I’m no memoirist. In fact, as I confessed to a publisher the other day over project negotiations, I don’t even like reading memoir. Obviously, that’s how I ended up teaching memoir and personal essay writing.
I turned right at Sandpoint, into the rising sun. Or what would have been the rising sun if the sky hadn’t been hazed with smoke drifting down from wildfires raging through the beetle-killed slopes of the British Columbia wilderness north of us.
Highway 200 under my wheels still feels in my bones like coming home.
Someday, I said, I’d like to get a little piece of land out here. You can’t get one like you used to, of course, but a little piece I might be able to do.
Sure, my dad said. Sounds good.
We’re a family of storytellers, living in between reality and edit. Some stories we’ve told so often I’m not sure what’s true and what’s part of the edit.
My dad had a stick, growing up, that he named Old Betsy.
We triple-checked our bear bells and mace. We still could barely see the Rockies for the smoke, although I’d pointed out Fat Man as we passed the turnoff to Heron. It’s still a one-lane bridge out there. They’ve paved Highway 56. Things change, things stay the same.
We’d decided to hike Swamp Creek, on the principle that the places with the worst names are always a scam to keep outsiders away. It’s seven miles in and a bit to the lake, and we didn’t know what my dad could manage at that altitude under a full pack.
The trail told its own stories, informational signs about the Fire of 1910, the squad that had taken shelter on a broad talus slope. The five men who had panicked and tried to get out; the one who had returned. With smoke still obscuring the Bob Ross peaks around us, the stories felt immediate, oppressive.
My mother’s grandfather was named Heber. She sends me a picture of him once a year, in case I forget that. As though I didn’t save every email, to compare to the others, hoping the real truth would redline itself out from between silences.
We made camp the first night on a duff slope near the creek but off the path. The ground was so thick with downed trees under decaying hemlock needles that our footsteps sounded hollow and it was hard to dig a hole for the latrine.
Dinner, when you’re backpacking, is dehydrated. As we waited for the beef stew to reconstitute itself my dad told me this story:
The first time I went backpacking with your granddad, he cooked. Now, I hardly knew him at the time, and there we were out in the wilderness. I was off doing something, I don’t remember what, and when I came back into camp he had the stove going. He’d laid our things out on this big flat rock. Dishes, cups, napkins. Flatware. I remember him fussing with it, straightening stuff out.
He gestured with his hands, drawing lines on the flat rock where our own spoons were laid out, our stove balanced by the creek. Tossed a white branch into the creek and cheered for it as it made its way over and around rocks, heading downstream.
Well, I watched him do this, and he’d go back and poke at the food, come back and straighten the fork. Move the plate around. Finally I said Glen, you don’t have to do that. He looked at me and said what else am I gonna do?
Edits. Maybe he didn’t say Glen back then. I’m pretty sure my dad was raised to say Mister. But would you say mister to a guy you were backpacking with? Maybe if you wanted to marry his daughter. Words change.
I take a lot of pictures, don’t do much writing about how I spent my summer vacation. When the pictures come back (or lately, when I upload them) there are no people in them. Mostly I take pictures of rocks. Rocks don’t change between words.
On top of Mt. McLoughlin (Mt. Pitt to locals) there’s a boulder six feet long and unshifted by snow. Someone painted BOOGALOO on it when I was fifteen. Someone painted their name on it, later. The words change, the rock stays.
Our entire family climbed the mountain a couple years back.
I took a picture of the rock at the summit.
We saw bears on the second day, half-grown black bears that tumbled across the path fifteen feet from us and kept running. We stood still for a very long time, clutching our bear mace.
My mother’s mother didn’t have a name until she went to school.
My father’s mother once said “free soap, free bubbles” when surprised out of a nap.
When I moved here from Florida I was a backpacker, the mule packer told us. He’d come up carrying equipment for two boys taking flow studies at the lake. For a mine that might exist ten years from now, the other side of the ridge. Well, this friend of mine – special friend – she told me you know what the difference is between backpacking and horse packing? Peach pie.
We picked a quart of huckleberries, saving them in the water bottle I thought I’d left at the last stop. Huckleberries weigh more than water, but they taste better, too.
The mule packer told us there were seven kinds of huckleberries in the Bull River watershed. We counted six. He knew my ex’s mother; Heron is a small town like that. Heron is a small town like anything you could imagine a small town being.
The town I grew up in was so small the only cop sold Avon out of the back of the police car.
Maybe someday I’ll write that story about my family, if I can ever figure out whether reality changes the words, or the words change reality.