The hiatus from my astrophoto odyssey came to an end. The two-week interval of visiting college campuses, spraying sand from dune buggies on the Oregon coast, and hiking the Mt Hood wilderness had reached its terminus at the Portland airport. A mixed set of goodbyes were exchanged: my teenage son, eager to return to his real life as defined by his peer group, and my wife, knowing it would be more weeks before I would be returning, and her real life could resume.
It was an empty moment driving away after dropping them off. I wandered back to the hotel and took advantage of the guest laundry. I hadn’t really firmed up my plans and waiting for the rinse cycle gave me time to resolve an inner conflict. I was “near” (a few hours’ drive) to the place where an old high school friend had finally settled and made his home. As with most high school friends, I had lost touch over the years, but remarkably, he had hunted me down and made contact with me a few years before. Here was a chance to return that interest, complete the exchange and perhaps set the stage for a future relationship. This is not my usual inclination. I too often fail to recognize the opportunity, taking instead the natural passive response of an introvert.
Compatible with this usual choice was the immediate resumption of my astronomy interests. Tonight was the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, an annual event of graceful falling stars, sometimes dozens per hour. I could drive east, away from the Portland lights and try to photograph their bright lines across the sky.
As the dryer asymptotically approached, but never actually produced, a dry set of clothes, I considered this decision. Somehow at this stage of life, it seems that the risks of contacting someone you don’t know closely are mostly on the upside. The contact could lead to nothing more than an awkward conversation, in which case, there really was nothing lost. Or it could become a marker in your life that could be built upon, or at least fondly recalled at some future date. I decided to visit Dale (not his assumed identity, explained later). Maybe it will be a visit for an hour or so, and then I can still try to get far enough west before midnight, the beginning of prime time for meteor viewing.
Dale was a strong influence on me at an impressionable stage of my life. His was an existence of pure nonconformity. School authority figures (teachers, principals, counselors) when speaking charitably, would describe him as listening to the beat of a different drummer. Their usual descriptions however, were far stronger than faint praise.
What appealed to me was his creative streak. Finding unusual projects to undertake, movies to make, unauthorized artworks during metal shop, exploring beyond the lab assignment in chemistry, and contributing to my budding efforts at pop-art (all the rage in the sixties), and special-effects photography, these were the things that tangled our paths for a few eventful years.
In those years and after, less benign activities developed and captured my friend’s focus. Recreational drugs and the illegal infrastructure supporting them engaged him, and then supported him. As with so many other buddies you share your adolescent agonies and triumphs with, our paths split, and our courses diverged. Yet you never reach a point so distant as to deny the bond that for a short but important time forged a part of what you are today.
These were some of my thoughts as I took the route, not east to the dark Oregon desert, but west, to Tillamook, a community near the coast; a community known for its natural beauty of pastures and meadows amid forests and rivers. The pastures support a hearty dairy industry, and the cheese produced is world famous, deserving of its Tillamook credential. Logging and dairy farms seem like odd partners in industry, and I suspect there are plenty of issues that split opinions among the residents of Tillamook.
My trepidation increased as I drove closer to the town. I had gotten voice instructions from Dale and now I was looking for a steep driveway on Trask River Road. I found it, hidden by the effusive undergrowth that results when a rainforest comes to an abrupt halt at the edge of a road. The driveway, a gravel and mud parting of the green sea, made its way up into the dark jungle. At unexpected moments, a mechanical beast would suddenly show its rusty carcass: dump trucks, backhoes, bulldozers and caterpillar tractors, each an apparent warning to unwary and unprotected construction vehicles. My aging minivan clambered the rocks up to a house of handsome and distinct styling that sat nearly camouflaged in its setting in this tall forest.
Dale stepped out and almost before shouting our halloes, gave instructions for easing my van up the side road, presumably as part of the overall traffic management for the narrow winding driveway. And now I could get out and greet my old friend.
Yes, we had both grown up. We both sported beards, his in the mountain man style, and both of us had to suddenly throw away our former mental pictures of faces capable only of peach fuzz.
I had wondered what we might talk about. I should not have worried, for Dale is a natural storyteller, and I realized that we would not merely be exchanging stats on careers or family. I was, as in the old days, rapidly coming under the mesmerizing spell of his fascinating descriptions.
Dale owns a few, tens maybe, acres of Oregon forest. He acquired it in some transactional sleight of hand with a former partner, and he has built his house and some other structures on the land. He shares his land wealth with his family of course, and with a tenant, Becky, who lives in what might be called a loft in the barn, but I suspect is considerably more comfortable. I met Becky, and she seems the sort that would fit in with Dale’s natural, if libertarian, lifestyle as nicely as these buildings fit into their environment.
