White River Canyon
The purple chapters are fiction–the Alternative Universe portion of the Memoir. Could’ve happened. Might have happened. Which version is real and true? Do you know? I don’t.
Giff lets the door to the shop slam behind him and stands in the middle of the kitchen. He watches me fill the coffeemaker, his eyes dark, jaw tensing and relaxing, tensing again. “Did Nellie call?”
“Yes. An hour ago.”
“Did they find Joe?”
“She knows where he is now, and he’s okay.”
“Come on, are you just going to dribble it out, or are you going to tell me what’s up?”
Grief and fear catch me without warning, turning my self-control into a joke. Giff comes around the island counter and takes my shoulders, turns me around.
“Where is he?” He uses his thumb to wipe tears off my cheek.
I push my face into his chest, breathe in his familiar smell of freshly-turned wood and sweat.
“Mike is taking him up to his cabin, the one Mike leases from the Forest Service. Joe’s going there to die.”
Giff’s arms tighten around me. “Joe thinks he’s ready to die now?”
I shudder. “He says he doesn’t want Nell or the kids to see him die, says she can’t go up there, has to stay with the kids.” He wants me up there, no one else. Why does he have this perverse wish? Something at the edge of my consciousness tugs at me…I understand his wish. We have some kind of agreement, made way back, something I don’t really remember. But Joe, apparently, does.
Giff is very still. The coffeemaker wheezes, and water begins to drip into the filter.
“So… is… Mike going to stay with him?” Giff leans his head back to look at my face. “Surely Joe doesn’t plan to be up there alone.”
I close my eyes. “No. Mike has to go back to work tomorrow. So Joe wants me to come up there to be with him.”
Giff jerks loose and takes a step backward. “You? You can’t be serious. By yourself? No way. How would you get there?”
I can’t answer right away. Giff waits.
“He…Mike…is coming tomorrow morning to take me in. Then he’ll come back after three days to get me, and Joe.”
Giff paces the kitchen, eight steps to the patio door, eight steps back. “Let me understand this. In Joe’s fragile condition he got Mike to haul him up to his cabin? And now he wants you there, too? Why? What’s his purpose?”
“He doesn’t want to die alone. I guess.”
“If you go, I’m going, too.”
“Giff, please sit down. I have to tell you the details. According to Nellie, Joe says it’s not negotiable.”
Giff’s face locks down, but he sits on the edge of a counter stool.
“Mike’s using his rescue sled to take Joe and his stuff up there, and he can use it for me, too.”
Giff kicks the stool back and stands up. “As sick as Joe is? Is he crazy? You’re all crazy!”
“Giff, I can’t talk to you unless you sit down and listen for a minute.”
He perches again on the edge of the stool and laces his fingers under his chin, the knuckles white.
“He needs me, sweetheart,” I say. “I’m his mainstay, so are you, but for some reason this time he wants me to come alone. Maybe he doesn’t want you to see him die, either.”
“I’ve seen people die, he’s my best friend, I could handle it, what’s that about? And what makes him so sure he’s going to die?”
“People do have a sense of when death is near. I believe that. He’s determined that I be with him.”
Giff swallows hard. “Well, there’s got to be a better alternative than the two of you being alone in a mountain cabin in the middle of February! You got water? Food? Heat up there? Is there cell phone reception up there? You’re not exactly a pioneer woman, and Joe can’t be any help.”
“Well, Nell says there’s plenty of wood, water, food, and a woodstove. No electricity. Spotty cell phone access.”
Giff jumps off his stool and yanks open a cupboard door, takes down two mugs. Pours the coffee and hands me one of the mugs. Gulps his own, burns his tongue, paces quick circuits around the kitchen.
“So the plan is…?”
“Mike will pick me up in the morning, take me in to the cabin. I’ll use my snowshoes, or I can ride on the sled.”
“We’ve skied in that canyon,” he says. “I don’t remember a trail beyond the bowl, and that’s only half a mile upriver.”
