1. Something Nice in the Woodshed
Moments past midnight, January 1, 2008, I am sitting on an anvil block in the former smithy of our homestead in southwest Washington. Outside, a crust of frozen hail whitens the ground. The sun shone today, but it was cold — this is the frozen North, after all. Even so, I am looking up at a butterfly: first of the year — first individual, first species.
I expected to begin among the orange of monarchs, hanging in their winter roosts in California. I’ll get to those soon enough. But the oranges I am actually looking at are those of rotted, rat-gnawed life jackets, the handle of a peavey, my Stihl chain saw, bar guard, and earmuffs; and that of a Sunkist oranges box, slug-eaten and full of kindling. The mellow, sun-dried oak in my woodpile is almost orange, though a little closer really to the Baltic amber of the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale in my wineglass, lifted to the new year, the journey ahead, and this butterfly, which is also orange.
I spotted it a few days ago when I came out here to the former smithy, now woodshed, for Christmas firewood: that unmistakable silhouette of a winter nymph, outlined against an algal-dimmed windowpane. Thrilled, I hoped it would still be here — not shifted, stirred by the day’s sun and hunkered down behind the woodpile, or eaten by a mouse — by New Year’s. I checked on it each day, resisting the temptation to tape or Velcro it down. Yet here it is: a live butterfly, ringing in the new year, north of the 46th parallel.
A hibernating California tortoiseshell, it is perched in the upper left corner of the upper right pane of a six-eyed window on the north side of this outbuilding in the lower left corner of the upper left state in the Lower 48. Its spiny feet, or tarsi, grip the wooden window frame; its cloaked, closed wings almost graze the glazing. It has moved in the days since I first saw it, but only a slight reorientation. Sloppy cobwebs hang all over and around the window, but it has avoided them, and the big English hunting spiders are frozen or hibernating too. Handsaws and an old hand scythe hang on nails beside the window, old license plates stand up below. Canoe paddles, lawn rakes, a chipper, and a weedwhacker guard the sleeping creature.
The tortoiseshell’s orange and black, which give it its name, barely show. Mostly I can see the dark bark brown of the underside, with straw patches and sea blue chevrons. The crenelated edges of the wings suggest a leaf, making the nymph cryptic in the forest, but not here, where it stands right out against the hail-reflected pallor outside the window. Maybe to a mouse it is a leaf in a cobweb. But to me, it is much more. How lucky to begin this Big Year right here, at home, rather than in some distant grove of gum trees. Thea told me she saw a tortoiseshell in here around Halloween — was it the same one? It’s got a couple of months to go. Good luck, little butterfly; and to me too. You are my beginning, and I hope to see you here when I return.
2. A Big Blow
After the holiday festivities and heavy preparations, I was still unready to take off on New Year’s Day. But on the second day of the year, I got away before 9 a.m. with 354,490.35 miles on Powdermilk’s odometer. Thea crossed the long bridge over the Columbia River to Astoria, Oregon, with me for a goodbye breakfast date at the Pig & Pancake. Parting was hard — but it wasn’t going to be the only time this year, nor the longest separation.
I headed out across Youngs Bay and into the Lewis and Clark Valley, sodden, brown and green below, gray and white above. Downed trees, fresh stumps, and battered houses spoke to a recent, powerful storm. Driving through the dull, leaden landscape, I felt the first twinge of the solitude that would mark much of my time over the months to come. And then I felt an overwhelming drowsiness and had to take a nap already. A marginal narcoleptic since high school, I can never tell when I am going to have to pull over and take a snooze. With as far as I had to go, and no one to share the driving, that could be a problem.
For now, I pulled into Fort Clatsop, part of the new Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. The weather was foul — much like that endured by Lewis and Clark themselves when they wintered here two hundred years ago. I napped beside a huge pile of fresh rounds from wind-thrown hemlocks, drugged by the overpowering scent of terpenes. When I came to half an hour later, I braved the rain to search under the eaves of picnic shelters and interpretive kiosks for more diapausing nymphalid butterflies — there were five or six more species that could conceivably be found this way — but saw only banana slugs. When I moved on, mist was settling into the early dark. Down the coast, the great lump of Haystack Rock loomed out of sea spray at Cannon Beach, and an October day I remembered, when the town was alive with butterflies on autumn flowers, seemed geologic ages away.
Around ten, I settled into a rest area on the Trask River, south of Tillamook, on a dark and stormy coastal night. I’d made a bed from the back seat laid lengthwise, where the passenger seat used to be, propped on my book boxes and topped with a body pillow. I drank the miniature bottle of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey that my stepdaughter, Dory, gave me in my Christmas stocking to toast the start, and that providential tortoiseshell. Cozy in my chrysalis, about as tight as a midwinter butterfly still months from emergence, I slept eight hours solid, safely out of the heavy rain that beat on Powdermilk’s protective roof. I awoke to Steller’s jay calls after the first night of many on my traveling pallet. The only other two vehicles in the rest area belonged to people living in their cars but, unlike me, not by choice.
On many passes down the Oregon coast, Thea and I have stopped at Bear Creek Artichokes near Beaver, for both local produce and butterflies. The summer nectar was long gone or far in the future now, but I hoped to find a cabbage white caterpillar on the winter broccoli and kale fields. This tough introduced pierid is one of the only species one can sometimes see this far north active in the winter as a nonhibernating immature. We’d found a larva on our own kale back at Thanksgiving. But this time the fields at Bear Creek lay fallow. I stopped anyway for Longbottom coffee and a French Topaz apple, which I had on the Salmon River estuary in the sun, Sitka spruces and vine maples overhead, a rainbow to the east.
The night was balmy on the buttoned-up waterfront of Bandon. The deserted pier was illuminated by an octopus, a seal, a shark, and other sea beasts all formed by Christmas lights. I thought of sleeping there, but a wandering constable dissuaded me. It was midnight when I went to ground at Ophir Wayside State Park north of Gold Beach, just about at the bottom of Oregon. Soon any semblance of mildness went out with the tide, as this wild night on the coast got under way.
I bedded down in winds of true gale force, and I was grateful for my strong, warm holt. A tent would not have cut it. The blast rose to over eighty miles an hour, rocking Powdermilk like a cradle. Then still fiercer, less cradle than punching bag. I was afraid that Powdermilk might actually blow over, or a lamp standard come crashing down on us, or driftwood be cast up in my lap, for I was only yards from the shore. I realized that I should have parked end-on to the coast-wise wind, instead of broadside. I would have reoriented if I could have done so without opening the door, which easily could have blown right off. In any case, I slept very little...