THE GIFTS WE HAD NO INTENTION OF GIVING
by Hilary Hodge
[photo Mbz1 via Wikimedia Commons]
[published December 27, 2011 (4:00PM PST)]
`This is how the weekend was supposed to go:
I was going to take my partner camping for her birthday. My father’s family has rural property in Mendocino County and I have keys to the gate. We were going to plant tulips on the hill and garlic and onions behind the barn. We were going to snuggle in the tiny trailer, wrapped in the two-person sleeping bag, safe from the winter chill. We were going to visit the hot springs resort down the road and soak a bit. I was going to cook our meals on a camp stove. We had planned to do a technology detox so no phones, no email, no texting, no nothing. We left our phones at home. We have been short on money so a camping trip seemed perfect. My partner was understanding about the fact that we didn’t have any store-bought gifts for her, and was really looking forward to the trip and time together as a celebratory offering. It was going to be awesomeness. We packed the car, hitched our tear-drop trailer, grabbed the keys, got our neighbor’s dog, Jack, (we were dog-sitting) into the backseat, and set off to beautiful Mendocino County for outdoor adventures and fresh air.
Here’s what actually happened:
About 45 minutes into what is usually a 4-hour drive, the darling, fluffy dog threw up all over himself and the backseat. He was car sick. I couldn’t blame him. Both the first 20 miles and the last 20 miles of the drive took place on snaking, winding, pot-holed roads. They weren’t fun by day and were pitch-black treachery by night. I was woozy too but I never knew a dog who didn’t want to just stick his floppy ears and tongue out the window and go for a ride. The car smelled like processed chicken, toxic acid and wet dog. I could tell by looking at him that he thought it smelled as awful as we did. His two-different colored eyes looked at me with such guilt and forlorn, fearing he was in trouble and wallowing in his discomfort. We stopped as soon as we could to wash him off and clean the car and backseat—which was doubling as his dog-bed for the weekend. We spent the drive making frequent stops to walk him and give him water. Every time he got out, he had to be picked up to be put back in the car and cried when he got there. After a very long drive, my partner, Jack and I got to camp, just as the sun was setting.
It took Jack about two seconds to fall in love with the place. He pranced around, wearing his new, blue harness, smelling everything he could and trying to encourage us to do the same. I stood trying to open the gate while Jack stared up at me and wagged his tail. I had both sets of keys in case the new copies didn’t work. I tried the first set and the keys wouldn’t even fit into the keyhole. I tried the second set with the same result. I tried the first set again. Second set. First set.
“Did your family change the locks?” My partner asked.
“I don’t think so. If they had, they would have sent me the new keys.”
I suggested that we venture down to the barn and check the lock to the barn. Jack was happy to lead the way, running up and down the sides of the dirt road, ears flopping in the orange light of dusk. I wheeled the giant, creaking barn door open and found the lock to the office inside. I tried all eight keys with no luck. I went back outside to examine the keys in what was left of the sunlight.
“These are the wrong keys.” I concluded.
My partner is pretty much the sweetest person in the world and responded with, “That’s okay. We could just drive home.”
I told her that I was sorry for ruining her birthday. I was trying to think. We could walk down to the property without unlocking the gate but we weren’t able to get the trailer or the car off the road. My head was spinning. It was her birthday weekend. I didn’t want to drive back down the road in the dark. I couldn’t put Jack back in the car for another long trek. We had no phones so there was no one we could call. I took a deep breath so that I wouldn’t cry.
I offered, “Why don’t we just see if they have any rooms at the springs?” I couldn’t exactly afford it but I was willing to not pay my phone bill for a couple of weeks in order to sort the situation out.
To our dismay, and especially to Jack’s, we got back in the car and drove another mile to park our car and our trailer in the resort parking lot.
I must have sounded like an idiot to the older, red-haired man at the front desk. “Hi. I’m really sorry. I’m the youngest daughter of the guy who owns the property up the road and we were gonna camp there and I brought the wrong keys and I have my trailer but we can’t park it on the property because we can’t open the gate and we were wondering if there were any openings available.”
The man at the front desk was the owner. He smiled at me sweetly. He said that he was coming down the road just before and watched me try to turn the trailer around at the gate. Apparently, he has known my dad for years.
Throughout my life I have visited the springs many times but I have never stayed there. Years ago, before I was born, the springs used to be part of my family’s property. My grandmother was born at the resort, in the first decade of the 1900s, before people owned cars on a regular basis and had the option to drive to a nearby hospital, back when all people were welcomed into the world by the community. Her mother and father were farmers and lived on the property. The resort was sold in the 1970s to the man behind the front desk. There was a room available for both nights and he comped it.
