Friday, November 30, 2007


Cold, rainy (low 30s)

During the fall, I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait to eat by myself! I can’t wait to think, and write, and knit, and decide how I spend my time. And now that time is here. I ate three meals by myself today. I’ve thought a lot. I’m writing at this very moment. I knitted earlier, and I decided how to spend my time from 5:00 this afternoon until now, 9:00 at night. And it’s lovely, truly lovely, to have that freedom, to know that if I wanted to right now, I could drive home, or I could go to sleep, or I could knit another row, or I could call a friend. But there’s another side to solitude, and that’s loneliness. “Solitude” sounds all noble, as if the person experiencing it is doing something important, something stoic and good. “Solitary” is the word you would use to describe all the important hermits of history. Would you describe Thoreau, or John Muir, or any of those crazy Catholic saints, as “lonely?” Surely not.

But right now, looking out into the the black night, the line between the two seems kind of thin. I love these moments to myself, when I can sit by the fire and do whatever I want, without inane conversation, without anything to compete for my attention. But I also hoped that Marc, because he has a car at the moment, would come out to visit, and he’s not going to. Getting him to come out here at all is this big, stupid issue, because he can’t understand what it’s like to want so badly to be here, but to not want to be here alone. If I didn’t want to be here alone, why did I take the job? I clearly do; most nights I don’t feel so restless, and the quiet doesn’t seem difficult. But then there are times when I want company, and I want it so badly that I get irrational and angry, and the solitude (of which I am proud) turns very clearly into loneliness.

Someone told me yesterday that Rilke said something along the lines of, “The times when you don’t want solitude are the times when you need it the most.” I just looked it up, and the actual passage is:

"There is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy. . . . But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows..."

And everyone who’s being honest about loneliness knows that. I can’t get out of my mind something that one of the wilderness therapy kids said last winter, which was in reference to the week they had spent totally alone in a little tent in the wilderness, without speaking or communicating in any way. What he said was, “It was really hard. It totally sucked at first. But what I learned was, if you can’t like yourself, why should anyone else like you?”

This was probably an idea they pursued a lot in their group, but it stuck with me. We all have those friends who hate to be alone for any reason, who seem so afraid of themselves that they wouldn’t dream of spending Friday night alone in a cabin in the woods. And that seems silly. Although I plan to always have people around me in my life, I know there’s only one who’s going to be there the whole time, and that’s me. So really, the only thing you can count on, from your birth to your death, is your own existence. The only company you’re going to have that whole time is yourself. It scares me to think that it’s possible to not be comfortable with that.

And then there’s right now. I’ve eaten half a box of imitation Cheez-its and I’m drinking tea, glancing up at the little fire in my fireplace, and it’s a beautiful moment, really. It’s supposed to snow here tonight, or maybe tomorrow, and there’s a chance I’ll end up stuck here. I’m not going to pretend that I’m excited at the prospect; I rather fancy going home to check my email and sleep soundly, but I suppose this is what I have right now, and it is what it is: The only company I can fully count on. Whew. In a weird way, that makes me feel better.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Cool, wet--snowy?

Portland is a pretty rainy place, right? We’re well-known for that dreary coffee-shop culture, where people hole up inside in the winter because it’s too wet to do anything else. Winter means months of gray: Sometimes high gray clouds, sometimes fog, always with gray sidewalks and gray buildings. Streets back up with water, sewage flows untreated into the river, mold grows on everyone’s walls. It’s a rainy place. Thirty-five inches of rain fall in Portland each year.

And then there’s camp, fewer than 25 miles away, where it rains 80 inches a year. It rains so much that there are perpetual puddles on the road in, ferns grow on the tops of buildings, trees drip long after storms pass, and most of camp turns into one big creek in the winter. Everything turns to mud, the in-camp road turns into a rushing stream, and the buildings act as giant sponges. In spring, when I get things ready for rental groups, I find pretty much every toilet seat covered with a thick layer of mold. For now, the rain means I spend a lot of time getting wet, I’m likely to get the truck stuck, and I feel even luckier to have an indoor home for the winter.

I drove out of camp tonight, to spend a night in town before a day tomorrow also in town, and the raindrops hit my windshield in huge splats, as if the clouds couldn’t pump out enough water with more moderately sized drops. It was ridiculous to see—the dollops of water hitting my windshield, the rivulets next to the road, the layers of fog that obscured my vision as my car navigated the hills—and it all reminded me that where we live is only sort of civilizable. It’s rainy and nasty sometimes, and that’s why moss drips off the trees, and the river runs fast and brown and beautiful in the winter.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sound Sleep

Warmer, drizzly (40?)

