The sun turns and slants south, a rising late summer light heavy with dust, a sultry white sky rimmed with smoke. Ferocious maws of flame chew through dry tinder mountains near Redding, California: fire gnawing forest, suburban lawns, homes and bones. Ash rises in mushroom clouds.
Birch leaves turn gold and drop, skittering and rattling across the road; the first leaves to green in the spring, the first to let go. The trees clatter. The blackberries are early this year. In the evenings, a doe leads her twin spotted fawns to the berm across the road to feed on the ripe berries.
In the full height and completion of summer, we arrive at the cross-quarter, here between the promise of the summer solstice and the inevitable falling away at the equinox. It’s in my bones, this season, the time of ripeness and venom. My mother broke a tooth chewing ice the night I was born.
When I walk out on the hill with the dog, hat brim low over my eyes against the morning sun, the ground is cracked and sparse with weeds. The grass withered and died. Wasps skim over the sereness. I watch my feet. Yellow jackets hover at the hose nozzle. They are early this year, angry.
I set up the trap on the top deck where they menace and hunt. It’s a simple jar filled with water and a drop of soap. The jar is intersected by a funnel fixed with bit of chicken for bait. The wasps are drawn in by the scent, but cannot find their way out again. They drown, their own nature betraying them, like most clever traps.
It’s a thousand-mile round trip. Launching over the Cascades through Willamette Pass, running south with the pines that border the high desert, skirting Klamath Lake down to the California border, down south further, weaving through the Modoc, we buy gas and ice cream sandwiches in Susanville. I ask the clerk where we can run the dogs, and he directs me to a city park where community softball teams are gathering for a game. My dog won’t jump back into the car when we load to drive.
Mercy balks, unsure of her footing, distrustful of the plastic bumper on the Outback, though she can clear five feet over a fallen log. We back the left rear tire into a pothole on the gravel road to lower the gate and wrangle her back inside with an improvised choke chain. Emmy, the German Shorthair and smartest dog I’ve ever known, rides in the back seat like a boss with Dad.
We wait for the flagger to flip the sign, paving the road smooth and black on the highway into Reno, licking ice cream from our fingers, a billboard on 395 advertising a Counting Crows concert at the casino. We blow through Carson City up the pass on 50 to Lake Tahoe, weaving out of Nevada, back into California, south from the lake up further into the granite mountains at dark.
There are black bears and mountain lions here, aspens, sequoia, pine,and juniper. I think on these natives before settling to sleep on the back porch, in the open air with the dog, trespassers that we are in this place. Each day I spot a sabled coyote up the steep ridgeline, dancing over golden boulders and windfallen logs, watching.
The first lesson in a blackberry battle: You will bleed.
Do not scoff, believing you are nimble and strong, accept that it will be so. The only question in this contest is how much.
It’s been a kind and fruitful spring, enough sun, gentle rain, birds beginning to sing before sunrise (in what seems the middle of the night), a fortnight until solstice and the long day. If you are patient, and sit quietly, you can hear the green thrum in the garden.
Blackberries sent out their runner cane, from some secret mother root of all blackberries, and overtook my father’s yard. Tangled knots of brambles, tough wooden thorns that pierce new leather gloves, thick canes climbing the low limbs of the surrounding trees: this is the dragon. We are late. The new cane blooms into berries and the bees work the flower. A slow unwinding of the serpentine knot to salvage the roses.
Begin by circling the edges, testing.
When caught by the hair or the shirt sleeve, bitten by the dragon, resist the panic to tug away. This only tightens the grip of the beast. Lean in to the talons, against your instincts, and duck away. You were impatient.
You will bleed.
Stack the cane and hammer it with the flat of a rock rake. Roll it into a bale. Hammer again. Break the cane.
Hot Springs County is in the center of Wyoming. There is a park there, miles of open land filled with steaming pools of mineral water. The county seat is a modest town named Thermopolis. From Yellowstone in the northwest, southeast to Laramie and Cheyenne, Thermopolis is a remote attraction amid open range run with pronghorn antelope.
By treaty signed in the late 19th century, the Shoshone and Arapaho nations agreed to cede the land blessed with steaming mineral springs to the federal government. A prime condition of the treaty ensured the healing springs would stay free and open to all people forever. This is still the case. Thermopolis contains a few hotels and commercial pools built with soaking baths, slides, and water features. Between these venues, the State of Wyoming runs a simple bath house. It is, indeed, free. The heavy minerals in the water are said to be healing and will tarnish silver jewelry hours later.
Due to the high temperatures, as well as the danger of thermal spikes, it is safer to soak where the temperature can be regulated. This is true of most volcanic hot springs, though odds are better with some than others. A geothermal surge is unpredictable and deadly. (There are stories of tourists boiled off the bone found floating in open pools.)
The word “lava” comes from the Latin word lavare, to wash or bathe, referencing streams of fire that cut like rivers. The Yellowstone Caldera is a 37-mile pool seething with molten rock atop a super volcano. Streams of liquid rock-fire, magma from the outer core of the earth, bubble up through 21 fissures cracked open on the Big Island of Hawaii. In earth-time, it was yesterday when Mount St. Helens exploded, though today marks the 38th anniversary of the eruption.
I saw the volcanic peaks of the Three Sisters in the distance yesterday, when the morning clouds cleared.
“For there is always a sanctuary more, a door that can never be forced, a last inviolable stronghold that can never be taken, whatever the attack; your vote can be taken, your name, your innards, or even your life, but that last stronghold can only be surrendered. And to surrender it for any reason other than love is to surrender love.”
I signed my first writing contract a few days ago. A creative nonfiction piece, “Shiny Things I Found in the Gutter,” was accepted by The Tishman Review. It will appear in the summer issue at the end of July. This was another milestone on my stumbling journey trying to find the words. Writing and fishing have much in common. Sometimes one is at the right shady pool below a riffle when the trout rise. Or, more often, not.
I was fortunate to work with TTR’s new creative nonfiction editor, Hannah Howard, whose memoir “Feast” was published in March, 2018. Hannah lives and works in New York City, so her emails arrived before I was out of bed. (Read an interview with Hannah here.) TTR publishes a quarterly issue of art, fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction with each issue available in a variety of formats. Go give the latest issue a read.