Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Road Home

Getting home tonight was going to be a challenge. The storms of the last three days had taken their toll. The main highway was closed in three places. High water, a rock slide, and, the latest, today’s bad news, a cracked beam in the tunnel. This morning, I’d already gone to Plan B, taking the back road because of the rock slide.

Now, it was on to Plan C. Go down the highway twenty miles, through some high water, then east, into the mountains, and down the dreaded Highway 53. On a good day, it added another thirty miles, and another hour. Tonight, all bets were off. This storm was packing a big punch.

The joke around here was that the roads to the valley, to the Big City, were glorified logging roads and the main road up the coast followed the route of the first cow to come to the county. At least, that’s how we explain to tourists why we never used the word “straight” or “modern” when we talked about travel. And, we never talk about driving time in terms of minutes or hours. Those words require too much precision and assume that driving is boring, unadventurous.

But, Highway 53 was in a category all of its own. It really couldn’t be called a logging road, more like a spur road threatening to dead-end on an abandoned log landing, or a deer trail that’s likely to just stop after you round the fortieth turn. A self respecting cow would have cut a straighter path.

Back in the day, when it was first opened, the road was part of the coast highway. It was even named the Roosevelt Highway, after Teddy. But, then, he rode with the Rough Riders, so maybe there was some sense to the name.

A new storm was moving in when I left Astoria, gale winds howling up the river and threatening to close the bridge just before I got there. I saw the highway department crew moving in to close it just as I drove through.

A few trees had crashed into my lane a few miles further down the highway, but I veered across, into the shoulder of the oncoming lane, and got limbered up for the Highway 53 experience. Gusts of wind fresh off the beach pummeled my truck, and my fingers gripped the grooves I’d worn into the steering wheel this winter.

I didn’t bother with my windshield wiper switch. It had been permanently stuck on the “heavy downpour” setting for the last two months. The wipers beat a steady tattoo as darkness moved in, and the bright lights of the oncoming log trucks blinded me, fire hosing my beater truck as they raced past, hoping to get to the mill before closing time, give or take a few sideswiped locals along the way.

Traffic thinned out and I drove the last few miles of the decent highway. My stomach knotted, my hands explored my steering wheel, getting ready for the nineteen miles of the 53. Teddy the Rough Rider, here I come.

The power was out on this stretch of highway, and I had been keeping an eye peeled for downed lines snaking across the road, or a blown over tree. Away from the beach, the wind was a bit quieter, but a sharp blast once in a while kept my lower back tight.

“Junction Ahead. Highway 53,” the sign announced. Not that I needed a sign. My gut told me we were close.

At the junction, I pulled over at the little store and gas station I needed some fuel for my belly and another fill up on my coffee. This place wasn’t known for its lattes, and the ho-jos and the hot dogs there would only be eaten by bigger men than me. Still, it was time for a pit stop and more caffeine. I saw a few kerosene lamps through the window and the jagged beam of a flashlight inside. It was early yet, and I hoped they’d still be open.

Slopping through the puddles in the parking lot, I yanked open the front door, fighting against a fresh gust of wind and sideways rain. I could smell the coffee and the stale, greasy ho-jos baking in the glass case by the register. As I walked down the dark aisles, mentally tasting the coffee up by the counter, I heard two men, their voices loud, angry, speaking in jolts and spurts of fierce syllables. It was not a language I knew. The door banged behind me, the wind whistling around the roof, shaking the windows.

Interrupted, they looked at me, wide eyed, turning their rage towards me, as if I had just broken into their house and was trying to rape their daughter.

Silence filled the store, only the wind howling and the squeak of my wet shoes on the linoleum making sense.

“Excuse me,” I said, my voice shaking more than I had wanted. “Got any coffee?”

