Roads on Her Face #19 : First-rate Forest Service

When you mention you’ve lived in Mammoth Lakes, California, people naturally assume you are a wealthy brat whose parents have a ski lodge in the mountains, built especially for escapes a few times a year from the sprawl of L.A. We didn’t live there in the winter, though, as we would head south to the blessedly warm desert before the first hints of snow. Living in a car limits your environment, seasonally.

I remember the sweet smell of pine sap and the soft needles underfoot that let you creep up on unsuspecting brothers, the glistening black carpenter ants that hurried up the superhighways of the ponderosas which seemed plain as lighted roadways to the ants, the highways that you could strain your eyes and imagine you too could see. I remember the hush and sighs of the forest, the caws of crows and the yammering blue jays, the tap-tap-tap of the brilliant woodpeckers. I remember how a short walk would take you into the woods, away from anyone. I would settle down beneath a tree and read or write in my journal, cushioned by bark or perched on lichened-softened rocks, I would revel in the protection of the forest. After empty deserts, I felt so protected, so hidden, between the trees.

We were living in the car, then, either sleeping in the back or the tent. It was dry that summer, so we didn’t bother packing everything up into the car each day. Just our food, to keep it from bears. We were out miles from the edge of Mammoth, tucked into a quiet pocket of the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevadas. Years later, I picked up a photograph of an eagle at a yard sale. John Muir’s signature is penciled across the back- I don’t know if it is a fake but I knew who he was because of his name on the wilderness signs.

Occasionally we would see rangers, but they left us alone. We weren’t littering, and we kept the campsite straightened up so it didn’t look like we’d been there for weeks. I think they felt sorry for us kids, and didn’t want to make things harder for us. They weren’t hard, though, that’s the part no one ever realized. We were happy being kids, and the forest was a playground made just for us.

My book supply was stocked by the bookmobile, driven by Miss Heidi and parked weekly not far from where we were camped, providing “forest service” to outlying homes and the occasional itinerants. She was warm and friendly, and loved books almost as much as I did. Right away she got me a library card, and handed me the first list for the summer reading program so I could get started.

“You’ll have to work to catch up to the other kids, they have a few weeks’ head start,” she said. “Do you want some help picking out books?” I shook my head, and in minutes had a stack that took Mom and me two trips to load into the car. We had library bags with the string top, so we had to hold the bags to our chests so the books didn’t break free from the cheap plastic material. I was back each week, with every single book in those bags on my “read” list, even the little kids’ books we picked out for the younger ones. I gave Heidi one-page book reports so she would know I’d read them. After the first week, the amazement on her face changed to a welcoming smile. She wrote me letters for years General Delivery or to P.O. Boxes in Nevada or Oregon or Arizona, telling me about her husband, sons, and her dog. Another touchstone, and a very grateful little girl.

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Roads on Her Face #9- Dan, Dan

Crazy George lived in a van, moving around from campground to campground. He was an old grizzled drunk, like my dad, so they didn’t get along. They would, however, drink together, because a drunk never likes to be the only one. Dad had an old beat-up chessboard that folded in on itself, each of the pieces glued to a magnet so they stuck to the board when the games were played in parking lots, or bars. He and George would stare at the board for hours, sitting on folding chairs around a small camp table. Someone would move a piece, both would drink. Someone wouldn’t move a piece, and both would drink. Mom was probably off scrubbing toilets or collecting money from campers. Sometimes some of us kids would stand around and watch, but we grew bored quickly and would wander off into the forest or down to the river.

Dan and Theresa also lived in a van. They stayed for a while at one of the campgrounds my parents were managing in Clackamas, that magical summer from which each memory is imprinted on my mind the way a flash from a camera imprints briefly on your vision, after you’ve closed your eyes. I am sure they got a special deal, because Dan liked to drink too and he would bring beer by, and Theresa. She had a great big long-haired dog named Woofus, who would sit down behind you and groom you on command, his teeth rubbing against you in little nibbles like fishbites. It tickled, and we would laugh and squirm while he did it. I had never seen mom with a friend before, a friend who was a real girlfriend and not just the wife of one of my dad’s “associates.” They laughed, and laughed, and laughed until they rolled on the ground. They drank beer together, and hid behind trees whispering about boys. I crowded them, wanting to be a friend too. They always let me hang out, never getting annoyed. I liked this mom, one who wasn’t cowed and tired and who acted like a 12-year-old girl. Like me. We set up a dome tent behind the trailer, and we had girls’ campouts where we could watch the campfire die down through the thin grey screen of the tent’s door. Theresa gave me a journal, which she inscribed with her name and the date in a loopy, flowing script. Theresa Sheffield, June 1994. “Don’t stop writing,” she said. “You are going to be famous one of these days.” At that point, I might have believed her. I searched for her years later, finding maybe 10 women of the same name who were still in the area. I called them all, but no one knew the slight blonde who had been called T-Bird in high school, who had a penchant for loser men, who had a dog who thought everyone needed to be cleaner. I wanted my mom’s friend back. I wanted her to have a friend from then, from when we were still a family and when adventure was the only way we knew how to live. I wanted to see if she had changed. I wanted to capture that summer and never let it go.

