About a month ago, I applied for an artist's residency at The Historic Sou'wester Lodge, in Seaview, Washington. I needed a chunk of time to sink back in to a book manuscript, a memoir that investigates some pretty heavy events from my past. I've had a hard time just diving back into the project in small pinches between my teaching work, other shorter writing projects, and a part-time non-teaching job. This memoir, of which I'd already written 200 pages, required me to have a come-to-Jesus moment. The heart of the story was already written around, I wrote two hundred glorious pages that danced the radius of meat of the matter without ever really going there. A swath of solitude would do me and the manuscript some good.
The Sou'wester is a beloved jewel on the Long Beach Peninsula in the southwest corner of Washington state, where the Columbia River mashes into the sea. It's not far across the confluence from another town I love; Astoria, Oregon. Both places straddle the shift between the history of robust fishing economy and an present day-iteration where some of that economic lack has been taken up by touristry. Seaview and Long Beach keep a working-class beach town vibe, nothing too fancy or precious, too hip or pretentious; that's what I love about coming here. That, and the savagery of the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of the peninsula. Everywhere you go, even the grocery store, has red and white signs with the image of a channel-marker buoy being tossed in the waves, warning people in so many words, that to swim here is likely to die.
The main lodge of The Sou'wester was built in 1892. Its second floor was originally a ballroom which was converted into four suites in the 1950s. Around the same time, cabins were built on the property. Today, the Sou'wester also features an array of vintage travel trailers one can call home for a stay. The silver cylindrical forms of these classic travel and mobile park beauties live in several neat rows, along with other old-school campers with white and red or white and sea-foam green stripes. I'd first come to The Sou'wester as a guest a couple of years ago for a weekend vacation. The irony was that, at the time, I'd been living in hipster hollow of NE Portland in a trailer for five months. I was living rent free in exchange for trailer-sitting and caring for two really cute chihuahuas while my friend hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I stayed in the Boles Aero for my weekend vacation, which was a huge upgrade from the musty trailer parked in a driveway that I was, for the time being, calling home. What I loved instantly about the Sou'wester is that it is funky and laid back and rustic, but also gloriously comfortable and unpretentious. It is like visiting the summer cabin that all of your creative spiritual ancestors have kept over the decades just waiting for you to visit. And the friendly vibe and uniqueness of each trailer means that strangers want to say hello to each other, to invite each other to take a look at their trailer, to walk around together looking at the others. First time I was there, a couple asked if they could join my campfire, and we shared stories and whiskey. After an hour of hanging out, the man mentioned he was the drummer for the legendary Portland band Dead Moon.
So, I applied for a residency, was accepted, and negotiated the logistics of my stay with the helpful staff. I arrived here at the sweet Sou'wester Lodge around 9:30 pm on Monday night. I'd taught at PSU until 4, and then had to hustle home and pack up me and Toby the dog for the trip. I got laid out by a nasty flu that came on out of nowhere on Friday, and I spent the whole weekend on the couch, bundled in blankets, coughing, and dozing off in to bizarre fever-distorted dreams in which I seemed hell-bent on solving the problems of waking life. I had adventure-meets-processing dreams with at least two long-ago girlfriends. I was so sick that I feared I'd have to cancel my residency. I wasn't prepared at all to leave.
But, I rallied. Taking a week off to write is a huge luxury and I didn't know when I'd have the opportunity to plan one next. I ended up having a great writing class despite the the fact that I sounded like I'd spent the night under water. Afterward, I bought groceries, gathered the requisite items for a week of writing at the coast, packed the car, and we were off. I felt pretty spent by the time we got settled in to the gorgeous Spartan 1957 Jet trailer I'm staying in. I had a snack and did some reading, and decided I would do some work on a fiction piece. I ended up staying up til three in the morning, and cranked out over 4000 words.
In the morning light, the full glory of The '57 Jet is revealed. It shines like a new penny, full of a coppery glow as sunlight reflects through the many windows off of the lovely lacquered wood-paneled walls. I made coffee, poured a travel mug full, and headed out for a morning constitutional with Toby. He went nuts on the beach, chasing seagulls, running after tufts of sea-foam skidding down the beach in the wind, rolling in dead gulls; he even managed to find a few chunks of fetid blubber from a near-mummified seal corpse to eat. Oh, the joys (it was hard to write while Toby spent the afternoon reliving that experience and puking repeatedly in the grass)! Before we left, we met Toby's older dignified doppelganger, whose owner offered us more insight into Toby's cattle dog roots.
