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28—Phantom Limbs

To: Friends and Family
Subject: Phantom Limbs

This afternoon, I’m writing on battery power as gale-force winds swirl around my house. I’d hoped to spend the evening watching heron and the seals as the silvery peach hue of sunset slipped away into my last night here. But with the horizontal bullets of rain blasting in from the south, my window on the world is a blur. 

With the furniture back in place and all the dusty fake flowers, ceramic chotchkies, and crocheted knickknacks I'd stashed in drawers now filling every nook and cranny, the house has that feel of death that comes after the spirit that once inhabited it has gone.

cd is annoyed that the angle of the sofa no longer gives her comfortable access to the window. Mitts is confused at finding a table in the spot where she always meowed and sat up for her evening treats. And I’m dreading the next four months of urban pollution.

While I’ve always had a rich dream life, my sleep here has been dreamless. It was as if every morning I woke to a dream—the dawn of each day like Genesis with the spirit of creation moving across the face of the deep, revealing the old myths in a new light. Living apart from the system, I experienced these myths not as a collection of spiritual relics or emanations of ancient truths increasingly inaccessible to the modern mind. What I did experience was a fullness of being that has changed the way I relate to the world in ways I'm only beginning to understand.  

This morning on my way back from Tillamook, I pulled my truck off the highway and sat looking up at the clear cut I’ve passed so many times. As clear cuts go, this hillside is not a big one, just an acre or two of tree stumps, conspicuous along the wooded road like a smile with a missing tooth. As if still alive, the fresh stumps radiate a warm ruddy light. Between the stumps lay tangles and scatters of the small and commercially useless brush called slash.

An impulse drew me from the truck and up the slope through the slash toward a big stump in the center of the cut. If fairy tales were real, this is where Princess Rosamund would have been lying among the thorny tangles, asleep for a hundred years under the spell cast by the resentful woman not invited to the baptism feast for the princess. And why? Simply because there weren’t enough plates! For this trifle, the entire kingdom fell into a sleep with the beautiful and virtuous girl at the fateful prick of her finger. I felt a similar eerie stillness had taken possession of the clear cut. 
Trampling the thorny tangles of blackberries growing around the stump, I eased myself past the spikes of the jagged hinge where the tree had fallen way from itself and lay down on the sawed-off surface. I fit perfectly, except for the soles of my feet. 

The wood was damp and cold. I sat up and counted the rings inward, piecing together the spruce’s history through the wavy marks of the chain saw—a dry, narrow season here, a rapid spurt there. I stopped at ring fifty-six, my age. It had been an average easy-going year. With three times as many rings to go, I laid my hands across the sawed-off years. 

Sliding down over the dark, elephantine roots, I felt something under my boot and lifted my foot. Up boinged a tiny tree, not more than six-inches high with a tiny curl to its top branch. A hemlock. Reaching down to apologize to the little tyke, I realized the ground around me was covered with these little trees and even tinier flowers, delicate pink stars covering all the open areas between slash and thorns. On every bit of walkable ground between me and the road, there was no place to step with impunity. 

Suddenly, from all around the clear cut, phantom limbs reached out to me from their stumps. In an anxious blur of the real and abstract, I began my descent and sank into a tangle of slash covering a narrow gully. Like an animal caught in a trap, I sank waist-deep into my own struggling. Blackberries poked through my jeans and socks. Several cars sped by on the road. I thought about yelling, but who would hear and how silly to have to be rescued from a pile of twigs. I pulled the sleeve of my sweatshirt down over my hand and grabbed hold of a branch. A thorn hit a nerve in my hand. Pain radiated through my body. I held on and after willing myself free, fled the grief of the phantom limbs that bid me stay.

We’re scheduled to arrive back in Las Vegas on Groundhog Day. It’s hard to imagine what shadows I might encounter between then and my move back here in May. I’m in somewhat of a quantum state, that strange place where the math for moving forward is the same as for moving backward. 

The other night, Jane and I went to Art Space, an art gallery and restaurant where I enjoyed acorn squash ravioli marinara, salad, and peppermint ice cream pie with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. The place was bright white with polished wood floors and maybe dozen people dressed in their best fleece and flannel, all oblivious to the giant plastic tarp hanging over the entrance to the art gallery where the roof had come crashing down during the recent rain. 

Not since I left Las Vegas has anyone told me to have a nice day. Nice here is a blend of fatalism, fleece, a reliable pair of water-proof shoes, and humor, both dark and light. Candles are still used for ritual; but on nights like this when the wind drops trees over the power lines, ritual becomes indistinguishable from life, and chain saws cut right through philosophy. 