One night Dan got wasted around our campfire and decided he wanted to pierce his nose. I went to bed, and the next morning he was sitting at our wooden picnic table holding his face.

“What did you do, Dan? What’s wrong?” I thought he had a hangover. He did, but it was worse than that.

Mom’s lips were stretched tight across her teeth, her mouth a thin straight line. She might have been trying not to laugh. Dad was somewhere, taking a walk in the woods or having his quiet time alone. He needed space, especially after a bender of a night. We always welcomed the reprieve, our shoulders floating upward as some hidden weight was taken away.

Mom gently pried Dan’s fingers apart and exposed his nose, his big beak-like nose. He had somehow jammed a large safety pin right through the center of theseptum. She barely brushed against it and he cried out in pain, tears springing to his eyes. The whole area was a furious red.

“What in the heck did you do that for?” Mom asked him, pushing his hands away from his face again, as they had sprung back up in a protective gesture. She grinned over his bald head at me, then looked down again with nothing but concern on her face. Dan was in love with Mom, and everybody knew it. “Where’s Theresa?”

“Sleeping,” he moaned. “Please, get it out, please just take it out.”

Mom cleaned it with alcohol and yanked it out in one smooth move. Dan’s yell echoed through the valley. He disappeared quickly, into the tent behind our trailer. Bearlike retching sounds came from behind the vinyl walls all day, punctuated with “Fuck you, get outta here! Leave me alone!”  Every now and then the zipper would open and his head would pop out, spewing the clam chowder he’d had for dinner last night.

We had a chant, after that, “Dan, Dan, the drinking man, he lives in a van. He whips up chowder as fast as he can, and his nose is as big as a beer can!” We ran around laughing hysterically, rolling our eyes and punching each other to punctuate the singsong chant.

Dan didn’t like it, at all, and we had to whisper it when he was around.

After a few months, Dan and Theresa went their separate ways, Dan off in his van and Theresa back to her family. Their short relationship didn’t hold up after Dan fell in love with Mom. She said he needed a mommy. After they left the summer had a strange feel, as if it were curling up and browning at its edges, as if it or we had crossed a threshold. A few weeks later the clouds rolled in, and the days grew darker. Things began to mold, and slugs crawled out of their holes to leave slime trails like silken threads over everything. We were stuck in the trailer together, the musty smell of us overwhelming. Not many campers showed up.

On one increasingly rare sunny day, Dad drove us in the van to George’s camping spot. He was sloppy drunk when we got there, and it somehow quickly degraded into a shouting match. “I’m going to kill you you motherfucker!!” We heard George screaming, and then Dad got into the van with his set and joyous face, the way he looked right before there was trouble. “Come get me, prick,” he said calmly out the window, and then he drove us back to our campground. George waved a big machete at us as we left him at his van.

The rest of the day we waited breathlessly for the blood. George was coming to kill Dad! What would we do? Was someone going to die? It’s all we could talk about out of the earshot of the grownups.

Crazy George had a knife! But Dad had a gun. We thought we knew who would win. A few days later, with no George appearing, we packed up and headed south to escape the rains.

– Edited July 23rd after using some helpful memories shared by my younger siblings.

Roads on Her Face #7: Love in Heaven

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.

Roads on Her Face #1 Shots Fired

“Get down, everyone, get down!” Mom was calm, at least outwardly. The baby was calm, looking around with her wise-owl eyes. She had been born to expect things like this.

http://www.allthesky.com/nightscapes/forest2.html
© T. Credner & S. Kohle, AlltheSky.com

The night was still, quiet, scented with the pungent odor of fresh pines and the musty smell from the station wagon’s lived-in interior.Squeezed into a corner of the “bed” that magically appeared by laying the seats back, I could make out the sky if I pressed my face against the plastic siding of the car. The stars peeked through the trees, the sky darkened to the almost-purple of a bruise. My brother moved in the front seat, rustling, getting comfortable. All six of us could sleep in the car, somehow, laid down like sardines in a wheeled can, a feat I marvel out now from my life of king-size beds and life in houses with more rooms than I use. No-one could move, but we were used to that. You pressed your arms down by your side to claim your space, and you were very still. You didn’t want to piss dad off, and for anyone to sleep we all had to be still.

