Vacation

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After dinner, we’d watch Season 3 of The Great British Baking Show. Outside, dusk would be falling and the eagles would start their nightly patrol of the river. The house faces east, so mornings are bright and glittering; at night, the sunset leaves the front row of burned-out trees in shadow and turns the ones behind them rose-gold. When we’d first arrived in late afternoon, we gasped to see the damage the wildfire (specifically, here, the 2020 Dowty Road fire, an offshoot of the Riverside Fire) had done. From the house I had vertigo looking at the wall of dead, twisted sticks. I could not stop imagining what it was like when it had been roaring with flame. I texted a few of my friends in distress. They answered, distressed: It'll grow back.~~~~ After a few days we got used to the burned, blackened branches, the charcoal-black tree trunks. But sometimes when I was sitting in the river looking down at my book, I would look up, expecting to see the lush, luminous waves of green I had known, and instead I'd see the black sticks, and it was shocking every time. The grass in the yard was bone dry, the weird, tangled brush that surrounds the property already bleached and brittle. We were melancholy, especially Andy and me, especially me. Amelia seemed, as with all else these past two years, to take it in stride. Each night we'd talk about the things we'd bake when we got home: pavlova, jelly roll, a Religieuse Ancienne. Spanische Windtorte! Yes. Anything we wanted. The darkness fell and it was nicer, though we were attuned then, as ever, to the potential scent of wood-smoke in the air, coming from any direction on the night wind. We never smelled any smoke. But I never stopped worrying that I would. I tracked the sky multiple times a day for smoke plumes or, at the least, that particular orange haze that haunts us now in the summertime west, but the air was clear, the sky was big and blue or just filled with regular clouds. Amelia slept in a different bed every night, the best one by far the upstairs double that overlooked the river, high-up in the green trees on our side.

During the days there was a heatwave and the temperatures were regularly in the high-90s or 100s. This part of the Clackamas River is quite lazy and shallow; Andy is easily able to walk across it. The water is crystal clear unless you walk through and disturb the rocks and sediment. Even then, it settles almost immediately, and you can see that the river bottom is covered with big, round stones, thousands and thousands of them, sliding over each other and slippery with rusty-brown river glaze. On the hottest days, dozens of people (we're only forty-five minutes from our house in Portland here; it's close) floated by in rafts, inner tubes, and boats, from morning until dinnertime. It's so quiet out there except for the sound of rapids downstream about a hundred yards — you can hear them but you can't see them yet, and floaters always lift their heads at that point, becoming interested, securing the cooler and radio a little better, not knowing exactly what’s ahead. But generally they slide past our house in a bright, languid, lazy way, music loud and laughter easy. Their conversations are weirdly amplified; I don't know why. I could, as if they were standing next to me, hear everything — or nothing, maybe depending on the direction of the wind. I started writing down anything I could hear as they passed.

Guy [incredulous]: "There's a Robin Hood festival?!?"
Girl: "Yes!"

"People are leaving the state."

Older lady: "Where are we? [Looks around.] Okay, we've got at least two hours to get sober."

Girl: "I haven't had a period in like seven years."
Other Girl: "And you're having your period NOW?"

"You cannot watch that show. But if you're hammered or if you get high . . . it's so funny." [Ed: I think they were talking about South Park.]

"He's the oldest worker I've ever gotten along with."

Guy: "Cool, we're going on Thursday night."
Other guy: "I'll be there. I can leave the state now. I don't even have to ask permission."

"There was, like, orcas and they were, like, playing with beluga whales. They have this video of, like, a whale coming up and kissing some guy on the boat."

And many more that I heard before I thought to start writing them down, including a lot of stuff about child-custody issues.

I was in the river every day, sitting under my new umbrella from morning until about four p.m., reading. I brought multiple metal chairs out there and had one for myself, one for my basket (with books, phone, water, glasses, etc.), and one for my feet. Andy and Amelia went on several "adventures" down- and upriver, walking into the woods and out of sight, to the pond south of the house, Amelia reporting to me on her walkie-talkie: “Mama, there is a giant salmon here being eaten by crawfish, over!” I rotated my chair throughout the day so I was never actually in the sun (not sure how I made it through any length of time down there in the past without this umbrella). I was reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and The Searcher by Tana French. Station Eleven is a dsytopian, post-apocalyptic novel. It’s truly haunting in its prescience, a post-pandemic story written in 2014 that nevertheless made me cry when I read one of the pages out loud to Andy, so true to 2020-21 did it ring. (Last summer, just a month before the fires, I read Year of Wonders, which is about a 17th-century village that quarantined itself during the plague, while sitting in this exact same spot. Usually I pick lighter fare, go figure.) Eventually The Searcher, which is equally dark in many ways but takes place in the winter-bare hills of the Irish countryside (I really love that she focuses so much on atmosphere and place), started to win out for my attention and I didn't put it down; I've got about forty pages left now. I've read several Tana French novels now. I've read The Witch Elm, The Trespasser, The Secret Place, Broken Harbor, and Faithful Place. I just think the way she paces these books is pure genius; anyway, they sure take me right along.

Us at the river house in 2020. In 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2013. (N.B.: The original house burned down [not from a wildfire] in the winter of 2015 and was replaced with the current one, so that's why we didn't go in 2015 and also why the house is different in the early years.) This place is in my soul and I love it and I pray for it.

