind. It plucked the embers from the lightning strike and expanded it to 300 acres by July 20—2907 by August 2—22042 by the 19th. Then the evacuations started, “3 miles up the North Bank Chetco River Road from Social Security Bar to the wilderness retreat area”—exactly where Paul and I had stood. Through the rest of August and all of September and October the fire raged so hot that the fungi and organisms in the soil that nurture the trees were obliterated.

The intended destruction of the Lookout Bombing Raids in 1942 was held in check by the quick-acting observers on Mount Emily. 75 years later random lightning from the sky did the deed, impacting the actual site of the bombing on Wheeler Ridge. The irony here is unsettling, and in the aftermath the Forest Service was criticized for its perceived lack of aggressive response in the initial days of the fire. The official United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report to Congressional Requesters states:

Some national forest officials and many stakeholders we interviewed said that the Forest Service was not aggressive enough in fighting the Chetco Bar Fire before the Chetco Effect winds arrived in mid-August. Several of these stakeholders said if the Forest Service had used more aggressive firefighting strategies and tactics, the agency could have prevented the fire from getting as large as it did and threatening homes.

As I read the report back at Harris Beach I wonder why this is a surprise to me. Certainly, a fire of this magnitude is something I would have heard about? I think back to August of 2017 and I remember that I was still living in California—the fire season had started in April and wreaked havoc throughout the state. By October the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, and Redwood Valley Complex fires in Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Mendocino counties had destroyed thousands of structures, including a big section of the city of Santa Rosa, where over 5000 homes were burned out. 44 people died. All of that must have blotted out any reports of the Chetco Fire on the local TV coverage in California. 

While the conflagration at the edge of Brookings was being fought and contained, I was witnessing what was happening closer to my Bay Area home. This is from my journal in mid-October:

By the time I got back down to Napa the sun had gone down and the wind had shifted. I stood alongside the Napa River on the western side just a little bit north of the Imola bridge. The hills were burning to the east at the same time as men were fishing from the shore in the safe confines of town. I could hear sirens amidst the sounds of traffic. When I drove through downtown there were people heading out of restaurants and getting on with life. I felt a great sense of loss, a feeling that is becoming familiar to me. So much of what we take for granted is so easily mislaid in a moment.

That journal entry reminds me of what I have forgotten.

The words I read as I ate my oatmeal return to consciousness: “Next is honoring our pain, in which we learn how to suffer the pain of the world with others and with the world itself.”

There is personal pain that arises from the unanticipated events of our own life. There is also the pain of the world, which we try to dismiss, but that is always present. While mulling those truths over in my mind in the fading light of early evening, I walk and return to the view of Bird Island. I stand on the high ground that overlooks the Pacific and the wind blows cold and hard directly into my face, as if to say: wake up, wake up…so much of what we take for granted is so easily mislaid in a moment. The wind uses my own words to remind me that there is something I must do. I don’t know what it is. Some immeasurable certainty is pulsing in the sound of the waves rushing onto the shore, yet this time I am not comforted. By the time I get back to the trailer tiny drops of rain are falling. The weather is changing.

In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Notes on the text:

The Brookings Effect: 2

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.

Lookout Air Raid Map – Public Domain, Wikimedia.

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.

Richard and Dark Star – photo by Paul Gill

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:

The Brookings Effect: 1

I’m wandering again, southbound on I-5 through Salem and Eugene to exit 162—Oregon State Highway 99. Then west along the Umpqua River to Reedsport and south along the coast to meet up with Paul in Brookings, a few miles north of the California border.

Umpqua Lighthouse State Park – Highway 101 – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

Those roads have become habitual the last few years, like the journeys I made for decades along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts of California. They are routes like old books waiting to be read again, packed with stories that reveal their subtexts willingly—as long as I pay attention to the details of weather and light that encourage the ordinary to display more earnest roots. Clear sight with fresh eyes and a sense of freedom are required, not in the sense of a choice between commodities, but in an ability to move quietly without being disturbed by the distraction of Business As Usual, and thus, composed and tranquil, improving my chances of finding a clue that may foreshadow the Great Turning.

It’s a lovely, sunny April day. The coffee in my thermos is bold and there’s nothing but possibilities ahead of me. What more could I ask for? Only impossible things and there’s no point inquiring about those. I’ll instead be grateful for what comes my way.

OR-99 winds its way westbound under overcast skies, though there are glints of light on the river west of Drain—another one of those pragmatically named Oregon towns—though in fact there is no drain in Drain that disperses the water falling from the sky. As I turn south onto US-101 at Reedsport the car’s tires thrum again on this spinal road of the Pacific littoral, the El Camino Real, though there are no Spanish missions here in the unsaintly pagan Northwest. The route runs from Tumwater, Washington south to an ignominious end at the East Los Angeles Interchange, which seems sadly appropriate to me—the grandeur of John Fahey’s “Hard Road to Travel” swallowed in concrete and mad traffic. Over my life I have driven much of this Royal Road, even the historic sections that remain in San Diego County, and my memories of those trips are lucid.

