From Here On: Four Sunday Drives
Part IV: Quaking Aspen
By Don Thompson - Buttonwillow, California, USA - 2 September 2016
Smoke insinuates a lawless trash burn,
a mini-Gehenna; or it could be
grass smoldering somewhere in the hills,
a fire we keep an eye on,
nervously. Some years
everything that can burn does.
So desolate here in autumn,
the seared leaves still green
but blotched with raw sienna:
summer, not dead yet, dying
of a slow, debilitating disease.
So dry even our hearts dehydrate,
making us uneasy
about where we’ve been,
about the long, withering seasons behind us
and how close winter is,
no matter how stubbornly the heat persists.
But this old man has outlasted regret
and sluffed off despair, so far,
convinced that a few sips
will sustain us
from here on, inexhaustible,
like the widow’s scant flour and oil,
iuxta verbum Domini…
One Sunday late in October
more than thirty calendar years ago,
you and I climbed
out of our monochromatic valley
to visit a museum
a New England tableau
briefly on display high in the Sierras.
And we brought those colors home,
not the dried leaves
children would have gathered
and soon misplaced,
but an unfaded consciousness
kept vivid until now --
until this inevitable, inward autumn
we’ve come to,
still together, living
in our imagined landscape,
real only in the past, perhaps,
but nevertheless accessible
here on this googled earth:
Zoom in on the new road north,
an overlay on time, fervent
black asphalt with insistent stripes,
yellow that almost convinces us
it will never discolor.
That new highway has a textbook look—
taxes, engineers, and unlimited union labor:
Leviathan at work.
Not the road I remember,
narrow with crumbling shoulders,
infamous for head-ons,
for drunk drivers upended in a culvert;
washed out by flash floods every winter.
And some of its not-quite towns, bypassed
places with names
but no one to call them home,
have been resurrected now.
Subdivided, they offer refuge --
a brutal, time-consuming commute,
but worth it:
Not a ghost town, but ghostly
curtains on windows like shrouds
so old they’d disintegrate
if it ever occurred to anyone
to open them.
We drove to the end
of its only street and slowly back,
stopping at a clapboard store
to buy snacks. The clerk
said nothing, saw nothing in us --
like the dead looking into a mirror.
But beer stench from the saloon next door
reassured us: Life --
nightlife at least,
or morose locals who drank all day,
keeping themselves in the dark:
In towns like that,
everyone wants out of the light.
The sun at noon could blister ectoplasm
and the moon set fire
to the tinder of a banshee’s hair.
From one end of Main Street
to the other, you see no one,
and nothing moves except the dust
that goes round and round,
practicing the frantic dance
the devil taught it.
The packing shed had packed it in.
Decrepit, it sat like a huge skull
with its jaw wired
and sheets of warped plywood
nailed over its eyes,
not to keep sensory input out,
but to trap the past --
a bitter ubi sunt
only a few are alive to remember:
In ’37 or so, when Mom
and her family drifted in from Route 66,
she went barefoot to the orange groves,
harvesting the gold
crated and shipped from that shed:
Sierra Sue, Spaniel, Terra Bella.
Oranges are still handpicked
and packed by hand,
some of the same brand names,
though everything is galvanized now,
rustproof -- an illusion,
as if time couldn’t chew through steel
as readily as wood.
The same scattering of battered cars
park on blacktop instead of dirt,
but no one is fooled
by the faux security
of chain-link and guard shacks,
The old road east into the Sierras
had a shallow learning curve,
dawdled in tall grass below the foothills
among valley oaks, giants
either so ancient they’d be worshiped
in pagan Europe
or dead for years -- snags
like weathered grave markers
above heaps of rotting branches:
excellent firewood, the best,
but forbidden now by eco-law.
And vanished from Google Earth,
the campground nearby
where I holed up one summer
in a lean year
working too hard at a bonehead job
and driving that deadly highway
home on weekends
to you and our toddler.
