The Ghost Road
After we’ve been at the cabin for a few days, my son, just past his sixth birthday, starts fashioning our moments into movie scenes. It’s been weeks of COVID lockdown, and we’re taking the only vacation we can. We’re high in the mountains and far from a cell phone signal, electricity, other people. My son’s imagination is blooming, maybe too hard. The kids have been away from other kids, and I have lost sight of what’s typical.
One afternoon I’m at the river with him and his older sister. We’ve spent the hot midday wading and looking at rocks. When it’s time to wander back to the cabin on scratched legs and make our peanut butter sandwiches, I gesture at the bank.
“Why don’t you two go first. I can lift you.” I hoist their bodies over the sharp brush, start clambering up myself.
“This is the part where the mom gets eaten,” my son says, “because she decided to go last.”
Later the sun slips behind the mountain, and it’s suddenly ninety instead of one hundred, then a merciful eighty. Observing tradition, the adults—my parents, my husband, and I—drink Moscow mules on the warped deck. The kids rip into little bags of chips. The word evening makes sense in a desperate, tactile way: it’s a period of balancing the skin and the air, opening up the cabin so it cools off enough for us to sleep in it.
“This is the cocktail hour scene,” my son says. “I said that just now because it’s in the script.”
The cabin we’re staying in has been owned by someone in our family for fifty years. It sits on a parcel of private land with a handful of others like it, in a small valley beside a river. Nearly a hundred years ago, a man dug a series of ponds into a meadow, stemmed the river to fill them, and built a set of rustic dwellings, each with its own postcard view. We are told he intended them as get-aways for Hollywood stars.
The man is long gone and the cabins have aged, but the place still offers a curated version of roughing it. There’s no electricity, no cell phone signal, and limited access to semi-potable spring water. But the lakes are stocked with trout for kids to catch. A caretaker stays on site most weekdays and keeps the cabins supplied with firewood, but we have to chop it. If we ask him to, he’ll trim shrubs to improve our view of a small waterfall.
My son is not the first to imagine it as a movie. The cabin itself contains a non-functioning barrel and bugle, props from Paint Your Wagon, the 1969 Western musical that was filmed nearby: an entire old-time town built and abandoned along with a rooster named Broken Toe who wandered the valley for several years after.
My husband, K., has called these cabins a kind of rustic theme park, trafficking in symbols of scarcity, solitude, and self-reliance for those who wish to escape for a long weekend. My grandfather, a surgeon, bought the place in the middle of his career—even though it took him a day to get here—as a place to set work aside. For an owner or guest, it’s a place to pretend, a place that asks little from you, a place you might leave refreshed. On this trip K. is having a good time using it as intended, fishing and swimming and not being able to check messages.
But we’re staying longer now than a long weekend—longer than a week—and the summer is a good deal hotter than it used to be. For much of the day, we’re just trying to endure it. And during a global pandemic, a national uprising, and increasing autocratic threat, there’s nothing usual about the business from which we are supposedly taking a break. Maybe you can take a break from electricity and therefore the news, but you can’t take a break from what’s happening, not really.
During long trips to town for ice, while untangling the children’s fishing lines, amidst the scenes of rushed cooking in the short minutes when the temperature allows it, I am wary of the children’s deepening affection for this place, the games they get up to here, the way they lapse all the way into a fantasy so deep that all of life becomes a play for days at a time with nothing and no one to break the spell. They want to learn to chop the wood and catch fish. They forget their city friends’ names. They want us to buy them cowboy boots. By the minute, they are changing.
There’s nothing wrong with the sound of the river outside the window. Nothing wrong with having an alpine swimming hole to yourself on a hot day. Nothing wrong with getting to know this dry country’s cast of birds and plants and animals. I sleep so well here. I should be grateful. I am grateful.
I am also, often, uncomfortable. When I question whether this place is meant to be stayed in so long, my mom reminds me of how she lived here a whole summer once when she was in college, driving all the way to town (ninety minutes away over jarring dirt roads) and back on weekdays for a small job. She loves being far away, cut-off, out-of-touch; the feeling of nothing else, no one else, just us. She’s an expert on being here, knowing in detail what supplies the cabin needs and doesn’t need, where to spend the day on the river, how to bathe without using too much water, the best time to rise, the best time to sleep, what bird that bird is, how to keep the bedrooms just cool enough. Her self is firmest surrounded by this negative space of being without.
