Sunday, October 19, 2008

Coming Down Into East Creek

I’ve realized for the last fifteen minutes I had taken the wrong road at the top of the ridge, between the South Fork of the Trask and the Big Nestucca, and had followed a road down to a creek. But, last winter’s storms had washed that road out. I had to take another road, and I got myself turned around a bit, until I found the road that led down to East Creek.

Every fall, since I was a little boy, I have made this journey, and always on a sunny, late fall day, after some rain, and just before a new rain front moves in.

I’ve always told myself I come here to see the leaves changing color, and to spend one last sunny day out in the mountains. When I was a boy, we took this drive with the excuse that we were deer hunting. Mom and Dad and I, all in our wool red hunting shirts, rifles and binoculars at the ready, and a lunch packed, with a thermos of coffee.

Oh, we were hunting, all right. Sometimes for deer, but usually for a spot of sunshine, an especially brilliant patch of red and orange leaves, or some especially interesting rocks, or a viewpoint. We kept a special eye out for a sunny spot for lunch, and it had to have a view. We usually didn’t stop to take photos, but I think we all were using our photographic minds and were absorbing the beauty of the day.

The landscape has changed so much, from long vistas overlooking ridges and mountains and down into valleys, just burnt snags and small new firs, and bracken fern turning gold. I’ve watched the forest grow back to its old self in my lifetime, and, perhaps that is a reason to make this drive every year, to make note of this year’s growth and change.

A few miles up the Trask, I see a bald eagle, standing next to what looks like a fawn, or a young calf, dead in the pasture. The eagle glares at me, as he guards his treasure, and I don’t linger here.

My companions change over time, and sometimes it was a friend in high school, and then, after my dad died when I was in college, just me and my mom. Later, my step dad got into the spirit of the trip, and we all watched the forest change, over time.

Today, I felt the urge to make the drive again, and I listened to the call, even to the point of packing a lunch and making some coffee, just for myself. My wife was off in eastern Washington, visiting family, and so, I went alone. My parents, my friends from high school, and even friends from twenty years ago, all gone now. I’m not one for visiting their graves, and perhaps this trip is a way of keeping in touch, and remembering why those times were good.

I felt them with me, as I drove down the road, now in a cathedral of alders bent over the river, and along tall, thick black columns of tree trunks. No young firs pushing above the bracken ferns now, no long vistas of ridges and distant mountains. Now, the forest is dark, crowded, thick with tall trees and overgrown roads. There’s logging here, again, and has been for years now. Even some of the clearcuts are grown up, again, ready for a new generation of loggers.

I pass by a hamlet of what were once worn, sad cabins. When I was a kid, this was where the loggers lived, as they cut down the snags from the fire-ravaged hills, and I remember when they would come into town, covered with sawdust and black ash, twenty years after the last fire. Today, those cabins are fixed up, turned into summer homes, complete with white fences, and big sheds for RVs and boats.

I stop every so often, so my camera can have some fun, and I try to capture the golden, soft light of this late fall day, filtered and weak, as the clouds for tomorrow’s rain start moving in. The air is crisp from last night’s frost, and I stick my head out to sniff the air, keeping the heater on to keep me warm. The dampness of the leaves and the river, flowing with last week’s rain, smells earthy, rich.

Soon, my eyes have turned into a camera, and I stop often, trying to find the best spot for a photo.

On the south slope, now that I’m finally over into the Nestucca country, the air is warmer, heated by the late morning sun. There are more clearcuts here, and so the country is more open, like it was when I was a kid.

I’ve still lost my way a bit, but I’m not really lost. I follow my dad’s advice, “go down” and you will always find a river, and likely a road, and the road will lead you out.

I’m going farther west than I would have liked, as it is my tradition to come out onto the road from Blaine over to the Valley around the Alder Glen campground. But, I’ve gotten turned around and took a wrong road, and all the road signs seem to be missing.

I round a corner, and the road is getting wider, and more traveled, and, at last, I see a cabin, and a power line. I know I am not lost any more, but I realize I’ve never been on this road before. I’m thinking Moon Creek, but there are no signs, not this far up.

