Friday, February 6, 2009

After Sundown

After 24 days at the Sundown M Ranch near Yakima, I returned to my cabin in the Washington woods. You come out of treatment and it feels as if you had slid down a mile-long sheet of sandpaper. If you dropped a glass in the kitchen, you'd weep for hours.

The cabin was still there under the shadow of the Olympic Mountains when I drove up, and the juncos were still around, although they had eaten all the seeds from the 50-pound sack I left spread across the porch. I was home again, alone with myself. But I felt buoyant, able to look at myself in the mirror, and ready to see the world through fresh eyes.

The recovery meetings were in Port Townsend, fourteen miles away, and I began working anew on my flawed novel, breaking at eleven to drive into town. My cabin was on the Egg and I Road, named after Betty MacDonald's book about Ma and Pa Kettle and their chicken ranch here at the base of the Olympics during the late Depression era. I thought it was prophetic that I should be writing my novel again, reborn here on the Egg and I.

You drove down the hill into Beaver Valley, along the narrow winding green road between farms and stands of old growth forest, past small farm implement businesses and auto yards until, finally, the road emerged on a majestic bluff overlooking Port Townsend where the town spread out over rolling hills surrounded on three sides by the waters of Puget Sound. Sails glimmered in the bay and the Keystone ferry steamed across the channel.

The recovery group, on the other hand, met in a squalid setting, in the basement of a furniture store at the rear of a strip mall that overlooked a parking lot with trash dumpsters. You went through a solid wood door into a room thick with cigarette smoke and filled with the din of excited chatter. The black coffee would melt the enamel off of an elephant's tusk.

But after a few visits, I shook hands with John B., and was grateful that he became my friend. He had been a colonel in the Army and now had a small ranch just off the Egg and I in Beaver Valley. He invited me down for coffee and football on Sunday mornings and we'd stand on the back deck, gazing at the snow-capped Olympic mountains, happy that we'd lived long enough to stand here in the cold morning, steam rising from the rain-soaked deck, the horizon shimmering in the warming day.

John worked at a small oil supply company, but his wife Dixie insisted that I come down after writing in the morning and spend time in the barn at the J-Bar-D Ranch. They had four Palominos and one waddled around in the hay, pregnant and uncomfortable. My favorite horse was Laddie. I gave him carrots and he bobbed his head every morning when I walked through the corral in my rubber boots. One time I was late and Laddie stamped his foot and snorted. I tried to hide the bunch of carrots behind my back and he came up abruptly and nodded directly atop my head, dropping me to the turf like a sack of stones. Out cold! It was love, Dixie later explained, expressed in the language of horse.

I had always been all-thumbs and, now with my brain circuits heavily searching to make new connections after years of living in a bath of toxic chemicals, I would simply bang into things. I had bruises and welts all the time though I couldn't quite remember causing them.

It was Johnny's own mistake to trust me with the spreader. But one afternoon in early spring he asked if I'd take fertilizer out to the pasture while he ran errands in town. It was simple, he said. You dumped three or four bags of it into the bin, drove out to the field, and used hydraulics to open the spreader. It seemed straightforward. I knew how to run a tractor from my days on the kibbutz.

But I had no idea how to set the feeder, and after dumping an entire bin of fertilizer on a narrow strip of field, I came back in for more. Dixie looked horrified. I had used nearly half the supply for the entire pasture on part of the field.

John rolled his eyes when he came home. I could see he was damming up a torrent meant for me. But he only said, "there goes that!" He later predicted that the fertilizer would burn the section all the way to China and nothing would grow. But the following summer, to our surprise, the strip grew thick with hay that rose bright and green like nature's mohawk in the midst of the field.

That was about the time that the mare went into labor. I had been on the phone with Dixie every day that week, between my recovery meetings, my walk out to the old growth where I hugged trees and wept in gratitude, and the five pages I would write on the novel. The baby was coming.

Sunday morning, about 8, Dixie called and I drove like a madman down the winding Egg and I, spun out in front of a logging truck, and sat on the side of the road, my heart banging madly until I gathered myself up and drove the rest of the way to the J-Bar-D.

Dixie and a few neighbors gathered at the stall where the mare was pushing out the white envelope that surrounded the foal. In all, it took over an hour, but out she came, stepping with outsized legs into the world, rising to her feet in less time than I could ever imagine, the memory of centuries working on her behalf, rising quickly in nature to escape predators that might come to eat her or the placenta. And before the morning was out, the foal was walking, staggering comically on those spindly legs, wobbly, straining with uncertain eyes to find the mare's milk.

Dixie took the afterbirth to burn and bury in the field, lest it attract coyotes and, afterward, we sat in the kitchen, John B. and Dixie and I, sipping coffee, feeling the enveloping warmth of the fire from the crackling wood stove, smiles all around, three friends peering at the world through new eyes.

There would be hard times to come, and Dixie would pass away, leaving John B. twice a widower. And I would descend into a long depression, now freed from the substances I had used so long to mask it. But there was no hint of any of these things on that day as springtime came to Beaver Valley.


Bill Stankus said...

For several decades, perhaps since the 60s, people have found the Pacific edge, from Fort Bragg California to the Puget Sound region as a place of recluse, rediscovery or as a place to just be lost. There's something about fog and green, tall trees, mountains and the Pacific Ocean which makes the region altogether different from anyplace else.

When the original SF hippies held a mock funeral for the SF hippy scene back in 65 or so, many of those cats left the Bay Area for Mendocino. When he was skipping off to Mexico Ken Kesey had his bus "Further" left along the highway north of the Eureka area. After his drug bust and promise to go straight - he settled in Oregon - on a ranch.

And today, despite the fact that it just isn't so, Seattle has the rep of being a place full of iconoclastic free spirits.

Char said...

I've always thought that I wanted to move to Chelan one day. I think of apple blossoms and that big lake. And what it must look like in spring.

tangobaby said...

You make every memory so vivid, like a little brilliant movie. The quiet and beautiful places in the world, where people just do what they need to do, sometimes that seems so far away from where I live...

I love the ending, and the birth of the colt.