The World is Officially Small. And Kinda Big. But Mostly Small.

It’s funny that I mentioned Hood River in my last post. Not “funny like ha-ha,” but funny like odd, curious, and unusual.

When I moved to Hood River in 1995 it was a fluke. I’d decided that I just couldn’t bear to spend one more summer doing the same old things on the same old beaches of New York and New England. I mean no disrespect to those lovely beaches or the incredible times had, but I was twenty-one and desperate for a change of both pace and scenery.

Desperate is a big word for a little girl, and how desperate can you possibly be at twenty-one? I wasn’t actually desperate but within my limited perspective I believed I was. I quoted writers from my feminist studies and environmental studies classes and I swore I knew why the caged bird sang.

It was March when I went to my college counseling office to inquire about summer internships, and the kind woman there didn’t mince words when she gave a disapproving look at both me and her wall calendar and said, “You missed the boat; all of the summer internships have been filled for months.”

I’ve never been a fan of planning too far in advance because it always seems so limiting. Where’s the opportunity for chance and spontaneity if you’ve planned so far down the road? It’s a tradeoff though, and with that trade is prickly doses of disappointment.

I burst into tears and drove back to my off-campus house. My roommates weren’t home, so I made a cup of hot chocolate and plopped down on the couch with the latest issue of my favorite magazine. Summit magazine is now long defunct, but at the time it was my bible. I want to be there, I thought, I want to live and write those essays.

Tucked in a corner on one of the pages was an ad announcing their summer internship. I had my hand on the phone before my heart had completed the full trajectory of its leap, and I called without knowing what I was going to say except, “When can I start?”

The news was not good. “We already filled the one paid internship that we have to offer.” My sigh was long and audible and bought me a few seconds so I could think of what to say next. Without any forward thinking or speck of responsibility I said, “Would you be willing to take an unpaid intern?”

I rushed to the library to make photocopies, and sent my writing samples the next day in a FedEx envelope. Finally I received a snail mail response that said they’d take me , but I must understand there was no money to pay me. I had the Hood River News fax a copy of the classified to me at the school library and I set about finding myself a place to live.

There was very limited Internet in 1995 and nobody used it the way we do now. There was no way to tell much about the person renting the room in a two-three line ad. Craigslist tells us so much these days—we can see the place on a map, we can see a street view, we can see photos of not only the room but also of the kitchen counters. We can determine if they cook or take-out. We can see if there’s a nice couch or a broken down futon. We can see if there are piles of shoes by the door or if every coat has a hanger in the coat closet. We can’t tell everything, but we can tell a lot.

In 1995 you more or less acted on a hunch and a prayer.

The journey itself was challenging, surprising and difficult in ways I could never have predicted. On top of that, the place was not what I expected, but those are stories for another time, so I’ll say in short that the owner of the house was in his 40s, but rented rooms to girls in their 20s. He greeted me at the door in a banana hammock and told me the hot tub was fired up. I put on my most conservative one-piece and while we soaked he told me he’d “overbooked” the house, but thought maybe I’d be comfortable sharing his king size bed with him when the other girl arrived.

I thought not and slept in my sleeping bag in the “overbooked” room and set out to find another place to stay. His place was up in The Heights, which is kind of suburban Hood River, and I wanted to be downtown. I didn’t want to stay at a place where Sunset magazines were fanned out on the chrome and glass coffee table and I sure as hell didn’t want to share a room—or even a front door—with a guy like that.

I made quick work figuring it out. I left the creepy guy’s house in the burbs and scored a job at a a downtown B&B where I cleaned rooms in exchange for a twin bed in the basement and daily breakfast. I basically won the lottery.

At my new digs I was walking distance to everything including the magazine’s office and the shop called “Pastabilities” (no joke), where I made the worst espresso drinks the west coast had ever had. A San Franciscan once came over the counter after I’d failed three times and said, “I’m just going to do it myself.”

I nannied for a girl named Chloe who rode shotgun in her car seat and danced her outstretched toes on my dash while we sang our favorite Little Mermaid tunes: “Under the Sea,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and “Kiss the Girl.”

Chloe always wore sundresses, and if we were at a park or a farm and she had to pee she would just squat in the grass. The first time I offered her a napkin she said, “It’s okay. I’ll just use my dress,” then she swiped her dress between her legs and we were off to the next activity. I was a long way from Connecticut…

That summer was full of activity and a lot of firsts. I summited Mount Hood and Mount Adams, saw my first bear in the wild, and spent many evenings riding through orchards on the back of an older man’s motorcycle. I met Joel through Jack and Sheila, the innkeepers I lived and worked with. He’d welded underwater before turning his skills toward art and sculpture, and he lived in his studio that was more workspace than living space.