Here I can see how her early experiences in this particular contrived austerity may have started her down the path toward a rougher kind of roughing it—a kind you can’t easily drive away from.
If you want to stage a scene of abandonment, dwindle the other cars on a smoothly paved road until there are none but our two. Give the rushing Powder River over to vast stretches of piled rock made by decades of dredging for gold. Let paint peel off the mile markers until they’re illegible. Let the sun bleach a scenic viewpoint or historic marker sign to white nothing.
We—my parents and the dogs in front, K. and me following with the kids—enter this forgotten zone on a long daytrip from the cabin, searching for one of the places we used to live.
We lived near—not in—the ghost town of Granite, Oregon from 1979 to 1982, during the period of time when my parents, both born and raised in small Western cities, were bouncing from one remote mining camp to the next, briefly inhabiting one place before moving on to another. In the Granite camp, my father was managing a small mining operation—not the dredging, which had long since quit, but a tunnel into the mountainside. My mother became pregnant with my brother just after we arrived. You couldn’t live there, mining in a country of old mines, without inhabiting an old Western narrative, without leaning—at least a little—into a romantic way of narrating yourself to yourself.
When it formed as a gold-rush town in the 1860s, Granite was called Independence. At its short peak, it had 5,000 residents. By the time we came, it had 17. In 1939, a Work Progress Administration employee interviewed a Mrs. Neil Niven, who had been one of the schoolteachers there in the 1880s. Of the by-gone town, she said:
Granite was built in the heart of the Blue Mountains. As you know, many creeks roar down from the mountain springs into the canyons. The mountains are rough, tower high into air and flatten out into rocky, almost impassable flats at other places. This rough country presents many obstacles hard to overcome. The roughness, coupled with the unfavorable climatic conditions are, at times, almost unbearable. The Granite country could be and usually is nature at its best and worst.
Each season of the year presented peculiar problems.
The season of snow and frozen pipes, the season of mud so deep you couldn’t step outside the trailer, the season of heat and biting flies when we spent days in the shade of the “summer tent” made of canvas nailed to a wood frame. Everyone ill, the road to town blocked by snow, running out of food, no water for a bath. Fantasy worlds built from a few books that we read over and over.
For the past several years I’ve been writing about this experience. I’ve been reading letters my mother wrote to her own mother during the years when we lived in tents, trailers, and cabins. I’ve been trying to write my way into her words, trying to untangle the knot of fear I carried with me since my first child was born. Reading her writing from this period of time at the blurry edges of my memory, I have seen how hard she had it when she was birthing and raising us—how alone she was, how secondary her needs were. I have also seen the specific language she used to convince herself that the arrangement was okay. The reading has alternately stirred and gentled my griefs and grievances about growing up cut off from much of what I needed.
When my parents started their life together, she worked alongside my father and they changed jobs frequently, moving relatively easily from one place to the next. With one child, then two, cooking, cleaning and tending took over, and her role was enduring the circumstances, mostly alone, with small children. Flickers of longing for another kind of life flared up in the Granite letters and subsided under fatalism or resignation or resolve.
In the Granite camp, my own first memories formed, my idea of the world’s shape: us very far away from everything but a mine for reasons I couldn’t understand. The few people around us, permanent strangers.
Now, as we caravan up the scenic highway, I’m waiting for the sensation of familiar.
“Where are we? And how long till we get there? And what is going to be there? What will we do?” the children ask from the back seat. What is this nowhere road? What can I make of it? Their questions point to the specter of pointlessness.
We pass a tiny but still town-ish town on the way up the mountain, Sumpter. Let’s call it a sub-ghost town. In the fall, it hosts hunters from all over. There, just beside the road, we see the massive dredge that made the miles of tailings piles. It looks like a riverboat attached to a giant metal apparatus for raking up the river. We’d planned on maybe finding something to eat in Sumpter, and in normal times there might be a place, but everything in town is closed because of the pandemic.
By the time we reach Granite, we’re on the back side of the mountain and we haven’t seen another car for miles. The sunlight feels relentlessly bright, the air relentlessly thin. We round a bend, and there’s a large town gate. Age-stained board buildings, log structures, and a few newer dwellings spread up the hillside on our right.
As we pull across the town threshold, I’m wondering if there’s going to be anything to see, if the long drive will be any kind of worth it.
