Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Big Two-Hearted

“If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.”-Philip Larkin, “Water”

Four months ago, my brother Keith and I traveled to the Two-Hearted River in northern Michigan.  We drove with my friend Dave and Keith’s girlfriend Erin after another friend’s wedding.  We left the wedding after midnight and didn’t arrive at the Two-Hearted until almost dawn.  Dave drove.  I slept against the back window with my cheek pressed to the glass and woke only once, when the headlights of our car illuminated the silhouette of a black bear blocking the road.  Keith and Dave shouted and the car jolted, making my body lurch forward, before the bear ambled off and I fell back asleep. 

I woke stretched across the backseat of my brother’s car, still wearing my contacts and jeans I pulled on after the wedding.  Sun shadowed my body and when I opened the door of the car the air felt dry and crisp.  I walked past pitched tents down a hill to the Two-Hearted River--the namesake of Hemingway’s story: “The Big Two-Hearted River.”   When I splashed river water on my face it felt cold enough to numb my fingers and redden my cheeks.

I borrowed a compass and bushwhacked the mile and a half from our campground to Lake Superior.  Ferns whipped my legs and sandy soil filled my canvas slip-on shoes.  I scrambled up hills and down a dune, stripped to my underwear, and waded into the water. I dipped my hair under the waves till it hung damp at my shoulders.  I drifted on my back.  I let myself go limp in the waves, baptizing my body in lake water. 

That day, we walked from the campground to a bridge above the Two-Hearted.  I cut my jeans into shorts using my brother’s Leatherman so I could stand in the river and fish.  We took photographs of each other in cut-offs and cuffed pants, t-shirts and flannels, drinking Bell’s "Two-Hearted Ale" and casting in the same river Nick Adams, Hemingway's protagonist, fished after returning from the first World War almost a century ago.  Later, we traveled to mouth of the Two-Hearted, where we let the speed of the river sweep us into Lake Superior.  We ran and jumped.  We tucked our legs into our stomachs so our torsos moved through the river faster.  We bruised our butts on river stones and swam in the cold water till our skin stung.  Then we read Hemingway out loud, popcorn style, passing the book from one person to another.  I watched my friends drinking beer, huddled around a book I loved, and felt like Hemingway’s protagonist, Nick Adams: “there in the good place,” “in my home where I had made it.”

Before we left the Two-Hearted, Dave and Boot wanted to jump from a fallen tree into the river.  I stood on the bank, watching them climb weathered limbs.  The top of the tree had been cut, creating a spot the size of a dinner plate, flat enough to stand on, about fifteen feet above the water.  I watched them jumping into the sandy-bottomed river. 

“Wanna try?” Boot asked.

When I told him that I did but I felt nervous, both Boot and Dave assured me that it was normal--that humans should fear falling.  We don’t want to let our bodies sail through space.  They told me it would be scary, but also fun and safe.  I looked up then looked at both of them.  I set down my backpack.  I dropped my towel, stepped out of my shorts, curled my bare feet around the stubs of severed branches and started to climb.  Boot followed me.  He told me which limbs were loose and which could support my weight.  He helped me pick a spot to jump from.  I let my body submit to the sensation of falling.  The river zipped me into it, smooth as a stone, and when I burst up from the water, I knew that the next four months would be better than the last four, that the world is big and wild and I planned to let myself succumb to it—with all its joy and pain and love and fear.

I’ve tried to explain to half a dozen people why that day at the Two-Hearted meant so much to me—why I needed that day to move from one part of my life to the next.  That day started so much of what was to come, setting the tone for my move west and my time in Holden Village.  I needed to cut my jeans into shorts with a pocket knife, stand waist-deep in water casting, and swim until it hurt with people who made me laugh until it hurt. I needed to read out loud with friends and I needed to do something that scared me.
I spent Thanksgiving in Holden Village, three hours from the nearest city, store, or cell phone signal. Holden Village starts its Thanksgiving celebration with a Turkey Trot.  But Holden’s Turkey Trot is unlike any road race I've ever run. Participants were asked to predict their times and the runner who ran closest to his or her anticipated time won. No watches allowed, costumes suggested, cheating encouraged. We all started in the middle of the village and ran a road that looped around the mine. Everyone chose which direction he or she wanted to start so when the gun went off, the crowd parted, running both ways down the road.  I ran with my friends Peter and Dhiraj. We led our half of the crowd, ran way faster than our predicted times, and talked the whole way. We finished at the dining hall where the kitchen served egg bake, fruit salad, and applesauce. 