A torrent of more anger came from one man’s lips, his language maybe Transylvanian. He stomped over to the coffee pot, snatched a Styrofoam cup off of the stack, nearly crushing it in his thick, meaty paw. He quickly poured the cup, splashing more than the cupful over the counter, and thrust the steaming cup towards me, slamming it down on the counter, splashing more coffee.

Another grunt, the same steely glare at me, as I felt the spot where his knife would be slitting my throat. I looked down, not wanting to keep meeting his glare, not wanting to see him pull the knife I knew he wanted to use. Again.

The other man stood silent, sharing the same glare. He’d probably stick his knife into my ribs, and cut out my heart for their dinner.

I yanked a couple of bucks out of my pocket, tossed them on the counter, and grabbed the cup, chuck full of the hot coffee, the liquid splashing and burning my hands, and backed up the aisle.

“Thanks,” I stammered, about as insincere as it could sound.

I nearly tripped on the potato chip display, and succeeded in scalding my leg with a healthy slop of the cup in my shaking hands.

The men followed my every move; the squeak in my shoes sometimes overridden by an occasional curse hurled my way by the first serial killer. Yes, he was speaking Transylvanian.

My imagination began to contemplate what was really in the bait refrigerator by the door. I yanked open the door, fighting the wind, nearly tripping over my feet as I splashed my way to my rig.

The engine caught on the first turn of my key, and I floored it, shifting fast up to third gear before I left the parking lot, and sped down the road, hoping to get out of sight before the bullets tore through the window.

I was halfway home before I realized my coffee had never made it out.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Birds I Saw Today, February 16

Total Birding Time: 2 hours Party Size: 1 Skill: excellent Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: No snow was present

Habitat(s): coniferous woods rural freshwater salt water
Number of Species: 26 All Reported: yes

Checklist: Brant - 3 Canada Goose - 500 American Wigeon - 11 Mallard - 70 Northern Shoveler - 5 Canvasback - 42 Greater Scaup - 5 Lesser Scaup - 50 Bufflehead - 30 Common Goldeneye - 1 Common Merganser - 1 Great Blue Heron - 1 Bald Eagle - 2 Northern Harrier - 1 Red-tailed Hawk - 5 American Coot - 8 California Gull - 70 Anna's Hummingbird - 1 Northern Flicker - 3 Steller's Jay - 3 American Crow - 5 Black-capped Chickadee - 30 American Robin - 5 European Starling - 75 Spotted Towhee - 1 Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon) - 20

Part of the Great American Bird Count sponsored by Cornell Ornithological Laboratory and the National Aububon Society


cup in hand
fills my belly with warm—
Nose takes in its past,
tropic sun, musty, fertile soil,
beans roasting slowly, turning black—
Morning now

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cat Watch

Each one takes up its special evening place in the living room high enough to have a vantage point, in case a mouse runs through or, more likely, one of us humans opens up a package of cat treats, or delight of delights, a can of cat food.

Their place of slumber and casual observation must also be warm and soft, preferably on top of the couch, or the seat of my chair, or, on top of the soft blanket of the chair by the fireplace.

They sometimes like to watch the fire, but their favorite source of heat is under a lamp, where they sprawl like lizards, basking in the heat from a lightbulb.

Mostly, they snooze, often turning their head completely upside down, yet leaving their back to soak up the heat from the lamp. Their eyes close, sometimes, only when they are out cold, but often, they will stare aimlessly, chin on top, head turned halfway around, silent, barely alive.

They only come alive if the phone rings, when they run around and jump from chair to floor and back again. If the conversation goes on very long, one of them will push themselves between the human’s ear and the phone, insisting that they be either a part of the conversation, or, more likely, that they be noticed as the most important thing in the human’s life at that very moment.

Each night is a different arrangement, like a new chess game. The seating arrangements must be the topic of discussion at the midday conference of cats, when we humans are gone, as after they come in from their twilight stroll off of the deck, each of them quietly assumes their selected throne for the evening, without needing a clue from whoever they have chosen to be the Master of Sleeping Perches for the evening.