When we got back to the '57 Jet, I hunkered down for another chunk of writing. I pulled out volumes of journals and a stack of old letters I brought to reference for my memoir. I opened a box of ghosts and had to make peace with what it meant to invite them into the trailer. We were going to spend the next few days in deep conversation. I welcomed them in and also forgave myself for my fear in revisiting them. I wrote 4885 words on Tuesday. I was still feeling pretty crappy, so I cut up a bunch of lemons and fresh ginger and heated them up in some water on the stove. I poured this tea over some smoked maple whiskey, and added a shot of maple syrup and a cinnamon stick. Whiskey is good medicine. So is listening to Songs in The Key of Life by Stevie Wonder on a Fisher-Price plastic record player.
On our Wednesday morning constitutional, the last we'd see of the sun for a few days, we walked south on the beach to a creek that fed into the sea. The surf was rough and pushed up the stream as the murky fresh water tried to push back. The surf was full of churned-up sand and the wind was high, whipping against my cheeks. Nobody ever tells you that walking is writing. That sometimes you need to move your body to think and give the words crowding your mind like bees some space and air.
We walked up along the creek and as we got further away from the sea, its waters became an opaque oxidized red. I hoped it wasn't pollution, and had a vague memory of seeing a Red Lake on the map nearby. Toby looked for stinky stuff to try to roll in, and I followed the path of fresh deer track on the sandy banks of the creek.
After we crossed Discovery Trail the creek's current seemed to still entirely and the water took on the appearance of thin brick-red paint. We continued east as this path turned into a service road that spit us out into the neighborhood. We walked past lots of sweet little summer cottages and old Victorian beauties and wended our way through the streets back to the Lodge.
I hunkered down for another chunk of writing, and made some headway on a chapter I was really bogged down in. I managed to get down 4374 words. The weather turned cold and windy. The rains came. It's funny how a dry year followed by a drought year can inure one against the wet. It's like I'd forgotten I've made my home in a temperate rainforest climate for the past 5 years.
Toby met another dog, a brindled beauty named Salton Lady Bucket (at least that's what I thought her tag said). She showed Toby how to make a dog-self at home at The Sou'wester. The Lodge didn't seem to have many guests over the last couple of days (unless like me they were hunkered down inside) and aside from a few crossings of paths with staff member Dawn, Jason the resident handyman, and Thandi, the owner, I had little interaction with other humans. This quiet and solitude allowed me to stay in the weird bubble of my book, and the cold and rain helped seal the deal. Nothing to do but write, take some breaks to walk Toby or to cook a meal in my trailer, and write more.
Toby and I took another stroll at dusk, and we got soaked. Toby loved it, the wetter and grubbier he can get himself, the happier he is. Luckily Jason showed me where there was a hose so that I could spray him down and towel him dry before allowing him back into the warm, coppery '57 Jet. I changed out of my soaked clothes. Later, I availed myself of the lovely cedar-plank sauna; a new addition to the amenities since I was here last. I got warm deep in my bones, and stayed up late reading in bed.
On Thursday morning I spotted two deer in the grassy field of the property across from the Sou'wester as Toby and I went off for our morning walk. It was raining hard. The doe stopped to watch us pass by, while the other one lay curled up in the grass, sheltered from the driving with by some trees. It took Toby a while to notice them, and when he did, he really wanted to chase them. But I walked him away to the beach.
The wind blew sand and rain into my face, and soaked the legs of my jeans quickly. The tide was high and the surf was so rough that I worried a sneaker wave would snatch my little dog up and away. I yelled out to him but the wind was so strong it blew my voice in the opposite direction.
Back at the trailer, I had a hard time getting motivated. I didn't want to upset the momentum of over 4000 words a day for the last three days, but I just couldn't seem to focus. It rained hard outside. A rainstorm is vivid when you live in a trailer, just you and and weather separated by thin layer of aluminum; the sheer loudness of the rain's staccato seems so much more urgent. I was warm and dry and as comfortable as could be in the '57 Jet, but I was reminded of how close to the elements I felt living in a trailer, even in the middle of a city, for five months. I read for a while. I'm cycling between three books right now, Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, vignettes of her writerly life interspersed with writing exercises, and I could tell she was a Zen practitioner, her short declarative sentences made my descriptive ones seem verbose and flabby; You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero, it's somewhat of a punk rock self-help book that a dear friend recommended to me; and Working Days, Stienbeck's journals from when he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, which I'd just finished reading last week. I couldn't even focus on my reading. Perhaps the ghosts were getting too big for the trailer, or a lazy streak in me was revolting from the pace of my last few days of writing. I talked with Eli on the phone, she was having a hard time going pedal to the metal, too. She's writing a dissertation. We agreed to both write for two hours, and then have a Skype/Netfilx movie date that evening: long-distance love in the internet age. In this focused, compressed chunk of time, I managed to write a little bit: only 389 words, but I did manage to think through a narrative crux that was hanging me up in the first place, so even though it was a low word-count day I felt that I had done some heavy lifting mentally.
