In 1993 I moved from Columbus, Ohio to Olympia, Washington with my girlfriend, Marci. I had an old Volkswagen Jetta. We put a roof rack on it and piled everything we would take with us on top. We hoped it wouldn’t rain.
It’s hard to imagine now how out of touch you could be 20 years ago. There were no cellphones or internet. My family was between homes, too, between states, on a vagabond journey of their own. Months before they had rolled up to my hippy, their van full of my siblings and suitcases, and told me they were headed to California, by way of Pennsylvania and Florida. For the next decade we fell more or less out of touch.
Marci and I said goodbye to our friends and set off West, with an atlas, maybe $500, and the kind of excitement about the unknown that’s hard to conjure these days, when there’s so much less unknown. I didn’t know shit about myself. I guess I had a hunch that if I threw myself into the big world it would shape me into something. I think Marci wanted to find a beautiful, gentle life out there somewhere, to prove her parents wrong. She might tell you different.
I don’t remember much about the trip, really. For hundreds of miles we watched the Rockies approach, which were majestic to a flatlander like myself. My cat, Kitty, jumped out of the car as we crawled through the Badlands of South Dakota, and Marci had to chase her down. The car’s little engine crapped out, high up a pass in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and we were stranded for a night and day. We didn’t have Triple A, and I don’t know how we got out of that town with any money left. Marci would know. If she were still around and things had gone differently, I’d ask her to tell this whole story, and you’d get a lot more details. But they’d be different.
We drove straight to the Pacific Ocean, which I’d never seen before. I guess that’s what seeing the moon would be like now. We loved the whole rainforested peninsula. We learned the trees and the plants, learned what was native and invasive. Marci enrolled at Evergreen, and took a bunch of loopy classes of which her parents did not approve: local ecology; Folklore of the Nisqually Indian Tribe; Neon Sign-making; Stained Glass. In the background of everything loomed gigantic Mount Rainer, the volcano that so dominates the horizon, everyone just calls it “the Mountain.” It’s common for new arrivals to dream nightly of its eruption, and we both did, as the mountain’s enormity sunk into our new subconscious terrain. When speaking formally of it everyone called it Tahoma, eschewing the white man’s name.
I got a state service corps job, working in the woods or at the dump or in a cold ravine all day for three bucks an hour. Our crew was really just a bunch of earnest young pups. Mornings we would pile into a van, wool pants and boots still soggy from the day before, and drive to the site. We’d bust our butts in the rain, sometimes literally pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks up a hill to dump them, hour after shitty hour. We talked a lot about psychedelics, the merits of environmental terrorism, and Eddie Vedder. At lunch we’d eat the leftovers from last night’s dinner.
Everyone was poor. We hardly every ate out or even had money for beer. Everyone shopped at the co-op and paid with foodstamps. It rained and rained and rained, and I learned about the Banana Slug, the Scotch Broom, and the Big Leaf Maple.
I made friends with some old Ds. They’d rolled into town in the ’70s, started an all-women construction company, and moved onto 20 acres out in the Black Hills. They were real lesbian separatists, and they lasted until infidelities, infighting, and disillusionment scattered them. One of them was Jean. She was a carpenter, and for some reason she hired me to be her assistant. I was not good at it. But in the mornings and during our increasingly long lunch breaks, I’d sit at her kitchen table while she cooked us kale or beets and quinoa, and listen to her talk. She’d grown up the child of a U.S. government agent in Nicaragua, and she projected an air of knowing too much. She was resentful and adorable. Sweet and bitter. She thought the young Ds didn’t appreciate what her generation had done for us. I shrugged and usually agreed. She thought most things were stupid.
Eventually I got an AmeriCorps job, working at an elementary school. I now made $3.50 an hour. I tutored the ESL kids, and sat with the autistic kids. My official title was “Playground Interventionist.” I was to help students resolve their conflicts with mediation techniques I had supposedly learned in my AmeriCorps training. Mostly I just reffed soccer and football games and tried really hard act like I was qualified to do anything. The little gay kids stuck to me like barnacles.
Marci and I were on again, off again, usually off. We were still poor and had rather suddenly taken to shoplifting. For an entire year we stole nearly everything. Marci was a surprisingly fearless thief. My own greatest achievement in larceny was pinching an expensive tent from a local sporting goods store. One day shortly thereafter Marci was sailing the Sound in a small boat and was swept out to sea in a surprise storm. Of course, she was rescued by the owner of the sporting goods store. We stopped stealing after that.
I lived for a while in that tent on a beet farm, until one day I came home from work to find that someone had stolen my stolen tent. All of my possessions were piled on the ground, and next to the pile was Kitty, looking at me. Now homeless, I mail-ordered a tipi and moved onto some land near the school. I soon learned that there’s a reason the Pacific Northwest natives didn’t live in tipis, and it’s called rain. After three months I had to abandon my expensive and moldy tipi. Jean talked to her old friends and they agreed to let me move onto the former lesbian separatist colony. For a while Kitty and I slept in a mildewed truck camper, and then we moved into the land’s original cabin, built of pine poles in 1973 (same as me). Up the hill, in the newer cabin, resided the two remaining members of the commune: Becky and Mary. Becky worked an elevator repairman for Otis. Mary had problems and got disability. Becky was fat, and when she was home, she wore no pants. Mary was skinny and wore no shirt. When the weather was nice, whether they were in their cabin watching battery-operated TV or out milling wood, Becky wore the shirt, and Mary wore the pants.
My cabin was built to be hidden, so it was down a long path, deep in the woods. There was no power or running water. It was cold and dry from years of wood heat. At night Kitty would crawl into my sleeping bag with me, and the static electricity from her fur would light up the reflective interior of the bag. It was beautiful in the woods, quiet and green, and hard and lonely. I had no phone or friends. I went to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Kitty was my companion and resident mouse-killer until one day she just didn’t return. I don’t know what happened to her, and I can still feel bad about it. A couple years after I left, a fireball exploded in the cabin’s stovepipe and burned the place to the ground in minutes.
I hardly ever talked to my folks during these years. I don’t think they wanted to know what I was doing. Occasionally I typed very serious letters to my great-grandma on an antique typewriter.
In ’95 my little sister graduated from high school and moved out to join us. She immediately got a good job, managing the best coffee roastery in town. We saw Sleater-Kinney play one of their first shows ever. I shaved my head. We moved north to Seattle. A lot of things happened.
It was a lifetime ago. It’s like talking about a different person. My mom tells a story of a ghost she used to see at night, but only the tail end of its white nightgown, turning the hall corner. That’s what it’s like when my cat now reminds me of my cat then, or my girlfriend, in a manner or expression, recalls that girlfriend of years ago. It’s like the Ship of Theseus riddle: if you slowly, year after year, piece by piece, replace every part of a ship — is it still the same ship? Memories are like ghosts trolling the creaky vessel, residual bits of sensory data stored somewhere down in the hull. The ship sails on, now wiser to the weather, but hoping still for an unseen coast. It’s got the same name it’s always had, and though a bit salty, it looks familiar enough. But it’s not the same ship.