The foundation of the house is built from steel and concrete to amazing specifications. The steel is in the form of cylindrical pilings obtained as remnants from some big construction project. He had acquired them, (I didn’t ask, but he suggested it was a beneficial exchange), cut them to size, and installed them as his foundation, the loading and stress factors calculated so that no matter what happens, it will not pull out or collapse under any conceivable earthquake conditions.
The house itself, is built from wood, supplied by the local sawmill from trees in the neighborhood. Dale is down on logging in general, having seen the excesses of the industry and watched its financial influence destroy the old growth forest on the other side of the valley. Obviously lumber is an important resource, the issue is how best to manage it.
The wood, along with stone walls and other features from materials quarried on-site are what make his house seem so natural in its place. Dale took me on a tour of his property. We got into one of his cars, a model and vintage that still contained a working engine but whose doors had paralyzed shut (Dale was an internal combustion expert). We climbed in through the permanently open windows, and he explained as we drove though the roadway of four-foot weeds, that this route was built by an old and famous roadbuilder who had surveyed the land and known exactly how to carve the hill and fill the hollow to access the best features of the property. And so he had.
We twisted and climbed a hundred feet or more, skirting unprotected dropoffs, and gaining tremendous views of the valley. It was really more of a proto-road, needing a bit more useage to keep the milkweed and grass down to a reasonable height. The beater car mowed down the bramble and continued the climb to an open mound. We climbed out and Dale showed me the stumps of the ancient forest that had been harvested many years back. He also pointed out the few remaining ancients left standing. Perhaps they were deemed too small to trouble with at the time, but whatever the reason for their survival, they stood now as the tall grizzled guardians of the new-growth forest, the Douglas Fir replacements. I got an extensive lesson on the biology and ecology of trees and forests, and the issues in the modern lumber business. He pointed out stands of Larches, the fruits of his labor years earlier and still ongoing: planting thousands of seedlings and protecting them from hungry deer and elk.
There is a natural spring on his property that squeezes out of the rocks near the top of the ridge. Dale had intercepted a portion of this flow and piped it down to his house, where, due to the difference in height, there was plenty of water pressure. He used this as his water supply, never able to consume it all, returning the unused bulk to the stream it would have joined, now just a few feet lower.
We continued the road tour. Dale had terraformed sections of the property, carving it and shaping it to a vision he held. The collection of earth moving equipment I had seen on the driveway approach were the tools he used for this task. They were not dead, but they were in a state of high usage, some in disrepair from overuse. But these were valuable tools, and Dale’s remarkable skill set included knowing how to fix them when they broke down, and how to use them to sculpt his land.
His vision included making a retreat-like resort where groups could convene in a natural setting while making plans to improve the world. It included making an amphitheater where summer music festivals could be held (had we been but a year older, we might have attended Woodstock. The missed experience had never left Dale). He wanted to subdivide his land and build homes for “nice people”, by which I took it to mean people kind of like… him, an earthy mixture of self-reliance ethic, a former hippy, savoring life, caring for people and caring for the planet.
It was a long route for Dale to reach this place. His various occupations all seemed to be in the ultra-high-risk category. Even disregarding the turmoil and risks in an underground drug industry, working as a hand on a fishing boat, and as carpenter and construction worker in Alaska qualifies as a hazard to life expectancy. In fact, knowing his personal style and choices, I told him that I was surprised that he was still alive. He confided that there were times that he thought he shouldn’t be either, yet here we were, talking about them.
Part of his survival is cleverness, part necessity. He is a wanted fugitive and no longer goes by the name I knew him by, and does not answer to “Dale” either.
Dale has a family now. He married a woman who found riding the rails in empty boxcars with him, and all the adventures that surround Dale’s life to be the right mix for her soul. Their adventures are less far-ranging now, making a home for two boys, they have a blend of labor. Lisa holds a job as a health clinic worker, and Dale’s career is his land. That, and taking care of the boys while Lisa is at work, and all the other support activities in being a parent. This is more work than most people know, unless they are in that role, and it is more than Dale wishes sometimes as he gazes wistfully at his property. He sees the vision, and he is contemplative of his present age. As he describes, in a comprehensive chronologic listing, a recent trip to the urgent care department, the procurement of X-rays for his son’s leg after a carnival ride accident, the monitoring of his activities afterward, and coordinating the errands outlined by his wife, he says, in that mild accepting tone that other fathers, and mothers, understand immediately, “This is my life now.”