US-101 remains constant through the years, but I am not the same man that traveled the Oregon section southbound in 1977, returning from my first trip to Portland and the Olympic peninsula in a Fiat 128 with a leaking radiator. All my layers of memory are like geologic strata, compressed and ready for archaeological digging. I take them for granted too often. Not this time.

(Click on map to scroll and zoom)

As I turn south at Coos Bay and see the immense pile of sawdust at the Oregon Chip Terminal, my reveries are smashed. The four-story mound of former trees seems like a dormant volcano trapped between the Coos River and the highway, a prominent indicator of resource extraction—necessary, but practiced in an unenlightened and short-sighted manner. I think of trees torn up and processed into lumber and stumps left behind like amputated limbs sticking out of the earth.

We are told that the forests are managed, but I wonder what that really means whenever I see a fully loaded logging truck tailgating me like an impatient beast in the throes of a time-is-money seizure-spasm. I suspect that the phrase forest management is a euphemism for the less trustworthy profits for shareholders, and it disturbs me. Yet the new wooden deck constructed in my backyard last year reminds me that I am as ensnared in late-stage capitalism as anyone else.

I pass through town and experience a rare moment of depression. I want to sit in the sun for the next couple of days and read Stephany’s book, but the weather seems to be turning to something else altogether. Why am I bothering to make my way to the coast? Further south near Bandon I stop at Bullards Beach State Park for a break. Even the satisfaction of arriving in Bandon, a town I know well, where there is a bakery that makes the finest cheese croissants I’ve ever tasted, is underwhelming. The pleasure of the journey is momentarily lost, and the bakery is closed as I drive through Bandon Old Town. I think of the warm and sunny weather I left back in Portland, but I keep moving in the hopes that I can leave my abrupt dejection behind me.

Port Orford, Oregon – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

It’s late afternoon and the road between Bandon and Port Orford is hectic. School buses impede the flow of traffic. I don’t mind—it’s proof that the kids are back in school—that the pandemic may be reaching a new phase of healthier times. The road widens at Langlois. The traffic ebbs at the Sixes River north of Port Orford, and as I pass the Crazy Norwegian’s Fish and Chips restaurant, my muddled thoughts disperse like fog evaporated by the sun.

Everything changes dramatically all at once as the rugged coast appears. Back in 2018 when Finn and I came north through Brookings the weather was hot, the air conditioning in Turbo Woody was flaky and it had been a long day’s drive—up from Mendocino all the way to Bandon for the first time as I moved to my new life in the Pacific Northwest. I saw the coastline then, but I was preoccupied, tired, and distracted. This time the panorama astonishes me, and the older memory from 44 years ago comes back to me unbidden—the day in 1977 when I first drove 101 from Portland to my Bay Area home during one epic day-trip. I have not been on this section of the highway southbound since then, and once more it’s exposed as both beautiful and threatening.

The road turns easterly for a few miles at Humbug Mountain and becomes a narrow track hidden from the titanic spectacle of the Pacific. When it returns to the ocean on the south side of the mountain I stop at a vista point. Mist and sunlight dapple the water, and the wind is blowing so hard that I lean against the car for support, my hands inside my jacket pockets, my mouth agape, my lungs filling with the cold vigor of crisp sea air.

Here it is again—the unmistakable beauty of creation stretching to a horizon hidden by glowering clouds. Cliffs so steep that there is no access to the beach. Rock formations that are the scattered bones of the continent’s edge, eroded by patient wind and the endless lapping of waves and storms. Here I am— witnessing it like a mendicant looking for a handout of mystical vision or a shred of blessing from an invisible divinity that can only be vaguely realized by my spiritual eyesight, still imprecise after a lifetime of itinerant practice. Be still and know the experience says to me, and so I wait and gaze through a moment that goes back to a past that I have survived and a future that is a continual revelation.

The rest of the drive is a quiet passage through Gold Beach, Pistol River, and the spectacular S.H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, a coastline comparable to California’s Point Lobos but more lethal. It demands respect. I’m no sailor, surfer, or beachcomber. I only want to marvel—and to not take the sight for granted.

Home Away from Home – Photo by Richard Gylgayton

At Harris Beach State Park in Brookings, Paul’s trailer is tucked into Loop A, Site 35. I unload my belongings as he cooks one of his famous one-pot camping meals and serves it with salad. I drink a bottle of Deschutes Obsidian Stout and afterwards we walk to the edge of the park and watch the sunset over Bird Island. The sun is a translucent orb sinking into the sea as the wind blows the day into twilight. I remember that my daily experience is impermanent, but I also know the sun will rise again tomorrow morning, with or without me to witness it. The movement of planets and stars is assured, and as the last light fades the immensity of that truth comforts me—though I don’t know why.

“I’m part of a pulse. That pulse is neither benign nor malign. Not “love.” A force not a force, nor anything that’s a thing. The Formless maker of forms, whatever it may be.”

