Whenever I have few days to spare, I like to toss a sleeping bag and a fly rod and a few books into the back seat of my car and drive east, toward the mountains. It takes some time to shake free of the gravity of Seattle's traffic, but once the strip malls start to relent and the butterfat valley of the Skagit River begins, my arthritic Volkswagen seems to find its youth again. As if with each mile the odometer were turning backward -- as if it knows where we're headed.
We rise through tall mountains, through hemlocks and through rain -- Canada all blue and misty out the left-hand window, like some dream of North -- and then we're dropping, dropping until finally the land opens out into a soft, hide-colored valley hemmed by rough peaks. Arriving there is like exhaling after a long time underwater.
For the last several years, I've been a travel writer, paid to see the world and its varied cultures. My tastes are supposed to be less parochial. Yet the place I always want to get back to -- the place I always lean to glimpse out the porthole as another 747 returns me from another exotic locale -- is my Methow Valley.
I still remember the day we met. It was 1995. I'd drifted out of an Eastern graduate school with a vanity master's degree and no job, tugged West by some hazy vision of the Big Rock Candy Mountain. I hurried through the Midwest that fall, but at Denver eased off the gas. There I pulled out the Rand-McNally and the Volkswagen and I began to meander along those dashed green lines that the map's legend labeled “scenic route” and that divided up Colorado and Montana and Wyoming like prime cuts on a butcher's chart. On the last day of October, following the final green dash, we crested Loup Loup Pass and dropped into a hidden valley where wavy hills paused before throwing themselves against a choppy sea of granite. I stopped, got out. The autumn air was golden, and edged with winter. Aspens trembled their last bright coins to a cobbled river. Mule deer grazed in the yellow bottomlands, thick as cattle. It was, as writer Rick Bass said of the day he found his own secret valley in Montana, a feeling like falling in love.
I began to visit the valley frequently -- often with friends, sometimes by myself. As a reporter for the Seattle Times, I became expert at finding reasons to return, no matter that it lay 250 miles from my assigned beat covering murders and soporific city council meetings in the Seattle suburbs. I wrote about the winter cross-country skiing, the summer forest fires. I described the attempts to develop the valley and of the efforts to preserve it.
And this is where my parochialism took root. Don't misunderstand: I love travel. I love its chaos and its serendipity and its revelations; I love how it makes the world fresh again to jaded eyes. But when I'm abroad I'm often dizzy: The colors of a foreign scene, the wristwatch's pleading to squeeze more in, the constant fretting that I'm getting no more than the drive-by experience of a culture -- it all makes my head spin. I've never left a place feeling as if it is part of me forever.
But in my valley it's easy to slow down, and to pay attention. There's a stillness here. Town offers little more than groceries and nails, and ice cream for summer tourists. The tall mountains render most cell phones paperweights. Every Thanksgiving the highway department admits defeat and for the next five months lets avalanches claim the shortest route to Seattle, forcing a hibernation upon the place, asleep under snowfall. In the stillness the unimportant things fall away.
The valley began to teach me things. I learned how, if a fly fisherman hooks a world-weary salmon that has already fought 600 miles upstream from the Pacific, the salmon won't offer that fish's famous fight, but will sulk at the end of the line like a chunk of iron. How the ponderosas grow redder on their south sides as they mature, and how in a pinch a hiker might reckon his way home by their sunburnt skin. How the wind pushing through the ponderosas must be the most lonesome sound on earth, and the most gratifying if you like your beauty salted with a bit of melancholy. It was my valley that first showed me that if a body lies back in a night unmuddled by streetlamps beneath its sugar-spill of stars he can see the satellites spin toward their apogees. Come spring, when the hillsides here explode in sunflowers, I can now tell an arrowleaf balsamroot from a heart-leaved arnica. The lessons are starting to stick.
And I've learned this: Hemingway was right. I have gone to my valley with my heart seized up, only to find that even your favorite place on earth can't console, or help you forget. But the good places, they will be there for you when you're ready to come back to them.
In a bank in Seattle is an account that contains a few thousand dollars. I like to think that this money, through some alchemy of Protestant acorn-hoarding and the miracle of compound interest, will one day grow large enough for me to be able to build a cabin in the Methow and live there.
But lately this long-dreamed-of plan has begun to worry me. My fear is just the opposite of the dizziness I get when on assignment to far-flung places: I fear the blindness that comes from living too close to a thing. As Thoreau knew, day after day we charge unseeing through our world and allow ourselves to rub off its everyday magic -- even as that daily contact should burnish its wonder in our eyes.
I never want to take this place for granted. I never want to stop leaning into its stillness and hearing its lessons.
So for now I'll keep leaving my valley, and I'll keep coming back, to where I'm always just falling in love.