We had pulled off the road somewhere in the forest, between towns and out of the reach of city lights. It was a dirt road, the only good kind to pull off on. Dirt meant it probably wasn’t used that often, it meant cops weren’t cruising and looking for vagrants. You can get lost easily in the trees, behind the brush. I don’t know where we were, other than in the forest. It could have been California somewhere, but more likely was northern Arizona or maybe somewhere in Utah. It was hard to keep track, when the road was where you lived. Places blurred together and the only things that stood out were people. You remembered faces from a place, or a restaurant, or a camp spot where we almost lost the cat. Not so much the names of places, or states. When we were done driving for the day, we stopped, Mom cooked dinner on the Coleman camp stove, and then we went to sleep when the sun went down. There were no lights to read by, there was no TV. No-one called to talk on a phone that wasn’t there. Nighttime was bedtime, or sleeptime since there was also no bed. We let the cat out to hunt, confident that she would appear on the hood of the car in the morning, knowing it was time to hit the road.

I was nearing sleep, my body relaxing, the stars blurring in my vision, when I heard the noise. POP! Zinggggggggg. All of us jerked awake. POP! Zingggggg. The pop was familiar, the zing more like the sound a telephone wire would make if you strummed it. I didn’t recognize it. I was puzzling over this sound, but dad knew what it was immediately. Vietnam and a lifetime around guns had made the sound second-nature to him.

“Goddamit! Some fuck is shooting at us!” He was half-dressed, scrambling for shoes lost somewhere at the back of the car where my youngest brother was hurrying to get out of his way. His tiny bed-space had disintegrated when my father’s feet moved. Dad didn’t have a shirt, but he had his rifle. He got his shoes on, lifted the back door of the wagon, and was gone into the night. We were all awake then, blazingly awake, our eyes glued open.

“Get down, everyone, get down!” Mom was calm, at least outwardly. The baby was calm, looking around with her wise-owl eyes. She had been born to expect things like this. The boys were excited, whispering, both diving to the floorboards in the front of the car. Adventure! Just when they thought they’d been stuck with going to sleep, here was adventure. It often arrived that way, in the middle of the night, the adventure of dad coming home drunk and us figuring out how to stay out of his sight, or the adventure of being on the run, finding a new place because something in dad’s mind had clicked. Something that said it was time to go, no matter if it was midnight. Sometimes it was just time to go.

I flattened on my stomach, Mom pressed beside me with her arms around the baby. We all held our breath. POP! Zinggggg, again. Now, an answering thunder from the 30-ought-6 dad had held in his hands as he slipped into the trees. No zing this time, the bullet was not flying over our heads now. At the time I thought someone really was shooting at us, that someone was after us, but now I imagine the shock on some redneck’s face as he shot randomly into the forest and then heard a zing as a bullet flew over his head. Or did the bullet hit his truck, shattering the windshield? There was a pause, then an excited POP! POP! Zinnnggggg! Zinggg!! Someone was definitely shooting at us now. Boom! Boom! The bigger gun answered, then there was a roar in the distance as a truck started up and sped down the road. Someone had gotten the picture.

Minutes later, panting, Ed arrived shirtless, the gleam of his eyes reflecting the stars, the sweat beading his forehead belying the cool mountain air.

“He got the picture,” he said. “Mary, get our shit, let’s get out of here before he comes back or the cops show up. Let’s go kids, roll up the sleeping bags.” A flurry as we pushed the seats up, arranged ourselves into our traveling formation, got the baby in the car seat. Our few crates of belongings on the top of the car were settled, and before panic could set in the cat was there. She knew. We all knew he would leave her in a second if she wasn’t there on time. I breathed relief, cuddling her in my arms as we coasted out of the forest with our lights off. No-one on the road. It was as empty as it had been when we drove in to find our spot. Huddled together in the back, us kids looked at each other with our wide gleaming eyes and finally breathed.

“Why was that guy shooting at us?” Rowdy whispered, no hint of a stutter when he talked to me, his fuzzy hair sticking up in clumps.

“I don’t know,” I whispered back. Reno grinned from the front seat between mom and dad, sitting back and not moving, not making a sound, not waking the beast. The baby in her car seat was relaxed, watching us, never opening her mouth.

After that, there was a gas station. I remember eating a tiny ice cream cup before bed, such a treat! We never got ice cream! I remember the dark swallowing us up again as the road hummed under the tires. I don’t know where we slept, maybe they drove and we slept on the road. The important thing was that the miles unfurled beneath our tires, marking time between us and them.