Reg Saner, “Glacier Gorge,” in The Four Cornered Falcon pg.18

Photo: Sunset at Harris Beach, Brookings Oregon, by Richard Gylgayton

Notes on the text:

  • “The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.” Joanna Macy. More information is available in her book Active Hope – How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.
  • A Question of Fate is a novel by my friend Stephany Houghton-Cavalier. Further information at this link and more detail about the book in my next post.
  • Paul is my brother.
  • Finn was my dog, a handsome greyhound, and a great companion. He passed in February of 2020. Turbo Woody is my 2015 Subaru Forester XT, now owned by my daughter. I name all my Subarus, admittedly an odd habit, but they are such faithful cars I feel it’s a necessity.


In a world where, as one poet says, “people seem to speak to each other mostly for profit,” it is exhilarating to listen to a voice that is practicing disclosure without seeking advantage. That is intimate.

The Art of Voice – Poetic Principle and Practice, Tony Hoagland

There was a time when endless days of rain made me sad—but no longer.

This is my third Oregon January. I am accustomed to the climate now. I enjoy walking in the rain—primarily because there are fewer people. I’m not a curmudgeon, but these days I find my fellow humans to be a distraction. It’s a side effect of the pandemic. How can I be fond of people and treat them with my normal friendliness when they may actually be a threat to my life because they refuse to wear a mask?

I can’t suffer fools, not gladly. I used to be forced into doing so—in professional life one has to get along with people simply to survive. But no longer. I’m free of that. Instead, I muster the patience required to move aside from the unmasked people that jog by me on the narrow forest paths of Mary S. Young Park State Park along the west shore of the Willamette River, trailing their possibly infected breath behind them invisibly. Do they actually observe anything as they run? Do they smell the clean air? Are they happy? I never see them smiling.

I suspect they are running from something.

I know I can’t outrun anything, physically or metaphorically. Sometimes when I walk in the rain, I lower the hood of my jacket and lift my face to the moisture. It seems reasonable to do that—as if I am having a conversation with another aspect of the higher power. OK, I get it, I say to myself. Rain on my soul and heart. Awaken me. Thank you.

I don’t run from those random interludes of grace. I embrace them. I can hear the rain falling, see the water running everywhere in streams and rivulets, and recall that my body and brain are mostly made of water and that electricity dashes through the tissues of my flesh and the soft matter within my skull. Nature is inside me. My soul is moist here in Oregon, swelling after dry years in California.

There is no fever within me now. Many memoirists write about trauma. Is that why they have an audience? Because the reader can say I hear you brother/sister. Been there. I have not been maltreated. My only distress is that of grief, and it has calmed through the passage of time—but I try to understand the suffering of others. Doing that is easier than bearing fools.

I wonder who my audience is, and if I had one, would they experience what I write in the same way? My story is not exciting, not filled with triumph—but is that an attraction? Does anyone really want to read a memoir by someone who came from a functional family enhanced by love, faith, and normality?

There really is no answer to that vexed and unanswerable question. I write because I write. There is only the need to get the voice up and running and let it speak—that voice that needs to be released, not for any other reason that it requires to be released.

The writer understands, at least unconsciously, that the voice needs to tell a story, and create a journey—perhaps fictive or true or both. It is an intimate act. Writing is the most private art. It’s a direct connection between the electricity in the writer brain to the reader brain, and the mystery is that neither side can experience the connection at the same time. It’s a malleable, mental illumination that can’t be measured empirically, and that can’t be denied as a mere hallucination or fantasy because it is not reducible to anything other than the closest thing that we have to mind-reading or casting thoughts into each other’s heads.

It’s an aspect of the human experience of the spiritual creatures that we really are—locked into our own ego-skulls, lonely and craving companionship. Poets, writers, playwrights, wordsmiths of every kind—perhaps even those who write shopping lists occasionally—tell a story, simply because it desires to be told and because writers live within their own metafictive worlds.

That’s the basic truth of literature. Writers have a voice. Readers search it out. No one can explain that in the same way that we can talk about calendars, longitude, latitude, chemistry, or any of the touchable sciences. The voice vaults from Imagination.

I’m mortal. Anything I write will be left behind, but who am I to think that anything I create, no matter how lucid or beautiful, is really of any great importance other than the expressions of a spiritual being who was given the gift of human experience?

I can’t deny the rain in January, or the fact that a half million Americans are dead from Covid-19, or that I can’t travel anywhere because of the pandemic—nor the fact that there are so many fools in this world requiring that I bear their existence so I can work on my own compassion and patience, hopefully compensating for my own foolishness.

I am living in my own metafiction. The rain is falling. There’s a break coming up soon. I will walk and remove my hood and await the voice, which is always there, riding on the atmospheric river, and flowing from my soul. It’s what I do, and I’ll keep at it.

Willamette River – Mary S. Young State Park – Photos by Richard Gylgayton

Note on the text from Wikipedia.

Anthony Dey Hoagland (November 19, 1953 – October 23, 2018) was an American poet. His poetry collection, What Narcissism Means to Me (2003), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Wikipedia article about Tony Hoagland

Poems by Tony Hoagland at the Poetry Foundation

Skamokawa (“Smoke Over the Water”)

When we experience our own desire for transformation, we are feeling the universe evolving through us.