In Oregon, ghost towns dot designated scenic highways, roads there’s little reason to drive except as a sightseer. On these long, just-paved stretches without amenities, you have to be careful not to run out of gas.
Lists of ghost towns worldwide show how often they are artifacts of mining. There’s a form to their story: precious metals found, town slapped together fast, a decade or two of rollicking (sometimes violent) business at most, and then the easily accessible ore is gone, or the railroad goes somewhere else, and then the people leave. In the twentieth century, companies mined in the old places when the price of metals was right. But mostly the towns commemorate themselves if they do anything at all: preserve a few old buildings for tourists, assemble a small museum, hawk small wares.
A ghost town is one that persists past its original context. The story that gives it identity is in the past. In this sense, the town itself is a ghost. But you can also imagine it as a town abandoned to the dead.
Some living people still reside in ghost towns. To settle or stay in such a place is to hold yourself apart from so-called normal life, inhabiting its most minimal shape (streets, structures) and not its content (social purpose and economic activity). To settle in such a place is to take yourself away from external reference points that might construct you from the outside. To settle in such a place is to choose a simplified, minimal environment. You wake up with nothing but the hours and what you can make of them.
It may be what my mother seeks in her gravitation to way-out nowhere: our selves rising to the surface in a place where ostensibly nothing else competes.
Even in this sentence I’ve erased people: “nothing else” in fact means no one else, no stories or dispositions that might challenge your own, none of the difficult work of getting along with others.
Granite sells itself to anyone who happens by as a ghost town. It attracted curious visitors when we lived there too. Now we’re the people driving up out of nowhere, to gawk. The bar and grill just along the highway is closed, and for sale. I pull up beside my parents and we talk, driver to driver, through open windows.
“Why don’t you guys go ahead. We’ll just wait here,” my dad says, leaning out the driver’s side window. I can see my parents leaning together, conferring, as if maybe they don’t agree. I’m imagining that she is curious and wants to look around and he doesn’t see the point, but that’s just the momentary story I’m telling myself about the forces at work in my parents’ partnership. They are a nucleus whose coherence and incoherence is sometimes hard to understand.
We cruise the ghost town in the car, conscious of being maybe/always in someone’s front yard. A hand-painted mural on someone’s shop-garage: a woman with flowing hair holds a baby and radiates light. The Little Free Library: a box on a post with a clear door is full to overflowing, the books not unlike what we’d see in Portland, a lot of James Patterson, nothing weird. In the center of town: a tiny museum in one of the nineteenth-century buildings, closed, a post marking the miles to Yuma and Honolulu. And a small cemetery, where we decide to stop and get out.
There’s a short picket fence around the oldest part, but the graves spill outside of it. The grass is un-mowed meadow and it has a particular smell, like a tomato plant but sharper. Familiar.
We wander the graves, coaching the kids on respect. My daughter silently reads the stones and looks up at me. Baby, baby, baby. Children under five. Children under ten. The stones simple or ornate. Family plots for just a few of the nineteenth-century families, the man’s name large and everyone else a detail. More recent deaths of old people marked by stones outside the fence; none of them, from what we can tell, born here.
There’s a large piece of black granite for The Marshall, an old-timer whose steady presence made my mom feel safe in town when they lived here, and whose murder, by neighbors with paranoid delusions, helped my parents decide to leave. We turn around and see that my parents have joined us, to find this marker.
I can hear engines revving over stray male laughter. Familiar. Always male.
A large dog comes bounding over, and the owner, maybe my age, walks over from a large, corrugated-metal shop. I can imagine him: finding this place, bringing money earned elsewhere, a whole town more or less to himself, mountain roads and a four-wheeler and no one to bother you. We’re at the bottom of the cemetery, and he and my parents are at the top. I can hear my dad telling him we’re looking for the mine.
My son can’t place Granite in his script. In the cemetery he looks up at me earnestly and says, “You’re going to have to help me get this place out of my mind.”
Fifteen minutes later, we’re driving out of town, following my parents up a dirt road veering sharply up into the mountain. Familiar: the way it tilts toward the sky, the intensity of the sky against the trees in this thin air.
And then we’re out of the cars, stepping around a sign that says ROAD CLOSED TO VEHICLES.
Dad stays in the truck for reasons of limited mobility and generally not wanting to go. “There’s not going to be anything there,” he warns. “Nothing to see.”