Friday was my last full day in the '57 Jet, so I really hunkered down. Toby and I had a short walk. It was raining so hard that he didn't even want to go out. A huge puddle of standing water started to form up the gravel road from our trailer. The rain pelted the roof in a thin, insistent litany. I just kept my head down and wrote. I wrote through the ghosts and the voices in my head -- my own voice, the voice of others, the admonishments and imagined critiques -- I pushed on through, I wouldn't let myself reread what I'd written. I shut out the critics and the internal editor and the psychic naysayer and I just wrote and wrote. Across two chapters, I wrote exactly 4000 words.
Saturday morning I packed up and swept out the '57 Jet. I made a small watercolor for the Sou'wester of Lady Bucket and the little sea-foam green "canned ham" trailer in spot #33. I loaded up my car and Toby jumped in and parked himself up front just in case I tried to forget him. I had plans to stay two more nights at another spot in Seaview. (I was trying to save some money by staying two more weekend nights elsewhere, but in hindsight I wished that I had just stayed two more at The Sou'wester. First of all, I can't cook my own meals in this motel, so that eats up much of the $ difference, plus, the creative energy and peace and comfort of the Sou'wester is missing completely from the motel room. It's not terrible, just a completely different vibe, one less conducive to writing. If I do this again, I'll just spend the extra money, which is still reasonable, I just was on a tight budget, to stay all of the nights at the Lodge. I just felt much more creatively supported and enhanced by the environment at The Sou'wester).
I wrote a total of 17,712 words at The Sou'wester Lodge, or roughly 40 new pages of prose.
My buddies Cass and Turner were camping at Cape Disappointment and texted me. I went to find them inside a cavernous and mildew-scented antiques mall that wends around in a casino-like maze of all the old junk you can imagine. We got food truck tacos and beers at the North Jetty taproom. I tooled around on my own for a few hours, sightseeing. I drove to the port of Ilwaco and walked the floating docks between fishing vessels. Toby and I got soaked again. Even my rain shell was saturated with water. We went back to Seaside and checked in to our motel. I cranked the heater to warm us both up again. I intended to walk back over to The Sou'wester for the live music show, but I fell asleep in the middle of a Law and Order marathon (I don't usually watch teevee, and something about free cable teevee in motel rooms is narcotic to me). I wrote not a word all day Saturday. Eli didn't write either on her dissertation. We agreed that we needed a day of sloth to keep our brains from exploding.
Today I've written 2702 words, mostly in this blog. I took Toby for a good long walk on the beach and along the red creek and Discovery Trail. The sun was partially out and it wasn't raining (mostly), so I drove up to Cape Disappointment. It was gorgeous up there, all crashing waves and foggy evergreens and a coast littered with huge driftwood trunks.
A guy was surfing in the treacherous little cove below the North Head lighthouse. I watched for a minute, knowing I am still way too much of a newb to try a spot like that. Still, the waves looked pretty exciting. On the way back from Ilwaco I picked up a kid in a black hoodie and Xtra-Tufs hitchhiking. He said he couldn't wait for crabbing to open up. He said he'd just been working on setting up gear down at the port. I asked him all about the work. He said it was hard work, that the boat he worked on didn't have a winch so they hauled the crab pots up by hand. He said you can make as much money as you want to, just have to keep working. He said, "That's us right off the coast, you'll see our lights at night, right there." I bought Toby a meat bone a Sid's Market so he'd leave me be to work for a while, and now he's crashed out on the bed, all bone-stoned and happy.
I'll continue to work on that chapter that was vexing me for a few hours, then I will spend some time on prep for teaching at Portland State tomorrow. We'll get on the road early in the morning to drive back to the city. I'm so grateful to The Sou'wester for giving me this time and space to sink deep into my work! I'll add my final total word count for this writing retreat here later.