Our Green Mountain

by Jaime O'Neill

In Reno, Nev., there is a hole in the air where a hotel/casino once stood. Back in the 1980s, my wife and I sometimes stayed there. I stand across the street from it today, and I wonder where life goes. I gauge the approximate height of five or six stories, guess where a room would have been where my wife and I made love, and find only a vacancy now between me and the blue Nevada sky.

I leave Reno and drive north, up 395 into California, then turn on Highway 70 toward Quincy. That’s where I once edited The Green Mountain Gazette, a weekly newspaper. It’s been gone now, too, for more than 20 years.

The Gazette was published out of a century-old craftsman-style house on Main Street. It’s an insurance office now, but back then, on summer days, with the front door open, I would pound out 10,000 words a week on an IBM Selectric while logging trucks rumbled by.

The Gazette was a raggedy-ass hippie paper, up against a well-established competitor, but we were young and idealistic, and we thought we could change loggers into environmentalists, hawks into doves. At the very least, we could trouble their sleep.

Darrell was the Gazette’s publisher, tall and laconic, an American in the Henry Fonda/Gary Cooper mold. We shared the kind of patriotism that expresses itself in respect for the nation’s contrarians.

We were upstarts and smartasses, the six or eight of us who drew precarious paychecks from the paper. On Thursday nights, we’d all troop down rickety stairs to the basement where the layout tables and light boards were. Then we’d jack up the stereo, pass a joint around, and get down to work pasting and revising copy, laying out the pages, and laughing. We were making something, mostly out of nothing, and it took the whole team to pull off this little 24-page miracle every week, come hell, high water, or blizzards.

And there were blizzards, with snow up to five feet deep on the flat. More than once, Darrell delivered the papers while following a snowplow, a wall of white on either side of the paper’s green Chevy van. We had high water, too, when the Feather River would wash out a stretch of the canyon, making deliveries to that part of the county impossible.

The hell came on Mondays when the paper came out. The chairman of a local environmental group would call to ask, testily, why coverage of its monthly meeting was buried on page six. The D.A. would call to say that he’d been misquoted, or one of the county supervisors would dispute the characterization of his behavior at their weekly meeting. Grammar vigilantes were on hand to call attention to one of the inevitable gaffes we made. Every week, I vowed to put out a paper without a single error, but that vow was never realized. Some errors are visible only after it is too late to correct them.

Then the day came when Darrell called us all into his office and told us, with tears in his eyes, that the paper was broke. He’d see we all got paid, but we were done.

Darrell and I went down to the banks of Spanish Creek. We threw rocks into the creek and thought our separate thoughts. There was little other local work to be had, and we knew we were up against it. As the day slid toward evening, I remember saying, "Darrell, I think this is the last day of my youth."

Now, all these years later, I stand across the street and remember watching the fair parade pass on Main Street, all of us drinking beer and looking forward to that afternoon’s rodeo. Darrell’s there, leaning against the front pillar. I’m on the porch swing with one of our freelancers, a retired screenwriter who calls out insults to the board of supervisors as they pass in two convertibles.

"Ken," I say, "shut up. We do business with these guys." And there he is, more than 20 years ago, laughing and saying, "Ah, hell, Jaime, fuck ’em."

A month after the paper folded, Darrell and I lit out for Boise, Idaho, with faint hopes of finding work. We crossed the Great Basin listening to music cranked up loud. Or Darrell listened to me go over the "if onlys" and the "we shouldas." On the way back, after we’d struck out in Boise, I began again to bitch about our bad luck. Darrell said, "Jaime, my daddy always said a bitter pill is better swallowed than chewed."

Years later, a woman approaches me on Main Street. "Didn’t you used to edit The Green Mountain Gazette?" she asks.

"Why, yes," I say, thunderstruck that she would recognize me.

"My Christmas ornaments are still wrapped in your paper," she says, "and every year I get to read some of those pieces again. I miss that paper."

Her words have me almost in tears. I thank her, turn to my car and drive down the canyon, off the mountain — our green mountain — where we were all once young. Past Keddie, past Rich Bar, past the succession of dams. The Feather River glints at me as I descend, leaving the past behind.

Where does life go? Some of mine went into the now-yellowing pages of The Green Mountain Gazette, a no-account hippie newspaper in a county tucked away in the Sierras, where a few people still unwrap Christmas ornaments each year, ornaments wrapped in the pages that we made when we were young.

The author is a writer and former teacher who lives in Northern California.

© High Country News