Farther up, the pond
that used to be a lake,
high on the dam and glittering:
Rings around the shore
keep a record
of its incremental descent
into emptiness. Drought
and bad luck, of course,
but also the whims
of government have sucked it dry.
Bluegills would take a close look at crickets,
and bass feeling their way
along the bottom
are willing enough to nibble
plastic worms in the murk,
but no one is fishing.
The boat ramp ends in weeds
more than a stone’s throw
above the waterline.
And everywhere, trash bags
spill their guts like roadkill
not even the crows want to touch.
In the dead mountain town, disinterred
now by tourists and commuters,
the abandoned TB sanatorium
has come back to life as condos.
But some residents have heard
coughing in the dark,
though dry and bloodless,
and shivered in cold spots watching
despair condense in their clouded breath.
Others have endured sympathetic night sweats,
ached with phantom pain
from an excised rib,
or felt hopelessness take hold of them
on endless Sunday afternoons.
You and I saw the place boarded up
and the shrubs gone native,
the town itself ignored,
and a few miles uphill we passed
the inevitable failed homestead:
The gate was chained
with three or four rusted padlocks,
the ruts overgrown that led
to the house and the barn behind it,
both half-finished for fifty years.
The windmill kept turning
above a dry well --
a bad habit never broken.
Who knows whose madness it was
to settle there
or which heir still paid the taxes,
suffering from his own delusions
and clinging to the deed
once held by a loner
who raised wilted, knee-high corn
to feed his gaunt cattle
and fed himself better
Cor quod novit amaritudinum.
From here, for a few miles, the road
that used to follow the river,
when it could, still does,
accepting terrain too rugged
for engineers to finesse,
and then climbs --
an orange oscillation on the map,
jittery with switchbacks
that look just as wicked from orbit.
That other turbulent river
in which then becomes now
and now dissolves into then,
carries us along like two sticks,
not saturated, not yet,
nor snatched from the current.
But I suspect the whitewater
that elated us so much,
watching it churn over boulders
as if inexhaustible,
has been reduced to a trickle,
tempting vandals with day-glo Krylon
to gloss all that exposed surface,
which, according to their Weltanschauung,
would otherwise be wasted.
Close to the summit, unpaved side roads
crisscross through the woods
among vacation cabins
and the permanent getaways
of misfits with mountain blood,
thin skin, and simple needs,
mostly for a tavern with beer on tap
and some chairs to toss.
And here’s that historic lodge
from which Bonnie checked out,
shot dead by a left-handed proxy
while she slept with her lover
from the rez
who survived his head wound.
All this less than five years
after our visit
on an unhaunted All Hallows’ Eve
before fake blood good enough to fool anyone,
before the license to undress
and the mud lust we live with now.
Aspens wore their bonfire costumes,
a harmless masque rather than bacchanal,
and danced for us
in the muted, andante wind.
That afternoon on the far side of the summit,
we parked and walked for awhile
in lucid air, in exhilarating dazzle,
lumen de lumine --
not merely caught and reflected,
but a source, as if every leaf
contained its own inner light.
Neither of us young, nor naïve,
we took to love as if new to it,
fumbled some intimacies
and held on -- held
to the unlikely idea of us,
almost untenable in this world.
The pines hummed overhead,
incense cedar bowed a cello note,
and faithful dogwood stood by.
Our kisses went on and on
back then, ad infinitum
coming too quickly to an end.
We’ve lived ever since suspended
in that one autumn afternoon,
kept the turning leaves as they were --
gold, citron, copper, burnt orange,
an unchanging anamnesis, no matter
how many actual seasons
have had at us,
with freeze and thaw or relentless heat.
Some would imagine
that those aspens were waiting on the Lord,
the leaves alone together,
each trembling with its own anticipation.
And among them,
as far as earth can offer it,
we found peace that could,
potentially at least,
And it has.