Waking up in the Country

Waking up in the Country

Groggy eyes open, shut again in a denial of the presence of daylight. Roll over, snuggle my sweetheart, fall back to sleep. Slowly coming to consciousness again. Sound of the ceiling fan and the birdsong coming from outside through the small opening in the window.

We’re at about 2500 feet above sea level, with a view of the small town of Chewelah down at 1,670 feet. It’s already over 70 degrees outside before 8 am. We take our showers even though we’re going to do some outside work this morning, because the other showers happen before bed and we’ve got to manage our water use or run out while the well recharges. Our chore this morning is to clear the deck. Mom has to stain the deck this year after skipping last year. She’s got a few other items on her list for us to help with. If there’s anything that takes me back to my childhood, it’s getting chore lists from my mom.

When I think about visiting my parents, the first word that comes to mind is ‘quiet’. Sitting out on the deck with coffee in the morning, we hear bird song, the neighbor’s chickens over the hill, the occasional cow bellowing ‘good morning’. Traffic sounds? No, not even a tractor. Yesterday we watched as a helicopter flew back and forth with a water bucket to help put out a wildfire that sprung up yesterday a few miles to the east. I used to think of wildfires as a thing that happens in other parts of the state (like this one) but in the past few years, we’ve seen that western Washington can burst into flame just as easily.

Water management is a big issue. The well that serves the house dips into an underground stream that doesn’t flow very heavily. My parents can run out if they don’t take care. There’s another well, a deeper one, in the lower field that fills up a cistern. That’s the water my mom uses to water her garden. This is an arid place and growing things here is even more difficult because it’s basically a pile of rocks with a thin layer of dirt over it. Mom has garden boxes with imported dirt and grows some squash, cucumbers and other food plants between the channels in the drain field.

The key to dealing with consistent 90+ degree days is to get up early to do some of your chores and then go out again in the evening when it gets cooler. If you can avoid working in the full heat of the day, you do. Early our last full day, Mom and Mol got out to pick the kale we were going to process and freeze. I went to the raspberry patch to collect a pail of my favorite berries. Nimble fingers seek out ripe berries among those who will be ripe tomorrow, or later today. A contentment settles over me. This is like riding a bike, a skillset you don’t lose after you’ve done it countless times as a kid. While my hands collect berries, my mind rides a current of memory back to that childhood. This is not the farm I grew up on and still it feels like home, and not just because my parents live here. This rhythm of tending to plants, harvesting the food they produce and preserving the bounty is not just a thing my people have done before me, it’s the lifestyle I lived until I moved away from home at 18. All my adulthood, in every pocket of suburbia I’ve lived in, I’ve created a miniature version of that lifestyle. Small veggie gardens, container gardens, tending the fruit trees already there the way I saw my father tend ours back home. The bounty was typically snack volume, though I’ve grown enough lettuce most seasons to give us half a summer’s worth of salads.

Back on the hillside berry patch, the temp goes from 70+ to over 80 and I’m glad I slapped some sunscreen on my arms, neck and head. Even with my wide brimmed hat on, I need the extra protection. As I step around to the last side of the last row, I worry about my legs – now cooking in the morning sun – which didn’t get sunscreened. Once my pail is full, I go back into the house, cool my head off in the sink and head to the kitchen. Mol is already cutting stems out of the kale. My job is to chop them into bite sized pieces. Next step is to blanch the leaves, then cool them in a cold sink full of water. Mol and I get into a rhythm – they put batches of chopped leaves into boiling water, then bring them to the sink. I fish them out of the sink with the colander part of a salad spinner then spin the water out. Final step is putting them into ziplock sandwich bags and pressing the air out of the bags. We ended up with three gallon sized freezer bags of these smaller bags to take home.

My raspberries go on trays that are placed at the top of two chest freezers. Once frozen, I collect them in quart freezer bags, 6 total. My reward for working up a sweat. Once the kale is all bagged and in the freezer, it’s time to take a rest.