I spent the rest of the morning snowshoeing with my friend Scott on the second level of the old Holden mine. We wandered through snow-stacked trees to an old mine shaft. We walked and talked and looked  Cascade Mountains which scraped the sky with snow-capped peaks. Later, we ate Thanksgiving dinner in the dining hall: turkey and mashed roots, Brussels sprouts and double-buttered rolls, pumpkin-spice pie and homemade apple cider. I did dishes for a crowd of one hundred fifty with a team of seven who danced and laughed as we washed, swirling and spinning to pop music as we fed dishes through the Hobart.

That night, my housemate Kari and I went sledding. Hoarfrost sparkled the snow and the clouds parted enough for us to see stars over the silhouette of mountains. We tried to keep our voices quiet as our sleds scraped down the hill, bouncing over icy jumps, but by the time we finished each run, Kari and I collapsed into a heap of laughter. We felt so lucky to sled with bellies full of food and wine. We couldn't contain everything we felt in the silence of the night.  We brimmed with gratitude.
Saturday, at Kari's birthday party, a group of friends sat around talking about the good things in life. We made a list, circling from person to person. Gardening.  Fresh Baked Bread. Wood Floors. Dark beer. We kept listing for almost an hour.  The way campfire smoke lingers in your hair. Walking barefoot.  Sleeping in. The moment before you kiss someone.  Someone remarked: I like when other people do my dishes and I like doing dishes for other people but I don't like doing my own dishes. Someone else said she likes the way beans feel when she sifts them through her fingers. 

I joined Holden Village's Fullness of God Lutheran Church (FOG) the day after Kari's party.  I stood in front of the congregation and repeated baptismal vows.  I still don't know what I believe about the after life (or even this one) and I don't know how or why we choose to claim one set of beliefs over another in a world rich with ritual.  I don't think that baptism in a church is any more spiritually significant than jumping in the cold water of Lake Superior during a day of transition   But I believe in a world infused by the sacred and being part of a community like Holden makes me want to hold tight to that sacredness and serve it.  I believe in simple living, in giving grace to the people around me, in seeing God in gardens and mountains, in fresh baked bread and the sound of dry beans sifting, in the frost that sparkles the snow, the smell of campfires, and the silence of nightfall.
Hemingway named his story "The Big Two-Hearted River" because of the river's name.  "Two-Hearted" evoked Hemingway's protagonist, Nick Adams.  The story is in the subtext, in the sparseness of the sentences and the untold stories that white space symbolizes.  Nick Adams came back from the war and went fishing.  He pitched a camp on the side of the Two-Hearted to heal--Inside the tent the light came through the brown canvas. It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day...It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in the good place. He was in his home where he had made it.  Hemingway's story unwinds in sentences which make tangible both the turmoil Adams felt and the peace he found.

In Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" column Strayed described her yet-to-be-written first book as, "pulsing in my chest like a second heart, formless and unimaginable."  I don't know how I'll remember this time in my life or how I'll think about my trip to the Two-Hearted in the future but now I think of that trip and this time it as a baptism, a birth of my own second heart: the pulse of unwritten essays, unwritten poems, and an unwritten book.  The beat of questions about faith and home which drill through me every day I live in this beautiful place thousands of miles from where I was born.  And when I feel the rhythm of that second heart I feel grateful to wrestle with meaning in a world so big and wild.  I feel lucky to live in a place where I can wake each morning to sun shadowing snow-capped peaks and lucky to tromp back to my chalet each night in a village blanketed by snow.  I catch my breath and watch it freeze in the air.  I follow my own footprints back to the place I'm learning to call home.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

New Things November

"The wind carried the smell of the mountains, high and sweet.  It was so still I could imagine a peace without boredom."-Pam Houston, "Cowboys are my Weakness"

The first Monday in November my friend Liz and I walked until lactic acid made our calves cramp. We walked until the arches of our feet swelled and the cushioning in our shoes compressed. We walked until the pavement echoed in my shins. We walked together for the first time in six months, across Boise, Idaho, a city neither of us knew, a city where Liz had moved less than a week before. We hiked to the Table Rock where we ate vegan peanut butter bars and trail mix made from squash seeds Liz had roasted Sunday night.

