Wednesday, March 4, 2009

At Sundown

After I broke the mirror in my cabin and set out a 50-pound sack of birdseed for the Oregon juncos, I packed some clothes in my car, a copy of Rumi's spiritual poetry, a jar of vitamins, and I drove across the Olympic Peninsula to meet the 11:20 am ferry. Once aboard, I left the car unlocked--what was there to lose anymore?--and I walked down to the passenger deck where I let the cold winds of Puget Sound blow into my face, streaming the tears from my eyes as they came. On the other side of the passage, Mount Rainier ducked under the clouds and the rain-swept skyscrapers of Seattle rose into the dark sky where they seemed decapitated by the squall. I was on my way to treatment, the home for the bewildered, the good old tank, purgatory for those who drank just a little too much and ended up spun out of the path.

In two hours, the little car had labored up over the Cascades, where I had to put on chains in the snow, then caterwauled down the dry side of the mountains to the sprawling valley of apple orchards, fallow by winter, and the deep-etched canyons of the Yakima River. By the early afternoon I found the turnoff, where the canyon dipped down beneath bare hills scrubbed by the winds, past the turnoff to the hilltop bar that gave departing visitors their first drink if they chose to ignore all they had learned about themselves.

The lane to Sundown M Ranch threaded between groves of bare maples and a series of signs, arrayed in Burma-Shave fashion (for those who could remember), one word per narrow slat, the signs arranged so a sentence flowed as you passed: ""

Oh, dear god, if there was a god I wondered, how did I slump so low to wash up at a place like this? I felt like I had just joined the Good Sam Club and had to find a recreational vehicle and a blue-haired crochet queen to accompany me on trips to the Ozarks.

They were kind enough at the office, apparently astonished at how little visible baggage I had in-tow, compared with other recent arrivals who brought bags of golf clubs in misguided expectation that they were in for some kind of laid-back tour of the links, followed by a quick sermon on the ills of excess.

It was going swimmingly for me at the arrival hall, a large room furnished with antiques and soft lighting, but then came the strip search. I suppose they were taking no chances with me. And they confiscated my poetry books. I wouldn't have time to read them, said the gentleman who turned my bags inside out and shook them over the mattress. Besides, he added, I'd have more important things to focus on. Apparently satisfied that I had become fully compliant, he escorted me to the lounge, a brightly lit dining hall with scrubbed Formica tables and plastic chairs, and he left me there. Everyone else, he said before going, was in group therapy and would join me shortly.

Did they ever. At the turn of the hour, the hall suddenly churned with residents who thundered in to grab cups of coffee or fruit juice or thick slices of chocolate cake. And they all smoked, some sixty men and women, filling the once-quiet hall with excited yammer and a dense blue-white cloud of tobacco. I took refuge in the non-smoking section, a room separated by a Plexiglas wall, where I sat alone. I may have had a small drinking problem, a loving relationship with marijuana--but I'd be damned if I had checked into this so-called ranch to take up smoking cigarettes!

By the end of the second day, tired of protesting at the high cost of isolating myself in the little room, I joined my fellows in the hall of cancer.

I was put into a men's group led by Jim B., a short, stocky man who had lost a goodly number of teeth to a methamphetamine habit of yore, but insisted on smiling through the gaps. His joy was infuriating. We met at 8 am in his conference room, a dozen of us, fellows concerned about whether they'd be allowed to go home to their wives and girlfriends, preoccupied with fear of losing their jobs--except for those of us who had nothing like that to lose.

The room looked out its huge glass window on the bare, rolling hills and bright green lawns of the ranch. We'd talk about our problems for a few hours, break for lunch, gather for a lecture on habit forming chemicals and the physical damage they caused, took an exercise break in the late afternoons and, following dinner, met again for a film or lecture or a recovery meeting brought in to us from townsfolk.

Sunday mornings, we met in the lecture hall where a priest would talk about uncomfortable subjects like relaxation, peace, serenity, kindness, compassion, and love...all the while showing slides of his trips into the mountains, jolly fields of wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, quiet brooks, the rising walls of glaciers where chunks calved off from the face and plunged into rippling lakes.

One afternoon I made a point of letting Jim know that he had misspelled a word on the chalkboard where he encouraged us to make observations of each other--both "posative" and negative feedback. He took it in, then asked, "We'll, professor, how did a guy as bright as you end up in a place like this?"

After a week long "communication blackout", the men would return to group to dump out the sad revelations of their telephone contacts with women back home. "You'll find your belongings on the porch when you get out," one man reported what his wife had said. Another said his girlfriend had simply hung up on him without uttering a word. I was curious, only, if my juncos had enough food to eat. Jim told me I would have a girlfriend again someday. But he recommended first that I buy a houseplant and see if I could keep it alive. Then, he said, I should try and see if I could keep a pet for a while. Then, finally, I could move on to humans.

I took it all to heart. Perhaps a little too much so, and one morning Jim called me in alone to his office where he showed me photos of his wife and children, posing in their yard with the Cascade peaks behind the back fence. He had been arrested for jacking stereos and televisions to help support his meth habit. Then he had recovered. "All in good time," he told me, "you can end up in a photo just like this one. In god's time," he said.

I told him I was sore at the place for stealing my underwear. I had been there three weeks, and at the beginning of each week, I put my dirty clothes in the hamper outside the laundry room and not once had it been returned to my room. I no longer had any socks. If they were trying to break me, I told Jim, they surely were succeeding.

He howled and sat against his desk a moment before putting his hands on my shoulders and looking me in the eye. "Gabby," he said. "You're supposed to go to the laundry room and pick up your folded laundry off the shelf. We don't bring it to you. Did you think this was the Hilton?"

In addition to the many rules and regulations--to stay inside the confines of the white fence that ran around the ranch perimeter, to stay out of the rooms of women, to sit with the men from my group at dinner, to not smuggle in dope for myself or others--there was a laundry protocol which I had failed to grap in the fog of my own making.

In my last week, I spent an hour detailing my life's experiences to the priest. I had never really spoken with a priest, had more than my share of prejudice against whatever he was selling, and was sure he'd consider me among the tribe that killed his god. But at the end, he simply looked at me and said, "I think you made a decision early on in life to be miserable." We walked together across the grounds in silence and went our separate ways to dinner.

When my 24th day came, I was told I could leave four days early. I had a fix on the problem. The men from my group followed me out to the front lawn where I rang a large iron bell to announce my graduation. I was handed a small commemorative coin--which I could trade in for a cocktail at the bar on the hill overlooking the ranch if I chose--or I could put it in my pocket and keep driving.

I gathered up my poetry books from the front office, said my goodbyes, put my arms around Jim and told him I would let him know when my snapshot was taken. And then I started up the car, drove past the office and along the row of signs that had confirmed that I had the rest of my life ahead of me as I turned left on the river canyon road, out into the highway that finally was headed somewhere, home to my woods, and to dear friends whom I had yet to meet, this family old and renewed that had long expected me.


A Cuban In London said...

After reading your excellent article, the question that kept coming back to me was: a Mazda? My God, Dean Moriarty would have been proud, mate!

Greetings from London.

Gabby said...

That settles it! I'm taking the car name out of it!

tangobaby said...

Gabby, sometimes I think you are one of the bravest people I haven't met yet. I am guessing that the juncos were okay.

And I did have to laugh about the people stealing your laundry. But I guess you did too.

Char said...

LOL at the laundry too. I love that part of the country too.