Winter — Gift of the Season Day 7

dawn ice storm

I wrote this piece years ago and included it in my book “I Met a Goat on the Road.” The main grocery store in town was the Lafayette Street IGA, back before Walmart decided to take over the grocery trade. That’s not the only thing that’s changed. Today is December 21 and it’s 61 degrees outside. The ten day forecast finds all overnight lows above freezing. So much for a white Christmas.

Now the story:

She spoke for us all, confessing to the check-out clerk with an excited laugh that if it was going to ice, she’d better get ready. Milk, bread, chocolate bars, corn meal—her choices were different only in detail from the rest of us standing in line in a store so jam-packed that even the stock boys were up front wearing jackets over their aprons and sacking supplies that would keep us secure when the weather moved in. Cars and trucks crowded the parking lot, some left running with the plumes of their exhaust whipped sideways in the freezing wind.

Men waited holding meat, bananas, coffee, restless in insulated tan coveralls with the legs unzipped over their heavy clay-soiled boots, their hair packed down against their heads where knit hats had rested. Uneasy in a role usually filled by their wives, they joked, catching up with old acquaintances who also stood in line, promising to call soon, men not accustomed to being off work at one p.m., hurrying home to family before the sleet started.

The cold came first, thirty-five degrees when I started to town in the morning, twenty two when I returned home, fifteen by three. Wind rocked the great oaks side to side, piling stiff dead leaves in new arrangements at the corner of the woodpile, at the steps. Twelve degrees at dusk, the clouded sky pale pink and white, the countryside settling into frozen night.

Five-thirty a.m. by my bedside clock, the tick-tick of sleet against the windows woke me. I indulged in another hour of fitful sleep, comforted by heavy quilts and cats at my feet. Plans of all I could do raced through my dreams, the albums not finished, correspondence neglected, the watercolors so long set aside. Roads coated in ice meant a day without visitors, a day at home tending the fire, tending myself.

Dressed in sweaters not worn for five years, in long socks and with no regard to appearances, I sipped hot tea at the window. Only a small shift in the light signaled dawn, lifting the dark blue cast of the air to a lighter shade.  Barely visible deer moved slowly through the woods, pawing at the ice-coated duff.  Tiny crystalline flakes of snow filtered into the sleet, thickening the white of the downfall, obscuring trees at the fence line. It was four degrees.

I built a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. A kettle of water with cinnamon oil steamed while I crafted my list of things to do, tasks that seemed too petty or cumbersome for normal days when open roads and obligations burdened the hours. I would simmer apricots with honey and ginger and fry half-moon pies, edges evenly crimped with tender fork lines. I would sketch scenes, the road to my house or the contoured hills, and let watercolor swirl on the heavy paper, a skyscape of gray and blue, fields tan, oaks silhouetted black.

Freshly washed clothes hung by the blistering stove where greedy heat soon pulled out all moisture. With satisfying frugality, a pot of vegetable soup thick with garlic and a pan of beans decorated the stove top, cornbread in the small sooty oven. Every few hours I rushed out for more wood, lingering coatless in the sharp scent of cold and wood smoke, large flakes of snow tumbling down into my hair, resting on my eyelashes.

The winters have not been accommodating in recent years, failing first with abbreviated snows, then disappointing even in temperature. In the onslaught of global warming, the Ozark hills have increasingly remained accessible in deepest January. A few decades earlier, our steep, curving roadways had been reliably impassible for at least two arctic weeks of the year. We grew to expect that at times chosen by Nature, no one would venture out. The guy with the local wrecker service would make enough money to last until June.

In this mid-South clime of Northwest Arkansas, we don’t get winter enough to justify the county’s expense for snow plows. It suits us better to schedule school years with extra days for snow. It pleases us to find ourselves unexpectedly confined to the house. In that splendid isolation, we might discover long lost treasures at the back of the closet, read magazines, stand at the window staring out in silence as midday lightens the sky to a shade barely more luminous than the snow lying thick on the ground.

Lately there has been little winter at all. Days have run together, no time to reflect, restore, sleep in the afternoon. We long for the cold, the ice, roads we could not drive, jobs we could not attend. Our bodies crave hibernation.