The situation left me a little dumbfounded. We were able to leave the trailer in the parking lot, even though we were taking up two parking spaces. The resort didn’t allow dogs but Jack was going to sleep in the car anyway and, being half-husky and half-chow, didn’t mind the cold. I didn’t like the idea of him being so far away from me but, by the time I had gotten back to the car with the news, he was fast asleep. He had had a hard day.
I had been having a hard few weeks. I spent the evening before we left to go camping at a friend’s house, having a serious discussion about depression. I have felt very lonely lately and like I have been observing humanity at its worst these past few weeks. I was at a very low place emotionally. This new twist of fate seemed too good to be true but was a welcome wrinkle in time. My partner and I grabbed our clothes, our books, and the food from the cooler and we headed to our room.
What we found was simple and wonderful. Our room was just a bed and some lamplight. The resort uses shared bathrooms, which were across the way from where we were housed. There was a lodge for communal gatherings with a dining room and game room, a library and a kitchen for everyone to store their food and to prepare food. It was immediately apparent that the place contained a collaborative and cooperative attitude. And people were happy. Five cooks buzzed around the kitchen, back and forth, chopping over a prep table and cooking over a large stove. Three women found laughter, sharing a bottle of wine in the dining room. Two very fat cats slept on couches near the library. It wasn’t what we had planned but it was exactly what we had needed.
I had a hard time sleeping, worrying about Jack in the car, even though we had checked on him just before we went to bed and found him soundly sleeping. We awoke to a still-black sky and got dressed, went to the kitchen for toast, making a cup tea to take with us. When we opened the car door, Jack stretched elaborately as though we had interrupted a meaningful dream and then wagged his tail with delight. He ate a big breakfast while we packed our tools, gloves, and the seeds and bulbs we had brought with us. We hitched a leash to the cute dog and walked up the hill, skipping as the sky lightened.
My partner and I spent her birthday morning planting tulips, hyacinth, alium and narcissus on a hill over-looking the barn on my family’s property. It was her idea and, at the same time, something I had wanted to do my whole life. Jack spent the morning running up and down and all around. Together, we dug holes and discovered mushrooms, enjoying the chill in the air and the heat of hard work. We had planted over two-hundred flowers and found about five or six different kinds of mushrooms. I regretted not bringing my field guide. By lunch time, Jack had tuckered himself out and was sleeping next to the barn. I chained him up and left him food and water, heading back down the hill to the springs.
My partner and I took time to soak in the hot springs and read for a bit. We ate rice and beans for lunch before heading back to plant the onions and garlic. When we got back to the barn, Jack was running around, no longer chained up and no longer wearing his new harness. He thought the situation was hysterical as he ran up to us, ears bobbing and tongue flopping. I was not happy to see his harness in a heap by the barn but I was glad that he didn’t run away.
My partner and I set to planting garlic and onions behind the barn. We threw rocks behind the pig pen as we found them and planted the bulbs in clumps of three wherever we could find enough rock-less space. After not an hour, we were greeted by eight women of varying ages hiking up from the springs.
I assume that everyone in my family knows that the “no trespassing” signs are ignored by hikers. Our barn has been burgled several times and, more than once, we’ve arrived to find piles of beer cans out back. What is left of the fences, where there are any fences left, remain a suggestion at best.
I hate seeing hikers on the property. It makes for an uncomfortable situation. I can always hear my father’s voice in my head reminding me that we could be sued if someone hurts themselves while trespassing. I’m sure that this is part of why the “ownership” of property seems so ridiculous to me. Not only does my family have a piece of paper that indicates that we have dominion over a certain part of the earth but, if we share that part of the earth with a stranger, we could face monetary consequences in doing so.
“How’s it going?” I asked the women, trying not to sound too much like I was asking the inevitable, “What are you doing here?” I knew what they were doing. They were doing what I have been doing in the same place my whole life. The 100-year-old barn, and the meadow and creek behind it, are beautiful. They were beholding.
My partner and I were both holding shovels. We must have looked pretty official because right away one of the women apologized. And right away I felt sheepish.
I held out my hand, “I’m Hilary.” I explained that my family owned the property and that we were planting onions and garlic. We introduced everyone. I wasn’t clear on how the women knew each other exactly. They were of varying ages. They all belonged to some unofficial club that thread them together. The woman who had spoken first asked about the history of the place, explaining that she had visited a few years back. I hesitated for a moment and then got an idea.
“Do any of you know anything about mushrooms?”