19 comments

I love that you go back to this river house every year, I recognized the scenes immediately! I can only imagine the heart break every time you looked at the trees. We have taken two trips recently to the coast- Waldport, OR and Wesport, WA. I have been on pins and needles with the impending smoke so the ocean air was great. It just started reaching Poulsbo as I came home from Wesport Sunday...the first orange sun of the summer. A friend was out from Montana and it has already been so bad for weeks. The haze is still light and last night was the first scent of campfire, but barely there. I was sniffing constantly and checking the air quality. Here we are again in August constantly monitoring the air with our eyes, nose and apps. It has become such a strange way to end summer.

Speaking of summer, my mind has officially gone as I have started and stopped the summer sampler THREE times. It wasn't until the dog was almost finished that I realized it was the wrong brown which is crazy because the dog looks like our irish terrier which is why I started with it so how did I not realize my browns! And then I went to the word "summer" and held it up in completion only to realize it says "sumer"

This is my "sumer" and 2021 in a nutshell. Thank you for sharing the lovely trip, for all you create and share and stay safe in the August PNW smoke.

Greatly enjoyed those snippets of conversation! :) This is probably the river my aunt took me to in the late fifties, when I was three or four. The one thing I remember is the large fish skeleton in the sand on the way back to the car.

If you've been going to the River since 2013, then I can mark how long I have been wanting to rent a summer house by a river... it always looks like bliss.
I am sorry about those burnt trees, and even more for the alert, anxious anticipation you feel. I feel it, too. That weather, with hot, dry wind will arrive and every bit of me tunes to the air, the horizon, the dread of smoke, fire. We have evacuated 3 times, and one year took in the farm animals of an evacuated family. It is too sad to fathom, because it's not going away, and the crisis spreads, increases. I'm sorry sorry sorry.
The healing is miraculous, especially in spring. I hope for rain, for snow, for real change in how the world faces climate change.

Thanks for taking us along on this wonderful trip. The way you write always makes me feel like I'm there. I love Tana French's books. I've read them all and am always anxiously awaiting her next one.

OMG just went back to see baby Mimi! Too cute! Looks like such a wonderful place. So glad you get to escape there.

LindaSonia says: August 04, 2021 at 08:25 AM

Just a quick note - Your photographs are beyond gorgeous but it makes me sad sometimes that YOU are not in any of them. All the best.

Loved reading this and looking at the gorgeous photos. I’ve read since Amelia was a baby, years now. I still think it’s one of the loveliest blogs I read.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for all of those lovely pictures. I love your style of vacation!!

Jean Beattie says: August 04, 2021 at 05:31 PM

What a great summer post thank you! I have just finished The Parable of the Sower. One of the most powerful dystopian novels I have ever read and it was written in 1993. The NYT said it was a notable Book of the Year. There is also a second book in the series. I had to take a break after book 1, since it was so prescient, especially since we barely survived the last CA fires.

Carolyn Agner says: August 05, 2021 at 05:19 AM

Lovely. How fortunate you are to have these experiences every summer and the memories that will stay with you forever. I visit a friend's cottage every summer on Elk Lake (in MI) and LONG for it every winter. Have you read E.B. White's essay "Once more to the lake"? It's a wonderful piece about his yearly childhood visits to a lake in Maine. https://genius.com/E-b-white-once-more-to-the-lake-annotated

Every time I read your vacation house by the river posts, I want to rent a house by a river :) But I can sympathise with the constant stress of having wildfires nearby and watching for smoke. We're having another bad season in BC, Canada, and it's tiring to be constantly on guard.

Looks like a relaxing time overall. Loved the comment from the older lady having 2 more hours to get sober ha!

Susan I Roberts says: August 07, 2021 at 04:37 AM

You live in such a beautiful area. I live in Santa Rosa, CA and it's heartbreaking with our drought and fires popping up here and there, but not this particular county. Very heartbreaking to see how much dryness all over and I feel sooo sad for the animals looking for water or running for their lives due to fire :( We all worry at least for a few more months.

Sounds like you had a great vacation overall. Love your pictures - as always. I am not a fan or hot weather and can't wait until cooler days and hopefully, rain. xo

It's wonderful to see you all having such a lovely relaxing break.
We are in Lockdown #6 here in Melbourne, Australia

This is my favorite blog!!! Great and comforting post! Sweet to see her in her cute striped swimming suits and you all enjoying nature by the water side. I got a striped swimming suit for my granddaughter after being inspired by Amelia. Oh how nice to see bald eagles! I have seen a couple of them around here about 3 years ago. What a gorgeous and peaceful place by the river! We have a constant horrible and depressing hazy skies around here because of fires all over our planet. All plant life have not grown well this year around here and all our friends are mentioning this. May you have a peaceful end of Summer!! Thank you sooo much for the post!!

That looks like such a wonderful place to holiday. My girls would love spending all day in the water there, and I would be like you, sat under an umbrella with a book. Lovely, lovely photos.

Thank you so much for continuing with your blog. I have read your entries for years and so enjoy them and the pictures are fantastic! I worry that you will let it go as many bloggers have. I really appreciate that you have not!

I read both Station Eleven and Year of Wonders during the pandemic as well! Absolutely loved both. It does seem odd to read pandemic related fiction during... a pandemic, but Station Eleven, in particular I did find comforting in some ways.

Oh lordy, I just finished leaving a comment then accidentally hit the back button!!! In short I just wanted to say we should all be more like Amelia, who seems to be very stoic and take everything in her stride. What a joy she must be to you both!

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About Alicia Paulson

About

My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at aliciapaulson.com

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Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.