When I hike in the Cascades I seldom see another person, but in Boise, Liz and I walked a trail full of footprints, sparkled with bottle caps and broken glass. Graffiti colored Table Rock with words that bloomed together, striping the sandstone red, orange, white, and blue. Liz and I photographed broken eyeglasses and Starbucks coffee sleeves littering the trail. We scrambled cliffs too high to climb without rope, stretching our limbs till they shook with fear and exhaustion. We photographed each other’s sun-browned sweaty shapes ascending above Boise. Below us, red and orange leaves dotted the city-scape, marking the change in season. 

Liz and I meandered into conversations that could have made us cry if we’d been sitting across from each other at a table. Walking shoulder-to-shoulder, we could bear the weight of the words we’d both needed to say to someone for months: stories we needed a friend to help carry. We retraced moments. We walked and we listened. We photographed traces of people who had visited the places we hiked before us. We returned to Liz’s apartment ten hours after we left, with swollen feet and sunburned faces and I wished I could spend every day of my life outside, walking with someone I love.
Liz moved to Boise with her friend Ian, dog Sonoma, and a kitten that doesn’t have a name yet.  The kitten, who we addressed as “cat” or “kitten,” fit in the palm of my hand.  She bounded around Liz’s unfurnished apartment, chasing shadows and sun spots.  It felt like the most normal thing in the world: sitting on Liz’s carpet with my computer across my legs, watching Sonoma and kitten skitter across the carpet.  It reminded me of the countless afternoons I spent sprawled on Liz’s floor in Ames, Iowa, while we were both graduate students at Iowa State University.  We’ve both changed so much since then, and yet, when we’re together it feels as if no time has passed, as if making breakfast and going for long walks and sitting side-by-side on the carpet are still part of our regular rhythm.

I drove back north to Washington on a two-lane highway that snaked Idaho’s western border.  I drove mountain passes with signs prohibiting vehicles without chains from driving them during the winter.  I drove along the Snake River.  Mountains rose from either side of Highway 95, shadowing the asphalt.  I bought huckleberry jam and sweet onion pretzels at a roadside fruit stand near Hell’s Canyon.  I stopped at the co-op in Moscow for a six pack of beer and a baguette.  I spent the night in Spokane, Washington with my friend John and his partner Tamera.  We drank wine and ate lasagna and baklava with our plates in our laps as we watched the Electoral College map turn red and blue.  I slept in their guest room, on a bed heaped with quilts and pillows and woke before five to drive the three hours back to Fields Point to catch the ferry back to Holden Village. 
My friend Brenna sent out an e-mail at the beginning of the month rallying a group of our friends to participate in a project called “New Things November.”  Every day in November, Brenna tries to do something new and she invited us to do the same.  November first: Brenna wore bright blue tights, November second: Brenna cooked balsamic roasted cauliflower.  Brenna bought sandalwood soap and read at a poetry slam, she chalk-dyed her hair teal, learned to jack-up a car, and made breakfast hash with golden beets.  She asked us to e-mail updates about our November endeavors.

Melissa finished knitting her first scarf and made chocolate beet cupcakes.  Katie ate quail eggs, watched a James Bond movie, went to a hookah bar, and sang karaoke.  Gen started training for a half marathon, made pumpkin curry, and tried meditating.
Sometimes we need an excuse to take initiative to do the things we know we want to do.  Today, like most days in “New Things November,” I filled my time with novelty and felt the significance of that newness.  I went to my first winter waffle bar and topped my waffles with blueberries, powdered sugar, and walnuts.  I listened to a man describe the history of the Holden mine and its remediation.  I participated in a village-wide snowball fight and spent over three hours sledding down chalet hill.