“Nell thinks they keep a trail beyond the bowl groomed for cross-country skiers.” I sip coffee, still too hot to drink. “Anyway, Mike’s on the Mountain Rescue Team, he won’t let anything happen to me. I’ll be safe, going in and coming out.”
“How about while you’re there? Who’s going to keep you safe in that godforsaken cabin? And Joe says he’s up there to die? He’s not coming out on his own—where does that leave you?”
Giff is like that, always my protector, watches over me. But this time…he can’t. Being with Joe now is a promise, something I pledged to do, somehow, sometime when we were kids. Gatekeeper, death shaman, whatever I’ve become, Joe expects me to be there when he dies. I have to be alone with him.
“This is one time you can’t protect me, Giff. I’m sorry. I promised him I’d be there. I know I’ll be watched over, Joe and I both; there will be guardian angels, like Mom always talks about. Don’t you remember how you trusted my inner Knowing about how to get well from cancer, and about buying this house? And…”
“Yes, I know. But this is different, Addie. This is dangerous.”
“More dangerous than metastasized cancer? I followed my inner Knowing with that, and here I am, thirteen years later. Joe’s always trusted my Knowing, too, and it’s always turned out okay. Remember when he got lost that time? No, we were just kids, how could you know? But I’ve told you about it. Mom thought he’d drowned in the river, or in the ditch, and took off running toward the river. I asked my inner Knowing, and heard that he was the other direction, down in The Valley. And that’s exactly where I found him, playing in the ditch with a big old toad. That’s when Mom turned him over to me. Said he’d be safer with me than anyone else.”
Giff stares at the floor. Finally, he sits back down on the stool, turns his coffee mug in his hands, not looking at me. The clock over the sink ticks, a dog barks, a door slams. The furnace kicks on.
“Giff…” I say.
“No. It’s not negotiable with me, either. You’re not going in there and be alone in the middle of the winter with a very sick man, and no way to call for help if you need it. Either I go with you, or you don’t go.”
I yank open the fridge, grab greens and radishes and celery from the crisper, and pull out the cutting board. Chop a tomato to smithereens, pieces flying all over the counter and onto the floor, slice vegetables, furiously rip apart leaves of lettuce. Half of it lands on the floor.
I lean on the countertop and raise my eyes. I hear my heart pounding. His eyes on me are narrowed, unblinking, hard as steel. I’ve never seen his eyes like this. Steel meets steel, and doesn’t back down.
“So. Everything is non-negotiable, with everyone,” I say.
“Well, that includes me,” I say. “I’m going in, and I’m going alone.”
I shove the salad bowl toward him. “I can’t do this,” I say. “You do it.”
I stomp out of the kitchen and sit in the living room where I can watch him.
I have never confronted Giff on anything remotely like this, in fact, never needed to. We’ve always had an understanding, that we don’t get in each other’s way. Now, we are in each other’s way.
Giff gets up, goes around the counter, digs through the fridge and takes out a package of ham steaks.
He turns on the stove and stands looking at it, watching the burner turn red around the edges of the pan. He jerks loose a plastic turner from the crock of utensils by the stove, and throws the ham slices into the skillet, arranges them round sides out, straight sides together.
He scrapes what’s left of the salad into the bowl and gets out the salad dressing.
What have I done? Maybe I am crazy. Maybe Joe and I aren’t thinking rationally. But Joe…I’ve been with him whenever he’s needed me his whole life. I can’t leave him now. What if my relationship with Giff is forever changed, the solid basis of trust we have always depended on eroded beyond retrieval? Why is this so important to me? Why not lean on Giff, let him go with me, relax into his strength and calm?
Because Joe knows something I don’t know, and I trust him, too. He knows I have to come alone. And I don’t think it’s about “don’t want Giff to see me die.” Giff can’t see him die, but I can? Doesn’t make sense. There’s something else. Some kind of pledge, promise, contract. If only I could remember…it’s like the edges of a dream, after I wake up, I know it was important, but can’t grasp it.