Recharged from our rest, Mol and I head out to explore. I’ve got a route that takes us north on 395 to Kettle Falls, then down Highway 25. There are three routes we can take from 25 back to Chewelah and I’m inclined to take the last one, from the hamlet of Hunters through Springdale then up 231. Highway 25 follows the Columbia south from Kettle Falls. I’ve never seen the mighty river this far north, it’s already so wide. Mol and I talk about someday going to the headwaters and that brings to mind the Indigo Girls song Ghost:

And the Mississippi’s mighty
But it starts in Minnesota
At a place that you could walk across
With five steps down

Beginnings. Beginnings are not always easy to see until they are large enough to be visible from a satellite. When did I begin to think about returning to the country? Well, let’s be real. Returning to a country life hasn’t been on my mind much as an adult. At first, I wanted the things I didn’t have when I was a kid growing up on a farm. Like a neighborhood, like fun things to do nearby. Like people, nearby. I wanted more play time and less chore time, and as a young adult, I made good on that wish. When I hit what felt like adulthood in my 30s, the focus was on career and family. There was more than enough to do and living suburbia suited my partner and our young family. As I got older, even if I waxed nostalgic about growing up on a farm, with all the lessons learned and good times had, I was glad we hadn’t chosen that lifestyle for our family because it would have been too much work. I’ve been invested in my life here in Olympia, in having my home and my community work. In having a safe haven for my family. I don’t regret any of it, and also, I find that some of the daydreams I have always attributed to looking back on my youth may not just be nostalgia.

Standing in the raspberry patch, listening to the birds and the insects and the rise and fall of the conversation Mol and Mom were having, something fell into place with an almost audible clunk. Mol and I have talked about getting a piece of property and building a small farm with space for others to join us. A queer collective of some kind. Something we’ll do when our kids are adults or close enough to make it work. Intellectually, I signed on for this a while back. Mol and I are great partners, great communicators and problem solvers. I knew we could make this work and the idea of having a retreat of sorts for our queer friends current and future is very attractive. And I’m selfishly excited about the prospect of more quiet time for my work as a writer. So yes, my head was signed on. My heart was signed on as well, but more because I saw this as the next step in my relationship with Mol. What fell into place for me as I picked berries was that the idea of living in a more rural setting felt right for me. Outside of my relationship with Mol. Outside of that context being a place where we could facilitate a different kind of gathering and lifestyle with other queers. Thinking about how comfortable I felt, and had felt over the course of our stay in Chewelah, I had a sense of the big picture pulling into focus. The times I’ve daydreamed about putting a writing cabin on the lower part of my parent’s property. How alive I feel when I go hiking in the woods. The way it feels to do the work of growing and harvesting food like it’s second nature. How at peace I feel when I can sit in a quiet place and be in the midst of the natural world. All of this coming together in a single point of focus and a message from very close to my center of being – I am a country boy, a farm boy. Even if our farm never comes close to the kind of place I grew up on – and frankly that would be much more work than two people should attempt – the idea of moving in that direction feels as right as the decision to divorce and move out on my own. As right as claiming my identity as a writer. As right as investing in a future with Mol.

On the last morning of our time at Mom and Dad’s, we sat on the deck drinking our coffee. Below us was the valley and the town of Chewelah. Around us were the hills and forests common in this part of the state. Birds were calling and the bull on the neighboring farm was bellowing good morning to the entire area. We sat and sucked it up like the remnants of a pint glass at bar close. We had to go, had to pack up and drive back to Olympia. Had to, didn’t want to. Both of us felt so revived and nourished by the visit it was hard to let go of that feeling and return to ‘normal’ life. This was the longest vacation we’d ever taken together and the longest either of us has been away from home in a long time. More than just the year and months of the pandemic isolation. I had forgotten how relaxing and restorative it could be.

Now we’re back home. I’m in my house with my sleeping cat boys and Mol’s back in their apartment. I do like it here. I’ve loved it all my life. I’ve never wanted to leave, not to live somewhere else. And now it feels different. Now my vision of what the future could look like has changed. I’ve been such a cheerleader for my hometown for so long that it feels odd to consider leaving. No, not odd, more like I’m cheating, having affairs with the potential of living elsewhere for the first time in my life. Even that feeling is fleeting, chased out by the acknowledgment that I’ve given a lot to my community here. I’ve served in multiple capacities over the years. I certainly could spend the remainder of my life here, in this area, and enjoy it. I can have joy, success, fulfilment, community and great friendships here, and also, none of that is dependent on this specific area. The pandemic has taught me that the ways I feel successful and fulfilled are not dependent on location. I can carry those feelings and abilities anywhere I go. I can carry the friendships I have with me and grow new ones. I can write from anywhere I have something to write with. I can be me, can be a hometown boy who loves the city that nurtured him and also move away and fall in love with that new place.

view through arbor over a garden and across the valley below

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