Barbara Marx Hubbard

April 18, 2021 

After a night of restless sleep, I made some sandwiches and packed up chips, water, granola bars, and chocolate—also added a few books to my writing backpack and made sure the Nikon D810 had freshly charged batteries and was secure in its bag. Then I arranged everything in the car. I never did read or take pictures during the entire day trip, but bringing books, writing tools and cameras is part of the ritual of getting on the road.

I left the house at 10:30 am, north on I-205 to I-5. Light traffic. My black 2021 Subaru Outback Onyx XT, named Dark Star, is a comfortable touring car fitted with 21st Century technology. Safe. Quiet. Reliable. I was ready for a protracted drive to places in the Pacific Northwest I had not yet seen.

The Grateful Dead channel on Sirius XM played a show from Baltimore May 26, 1977. I tuned in for the last three numbers: Not Fade Away, Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad, Around and Around. I wasn’t feeling dispirited, but the music was appropriate. Left I-5 at WA-432 through Longview (where I went last week in the other direction) to WA-4. Longview is a depressing pit of a port—the smell of sawdust in the air mingled with diesel exhaust. The stink of extractive, unsustainable commerce. The trees are cut into lumber there and sent up and down the river to who-knows where.

The smell reminded me that I need to read Richard Hugo (I started to do that months ago and never made a dent). WA-4 is a two-lane 55 mph road. There was light traffic through Stella, Oak Point, Eagle Cliff, and Waterford. Stunning views of the spacious Columbia River. Lots of haze—not good light for photos so I took it all in with my eyes and memory. Cathlamet is the big town on the route. There’s a bridge there that crosses the river to an island where there is a ferry crossing on the south shore to Westport, Oregon. I’ll explore that at another time.

My goal was Altoona, not so much because it was a real destination for views and photos but because it has the same name as the town in Pennsylvania, where I was born in 1953. That’s a pointless reason for a road trip but it got me going on an impulsive morning.

WA-4 turns north and west away from the river at Skamokawa—a Chinook word for “smoke over the water.” I love those Native American names.  Except for Cathlamet, these towns are easy to miss. In some of them the speed limit isn’t even reduced. Somewhere near Gray’s River I came up on a cowboy in a pickup pulling a trailer. There was a restomodded, lavender Harley motorcycle haphazardly strapped to the trailer and the cowboy was going 30 mph and weaving back and forth in the lane. This idiot was oblivious, and the terrible driving went on for about ten minutes until a big Ford F150 pickup appeared in my rear-view mirror. Not wanting to be hemmed in between the two trucks I gave Dark Star the beans and blew around the cowboy when the road was clear. The F150 passed at the same time and started to creep up on me. I kept my foot down and left him behind. The tailgating here has become worse since the pandemic started and I’ve had enough of it. It was the first two lane passing job I’d done in the Outback XT and took me by satisfying surprise, very little turbo lag (far less than my 2015 Forester XT) and immense amounts of torque.

(Click on map to scroll and zoom)

At Rosburg (population 317) I took the side road to Altoona (population 39)—Altoona-Pillar Rock Road. Six miles of farms and out of the way homes. After three miles the Columbia appeared again, wide, patient, calm. There’s nothing in Altoona except a few upscale houses (comparatively upscale for the Pacific Northwest—not McMansions) and plenty of “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. Not an inch of public land except for a pullover where there are two informational plaques about Lewis and Clark and their adventures on the other side of the Columbia. The plaques were dirty and forgotten. I ate my lunch and listened to the silence. No traffic. Just me on the side of the road. So much for Altoona. Like my birthplace it’s a place where no one goes.

Before the Second World War Altoona was one of six fish canneries in the Gray’s Bay area of the Columbia River, but after 1940 the salmon fishing industry declined and the cannery in Altoona closed in 1947. The building remained derelict for decades and collapsed in heavy weather sometime in the late 1990’s.  There is nothing left of the old town except for hundreds of vertical pier-support poles rotting along the shore. A woman mowed the lawn in front of her decorative home as I passed, and a man in a golf cart waved at me after I turned around where the road dead ends. There’s a one lane private track that continues past the end of the two-lane, but I wanted to move on, and frankly I didn’t have any business exploring it.

As I moved on I kept thinking of climate change and wondering what will happen to that shoreline in fifty years. I can’t help but have doom-thoughts now and then, and I thought about that fact as I drove back up to WA-4.

A few miles past Naselle I turned south, and there was US-101 again—that “hard road to travel.” All through my West Coast life from 1966 on, I’ve rambled and meandered on sections of that prolonged road. I had not been on the Oceanview—Cape Disappointment section of the route since 1977 and I had no visual memories at all about the views of Willapa Bay or the Wildlife Refuge there. As this was a daytime scouting trip I didn’t stop.

