2009 – Gail Folkins – Light in the Trees

Non-fiction selection from the 2009 issue

Light in the Trees
by Gail Folkins

The mountain, normally freckled with household lights, was black. I stared where Dad pointed, to a slope that looked desolate compared to the crowded airport we’d just left. Dad drove me and my husband, John, in the small white sedan. It was our annual Christmas trek from Texas to my roots about twenty miles east of Seattle, a home perched between forested hills and the steady growth of nearby cities. From the back seat—I left the front seat to Dad and John, both of them long-legged—I watched our mountain, a foothill to the Cascades, grow darker than the night sky surrounding it.

“Still no power,” Dad said, his words matter-of-fact.

In a home hidden by trees, with lights no one could see from the dead-end road below it, my family was used to being without electricity for a few hours. When fallen branches toppled power lines or an ice storm snapped cables, we were ready. Dad would dig out the flashlights with fresh batteries. My brother, Ken, pulled a camping lantern out of the hall closet. Mom stuffed another log in the wood stove and we all waited for light to fill the room, too bright from the switches we’d forgotten didn’t work and flipped on while stumbling around the house.

This time, deep in a mid-December night, a windstorm proved angrier and the Seattle area more populated, an uneasy combination resulting in at least twelve deaths and more than a million homes and businesses without power. In the wake of 69 mph winds coursing across Western Washington, both local and out-of-state crews made repairs that couldn’t be rushed. A neighborhood at a time, they restored the electricity, heat, and hot water most of us took for granted.

By the time John and I arrived from Texas, Dad had been without power for four days. I’d been relieved to see him at the airport—he was unreachable by phone since the storm. Still, I knew he had a generator, two wood stoves, a portable radio, and resilience that made him look and act fifteen years younger than his actual age of eighty. It wasn’t a big surprise to see him at the airport as we’d arranged a few weeks before, near our usual meeting place by the baggage carousels. “You can use my cell phone,” I told him.

He was glad I brought it, but not for himself. “That’s good, he said. “You can call your aunt.”

His strength made me look harder at myself, softened by access to everything and unprepared for disaster. I’d spent more years growing up on the mountain than apart from it, yet still worried I’d forgotten how to live in the trees. I didn’t know how I’d handle losing power for a few days, if I could manage gracefully without it. Even generators needed fuel to run them, and without electricity, most of the area’s gas pumps weren’t functioning. Dad found a remote service station to fuel his car and the generator—five cars soon lined up behind him.

The tank of the sedan was still close to full. The further from the airport we drove, the thicker the blackness, with neither fluorescent streetlights nor blinking Christmas strings. Instead, a few tiny squares of household light, powered by candlelight or generators, shone from single rooms. It was almost as dark as the days before anyone lived up there but bear, deer, and coyote. Our driveway carved a tunnel between the trees.

Once outside the car, instead of the rumbling creek, we heard the hum of a generator from a distant house. Inside, the coals from the wood stove burned red. It was enough to illuminate our faces when we gathered at the kitchen table to talk about the two hemlocks Dad lost in the storm. November’s rain, a record 15 inches, might have contributed to the fallen trees; it was hard to tell if the wet earth, wind, disease, or a combination of all three weakened them most. This winter, area residents and the forest shared a more troubled relationship than usual, violent weather mixing the two and having the last laugh.

I added another log to the fire and listened to the cedar pop. We divided the flashlights and toted our travel bags into the bedroom, Dad firing up the generator so we’d have enough light to put away our things and brush our teeth. We piled on the blankets and wore our thickest pajamas, enough to last till morning when the stove’s warmth faded and the lights might just flicker back.

John and I woke to the rain and a crackling portable radio, along with Dad pawing through a dark refrigerator without complaint. “The milk should be all right,” he said. “I run the generator just enough to power it, along with the microwave.”

“What have you been eating?” I asked.

He made a face. “Cans of stuff I’ll never eat again,” he said. “Chili, beans. All pretty bad.”

On the kitchen counter, my dad piled condiments and leftovers he suspected hadn’t made it from the days of tepid cool. The half-used ketchup and mustard bottles probably also contained foods he simply didn’t like or was sick of, which I supported given his bout with food poisoning a few years ago. After that, whenever he asked me about recent leftovers from generous meals, I told him to toss them, preferring to waste food rather than risk it; Mom wasn’t around to throw things out anymore.

We poured the milk over our cereal and hoped for the best. I thought of our own house near downtown Austin, whether we had enough food to get by if a tornado or flash flood hit. I saw our frozen meats spoiling in the balmy winter, vegetables rotting, sugary snacks that would only make us hungrier, bottled water we didn’t have at all. Never mind living off the land; I wouldn’t do well living off our foods on hand. The morning paper talked about people not sharing their names because they were embarrassed at being caught off guard.

I scanned the dingy bottles sitting on Dad’s counter and the gray clouds outside. As a teenager, I turned to the city for adventure and escape. “Christmas shopping will get us out of the house for awhile,” I said.

John poured Rice Krispies in his bowl and shook his head at me in a teasing way, as if to say I’d use any excuse for shopping.

Dad nodded. “We’ll eat a couple of meals out,” he said.

“When do we pick up the turkey?” I asked.

Dad looked at his careful notes on the calendar. “Saturday,” he said.

It was Wednesday, and Christmas Eve was on Sunday. The power might be on by then; maybe. Between crackles, the radio kept a persistent buzz about neighborhoods still without power. Earlier reports shared stories of freezing residents swapping food for firewood, or a space heater for some gas to power a generator. Area shelters and hotels were full. “If my phone had worked, I could have offered something, too,” Dad said.