That might be a deceiving title, because you know what? Here in the silent, beautiful woods, where I’m happy to live, and I curl up in my down comforter and my blankets next to a crackling fire, looking out over a forest and hearing a river in the distance, I do not sleep soundly. In the city, next to a busy street where buses, street-cleaning trucks, and garbage crews like to bang around at all hours, where streetlights come in every window, where people climb onto the roof next door, I sleep like a baby. There’s such a false sense of security in the city—I have neighbors! They’ll protect me! Marc and I are together! Nothing can happen while we’re together! But out here, in the silent, dark woods, I freak out when the moon casts a shadow through my cabin, and when I get up to investigate, I see my own shadow, and freak out. It's ridiculous.

When I do sleep, I do so fitfully, waking up frequently to assess whether anything wretched has happened yet, and I get up to pee, and get back into bed, and sleep a little, and wake up, and maybe just think for awhile. That’s the thing that really gets me: The thinking. When I was walking the Camino in Spain, I noticed that toward the end I would wake up every night, in the middle of the night, and just think. I’d lie there in some ancient unheated building, on some ancient unpadded bunk bed, in my long underwear, and think. It was around this time of year, and I remember at first I couldn’t figure out why I was waking up in the middle of the night. I wasn’t tired, and I didn’t need to pee. I’d lie there, and I don’t know if I thought about anything important. At first it weirded me out a lot, and I’d try to get back to sleep, but after awhile I got used to it, and I kind of liked it. It was a time that was just mine—no distractions, no one to talk to, nothing in particular to watch out for—just my time to listen to the night and think.

Here it’s not quite like that. My sleeplessness hasn’t turned into a peaceful thing, although I wouldn't mind if it did. It’s like I sleep differently out here, more watchfully; more like an animal on the lookout for stuff.

The last time I awoke this morning it was almost dawn. I meant to go back to sleep, because I still had plenty of time, but I saw movement in the bushes outside, and I put on my glasses to see if there were elk or something, and realized a few minutes later it was just rain pittering down onto the plants. It was pretty, though, watching all that rain in the still of the morning.

Today I moved mattresses, and we worked on Slanty, until we started to get stuff ready for the Camp Director party in Raker. Then I ate cookies and drank cider until I felt sick. Woot! Then I watched “Knocked Up” with Carlo and Jeanette and the kids, and now I’m in bed, and wow! It’s 11:00, and I am sleepy.

Monday, November 26, 2007

BEAR! And squirrels, and vomit

Cold (low 30s) and overcast; it started to rain as I got inside

As you may have intuited from the title, today was exciting. I spent most of the day getting buildings ready for two nights of habitation by camp directors. Sounds snoozy, until you picture this: I’m driving toward Pioneer to get mattresses, and as I round the corner by Wishing Rock, who should come bounding into my vision but a huge black bear. It was easily the biggest one I’ve seen, beautiful and almost like a huge dog. For a moment we both stopped, unsure, and then it shot me a look that plainly said, “Uh-oh,” before bounding toward the treehouses and the river. I sat awhile in the truck, stomach all a-flutter, before turning around to tell Carlo.

On less exciting days I need to remember that there are moments like this when you work in the woods. Toward the end of this fall session, Mayfly, Lambchop, and I waded down the Sandy a few hundred feet to where the salmon were spawning. Shivering in our boots, we saw them darting upstream, floating back down, fighting, leaping in the waves, and moving fast as toothed torpedoes around our feet. All session Lambchop had expressed a certain hesitance about salmon. He didn’t like Chinooks’ massive bodies and massive teeth—or maybe I should say he didn’t like to think of swimming with them in the river.

But that night, as we were all sharing something special about the week, Lambchop explained how fantastic it had been to watch the salmon (these were Coho, by the way), and said something along the lines of, “That’s what I live for. That’s what I always want to have in my life.” And somehow this stuck with me—this image of Lambchop standing around this circle putting into words what all of us feel when we see salmon spawning—and the thing with the bear today was the same.

Sometimes when you’re hauling mattresses, and checking to make sure there’s enough toilet paper for a bunch of camp directors, you can get a little bored. When it’s cold enough outside that your gloved fingers refuse to move, and you know your cabin will never warm up, things can seem kind of bleak, and Portland can seem kind of appealing. But then you see this bear, and it makes your heart skip. You’re afraid, but ecstatic, and you want to know where it’s going, where it sleeps, what it’s been eating, why it’s been hanging out by the lodge and the treehouses. Even when one of the mattresses you’re hauling has clearly been smeared with vomit, and it gets all over your shirt, you’ve got this secret weapon: I saw a bear today. Even when you discover that the squirrels have chewed through your insulation and new ceiling panel, you’ve got this inner gloating: I saw a bear today (which could chomp those little squirrels if it chose). Even though it’s freezing now, and the sound of rain on the roof means tomorrow will be lots of work, not much matters: I saw a bear today.