The coast at Bandon, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Mist hung over the bay, and bloated, grey clouds obscured the sun—coastal weather that soothes my soul. I pondered living on the coast of Oregon when I made my plans to move from California in 2018, but they were half-baked considerations. I knew I had to be near my daughter in Portland, as well as an airport and hospitals. The Pacific Coast remains home ground for me, whether it’s Sea Ranch and Mendocino in California or Bandon and Coos Bay in Oregon. In a couple of days I’ll be joining Paul in Brookings. Later in the year I’ll return to northbound 101 back to the Hoh Rain Forest and a long meditative sit at La Push. The memories made there in 1977 have called to me for years like a far-off voice from my youth that floats above the surface of my consciousness reminding me of unfinished business. I’m not sure what that business is—not now. But I have no doubt that someday it will reveal itself.

A quick stop at Chinook County Park for some coffee from the thermos I brought with me. Chinook (population 457) is another former salmon harvest town. I sat on a stump with my coffee where the Columbia flows into Baker Bay and again watched the mist-smoke float above calm water. There was no one there but me. These parts of the Pacific Northwest present an impression of vintage decline and frailty—as if no one is really living there. It makes me think that the planet is patiently waiting to see what humanity will do at the crossroads we occupy—the point where Business As Usual is an obvious fantasy. What next? Some say it will be the Great Turning. I have no idea, and despite my natural optimism I’m not sure we are up for that challenge. But the bay was beautiful, and the hovering fog calmed my negative reflection. The coffee was still hot from the morning—the miracle of the thermos—and I sat for many minutes watching the water lap against the shore and the saturated driftwood, scattered there by tides and currents.

Astoria -Megler Bridge (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

Then I crossed over the Astoria-Megler bridge. It’s the longest truss bridge in America. I had not traversed it since 1977, coming south from the Olympic Peninsula with my amigo JS, though I’ve been in Astoria a few times since relocating to Portland. It’s not an elegant bridge by any means, but its sheer practicality is in itself a statement of engineering fortitude. I’m sure Lewis and Clark would never have imagined such a thing—which makes me wonder what things will be built—or removed—on Planet Earth long after I travel over the metaphysical bridge that we all eventually cross.

I considered continuing on 101 south and then returning to Portland on OR-26, but the GPS warned me that there had been a major accident there, so I took OR-30 east instead and left the hard road that was not so hard behind me for the day. Jethro Tull was my accompaniment back to the Longview Bridge and I-5 South. Home at 5:15. Total mileage was 280. 31 miles to the gallon. Not bad, despite the CO2 I left behind me—my own Business As Usual.

It was good to get out on the road. I’ve been feeling stale because of all the shut-in languishing I’ve gone through for the last year. The new memoir project is temporarily stalled. I’ve done some rewriting of material for this new blog but I did little sustained reading last week. It’s a neutral phase of creativity—I need to break out of it. A camping trip will help. Brookings awaits. These last few weeks I’ve increased my range of travel east and west and I’m returning to a section of Oregon I know well. Paul’s done some research on back roads in the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest and I need some Ocean Time and negative ions.

After dinner I watched a YouTube video titled “20 Greatest Rock Guitar Riffs” (coincidentally Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” was one of them) and afterwards I thought about the fact that I am at a turning point, like all of us. The last year was unexpected and uncertain. Now is the beginning of a new beginning and as the Sage says, new beginnings are problematic. Yet when one considers the limitations objectively, hopeful change is possible.

Always mist, fog, smoke—skamokawa. I’ll remember that word and all the memories and hopes floating above the water. I have time for considering them now at length. Maybe it’s my own personal Great Turning at the start of new changes. If so, I’m ready for those adjustments to chase away my doom-thoughts and reopen my stale mind to gratitude and transformation once more.

Difficulty at the beginning works supreme success / Furthering through perseverance.

— I Ching

The Long View

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Dark Star – 2021 Outback Onyx XT (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

After Paul left for the gym I headed out for a long drive in Dark Star. After a quick stop at Powell’s Books in Cedar Hills (to pick up a copy of the new Richard Thompson memoir—just published) I drove out Highway 26 and up Highway 47, the latter a road I had not yet navigated. By that time the weather was cold and windy, and I sensed rain approaching. It’s Oregon, I thought. What else is new?

The drive, the road, the weather, the time behind the wheel—all of that was the essential experience of being physically unrestricted, able to move easily, wherever I wanted to go. I was elated because it seemed a harbinger of my upcoming post-pandemic life—not so much the drive, rather once again the observation of my own life voyage. I’ve missed that freedom and my long road trips back to California and explorations elsewhere.

I stopped at L.L. Stub Stewart State Park— not a big place. It’s another one of those nooks in the crannies of Oregon. There were a few folks concealed inside their RV’s—and I thought of what Paul would have said: “that’s not camping, not if you’re going to hide indoors all the time.”

I got out of the car at the top of a hill and walked to a picnic table. Leaning against it I regarded uncut wooded hills, a plume of smoke, the overcast sky, and felt cold gusts of wind. There was no one around except for a grey-haired, elderly woman getting into a black Prius with her quiet terrier. For a moment I felt the ordinary veil of consciousness disperse, and wham-bam the emotion of being alive was there—present, and impossible to ignore —not that I would have avoided it because I long for it. I search for it. All I could say was “thank you,” which I did, and which no one could hear except for God, Great Spirit—whatever you want to call it—and a few crows hopping on the grass, searching for grubs.

