Dateline: July 23-16, 2018
Willaby Campground, Lake Quinault, Site 19
It’s an alternate plan after discovering the place I reserved in a timely manner in the Gifford Pinchot NF was not where I wanted to go. I’ve camped at Willaby three times now. The first was the only week it rained that summer, and was also an alternate plan. I had a reservation at Takhlakh Lake, but I didn’t want to camp in that remote place in the rain with no amenities other than a pit toilet. I don’t like camping in the rain, but my sister was coming from Virginia to stay with my mother so I could get away and I wasn’t about to cancel.
Now I think I will make it an annual camping spot; I do love it here. It’s 45 minutes from the ONP beaches, half a mile from the lodge (cold beer/dry and warm if it rains) and merchantile/cafe so I don’t have to prepare all my meals if I don’t want to. Also flush toilets, a light in the bathroom (also, unfortunately, a mirror), and potable water. Takhlakh Lake, where I’m going in September for maximum beauty and solitude with the fishing eagles and osprey, has none of those.
Departure day begins with killing some 50 yellow jackets in my house after I sprayed their nest the night before and drove them inside. I duct tape their access hole into the magic kingdom and leave a key for the exterminator.
I set up camp in a record one-hour, even with the 37 steps down to the secluded site with a view of the lake through the trees. Not bad for a site at the back of the campground, which I usually eschew. As for the 37 steps: I like walk-in sites, usually choosing them because they are closer to the lake or river and farther from the campground road. This one is a little much however, especially when food and toothpaste have to be returned to the car in the evening and retrieved each morning. The tent pad is a balcony, just barely big enough for my tent with a long step out the door, because I insist that the door, which has the only window, face the lake and the hills beyond. Still, I feel lucky to have scored it in the full campground.
I go to the lodge for a beer after I set up camp—late because of the yellow jacket invasion and needing to clean the Airbnb after the wait-until-the-last minute guests leave. I’m in bed early and watch the sun set over the water from my air bed. When the glow fades, I go to sleep with no idea what time it is. “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky.”
When I awake with the early light, the lake is shrouded in fog, mist rising from the water. I get up, put my sweatshirt on over my pajamas and make coffee. I take it and my journal down to the lake and sit on a stump. The sun will come soon and burn away the fog as the day slips into another hot one.
My thoughts turn to my mother. She and I stayed at the historic lodge here—where, with great foresight, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Olympic National Park into being in 1938—a couple of times when I came home for a visit after my father died. Sad to say, I saw those visits as duty rather than days to be lived. When she finally lost her vision, those opportunities were lost. I still took her to Mt. Rainier, but she couldn’t really enjoy it. Yes, I do have regrets.
I sit hoping for eagles or osprey to fly over looking for fish, but there are none. A pair of herons come toward me, but I thought they were gulls until they were right overhead. They were flapping, so they weren’t raptors and I didn’t pay attention, so focused on what I wanted to happen that I missed what was happening. Pretty much like living with my mother and missing her essence while wanting her to be a different mother.
I do half sun salutations at the edge of the water then return to my campsite to build a fire and cook eggs with goat cheese and bacon. (Not over the fire; I’m not that ambitious.)
I struggled with what project to bring with me. I’d grown accustomed over the past few years to use my time away from mother care to work on my memoir…about mother care. But now it’s out there looking for an editor and I’m a little lost without it as I struggle to discern the next project. I brought a variety of possibilities.
I pick up the first of two bulky notebooks of letters my father wrote to his folks during his World War 2 service. As soon as I read the first letter, I’m hooked. I was bereft some time back when I finished the 500 letters he wrote to my mother. It was like he died all over. And now here he is again, my funny daddy, long before I knew him.
I sit by my small fire and begin to read. The letters begin after college. He’s working for the WPA in Ohio and doesn’t like it. He’s irked when he files his first income tax returns. After “penny pinching for a whole year,” he owes $19.45. He supposes since he’s “better off than many people, [he] should pay for the privilege. But on the other hand,” he writes, “I owe that to my parents, not Uncle Sam. Taxes would never pay them for what they’ve done though. In fact, I have no idea how they could be adequately repaid.” He thinks he can get a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority (where he will meet my mother). It pays $2000 a year. This is new information, before the letters to my mother begin. I’m elated.
