Settling Some Matters of the Heart
The craft school is two ridges over from the base of the Black Mountains. If I stand on my tippy-toes in the gravel parking lot on top of Conley Ridge, and the clouds are just right, I can see the deeply carved pocket-face of Celo Knob jutting out from behind Seven Mile Ridge. The distance as the crow flies cannot be more than ten miles, but via state highway and back roads it is almost twenty.
All of this is to say, I live in a beautiful place. As I worked the morning shift for Jill today the snow began to fall vigorously. The view from behind the counter is of an old locust pole fence, rolling fields skirting into hardwood forest and then the uprising of the ridges. In the snow, it is utterly picturesque.
“I love the way the snow sounds when it hits the dry oak leaves that are still up in the trees,” Linn says as she walks in the door. “Ssssss, ssssss,” she wiggles her fingers in a downward motion. A nature-lover at heart, Linn is the Director’s assistant and recently got engaged to “a local boy,” as she puts it (with twang in her tone). I rinse her mug and pour her a fresh cup of our house blend.
Tom arrives to help cover for the lunch rush and take over the afternoon shift. His nose is rosy pink and large flakes of snow rest atop his black hair. He smiles and is out of breath from the shock of the cold and the mad dash from his car. He lets me leave a little early because the snow is sticking to the roads and piling up. By the time I pull out, there is over three inches on an unplowed mountain road, which descends Conley Ridge at a forty-five degree angle.
I gripped the wheel gently, put the car in low gear, and pointed the nose of my grandpa’s old Chrysler downhill. Lightly tapping the breaks, I made the first quarter of a mile without any problems, but at the first ninety-degree turn my back tires swerved outward. Regaining control, I pressed on, slower now, hoping for the best.
And it wasn’t as if it happened slowly, but that is what it felt like when my brakes locked up and my steering didn’t seem to make a difference and I slid right into a ditch. Feeling certain I would have to surrender and hike back up to call a tow, I considered the cost and the precarious position of my vehicle (half on the road, half off) and tried to peel out of the ditch. A second attempt in low gear was successful, the tires spinning at about twenty miles per hour, the snow still falling, my heart racing.
But I was not prepared for what happened next. Getting out of the ditch was the least of my problems, I suddenly realized, as my car started skidding across both lanes of the narrow mountain road and slowly turned sideways. The brakes locked again and if I had had the time, I would have cursed myself for putting off a call to the mechanic this long. Before I knew it, the nose of my car was pointing straight at the cliff-edge of the road where the land drops off steeply down the rest of the ridge.
And for a moment, I knew I had to surrender to whatever was going to happen. With my left hand I unfastened my seatbelt as my foot pressed on the useless brakes. I remember looking out the driver’s side window down at the edge and deciding it would be better to roll of out the car than to roll down the mountain inside of it.
Then I stopped sliding.
My front left tire just inches from the edge, the snow dancing like ballerinas down-down-down to the forest floor, my heart beating in my ears, my nose pressed to the glass, my leg muscles tense, my breath the only steadying force to pull me back to the present.
Getting out of the cliff-hanger was easy. I backed up slowly, then turned the steering wheel hard to the right and lifted my foot off the brakes to being floating back downhill again. At the bottom of the ridge, I turned left (instead of my customary right), knowing this would add miles to my overall trip but get me to a plowed road three miles sooner than the other route.
The rest of the drive was safe but slow, as there were two accidents and a rescue squad to pass, not to mention that the snow kept falling. It is not as if this was a blizzard, but unexpected snow causes a sort of jittery-anxiousness in many people. While I’m certain I could have done something different up on the ridge road (and called the mechanic sooner, as this is not the first time the brakes have locked up for no good reason since I had them re-done), I clearly wasn’t the only person having trouble on the road.
One hour later I arrived at my mailbox, happy to see that there was much less snow in my county than in the one I had just driven from. And maybe it was because I was overtired, or because I’ve been fighting a cold, or maybe it was because I almost drove my car off a ridge in just three measly inches of snow, but when I open the letter from Pacific University, ”Return Service Requested,” and read the line: “The members of our Board were impressed with your application including Pete Fromm, author of As Cool As I Am and Indian Creek Chronicles, who gave you an enthusiastic thumbs up,” I start to cry.
Home, I think. Oregon. For two months of the year I could be back in those trees, grey clouds overhead like they should be, smell of sap and cedar in my nose, walking the city blocks that I grew up in but always, always seeing that 14,000 foot beacon Mt. Hood on the horizon. Sense of place has always mattered in my writing, which means it matters in my soul. And for the first time since I started the grad school paperwork back in the November, something feels settled. I begin to think differently:
About how I will save up money between now and then and whom I could borrow a car from once I get there. About the prospect of writing with Rick Bass and Craig Lesley. About the emotional intensity of having my heart split between two mountain ranges – the Cascades and the Blacks – but also the richness that comes from that. About the friends I will see (and their babies!). About old lovers and my favorite coffee shops. About the Columbia River Gorge at sunset and Whitties and the Rams Head pub and how there are always bikers down on Northwest 23rd. About how writing my memoir for my MFA final manuscript in the city I grew up in is completely fitting. About how, after five years of mountain life, Portland is probably the only city I have tolerance for because I know it, breathed it for twenty years, painted warrior stripes on my face from its muddy fields during rugby games, becoming blood-sisters with a place that still fills my heart from 3,000 miles away.