December 21, 2013

     I’m writing this month’s installment in three discrete segments, the first of which is dated December 14:
     Up early this morning, here at 7,200 feet in the Sequoia National Forest, encouraged by the dog, now just over a year old. The dog needs to excrete. All right, fine. I ease into my layers of clothes (jeans, T-shirt, sweater, leather jacket, down vest, knit hat), lace up my boots and head out into the stillness, nobody stirring yet though it’s Saturday and I’ve noticed that a few of the cabins have SUVs pulled up in front of them. Quiet SUVs, splotched with frost, that weren’t here yesterday morning. Once around the lake, just over half a mile, temperature 17 F, then up the stairs and into the lower room of the house (or cabin, as the designation may be—see “My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain” for clarification). I get the woodstove going and sit in front of it for a while, watching the sun start to touch the tops of the tallest trees as it edges over the mountain east of me. Then it’s upstairs to the kitchen and breakfast for me and the dog, interior temperature 45 F and slowly—very slowly—climbing. I re-read the out-of-date newspaper I brought up with me on Thursday, masticate a bagel and a handful of nuts, then go back to the woodstove and a good book for the next hour or so before once again mounting the stairs to my bedroom cum office to fire up the laptop and switch on the classic music channel. Time for work. Or no, wait a minute, time for a nap.
     Fifteen minutes later I’m up again, up and brewing tea, and now, finally, when I can delay it no longer, I am at work. On a new story. The story is halfway to the finish line, but it tries to encapsulate a whole lot of idea and experience in its too-few pages and so presents a host of little problems I try my best to work through. Pretty soon, it’s two o’clock and the story has grown by one fairly finished scene and I am ready to eat my frugal bowl of luncheon granola and then head out into the woods. The temperature inside has risen to 55 F., which is just fine, since I dress the same whether inside or out, and the outside temperature has rocketed all the way up to 45. The place I’m going to is a mile and a half away and I see that I am the first person out here since the snowfall of Saturday last, and that is very nice indeed, the pristine quality of it, but it means breaking trail in the thin air and the effort works its way up my legs and into my chest, not even a foot of snow, but still. The dog, of course, is oblivious, tearing through the snow in mad swirls of delight and pausing to communicate in urinary code with the presumably sleeping coyotes whose forebears made off with her elderly predecessor one blizzardy night a decade ago.
     When I get there, I find a rock face in the sun overlooking a deep stream-carved canyon, and I settle down, open my book, and read. Look up at the scenery, down at the page, up at the scenery, down at the page. At four I head home and at five I am at the lodge, chatting with people I haven’t seen since summer. Red wine. An interval by the open fire. Then home to the pot of marinara sauce (freshly made, no fears there), a book and a movie on DVD. After the movie, another turn around the lake for the dog’s sake, the night clear and cold, temperatures in the low twenties. Then bed and a book and music playing through the NPR station out of Fresno. And then? Lights out.
     If only every day could be so serene. (Of course, if it were, I’d probably shoot myself.) But this is what my mountain retreat is for—to turn off the world and get into a new and slower rhythm, give the brain a respite and retrain it to its true calling, the making of stories. I’ll enjoy the idyll for another couple of days, then go down the mountain to reacquaint myself with the rest of the family.

December 18:
     Clean up, pack up (being sure to remember my laptop and the now-completed story, the title of which is “The Relive Box”), drain the pipes and put antifreeze in the toilets, twice around the lake with the dog, then the drive down the mountain. Not at all hazardous (see the blog entry for November 24, 2011 for a radically different perspective) because the warming trend has taken the ice off the roads. Two hours and a bit to Bakersfield, where I refresh myself with a salad and iced tea at the redoubtable Bakersfield Sizzler, then up over the Grapevine and back home in another two hours or so. Frau Boyle? Awaiting me in a blizzard of yarn (knitting hats for holiday presents). Her reward? A trip down the street under clear cold skies to the local sushi joint. Nothing like the taste of raw fish after a stint on the mountain.

December 21:
     Winter solstice. I am back at sea level, breathing the heavy, oxygen-rich air, and dealing with the various hassles, crises and outright disasters which have occurred in my absence. Still, all is well, and I am on my way down to L.A. to pick up Milo, whose flight was delayed all day yesterday so that he got in very late indeed. What I’m not doing is thinking about the aforementioned dog who fell prey to the coyotes. Kutya. The white puli, aged fourteen, who met his fate on a wintry New Year’s Day, and will, as you’ll see, be resurrected in name and memory both as the recalcitrant pet of Sara Hovarty Jennings, heroine of my forthcoming novel, The Harder They Come. I’d returned to the mountain alone with him and the year-old pup, Darda, (now, sadly, also deceased), in a snowstorm. I skidded off the road into a snowbank, but was able to work my way out and get myself and the dogs safely ensconced in the cabin, after which we took a walk around the lake, enjoying the fury of the storm. A snowy year. Berms eight feet high. The road a ski run. Nice. Then we ate and sat by the fire, after which I enjoyed some unsalted pistachios in the shell, doling out a fair share to Kutya, who loved them.
     Come eleven o’clock and no abatement of the storm and here we were preparing for our goodnight walk around said lake. All right. But have I mentioned that Darda was in heat and that Kutya, randy old gentleman, had expended a great deal of energy on her that day? And that he was a dog with a mind of his own? Off we went, Darda and I, into the blizzard, but Kutya hung back on the porch. That was the last I saw of him. Here’s what happened, as I later reconstructed it. He felt he would simply circle around the other side of the lake to join up with us, an easy trot of a few hundred yards, but didn’t count on the lean and ragged coyotes coming up the streambed at the arc of the circle there, coyotes with a particular taste for dog belly stuffed with kibble and pistachios.
     When I came back up to the mountain the following summer, my friend Rose, whose neighbor Bob had the property behind mine, said, “Hey, Tom, you ever find that dog of yours?” “Sadly no, Rose. I think the coyotes got him.” “Yeah,” she said, “Bob found a skull out back and I was saving it for you on the bookcase, but then my dog got to playing with it I don’t know what happened to it.”
     So. In short: You better watch out, you better not shout, you better not cry, I’m telling you why... Somebody’s coming to town. Let’s hope the visitation is a happy one. Enjoy the holidays, folks, coyotes and all.