Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Ark

Mark and I went on a mini-road trip this weekend to Summer Lake in Eastern Oregon. It’s not a very popular spot—miles and miles of sagebrush and ponderosa pines until you reach this ancient flat place which was once a lake, 20,000 years ago, and has been slowing evaporating ever since. There’s a wildlife refuge there and we watched pelicans and avocets fly as The Ark rumbled down a dirt track with weeds growing up between the tracks. It’s wild, and empty, and beautiful, like much of our huge country. On the way home, I realized that The Ark and I have been cruising the back roads of the United States together for twenty years now.

I bought my van in 1990, when she was six years old. It was love at first sight. She came with a dent in the side, a leaking engine which needed some work, and wide open space in the back. She has a huge, truck like steering wheel and gear shift and, at the time, the driver sat above every other car on the road. (This was pre-SUV.) I grew up in a pick-up truck and my soul recognized this view of the world the moment I climbed in; I still had to learn to drive a standard, but a trip to Boston took care of that skill. She spent a week at Foreign Auto Works, where they rebuilt the engine and then I took her home to customize. We were going on a three month road trip across the country. It had been twenty years since I went with my parents and it was time.

I built a platform out of scrap wood that I found over by Strawberry Banke to sit over the engine and shoved an old double futon in. Flannel sheets and several blankets covered the bed. The space underneath became instant storage for valuables and things you don’t need every day (funnel for the anti-freeze, chains for icy roads, folding chairs and table…). The head of the futon rested on milk crates, which hold books, dishes and food—things you need all the time. I tied an old chest of drawers into the side for clothes and a work table. The Bakery donated a fish bucket for a dish pan, a small bucket – “You never know when you might need a bucket,” Anita warned—to hold bathroom supplies, and a mesh bag from fifty pounds of onions for laundry. My mother contributed a two burner Coleman Stove, which was stolen in San Francisco and replaced a few years later from a thrift shop in Seligman Arizona, along Route 66. I packed spices in film canisters (I’ve since replaced those!), oil, tamari, and yeast in jars, left tea in boxes. I made curtains, glued a ceramic rooster to the dash, copied my entire music collection onto cassette tapes, snagged a map of every state in the country from AAA and we were ready to go.

The Ark looks pretty much as she did twenty years ago. The futon has changed. I’ve added some decoration to the front dash. There are a few more dents and the cheap plastic bumper ends have fallen off. The paint is blistered where she was so close to a burning house one night that the whole neighborhood almost exploded. She got a new engine about 12 years ago and a transmission a year or so later. I have even fixed the heat, so it is not blasting on your feet while driving through the desert. That was a big improvement! But the engine still hums in the classic VW thrumming. She still drives like a truck. And I’m thinking, God willing and the creek don’t rise, that we are overdue for another cross country trip. Like John Steinbeck, I need to cross this country—in all of its glory and mind-numbing boredom (how much sagebrush can one state hold?) – to remember why I love the United States, even when I am appalled by its politics. I asked the Ark—she’s ready.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mysteries of the Backyard

The back yard is full of mysteries—things that happen every day, with no human interference, that I will never understand. But, come summer, I spend hours watching. There are the small mysteries: the “power spot” of a cat who will sit in one specific square foot of yard for two weeks, day and night, and then moves on. When to plant carrots so that they germinate but are not munched by mini-slugs. Where did that one poppy come from? And then there are the larger mysteries.
One of the chickens is broody this year. She is sitting on the nest for 20 hours a day, fluffing up in a very threatening way whenever I come by to check for eggs. There is no rooster in the neighborhood; there is no way these eggs are ever going to hatch. But there she is, sitting on the nest. I could say that she is hiding from Gracie, who torments everyone is a thwarted desire to be Boss Chicken, but it is deeper than that. When I pick her up, tuck her under my arm like a football as I gather the eggs, and explain the reality of the situation to her, there is a wildness in her beady red eye that tells me that I will never understand Chicken Instinct. We co-exist here, each feeding the other, but I will never really understand.
Yesterday, the hive swarmed. I was outside, trimming around the herb garden, when I heard a deep loud humming and felt the air move. I looked up at the hive just in time to see bees pouring out of the official entrance and the gap in the bottom wire. Thousands and thousands of bees surrounded me. Points of light moving against the blue sky, they searched for a landing place in the hazelnut tree. Once they found a good branch, they huddled around it in an ever tightening humming ball while scout bees went out to find a new home. Mark and I were transfixed. The hive, missing half of its residents, continued on its daily task of building comb and fetching pollen.
Three hours later, they left. They flew over and around me once more, dripping pollen like golden freckles on my bare arms. I grabbed my shoes and followed, slipping between the apartment buildings, across the frat parking lot, by a girl talking on a cell phone who freaked out at the sight, through the Catholic church complex, into the park and down the street for several blocks, where I lost them in a back yard. The swarm was five to ten feet in the air, about the same across, shaped like a flock of geese flying south for the winter, with a definite plan. It knew exactly where it was headed. Caught in the mass migration, I followed, like a mother sending her kid off to college, hoping she has a safe home.
Bee swarms. Chicken Instinct. Power Spots for cats. I do not begin to understand the mysteries of even this small space.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

End of the Year

The end of the school year doesn’t always happen on the last day—like a trip, it ends suddenly. You may be miles from home, or home for years. This year, it ended at about 2:30 on Weds. afternoon—with a week of classes left.

I was leaning over the rail peering down into the library. Our school has a weird design for a supposedly “quiet space”—it is open to the second floor. It’s a really just a wide hall, filled with books and computers and half walls on the first floor—but that is a different story. I was trying to check on U.S. history students, to see if they were re-searching their papers or looking at fancy red sports cars. Most of them were actually working on their social skills. Deep sigh. I heard Andy Boomer behind me.

“There’s Ms Ellis. I’m going to ask her.”
Deep sigh from Thor. “She’s going to tell you that it’s on the sheet, “ he said, sounding quite patient.
“Ms Ellis,” Andy called. “How long should that paper be?”
“It’s on the sheet, Andy,” I replied.
“I told you so,” Thor muttered.
“Okay,” Andy is never daunted. “Thor, do you have the sheet?”
Andy moved on. Thor joined me at the rail. Deep sigh.
“I’m about done with the year,” I said.
“Yeah, me too. We’re not doing anything in class any more, except English. I thought it would be relaxing, you know, but it’s not.”

We contemplated how being slightly bored and compelled to be somewhere is anything but relaxing in silence for a moment, and then , school was done for the year. There was still final tests, papers, projects, the road trip to look at guerilla art, The Senior Prank, graduation, and the Junior Campout to go, but, really, school was done.