Outside, cold rain fell. John piloted the sedan carefully down the driveway while I sat beside him and Dad lounged in the back. The further we drove from the trees and the closer to Renton, the more lights we saw popping up along the way. Everyone else must have had the same idea about getting out of the house and into the city, because the wet roads leading to the mall were crowded with cars.

Once inside the bright aisles, a stark contrast to the darkness at home, we found a stand for Frangos chocolates. Dad picked up a box wrapped in green and silver paper and handed it to the cashier along with his Nordstrom credit card.

The woman, who looked about twenty, swiped the card a few times before setting it down. “I’m sorry, but it isn’t working.” She turned the card around to see if the other side worked.

Dad frowned. “They just sent me a new one.”

I glanced at the line behind us. Frangos, first sold by Frederick and Nelson’s, were later picked up by The Bon Marche and now belonged to Macy’s, a confusing parade of stores over the years that didn’t include Nordstrom. “A Nordstrom card won’t work, Dad. I have a Macy’s if you want.”

“Oh, you’re right,” Dad laughed. Even the cashier grinned. Behind us, a man dressed for work looked particularly annoyed. My dad, I wanted to tell this impatient stranger, was a survivor in more important ways, someone who hadn’t forgotten how to live in the trees.

Later, over an early dinner, John looked up from his baked potato. “Maybe the power will be on when we get back to the house.”

I passed the bread around and gave him a doubtful smile. All day, we’d heard stories of just-restored power, along with those still without it, including our waiter. I shrugged and refocused on my steak. I was getting used to life in the dark again. We weren’t suffering, considering the occasional light from the generator, the warmth of the wood stove, and the candy bars Dad kept in the snack drawer, not to mention escapes to town. The storms of my past came back with greater clarity. Ten years ago, a coating of ice shut down the Northwest and snapped its power lines. For a few days, I fired up the upstairs woodstove and Dad ran the generator, then brand new. It was the first Christmas after Mom died without warning from a heart attack, a tougher bleakness to navigate.

We slept another night without power. In the morning, Dad flipped a switch and a soft glow answered. We could dry our hair without the help of a generator or go to the grocery store without fearing our food would spoil. Having power again after living a few days without it was a luxury. I couldn’t imagine what six days must have felt like to Dad, not to mention the extra day or two those residents in a few outlying areas still faced.

The radio station, after a brief mention of the last areas still without power, held a contest for listeners to name the storm. In the weeks to come, the blast of wind would become one of last year’s memories. It’d be easy to slip back into a comfort zone, too busy for natural calamities larger and stronger than the best-planned development. Instead of staying inside and enjoying the newfound warmth, John and I decided to go hiking with Ken, my brother, and meet the forest on its own terms.

Once we’d found enough clothes to keep us warm, John and I followed Ken down the trail behind the house. We soon reached the creek where the two hemlocks fell. They were bigger than I imagined, a two-foot diameter trunk resting along the ravine and another just as large splayed across the creek. Sodden ground near the roots made it look as if they’d slid.

“How old do you think they are?” John asked.

Ken peered at their rough-barked sides. “Around eighty years, maybe a hundred.”

The trees on the way up the mountain looked intact, though John and I were too busy keeping up with Ken, an experienced hiker who still lived in the area, to notice. He led us along an overgrown trail to a gravel road, which zig-zagged up the mountain in tight corners. The state owned this land, which for now, was left to itself.

Forty minutes later, sunshine slipped between the trees and fell across our faces. In the thin warmth, I took off my jacket and forgot the power we’d rediscovered at home.

Ken slowed his pace so we could keep up. “We’re almost there,” he said. His long legs took the mountain in easy strides.

Although my own legs protested during the first part of our hike, they found new energy at the summit. I glanced at the microwave tower perched at the top and followed Ken and John to a clearing near the edge of the ridge. Snow lay in patches at our feet. Without its summer foliage, the barren crest in front of us opened up a distant view of downtown Seattle.

I followed my brother’s line of sight down the mountain and into the lowlands. Stray clouds muted the sunlight. From the edge of the summit, we stared seventeen miles away at a cluster of miniature skyscrapers.

“See the Space Needle?” my brother said.

I squinted through my contact lenses and made out the Needle’s thin stem and round top. Towns in between, from Issaquah, to Bellevue, to Mercer Island and the floating bridge, stayed hidden in the mountain’s shadow. From a few thousand feet up, evergreens started below our feet and ran downhill until they lapped up against the skyscrapers. It looked as if the forest was sharing space with the city, rather than the other way around.

“Do you want to go down by the road again, or the trails?” my brother asked.

John moved his glance from the tiny buildings below us to the path my brother pointed to. “Let’s take the trail,” he said.

Ken led us to the trailhead and nodded at a few of the wooden signs we passed. “From one of these trails, you can walk to downtown Issaquah.” His stride lengthened. “We’re not too far from Mom’s grave.”

I looked in the direction where the graveyard must be, partway down the mountain and close to town. It was a good resting place. This foothill between the city and the mountains was the home Mom wanted in the trees, the same complicated terrain I kept returning to.

The trail started out in a steep descent. I looked around to see if other trees had fallen, but most of them, safe in numbers that created a natural wind break, were untouched. We saw only an occasional fallen tree along the trail, like the one splayed across a wooden picnic table at a small campsite. I stared at the table, the only evidence of civilization in sight, which was nearly split in two.

Halfway down, the trail sloped more gently. Mist slipped through the hemlocks, moss hanging from their branches like shawls. Beads of rain on evergreen needles turned to wet diamonds in the sun. Even in street shoes, walking in the woods came easier now. I showed John the smooth-leaved Salal and the spikier Oregon grape. We touched a cedar’s sides, which ran in thin strips instead of chunkier Douglas fir bark. The trail wasn’t so steep, its switchbacks, a compromise reached with the mountain, more manageable. We wove between the trees, finding our way back home.

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