Driving further up Highway 47—little towns—places that still depend upon timber extraction. Vernonia, just 2100 people, not far from Portland (I was home in two hours) but thousands of miles away in terms of the who-what-where-when-how of my own existence. North of town the hills were denuded of trees. At one point a sign proudly declared “replanted in 2018” on a stretch of land that even three years later looks as if it was clear-cut yesterday. My excursion along that road as an afternoon of getting away from my slowly receding lockdown suddenly became the hard and cold reality of visualizing history and perhaps the end of the world—doom-thoughts about climate change.

Turbo Woody – 2015 Forester XT (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

I continued up 47 through Mist (the town name is descriptive) to Highway 30 and then decided to drive over the Longview Bridge to I-5 and home. Back in 2018 Finn and I went up Highway 30 in July—a trip to Astoria on a hot day when the air conditioning had crapped out in Turbo Woody, and I saw the Longview Bridge stretching over the Columbia River, strangely built “way up in the middle of the air” as if it was on stilts. It was designed by Joseph Strauss of Golden Gate Bridge fame.

I wanted to drive over it that day three years ago, but I was escaping the heat of Portland with no cool air in the car and wanted to see Astoria to recall the time that JS and I went through there in 1977. Today I crossed the bridge while surrounded and hemmed in by truck traffic—many of the trailers hauling logs to the port in Longview, Washington—where they were destined to be cut or shipped, I have no idea which. I was reminded of the continual harvest of natural resources, and stripped mountains.

Woody – 1998 Forester S (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

I drove my fossil fueled car over that elegant 80-year-old bridge on my way home to comfort, food, and warmth. 170 total miles. No photography, just the drive. There was one treacherous, rainy moment on I-5 when a serious white out condition materialized, but I moved into the slow lane and cut my speed way down. I still get a little freaked out by that kind of weather since my accident in Woody way back in 2002. Now the driver-assist functions of Subaru Eyesight reduce the stress considerably.

Finn – “Let’s Go!”(photo by Richard Gylgayton)

It’s all too much, this “further up, further in” C.S. Lewis stuff here in the Pacific Northwest corner of America. A region far removed from my previous geography and yet not distant from the memories of my previous life embedded in the neurons that make up my cerebral cortex and that also provide me with the consciousness that makes me say “thank you….” Yet all of it is temporary. 

All that in a few hours, in this new geography—another taste of a land that I still do not know intimately. How long will it take for the Pacific Northwest to feel as familiar as my old home and its dry hills and oak trees? Will it ever? There is still so much to see, and time is short—but my wandering will always continue.

Notes on the text:

  • Paul is my brother. He and I often travel together. 
  • Richard Thompson’s new memoir Beeswing is a must for anyone who is a fan of his music. One of the great singer/songwriters/guitarists of our time.
  • Finn was my greyhound and loyal companion for many years. He passed away in February of 2020, just before the pandemic began.
  • JS is my old amigo, John Schettler
  • “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!” The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis

Lost Boy

Yesterday I rode the Max train to downtown Portland so I could shop for books at Powell’s. I stopped at Pioneer Plaza because I was hungry and there is a café on the corner of Yamhill and 6th that I like. I ordered a tuna salad sandwich and lemonade, then sat on a stool by a window and watched people, some of them young folks who were wandering about aimlessly.

Their clothing made them look as if the clock had been turned back to the 60’s or 70’s. I was dressed warmly, my San Francisco Giants knit cap over my hair, which is getting long again, so perhaps I was assisting in the perceptible time change. When I wear that cap, I fit in well with the crowd. Even with the SF logo emblazoned on it no one really pays any attention to me. Most people anyway. Occasionally someone will look at me and grin. Maybe I appear as a nondescript old guy with a bit of grey in my hair and sideburns. Maybe I look as lost and homeless as anyone else.

When I left the sandwich shop the air was colder. Though the sun was out, grey clouds were eating up the intense light. I crossed Yamhill and was trying to make my mind up whether to walk all the way from there to Powell’s or take the Max to the next stop and shorten the walk. There were no adults around, but I noticed a small boy about five years old staring at me. He was visibly frightened. I could tell that he wanted to talk to me. I knew immediately that he was lost. We looked into each other’s eyes and that encouraged him. There was a visual connection.

“I lost my mom,” he said. “I don’t know where she is. Can you help me find her?” 

“Sure,” I said, though I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. Maybe call 911? I could feel my old paternal instincts rising in me. Enneagram Type 2 stuff: if someone needs help, then help them.

“I know her phone number,” he said, through tears and fear. He was extremely brave. It had taken courage for him to ask a stranger for help.

“Let’s give her a call.” My instinct was to sit down at his level and set him at his ease, the way I would if I was photographing him. In front of the courthouse fence there is a small ledge at sidewalk level, not really designed for sitting, but it would work. “Let’s sit down over there.”

