Guest post: Shadow Mountain

Map: Oregon, setting of “Shadow Mountain” by Nancy Townsley

This is a guest post from Nancy Townsley who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Oregon. Enjoy.

I remember it like it was yesterday, especially on days when the weather is just right, when the cloud cover is minimal and the smog over Portland’s downtown core clears out after a good rain and I get a fantastic view of Mt. Hood off to my left as I drive east on Highway 30 before heading toward my newspaper office. It used to be that when I saw the mountain, I’d put my mind’s meanderings on hold for a moment or two, long enough to consider and appreciate its stark-white majestic beauty and rugged, craggy appearance. “The queen of the Cascades” is indeed a marvelous peak to behold.

But in the last two years, since Jared fell from the Crater Rock area on Hood’s south side, dropping into thin air after a snow cornice collapsed beneath him, I’ve had to work hard to resist thinking of the mountain as an 11,250-foot monster that took him from us. When his body came to rest in the White River Canyon, his FitBit Tracker was still working. Data on the device gave his grief-stricken relatives some solace because it showed he had died immediately: there were no calories burned, steps taken, or activity recorded after he plunged from the precipice.

Since that terrible day in 2012, five more climbers have succumbed to the mountain’s twin personalities — allure and treachery — each sudden death bringing all those dark emotions flooding back.

Accidents happen, but they aren’t supposed to happen to someone you love. As tempting as it is to consider the wider, more cosmic implications of such randomly occurring events, and despite the sincerely good intentions of those who insist everything happens for a reason and that a celestial someone’s in control, I’m not at all convinced that a Supreme Being was anywhere near the awful soup of circumstances that came together when Jared, Mark, Kinley, Collin, Sebastian and Robert fell from Hood on blue-sky days in February, and May, and June, and August.

I can’t believe that an all-powerful god wouldn’t have plucked my stepson from the edge. Or that an omniscient god stood idly by and allowed him to die that day and be lost to his children and his wife, his mother, his father and two siblings who still fight back tears many days, when they miss the sound of his voice or the warmth of his touch. The only “perhaps” I can entertain is that a loving Someone or Something is now holding all six men in the vast and unknowable palm of his or her or its hand somewhere beyond the veil, where pain and sorrow are no more.

Still, I weep for all their families, the same way people have for ours since two winters have changed into a pair of springs and we’ve tried to carry on, looking for ways to honor Jared’s memory even as we silently scream into the ether that more than anything, we just want him back.

So many “whys” are on our lips as we continue to think about the “what ifs” of our personal and perennial loss. What if Jared had not gone up to the mountain that night? What if the wind had been weaker, the snow less slick, the sun less strong? What if he had not removed his crampons and his helmet when he stopped to rest after taking a dozen photos on his camera, breathtaking shots of the sunrise over the crater’s rim as that Monday, February 6 dawned bright and clear in the Pacific Northwest?

We will never, ever know. Mother Nature has her ways, and they are often beyond our understanding. Recognizing that questions are always more plentiful than answers, when I ponder these things I try to remember that the jungle — and the mountain — are neutral.

A friend of mine, who also fell from a great height many years ago but survived, believes that when we die, each of us immediately begins our next great adventure. She says this with a serene look on her face and an almost imperceptible hint of anticipation. That has become my mantra and meditation. If we are lucky, we live life to its fullest, and one day, at a time we often cannot predict, we die. At that moment we are spirited away by the gentle winds of transformation to a place of peace and joy so profound it can only exist in our imaginations.

But what of the now? This morning around six o’clock, Hood was cloaked in clouds. She wore her wispy white regal robes close about her shoulders, her mysteries hidden beneath their voluminous drifting folds. And though I know she’s entitled to her stories and her secrets, I’m still mad as hell at the mountain.

