Oregon in the summertime is how I imagine heaven must be. The lush life surrounding you seems like decadence after the bare bones of the desert. Up north, the rain covers the bones with green skin and fur and everything is softened and curved, like a woman’s body. We got books from the library on edible plants and berries to make sure we wouldn’t die. Wherever we traveled, the library was always on the list of places we needed to scope out. It was the library that taught me to use a computer, because neither of my parents knew how. I spent hours sometimes playing Oregon Trail, where someone always died on the way out West, or Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?—Carmen’s footsteps dark and pixelated across the screen as she somehow always evaded capture.
We had the old Airstream, the one now parked and rusting behind my mother’s house in New Mexico. It was the newest, nicest trailer we ever owned, sold for cheap by an older Canadian couple whose wandering days were over. Mom had bought it, the time before the time that Dad was gone for good. She could have seen then that she was capable on her own, that she had the wits and the strength to do much better on her own than she ever did with him. He was holding her back, maybe because her success would highlight his failure as a parent or as a human being. But she didn’t, and our hiatus from the inexorable pull of his angry gravity wasn’t long enough.
I forget how we came to hear about the job. Dad must have met someone when we were camped out at Jim’s Place, 40 miles on a dirt road out in the desert outside of Bouse, Arizona. That was a place we returned more than once, another repetitive rest stop when the rest of our options had worn thin or fallen through for one reason or another – usually, “another” with my father’s stamp on it. We didn’t have computers or a phone, much less electricity, so the only way to contact us was usually to send mail addressed “General Delivery” to the approximate location where we had last been heard from. I wonder belatedly how many letters disappeared into the realm of unread mail, followed us just a little too slowly. And if any of those letters could have changed the road we were on. Because anything could change the road, at any time. The road was constantly in a state of flux, a rapidly rolling path littered with side streets, pitfalls, and supposed shortcuts. You never knew what was around that next hairpin curve, and that right there was much of the draw. One thing I learned quickly, is that you just never know anything.
The job was perfect for us, really. Mom and Dad were campground hosts at a forested campground on the Clackamas River outside of Estacada, in the northern part of the state just southeast of Portland. They had to stay for the summer, that was the deal. There were a few campground sites they were supposed to collect fees for, clean up, keep the bathrooms in working order, and in return we had beautiful riverside spot to park the trailer, forests full of trails, all the strawberries and thimbleberries you could eat. There was sour grass, blackberries, salads made from dandelion greens, blueberries, gooseberries, nettle tea. With all this food right out the back door, who needed to buy groceries? We had the usual food stamps, of course, but us kids would come home regularly stained berry-colored from our foraging. It wasn’t that we were hungry, we delighted in the abundance and imagined we could live out in the forest on our own forever. In the desert, you would most likely die. And the water! Our dry eyes and bodies soaked up the sight and feel of the cold, clear Clackamas. If we waded in our legs would immediately go numb, but we road inner tubes down to the whirlpool-bend in the river where it smacked up against a sheer rock face. If you climbed the face, you could look down into the crystalline flow and make out the shadowy shapes of giant catfish, reminders of an age when there were things out there that would eat you.
I think my brothers and I all fell in love that summer, falling for city girls and boys camping for the weekend and running with the “wild kids.” We must have seemed so strange to them, those pink-scrubbed kids with dads with jobs and moms who had a washing machine and conveniences like babysitters.
I fell in love with Randy, who must have been 19 or 20. I was probably 11. I never had time for the childish boys, who always seemed so…childish. I am a watcher, a watcher of people and their actions and an observer and cataloger. Randy reminded me of a Montana boy in a book I’d read, who wore Wranglers and a ball cap and worked on ranches in the summer. He smelled of cologne and he made my heart flutter. I never talked to him, but I yearned for some imaginary future with him in rolling fields surrounded by horses and log cabins. I watched him talking with my parents out by the campfire for a few nights, and I hid behind the screen of the Airstream and thought about what it would be like to have a real life. So this was love, this constant pang in your chest for something you could never have. This growing, this expanding into lobes of your body you hadn’t known existed. I brushed my waist-length hair at night and thought of him. He was gone in a few days, but I never forgot him. That summer marked a quiet shift in me, one where I began slowly emerging from my close little shell, from the place behind my eyes where I only watched. I started to feel the presence of the people around me, to dream of things I had only read about.