In Which We Leave Philadelphia and Brave the Oregon Night

If you want to, you can wake up before the chilly Philadelphia dawn, walk out your door, and just keep on going until you hit the west coast. Of course, no matter how many months you’ve planned your vacation, if you have to wake up at 4am to catch the train to the airport, the whole thing seems like a wretched idea compared to a few more hours’ sleep.

But I always loved dawn at the airport as a child: the first morning of vacation. As the sunlight began to glint rosily off the planes dozing outside the terminals’ windows, everyone hurried somewhere against the giant ads for extravagant things travelers might be tempted to buy, and the day was sophisticated and exotic and full of possibility.

Our first flight is to Seattle. Halfway through the flight, a problem arises – literally – in the lavatories. A flight attendant makes an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, a mistake was made on the ground in Philadelphia and the crew did not empty the lavatory tanks. So we’re aware that, unfortunately, there is some back-up in the lavatories. This is not our fault; it’s the ground crew who forgot to empty the tanks. And unfortunately, there’s not really anything we can do about it until we’re back on the ground.” I wonder if the attendants drew straws for that one. I also wonder if they appreciate their uniquely invulnerable position as customer service providers 30,000 feet up. Even with a problem as rank and immediate as overflowing toilets, the customers must acknowledge that there is nothing the staff can do – an attitude that, as every hospitality worker knows, does not prevail on the ground.

As we approach Seattle, an attendant, perhaps eager to distract us from the state of the lavatories, announces that we have an excellent view of Mt. St. Helens on the left, and Mt. Ranier on the right. As we descend into Seattle, the attendant picks up the P.A. again. “Unfortunately, I’ve just…realized…that it’s actually Mt. St. Helens on the right, and Mt. Ranier on the left. Unfortunately, I was never that good at geography.”

Food cost money we didn’t want to spend on the five-hour flight from Philly, so naturally we’re forced to pay $8.00 for a bag of trail mix in Seattle. Then we walk across the blustery tarmac to our next plane, a 30-seat EMB 120 to Portland. The propeller seems to churn right outside our window and we discuss whether or not it’s so loud because the plane is broken.

We have time for lunch in the sunny Portland airport before re-boarding the little plane for Medford, Oregon.  A man with his arm swathed in a large sling settles into the roomy emergency exit seat. “You,” says the attendant. “Out of there.” The man touches the exit handle with his bound-up arm. “Look, I can move it if I have to.” “Sir, in the case of an emergency, I cannot risk any delay in getting that door open.” “Come on, they let me sit in the exit seat in three other planes already,” he protests. “Not on my plane,” she says. The man knows when he is beaten and flings himself, grumbling, into the empty seat across the aisle.

The little Medford airport has only one baggage carousel, and our hostess, Terry, is waiting. The Oregon day is so sunny and warm that she wears shorts and sandals. We clamber into her hybrid SUV for the next leg of the trip, a pleasantly longish drive at a leisurely speed that would never be tolerated in Philadelphia. We are in the wide, perfect bowl of a ring of mountains.

“Alaina said you said that there were bears and lions and things out here, but you were kidding, right?” Lala says.

“Nope,” says Terry. “Cougars, black bears – I even saw a bobcat recently. I actually saw a mother bear and her cubs in our yard about two weeks ago. At first I thought it was a big German shepherd or something, but then I realized it was a bear, and then I saw the cubs.”

“So have any of your neighbors been attacked or anything?” Lala sounds worried.

“Noo…no people around here that I know of.  A cougar did get a horse recently though – didn’t kill it but it was scratched up pretty bad. That’s why I don’t walk around at dusk. That’s when they come out. There’s not really any point in worrying about the cougars, though.”

“Why not?”

“Well, the bears you can hear coming, but you won’t see or hear the cougar until it’s too late. If the cougar wants to eat you, it’s got you before you know it. So why worry about it?”

We pull into a narrow, rutted lane in the woods, punctuated by brushy pastures and large, tumbledown houses with an assortment of dogs. One yard is completely surrounded by a high electrical fence. “Welcome! Please pull up and honk” read the gate, over a greeting in Hebrew. “Now the man here lives with his mother,” Terry explained. “He’s so worried about the bears that he put up this fence to keep them out. Strange, because he used to feed them and that’s why they came in the first place.”

