Place & Story & COVID

After six months of COVID and social distancing, staring at the same four walls of my newly rearranged and then re-cluttered home office, I’ve learned how lucky I am to live in a place where wilderness is a short drive away. We all need our “panic hole,” as Jim Harrison termed it…a wild space inside a thicket into which we could crawl and disappear to lick our wounds and heal our souls.

In the early days of the quarantine and the governor’s lockdown, all of my panic holes were off-limits. The beaches of Oregon were closed, even though you rarely come within ten yards of another surfer or dogwalker or clamdigger. Fishing was suspended. The 10,000 acre research forest at the edge of town was even locked down tight even though there’s lots of elbow room in 10,000 acres. I get it. I’m not complaining. And I understand that a drive to the coast usually means a trip to a gas station, maybe risking a drive-through coffee, each contact point weighed with potential to spread the virus. Lives have been lost on a person’s decision to not wear a mask, wash hands or attend a birthday party with the sniffles. It’s best to be safe. The virus was new, and state-level policy is a blunt instrument.

But then as infections in our state subsided and restrictions relaxed and we were given new freedoms despite the fact that the virus was still slowly grinding through the Greatest Generation and frontline workers and meatpackers, feeding off the frivolity of pool partiers and the tantrums of anti-maskers, capitalizing on our unjust systems to target communities of color and on our indifference to rage like a brushfires through the nursing homes where we stack our elderly like forgotten bundles of kindling.

And with the relaxing, came the ability to leave home. Not to congregate. Not to go to church or class or the (permanently cancelled) John Prine concert, but to fish and hike and wander in the open air where risk of spreading infection was deemed low. And that’s when I truly realized how lucky we are to live in a state where wilderness is at our doorstep and we have so much vast country to roam without the fear of close contact with an infected stranger. I feel for those cooped up in cities, locked in apartments. Without wild places, I would have been lost this summer. And, I suppose, this is why the journey of nearly 50 years on this big blue and green and brown rock has led me to this spot on the globe. For me the wild places are filled with the fuel for my soul. It’s where I find solace, comfort, spirituality. And probably most important for the work I do, the source of the stories I hope to tell.

The first place I visited that was outside my orbit of home-to-grocerystore-to-dogwalking-trail in the early days of COVID was to the south fork of the Alsea River where I found that, while the rest of us have been locked in side, the timber industry had been busy logging some old growth along my favorite stretch of cutthroat trout stream that I’d fished for a decade. I was enraged. Despairing. But immediately I found a story: who logged it? Why? Why did it happen when it did? Who authorized it? I took notes for an investigative essay and filed it away for future consideration.

The first of my wild places I visited after COVID restrictions had eased was the Alsea River, where an old growth grove was. laid low while we were all housebound.

Then next weekend I returned to the coast to surf when I spotted a pair of seal pups playing in the break, bobbing in the water and diving, popping up on one side of me and then the other. Likely laughing at my clumsy paddling and all-too-brief boardwork as I was bowled over by the next not-so-very-big wave. I filed that image away, too, for a future story or maybe a poem or a song.

After months of being locked mostly inside, the outside was now open to me again, and the ideas were starting to flow. I hadn’t realized how deeply the pandemic and lockdown had affected me and frustrated my creativity until I was again let out of the cage. My senses came to life. My prose improved. My editing. My camerawork. All of the skills that had become stagnant when travel and rambling weren’t accessible to me.

I went to Mount Jefferson and Mary’s Peak to think about the meaning of high places. And then on a trip to the most remote part of our state, the Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert, where you’re two hours from gas and you should bring your own water, my mind was blown and consciousness expanded by the astonishing geography of this largely peopleless place.

And it was here, maybe, on the vast white table of the dry lakebed, standing next to the car and watching the heat shimmer on the horizon like a distant and elusive lake, the silence so complete that it was a force in and of itself, quite dust devils spinning twists of pale earth into funnels the size of the massive Doug Firs of my home country, that I think I found the next big story.

As I stood in the vast pale plain at sunrise, such a visual place, I knew there had to be a feature film there, something shaped by the geography of that miraculous desert at the base of the five-thousand-foot cliffs of the Steens Mountain, something about how the backside of that mountain rises like a gradual ramp to those dramatic cliffs, and how all that silence and dust and stone and sky can work together to shape a narrative.

Wildhorse Lake on the Steens Mountain

When I came home from that trip, refreshed by the disconnection from the umbilicus of cell phone data and that dizzying geography spinning in my head, I hatched and idea with a long-time filmmaking partner. In five minutes of describing the terrain, we’d hammered out a story and then twenty-four hours later I have an outline of a script. Story ideas are ephemeral things, and who knows if we’ll ride this one to the finish line.

For me, travel is essential for ideas. Without wandering there’s no way to harvest stories. It’s just how I work. It’s how I gather the narrative sparks I need. And at the beginning of the pandemic, locked in my house, I was inspired, like so many others, to tackle that next big project, to start something new. Someone more clever than me joked on social media that their pandemic began with aspirations to write a play and get ripped abs. And her end-of-pandemic plan was to start smoking. I was feeling that way as well.

Until the Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert.

And now, with the images and sensations of those wild places in my head, I’m back and clear and better than I was before. Even as the swamp of email returns and the pettiness and numbness of the dull routine returns, I’ve now got some new fuel for the fire, and for a little while I feel normal again. My prose is less insipid. I stare at the walls of my office and now I see into the memory of the landscapes I experienced in Eastern Oregon, and the stories they inspired.

The world is a big place, mysterious and wonderful and delicate. And I’m better for having seen some more of it.

Alvord Desert at sunset.

Published by David

Writer (Vintage), filmmaker (Three Days of Glory and Saving Atlantis), bookreader.

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