Lying on the living room floor the other night, listening to “Dead Air,” the all-Grateful Dead show on Eugene public radio, I was swept away by a live version of the 1977 release “Looks Like Rain.” It was simply the most beautiful Dead song I had ever heard, lovely and sad and hopeful all at the same time.
And mysterious. What did lyricist John Perry Barlow mean by “I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name”? And with her side of the bed empty, how can Bob Weir sing “But it’s alright ‘cause I love you, and that’s not going to change”?
The summer of 1970, the summer following the breakup of my first love, I worked collecting money at a City of Newport Beach parking lot. The fellow I teamed with, another college junior, killed himself at the end of August. His family found him lying in bed with a plastic bag over his head and the Dead’s “Dark Star” from 1969 repeating over and over on the record player.
This fellow, whose name I have buried in memory somewhere, played guitar on our breaks. We’d walk out on the sand, maybe sneak a hit off a joint, watch the waves and talk. He was tall and smart and a good listener, too. I liked him a lot.
I went to his funeral and stood in the back. A minister in robes intoned, “I didn’t know Steve . . .” (I’ll call him Steve.) I was incensed. I almost shouted: “No? Then why are you speaking? What is this charade? Steve didn’t believe in this shit!”
I didn’t, of course, because I was raised to be polite. And, I had to admit after my rage subsided, that I didn’t really know Steve either, apparently. He’d never given me any reason to think he was considering killing himself. So I went to the record store and bought Live/Dead, the album with “Dark Star” on it. It’s 23 minutes and 18 seconds long. Takes up all of side two. A couple of the other song titles on the double album caught my eye: “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and “And We Bid You Goodnight.”
“Dark Star” was brooding, ethereal, strung out on Jerry Garcia’s meandering guitar improvisations. But I didn’t hear death there. The cover art featured a bare-breasted woman with a scepter rising out of a coffin. But all Grateful Dead iconography played on that theme: life, death, dancing skeletons, the very-alive sensuality of the music.
I didn’t hear any clues in the Robert Hunter lyrics either, although they were dark. “Reason tatters / the forces tear loose / from the axis.” Maybe I should have been suspicious of the chorus: “Shall we go, / you and I / While we can? / Through / the transitive nightfall / of diamonds.”
I might have recognized T.S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) in that line. I didn’t at the time, though if I had, I’m not sure I would have learned anything about my friend’s decision to off himself.
Maybe it wasn’t premeditated. Maybe he was experimenting, searching the psychedelic. Robert Hunter told an interviewer years later that he had no idea what the “transitive nightfall of diamonds” meant. “It sounded good at the time. It brings up something you can see.”
Then again, maybe Steve was deeply unhappy and hiding it. I knew him only a few weeks.
In my living room the other night, I thought of a line from Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir, The Boy Detective. He was making the point to a class he was teaching that life is not orderly, as literature (or a song) strives to be. “No one,” he wrote, “has clarity, shape, and a theme.”
I’ve remarked on the majesty of the hemlocks here in central Oregon. Skiing through stands of them on Mount Bachelor is like gliding through a dimly lit cathedral with great, dark-barked columns holding up the roof.
Last week on the hike to Green Lakes I walked through yet another sturdy hemlock forest. They are not the tallest trees in the Pacific Northwest. Not the skyscraper giants, the cedars and firs and redwoods that once covered the west coast all the way to middle California. Still, these are magnificent trees, big enough and old enough to demand their own space and to create such deep shade that few seedlings of any species dare grow in their shadows. On a hot day, that shade feels fifteen degrees cooler than the world outside.
These big trees jogged memories of a woman I knew decades ago in New York. I was there on a yearlong lark, a post-graduate adventure to see what The Big Apple was all about. I bussed tables and eventually landed a gig in the biography library in the Time & Life building. The girl at the next desk could swivel around during slow times and chat. Mostly about the West. She wanted to know about the West.