“Now the guy that lives over there is real nice, but not too smart. Not too smart at all. And he loves guns. He has one of those mail-order brides from Russia. She carries the guns too. He has a sixteen year-old-daughter – very nice girl – she just strolls down the road with a loaded pistol. I’m careful but I don’t worry about the bears that much, myself.”  Terry goes on to relate a harrowing story involving a broken gate, an apparent burglary, and the nice man running pell-mell down the lane firing his shotgun.

“Now the dogs at this house were always running free in the road,” Terry continues as we roll along. “I was afraid I would hit them, so I always tried to drive by real fast before they could run out and chase the car. But then one day, the man who lives here showed up at our door, and just began screaming at me. I couldn’t really tell what he was saying, but somehow I gathered that he was mad because I drove so fast by his house. Ever since then I just call him Rage Man.”

We pass a house whose sprawling ramshackle yard spreads across a clearing on a hill. Two massive, impassive pit bulls watch us roll by. They had been abandoned in the woods, Terry explains, and this neighbor took them in. A duo of llamas stands in the barnyard.

We reach our hosts’ home in time for a cozy supper, but then it’s time for the last leg of our day’s travel: the walk to our hosts’ charming guest cabin, where the wood stove was crackling. We say our goodnights, clasp a borrowed flashlight, and step off the porch. In daylight, the cabin seemed a stone’s throw from the house. But things are different in the dark.

At home, dark is not dark. The night sky reflects the dense, dusky glow of the city, and even if the blinds in our apartment could keep out the lights of the apartment complex next door, the train station across the street blazes twenty-four hours with a faint fluorescent buzz. But night in the Oregon woods is black. There are no streetlights, and no passing cars. We sweep the beam around us and listen. The silence is cold, heavy and whole. No sirens, no trains, no teenagers’ clattering skateboards. No cars, no bars, not even a barking dog.

We are speechless with terror. I fling my arm around Lala’s waist and he clutches mine. We set out tighter than a pair in a three-legged race. Lala probes the underbrush with the flashlight’s beam. What would I do if I saw eyes glinting there? If I do see them, it’s probably already too late. And what if Rage Man was abroad? What if the gunman’s family was afraid of strangers? What if the bears, frustrated by the fence, had found their way up here? The woods swallow us as we venture down the dirt lane. How far is the cabin? Is it around this bend? The lane yawned long in the dark ahead and behind. Silently we weighed the indignity of returning to the house, hopeless Easterners thwarted by the remote, rustic northwestern night, against the possibility that, like brave Pa Ingalls in the Minnesota blizzard, we were closer to the cabin than we knew.

We decided to turn around. Maybe we’d missed a path we weren’t sure we remembered. We searched for an opening in the trees with our pale beam. A cougar was pricking his ears, a restless bear turning her head. We spotted a path – look, that’s the apple orchard with its tall ghostly ladder – the cabin is down there. Are you sure? No, I’m not. Well, if it’s not here, we are going back to the house. The brambles reach for the flashlight’s beam. I hear a rustle beside us. My heart tears its way to my uvula like a panicked spelunker grabbing for rope. “Yaaahh!” Lala gasps. “What is it!? Don’t DO that!” What do you say to your husband in the last seconds before the predator pounces? Just then, our light catches a wooden fence. As soon as we can make it in the door, and turn on the light, we’ll be safe. We’ve arrived.




Add yours →

  1. I enjoyed that.

  2. Story circulating among the horse people this week of a local woman waking at dawn due to her dogs raising a ruckus and seeing five cougar feasting on a deer. Her husband scared them off by shooting a shotgun over their heads. Later one cougar was seen dragging the deer into the woods. Theory is it was a mother with both this and last years cubs – when the deer are prolific the mother doesn’t necessarily send hr cubs away…..

  3. Elizabeth costantino November 14, 2009 — 10:22 am

    Been there and your reaction was mine though I was more scared of the people than the animals.

  4. I love the similes. You have adventure, humor and fear all wrapped up in this one. Sounds like such a cool place.

  5. When the moon is new at Breitenbush, sometimes it’s so dark you literally can’t see the hand in front of your face. Other times you can see colors by the light of the full moon.

    I love it…

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