Joel wore his head bald and every few days I’d shave it for him as he dangled it off the hammock at the inn. He took me bouldering and mountain biking and jumping off cliffs so high they turned even the most determined swimsuit into a wedgie as we sank into swimming holes so cold they took your breath away and kept it for a minute.

I’d flutter my legs like crazy and sputter to the edge with my eyes shut tightly so I wouldn’t lose a contact and even though I was scared to death Joel would yank me out of the water and say, “Good job!”

Sheila commented that she’d never seen a man so in control of his body as Joel was, and it would take me over a decade to fully comprehend what she meant but once I discovered it for myself I knew that to witness such beauty is to be forever in awe of a man like that.

Joel wished there weren’t twenty years between us and I suppose I did too, but not enough to stop me from running off with guys closer to my own age. A guy who left The Monkey Wrench Gang on my basement window ledge…a guy who stuck Lupine and Indian Paintbrush in my ponytail…a guy who loved my freckles and muscles…a guy who led me over suspension bridges to the first hot springs my body ever experienced.

There were women too. There was the  ranger who took me hiking on Mount Hood’s glaciers and introduced me to the thrill of glissading. She was the first woman I knew who told me she never went in the woods alone without a firearm. “For the bears?” I asked, totally afraid, and she answered, “Absolutely not; it’s for the people.”

She took me to her friend’s house overlooking a canyon outside of Mosier where I had a few more firsts: a rattlesnake in the yard and wild game chili. There was an unfamiliar smokiness to everything in Mosier and I loved it.

I met another woman, who taught me how to caramelize onions and took me canoeing. “Let’s go to the White Salmon,” she said, “My boss has a canoe we can borrow.” We did our own shuttle with my Volkswagen Golf and her Nissan Maxima, and everything went smoothly until about a mile down the river when we clotheslined ourselves on a snag, capsized the canoe and realized the value of dry bags that we did not have.

In addition to a lot of things, we’d also miscalculated the river miles we were traveling, and by the time we had both vehicles and the canoe strapped to the top of one of them it was almost dark and we were starving. We stopped to eat and talk about the fact that we’d dented the crap out of the borrowed canoe. “I don’t think he’ll care,” she said, “but we’ll see.”

We killed the headlights as we drove up to her boss’ house, and stealthily carried the canoe into the back yard. We were about to place it back on its rack and be out of there, when the back door opened; the swing of that screen door activated enough spotlights to light up most of Northern Oregon.

His eyes jogged back and forth between our faces and the canoe, which we were still holding upside down over our heads effectively showcasing the scrapes, dings, and divots we’d put into it. “Girls,” he said as we slid the boat into its slot “that is not a whitewater canoe.”

Oh, man. Youth sure is wasted on the young and if ignorance isn’t bliss I don’t know what is. I’m mesmerized by the things we do only because we don’t know the risks or consequences, and how after the fact we often would not retrace our steps simply because fear wouldn’t allow it. So the only option is to thank god we did it in the first place.

So it’s funny that Hood River was already on my brain due to the fact that a single beer turned my clock back a solid seventeen years. Hood River had come up a few days earlier with my friends in Denver but only in reference to the guy I dated my second summer there, and not at all in relation to my transformative experiences there.

But as I logged highway miles to and fro I’d been thinking about Hood River a lot. I’d been thinking about my trip there, the way I felt when I arrived, the way I was afraid of little things like the crackle of a branch in the woods, and unafraid of much bigger things, like what to do when the guy you’re renting a room from greets you at the door in a banana hammock and tells you the hot tub is ready for you.

But that was then and this is now. I’m able to keep myself safe(ish) by virtue of having made a few mistakes before, and I often take healthy risks when what’s at stake will not make or break a goddamn thing.

In real-time Buena Vista, Colorado I decided to take my computer into the bistro with the band and write, because going back to my less-than-awesome motel room to write seemed like a dumb idea when I could instead surround myself with vibrancy and the worst that could happen was that I wouldn’t get much writing done.

Writing in the presence of a live band might not sound like everyone’s idea of a productive situation, but sometimes it works. I staved off the not-so-clever, annoying guy who commented not once but twice on the “trouble” I was causing, and because he had nothing to say beyond his tired line of “don’t be causing so much trouble” I had zilch to say back and managed to roll my eyes at him without ever taking my fingers off the keyboard.

He ordered his umpteenth PBR elbow-to-elbow with me, and when he stuck a chew in his bottom lip I asked him if he planned to spit or swallow which bought me a little personal space.

I had just posted on Facebook about my evening and the good that came out of an unplanned trip to Colorado (it turned into THIS blog post), and was shutting my computer when and a guy named Matt sat next to me. He commented about what a great place it was to write, and at first I thought  he was joking because writing amidst live music and dancing isn’t for everyone, but he was serious.