The tour of his land comes back the same harrowing route, and we successfully return to his house. A neighbor has arrived to share some pictures of his race car, Lisa is home, the boys upstairs busying themselves in late Sunday afternoon activities. Becky checks in, beers are opened, and our small party exchanges stories and unimportant but recent details in our lives. Dale relates with his usual remarkable memory for detail, various episodes along his life path through Alaska and his return to this part of the country. As he does, his hands are busy pulling the leafy parts from the stems of dried cannabis plants into a ceramic bowl. The process is precise but casual, the dexterity automatic from years of repetition. The warmth of the home in the afternoon sun, the accepting welcome by a group of friends, Dale’s mesmerizing stories, all are conspiring to keep me here. This of course has been assumed all along by Dale, the invitation to stay the night is voiced as an unnecessary formality. I can tell that I will need to make a critical decision soon. Just like in the years past, the desire to stay is strong, but unlike those years, there are no penalties of parental reprimand for staying out too late. Still, there are tradeoffs.
The hour-long visit I thought might happen has slipped to more than five, and I think about whether I can make it to the Oregon mountains by midnight. I was not mentally prepared to slip into Dale’s lifestyle for an evening, as inviting as it now seems. Explaining my astronomical goal brought a moment’s admiration for stargazing, but as much as everyone wanted to participate, it was Dale who brought the practical aspect up, “How can you stay up so late?” A life of chiseling his dreams from the landscape and caring for a family whose activities start at sunrise can be sustained for only so long each day. Even Dale, with his boundless energy and enthusiasm for his plans, needs some time to sleep and recharge.
With reluctant goodbyes and promises to stay in touch, I parted company with the nice people living in the Trask River valley. I wondered if I would regret the choice I made that evening.
The emotional residue from my reunion with Dale would last for days as I drove into the heart of Oregon. In most of my encounters with Dale, I am left with a sense of awe mixed with concern. This was no different. His passion for life, if any stronger, would show as a visible aura. I wondered what his life might have been, if the knob that controlled his nonconformity was turned down just a touch.
I think he would have made an excellent civil engineer, his wide-ranging knowledge and concern for ecological balance are exactly what are needed in the design of society’s infrastructure. More likely, he would practice in remote parts of the world, building structure from chaos, balancing impact with benefit.
I drove east through Portland one last time, being careful not to get mixed up again on the freeway spaghetti over the Columbia river. As I drove, the urban density diminished with the sky’s twilight, and I started to think about other things. My next astrophoto target was Crater Lake, but I could never get that far tonight. But I could get somewhere dark, right? I could set up some cameras and try to catch meteor trails. I drove east, then south, hoping for a clue, an inspiration, about where to land for this night. The sky became dark and disappeared behind streetlights and haze. I pulled off the road to check but was unable to gauge whether it was suitable for photographing, which usually means it isn’t.
It had been a long day. Was it just this morning that I had put my wife and son on an airplane? The lack of a clear plan and an accelerating weariness started to take control. The plan, unformed as it was, now evolved to include some way of getting some sleep. Maybe I should check in at one of these traveler hotels before it gets too late. Then I would have a nice place to crash after watching the meteor shower. Yes, that sounds like a good plan. I’ll check into this one, and then as soon as I drop off some stuff, I’ll get back outside and find a nearby park, one without lights. Hmm. I wonder how far I’ll have to go to find such a place. Maybe I’ll just stay in the room for a while and study my maps, so I don’t waste time driving around. Do I want to go that far? I’m pretty tired. Maybe this isn’t the year for me to see the Perseids. I should get some rest so I can be ready for tomorrow’s drive…
It’s amazing what self-talk and the power of rationalization can do. In this case, it was probably for my benefit, I really was exhausted, and having another day to transition back to my astrophoto odyssey was the right thing to do. It was just too bad that I was doing it here, paying for a nondescript hotel room in an unmemorable town somewhere south of Portland, when I could have spent it in the warm company of my Tillamook friends. The Perseids were lost, but the loss was much larger than a recurring meteor shower.
Note from the future: My visit with Dale did indeed renew our friendship, which continued in the years since with occasional visits as opportunity permitted, back to his Tillamook home, and with him bringing his (now three) boys plus dogs to visit mine. Sadly, his seemingly indestructible life force met an obstacle he was unable to overcome: lung cancer, and he passed away in this last year. He leaves behind a great many people who, like me, were fascinated and inspired by the creatively productive life he led.