Giff is silent as he scrapes ham steaks, curling and burned around the edges, onto two plates. We eat at the counter.
“Pass the salt,” Giff says. Doesn’t say “Please.” I shove the salt shaker down the counter and it slides all the way off the counter. Giff gets up and retrieves it, gives me a look of disgust.
We’ve never had a “deep-freeze” moment in fifteen years of being together, but now we’re at an impasse, neither of us willing to give. The outside thermometer shows 34º and inside, it’s even colder.
I toss the dishes into the sink and go out to the garage/shop where there’s a cabinet just for backpacking and camping gear. My red backpack sits on the bottom shelf, empty, next to Giff’s. I pull it out and begin. My fleece vest, my water- and wind-proof north face jacket, arctic-level mittens, wool scarf, a balaclava to protect my head and neck. I go back into the house to get warm socks and flannel longjohns. Giff is finishing up in the kitchen, putting away clean dishes. He follows me out to the garage and pulls out his blue backpack, sets it on the floor next to mine.
I’m mostly packing things to wear—there’s already water and survival food in the cabin.
Giff is packing survival gear. A tarp, the pup tent, snow stakes, water filters, his cooking gear, freeze-dried food, bottles of water. A hatchet. I don’t comment. He still thinks he’s going with me.
He’s not. I’m not certain about the contract I have with Joe, but I know it involves just the two of us.
He glances over at what I’m packing. “Where’s the down jumpsuit you wear to ski?” he asks. “That red one?”
“In the hall closet, I think.”
“I’ll get it.” He goes back into the house and returns with the jumpsuit and my pillow from our bed. “In case you get a chance to sleep.”
He pulls out a bin from the bottom shelf and finds my Bear Claw hiking boots. Red. Padded. “You’ll need these.” He adds a plastic packet holding a folded silvery blanket to the growing pile on the floor. “And survival gear.” He tosses a second packet into his own backpack.
“Mike will be with me. He’ll have survival gear. He’ll be prepared for anything.”
“He won’t be with you at the cabin, though.”
I imagine the desolation of the rough wilderness cabin, the cold, the deep silence. Joe depending on me to keep a fire going, keep him hydrated, be strong. I don’t feel strong. I feel scared, and uncertain of my own survival skills. I want to ask Giff to come with me, but I can’t. He’s somehow not a part of this contract, whatever it is.
I glance down at his pile of stuff, and his backpack. He’s tying his arctic-level sleeping bag onto the frame under the pack.
“You’re not going with me, Giff, so I don’t know why you’re packing all that gear.”
“I heard you on that. You’re gonna do what you have to do, and I’m gonna do what I have to do—just don’t you worry about me.”
He finds his own lined boots in the bin, and stuffs them into his backpack.
“And why is it so damned important that you and Joe be alone up there? Can you tell me that?”
“No. I just know—and so does he—it’s terribly important to Joe that I come alone.”
“Not going to happen. Not safe.”
I stop packing and sit down on a wooden stool. “Giff. Maybe you’ve forgotten this little detail of your life, because it happened before we met. You climbed Mt. Hood. In February. Alone, Giff. You have photos of yourself on the summit. And you’re giving me a hard time about being in a warm cabin below the timberline without you to protect me?” I watch him get out the pup tent we use for snow camping, spread it out, and refold it into a tight packet. His motions are brisk, fast, hard, efficient.
“You’re telling me I’m not as tough as you?” I said. “Not as capable of handling myself in an emergency?”
That did it. Now I would do this thing, and do it alone, if it meant I would have to survive in a blizzard at 10,000 feet. I could almost hear Joe, see him pumping his fist in the air, big grin on his face, “Go, Addie!” And then turning to his friend Giff. “She’ll be fine, Giff. Let her go.”