Welcome then this celebration of ancient instincts to stay in the cave, content with the provisions we have hoarded, the firewood we have stacked near the door, wrapped in the warmth we have made. Embrace this triumph of survival over the elements, proof of our adequacy in a time when little else seems so clear.

A Journey West, Part 4/5

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Artichoke. Courtesy Jeb Campbell
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Fields of lettuce. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

One of the last days of my California trip featured a venture to Monterey and Seaside where my son lives. The old coast road, Cabrillo Highway, Highway One, muddled south out of Santa Cruz, Soquel, and Aptos in heavy traffic that cleared some after Rio Del Mar. The four lanes narrowed to two for nine miles through fertile agricultural lands. Fields of artichoke, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, lettuce, and kale lined either side of the aging highway. I wondered about irrigation—more wells, more groundwater. How long do these farmers have if the drought continues?

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Dunes. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

The fields gave way to huge sand dunes colonized by dune grass and invasive ice plant. Called ‘relic landscapes,’ the dunes occupy a wide swath between the road and the Pacific. According to local authorities, the dunes may shift but are thousands of years old. New ones aren’t forming. Older landscapes of rock and sand slightly more inland provide basis for roads, shopping centers, and neighborhoods. We followed the road around this last tip of the great Monterey Bay arc.

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Looking north to distant outline of Monterey Bay coast, from Sunset Drive, Monterey, California

It was a clear day, brilliant blue sky above and the bay vista stretched fogless twenty-four miles north to Santa Cruz. I thought of the Native Americans who made use of every living thing given by the sea and the fishermen who came on the heels of the Spanish missions to exploit the rich sealife nourished in the recesses of the three-thousand foot deep Monterey trench. I thought of the generations of immigrants—Chinese, Italian, Portugese—who settled here to wrest a living from the land and Pacific Ocean.

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Jewels of the sea: kelp strand, mussels, anemone. Courtesy Deste Campbell

At the seaside route around the Asilomar retreat grounds, we parked and walked a short distance to the water’s edge. The tide was outbound. Waves curled onto the sand and crashed against rugged rock outcroppings. Gulls patrolled the beach, peeking into straggles of kelp torn from its offshore forest. Washed up kelp leaves flared from narrow stalks long as a bullwhip. Hordes of tiny insects swarmed the tangled kelp heaps. Tide pools hosted anemone communities and mussel thickets in colors too amazing to believe.

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Jelly, one of many types in this bay. About two inches long. Courtesy Deste Campbell

I could sit all day here, fully entertained by nothing more than the movement of the water. A few surfers in wet suits challenged themselves in the unforgiving breakers. Others, like me and my kids, were content to walk at the high water line, happy to be occasionally caught off guard by a stealthy wave whooshing up to wet our legs. If this was all there was—if there were no bills to pay, schedules, obligations—would I make my life about watching the sea?

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Me with Deste and Jeb at Asilomar beach. Thanks Jeb.

Too short is the time at my son’s home, sitting in his living room, touring his garden, smiling as I visit with his family. I’m envious of his ten-minute drive to the beach. Sad as my daughter and I pull away from his home, I can’t look back.

Is an oceanside sojourn the future for my son, this child who became a man when I wasn’t watching?

Or my daughter, happily settled in the hills of her new home near Eugene, Oregon, an hour and half drive from the coast?

Those are among a thousand alternate lives I could have lived close to the sea. The waves murmur and slosh, crash and growl. Another world. I miss it already.

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Filtered beach shot. Courtesy Deste Campbell

A Journey West, Part 2/5

sc wharfThe narrow coastal rim west of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a world unto itself. Rich with moist ocean air and ornamented by unique flora, the land asserts a majestic presence in spite of roads, cars, houses, and other degradations inevitable in the presence of human population. I’ve been to Santa Cruz and its suburbs of Capitola, Soquel, and Aptos four or five times, and each time is a refreshing reminder of this unique environment.s c cliffs

All of it leads to the beach and  sheer cliffs eroded by towering waves. Stretches of sand crop up, narrow but pristine, fed by the constant motion of water. Detritus of the sea collects in meandering lines—kelp with rubbery flat leaves, seaweed in tangled blackish masses, bits of shell, and freshly exposed critters burrowing back under the swept-clean surface. The land gently rises from the shore to sweep up the slopes to the ridges of the densely forested mountains.

