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Creek Running North

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July 21, 2005


An email on my desktop has gone unanswered for two weeks. (People that know me chuckle. Just one? Only two weeks?) My friend has been through a loss. I won't say more than that about it.

And my conscience has pricked me at intervals the last few days. But there are times when all the analgesic words one can summon about such loss ring hollow.

Don't get me wrong. Most of the time those words are accurate. The routine of daily life will accumulate to splint your fractured heart. Whole days, whole weeks will go by without a thought of the one you grieve for. When asked if you are happy, you'll say "yes" without guile, without a moment's second-guessing.

And then, without warning, memory tiptoes up behind you and plants a fireaxe in your back. And you look down at the blade protruding through your chest, and though the pain is overwhelming it is not yet quite sufficient, so you trace the sharpened edge with your finger, slicing it.

The phrase "time heals all wounds" is a goddamned lie. It can be five years or twenty-five. You can lose by parting regretfully, or via a handwritten note telling you that the one you love has been smeared across a block of pavement. A song, or a dessert cart, or a face with a vague resemblance seen in a flash across a crowded street, and up comes your friend with the fireaxe. He is nothing if not familiar. He can even be a perverse comfort. Welcome back, old friend. Have a seat. Put your fire up to my feet.

The road from Cecilville to Forks of Salmon is less than twenty miles long, and takes more than an hour to drive. It's an agony of blind curves, crumbling cliffs with no guardrail, madrone-covered talus a thousand feet down to the South Fork of the Salmon River. It is achingly hot, and even if your little four-cylinder truck had air conditioning you would have turned it off a few ten-percent grades ago. Some of those grades end in some of those blind curves. Your neck aches from peering over the hood, hoping that no one is coming the other way.

At long last, you reach Forks of Salmon, and turn onto another narrow road toward Sawyer's Bar.

The Klamath mountains are some of the most rugged in the lower 48. They are largely unpopulated. They host the greatest diversity of conifer species in North America, with 17 different species growing in a small area near Sawyer's Bar. The North Fork of the Salmon runs past the campsite she has chosen, and you both wade into the river to collect driftwood for a fire. The river is all cobbles, and no more than calf deep this time of year. The water is bright and cold, the color of dimes. Garter snakes run away from you and upstream.

On a cobble bar in mid-river, a week's worth of fuel lies in a dry pile. You carry some back across the river.

You are procrastinating. A conversation looms. You find a pool at the riverbank. From its depths a yellow-legged frog regards you. You sit together for five minutes or so, until she walks up to see what you are doing.

Later, you sit facing your small fire. The Klamath night gathers around your shoulders. You tell her what's on your mind. She weeps, a little, and softly.

Over the next few years there are whole months where you do not think of that conversation.

She was bad for you, there is no question of that. Your life since she left has been an upward arc, uninterrupted. That night washed downriver long ago, past Somes Bar and Orleans, to dissolve into the Pacific.

And yet now and then you see a star's reflection in a bead of moisture, and the thought of Klamath tears stops your heart cold.

Two days out of Sawyers Bar you walk the Klamath at Dillon Creek. A sandbar in mid-river holds tiny flakes of gold among the quartz. She gathers a gallon of sand in bags, brings it home, leaves it in your truck. After she leaves it sits in your house for a year. You spend a few hours trying to sort out flakes of yellow glint, the sand as cold as the day you dug it out of the river. Hours of sifting numb your fingers. You find very little of value. At long last you pour the sand out onto the garden. You wonder how much gold you are discarding unseen.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 21, 2005 10:46 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Darn. Now my mind is cast into the past. I need some distractions....

Posted by: Amanda at July 21, 2005 05:51 PM
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aahh. the klamath. living on the river. a community a hundred miles long and five wide. seiaid valley was my home for a while, upriver from happy camp, downriver from yreka, where one of my grandmothers was born, and later courted by my grandfather.

evocative is too tame a word for your reminiscences.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at July 21, 2005 07:28 PM
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Excepting the fireax in the back, I love this post; it deserves to be published in the sort of anthology I would one day like to edit or illustrate.

When you're at your best, Chris, you manage to communicate thoughtfully that which would be saccharine in other hands. Of course, you've been told as much many times over so blah, blah, blah...

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at July 22, 2005 09:12 AM
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I've made the point elsewhere that, because our loved ones come to be intertwined in every element of our lives, when someone dies we have to say more than one goodbye.

We might think that all the tears were shed at the funeral or in the days or months after. But we're forced to untwist them from our lives time after time, as we step into each situation in which they figured ... however remote some of them are to daily life.

One of the Great Loves of my life was a dog, Ranger. Fully five years after he died, long after the pain of losing him had cooled and congealed, I was on vacation visiting a place he and I used to hike -- a place I hadn't been to since before he died.

I had peeled him out of my day-to-day life over those five years, so that I only looked at his picture on my desk and felt sad (or happy!) every once in a while. But in this moment of stepping onto the ground we once trod together, I found he was still bound up in my experience of this place, and I cried all over again.

Saying goodbye to loved ones is a process rather than an event, and it takes as long as it takes every shared moment to stage itself and be dealt with.

Every joyful memory has to confront its real-world realization of loss, and we have to say "oh shit" as we wrenchingly reconcile each and every pair of them.

Posted by: Hank Fox at July 22, 2005 09:13 AM
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