I lived for the first half of 1989 in a tiny cabin in the
heavily wooded mountains of Southern Oregon, a mile or so by well-rutted dirt
road and footpath above a ghost town called Golden and a cold stream known as
Coyote Creek. The nearest town with a post office was another three or four
I needed a place to go where I could be still for a while.
I’d lost two friends the previous year and was at a bit of a loss for what to
do, where to go. After finishing college I’d taken a ride from Portland to
Alaska to work in the fisheries of Valdez, Prince
William Sound (which were more or less intact when I was there, until an
incompetent swindler let 12 million barrels of oil drain out of the tanker he
nominally controlled that following spring, as I stewed in my canyon), and
come back without any plan to speak of.
Ecstatic moments and grieving
moments clenched into a tangled knot, though not necessarily a tight knot. In
fact there was a good deal of looseness in the uncertain antics of those days.
For lack of a better plan, and
because I was distrustful of plans at that point, I let myself follow the pull
toward the anti-industrial protests of the so-called timber wars of the
Northwest. We came from everywhere, true, but this is where we belonged: in the
woods, willing to sacrifice comfort and safety, at least temporarily, to hinder
the twisted intentions of junk-bond liquidators and petty tyrants as best we
could, by legal means or otherwise.
One friend whom I met at a small gathering, and then at the logging road
blockade that followed, invited me to stay at his place above Coyote Creek. By
the middle of January I was ready for a place where I could unravel.
The dirt road snuck in through shady mixed conifer and
second-growth Douglas fir trees (this south slope had been logged in the
1950s), and crossed a small wooden bridge at a level spot along a year-round
stream fed by clear springs higher up. From here a narrow path wound its way up
the small bowl-shaped canyon. My cabin was about halfway up the slope, a
half-hour walk from the bottom, in a small clearing with a plywood platform to
one side and the steep drop into the canyon at the back. The view from cabin
and deck was immense, multidimensional, deeper than anything else I’ve
encountered. The entire west and north slopes of the canyon were alive with a
quiet stand of the original forest, the ancient trees that once blanketed the
entire region, of which only scattered islands remain.
There was snow on the ground when I arrived. I had never
set foot in this place before but it all felt familiar and right. I had no
trouble finding my way up the winding path. When I stepped between two trees
near the top, I sensed that I had passed through some sort of barrier, into a
set-aside zone, a sanctuary, where everything was somehow more present than in
the outside world. In one sense I’d come here to hide, but from the first
moments it was clear that in this place, in my grief and uncertainty, I would
also be greeting someone or something that had a fullness I might have barely
No electricity, no phone. No running water to my cabin, though
a two-minute walk brought me to an old bath house, where a spigot piped water
down from the steady spring.
Removing myself so completely from the world of social
interaction and technology
gave me an opportunity to tune in to the rhythms and beings of the place, to
sharpen my senses. To live deliberately (as a long-departed surveyor from the
Northeast once said), though not really free of the ebb and flow of intense
yearning—which would, however, subside more or less of its own accord, tiresome
to the point of irrelevance, after a few hours or days. I learned to meditate,
forced by necessity (though I would have benefited from the sort of training I
later received in Thailand), learned to discern the varieties of breezes and
degrees of agitation or calmness they inspired.
I stayed at Golden for six months, broken up by some trips
to visit friends but mostly alone in my canyon. During those months I would
walk or catch a ride into town (really little more than a stagecoach stop) for
supplies every few days—sometimes not for a week or two or three. I spent my
hours walking, reading, carving faces in small scraps of wood, just watching
the trees or the hawks, making a fire, foraging for edible plants, cooking
rice, dismantling fences, writing, playing guitar, gardening. I left after the
place was destroyed by logging, after I determined I had learned as much as I
was able to from solitude and desolation.
The presence of that forest was indescribable.
would go for days, sometimes weeks at a time with no human contact. The
dimensions of loneliness were unfathomable. Yet somehow, within a couple of
weeks after returning from any excursions into more inhabited zones, I would
awaken to a presence in the place. A Presence. Really. A pervasive experience
of communion with a vast ancient being contained in that physical canyon, a
moody jealous majestic empress,
a non-human non-animal life whose intense demand for attention sharpened all
senses. Comfort and discomfort intermingled. No spite, no judgment, but deep
sorrow and yearning.
the human mind concocts fantastic visions when stressed by extreme solitude.
Yes, she was real. Yes, she was there. And then mercenaries of absent
industrialists killed her.
It’s not as if the place had been untouched by humans, even by
possibly inconsiderate, self-serving humans, in the past. For a few thousand
years at least the area had been within the wider hunting and fishing grounds
of peoples who were displaced and largely destroyed between 1803 and the 1950s,
including through an official, recent policy of “termination” which stripped
tribal status from most groups in the region, essentially to impoverish and
demoralize the people whose ancestors had been there, and who were the
legitimate inhabitants of the place.
Coyote Creek had been mined by
Euro-Americans since the 1850s, and the town of Golden was incorporated in
1890. At some point this spot on the creek had a population of two hundred or
so, and was known for having two churches (one of which still stands) and no
Gold mining continued to be the mainstay of the small settlements here well
into the 20th century.
By the 1950s logging had surpassed gold mining economically. But it was not
until the late 1980s (and particularly the first week of May 1989) that some of
the steeper slopes of the original forest were cut.
the two decades since I left that place, I've meandered and bounced
down a few different roads. But I always come back to that moment, that
sense of presence and sanctuary, even though the literal place was
destroyed. Perhaps it's more accurate to say I left part of myself
there, and at the same time some piece of it got stuck in me.