When the fire goes out, I dress, make a sandwich for lunch, and head to the edge of the Pacific: Rialto Beach. I drive through Mora campground, where my family camped, remembering rising early with my father—the breakfast cook, at least the coffee. You can read about and view my beautiful foggy day here.
I sit by the fire again in the evening reading letters. I turn a page and am startled to see my mother’s straight-lined perfect penmanship; the hand that never changed, except, perhaps, for the cocky slant in the cross of her ts, in all the years I knew her. Until the last two years when she lost her vision. She had gone with my father to visit his folks before his induction into the Army. It would also be the last time she sees him for a very long time. She is embarrassed at letting a week go by without writing to thank them for having her.
I go to bed early. For the second night, I’m not staying up for the stars. I love bed. I’ll be up at day break with my father, just like I was when we camped at Mora.
I return to the lake the next morning. I’m later than the day before, it’s cold and the warm cocoon of my bed holds on to me. The fog is already dissipating when I reach my stump.
I’m going to hang around “home” today, on the lawn at the lodge with a book. But I finished the one I was reading last night. I brought three more and reject two of them, settling on May Sarton’s journal “Endgame,” about her 79th year that I found on my mother’s bookshelf. I read most of her journals years ago, then quit when they begin to detail May’s failing health, beginning with a stroke, then—in this one—irritable bowel syndrome. Rebecca gave it to my mother, according to the inscription, for her 79th birthday, 10 days before my father died. I wonder if she read it. Maybe I should have, in preparation for moving in with her.
On page 45, there are underlined passages:
“…doing the daily chores is all I can manage. I am living, I sense, against the tide of life itself. I don’t know how to wake up and get going…” “here I am wading around in oceans of time and wasting it!”
Wasting time was a theme of my mother’s when she wasn’t able to do what she did in stronger years. She never learned to value time at rest in daylight.
I thumb through the rest of the book looking for underlinings. There are a few over the next six pages about Nelson Mandela being released from prison, and Martin Luther King and their beliefs about when non-violent protest can and cannot work. And, finally, this one:
“Eating is hard for me still, and more often than not I settle for dry cereal for dinner.”
Then there are no more underlined passages. I weep for how hard life was for her, how alone she was, how much I didn’t care, and how courageously she kept going.
I have dinner on the deck at the lodge then go for a drive. I’ve never been on the other side of the lake. It’s far longer than I anticipated, but beautiful with the sun slanting across the sword fern through the rain forest that gets 10-15 feet of rain a year. And I just read this: “The largest specimens of Western Red Cedar, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Alaskan Cedar, and Mountain Hemlock are found in these forests, as well as five of the ten largest Douglas firs. It has the largest trees in the world outside of California and New Zealand.” Many of those largest trees have signage directing visitors to them. I remember going by horseback with my family for an official measuring of a Douglas fir around here, young enough to ride behind one of the researchers on his horse.
On the last morning, I build another fire and finish reading the letters. I’m glad there’s another notebook at home; I’m not ready for them to be over. This notebook ends just before he proposes to my mother. Having my father back through these letters is both beautiful and sad. All of the people he talks about, family and friends that I met over the years, are gone. All except my two cousins who were born to his eldest brother during the war years.
It occurs to me that these are my father’s legacy letters: a record of his values and who he was. I’m shocked by the depth of his mysogeny and racism. Was it the times in which he lived and I should just let it go? Did he overcome them? The racism, yes, I think so. Perhaps less so the mysogeny. But I don’t think my mother would have used words like “nigger” and “scrub woman.” I’m also blown away by his outspoken admiration for his mother and his upbringing, which he credits to her and tells her so. My children do not tell me they admire me, or thank me for what I taught them. And I did not tell my mother until the last weeks of her life. Yes, I have regrets. Not the ones she feared I would have, because she did, but my own.
I break camp. I’m ready. Three nights is just right. My reservation at Takhlakh is for four nights. I may leave early. Nice to have the option though. The last time I was there I wanted never to leave. I drive to the end of the road for a hike to Pony Bridge before I go home. You can read about that adventure here.
Back home in my own bed, the almost full moon is slipping down the valley. I bask in the glow that lights my room like day. I love where I live. Thank you, thank you, thank you.