The ten of us stood there exchanging an oral history for field guidance. I told them about how my family used to graze sheep and showed them where there was still wool in the shed. They identified the little yellow mushrooms near the shed as Waxy Cap. I told them that my grandmother was born at the hot springs. They showed me a set of medium-sized brown mushrooms and everyone agreed that it was Hydnum. They asked if I had any family that lived nearby. I explained that my Great Aunt Hulda used to live nearby but died last year, just before her 100th birthday. I showed them the rock where my Uncle Alfred sat down and took his last breath. They showed me a white mushroom not to eat unless I’m hoping to take mine. We laughed.
They continued their hike and we stayed and continued to plant. I’m not sure if we will have onions and garlic in the spring or if we spent a wonderful afternoon laboring to hide presents for deer and gophers. In this case, I don’t think the harvest really matters.
We had to put Jack back in the car while we ate an early dinner. We laughed over spicy polenta and rice, recalling the magic of the day. We wrote letters to our family and drank tea. The weekend felt pre-ordained, like kismet, completely aligned with the intention of the universe to allow us to have a peaceful weekend, full of gratitude, sharing and communal living.
“The only thing I feel bad about is Jack.” I said. I knew he was having a good time running around but I still felt bad about the car ride and was dreading the trip home. I hated that we weren’t sleeping close enough in order to watch over him at night.
After the sun set, we grabbed a flashlight and decided to take Jack for a long walk. After walking down the road, and out of the lamplight from the resort, we were surrounded by complete darkness. We could no longer see the resort behind us when, suddenly, the light from our flashlight caught trace of a human figure in the night. We came upon a man in a large hooded coat, standing not 10 feet from us, silently in the pitch blackness along the road. I tensed.
I tried to justify in my mind, all the reasons a man might be standing out in the dark, by himself, along a rural road. I failed to come up with a savory scenario.
I rested my judgmental inferences on Jack, cooing to him, “It’s okay buddy. It’s just a new person.” I made sure to say it loud enough so that the man in the dark could hear me, as though Jack could, at any moment, bite him. Of course, Jack might only lick him to death, but the man didn’t know that. And then I thought about how rude I was being and said “hello.” The man gave a polite greeting back. It was friendly and his voice was kind.
Still as we walked away, knowing that we would have to walk back, I was glad for Jack and understood why he was there.
I thought about my partner and I being stranded and what that would mean for us. Jack loved us but he wasn’t our dog and wouldn’t always be there. I thought about all the self-defense classes I’ve taken. I thought about the violent world we live in. My partner and I walked along silently until we knew we were out of ear shot.
“What do you think he was doing? Waiting for a ride?” I wondered aloud.
If she answered, I don’t remember what she said then.
We approached a fog bank in a depression along the road and decided to turn around. We didn’t know if the man would still be there as we walked back. We didn’t talk about what we would do if he was. We surrendered ourselves to the cold night air. I think we both just hoped for the best.
The man was still alone, though closer to the parking lot and in the lamplight. We said nothing as we passed. We put the tired dog to bed.
Even, in all my worry, I declined to lock the car. If someone saw Jack, and worried for his safety, or if Jack himself was found to be upset, I wanted him to find rescue. The folks working at the springs knew he was there and the eight women from the hike knew he was sleeping in the car. If other visitors found him to be upset, I knew they would tend to him and his presence would be made known to us. If we had to take him home a night early, we were prepared to do so.
We showered and settled into the lodge to read and have tapas as a second dinner. As we sat in the dining room, the man from the road came in, still wearing his hooded jacket. He sat on one of the couches with the cats, across from three giggling women and their wine. He stared at the wall and didn’t talk to anyone. I knew for certain then that he wasn’t staying at the springs and that he was cold and hungry. Because the employees manning the front desk were in and out, they didn’t know he wasn’t a paid resident. I tried to shake the creepiness in my mind.
I was a literature major in college, and one of my follies in life is that I am constantly trying to see the foreshadow of the stories that take place in my life as though living is a work of fiction. I thought about all the meaningful moments, or “signs” of the weekend and couldn’t shake the feeling that this was yet another one. After all, would the man have known about the resort, or the lodge, if he hadn’t followed us there? And really, would we have been out on the road if Jack weren ‘t with us? Were we still being told something? Was this an opportunity?
My partner and I whispered quietly to each other, knowing that we were the only ones who noticed this person and could identify him as an outsider. Other guests continued their evening, paying no attention. A couple argued over a game of Scrabble behind us. The women on the couch across from the man continued to giggle and drink wine. People ate their prepared meals with intimacy, not giving thought to what might be an outsider’s plight.
I’ve talked a lot about charity lately. I have looked towards the greater population to come up with the right thing. I remembered the lyrics of a song my mother and I used to sing this time of year when I was a kid: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
“Hi.” I sat next to him on the couch. “Were you the one on the road we saw a bit ago?”
