Mountain Passages: Solstice

Portland, Old Friends in the Rain, and the Shortest Day of the Year

By Alan Stark

It’s the winter solstice. A couple minutes ago I was thinking about a friend I lost a long time ago. It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy thought. But I’m in Portland and seeing stuff that makes me smile. There is a sad/happy thing going on in my head. I blame this yin-yang thinking on the holiday season.

The rain is running down my neck, the sort of annoying Pacific Northwest rain that’s not intense enough for an umbrella, but given time, will soak through my allegedly waterproof jacket and polypro pullover. Not that I’d be carrying an umbrella on a run anyhow. It would be an obvious wardrobe blunder in this fashion capitol of Oregon.

I’m running through the burbs near Portland. I turn a corner and see a guy washing his car in the light rain. He’s on the driveway of a normal looking suburban ranch house with a two-car garage. The yard is well kept up, he’s washing a late model Japanese sedan, and there are Christmas lights along the eves of the house. He doesn’t look up as I trundle by. My first thought is that this guy is just nuts. There is much in the Pacific Northwest, and particularly the Portland area, that is weird.

But as I continue running I reconsider. Maybe he’s highly structured and always washes his car on this day of the week. Or maybe he’s unemployed and keeping himself busy or maybe he just had a fight with his mate and had to get out of the house. And maybe I’m getting weird because I’m running in the rain in this strange town and just making stuff up as the miles go by.

Yesterday my older sister and I were walking through the Pearl District at dusk and saw a shopping cart person staring into a store window. The cart was filled with bags of junk, and he looked like he had on four layers of heavy clothing. I wondered what he was looking at. When I passed by I saw he was watching a large screen TV showing tropical images. I’m sure that if I were barely surviving on a rainy Portland street, I might be standing there wet and transfixed by pictures of beaches and palm trees.

There are way too many people like him out in the rain in this country.

I’ve known a good number of people in this life and drifted away from some of them. The drifting away was almost always about alcohol and drugs. Sure—guilty as charged—but I never dropped in to anything without knowing where and how I would land. They made their choices. They dropped in and crashed; time and again.

I can name names but won’t. If they are still alive, the naming would embarrass them. But when I saw that guy watching TV in the rain I thought of an old friend that I lost. I whispered for her “if the fates allowed” in this holiday season.

She was one of my best friends. We hung out together. What I remember and cherish was the laughter. She eventually married another friend of mine and moved to Colorado long before I did. They had a kid and then a really ugly divorce. By that time I’d moved to Boulder. I had one of those civilized divorces at about the same time. You might know what I mean…As the divorce proceeded I often had my teeth clenched down hard when all I really wanted to do was scream.

My friend and I hung out together again. There was always way too much drinking and doping; too much for me. She found someone else, I found Blue Eyes. My friend and I drifted apart.

Several years later she called at three in the morning. She was stranded at some ratty old house with her kid, too strung out to do anything else but call for help. I picked them up and took them to her place. That was 20 years ago. A couple years ago I ran into her at Liquor Mart. I didn’t know what to say. Still don’t.

My taller sister and I walked all over Portland stopping once for an Irish coffee. I live in Boulder most of the time, a town that has somewhat of a reputation, so I’m real careful about making fun of other places for fear of cosmic retribution.

“So Sis, I don’t mean to be insulting but is Portland just weird.”

“What do you mean?”

“ For starters, how about folks milling about in the rain wearing butt ugly stocking caps, huge lumber shirts, pierced nostrils, and clunky boots.”

“Oh that…that’s nothing. Weird is the Facebook page for the airport carpet.”

This is a true fact. Look it up. The Portland locals have a thing for the aquamarine carpet at the airport. Seems about four acres of it were designed by some person who mimicked the runway layout—clever, in a penny loafer sort of way. But now the carpet needs replacement and the locals have dropped in with no idea of where they are going to land. My sister claimed that some of the carpet will be salvaged and made into doormats for the true Portland airport carpet aficionados. This is a true fact.

This run needs to come to an end, my left knee is talking to me and it’s not talking about old friends or Portland. It’s still raining as I slow up and stop. I fly home on this shortest day of the year.

Portland signIt’s the winter solstice; a magical time of year that can be both sad and happy. For me it is a time to remember lost friends and maybe mumble some hopeful words for them. A time to make sure my family and friends know how much I love them. And maybe a time to say a nice thing or two about Portland…they have a really great looking mountain northeast of town…and when the weather breaks, two or three times a year, you can see it.

In a week or so most of us will get back to our routines and maybe our 423rd weight loss plan. We’ll have most of the ski season in front of us and some amazing days with powder up to our noses. And then it could be down to the islands for mud season and then on to summer in the mountains when we look up and think that maybe the blue sky goes on forever in all directions.

But on this shortest day of the year, it is time to gather friends arm-in-arm around a huge fire somewhere in the woods…a time to dance around the fire and howl like wolves in the pure joy of being alive together.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and freelance writer. He lives in Boulder with this Blue Eyed person and her dog.

3 thoughts on “Mountain Passages: Solstice”

  1. Mr. Stark-another niece piece of thought for cyber space.
    I guess you haven’t watched Potrlandia? Though it depicts stuff that could just as easily be Boulder, or the Village, Nederland, or any other superior hip place. How does one of the richest countries on earth have so many homeless people everywhere? I like to blame Ronnie Reagan, who is infamous for beginning the trend of putting the mentally ill in the streets to save taxes. Then we spend even more putting many of them in jail. Alas, but we can’t be the ones to throw the first stone since we live in glass houses.
    Glad to see the days inching slowly longer. And, also glad to have friends that I have had the privilege of knowing for so long..that some will still put up with me, occasionally.

    aa

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