I drive past the cabin, and it looks deserted, the side spray painted, “Ha ha, Joe,” and I wonder what that story is.

I follow the power line and the road downstream, and I actually stop the car to double check the direction of the creek, making sure I’m “going down”.

A few miles later, there are other cabins, and then a “school bus turnaround ahead” sign, and a bunch of mailboxes, grouped together. The houses here are a bit more than cabins, and some have freshly mowed lawns, and all the buildings look neat and tidy.

I recognize one of the names on a mailbox, a deputy sheriff, and now I almost know where I am.

At the stop sign, I learn I’ve been driving down East Creek and now I turn left on Moon Creek Road. I’ve been this far up Moon Creek before, and the road here is paved and wide. I know if I turn left, Blaine is just a mile away, and I go that way, as I have chores to do at home, and my time to explore has run out.

But, part of me wants to turn right, to go up Moon Creek Road, to a place I’ve never been. Moon Creek – just the name makes me want to explore.

Coming into Blaine, the road heads straight for the old store. I call it the old store, but it hasn’t been a store for forty years, and the folks living there probably don’t know it was once a store. But, it’s a landmark to me, and I’ve always been sorry we never stopped there to go inside, when I was a little boy and we had come to Blaine on a warm fall day, just like today. The store was open then, and I always wondered what they sold in there, at the Blaine Store.

So, I turn right, and go down river on the way to Beaver. I come up to the old Mennonite Church. It’s Sunday, and folks are still parked out in front, and some of the congregation is out in the parking lot, visiting. A lot of people go to this church, miles from anywhere. Its always been a big, white church, almost American Gothic, and today, it wears a fresh new coat of white paint. Ah, some things never change around here.

The big leaf maples in this valley are golden now, and stand out against the greened up pastures and the dark green of the Douglas firs. I pass the Blaine Grange, which was a famous stop on my past political campaigns. Any local candidate had to speak at the Blaine Grange political forum. But, the grange is long gone. It had been turned into a hay shed, and now is a house, standing empty by the side of the road. I wonder what happened to the whitewashed benches against the walls, and the hardwood floors, scuffed from many a Saturday night dance.

I see a new sign for the Tony Creek Road, and part of me wants to turn left, again, and see where that road goes. I knew a crazy lady who lived up Tony Creek, and I have always wanted to know where she lived. But, that quest will need to wait another day.

I count down the bridges from Blaine. That’s what one does on this road, as where you live on this road is measured by the numbers of bridges you cross.

Second bridge, and I don’t stop. That’s where Aunt Esther lived. She and her first husband had a dairy farm here, and she built her house from scratch, with a table saw and a hammer, and lumber cut from the Tillamook Burn, probably by the loggers who lived in the hamlet up the Trask, those men who were always covered in ashes when they came to town.

When I was a kid, we’d always stop to see Aunt Esther. She’d make tea and we’d visit with her, telling her what we saw on our trip. And, she’d show us her latest flowers and she’s talk about the latest book she’d read, or some interesting article she found in a magazine. I’d pet her cats and watch the river flow past her little patio. She always had a cookie or other treat for me.

But, she, too, is gone now. But, just for a bit, she’s in the car today, too, enjoying the sunshine and the maple leaves, and overseeing my photography. She had an eye for this, too, and was always quick to point out an artistic moment.

On to Beaver, where young men are coming out of the store with a case of beer. Its something to do on a Sunday afternoon, after the morning hunting trip, and before they go back to work on Monday. It’s just what one does on a Sunday afternoon in Beaver.

When I get home, its time to stow away the fishing and camping gear that got piled up in the garage at the end of summer. I put my fishing stuff away, and realize the tip of my new fishing pole got broken, when we had to pack up in a hurry at the lake, when my friend had to rush away on a family emergency. I don’t regret helping him out, but I’m a bit sore about breaking my pole after only one day of fishing. Never even got it properly broken in.

As I take my camera out of the car, and clean out the coffee cup and toss out the apple core, I wondered what I got out of the trip today, and even why I went. But, when I look up into the hills and see those golden leaves, and the dark outline of the mountains, I realize I was called up there today; it was time for a visit with people I hadn’t seen for a while.