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Coast Live Oak
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Madrone
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Eucalyptus

Tall palms dot the neighborhoods and commercial districts, delineating their unique architecture against a backdrop of coast live oak, coast Douglas fir, the enigmatic Pacific madrone, wax myrtle and bay laurel, and the ever-present clumps of towering invasive eucalyptus.

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Coast Redwoods

Here and there remain the native coast redwood standing as lone sentinels or in surviving groves on the steep hillsides. Everywhere the hand of man has interspersed the natural plantscape with domestic shrubbery and flowering plants. But much of the native vegetation also blossoms in vibrant color. Blooms in every shape and hue grace parking lots, highway medians, ditches, and landscaped surroundings of shopping centers, gas stations, and random shops.

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Chamise

The University of California at Santa Cruz takes pride of place at its higher elevation overlooking the town and bay. The cleared sunny south slopes of campus host a more drought-resistant chaparral vegetation with manzanita, scrub oak, and chamise.

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One of many campus walkways over redwoods surging up from ravines.

Beyond the expanse of land claimed by state parks, ranchers, and the university are groves of redwoods deeply nestled in sharp ravines and stretching to the sky up steep slopes. From the road along UCSC’s east side, a panorama of the Monterey Bay opens its glorious expanse to the viewer, breathtaking in its fingernail-moon arc southward.ucsc view

I would be happy living here, I think. The community is joyously liberal and rebelliously semi-heathen in its irreverent embrace of life. Homeless people around the wharf and other public places might catch the tourist off guard, but there’s no implied threat if the request for money is denied. Seaside attractions, aside from the string of restaurants, coffee shops, and lodging, include an amusement park with Ferris wheel, fun house, and roller coaster. At a safer distance from the occasional tidal shift or storm surge are shops and stores favoring every conceivable interest. The sprawling imprint of human settlement stretches for miles.

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View seaward from Ginny’s deck

A climate that rarely climbs past eighty degrees in the daytime or drops below forty degrees in the coldest night tempts me. My friend Ginny’s front deck faces the distant water from her perch halfway up a mountainside. From her hot tub or deck chair, I contemplate the fog bank lying like a thick silver blanket along the shore. On clear evenings, I watch the sun send its red-orange flare across the distant waves. I watch the whitecaps break at Soquel Point.

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Ginny 1972
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Me 1972

The miracle of close friendship never fails to amaze me. After forty-two years since we were cute young travelers to the Great American West, we’ve stayed friends. She left Northwest Arkansas for New York and then retired to California. Together maybe a total of two months in all that time, we start our conversation as if we’d never been apart. Her habits are familiar—the gurgle of her espresso machine starts the morning while I sit staring out at the foggy dawn. We giggle over her silly cat and talk about our plans for the day. I marvel at her ability to thrive in such a claustrophobic environment, but then, my God, she spent a couple of decades lawyering in New York City.

There are two key points that keep me from seriously entertaining a relocation plan. Money. And population density. People literally live on top of each other. Ginny’s home at nearly $2000 per month (plus utilities) is the top floor of a house divided into three living units. At the back fence mere feet away begins another house, perched higher up the hillside but close enough to hear conversation on their front porch.

Single family homes are palatial estates costing millions or small, side-by-side 1930s cottages with questionable structural integrity and still worth many thousands. If I cashed in my sixteen Boston Mountain acres with over 2000 square feet of home space and spring water, plus my two commercial rental properties in Fayetteville, I might end up with enough money to buy a house trailer in Santa Cruz. Okay, maybe a 1940s bungalow on a postage-stamp lot.

In spite of the occasional gut wrenching journey for the sheer pleasure of existing for a time in this other-worldly Shangri-la and the intense joy of sharing a few days with my kids and Ginny, I think I’ll stay put in the Ozarks.