It’s not like I’m proud—seeing this bear took absolutely no skill or knowledge on my part—but I do feel lucky, and I do see it like otter tracks: A glimpse into the rightness of the way I’ve chosen to spend this winter. And I also feel lucky that I was in the trusty little truck.

P.S. Here's a picture of my olive oil as I found it in my chilly cabin this morning.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Cool, clear (mid 30s)

The kitchen ceiling is up, and I got to bumble around by the river! Carlo and I spent the morning in Slanty, cussing and jigsawing pieces of wood to create the ceiling we took down two days ago. And hoorah! It’s done. No more insulation dropping down into my dinner. Now it’ll just have to be satisfied to drop down into my shower.

I also messed with electricity today (always fun), and culminated a too-difficult replacement of a light fixture by breaking the globe part. So now I still have a bare bulb there, although I did learn about wiring.

But the most fun part of my day was when I walked around camp. I walked across the meadow and cut down through the treehouses toward the river. There, I scrambled over the big river-rocks toward the main beach, clinging onto branches and teetering over the chilly water. It was the kind of hike I like best, the kind where I’m not really exerting myself physically, but I do have to contort my body to avoid getting wet, and I have to use my brain to avoid peril. I hopped over stones, and admired raccoon prints in very wet sand, until I finally got to the main beach. The day was beautifully sunny again, and decidedly wintry. The water is its normal level for this season, which made me happy. It makes me even happier to think that the Sandy is now damless. It doesn’t change the river that much from my vantage point, but it does make it seem more capricious and more personifiable. And gee, it’s pretty either way.

But the highlight of the day was the OTTER TRACKS, which emerged in a set of three from the water. I know there are these otters that live across the river from the main beach, and I saw them cavorting in the waves once, but every time I see their little footprints it still makes me gleeful and glad to be where I am. Something about seeing otters, or evidence of them, makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.

Where are you, geocache?

Sunday, November 28, 2007

Today we tried to find the last stage of our geocache through the cemeteries. We ended up walking along the Clackamas River during dusk, and coming to the horrid conclusion that the darn thing must be on the other side. We cheated and looked up the coordinates when we got home, and they indicated that the cache was on an island, right in the middle of the river. Bah. Better luck next weekend.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Insulation hat

Clear and cold (low 30s)

Ah. The fire is going and I’m eating chocolate. I’ve got my knitting and a crossword puzzle, too. Whew. That said, today was kind of crazy, and I still haven’t really done any work for camp, besides work on my own house.

The craziness of today was a field trip to Home Depot, to get pieces of wood to finish the ceiling in here. I left as the fog was burning off of camp, driving down the road in a crisp autumn morning with no one around. I was nervous about driving the truck (also known as the FMT) on the big roads—roads on which I have to use gears above first—but I was excited to get out. “I’ll get a newspaper,” I told myself, “after I’ve got the materials to finally make this cabin into a place where insulation doesn’t fall on you while you’re brushing your teeth.”

Things started off well. I successfully manually shifted my way to the Home Depot, and found the wood section (I believe it’s actually called “lumber,” now that I think about it). There, I approached the most friendly-looking employee, and asked if they had the stuff, which I happened to be carrying a nice sheet of in my hand. “Uh, I don’t know,” he said, and walked away.

This was the first in a series of perplexing things that happened at the Home Depot. He didn’t know? Was he going to check? I loitered for a few minutes, but he didn’t come back. So I walked the aisles by myself for awhile, hoping someone else would happen by, but they didn’t. So I walked over to the “Pro Desk,” still holding my stupid piece of wood, to ask. I stood at the counter while the employee (the “Pro,” I’m assuming) stood around in his hoodie and surfed the internet. Finally I broke him out of his reverie and asked if they had any of this thing I was holding in my hand.

He glanced up, for about a millisecond, before saying, “I don’t know,” and getting back to his myspace. “Huh,” I said, “Where would it be if you did have some?” At this point he gestured generally back at the Lumber section. “Any particular area?” I asked, more than a little pissed. He shrugged.