Nancy Townsley is managing editor of two weekly newspapers in Washington County, Oregon, where she has won numerous journalism awards. When she’s not on deadline, she runs marathons. Her essays and stories have appeared in “Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life,” published by Forest Avenue Press; The Riveter Magazine; Role Reboot; and Bleed, a literary blog by Jaded Ibis Productions. She lives in the river town of St. Helens with her husband Gregg, who writes western historical fiction.

Guest post: Moving to Vermont

Map: Vermont setting of “Moving to Vermont” by Susan B. Apel

This is a guest post by Susan B. Apel who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Vermont. Enjoy.

After two days of driving, we crossed the border into Vermont. Having deviated from the map some time back, we were lost. When we acknowledged this to each other, Josie said, “Who the hell cares? Look at this. Vermont is the first place I’ve been that actually looks like its postcard.”

The beauty of Vermont is rife with clichés, but trust me. When I arrived to make Vermont my home, I thought that those green hills really do roll, and white steeples rise above perfectly rectangular town greens. The decrepit old barns sag gracefully, and you just know that each has more stories to tell than you will ever hear.

That’s the window dressing. Lovely as Vermont is on the outside, its internal beauty is the treasure worth finding. Strangers who noticed my Pennsylvania license plate welcomed me to the state, as if each individual thought it a duty to assume the role of greeter-in-chief. Neighbors had advice, about winter and how best to survive it. There was even a bartering economy—what would otherwise have been staid commercial dealings transformed by human haggling.

I spent Saturdays driving around, from town to town, with purpose, or through back unpaved roads with no purpose at all. In late summer, I came upon a farm with a large farmstand, vegetables damp with dirt, piled on plywood trestle tables splintered at the edges. I stopped. It felt like a ghost farm, no one in the fields, the house somewhat removed and vacant.

I picked up several items and stood, my hands stretched around the unwieldy bunch, waiting for someone. I waited twenty minutes and had decided that the stand was not open, and I should just put everything back and drive away. And then I saw a small tractor sputtering across the field toward the stand; the driver, an elderly woman who resembled the tables in that splintered around the edges kind of way, didn’t hurry, didn’t apologize. After nodding in my direction, she stopped and busied herself with the tractor.

My hands growing numb from holding the vegetables, I finally spoke, asking if I could pay her. She wiped her hands on her field apron and looked a little surprised. She asked how long I had been waiting. She and her family owned the farm, she told me, and there was seldom anyone available to sit at the stand and wait for customers.

She then proceeded with the rookie’s tour. The vegetables were priced by the piece or by the pound. She showed me the scale. There were used paper bags stuffed in a bin, a calculator for the math-challenged and a cup of pencils for those who might actually want to do the math. She stood back while I calculated my total of seven dollars.

Finally, there was an old cigar box, in full view, on a small wooden counter. Just open it and make your change, she told me. I did. I saw about a hundred dollars in cash. She wasn’t even watching while I put in my twenty and took out some smaller bills in exchange. My urban-raised self had only one thought: someone could so easily drive here and grab the entire cash box and go.

The tour was not over. She said, you might come in the morning when there isn’t enough in the cigar box to make change. She reached under the counter for a metal tackle box, pulling me around to make sure I saw where it was. She explained, this is mostly for the bigger bills, you know, fifties, hundreds. She opened the box. I didn’t want to gawk, but did, and saw several hundred dollars.

I thanked her, preparing to leave. So, she said, now you know where everything is. You don’t need to wait around for anyone next time. She was busying herself once more with the tractor, and I hesitated, but finally asked. “Aren’t you ever afraid that someone is going to steal your cash?” immediately regretting it, thinking she must have been asked this many times. Maybe not. She answered simply, “No.” I must have looked just a little incredulous, because she shrugged, stuck out her lower lip, paused to think, and added, “Hasn’t happened in over thirty-five years.”

Susan B. Apel is a professor of law at Vermont Law School. Her work has appeared in numerous legal and interdisciplinary journals, reviews and two anthologies, as well as in the Bioethics Forum of the Hastings Center, Dartmouth Medicine, InTravel, and The Shriver Report. She has been a featured guest contributor to Gender and the Law Blog, and has her own blog, A Woman of a Certain Age. She currently lives in Lebanon, NH.