27—The Mechanics

To: Friends and Family
Subject: The Mechanics

With only several days remaining before the drive back to Vegas, my pickup suddenly fell into high distress. The ignition key began sticking. When I did get the truck started, it kept choking. And what had been a slight dwindling of power on hills became more pronounced. Before I left the town of cards, mechanics said the power issue was to be expected with a thirteen-year-old truck that had only four cylinders.

The first mechanic I consulted here was a taut, terse man with a spotless shop. Not a drop of oil anywhere on the floor. Claiming to be swamped, he appeared overwhelmed by nothing. “Battery’s bulging,” he said then directed me to the battery place at the edge of town. “Testing that battery would be a waste of time,” he told me as I was pulling away, then added cryptically, “You have to be smarter than the machine to make it work.” 

At the battery place, Sam hooked up the battery to a machine for testing batteries. “You don’t want to just go putting in a new battery if it’s something else,” he said. 
BAD BATTERY, the battery tester confirmed. 
Ten minutes and sixty-five dollars later, the engine turned over with ease but kept stalling. 

Jane happened to be with me and suggested I call her mechanic, Gary, who told us to drive right over.

Minutes later, we turned off the main highway onto a short road behind Stan’s Auto Parts and the car wash. There, we pulled up in front of a big off-yellow box of a building. Over the small entrance door, a sign said Gary’s Automotive. To the right of the entrance were two large automatic garage doors, both closed. 

The entrance door opened and out sauntered a friendly round-faced man, mid-sixties, not tall but solid in his blue mechanic’s pants and jacket. Gary’s Auto read the black patch on his blue cap. As the clock was closing in on five, I began rattling off my problems. 
Gary listened to my story but then seeing my Nevada plates, began chatting about the time he spent in Reno after his stint at Stead Air Force Base. In a matter of minutes we’d exchanged our migration stories.

Gary had started reminiscing about a fishing incident in Reno when one of the automatic doors across the front of the shop opened. Out rolled a big shiny blue Buick. As we stepped aside, the great blue car swung around into a line of well-worn jeeps and pickups. “The hanger queen,” Gary quipped, then nodded at my Toyota. “Nice rig.” 

Just being referred to as a “rig” seemed to perk up the old truck.

The Buick fell silent, the door opened, and out stepped a slim serious woman in greasy blue overalls and a brown ponytail. Gary’s assistant. Virginia.

Virginia ambled over, lit a cigarette, and took a long hard drag, the kind of drag that makes you wish you smoked. “Wanna pull ‘er in for me,” she said, nodding at the rig.

As I pulled ‘er in, it struck me that this was the first time in my fifty years of driving that while I’d seen men drive there vehicles into a shop, I’d never been invited to do so. 

The shop was dark, cluttered, and greasy but had a feel of homey confidence to it. 
Gary lifted the hood, listened to the motor, then motioned for me to cut the ignition. 
“I think I can fit you in,” he said then fingered some wires to the right and back. “The original spark-plug wires,” he noted.

As Jane called around for a ride back to Netarts, Gary and I chatted about the growth in Reno and Vegas. Virginia came over. “I'm leaving,” she said then did.
It flashed though my mind that if the gunslinging seeker after justice played by Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead had been real, that woman would have been Virginia.

“It’s nice to see a woman in the workforce,” I said to Gary.
He shrugged. “She doesn't drink,” he said, “and she's always on time and willing to learn. The guy I had before was the best mechanic I've ever seen. But he'd wait until I had five jobs piled up then wouldn't show. Had a bad drinking problem. Finally licked it, I think. I’m glad."
“So you’re still friends?” 
“Awh yeah,” Gary said. 

The next morning around ten, my phone rang. “Those old spark-plug wires were part of the problem,” Gary said, “okay for Vegas but not this climate. Same with the battery most likely. But the problem with the key is the tumbler. I called around town for the part but will have to get one overnighted from Portland.”

The next day as I waited for Gary to tally up my bill, Virginia ambled over, cigarette dangling from her lips. “Same thing happened to me,” she said. “That grabby tumbler.” She took a drag and blew the smoke away from me. 
“And we kinda fixed that front bumper,” she mentioned, nodding at the bumper that had been dented to a V when a woman with tailer hookup backed into me. I’d used the four-hundred-dollar insurance check to pay my taxes. 

“How’d you do that?” I exclaimed, running my fingers over what was now barely a shadow of the dent.
“Just pulled on it,” Virginia said. “Not much serious metal in today’s bumper.”
“Thank you,” I said. Virginia shrugged and started back to work.
“You know,” I said, “it's really brave of you a woman entering the world of mechanics.”
Virginia looked into the smoldering end of her cigarette. “It just comes natural,” she said. “My dad owned a junk yard. The brave thing woulda been if I'da jumped off into the secretarial pool.” 