While I’m getting ready for bed, Giff brings in a book he found in our bookcase, Winter Excursions on Mt. Hood. He stands in front of me and reads from it:
Located along Highway 35, White River is a popular teaching area for novice nordic skiers. The bowl located 1/2 mile up the northwest side of the river is the usual stopping place for most skiers. Beyond here, the route winds through the trees. Approximately 1 mile from the road, you pass under some power lines. Beyond this point, the terrain steepens and the trail continually grows smaller until the skier is at timberline. (This is NOT Timberline Lodge). The narrow canyons in the near distance are dangerous. Avalanches may sweep off the canyon walls unexpectedly. The danger increases the higher you go, and skiing is not recommended above this point. Use caution when crossing the White River as some bridges may not be safe.
He uses his finger to mark his place, lets the book fall closed. “How far up is this cabin, exactly?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been there, but when Joe talks about it, he’s always said it’s below the tree line.” I take the book from him and look at the map. “I’ve always thought the cabin was about…there…” I jab my finger at a wide spot on the trail. “About a half-mile above the bowl. We’ve only been as far as the bowl, but Joe’s pointed on up the trail and said Mike’s cabin is ‘up there’.”
Giff takes back the book and puts it away in the bookcase, without comment.
The deep freeze between us continues into the night. We lie separated by a glacier of ice, unwilling to cuddle even to get warm. Giff’s light snores finally let me know he’s asleep. I’m not.
Tomorrow, the unknown. White River Canyon, just me and Joe, and he’s dying. What will I need to take, besides arctic gear? I wish I could have talked to him directly, rather than third hand, from Mike to Nell to me. What will he need? What can I give him, this beloved brother with whom I have traveled so far? What does he want from me? I have nothing to offer, I’m empty, terrified, but…resolved. I am going, into the heart of the mystery, and I’m going alone.
Every time I look at the ruby-red-glow-in-the-dark clock, it’s an hour later, and I haven’t slept.
In the sacred hours between three and five a.m., I’m drifting in a hypnopompic state. I love that word, looked it up once, it means “the semiconscious state prior to complete wakefulness.” A time when insights emerge, problems get magically solved, memories long buried in the unconscious float up, and visions reel past like videos. Shaman time, to travel in the middle world.
Now I remember the pledge.
Joe and I are sitting on a moss-covered log in the woods, watching three crows explore the objects on our altar—a tight pale-green cedar cone, an orange-spined shiny black feather with scalloped white edges. A bone, from some animal. We called them sacred objects, because they came from Nature, therefore were connected to God.
“When I die I could come back as an animal, or a bird?” Joey asked.
“I guess so. That’s what Mom’s book says.”
“Then Addie—when I die, I’m going to come back as a crow. And when you die, you come back as a crow, too. Then we can still be together, even after we die.”
I looked at Joey out the corner of my eye, trick question coming up. “What about heaven, then?” I said. “Preacher Butler says we’ll all be in heaven together; we’ll be angels. Can’t have both.”
Joey watched the crows hop around on the altar.
“Rather be a crow.”
“OK, then I’d rather be one too.” I would have powers. Crows know all about healing, for example.
“And we’ll always be together, always, even when we die?” Joey asked.
“Always. I’ll look after you, the way I do now. Even when you die, or I die.”
“Just us,” Joey said, “nobody else, the way it is now? Just you and me?”
“Just us, for always.”
“Pinky promise?” Joey said.
We hooked little fingers.
We must have been five and ten, after Mom had turned Joey over to me, made me responsible for him and his safety. We were at our cedar-branch lean-to fort in the woods, and we’d just made a sacred promise to each other. We both knew a pinky promise was the most sacred of all, never to be broken. As young as he had been, Joey clearly remembered it better than I had.
I sat up in bed, wide awake, and looked at the ruby red glow in the dark numbers again. 6:00. I had to be ready to go by nine a.m.
I had promised.