But K. says, “When you all talk about this place, I want a picture in my mind. I want to see it.”
And so we set off up the ghost road. Knee-high meadow grass grows through shallow ruts and frozen bulldozer tracks, and we have to walk around the occasional fallen branch. But otherwise the road is passable on foot. The sun is directly overhead, and we didn’t bring water.
The kids are steadily complaining but also refusing to go back to the car and stay with Grandpa. Whatever’s ahead of us—and they doubt that it’s anything—they don’t want to miss it. Sunscreen-less, my son takes off his shirt and leaves it behind in the grass. I can feel his fatigue and thirst and impatience in my own body.
Neither of my parents is sure we’re in the right place. And if we are, no one knows how far up the road the mine, the camp, the old cabin might be. I contemplate what it means not to be able to find—and maybe not to want to find—a place where you lived for three years, a place you brought your baby home to. Twenty years ago, I lived in at least six different Seattle apartments. Some of them were shitholes, all held at least a few good memories, and while I don’t know the exact addresses and the city has changed a lot, I could find any one of them easily.
“Doesn’t any of this seem familiar?” I walk beside Mom while the kids complain along behind us.
She says none of it does. “The road was dirt for maybe fifteen miles, all the way to Sumpter. In the winter we were responsible for plowing the whole thing.”
“Do you think we’re in the right place?”
“Well, the guy in the cemetery said you could get to the mine from here, but on a four-wheeler. Dad asked if we could walk in, and he said probably. I don’t know what’s left up there. The guy said some old equipment. Maybe there’s something left of the cabin.”
“Does Dad know how long it’s been shut down?”
“Right after we left. Forty years. Do you recognize any of it?”
“I thought I did. The way the road rose up when we came in.” That rising bend that said we were nearing camp; my child mind would make a scene right there, animate our place, learn to love the feeling of coming home even when being there meant days with the same three books in a single snowed-in room, a long alone that was hard to last through and hard to understand.
There’s a story from this place that I remember in pieces but appreciate differently after having two children of my own. The summer when my brother was a baby, less than six months old, the plumbing wasn’t in the cabins yet, but in the assay lab, a shower was installed, and my mother was desperate for it after weeks of cold baths in a washtub. She wheeled my brother and me in an old-fashioned buggy down from the cabin and parked us outside. She told me she’d just be a minute, and to stay there. There were various men around. I remember the sense of adult presence if not any specific people. I wanted out. I was hot and uncomfortable and past the end of my patience, and my mother had been so excited about this new something that I didn’t want to miss it. I didn’t want to be left. I wasn’t supposed to get out by myself, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I stretched one leg down out of the buggy.
The crushed rock that paved the camp cut a horizontal tear just below my brother’s eye. After a sickeningly long period of time, which was probably seconds, my mother rushed out of the lab in a towel. He needed stitches, which involved a ninety-minute trip over the bumpy road to town with a bleeding infant and guilty me. He still has a faint scar on the spot.
She couldn’t believe that when she emerged from the lab in a towel, the men were standing around, inattentive to the two screaming kids, one an infant. They were disregarding us. Because they were men and we were children, we were outside their sphere of care and concern. She, as a mother, didn’t experience even the most basic sense of solidarity.
The mythic position of the only woman in camp, the role that might have allowed some otherwise inaccessible forms of self-definition, shifts into a scene with consequences. In the real history rather than the romanticized one, not even close to everyone made it out of the mountains alive.
In one line from her Granite letters, Mom says she’s coming out of camp and will need a dress for her sister’s wedding: It’s been so long since I bought a dress, I don’t even know what to look for anymore. Once you are that person who lives nowhere, you may have a harder time knowing how to dress for somewhere. You may have a hard time seeing your way out of the scene.
After twenty minutes of walking, the road ahead looks foolish, too steep, about to dwindle into meadow. The kids are not going to make it. I look sideways into the shade of subalpine conifer forest, the storybook trees with space between them, blades of grass rising out of hard dirt into a blue-green haze. This field of shade and white wildflowers. Familiar.
I spent long days in this field, or in a field contiguous with this field. I passed whole afternoons inside these tree shadows, inside my own mind, placing myself and our family inside a less lonely and more dynamic story, orchestrating stuffed animal ceremonies, imagining Beatrix-Potter-inspired societies and etiquettes and customs.