The bill was less than I’d expected. No charge for the bumper.

Back at the cabin, I called to thank Gary again and to report that the old rig took the hill like a sports car.

It was during that zippy ascent that I began to think that brave without “natural” is just another word for all those grand ideas and heartfelt plans that somehow end up creating friction between the moving parts of our lives.


Post Script: Followers of this blog will know that the story related here is part of a narrative that began in December 1998. It was in the last days of January 1999 that I met Gary and Virginia.
After I moved back to Oregon in May 1999, they kept the rig running well into its seventeeth year when I traded it in for $2,500. The car is way more convenient but lacks the character of the rig. 

Virginia is still keeping cars running smoothly in Tillamook.

Gary passed away in July 2005, and I thank his wife Jackie for the pictures. I’m sure nothing I write can say Gary like the quilt made of all his shirts and Budweiser bathing suit.


To: Friends and Family
Subject: Sanctuary

In case  you're wondering about not hearing from me in recent days—I've been spending my time getting acquainted with the Roosevelts. The Roosevelt elk, that is. 

I’ve been enjoying my wildlife neighbors so much that several days ago, my new human friend Jane drove me seventy-some miles north to the Jewell Meadows Wildlife Area, a three-thousand-acre refuge that is home to a variety of animals and birds, the elk draw most visitors. 

Every day from November through April, staff from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife tosses out enough hay for each animal to get a couple of pounds to supplement its grazing. Feeding the elk helps them get through the winter and can draw up to two hundred closer to the viewing stations along the wooded highway bordering the refuge. 

On our way, we stopped in for a hike and some sightseeing in Astoria so missed the afternoon hay drop. Feeling downhearted at the sight of an empty meadow, we spotted a herd and were jubilent—until realizing it was a herd of Jersey cows. 

As we thought about heading home, there he was just across the road—alone and gazing down on us from a small grassy rise. Perfectly still andunperturbed by our presence. At least five-feet tall at the shoulder and brown, the color and spirit of earth. His antlers so wide and tall I could have nested comfortably within them. 

In the beginning was The Word. But our modern culture does not have the words for describing how the spirit of this animal transmuted the trees, the road, the meadow, the Jerseys, the air, time itself into a moment of pure and radiant energy.  

The intensity of the moment relaxed, as if the elk had blessed then released us back to our world. Turning his gaze from us, he moved into the trees. His fluid gait made of muscle and breath turned his physical presence into a kind of grace bestowed on all he left behind. 

At the next pull off, we came upon two males that had locked antlers in what appeared to be some serious elk dispute. 

We left the conflict and drove down the road where we found a meadow of full of females grazing. They were so close we could hear them chewing. A light mist, like the feeling of intimacy or holiness, lay over the world. Then from off in the distance, a gunshot reverberated across the refuge. In the stillness that followed, the meaning of sanctuary settled over the meadow into a prayer for all those left to the devices of the powerful grown careless with life.

• • •

For the next several days, I began seeing elk as if my eyes had somehow been opened to their world.
At a distance, they commanded the landscape with their mystical elk presence.

photograph by Ciel Downing

Up close, I saw something powerful in their demeanor...something I dared to feel as reflection of that which remained wild within me...something drawing me down unexplored paths within.

photograph by Ciel Downing

• • •

Unable to sleep last night, I tried reading. But it was cold, and I’d become agitated with thoughts of everything my move here would entail. I built a fire, snuggled up in a blanket with the cats, and turned on the TV to distract myself. Surfing the channels, I came upon a camera following a bull elk like the one at Jewell. A man’s voice, quiet and peaceful like the ambling elk, was narrating the movements of the fine animal with its mighty rack. The voice fell silent into a feeling of sanctuary—and then BAM, a shot rang out, and the animal crumpled before my eyes. 

Too stunned to move even a finger on the remote to escape the dispiriting sight, I watched, like one bearing witness, as the shooter and his pal posed in smiling triumph on either side dead animal—their thousand-pound trophy, the narrator called it. There was a bemused look on the dead elk’s face as the two hunters decked out in camouflage lifted up the head by the gigantic rack, giving the appearance that the animal was just hanging out with them like a happy dog.

• • •

Today, I was walking down a wooded road when all of a sudden I saw twenty or so elk watching me from a small clearing to the left. I say all of a sudden because they seemed to materialize like magic out of their protective coloration. 
“Oh!” I exclaimed, “you startled me.” 

