I was almost 6 when my father took me on my first vacation road trip away from home in San Francisco to visit his family in Bellingham, Washington, where I was to meet my his birth family for the first time. My grandfather, an old mountain man whose mother was a Dakota Blackfoot Indian, slapped me across the room when I first greeted him, laughing, “That’s for nothing!” My grandmother, originally a mail-order bride from Ireland, just shook her head and smiled nervously (probably all too familiar with his brutishness). I also met my uncles Father Fred the Monsignor, and Jim and Pat, and the next morning the men and me were up at the crack of dawn to set out on pack horses for a long hunting and fishing expedition into the northern wilds, traveling for almost a month into primal mountain country, far from even the smallest rural towns in that part of the state.
I rode my first horse and saw bear spoor and mountain lion footprints, and on the third day I found a single mammoth heart-shaped strawberry that must have weighed at least a pound blooming under a magic bush that had unmistakably called out to me. Along the way my grandfather and his sons filled an ice chest with the shiny rainbow trout they’d caught, gradually draining the previous cooler contents – multiple 6-packs of Olympia Beer. I was given soda pop.
One memorable night, well into the trip, we were camping out under the stars on the shore of a small and isolated mountain lake. I was awakened suddenly in the middle of the night by a dazzling sight which struck me with intense awe and wonder (and this for a kid who was already walking around a good part of the time in basic awe and wonder).
Out on the lake a brilliant fire had bubbled up from the very center and was fiercely blazing, as if a good-sized boat had gone up in flames, but there was nobody near us for miles and miles – the blaze had just appeared full blown, with no apparent source to feed it. I remember standing there, watching it, fascinated, until finally a thought appeared, and I was able to find voice enough to call my father and his gang out of their sleep to see it, and they saw it too, and were equally shocked by the vision, which now had taken a
shape not unlike a flaming angel, and none of them believed their own explanations.
The next morning, there was no sight of anything, just the lake as it was the day before, and I do recall we had some good fishing that day, and they all drank a lot of Olympia beer.