He looked terrified. “Yes,” he replied, rubbing his hands over his knees.
“I’m pretty sure that you aren’t staying here. But are you hungry? We have food. I could make you something.”
He faltered and offered a string of half-sentences and explanations. Finally he offered, “Yes I am hungry.”
“I’ll be right back”
I didn’t have to ask. I knew that my partner would be happy to spend her birthday dinner with a hungry stranger.
I went into the shared kitchen and made some rice and beans. The folks around me washed dishes and cooked. I kept looking into the dining room through the window in the kitchen door, to make sure that no one had discovered him and was asking him to leave. An older gentleman came in with a plate of brownies to share with the visitors. I took the bowl of food and two brownies to our table. I asked the man to join us.
“What’s your name?” I asked as he put spoonfuls into his mouth. He smiled, his mouth closed, full of food.
When he swallowed, “Chuck.”
I explained how the resort was run and assured him that it would be a while before anyone caught on that he wasn’t supposed to be there. He relaxed a bit and continued eating.
When he got to a point of interval, I asked him how he got up the road.
After he finished the rice and beans, we got to talking. He had been in Ukiah to apply for food stamps. The road that the resort is on travels more than 40 miles from Ukiah to Mendocino. Ukiah is the county seat for Mendocino County. It’s the place where health and human services are located for people needing assistance in Mendocino County. Mendocino County is a large county, part on the coast, part in the mountains, part in the valley. For those staying in other parts of the county, getting to Ukiah is no easy feat. For Chuck, his reasoning for trying to get back to Mendocino for the night was that the overnight temp in Ukiah was 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the overnight temp in Mendocino was 10 degrees higher, just above freezing. There are other ways to get from Ukiah to Mendocino but the springs road was supposed to be a straight shot. He got stranded on the way.
I can only assume that Chuck is an Iraq war vet. He didn’t say as much but he’s is 26 years old and mentioned PTSD. He sat up straight, the way that only a soldier does. But, almost as a way to avoid charity, or maybe judgment, failed to mention his vet status.
Chuck had been living on an Indian Reservation for the three years prior. He didn’t say what he was doing there, only that it ultimately didn’t work out. Through his blond hair and freckles, he mentioned that he didn’t quite fit in on the reservation.
He talked about the Occupy Movement, comparing it to the reservation. “It seems similar. I understand the sentiment of wanting the commons to be a place of gathering, a place without development or industrialization. The Indians on the reservations see the same value.”
Chuck was awkward but had more than a handful of intelligence backing his conversation. He recently became homeless, abandoning a situation that he characterized as “taking advantage” of him. The way he spoke about cord wood and physical labor, I understood. I too have been living in a situation of neo-feudalism, where the landowners have the say and the workers can only be hopeful of their kindness. When the kindness runs out, where will we be left?
Chuck’s parents had died when he was young. His evangelical brother in Sacramento wouldn’t take him in unless he accompanied him to church. Chuck believes in the goodness of people, and the gifts of the universe, but has a hard time taking the Christian faith at its foundation. I understand.
As the conversation meandered, I realized that he had no plan for the night and no place to stay. My partner got up to refresh our tea and I joined her in the kitchen.
I asked, “Can we offer to let him stay in our trailer? It’s your sleeping bag.”
“Of course.” She kissed me.
We went back to the table. We explained our weekend to Chuck, that we had brought our trailer but weren’t using it. I asked if he wanted to stay for the trailer in for the night.
I told him that we could drive him back down the hill the next day, back to Ukiah. He had an appointment with health and human services on Monday to apply for General Assistance. He had already been told that the shelters were full. We suggested that he try to look into the Occupy encampments as a temporary viable option, a place for community during his transition. He agreed.
We went out to the parking lot and made Chuck’s bed. He spent the night, warm in the trailer alongside the car where Jack slept.
As we walked back to our room, I grabbed my partner’s hand and said, “I would rather do the right thing and risk the possibility of our sleeping bag getting stolen than worry about a person sleeping out in the cold when we could have prevented it.” She wholeheartedly agreed.
The next morning, the four of us, Chuck, my partner, Jack and I drove down the hill to Ukiah, each of us grateful for the gifts we had no intention of giving and thankful for the opportunity to receive them in return.
I gave Chuck some cash and a self-addressed envelope. I meant to give him my card, to have him read my blog, and to let him know him know that he restored my faith in the giving season, and that I hoped that we had restored his faith as well. I guess there was no time for that in the parking lot of the gas station where we dropped him off. We hope to hear from him soon.