And, promptly at nine, or whenever they have decided it is time for the humans to get to bed, and to warm their preferred lounges for the night, the cat people will parade off to bed, or sit expectantly at the bedroom door, or stalk by a human, switching a tail in their face. And, if all else fails, one cat, apparently the elected spokesman, will cry a bit, until we finally recognize that it is, indeed, time to retire, so that we can heat the beds for the cats, who must have their beauty sleep, and prepare for the four a.m. struggle to rouse me out of bed, and let them out, whether or not I’m ready to awaken.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Snow Moon Rising

fresh snow on mountains,
flakes dancing downward, angels by the thousands,
ice crusted and glistening
piles of snow shoveled into sugary lumps.

hills now frozen
sky cloudy, heavy with sleet or drizzle
roads coated with rain, soon to be

late afternoon sun against blue sky
hints of spring to come, maybe soon
days longer, a brave
daffodil almost open.

Snow Moon of February
full, through black clouds and black
hills, shining on snow
filling the valley
once white, now black, now bright

Coyotes will howl tonight
the cats and I deep under the covers
waiting for spring.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

False Spring

It was a false spring kind of day today. No one really talks about false spring, but a lot of people know about false dawn, that hopeful bit of light in the eastern sky that ebbs and fades away, before the real dawn begins. Most of us probably think of that time of day as “false alarm clock” or “premature coffee brewing”.

Then, there’s false positives in lab tests and medicine, but that’s a different subject all together. And, false impressions, but that, too, is a different track than what today was like. And, false starts, but that’s getting pretty personal, fella.

The last few days, the morning ice and frost on the windshield hasn’t been as thick and hard, and, most afternoons, I haven’t had to zip up my thick fleece jacket, or wonder why I’m too stubborn to wear gloves when I’m out. In fact, there were a couple of days when there was an hour in the afternoon when it felt downright warm.

Even the primroses are out, and the daffodils are sending up green shoots. Two brave daffies have even sent out a bud, and there’s a bit of yellow now in the front bed, facing south and sheltered by the front porch. Buds are starting to swell on the flowering crabapple tree in the front yard.

Today was the time for the second winter dormant spraying. I mixed up the sulfurous spray, and doused my grapes and apples, as well as the rose bushes with the stanky yellow stuff, soaking down the twigs and branches, and the slightly swollen red buds. The roses were becoming brave, with fat buds of folded up leaves, about ready to burst. In a few weeks, I can come out here again and whack off the tips of the thorny stalks and get them ready for their spring growth, which paves the way for their summer blooms.

The sun was warm on my back, but there was a chill to the air in the shade, and a cool wind from the east reminded me that winter is not done yet. The guy at the gas station told me snow is coming, and I don’t doubt it. He’s usually right about most everything.

Now, the sun has set, and when my wife opened the door to let the cats out for their evening stroll, or whatever they do in the backyard (smoking cigars or gossiping with the neighborhood cats??), a chilly bit of air flowed in. I’m glad I fortified myself with a bit of whiskey and soda. Its preventative medicine, you know.

My afternoon stroll with the sprayer gave me an inventory of coming garden chores, and I realized I’ve been getting pretty soft lately, sitting in my chair in the evenings, playing my guitar, reading a book, doing some writing. Certainly not keeping my virile, studly body in tiptop shape. Well, except for my wrists, as I’ve become quite adept at dipping into the ice cream lately, and slathering sour cream on my baked potato. How come there’s not an Olympic event for that?

So, after I washed up the sprayer and put it back on its shelf in the shop, I stopped to pay homage to the weightlifting machine, and did my routine. Well, I wonder if I can call it my routine, since I haven’t been out there all week.

Spring is coming, but not this week, and probably not the next week. But, next month, the gardening chores will start in earnest, and I better get ready. At least, to make the word “routine” have its real meaning.

I guess I have to think about that “false start” thing, too.