She was newly married. She had black hair and alabaster skin. She had never been out of the boroughs of New York. She took the subway from her street corner in Brooklyn, walked from the train directly into the elevators in the basement of Rockefeller Center and up to our office on, I want to say, the 42nd floor. The only time she was outside under the sky was on the half-block between the subway stairs and her apartment building.
Much of the time we were not very busy. J. Edgar Hoover died the summer I worked there, creating a flurry of demand for the files on the former FBI director, commie hater, and closet homo. That was exciting. And then I got to move all his files down to the “morgue.” But a typical day in the office included lots of time to talk. A sweet, confiding girl, she told me her husband had likewise never been west of the Hudson. But he very much wanted to go.
What was it like? she asked, once she knew that I had grown up in California. She was particularly worried about the trees. Her husband had fixated on Oregon, and she had heard the trees were really big in Oregon. It was as if she were trying to picture, to work her way through, a fairytale forest, grim and overarching. As if she herself were Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. But not those two precisely. They were blithe; they were clueless going in.
“How tall are they?” she asked. “What does it sound like?” Her husband had this powerful notion. He was determined to move to Oregon. And, of course, he wanted her to go with him. She was terrified.
“I don’t know,” she said, leaning in, opening a crack to the possibility that she might not be able to follow her man. “I don’t know if I can deal with the trees.”
What were the chances we’d run into Kelby on the Deschutes River Trail?
Bend is a big town. Eighty thousand plus. Big anyway compared to where we come from on the western slope of Colorado. There, the biggest town by far (we call it a city) is Grand Junction, currently an oil-and-gas boomtown on the Colorado River, bisected by Interstate 70, population 60,000.
I only know a handful of people in Bend. And yet here we were, my brother Tom and I, on this mountain bike trail running into Kelby, my grandkids’ baby sitter. She lit up in recognition and delivered hugs all around. Well into our conversation, the river burbling at our backs, Tom asked, half kidding but also genuinely curious: “Where is the dark side to Bend?”
It’s a question I ask myself all the time. Bend seems to a newcomer like a bright and happy place. A place comfortable in its own skin. A place with a built-in openness, a friendliness not exactly universal in other places we’ve lived.
At first I was reminded of “The Truman Show,” the scary-perfect Florida town that turned out to be an elaborate set in the 1998 Jim Carey vehicle. And Bend is indeed beautiful, flush with water, lush for the high desert, manicured, proud. But beauty and pride of place do not guarantee a good attitude.
We lived for the last 38 years within the physical and intellectual sphere of Telluride, a place as gorgeous as any on the continent. But something about that mountain valley encourages a cloistered vibe, a kind of protective defensiveness. Not surly exactly, but not exactly welcoming either.
I wonder about history. Both places were founded on extractive industries. Telluride’s miners started digging a full quarter century before Bend’s lumbermen unsheathed their saws. Bend is a very young community, incorporated in 1905. The timber heyday lasted only a few decades before the big trees became scarce and economics and environmental consciousness changed. But unlike a lot of other Oregon timber towns, Bend made a successful, a very successful, transition to recreation tourism, helped along by the launch in 1958 of the ski area at Mount Bachelor, and more recently by the proliferation of craft breweries.
Telluride faced the same prospects when the last mine closed in 1978. But its isolation (six hours from Denver; an hour and a half from the nearest airport) and the limits of its steep, awkwardly laid out ski mountain slowed its growth.
More significantly perhaps, Telluride’s box canyon denizens weren’t at all sure they wanted the scene a destination ski area would bring. The chant in the ‘70s was “Not another Aspen!” These new Telluriders were bi-coastal sophisticates, utopians, trust funders, mountain athletes, PhD snow shovelers and short-order cooks, and they did their best – continue to do their best – to slow anything that smells of a headlong, or insufficiently examined, advance.
I gather that was not the case in Bend. The city has grown exponentially since I first skied here in the mid-1980s, when the population hovered around 17,000. Some of the new developments have been higher-quality than others. Sprawl is, and traffic has grown proportionately. But city planners seem to have stayed a step ahead of the growth. Dozens of roundabouts (rather than stop lights) move cars, and bicycles, with remarkable efficiency. They (the city, county and ODOT) built an elevated “parkway,” a pseudo freeway with a 45-mph speed limit, to move traffic across town. There are bike lanes on almost every street, with cyclists of every stripe using them. And the network of public-lands trails is rumored to be somewhere north of 500 miles long, and counting.