I asked him his name. “Ansel,” he said. That charmed me. I thought of the photographer as I pulled out my phone. I told Ansel my name and he said, “Hi Richard,” in a wavering voice that sounded like an out of tune oboe.

“What’s the number?” He told me, slowly and deliberately, and I typed it in. He watched me. It was a 303-area code. Longmont, Colorado. Tourists in town for Thanksgiving?

The phone rang once and a woman answered, her voice nervous and distraught. “Have you lost a child?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what else to say. “I’m here with Ansel and he’s looking for you.”

“Where are you?” 

Pioneer Courthouse, Portland, Oregon (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

“We are right in front of the Pioneer Courthouse at the Max stop. I’m wearing a black knit cap.” I stood up so she could see me in case she was close by.

“I see you! I see you!” As I looked around, I told her my name. She hung up the phone. In a moment I saw her running across the street toward us: long black hair, blue ribbed coat, and boots. 

“Ansel, is that your mom?” He didn’t reply. When she reached our side of the street, he ran to her and she bundled him in her arms. 

“Did you thank Mr. Richard for helping you?” I’m not sure if he replied, he was so deeply buried in his mother’s hug. She turned to me and said thank you. I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I almost burst into tears. 

“You’re welcome,” I said. “I knew there was a reason I was supposed to come downtown today.”

I don’t know why I said that. Often when I am alone these days, I feel an unexplainable energy guiding me, even when what I am doing is no big deal: like taking the train to downtown Portland to buy books. I just blurted out the statement. There was no response from Ansel’s mother. They were already leaving.

As they walked away, I could not hold back the tears. There was still no one around me on the sidewalk. I did not understand why I was weeping. Then I remembered a time when I lost my own mother at about the same age. It was in a store in a small town in Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania during a warm summer, not in the streets of a big city in the initial stages of winter on a very chilly day. I recalled the feeling of helplessness and dread. I assume many people have had that experience. It makes me wonder about the kids who have been torn away from their parents at the border by mean spirited racists and tossed into cages. I can’t imagine what distress they must feel, especially with no one around to help them find their mother.

MAX Station (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

The Max arrived as I was struggling to hold back my emotions. I jumped on and traveled one more stop. As the train rumbled, I calmed down. The afternoon was getting colder because of the clouds that had overwhelmed the sunshine. After I exited the Max and began walking up Oak Street to Powell’s, I walked past some homeless millennials wrapped up in sleeping bags. They were smoking dope and playing guitars. They had pitched an L.L. Bean tent on the sidewalk. I had no idea why they were there. They looked healthy. They weren’t the sort of homeless folks who were obviously mentally ill. They ignored me and I ignored them.

I thought of my own two daughters. When they were children that same paternal spirit possessed me when they were sick or upset. I thought about how long ago that was and how much my life has changed since then: living alone in the Pacific Northwest not far from my eldest, who is married and at the same age I was when she was born. I thought of my youngest, living in Iowa, making progress in her cognitive behavior therapy so she can deal with her agoraphobia, supported and assisted by her fiancé.

Powell’s was remarkably busy. I always feel an essence of positive vitality there. I assume that if enough people keep reading and thinking, we can keep our democracy viable in a time when it’s cracking at the seams. Powell’s sells coffee mugs and other items printed with the words “Read, Rise, Resist.” I keep meaning to add a couple of mugs to my coffee cupboard to remind myself that there is hope in these disoriented times.

(photo by Richard Gylgayton)

It was my first visit to the downtown Powell’s store alone. Other folks have been with me since I moved to Portland. As I walked through the stacks and shelves, I remembered the time I was there with Candace in 2007. I remembered where we parked and where we had a sandwich. It was a bright day in Spring, and we spent hours wandering through the store. The memory was vivid and in sharp visual focus like the photographs of the city that I made while we were there.

Seventeen years ago I had no idea I would be there again on a cold Saturday after Thanksgiving, searching for books on Bruce Springsteen and The Who that would give me color and facts for the book I am writing about music I experienced fifty years ago, rubbing shoulders with crowds of young people in the science fiction section, and standing in line to pay for a basket of word treasure with a rebate card from a recent purchase of a new oven and range.

It is still challenging to accept that my expectations of growing old with her were not to be and to acknowledge the fact that she left us bereft when she died without warning. I keep pushing through my new life after marriage and career. There’s no mother to help me. I do it alone. That I do accept. There is a certain freedom that comes with a life of solitude in a new geography that I am only beginning to investigate. 

I thought of also heading to a record store up the street, but as I left Powell’s and felt the growing cold I decided to go home. I walked through the passel of homeless kids. I thought where are their mothers? and walked on, back down Oak Street to 5th. At one point a woman strolled on the sidewalk, wearing a heavy coat, colorful scarves, and a red hat. As we passed, we looked at each other, a full eye to eye gaze, not just a surreptitious glance. She smiled. Was it me, or my silly hat that made her beam spontaneously? I kept walking, though there was a part of my mind that wanted to stop and say hello.

