Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dirty River

We came down, down to the brown river, where the pungent smell of the alder-sap mixed with the reek of dead fish and a whiff of motor-oil to make a smell that I would remember all my life as river-smell. The Willamette was a dirty, dying river in those days.

We played fox and hounds, galloping down the packed-earth trails, finding passages through the blackberries, maybe -- or maybe not -- and finding also strange, disquieting things; beer bottles, odd bits of clothing, crumpled mercenary magazines, .22 shells, charred skeletons of unskillfully, unsafely made fires. Things you didn't find in the deep wild, where we usually went. We were in alien country, and it made me uneasy.

It is the anomalies, of course, that mark the memory. The day that I leaned over, high up on Mt Washington, looking about five hundred feet as nearly straight down as makes no matter -- that happened far more often, but I remember very little of all that. I remember that one time only because it was anomalous too. I was very hungry, and it was the first time, in my years of climbing, that I lost my head for heights. Before that, looking five hundred feet down had been no different from looking across five hundred feet of flat valley floor. I was scornful of people who fussed about it. You were no likelier to fall off a five hundred foot drop than you were to fall off a porch. Why make a to-do about it? But this time I clung to the rocks, and Mt Washington rocked underneath me, and I looked down in fascinated horror, knowing that my will could not resist the inexplicable necessity of falling. I held still. The moment passed. But I would never be completely sure of my head for heights again.

So. What were we doing, so close to home? I don't remember. I only remember the fear. There was a dread behind the whole thing, a sense that something was wrong. Fox and hounds. Even the name of the game was wrong; we were not a hunting family.

Looking back, I think I know what it was. It must have been my mother, just after the divorce, out on a date. We were all of us indulging, guiltily, in pleasures my father would have disapproved of. Playing at blood sports. Going to a city park instead of to the wilderness; playing by the dirty river rather than hiking in the pristine woods. We were having fun. But we were also witnessing the destruction of our world, the collapse of our certainties. We would never be safe again.

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