Topography plays a part. Telluride’s tiny canyon is guaranteed to dial up the claustrophobia, and the home prices. Not to say the insular smugness. Bend sits at the low-angle intersection of the forested eastern Cascades and the sage of the Great Basin. The self-congratulatory air here is largely a “Lucky us!” reflex. There is room, generous room, in every direction. Room for a rather large, economically diverse population to build, to spread out on the trails, float the river, disappear from one another in the ponderosas, and . . . be nice.
I’ll never forget the phone call we got from our son-in-law Adam hours after he arrived in Bend two years ago. He had driven out alone from Boston ahead of the rest of his little family, with a pickup load, to their rental house. Adam is a born and bred New Englander. Not taciturn in the clichéd (“Can’t get there from here.”) way, but private in the sense that holding something in reserve is often the best policy. Adam told us on the phone that he couldn’t get over how happy people in Bend seemed to be.
“Everybody’s smiling,” he said in amazement.
We’d seen the bumper stickers around town: “Be Nice You’re In Bend.” But sometimes it takes someone else to point out the obvious.
Ellen and I had been here for only a couple of months, enjoying what did in fact seem to be a preternatural geniality on the part of many Bend, Oregon locals, when my brother came to visit. He and I were going somewhere in his rental car, backing out of the driveway. Tom stopped mid-turn, aware that another car was approaching from up the hill. “He’s stopping!” Tom exclaimed, incredulous, eyes on his mirror. “He’s waiting! I could live to be a hundred and never see such a thing in Southern California!”
Boggled, Tom drove on, and I recalled a number of instances in our short time here where niceness prevailed.
There were the gas station attendants. Oregon remains the only state I know of where you don’t pump your own gas. Instead, you pull in, roll down the window and tell the man, or the woman, to fill ‘er up. If they’re not too busy they like to talk, commenting on our Colorado plates (now switched over to the Oregon evergreen tree), happy to give directions or advice, and nearly always ending the conversation, “Welcome to Central Oregon.”
Another time I was up in the branches of our sickly, curbside ash tree trying to prune out the dead stuff when a man we know only slightly came by on his bike and offered to loan me his extendable limb saw. He dropped it off that afternoon. And, if that weren’t enough, he invited us up to his place for a barbecue the next night.
We got another invite, out of the blue, from a young couple across the alley. Once a summer the denizens of 4th Street close off the street and celebrate potluck with their immediate neighbors. Sweet chicken smoke. Coolers full of beers. Kids with water balloons – shrieks of laughter, but never so wild as to get the adults wet. We met and had meaningful chats with almost everyone on the block. One reveler even drew up a schematic for us newer arrivals, with names and abodes, to show who lived where.
More? The mother of two across the street, the one we’ve seen tending her sidewalk garden of aspens and wildflowers, knocked on our door with a bag of peaches from her back yard tree. “Welcome to Bend,” she said.
Our bank, Umpqua Bank, actually strives to be “the friendliest bank in the world.” They refer to Oregonians as “folks,” call their banks “stores.” The tellers are almost disconcertingly cheerful. When I drop off a mortgage payment they ply me with little bags of their signature roasted coffee beans. Lesser occasions warrant a chocolate mint.
At Phil’s Trailhead, where a spider web of mountain bike single track fans out west of town, there’s a sign for what can only be called niceness etiquette. It reads in part: “Look, Listen, Smile . . . Have fun, and keep your eyes and ears open. Smile and say hello! You are in one of the best mountain bike areas in the nation.” In one of the few incidences of trail rudeness, or near rudeness, we’ve heard about, a friend had to wait to pass a slower rider who stubbornly refused to pull over. When he was finally able to squeeze past, he warned the obdurate one as he went by: “Watch those elbows, Buttercup!”