The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes
My experience with athletics as a kid provided me with a solid foundation on which to build a lifetime of fitness. I’ve belonged to one gym or another for most of my adult life, exercising at least three evenings a week after work, and spending my weekends riding a bike, skiing, or hiking around in the woods with a fishing pole searching for Hog Johnson, which is the name we anglers give to the biggest trout we’ve ever seen.
In the early spring of 2008, however, all of that changed.
I had been living in Seattle for fifteen years and all over the Rockies and the Southwest the decade prior to that. My recent marriage was dissolving, and the gloomy weather wasn’t helping my outlook any.
I had a great job that allowed me tremendous creative freedom, put me in close contact with great minds and even greater hearts, and immersed me in the social justice movement, but it was an office job, and I had never thought of myself as a career secretary. Then, through a series of corporate mergers, promotions and raises, the work morphed into an administrative position with big responsibility and a bigger paycheck than I had ever had before and I woke up one day doing the kind of job I vowed I would never have: one that paid so well I could never leave it.
What I wanted was a full time writing career. I had been working towards that goal for fifteen years but had never felt secure enough financially to make the leap, and it felt more like a hobby than a vocation. Still, I was enjoying some successes. A play I wrote had opened to rave reviews in Seattle and enjoyed a sold-out run, and my fiction and freelance articles were starting to get picked up. With a part-time teaching job on the side, however, there never seemed to be enough hours in the day to get any publishing momentum going.
Selling my house, which I’d owned for ten years and had some equity in, seemed to offer a swift path to freedom, a clean slate, and an opportunity to re-align my talents and skills with my livelihood.
When my real estate agent came over to do a walk-through of the house, however, she left me with a daunting two-page list of renovations and repairs to complete before she would even consider listing it. Alone, and wanting to put away as much money as I could to jump start my freelance business, I set about doing it all myself—everything from refinishing floors, mitering and installing new molding, updating the kitchen and bathroom fixtures, landscaping the exterior, and painting every square inch of the place, inside and out.
While it was not highly skilled work, some of it was physically strenuous, and I was under pressure to list the house before April, which was when my agent predicted I could expect the quickest sale at a price of my asking.
I set the alarm each day for 4:45 a.m., rising in the dark to sand floors and re-grout tile before going to work. When I got home, I changed into sweats and repaired the deck until it grew too dark to pound a nail, and then went inside and worked late into the night.
Over the course of the three months it took to get the house in shape, my back started to give me trouble, tensing up whenever I bent over or straightened up, and aching constantly from the strain of the non-stop physical labor, plus the emotional stress I was under as a result of my imploding marriage.
I had experienced episodes of back pain before. The trouble started in college, after a car clipped me on my bicycle on my way to campus, causing the books in my backpack to shift violently and wrench a muscle in my back. Perversely, I still remember what those books were: hardback versions of the complete and unabridged works of William Shakespeare, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the Oxford Annotated Bible. Clearly, there are advantages to earning a degree online.
In the past, a light jog around Green Lake, or a yoga class would have made me feel better, but with so much work to do I didn’t have time to exercise, so I popped a few ibuprofen, moved on to the next project, and didn’t think much more of it.
When I was finally ready to list the house—a month later than I had hoped to—news of the mortgage crisis had already broken. Real estate values in Seattle plummeted as a result, and I watched my equity shrink with every passing day as my agent continued advise me to reduce the list price further and further. Many people in Seattle speculated prices would stabilize and remain propped up by the strong local economy, but sales were very slow, and I prepared myself to wait a long time to find a buyer.
Through a combination of hard work, listing it in the right price bracket, and luck, the house sold within four days of listing it. Overjoyed, I met with my agent over lunch to discuss a closing date, went back to work, and turned in my resignation.
When I got home that evening, I poured myself a celebratory glass of wine and sat out on my newly painted front porch, which now overlooked an immaculately landscaped yard, and wondered what the hell I was thinking. My house looked the best it ever had; economists were talking about a major recession; and I had just undersold my house and quit a very good job to be…a writer?
Had I lost my mind? Was this a mid-life crisis? I was forty years old. No, I decided; things are only a crisis if you do nothing about them. I was making changes. This was forward progress.
That night before bed, I read another chapter of DeVoto’s The Journals of Lewis and Clark. It was the only book I hadn’t packed, sold, or spread out on the coffee table to make the living room look like the front cover of a Pottery Barn catalog.
Lewis and his party had just reached the location where the Missouri River splits into the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers, an area now known as Three Forks, Montana. Captain Clark had previously taken a side journey to explore another river and, due to illness, had not yet rejoined the party, so Lewis was alone when he came upon the site, in July of 1805.
We arrived at 9 A. M. at the junction of the S. E. fork of the Missouri and the country opens suddonly to extensive and beatifull plains and meadows which appear to be surrounded in every direction with distant and lofty mountains; supposing this to be the three forks of the Missouri I halted the party on the Lard. shore for breakfast and walked up the S. E. fork about ½ a mile and ascended the point of a high limestone clift from whence I commanded a most perfect view of the neighbouring country.
Lewis was an inclusive and democratic leader, who encouraged his men to keep diaries of their own. His liberal use of the plural pronoun “we” resounds throughout the pages of the journal, leaving the reader with a strong sense of partnership between the two leaders, and a conviction that the success of the expedition—indeed the survival of every man in the party—depended on a team effort.
This may be why, in entries where Lewis uses the personal pronoun “I”, the passages seem to lift off the page. And, as I read this one, I had a clear image of Lewis forgoing his own breakfast, leaving his men to cook their beans and venison jerky beside the river while he walked off by himself to climb above the plains and survey the way ahead.
What follows in the journal is a lengthy and painstaking description of the topography, including the color and texture of the surrounding rocks, the plants and animals, plus every meander and rapids in all of the rivers, tributaries and byways that Lewis could see from his vantage point atop the rock, including a description of the fearsome range of snow-peaked mountains, which had been drawing ever closer for last many days and now loomed ominously over the party.
Historians frequently point out that the richness of Lewis’ description, along with his subsequent decision to make camp at the Forks for three days in order to record the party’s position by the stars, reveals his great instincts as an explorer and his skills as a cartographer. Certainly, Lewis understood that a thorough description of the confluence of these three previously uncharted rivers was critical to the success of future expeditions. But, as I read the passage that night, I couldn’t help feel the tremendous weight of the decision Lewis faced at this juncture. He was at a crossroads, tasked with the responsibility of choosing between three equally uncertain routes. Going down the wrong fork might force the party to have to backtrack to this spot, effectively trapping them in the Rocky Mountains in the dead of winter, where they would likely have perished.
Lewis wrote that his view from his rock was “most perfect.” But, to my eyes, the density and detail in the description that follows conveys less what he could see and more what he couldn’t: the future.