Guest post: Minnesota Twilight

Map: Minnesota, setting of “Minnesota Twilight” by Joni Norby

This is a guest post by Joni Norby who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Minnesota. Enjoy.

I remember twilight. There is nothing like the endless Minnesota twilight of early July. It’s almost always warm and sunny by this time of year and the days live on until 10 pm or so; even when dark finally falls, daylight lurks in the shadows. There is no mauve 8 o’clock here.

July 4th on Lake Traverse is my favorite twilight. Generations of my family celebrate our nation’s birth together by hosting a day-long, massive pot luck feast until evening when it’s time to arrange our deck chairs around the edges of a large, grassy recreational area that borders Shady Dell beach. It’s here that the firework display is staged. Patriotic, rock, and country music blares from the speakers of a local DJ (a relative) and the grandchildren of the firework master (also relatives) distribute cups of red, white, and blue popcorn and American flags to the land-based crowd while the lights of hundreds of lake vessels anchored just off the shore dot the darkening water. Family and friends alike wait excitedly for what is to come.

Just as the sun finally surrenders and the Mourning Dove calls its last lament, the first fireworks explode into the star-sprinkled sky and shower down onto the glassy calm of the lake creating a psychedelic vertigo within the clamoring crowd. Yes, we are celebrating our nation’s birth, but also the bonds of our family to this place.

Lake Traverse shares its name with the county. Both are very easy to spot on a map. The county covers the northern half of the “bump” that forms the western border of Minnesota where the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” meets up with low rolling hills of South Dakota. It’s the southern boundary of the Red River Valley, where water runs north and the eastern vista is so flat that its endlessness can take your breath away. This whole area was once part of an enormous glacial lake, named Agassiz; what remains of this prehistoric water mass (in addition to Lake Traverse) is some of the world’s finest farming soil. It’s this heavy, black loam and an unnaturally flat terrain that lured my ancestors, and many others, to what was considered the western frontier in the mid-1890s.

The promise of a better life and the purchase of a land grant under the Homestead Act brought my great-grandfather and his family to the eastern edge of Traverse County, Clifton Township, from Somerset, Wisconsin. This farmstead has been my family’s home for almost 120 years, yet to me our ownership feels temporary. The field plow still unearths artifacts of times past: arrowheads and shells, specifically. There are wide, shallow depressions in the soil caused by bison that once rolled on the ground to rid themselves of menacing insects, before the real menace of the American expansion west drove them out of the grassy flat lands forever.

Yet for all these ghosts, the prairie is very much alive. If I pay attention I can feel it dance: the rhythm of the flat lands doesn’t flow like a breezy waltz but jolts with the give-and-take of a choppy Argentine tango. Seasons don’t blend together; they clash and bump up against one another. Sometimes spring will get ahead of itself and winter will pull it back to its rightful place. Summer often over-sleeps and rolls in late. Autumn usually arrives on time, but can tease me with an unmistakable sharpness of air that can be felt as early as August.

Of all the valley’s natural forces, nothing holds off the inevitable repose of winter quite like twilight; even in late October the burnt evening sky fights on. Leaves can curl and blow away, crops can be harvested, and frost can dust the ground, but the sun still clings to the west. It blankets the prairie with a brilliant blood red while it loses its grip and slips down the horizon into parts unknown. Twilight’s lingering glow refuses to disappear completely until it has burned its brilliance into my memory, holding me close until spring when it once again will rule the evening sky.

Joni Deal Norby is a Minnesota native and has studied creative nonfiction and poetry as part of Stanford University’s Online Creative Nonfiction Writing Series and at The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Joni is an emerging writer with publications in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s literary publication Red Weather, spring 2013 and spring 2014. Joni currently lives with her husband Dave in California’s Central Valley, but still summers on Minnesota’s western prairie. You can follow Joni on Twitter @norby_joni.