Portrait of a Neighborhood

800px-Forest-Creek-Eagleville-PA-USADead-End, reads the yellow sign at the beginning of my road, and not until now have I pondered the misnomer. This stretch is so alive it would obliterate all inhabitants given time. We rev our weed-eaters and brandish machetes in defense of our homesteads. “Dead” is what a city dweller might say of my rural neighborhood. But how backward, the thought. I live in a neighborhood midway down the stretch called Miami-Foley in Tillamook County. It is an area not unlike the Appalachians, I hear, though I’ve not seen the Blue Mountains. A dwarf cousin, at the least. I cannot explain how I found the place other than to say it found me.

My neighborhood—dead-end street and beyond—is a quiet mix of retired households, a few Gen-X families like mine, some second-home owners who come to set out lawn chairs in the woods or to dust off boats for fishing excursions, and then the other folks. I’ve not met many of the other folks, though among these are the neighbors you likely read about in the paper—our area being no stranger to crime (My husband and I wryly conclude we’re safe since unstable neighbors seem only to kill their friends).Most of the houses here do look like homesteads. Outbuildings spring up on properties like mushrooms, and plots accumulate the detritus of collecting. Homeowners hold on to vehicles, or the wistful tent trailers and campers that promise future getaways, and tools are tucked away on dusty back shelves or huddle like refugees under the eaves of sheds. It is a testament to thrift, this collecting, thick in the marrow of people who inhabit rural neighborhoods fulltime, myself included.

There are houses tucked down hills, appreciated fully only on foot. One of my favorites sports gingerbread trim and a picket fence, and has a matching creek-side guesthouse mostly covered with moss. A shop with a sliding wood door and small bell tower sits alongside the French-vanilla cottage, and out front, a greenhouse. Other homes—in full view—are sorely neglected. Grass rises to hip height before a shearing.Lacing through the neighborhood is our creek, called Foley, and it is the compass by which we orient ourselves, its singing the underscore to all other sounds. Around each bend, it is somehow new, altered like a chameleon—the same, but not. Under summer light filtered through the lace of hemlock and maple, it becomes inconceivably charmed and settles me here, the way the ocean settles coast dwellers.

On a typical walk through my neighborhood, I pass a scatter of empty lots, the broad hairy shoulders of green space that set rural neighborhoods apart from suburban counterparts. The lots belong to absentee landowners who drop in when life gives way for retreat. Ascending a shady side street one mile from my house, I stroll past such a lot. Instead of the bare circle of root-hatched earth I usually see, I witness a tent trailer and a table. On the table, a can of Pellegrino, an empty wine glass, a Mason jar holding a listing bouquet of daisies. The al fresco kitchen is probably the kitchen-away-from-home for city dwellers fortunate enough to own an ideal camp site—a lot in this quiet, bucolic neighborhood. Across the street is a tree-strewn sheep pasture with thick gnarled roots rising from the ground and an arched billy-goat bridge spanning a rain ditch. Below it, a hairpin bend of creek so clear you can count the rocks in it.To call the site “pastoral” would not be cliché, yet my neighborhood attracts with subtlety. It requires that you get out of your car, feel the shift of air and light, and stand still enough to see the birds disguised amid a rainforest of foliage. Some become distracted by the dog-eared mobile homes and the home sites more kitschy than cool. But there are those who come, perhaps on a whim following an ad that reads “Lot for Sale,” who get it right away.

One lot up the road stood overgrown and for sale eighteen months, unlucky to hit market a split second before the market careened off a cliff. But it eventually sold for a steal to city dwellers. They began clearing space and setting up camp right away, like that was exactly what they had in mind, and months later, the land was cleared of trees just enough to accommodate them. It had a cabin the size of a storage shed and space for a tent. Stacks of wood from newly shaven trees dotted the fringes of the site, and camping essentials became permanent installations. One imagines this place as a sort of “Hooverville” in reverse. Unlike the shanty towns of the Great Depression, this permanent campsite signifies a sort of adopted, opted-for simplicity. Maybe the family hoped to build a second home on the lot eventually, creek side and hunkered against a mountain. But at first, it was their getaway. I sensed it as I passed. Until they got too busy, or broke, and never came back.

The wild edges of this place can escape our awareness, the way we’re unaware of our own trailing scent. We all have our cultivated plots, our settled lives. But beyond them are woods that stretch for miles, and the miles belong to others. Elk and deer, of course, but also coyotes, bobcats, even bears. I’ve not seen the bears myself, but my daughter had an encounter with one in her first six months as a driver. Driving home late one night, a bear was spotted up ahead crossing the road. She slowed as much as safety allowed—but not enough to miss the bear entirely. The front corner of her car bumped its large behind as she passed, and as you can imagine, she milks it.

But if any image means summer at Foley Creek to me, it is tire tracks etched out of wildness, two tracks outlined inside and out by fuzzy ribbons of grass and weeds. The seldom travelled roads and driveways thus outlined are the epitome of country living in my mind. Maybe I heard too much John Denver growing up.

But no portrait of a neighborhood would be complete without a discussion of the neighbors. And by this I mean my immediate neighbors, those to my left and right who spot me drinking morning coffee on the porch in my bath robe. Before I was a resident of my dead-end street, while still building my house, I became well acquainted with the patriarch and matriarch across the street. Any tool I needed was offered with matchless generosity and if I needed help raising a ladder to reach the roof, or holding a fixture while I screwed it into place, I could count on two extra hands. Occasionally I have something they need and get to reciprocate—a cup of cornmeal, a bit of computer expertise. But most often, I’m the receiver.

To my right is a family with two young boys and a host of animals, who help create the country environment. Though I rarely see these busy neighbors, I relish their chickens’ chatter and the effluence of affection offered me by their dogs, who spend countless hours on my porch.  A few others reside in close proximity who keep to themselves, yet there’s not a bad egg among them.

I’ve heard of days when neighborhoods were close knit and neighbors shared freely with one another, whether tools, cars, the odd teaspoon of vanilla, or the abundance of their gardens. That is certainly not the norm nowadays, but I get to experience a small taste of it. In this sense, neighborliness is alive and well on my so-called dead end street.

{First published in RAIN Magazine 2014}

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