So I walked back, and, after much searching, found 2X4 scrap pieces of my ceiling, and considered making a sort of ceiling quilt out of little bits before realizing it wasn’t going to work. So I marched back to the Pro Desk, now holding two samples, to ask if they had a bigger version.

“Dunno,” Pro Hoodie said helpfully when I returned, “Do you want me to send someone from Lumber to meet you there?”

“Someone from Lumber” turned out to be a completely useless lady who told me that my piece of wood was absolutely the same as this weird stuff with a different thickness and different grain, and I wanted to kick her in the head. This is all very boring, and for that I apologize; it's just what happened today.

After a few conversations with Carlo, it was determined that I would head to the Home Depot at 82nd and Johnson Creek and wish for better luck.

Of course, driving to Johnson Creek and 82nd involved (dum dum dum) The Freeway. The Freeway involved (gasp) Fifth Gear, which the FMT and I had never before experienced. But we did fine, and had a dandy old time at the other Home Depot, involving helpful employees and dozens of contractors in big trucks who all wanted to help me load my five pieces of light wood into the FMT. But I laid out the tarp, put in the wood, and tied it all down, and we made it back to Slanty in stunning sunlight.

So then I tried to put up insulation. Carlo had told me to staple the sides to the… joists? Was that the word? Anyway, I was to staple-gun the stuff up. So I found a staple-gun, and I found some staples, and then I tried to staple, which ended up requiring both hands. The next hour was spent in stapling the stuff up while holding up the rest with all my might, only to have it suddenly rip out and fall on my head. I started coughing from all the fiberglass in my lungs, and I started cursing mightily every time the stuff came crashing down on me. Finally I got a good section up, and Carlo came in, and then explained that you’re supposed to bend it up and staple on the inside of the rafter thing, and… oh well. I re-did it, and did a few more sections, and felt better. At least I didn’t put it in upside-down, unlike some people who have installed insulation in this particular building.

Last night I slept okay. I was a little scared, and stayed up late knitting. Then I awoke around 3:00 and couldn’t sleep, thinking of too many things. And it was cold last night. I should probably bring another sleeping bag, or another blankie, because it’s pretty chilly, and bound to get chillier.

My fire is in need of a poking. I’m going to stop rambling about Home Depot and insulation, and poke instead.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Day one!

Cold, rainy (low 30s)

Today was full as a day can be. I arrived here at Slanty at about 9:00 in the morning, and I haven’t sat down since—not to eat, not to drink… well, I guess I drove for a bit, and I sat to do that. But other than that, I’ve been on the move all day, and I’m tired.

Slanty was in pitiable shape when I got here. Chunks of insulation and rat turds littered the floor, along with gum wrappers and other assorted junk. The sink was full of dirty dishes, and the bathroom (pictured above) was strewn with empty shampoo bottles. Cobwebs covered every surface, and every spider known to man made an appearance. It was sort of intense. And then there was the camp gear. About ten large Rubbermaid containers had been stacked in the kitchen, right in the way of everything. The whole place reeks of rodent piss, so much so that you can smell it from about fifty feet outside the building. The porch was covered in trash—pop cans, cigarette butts, soaked newspaper, paper towels—and the place looked about as desolate as a person could imagine.

Twelve hours later, it looks a lot better. Carlo took out the nasty ceiling in the kitchen where the squirrels were residing, and while now it’s bare wood with the occasional sheet of insulation (installed upside-down), at least it’s going to get better. I did the dishes, cleaned the counters, scrubbed out the fridge, swept down the cobwebs, washed down the shower, de-molded the toilet, built a fire, and even ate dinner. Mainly, I swept. I swept and swept and swept. I also hand-mopped the bathroom. Apart from the complete lack of silverware (it’s fun to slurp lentil soup from a mug, right?) I’m doing pretty well.

I can hear one of the rodents stirring in the kitchen wall. It must be confused by the sudden removal of its home. Carlo stuffed an entire sheet of insulation down the wall it normally climbs up, and even if it did get to the top, it would peer out over a void where its nest used to be. My fear is that the stupid pretty-tailed rat is going to climb to the top and have free run of the house, munching on all my food on the way to mauling my face in the night. My other, more long-term fear, is that the family will just move to the walls now that the ceiling is no longer an option, and then I’ll have squirrels in all the walls. Yeah.

It’s cold out here. Even with two space heaters and a fire, I’m feeling a little chilled. I’ve burned through a ton of firewood this evening. Oh well.

I’m a little scared. I miss home, and I don’t know if I made the right decision in being here. I of course love this place, but my main tasks for the winter are going to consist of weed-whacking and Rounding-Up blackberry bushes at the ranch, and while I don’t mind that so much, I do want to see friends and family, and I love my little apartment and don’t particularly want to be gone so much. We shall see.

