I began keeping a journal back in my late twenties. At first it was an occasional entry, a writer’s journal started as an assignment for a writing class at Arizona State University. Gradually it evolved to become an all-purpose means of working through problems as well as recording observations and ideas. It was a way of savoring life more fully, experiencing it more deeply. It eventually becoming a daily practice, something I do first thing in the morning as I drink my tea and eat some toast. It is how I start my day. It is where my inner life has its home.
One of the topics that surfaces again and again in those morning writing sessions is my relationship with the Northwest. My husband Bill Haney and I moved to Bellingham, Washington from Columbia, Missouri in 2012, but my own relationship with the Northwest actually reaches back to 1957 and my marriage to Ben Richardson, the marriage that was my first attempt at building an adult life. In my last blog post I wrote about our arrival in Seattle on board a troop ship in 1957. Below is a memory piece about our return to the Northwest three years later. It is taken from my 2003 journal. This is the entry that began my Northwest Journal.
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Columbia, Missouri. Friday, April 25, 2003. 7:05 a.m. 51 degrees. Grey and wet. Much rain this week. 1.2 inches yesterday in the rain gauge; .7inch this morning. Could get more.
Woke at 6:00 this morning, wakened by the birds. No desire to sleep in. Wanted to savor the morning. Feels like late April, early May in Western Washington. Reminds me of the May in 1960 when we stayed in Granite Falls with Ben’s Uncle Walt and Aunt Laura. Grey days that started early. Damp, drizzly days, the grass, all the plants beaded with moisture.
Memory. Our first spring in Washington, the drive up there from Phoenix the end of April, the last week in April, I think. Driving up there in the blue ’54 Ford, Renee three and a half, Beni just two, both in the back seat with our big, white Samoyed; a cotton trailer dragging behind the car with all our furniture covered with a brown tarp, looking like a big load of hay; trying to spend as little money as possible, wanting to save as much as possible of the $2000 from the sale of you house in Phoenix to finance our new life, the money needing to last until Ben found a job, brought in a paycheck—hoping to not exhaust that money, hoping to still have enough for a down payment on a new place—a house with some woods, a small farm, perhaps.
Oregon was where the misty, cool Northwest spring started. Started with the rain on Siskiyou Pass as we crested the summit, the road dropping down steeply into Ashland, the heavy trailer pushing us down that steep twisting road, no brakes on the trailer, Ben using every bit of his driving skill to keep us from disaster, the engine geared down and screaming, afraid to use the brakes for fear of over-heating and glazing them, yet also needing to use the brakes to take the pressure off the transmission so that it wouldn’t get torn up, taking the curves as wide as possible to avoid overturning. Steep drop-offs into a canyon on our right side, over-taking and passing geared-down trucks, avoiding trucks coming up the grade, watching for places to safely run off the road if the brakes and engine should fail—not a trip I ever want to repeat.
Daylight had faded into darkness by the time we reached the valley floor. I saw little of Ashland, remember only the next town, Medford, and our car and trailer jackknifing on the slick street when the car ahead of us suddenly stopped and Ben had to quickly brake. The trailer came around, hit our back fender, but the car stayed upright, and no serious damage done. After a quick check of the situation, Ben maneuvered the car and trailer in a straight line again, and traffic was scarcely interrupted. We did, though, take a break soon after, spotting a Chinese restaurant where we could park our rig. This was the first Chinese food I’d had since my family moved from California to Phoenix in 1954. It was Ben’s first-ever Chinese meal, and he enjoyed it as much as I did.
That stop was brief—I think we actually ate in the car. It was Wolf Creek Pass, about a half-hour north of Grants Pass, where we finally stopped for the night, at a place with small, old cabins in the woods, a place that looked cheap but decent, cabins with old linoleum on the floor, old metal bedsteads and small bathrooms, small wood stoves for heat.
That cabin—dim, colorless, damp, cold. Not freezing, probably only in the low 50s, but we had been wearing shorts and summer clothes in Phoenix, dry, hot Phoenix. Here everything felt damp—sheets and blankets, toilet paper, the old newspapers we used to get a fire going in the stove, a reluctant fire made with damp wood and many matches and wadded newspaper and much tending by Ben as I dug out sweaters for all of us, corduroy overalls and warm sleepers for the girls. Exhausted from the long, anxious day, we made a bed for the girls and climbed between clammy cold sheets before the fire could really take hold, warm and dry the room.
That night in the cabin at Wolf Creek was our first taste of both a Northwest spring and the life we would live for the next nineteen months. It did not match my fantasies of life in the woods or life living in the country in the Northwest. It felt strange, unreal, disorienting, a bit melancholy. Yet there was something about that cabin and the misty, grey, wet landscape that attracted me, appealed to me. Was it the solitude? The quiet? The sense of mystery created by the rain shrouded hills and ravines? I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly what drew me, why I was drawn to this landscape. I just know that it still haunts me, pulls me back. It somehow speaks to my soul, seems to hint at something, something that remains just beyond my grasp, something intangible, something for which I have no words.
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EASTER 1960, Phoenix, Arizona
Copyright: Loretta Willems, August 3, 2020