The elk just stood, all eyes on me. I felt nervous, as if commanded by their attention to account somehow for my intrusion into their afternoon. As I described my encounter with their relatives at Jewell, it occurred to me that no one had ever listened to my unfiltered reflections so intently. “You know,” I went on, trying to build on our connection, “I’m vegetarian just like you.” The elk continued to listen. “And,” I continued, “the Animal Speak book said you travel in herds so your medicine may be a reminder that I’ve been isolating myself from others...“ 

Without warning, tears filled my eyes; and the herd before me blurred into an image of their brother elk crumpled into a lifeless heap two hunters called their trophy. Not wanting to lose sight of the living, I blinked away the tears. “Do you have any medicine?” I asked them. "For the grief...for..."
The elk turned and almost as if floating walked with the silence of ghosts into the trees. 
In their place they left space. An opening:

I recalled how earlier that morning I’d read that elk was a name European explorers gave these animals, elk being their name for moose. The coastal elk were later called Roosevelts, after Teddy who saved them from extinction during his presidency.
From his youth, Teddy loved his science and nature experiments. Following his presidency, he went on safari in Africa to “collect” specimens for study. This collecting took the form of killing well over a thousand specimens, with Teddy and his son Kermit shooting 512 big-game animals. Teddy then went on to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the Russo-Japanese War.

Perhaps as this world goes, I thought, sanctuary is a refuge from those myths that endanger our humanity by empowering it. 

I’d hiked farther than expected, and it was getting dark. 
I walked on, not making a sound with my feet and feeling just a little bit wild.

(Take a trip to Jewell Meadows and meet the Roosevelts. FYI: the banjo music has been added, unless the elk have gone hi-tech and set up a sound system.)

Next: The Mechanics


To: Friends and Family
Subject: Droppings

While being lucky in Vegas means a big win at the casino, good luck here in Netarts often involves some sort of encounter with wildlife. Several days ago, for example, I came upon a woman peering back and forth between a brown booklet and the ground around her woodpile. Hearing my footsteps, she greeted me, commented on the sunshine with the enthusiasm of Noah receiving the olive branch from the dove, then invited me into the yard to confirm her observation that there were two types of scat. Intiially, all I saw were small piles of black pellets. But careful observation revealed that, yes, the pellets in some piles were slightly larger and rounder than others. 
Deer: Internet Center
for Wildllife Damage Mgmt

Elk: Internet Center
for Wildlife Damage Mgmt.
“Elk!” exclaimed the woman, showing me the scat diagrams in her booklet and beaming as if showing off pictures of a new grandchild. 

“Deer,” she cooed holding the book along side the smaller, more oval pellets. 

With that settled, we introduced ourselves, and a genial conversation ensued about the blessings of living here. As I walked on, my new friend called out a reminder that I could pick up one these handy scat-identification booklets at Rainy Day Books.

Reports on wildlife sightings here are part of daily conversation: 
An eagle stirring up mass hysteria among the gulls as it glided over the bay. 
A coyote crossing the highway at about 7:15 a.m. down by the antler house, the antler house being a ramshackle cabin decorated with, yep, antlers. 
A bobcat glimpsed in a rearview mirror on the road to the dump.
A red-tailed hawk hanging out on the telephone line above the first dip in the road toward Tillamook. 
Two raccoons ambling down the main street of Oceanside. 
A kayaker at slack tide surrounded by seals. 
A whale in the cove up by the lighthouse. 
Antics of the Pearl Street darlings, Edgar and Allen Crow. 
Chester, the gull with the deformed foot who flies about town, limping forlornly across railings and decks to get snacks from the hands of the compassionate.

I’d begun feeling left out until the other day when walking to Oceanside, I rounded a curve in the highway and found myself barely ten feet from a doe browsing in a grassy patch alongside the road. I stopped, expecting her to flee. She remained, motionless, unafraid. Not even the least bit wary. Fog hung suspended in the crisp air like a held breath. “Hello,” I said, finally breaking the silence. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch.” The doe replied by nipping off several more salal leaves. “Looks tasty,” I went on. “I had salad for lunch, too.” 

As she continued to nip and chew, I saw not a brown deer but a sentient being with a grayish brown coat, a couple of patches worn thin and ragged, lithe legs, big perky ears shaded in various tints of black, brown, rust, and pink, the entire ear edged in white, a narrow face sloping down into a big shiny black nose, and those large dark doe eyes looking into mine as together we shared his singular moment swirling around the universe together on Planet Earth. We were not, I thought, so different—quiet and shy, vulnerable in a world that was not, with our only defense being nimble within our worlds as teacher and doe. I hoped she was more successful than I. 

Not exactly thoughts, these reflections were more like a feeling of something I can only describe as grace. And then with several exquisite springs and leaps, this marvelous animal bounded away into the trees. The sound of the ocean at the foot of the hill had receded but came back as I walked on springier of step and peaceful at heart.