For now, it’s time for bed. Tomorrow will doubtless be another full day, and I might as well get ready for it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Where are you, geocache?

Today we tried to find the last stage of our geocache through the cemeteries. We ended up walking along the Clackamas River during dusk, and coming to the horrid conclusion that the darn thing must be on the other side. We cheated and looked up the coordinates when we got home, and they indicated that the cache was on an island, right in the middle of the river. Bah. Better luck next weekend.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


I just got back from the beach, where last night, a bunch of us stumbled down the dunes and kicked sand to see the bioluminescent organisms sparkle. It's like there are hidden galaxies in the sand.

That is all.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rain & IKEA

Ah, the wonders of IKEA. Slanty is going to be a different place this year, and it’s all because of cheaply made Swedish stuff. After a few hours with Danette and Clara in the massive store, I emerged with rugs, a table lamp, a blanket, a shower curtain, and a light fixture (one bare bulb will be no more!). You have to start somewhere. I think I’ll blitz the place on Monday. After work, I’ll build a fire, and clean clean clean. Or maybe I’ll build a fire, and take down the kitchen ceiling to evict the squirrels. I wouldn’t mind getting them out of the way early on… I think that might be the best plan. We’ll see what actually happens.

I don’t think the rain has let up at all today. It’s awfully pretty, the sheet of gray, and I like days like this. Netters and Clara and I got to have a nice time at IKEA, and then a fancy lunch of macaroni and cheese with salad. Now I want to curl up with a blanket, some tea, and a movie, but instead, I’m going to the beach for a retreat with Outdoor School staff. I’m sure that’ll be fun too. It’s just hard to get excited about it when what I want most is to take a nap.

Okay, so this is Day 3 of the blog. When I get out to the cabin, I’ll have more things to say. For now, I’m just trying to get used to the idea. That’s right. It’ll be less awkward soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Halfhearted packing

Today I planned to start packing for the grand adventure in the woods. Instead, I cleaned the apartment, did some dishes, talked on the phone, started applying to grad school, listened to NPR, ate lunch… I haven’t even been outside today, and in a few days, I’ll be outside every day again. I love being outside every day. It makes me happy and it sparks my interest in new things. However, it’s also kind of cold. Right now, I’m sitting in my warm kitchen, sipping tea, wrapped in a blanket, and life seems pretty good. It’s hard to embrace the idea of being outside, a few days from now, freezing my tail off while trying not to lose any limbs to the wood-splitter.

So I’m not looking forward to wearing a bazillion layers, lining my pockets with hand-warmers, and still being freezing cold. But I am looking forward to my little cabin in the woods. I’m looking forward to evicting the squirrels, building a fire, reading books, knitting, cooking, and hanging out with camp’s full-time human residents.

The squirrels have taken a central place in my mind this week. I think that as Outdoor School ended, my mind became kind of a vacuous place, in need of some other major theme, and that theme has become these stupid squirrels. I’ve been gearing myself up to take down their little fortress, set the live trap, and engage in this epic battle with them. It all seems kind of silly. But then, when you’re in the woods by yourself, and there are a bunch of squirrels chilling in your house, vacating their bowels and their bladders all over your cooking space, it does begin to seem kind of serious.

None of this squirrel-thought is packing my stuff for me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Winter job begins soon

Starting a blog seems horribly awkward. It’s like that first sentence of anything you write, when you spit something out, cringe at how dumb it sounds, delete, and re-type something that sounds even stupider, only to decide not to write it in the end because you couldn’t come up with a decent beginning. But no, new blog! This fate is not for you. I’m going to get over the stupid beginning and keep going.

I want to blog this winter because last winter I lived in the woods, and when I came into contact with the real world, people would ask, “So what’s it like to live out there?” and I would be stumped for something interesting to say. Uh… It’s beautiful? It’s cold? It’s unspeakably frightening, yet wonderfully rewarding? One time there was a spider in the sink, and I tried to drown it, but it swam instead? Ho hum. So this winter, while I’m out in the woods, I’m going to write it all down, from the most dull to the least dull, and hope writing helps me explain.

Before I make this sound like some kind of Walden experiment, I should hasten to say that I’m not planning to live alone in the woods for a year or anything. I will be living and working in the woods for most of the winter, but I will also be coming into town for some weekends. This will allow me to buy food, see friends and family, and post blogs.

Now I’m going to shut up, pretend I don’t feel horribly awkward, and post this stupid entry already.