This month I’ve gone on a midnight walk, chalk-dyed my hair pink, and helped judge a pie contest.  I organized a book club, presented my thesis,went to a beer tasting, ate black bean brownies, climbed Table Rock, attended my first Washington state cross country meet, and drove to Boise to visit my best friend.  It’s been a month of novelty and nesting—of being playful and vulnerable, of learning to trust and be trusted, of trying out new routines in a place I’m trying to make my home.
Today, while sledding, my friend Anna said that living in someplace so beautiful makes everything seem significant: standing on the top of the sledding hill, doing snow angels with the first graders, walking to breakfast in the morning--the way the sun shadows the mountains and the way the clouds move over the ridge, shrouding the peaks in filmy white.  "We're so lucky we live here," I whispered back.  She nodded.  Then we high-fived like high school students on a sports team, giddy about getting to spend a winter in the mountains.

I’ve been thinking lately about travel and change, community and home, about the people we attach ourselves to and the obligation that attachment entails.  I’ve been thinking about trying new things and sinking into old habits.  I’ve been thinking about the ways I feel myself changing and feeling lucky to be living in a place that supports me through those changes.  In Brian Doyle’s beautiful book, Mink River, character nick-named Worried Man describes his relationship with his wife, "She knows me.  She desires my joy.  I desire her joy.  That's the point of being married.  To want the other to be joyfully at peace."  I dogeared the page because it seemed like a statement not just about marriage but about friendship and community.  We want to know one another, we want each other to be joyfully at peace.

The village and everything around it is knee deep in snow.  At night the snow reflects moonlight, making it easier to move safely in the dark.  I like how quiet the woods get: with a blanket of powder smothering sounds and softening my footsteps.  I've been walking a couple miles most nights: to Ten Mile Falls, the labyrinth, Glacier Peak Wilderness, the bridge, or the ball-field.  My favorite part of night hikes is walking back into the village--seeing the light of the lodges and chalets, and letting the stream of brightness lead me back to my chalet. When I see the lamplight of the living room of Chalet 4, I feel so grateful: grateful for friends who push me to do new things and for friends who feel so familiar that they can make any city feel like home, grateful to live someplace so beautiful it hurts, grateful to be with people who wish me peace, grateful for the footprints that broke my path back home, and grateful to be able to slip off my shoes and walk upstairs in stocking-feet.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Country Roads (Take Me Home)

My Rand McNally Atlas, after four years of consistent use
I bought my first atlas May 8th, 2009 at a gas station in Dike, Iowa--a town with a teal water tower and just over a thousand residents.

I was on my way up north for the summer--an hour and a half into the eleven and a half hour drive from Ames, Iowa to Engadine, Michigan: the place where I planned to spend the summer, reading and writing in my parents' cabin.

I’d wanted to buy an atlas since attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Chicago in February of that year.  I'd spent the five hour drive from Illinois back to Iowa in the backseat of my friend Marissa’s car, looking through her boyfriend’s atlas. I placed my finger on places I’d been: I found the square shape of Iowa where I went to school, near the atlas’s center fold.  I measured distances with my thumb—five inches to Omaha, seven to Minneapolis, four to Kansas. I calculated miles and travel times.  I traced road trips I hoped to someday take.

My 2009 Rand McNally atlas has hot air balloons floating across the cover and features all fifty states plus the Canadian Provinces.  The woman behind the counter thumbed through its pages as I rummaged through my purse to find my debit card.  That's a nice one, she said.  I nodded.

I pressed the glass door open and walked outside. I rolled down my window to let the warm air filter through my car.  I placed my new atlas beside my water bottle and stack of CDs with black permanent writing marking them “Misc. Podcasts,” “Driving 1,” “Driving 2,” “Michigan mix.”
In graduate school, my housemate Anna called my car, my "noble steed."  She saw my orange Honda as a character in my story: an accomplice on my adventures.  But when I bought my atlas I'd owned my car less than a year.  I had no way of knowing that I'd spend the summer of 2009 living out of my Honda, driving between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas, crashing in the 19th century Coast Guard building at Whitefish Point, sleeping in the apartment above the movie theater at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, driving Lake Michigan's northern beaches and Lake Superior's southern shores, running and hiking Pictured Rocks' limestone cliffs.

