The drive to work is along a twisty, dark highway with no streetlights. Trees on both sides, and a river you can glimpse through the trees when it’s light out. But at 5:00 in the morning it’s not light out. It’s been rainy and windy lately with lots of leaves coming down. This morning, I drove through a low-lying ribbon of creek mist where a stream rockets down to the river and goes under the road.
Immediately, I was off. Did I just drive through the ghost of a deer that had been hit there and was now traumatized all over again? That was too horrible to think about.
Was it the Shadow People (or Shadow Men) – those terrifying soul vampires of the ghost world that I discovered when researching monsters for a book? That was too scary to think about.
Was it the ghost of an old guy who doesn’t know he died and still goes fishing in the river in the fall, and was on his way with rod and reel?
Was it a forest spirit that hangs out on the highway on purpose in order to get hit by vehicles? In my imagination I could hear it dissipating into the wind after I drove through, yelling ‘wheeeeee!!!!!’ loudly as it rode the currents up into the trees, scattered among the branches, and then floated back down with the rain to wait for the next car and start the ride all over again.
And all of a sudden I was at work.
When you have a vivid imagination, you’re never alone. Or bored.
Have you never heard of this day? No surprise, really. It’s not a national day, or even a state or county celebration. But it’s a celebration in a little mountain town happening on November 18th.
Wes was born and raised in Index, Washington. All the locals know most of his stories, his growing up years, his years as a young man, a married man, a father, a grieving father, a grandfather. And always a part of the town like the granite and trees and river.
He liked to come in to the town hall where I worked and sit with me on Tuesdays. He expected coffee on those days so we had a little pot and he showed me how to make it. He would then sit by the door with his mug, and hold court. Every person who came in, every phone call I got, he had commentary and strong opinions. Sometimes it was challenging to get work done. Sometimes work was forgotten.
He told me that he met his wife when she was five years old and he was maybe seven? I don’t remember now how old he was. She was walking down the boardwalk and dropped a nickel, which went down between the boards. When he saw her she was crying (that would have been a lot of money a hundred years ago). He managed to retrieve the nickel, and he told me it was love at first sight and love from then on.
I should add a caveat here that stories he told me in his nineties might not be the same stories he told others. Details may have faded and grown foggy over the years. But Wes was a no-nonsense sort, a man who’d worked hard and probably played hard, and a bit impatient with people who came into the town hall and showed a lack of common sense.
Anyway, Wes was a fisherman and a hunter and he’d walked those mountains and woods for many years. He bushwhacked, he followed no trails, he went alone with his dog, a fearless one used to treeing bears. Wes and his dog knew those mountains intimately, and what walked there.
Which of course led me one day to ask him if he believed in Bigfoot. I asked half-joking, fully expecting him to scoff. But instead he got quiet. After a long moment he said he was going to tell me a story he hadn’t told many people.
He was hunting Philadelphia Ridge off Mt Index one chilly fall day. They were way off the beaten track. He made a point of telling me how his dog was afraid of nothing, had taken on all sorts of wild animals. But that day they heard someone walking through the trees and smelled something awful like nothing he’d smelled before. But what left the biggest impression on him was that his dog was scared. Plastered up against Wes’s leg, tail tucked, shaking. Wes said he knew if something was out there that scared his dog, it was nothing he wanted to come in contact with, so they got away from there. He told me that he didn’t believe in nonsense and fairy tales but after seeing how scared his dog had been, he’d always wondered what was out there in the woods with them that day.
And he also made a point of telling me that when he first heard the noise he immediately thought it was another hunter. Because the sounds were ‘step, step, step’ just like a man.
When Wes was failing in health, I would take him homemade chicken noodle soup with fresh tarragon. We would sit at the little table in his kitchen and swap stories while he ate. Several times my son went with me. He was about six at the time and he and Wes would talk non-stop. We weren’t the only one visiting. In a small town, everyone rallied around Wes.
When he was in his last days, I took my son there to say goodbye. Wes was in a hospital bed in the living room of the old house he’d brought his wife home to and raised his kids in. Family and friends came all day long to tell Wes goodbye. It wasn’t clear whether he knew we were there or not. But my son climbed right up on the bed, lay down next to Wes and cuddled right up to him and started talking. I don’t know what he said, but he chattered on and on, his little hand in Wes’s old gnarled one.
And Wes talked with him. Whether he was coherent or not, or even aware who was there with him, I have no idea.
I’ve always wondered what those last stories were, that none of us could hear.
I think about Wes now, with his Day approaching. What was it like to be born, to grow up, to live a full life in one tiny mountain town? Our world now is so big, between the ease of travel and the internet. I don’t know if Wes ever traveled. But I do know that his home place was a tiny footprint in the Cascade mountains, where he knew the land more intimately than most of us ever will.
And where, according to one old man and his fearless dog, Bigfoot once walked.
Recently I mentioned it was the anniversary of my father’s death and a friend asked me to tell her a story about him. This simple thing reminded me of how much power there is in a story. In this case, it was a way to remember and share and bring a tiny piece of him back to life. But that power is the same, even if the story is about a place, or a time, or a song, or a pet. Or even simple things like how a person’s day was. Tiny stories are as powerful as novel-length ones.
I followed that conversation with reading something similar in a book. In it, the character is looking at worlds facing war and he realizes that prejudice is adding to people readying for violence (this is simplifying the plot considerably). He decides people need to see each other as people rather than where they are from or what race the belong to, so he starts interviewing others for their stories and traditions, and then he broadcasts those stories out into the universe.
Again, the power of story.
So I want to ask you the same thing. Can you tell me a story about something that resonated with you, or meant a lot to you, or made you laugh, or pause, or think, or cry? Share something mundane or earth shattering so that I can sink into a story and share that place in time with you.
I’m going to go make a cup of tea and then settle into the chair and wait for you.