Inside the MAX (photo by Richard Gylgayton)

I did not have to wait long for the train. There was a group of thirty-somethings making a lot of brash talk-noise, but it didn’t disturb my reverie. The Orange Line train to Milwaukie was empty. I pulled out one of my new books, a recently published volume about the history of xenophobia in America and began reading. My thoughts kept wandering to Ansel and his mother. I hoped he would be ok and not experience much trauma from his adventure and anxiety. I thought he might remember that experience in sixty years as I had remembered mine.

When I arrived home, I put Bob Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind in the CD player. My recent re-fascination with Dylan’s music has nothing to do with the book I am writing; it’s a side project. Perhaps the music interests me because I am an elder and I can finally dive into the murky meanings of his songs, especially the ones Candace loved. She was a walking Bob Dylan lyric archive. She sang along with every song whenever I played his recordings. Not well, she was rather tone deaf, but I always paid attention to the lyrics when she sang them aloud. Now I read them while listening to the tunes. The first track on Time Out of Mind is called “Love Sick.”

I’m walking through streets that are dead

Walking walking with you in my head

My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired

And the clouds are weeping.

Did I hear someone tell a lie?

Did I hear someone’s distant cry?

You thrilled me to my heart, then you ripped it all apart

You went through my pockets when I was sleeping.

The lyrics do not fit precisely into my experience of the afternoon. Yes, the streets seemed dead as the sunlight dimmed, Candace was in my head, my feet were tired, and my brain was spiritually energized. But the dark clouds were not delivering rain, no one had lied, and the only cry I had heard was Ansel asking me if I would help him find his mother by calling her cell phone.

Certainly, my heart was ripped apart almost six years ago, but it was no one’s fault. It was just one of those things that inevitably happens, that we never want to anticipate, that cannot be avoided. But as Dylan finished the song and sang “I’d give anything just to be with you” I sensed the tune searching in my pockets while I was wide awake, looking for the memories that are my treasure, hidden amid the pennies and lint.

King City Wandering

Image credit: Dorothea Lange. (1936) “Bum blockade.” photograph, public domain.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 – 8:07 am – Last Homely House

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Looks like a bright and sunny day ahead. Another press of coffee this morning. It’s the best way to wake up and write.

From Richard Rohr—a photograph by Dorothea Lange.

King City! I’ve wandered through there countless time traveling on 101—that “hard road to travel” as John Fahey titled it. Never had the sort of problem as expressed in this image though. Reminds me of the time I picked up a hitchhiker in Santa Maria. Only time I ever did that. I should write that out sometime. A strange experience. I remember it vividly, as I do most things.

We are all wanderers looking for love. Our journey starts with people, and that’s how we find the love of God. Even as I sit here in my homely house, in a fresh state of mind, with resources, warmth, food, and possibilities, I’m still wandering through my own experience. My own life. My own story. I’m grateful for all of it. There have been very rough times. But through it all I’ve always had—and have—hope and the knowledge that the higher power is looking out for me.

Occasionally when I reflect on moments of the past they not only seem like personal experiences but become representations of the larger human journey that we all make. Yesterday while talking with JS we discussed that fact, though we used different words. A life without reflection and contemplation is a half-lived life. It’s not for me to judge people who are incapable of that self-awareness—meaning the bigger Self that is the God-part within us trying to reveal itself—loving us the entire time.

You can’t get out of your own way without reflection and consideration. You can’t be authentic without looking inward and finding the Source. I think that’s the utter stark truth. All the struggles that we have in life, especially the ones we have with other people, can’t be understood in their entirety and scope without knowing and loving ourselves.

This last year I have watched it play out in my own country—the only time I can recall in my life when all of us were in crisis at the same time. Existential crisis at that! Staring at the possibility of catching a life-threatening disease and having to stop everything that we considered normal in order to protect ourselves. In doing so we had to face the possibility that “normal” was anything but normal.

I already knew that from my own understanding. Loss does that. It shakes you up. You deal with it, or you don’t. What we’ve seen in our fellow humans is that fact playing out in the midst of a planetary event with unmeasurable psychic effects and countless variations of response and non-response from every one of us. Our fantasies of comfort and security were revealed. Some of us saw that. Many did not. And though the light is at the end of the tunnel I wonder if we have learned that “business as usual” is not sustainable.

I learned that fact seven years ago when my wife passed away unexpectedly. It’s taken that long for it to sink in. I surrendered to it and it redeemed me. Maybe that would have happened anyway. This last year was not as bad for me as it was for others. I didn’t get sick. I didn’t lose anyone to the virus. (My old pal Lou Pierotti passed, but not from complications of Covid.) In fact, this entire experience gave me the opportunity to set my roots deep into the Pacific Northwest. Bloom where you are planted.

Yesterday I was able to schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine. March 29. Not so much a sense of relief as that of freedom. (Those two things are not the same.) I am reminded that the higher power is always there and that I need to surrender to it. Over and over again. And then again, as I wander down my own highway looking for a ride.

John Fahey 07 101 Is a Hard Road to Travel