I know this road like the back of my hand. I know the curves and gentle slopes like a lover knows the curve of a cheekbone. I know where every pothole is. The damnable things that return year after year, no matter how often they grade, fill or sand that road. I know where all the jagged edges are.
There is a bridge, and on a hot summer day, you can always find a few cars parked along the edge, as daredevils attempt to scale the cliff’s edge and jump into the wickedly cold mountain water. I have jumped from the highest point and splashed into icy water. I would try to act tough, but each and every time, the air would scream out of my lungs from the shock of the cold against my body. It has been at least twenty years since I have jumped into that creek.
I continue driving, noticing a new fence along the way. Someone is building a shop along their property, and I shake my head, still annoyed that someone had the audacity to build a house there in the first place.
The sound of gravel crunching under my tires as I turn that last corner onto that dirt road travels above the chatter of my kids in the back seat. The dogs are looking out the winder, their noses twitching with the new scents yet to be discovered.
I gently touch my brakes to slow down, not wanting to kick up dust, and to avoid even more bumps along the way. I can miss every rut with my eyes closed and it feels familiar once again.
My face is smiling. The wild grasses are swaying, as if they are waving to me. The flowers, small and frail, are peeking through, timid and shy. The gentle rocks are still undisturbed; strong and steady. Their pointed overhang, with a thick moss hanging over, provide a bit of cover and an easy escape for the deer who are perturbed by my unexpected arrival.
As I get closer to the house, my heart beats excitedly!
I am home!
I will never look for excuses not to come back. I will never lose track of time again, and I will remember how much I need this place as much as it needs me.
At least, that is what I tell myself.
It has been at least five years since I have come for a visit.
I had forgotten the beauty.
The smell of evergreens, and sweet clean air. The mountains, so close, its as if they are hugging you in a warm embrace. The river calls to me to come and sit for a while.
And so, I do.
It’s 3 o’clock.
That means its “happy hour” down at the river. We have unpacked and it’s a warm day. I know where I can go to cool off.
I follow the trail that leads down to the water’s edge. The tall grass is overgrown all around, but a small trail is carved along a pathway that leads from the house to the rivers edge. Two tall pine trees serve as shade.
He has added a bit to the gazebo. Moved the picnic table closer too.
But the chairs are still propped, facing the town.
I sit down, breathing deeply.
I am tired.
They look at me, a bit of sorrow, a bit of pity and a small smile in their eyes. My children are yanking their clothes off, ready to jump off the dock and into the river below. The dogs, their tails wagging, are smiling, glad to be free of leashes or restraints.
This place is freedom. It is solitude. It is peaceful.
I hadn’t realized how much I was holding in until that moment.
So I sip my drink, and breathe.
I let the worries, and the stress: the disappointments and the angst fall off my shoulders. I can pick it up when I leave. After all, it never goes too far. But for now, for these four days, I want…no I need to simply be. I need to have no one ask me for anything, or to need me for anything. I need to soak in the beauty all around me.
The splashing and dogs barking make me smile.
My children have been playing on this river bank their entire lives. I am happy that they will have childhood memories of this place.
This place will have a far different meaning for my children than it had for me in the past, but I am thankful all the same.
The sound of a chainsaw across the river draws our gaze upwards.
A crane, with a long blue arm reaching high, a bucket holding a man inside, is stretched out to a large leafy elm tree. The chainsaw roars and screeches, as the man wields his weapon against the wise old sage. It is the last of its kind. A tree planted more than one hundred years ago by the looks of it.
We all sit and stare as limb after limb drops down to the ground below.
The kids are still jumping and laughing, oblivious to the atrocity happening across the river. The three of us simply sit, with no words to be said.
Finally, he growls about the stupidity of cutting down the majestic beauty. It is obvious the tree is not being pruned but destroyed.
He shakes his head.
I wonder aloud at why they would cut down a perfectly healthy tree like that. Roots? Disease?
We have no answers.
After our drinks, its time for dinner.
The kids want to walk into town to visit with their grandparents, and I am glad. They all need that time together, and I need time alone. I am even more glad that there is now a bridge that connects those who live on one side of town to the other, with a quick stroll. That means I don’t have to drive them around and into town the long way.
Memories flood my mind as I find myself strolling along the same path later that evening. Walking with no set destination in mind, I put one foot in front of the other. Listening to nothing but the sound of my breathing and footfalls along the dirt road.
I moved to this house when I was fourteen years old. Can you imagine how incredibly angry I was? Moving again, and this time to a town that didn’t even have one stop light! What a horrible idea! I didn’t want to be there, and I am sure I let them know my frustration at being cooped up in a tiny house, so far outside of town, and not knowing anyone!
