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Going Home

North Cascades Loop

North Cascades Loop

This I wasn’t expecting: a homeless man on the shoulder of the North Cascades Highway, so settled that his encampment included a small Weber barbecue. But there he was in Marblemount, the last place you can get gas before making the push over Washington Pass and descending into Eastern Washington.

At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I had just slowed down to 25 MPH, mindful of the ticket I got the last time I exceeded the speed limit on a country road in Washington. Ahead of me on the gravel shoulder was what I can only describe as a contraption: a metal framed cart on wheels piled high with stuff. As I pulled past the cart, I saw what lay beyond it: a container perhaps six feet long and four feet high, covered with a grey plastic tarp, and in front of it, a man sitting cross-legged on the ground, his wiry gray beard extending down the front of his jacket.

Then he was behind me. I’d rounded the corner but couldn’t get the image out of my head. Was he a local who’d come on hard times? With only 200 people in the whole town, why wasn’t someone helping him? Had he rejected help, preferring to live outdoors? Or was he a stranger who’d been dropped there by some trucker, who then decided not to move on? Should I stop and ask?

I didn’t. By then I was a mile down the road, anxious to begin the climb into “the American Alps.” The old man (who for all I know was my age) was someone else’s problem.

I’ve read about the tent encampments under the freeway in Seattle. Homeless activists in Sacramento have been protesting a no-camping ordinance. But somehow I expected the North Cascades Highway to live up to the legend I’d built around it.

My parents sometimes took this route when we visited my grandmother in Yakima, my aunt and uncle in Wenatchee, or my mother’s best friend in Colville. Taking Highway 20 added time to the trip, but my mother turned it into a seasonal pilgrimage — stopping to cut vibrantly-colored branches for her fall arrangements, or to harvest mounds of wild blue elderberries, plump with juice, to make into jelly.

At first, driving east on the North Cascades Highway, I’d seen what I’d expected: clapboard houses dwarfed by candy-colored rhododendrons, jade colored rivers sliding past moss-covered railings, white dogwood blooms on branches reaching as if for alms, grey exhalations of mist drifting up tall peaks. My past was intact.

Before long I noticed things that hadn’t been there in the 70s. The modern Armed Forces Career Center occupies choice real estate in Burlington. A few miles along, parked in the driveway of a farm, is a semi-trailer wrapped with an image of three silhouetted soldiers next to the legend, “Never forget.” When my father last drove through, with his military identification sticker, no gas station attendant would ever have told him, “Thank you for serving.”

The drive-through espresso shacks are new, along with the Indian casinos and chainsaw-carved statuaries. (Bigfoot and eagles seem to be popular.) And — this being Washington — prominent green crosses glow next to dispensaries with names like the Skagit Valley Collective and the Marijuana Mercantile.

But the Douglas firs and red cedars and white dogwoods and purple lilacs and monster rhododendrons and mom-and-pop donut shops and pasturing sheep and black cows and sleek horses and blossoming blackberries and galloping rivers and proud peaks are still here. So I embroider them into my mental tapestry: my father in the front seat, piloting; my mother next to him, arm resting on the door, eyes scanning for wildflowers or birds; me in the back, the skin of my thighs stuck to the vinyl below my favorite cutoffs, the ones with the suede side laces and butterfly applique on the back pocket.

For more information about the North Cascades Loop click here.

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The Brown Box

brown kleenex box

To the casual observer, the tissue box looks worn, two out of four corners ripped, one side caved in, another mangled. Some Kleenex executive must have returned from Italy enthused about marbleized paper and decided that a little European flair was just what the product line needed. Some minion then dutifully produced a facsimile in a repeating pattern to decorate the cardboard before it was cut, scored, folded and glued into the shape of a box. The result is the brown box before me.

The design of the packaging is not important here. The brown is. Brown was my father’s favorite color, so I bought brown Kleenex boxes.

After dressing and emerging from his room at precisely 8 a.m. each morning (the hour he determined he would be less underfoot), my father pushed his walker to the side of my kitchen table and pressed firmly down on the handles that secured the brakes. He then crab-walked his hands along the edge of the table, moving carefully so as not to fall, and lowered himself into place on the far side. I rose from my chair nearby and surrendered the New York Times, reassembling it for him so that it appeared fresh from the porch. He offered to pour his own coffee, as he did every day. By then I was walking to the coffee maker, as I did every day. It was our little dance of manners; he would offer and I would decline. Coffee with room for milk, doctored with two blue packets of sweetener.

It was time for Kleenex. Every morning, while I prepared his coffee, my father prepared Kleenex with the precision of a Marine Corps drill detail. “Snap and pop” they call it. Dad had the snap but had lost the pop. In slow motion, he carefully withdrew one double-ply sheet of Kleenex (he insisted on double-ply) and laid it on the table, aligning it with the table seam that bisected the oval surface. A second sheet was pulled out. He then delicately lowered the second sheet onto the first, taking a moment to make sure the lower corners matched before allowing the top sheet to drift onto its mate. With impressive dexterity, he picked up the entire construction by pinching the top two corners between his index fingers and thumbs, this despite the loss of one top digit to a lawn mower years before. He raised the two double-ply sheets to eye level and inspected them to make sure that the creases lined up exactly. Then he folded the top half over the bottom, and reduced it to pocket size by doubling it again. When he blew his nose (damn post nasal drip, he would say), this improved Kleenex would provide a reassuring eight sturdy layers of absorbency. He supplied his left breast pocket with two such packets, and his left trouser pocket with two more.

The day could begin.

The prospect of running short on Kleenex was a constant source of anxiety for my father. He not only stocked his pockets, but tucked folded tissues under his bed pillows and stuffed them along the seam of his recliner. Every room that he entered was supplied with a large box. When a box in the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen reached the half-way mark, he asked me to buy more.

“How could we possibly need Kleenex again,” my husband asked as he prepared for a Costco run at one point. “I just bought it two weeks ago.”

My husband didn’t realize that, every night, Dad unloaded his pockets into his dresser drawer. Along with his glasses (kept in a plastic sleeve with his Col., USMC Ret., business card taped to the top), my father’s pockets disgorged his hoard: the small vial of nitroglycerin, travel sized dental floss, his wallet. But mostly, his pockets were a storehouse for wads of crumpled up tissue that would cover more than a square foot space with a two-inch high pile.

When I saw the brown Kleenex box with the tattered corners shoved in the back of a bathroom cupboard, I recognized it. It’s the last of the supply we laid in for my father.

These days, I buy tissue rarely, and when I do, I gravitate toward boxes with delicate patterns in light colors – peach, blush pink, pale yellow. But when I turn them over, I see that the saccharine message, written by some copywriter, remains the same: “With the perfect balance of softness and strength, each tissue soothes your sniffles, sneezes and tears and leaves your spirits uplifted.”

It’s hard to feel moved by tissues. They’re just absorbent paper in tasteless boxes. But this box, this ugly brown box, is a relic of everyday mornings in a sunny chair with coffee, the paper and Dad.

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