This summer, I left my job and life in Seattle to move back to Jackson, Wyoming and finish my novel.
I woke up the morning after leaving Seattle in a tent 30 miles from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to the sound of thunder and droplets of rain hitting my nose. The previous evening had been so mild that my Dad and I had opted not to cover my brother's tent with a rainfly, and after sitting around the fire and drinking a glass or two of wine, I fell asleep looking up through the transparent netting towards the tops of Ponderosa pines. The campsite was one of only two indicated on our indispensable road atlas, and after driving two country routes past "towns" with atmospheric names like Rose Lake, we found ourselves up high, flushing deer from their hidden hedgerow posts and passing old barns and cabins crumbling in on themselves. (A note: decaying barns in fields are like my favorite thing, ever). The next day, I listened to an interview with the author Deborah Magpie Earling, whose grandfather drowned in that very lake. His son always remembered the sweat-stained hat that lay--abandoned--after he vanished beneath the glassy surface. Oh, yes, I thought, it's totemic details like this that make us write in the first place.
Sleeping in a Forest Service campground after a long drive, partially on dirt road, seemed like exactly the right thing. Even though I was still hundreds of miles from Jackson, my hometown, those kinds of woods are home, and so are the little outposts within them. The campsite attendant camping there for the summer with his thick Northeastern accent; the little wooden port-o-potty and well structures; the process of walking out the flattest section of the ground and strategically pitching the tent to face the morning sun. Those steps have been with me since I was very, very young.
Of course, the thunderstorm and whipping winds dashed all attempts to rise with the sun or eat oatmeal cooked on the campstove, so off we drove as the sun rose (something I rarely see, being so much a night owl). All of I-90, the route we'd taken straight from Seattle and eventually into Montana, proved to be a rich vein of memory. As childhood memories tend to do, various family camping caravans and passings had collapsed in on themselves, but as the names of towns rose on green highway signs, the distinct places came back. Wallace, ID where we had once visited a defunct brothel and seen a list of "acts" and prices taped unceremoniously over the light switch; "Anaconda Opportunity," surely one of the most delightful road signs in America; Deer Lodge, MT, home of the old territorial prison and an old car museum and a preserved rancher baron's property. As a child, I'd keened towards every hint of History with a capital "H" and had probably driven the whole family crazy by insisting that we stop at all ghost towns and gravesites. Sometimes, I was disappointed to find that my excavations of cross-beam cabins produced nothing more than beer cans and the remnants of campfires. But nevertheless, a sense of struggle and effort underlies even lonely highways like I-90 and the empty fields and thick forests that mainly surround it.
My first glimpse of Jackson itself was through a haze of forest fire smoke, but the joyous greetings of our dogs remained the same. And so now I'm here. My trappings of Seattle life lie in a clutter of boxes and bags in my brother's borrowed room (the little kid's room, it still seems, even though Ben is 25 years old now). In the morning, I wake to the sound of my parents going to work and the dogs' nails clicking back and forth along the tiled highway. At night, I go to bed to the sound of coyotes wailing somewhere in the fields, and Canadian geese land and take off from the same fields all day long, honking and stitching together their ragged V-shape. The aspens pattern our drawn shades like static, ticking and shivering.
Wyoming. A place where you can go home again and ride around with one of your oldest friends in an old Ford Lariat pick-up truck and go to look at your old house on Angus Drive. It looks the same from the street, but the well-worn trail you used to trudge into the willow thicket has been swallowed by a new house on the corner lot. The trees are much taller. Oddly, everything seems bigger rather than smaller. And so you can go home again, but someone will have built a house over some part of your memory; a new generation of kids are leaving their inner tubes to dry in your old yard; the late-night diner is long-closed. The landscape, however, neither remembers nor forgets you. And this has always been the comfort of home.
(P.S. My friend Jessica Day is one of the people who inspired me with her own brave, astounding writing journey this year. She gave me the excellent advice that blogging is like the warm-up run for the writing ahead, and keeps you accountable to your goals. Her own blogging on the subject is so rich and lovely that I really must urge you to go here immediately and read it. My first entree is just a pale copy in comparison!)