Yet, this house. It was the first place I would feel safe.
You can imagine my frustration at having finally started to settle in, only to be told we were moving again. I put my foot down. Hard! I begged to be able to stay. Just four years. That was all I would need: please could we stay?
A decision that had both good and bad consequences.
They let me stay, but they left. They would go to work for weeks upon weeks, leaving me alone to navigate being a teenager in a small town.
Let’s just say, I didn’t make the wisest of choices…
I keep walking a bit further along, remembering the parties, the sneaking out on late nights. Kissing boys and hearing the gossip the next day. Planning bonfires or skinny dipping, yet the girls were always too shy to take off all the clothes, and the boys were too shy to even jump in! I remember playing on the water in the summer. I would sometimes sneak out, just to take a wobbly pontoon boat up the river, just so I could float back down and stare at the stars all by myself. If that seemed dangerous or risky, it certainly had never crossed my mind.
I remember my mother and the guy that I would later call “dad” when describing him to other people because the telling the entire story would take too long, they broke apart for the last time. Still, I found my way back to that house.
Then, instead of sneaking out, I would find my self constantly sneaking back in. A house that would become a summer getaway would be a place I found solace for years to come. I moved back into that house five years later when I eloped with a man for no real reason other than he looked at me and said, “Hey, the Hitching Post is back there, do you wanna?” He seemed pretty nice after a few weeks, so why not?
Lack of jobs, lack of education, and desperately needing to set out on our own path, we left, only to return once again, this time with a baby in my belly.
But that town was still too small, and I was far too restless to stay there. I pushed farther and farther away. Yet, every year, I would feel the calling to come home. To breathe the mountain air, to feel the soft release, as I sink into that chair and watch the water flow softly by.
I would bring my babies there. I would swim with them,
teaching them about the current. While other boaters stay far away from this part of the river, I teach them not to be scared of the waters currents, or the rope holding us back from going over the falls not too far away, but to trust it and know it will pull you to safety if you let it. Don’t fight it, but to swim with it.
Years later, I would decide to leave my first husband on that river bank. We held hands, crying, as we said our goodbyes, and after 17 years of marriage, that part of my life ended. It stung to go back and feel so many memories that included him.
Maybe that is why I stayed away so long?
Or maybe it is because shortly after one part of my life ended, another part began.
And because of that, I stopped trying to find solitude and peace in places and started looking for it in myself. Or maybe because I felt shame and didn’t want to come home to more criticism. I felt enough disappointment; I certainly didn’t need to feel it from others as well.
That first night, I found myself walking to one of my favorite spots. I used to go and sit next to the water as it rushed down the gates of the dam. Those trails are grown over now, and so instead I went to another spot. Still close by, where that cold water from that creek above meets the water from the river.
I sit and stared at the stars. I let the cool night air kiss my skin and for just a while, I forgot about everything else but being in that moment.
The sound of the water rushing by, as it joined into the river. The Milky Way, something I had forgotten even existed, was staring down at me. We seem to recall each other. I walk home, a smile on my face. My body releasing all the tension and letting go.
I spent the next two days sleeping in, riding in boats and playing with my children in the water, showing them some of the sweet spots of the river. My dad and I shake our heads at all the houses along the riverbanks. He shakes his head at the crazy housing prices, and I shake mine at all the change. Neither of us like change.
We would find ourselves sitting on the river’s edge each day around 3’oclock. Sipping our beer and sitting quietly; watching a giant blue crane across the river continuously rise up and down, getting to just the right angle. We can hear the screeching of a chainsaw as it hacked away at a beautiful piece of history.
I spent my nights looking at shooting stars and remembering. Remembering good and bad times, happy and sad.
Remembering how I couldn’t leave fast enough. How it was too slow, and too simple.
Now, I want more than anything to have simple once again.
It is day four.
I don’t want to go back to Idaho, but I must. I find myself stalling for more time.
This time, instead of rushing away, I try to find any excuse to stay. But I know I cannot. I watch, as the chainsaw cuts down the last limb. It has taken four days to chop the tree, leaving only the trunk left to saw down.
I nod and try to take a picture with my mind’s eye as the bald eagle flies overhead. A lone duck swims over towards the dock, but the dogs don’t understand that it doesn’t want to play. It quickly paddles away. Dragonflies swoop around, and the sound of the train horn begins whistling in the distance.
With another deep breath, and a sigh, I stand. I glance over my shoulder for one more glimpse of a sleepy little town. A town I had once hated and couldn’t leave fast enough. Yet now, all these years later, a town that I find myself gravitating towards more and more.
A place I once called home…and I expect, always will be.