Southern Oregon is the place I am always attempting to return to, the landscape of my dreams, the one that fills me with a longing that spills out when I reach that final stretch of I-5, what my children call “The Tallest Mountain,” Sexton Summit, and we begin our descent into the land I love.
I still call it home, even after all these years away.
My parents moved to the Rogue Valley in 1979 when I was four and a half years old. I remember a little of the move, and a little of life before: my Grandparent’s houses in Campbell, California, our own little cabin in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains. My parents were looking for space, clean air and water, good land, a place to raise their child.
I’ve written about my family’s arrival on Sykes Creek Road in a short story. Most of the story is fiction, that is, made…made up. As if memory weren’t somehow, made, as if this moment right here in my living room with the tapping of these keys and a cat about my ankles isn’t made the moment I write this sentence.
Made or not, here is the so-called truth of the matter, colored by distance and memory and the fact that I can’t actually recall any of this myself but have created a compound from my family’s stories:
The former tenants of the Sykes Creek house had not yet moved and were tossing belongings out of the second-floor window onto a mattress in the middle of the lawn. Inside, the cupboards and drawers were bare, emptied into a teetering pile of junk, crumbs and mouse droppings in the center of the kitchen. A lesser family would have quailed, taken the U-Haul into Grants Pass for the night. But my parents are resourceful and determined. They camped on the lawn for a week until the house was clean and the tenants were gone.
The Sykes Creek property is the first landscape to feature prominently in my memory, a beautiful piece of valley, with pasture and arbor, creek and an open dump in a ravine along one side. My mother put in a garden. My dad tried his hand at animal husbandry.
Her Story: Crawling through the furrows sobbing, nine months pregnant with my brother, after a late May frost stole all of the seedlings she’d tended in the ground.
His Story: Slaughter time for the rabbits, which are said to taste like chicken, a book propped on a nearby stump detailing how to wring the rabbit’s neck makes no mention of the mortal scream these creatures issue when their lives are ending. The rabbits sit for months in our freezer, uneaten.
My Story: I am in love with the outdoors. I refuse to come inside, even to eat lunch. I climb the cedar tree near the house to its highest point and sway with it in the wind. I imagine stories so vivid and full of characters I can still remember some. I have a mean pony and a kind bunny, spared, I think, by its brother’s noisy death.
Despite a few setbacks, my mother and father acclimated quickly to rural homesteading life. And I don’t know, because I’ve never asked, what drew my father to acreage just a few miles down the road. What made him buy it without even showing my mother? This was bare land with few improvements, twenty-four acres (a number I associate now with personal mythology), a creek, a south-facing home site where my father, my grandfather and my uncle built a one-room cabin.
We moved in before construction was completed. No indoor plumbing, no electrical lights. This portion of my childhood is the flicker of an oil lamp, the terror of the outhouse trail late at night, bathing in a tin tub by the woodstove and noticing the sound of the rain on our corrugated metal roof. In memory, this time feels quiet and full of potential.
For soon my world opened to a freedom I would wish for everyone. For each of you, reading this, and maybe you know it, maybe you are kindred and already understand waking and looking out over mist covered hills and valleys that you call your home. Maybe you can comprehend that sense of wildness that hushes down from the woods at night and stirs the heart. Or the painful love of place that begins in the details (one particular tree, a spiral shaped islet in the creek) and extends to everything. Every leaf becomes sacred. Each flower, buttercups and shooting stars in early spring, dogwood winking white across the creek, becomes a precious story. This story is something you know yourself by, something that sings a rhythm you realize, with a start, is nothing less than beating in your blood. It calls you out from reading or television, like a siren, like the devas of ancient myth. The world in such places speaks to us clearly without an intermediary, and to children it communicates fluently. Do you know this world? Have you heard it call your name?
We moved to Rogue River when I was fourteen. The drive from deep Wimer was taxing for parents of two school-age children. The new house was on an acre, still beautifully situated in a creek valley. But there were neighbors within earshot, cars drifting down the road, the noise of human life loud and large around us. We acclimated. It only took a short while.
I live in the middle of Oregon’s biggest city now. Outside my window it is winter, and from my living room, without the protection of the garden, all I can see are houses and electrical wires. At night the stars are pale. But every other week or so I drive to the Columbia Gorge and leave my car at the base of my favorite trail. I climb into the woods and sit with the plants and trees. I imagine, and the stories seep out almost tangible between the leaves. I can hear the world, breathing there. Sometimes, in the quiet, I believe it calls my name.