Here's What He Thinks About That

After the Storm: Life in a Smaller Place


I rise early this time of year, too early, because a woodpecker starts the day banging its head against the side of my house. What at first I took to be gunshots or a jackhammer when we moved out here is a Northern Flicker declaring his love for his territory, his mate, and our siding. 

This started almost 20 years ago, often followed by another explosion: our six-year-old flinging open the bedroom door followed by his daily full-throated inquiry: “IS IT SCHOOL TODAY AGAIN?” He’d do homework over oatmeal, or under oatmeal, as it were, using the worksheet as a placemat, filling in blanks. One directs: “Describe your favorite color.”

“RAIN,” he writes.

We spent years together every school day waiting for the bus on the side of a narrow road walled in by evergreens. Even now that he is gone to college, I am still often there walking the dog, picking up garbage. The bus still emerges from a tunnel of trees, but the driver is wearing a mask now, as are most of the kids. They’ve never known different. I still wave as they go by.

Later, I tutor students at a local school. A disheveled fourth grader eating cold cereal from a plastic bowl drops into the chair opposite me, dragging a book on beetles or dinosaurs or robots. I decide to be inspirational and joke, “Pull yourself together, man. You look like you slept in your clothes.”

“I did sleep in my clothes.” His eyes glisten above his mask.

On the way home I make a detour for a popular fixture who is hitchhiking, all masked up on the side of the road. He is jubilant because the library is open again. He pulls down his mask to talk. “They let people check out 50 movies at a time!” 

He directs me down a series of tree-walled gravel roads to the land his family homesteaded over a century ago. Most of it was sold off, but he somehow retained a hidden scrap and put a trailer on it among looming second and third growth trees.

Even now, whenever I drive to some place new to me on the KP, I wonder whether I will find it or find my way out. 

One may start out heading south on the Key Pen highway and turn off onto any number of gravel side roads with legitimate-sounding names like “165th Court North NW” before plunging into forest or through naked clearcuts, over salmon streams and around kettle lakes, up and down berry-choked ravines lost to memory, twisting left and right at street signs that read “East 165th Court Ave Place West For Now,” or “Died of Measles Drive KP South,” or “Trespassers Will be Shot, Pickled, and Eaten,” only to come to rest at some hidden cove close to your still inaccessible destination under a sign reading something like “Joe’s Bay,” which will never appear on any map.

My passenger disembarks at such a spot and lumbers into his garden, shifting an armload of books and videos and bottles. He pulls some plants from the ground and hands them to me. “Golden Beets! Fry ‘em up and don’t spare the salt!”

The KP has been home to anarchists, millionaires, poetry loving loggers, and remains the summer refuge for whatever the opposite of a snowbird is. I have lived here a scant 18 years now — longer than anywhere else in my life — and imagine I’ve met everyone at least once. But we all lead separate and even solitary lives in private circles, and that’s been made worse by the pandemic. Residents on the south end may have little to do with northerners like me. Those on the water may never visit the many who live inland, encircled by towering trees or on the edge of clearcuts in simple homes rented month to month.

When we did run into each other during the pandemic, we were separated by our masks and how we wore them (nose in or nose out?), if we had one at all. We kept our distance like strangers from rival gangs, and so it has remained.

But we do know one another. We stand next to each other at the coffee place, at the library, at bake sales, fundraisers and funerals. We have worshipped together, served together, and fought one another across plates of fried eggs and gravy, over cups of coffee and glasses of beer. We walk the same aisles in our market, the same trails through our parks, and all those other, steeper trails that wait for every one of us. We have stood to welcome the joining of families and the birth of new life, we have stood to join our voices together in celebration and protest, and we have stood side by side to bury our dead.

The outside world periodically pulls me across the narrow bridge clinging to our peninsula, then over a larger span to distant cities where houses are built closer together than trees can grow. I begin to recall what it was like to live in that world instead of the island nation that is the Key Peninsula. I begin to forget the color of rain.

At home in the evening, a neighbor emerges from the woods with a half empty bottle of homemade wine. “Where’s the other half?” I ask. “It was a long walk,” he says. We sit on my deck and sample his work. Forty or 50 crows glide across the twilight sky to their nearby roost, all silent to protect its location. “Crows are notoriously proud and possessive of their home territory,” I point out, adroitly.

“So is everyone else on the KP,” says my neighbor. 

Associate Editor Ted Olinger steps in this month.