Just looking into it, I can feel the cool and the privacy. In my mind, I can see a small body, shirtless and wearing too-small sandals, running into the grass, her imagination blooming hard.
The kids beg for a break, and we stop. Mom and I agree that the road is fading and we have to turn back.
I walk a little ways off the road to squat and pee (familiar). I let A. climb on my back and rest his hungry, thirsty, tired body. Looking over at us, Mom says, “I remember now. Cross-country skiing down here in the winter, with one of you on my back, just like that. This was it. This was definitely it. Another time. Another time when we’re more prepared, we’ll have to come back.”
The dreaming grass child is with me when we’re back on the paved road driving down toward town and the long-awaited lunch. She remembers the drama of the tall rock face we pass, the unlikely castle-ness of it, the strangely beautiful kinnikinnick spilling down it as if a plant could embody the flow of water, the upward curl of smoke. The grass child is with me in the park in town, as we all eat burritos in the shade of massive old locust trees. Seeing with her eyes, the world I encounter is alive and possible.
Sometimes you may find yourself in a high, narrow place, without a story that connects immediate experience to an understanding of who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing. Sometimes you are alone, improvising.
In the pond below the cabin, a single duckling paddles around during the cooler hours. My parents think she survived the eagle who flies in now and then to chase mother ducks away and pick off the young. The duckling’s wings aren’t big enough to fly yet and we don’t think she swims beyond this pond. She seems too young for the season.
We watch her paddle from one end to the other, quick or languid. When the kids are floating in their inflatable pink flamingo, she sidles up to them. We watch her approach a pair of grown female ducks who appear to ignore her. We watch her develop alone. She stretches up and flaps her short, fuzzy wings.
One morning, she’s discovered how to dive for food. She dips and emerges with what I can’t help perceiving as delight. It’s unnerving to watch her duck skills grow without being taught in this tiny puddle we hope she’ll live to outgrow. Even alone, her body learns to make the shapes she will one day need if she manages to get somewhere else.
My son elevates our small party by imagining us into a larger story. I can’t know what the duckling imagines. But I can see how she tries something, then tries something else.
Back at the cabin during another cocktail hour scene, my mom looks at me. “Granite. What did you think?”
“Pretty far out. Not much there.” Though brief, we both know my words refer to an old beef: that she had me and kept me in a strange and narrow place where I couldn’t see the space into which I might grow. That I had no way of understanding the experience except the constant uprooting of what she called adventure. That even after the various tents and trailers and cabins, the rootlessness only continued. That I couldn’t share the meaning she made of our life. That I have come to see it as a series of choices and consequences rather than as an exhilarating test of our ability to make do with very little.
“Well, when we were there, the mine was there, so it did seem like there was more going on.” For “going on,” a mine was always supposed to be enough. For her it was.
And my complaint—about their choices and values and the identities we’re still supposed to be playing at—is old, a building standing too long after its context. Its timbers are stained with winters of heavy snow, and its child occupant left it long ago to make choices of her own.
The kids’ laughter fills the small canyon. They’ve been clunking around in a pair of cowboy boots made for an adult, taking turns pretending to rope each other. They call it playing Western. To pass the hours, they invent mock purposes, tiny objectives, ways to give their bodies meaning. They figure out how to animate our setting, latching onto stories or a set of relations from which they can play with our increasingly uncomfortable and shapeless right-now.
They retreat deeper and deeper into their own shaded meadow. I worry they’ll fall in love with the way out here of this place. I worry that they’ll become people they can only be at a distance, self-narrating their way into isolation. I worry that they’ll venture so far in that they won’t be able to come out.
But it’s resilient, too, as the grass child reminds me, to keep conjuring your own wider field of action and consequence when you find yourself on one forgotten hillside after another. Maybe we all have to imagine ourselves a little, even when we’ve stopped noticing the slippage in and out of scene. Maybe this dreaming will get them through until they can play a better game.
JESSICA E. JOHNSON writes poetry, nonfiction, and things in between. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry Northwest, DIAGRAM, and River Teeth, among other journals. She’s the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship, and her chapbook In Absolutes We Seek Each Other was an Oregon Book Award finalist. Her debut full-length poetry collection is forthcoming in 2023 from Acre Books. She lives in Portland and teaches at a community college.