We were chatting about how a little distraction can be helpful and he was midsentence when he spotted an old friend. “Excuse me,” he said, “I sailed with that guy in Rhode Island. I can’t believe he’s here.”

We waited in silence for his friend to look in our direction, and watching them lock eyes was nothing short of awesome.

Evan came over to talk to Matt and exchange the usual, “What the hell are you doing here?” and I somehow ended up talking to the guy who was swallowing his Copenhagen, so it didn’t take me long to vacate my post. On my way out the door I stopped to say goodbye to Matt and Evan, and Evan asked if I lived in town so I gave him the bullet points of my story.

Of course I mentioned that home base is Missoula, and—whaddya know?—he went to college there. We chatted about Missoula, Taos, BV and places back east. I was about to leave when he *happened* to mention that he dated a girl when he was in college in the 1990’s who is still in Missoula and now a popular DJ.

I hesitated for less than zero seconds because I really didn’t even need to ask, and said, “I’ve known Tracy Lopez since the day I moved to Missoula.”

Now, it’s true that I met Tracy the day I arrived in Missoula because we had friends in common, but also because the connection had been made that Tracy grew up in Hood River and I’d spent two of the best summers of my life (to date) there. Also, her mother was sort of a big deal for her salsa company that we served at the B&B and that everyone in town ate if they didn’t make their own.

Oh, Hood River. The smells, the tastes, the sounds of that place.

After the summer of 1996 I didn’t even step foot in Hood River until thirteen years later, a couple of weeks after my thirty-fifth birthday. My boyfriend and I had gone to a couple of Dead shows at The Gorge Amphitheatre to see a slightly different incarnation of the band I’d seen my first time at the Gorge back in 1996, a year after Jerry Garcia’s passing. I feel deep in love with Bruce Hornsby at the Further Festival.

It was such a good show. In addition to the remaining members of the Grateful Dead there was Los Lobos and both variations of Hot Tuna and Hornsby played with almost everyone. He is a big man, and he wore all black. The way he and his concert grand were silhouetted against the amazing backdrop of the Columbia River Gorge and the setting sun was extraordinary and I won’t even try to describe it so I’ll just say this: you owe it to yourself to make it to this hard to get to venue at least once in your life.

After those shows we spent a couple of days in Portland, and even though Hood River is an hour outside of Portland I asked if we could please, please spend the night there on the way home. Greg was tired and took a nap at the motel while I walked all over town. He was sorry he couldn’t join me, but I had a different experience alone than I would have with a companion.

With another set of eyes I would have told stories and given explanations, but alone I was able to just inhale the place. I walked by so many things that had changed and so many things that had stayed the same, and as I walked I wept. I thought about the girl I’d been and the woman I’d become and again: so many things changed, so many things the same.

But I digress (as usual). Evan and I talked more about Missoula and the characters that inhabit the place, but beyond Tracy we didn’t exchange any names. I’d find out later that we have quite a few good friends in common, but it wasn’t important at the time. What was important was being in the moment.

I became part of a fun improv with the band and the bartender Tana, now on the other side of the bar, asked if I’d be back and I said yes. “Good,” she said, “You belong here.”

There was something about Buena Vista last night that did make me feel like I belonged in a way that the Taos area has not yet shown me, and while I think it’s premature to plan my next stop after San Cristobal I think it would be slightly daft of me not to keep my eyes open and not to pay attention to what it feels like when my feet touch down in a place.

But In the words of Ed Abbey, one of my favorite writers/humans/lovers of the southwest, “One life at a time, please.”

A few photos from the last trip, in this order:

  • A view of the Arkansas River from a bridge in Buena Vista
  • The Evergreen Cafe in a mini lull between brunch and lunch
  • An elk crossing warning sign at sunset. WHY am I once again driving these roads at dark? (stayed too long at the hot springs) WHEN will I learn? (hopefully very soon. I drove so slowly. Does that count?)

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4 thoughts on “The World is Officially Small. And Kinda Big. But Mostly Small.

  1. “…swimming holes so cold they took your breath away and kept it for a minute.” Beautiful sense imagery in this line!

    I LOVE Bruce Hornsby too and fell in love with him singing “Black Muddy River” at a Dead/Other Ones show in Atlanta. I’ve seen Phil Lesh and String Cheese at The Gorge, it IS an amazing venue!

    Great post! I identified with a lot of it and I love that you ran into Evan. Moments like that make me feel so connected to/in the universe.

    • Steph! I’m so glad that my memories brought back some of yours, and that you’ve enjoyed The Gorge and Bruce Hornsby live. What a treat.

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