Packing to go West, summer 2012
I didn't know that I'd drive that same car across the country to my first post graduate school job at an environmental education center near Tacoma in 2011 or that in 2012 I would drive from Michigan to the Cascade Mountains where I'd leave my car parked in a lot while I worked in a village only accessible by boat.

Every pocket of my car is full of maps--not just my Rand McNally Atlas but State Park maps and National Park maps: Olympic and Glacier, The North Cascades and Mount Rainier--a bicycle map of the Kitsap Peninsula, a crinkled copy of Washington State's scenic byways, and a road map of Montana given to me by a friend who motorcycled across the state.  The names of hostels and grocery stores litter the pages of my maps.  I dog-eared the corners of Michigan and Iowa in my atlas.  I recorded the phone number of a girl who interned at Our Lady of the Rock monastery on Shaw island in my state byways catalog   I scrawled directions to the Amazing Grains co-op in Grand Forks, North Dakota in the corner of my U.S highway map.
Before I left Michigan to drive to the Cascades I changed my oil, installed new windshield wipers, rotated my tires, and bought a new air filter in my car.  But the first time I left Holden Village, after two months of disuse, I found my car with a dead battery and a flat tire.  The interior of my car smelled like the slip-on canvas shoes I left on the backseat and I had to unlock and lock all the doors manually.  My first three trips out of the village I had no time to jump the battery or to remove my front tire.  So I abandoned the car till I could fix it.  I drove to Pullman, Washington in my friend Kari's car.  I borrowed the Holden Village van to transport the cross country team.  I let my car sit, slumping on its front tire, and worried about it every time I passed it in the parking lot.

My last trip out of the village, I talked to a woman who worked on the ferry about my tire and battery.  She told me she knew people who lived nearby who could fix my car.  I'll talk to Jim or Tom, she said. I hugged her.  Twice.  The next time I left Holden, a man named Jim with a jump box met me beside my vehicle.  Within fifteen minutes he jumped my car and inflated my tires.  I drove to town with my windows rolled down.  It was the first time in months I'd felt at home outside Holden Village, driving a familiar road, in a car which had accompanied me across the country twice.

Today, when I drove down to the state cross country meet in Pasco, I drove solo, tailing Chelan's head cross country coach.  I listened to mixed CDs my brother made me for Christmas and my birthday.  I talked to friends and family on my cell phone.  I watched the western Washington desert sprawl out in every direction: the Columbia River basin, red rock, tumbleweed, and sage.  
Jeanne, the head elementary teacher at the Holden Village School, ends most school days with music.  The kids have chosen "Country Roads (Take Me Home)" as one of their final song several times this week.  Jeanne plays her guitar and the kids follow along in their songbooks.  Holden's students know the chorus better than the verses, and every time they come back to the lines, Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong their voices gather strength.  By the end of the song, when the chorus keeps repeating, they're belting the lines--in soprano voices so clear they make me want to cry: West Virginia, Mountain Mama, take me home, country roads.

In a phone conversation tonight, I told my brother that I thought I'd know what I was doing with my life by the age of twenty-six.  He paused.  Rachael, he said.  You are doing something with your life.  You're living it.  And I thought about the journey I'm on and the ways that journey has become home to me.

Tomorrow, I'll drive from Pasco to Boise to spend my fall break with a close friend who just moved to Idaho.  I'll drive rolling hills and high desert in a car that's taken me through National Parks and scenic byways, a car that's driven me to half a dozen different places I've considered home over the years.  I'll roll out my sleeping bag on my friend's floor and spend half a night talking to her about the hundreds of ways we've both changed since I last saw her last April.  We'll fall asleep side-by-side on the floor of her yet-to-be-furnished apartment: a pair of twenty-six year old vagabonds who have learned to sleep in sleeping bags and  live out of backpacks, a pair of people who are trying make the road our home until we can lay claim to someplace more permanent.