It was a Sunday. Corey and Cherie Nelson were watching TV when they heard a strange rumbling. Cherie jumped up and went out to the deck.
The door opened to a sweeping view of a pristine river canyon. Surrounded by large firs in the Cascade foothills, the braided Washougal river rushed along the far bank to sip on creeks and waterfalls, and a smaller, slower channel meandered along the edge of the ravine just sixty feet below, right under the Nelsons’ deck. For two and a half years, they have spent countless hours taking in their personal theatre of classic Pacific Northwest scenery.
The pungent scent of fresh dirt filled Cherie’s nostrils. Steam rose like woodsmoke from where the yard used to be. The landslide had exposed the tangled roots of their massive Douglas fir, thick wet tentacles unplugged from their earthen life support.
Cherie knew in that instant that her life had changed. But she did not want to admit it.
Corey joined her on the deck. It took half a second for him to realize the same. He wrapped his arms around her.
“It’s going to be okay, baby,” he said. Corey says he’s always trying to make Cherie feel better, trying to fix things, but that he knew deep down, they just lost their dream home.
After their daughters moved out, Corey and Cherie wanted to move into a smaller home. Not just a smaller home, but the home in which they could happily spend the rest of their days. For years they searched for the perfect spot. They put in offers on places that they’re glad now didn’t pan out, because a little house on a high bank of the Washougal River, just downstream from Naked Falls, where they fell in love more than forty years ago, whispered, welcome.
Buying the place was complicated. The property belonged to the bank, and the process of purchasing took months of negotiations and back and forth about how the old septic tanks needed to be replaced before they could move in, then a whole summer of actual work. They sold the farmhouse in which they raised three daughters, and Corey cashed in on his thirty-five years of setting tile in million-dollar houses to make the sale happen.
Nevertheless, the couple was essentially homeless for four months, luckily supported by aunts and daughters with spare couches, while the old septic system was dug up and new “biogreen” tanks put in the ground. But their waiting to land full circle back at their teenage stomping grounds was not always patient. Cherie says she was “done” being strung all over the place.
“I wanted the comfort of a home home.”
Before they moved in, Cherie would lie down in the grass of her would-be home, and imagined her roots going deep into the ground. She prayed to the spirit of the Native American people for a blessing to steward the land, to protect and enhance it.
“I just wanted to be worthy of this place,” Cherie says.
Corey and I work together, remodeling houses in Lake Oswego. When he’s not around, building contractors talk about the mastery and humility with which he works. They vie for his schedule, say that he doesn’t charge enough. He’s quiet, unassuming, kind. Wears a tawny pony tail, gray at the roots. When he lets his beard grow scruffy, it betrays the youth in his face.
A few weeks ago, on a quiet afternoon in someone else’s big empty house, he told me the story of how he was losing his dream home, the place into which he’d invested everything he had worked for, because a landslide dropped half his yard into the river rapids below.
I balked, and as he spoke, I nearly teared up. Naïvely, I didn’t want to believe that could happen because I didn’t want to believe that I could work my entire life to finally feel like I belonged somewhere—my struggle since toddlerhood—only to watch the place I’d worked to find myself collapse like Jenga blocks into a ravine.
“Are you saying the foundation is slipping out from under your dreams,” I asked. I tried to skirt around how deeply I resonated with his story by saying that I thought that a lot of people in this country could relate to what he and his wife were going through right now. Metaphorically, of course.
I asked if I could come out and see it for myself. I wanted to see what home looked like for them, and how they dealt with losing it.
The weather was supposed to be party sunny. I rode my motorcycle from inner SE Portland and headed for Washougal. The sun didn’t last long. On the 205 bridge, high winds from the gorge threatened to push my bike sideways into the box truck in the next lane, or forcibly remove me backwards from the seat. I tightened my grip and loosened my shoulders, because that’s what you do when the winds of change become gales.
Becoming homeless is no fable to me. It is not something that just happens to bad people, or addicts. It has happened to me, over and over again, in different forms, making my sense of home an ambivalent quest for an unknown grail. Maybe I’ve had many homes, more than all my fingers and toes; maybe I’ve had none, and simply floated between places to lay my sleeping bag, occasionally landing for a few months, maybe a couple of years. Times when I’ve really had it good, really felt like I was home, I’ve tightened my grip, wanting to not lose it. But a place has its way of shrugging us off when the time comes.
Now, I’m tentative to love a place too much. At 30, I’ve lived in Portland for four years, twice longer than anywhere else in my life. I’m trying to loosen my death grip on a good thing, to be open to other options. Maybe soon I’ll take a reprieve from the city and do the Thoreau thing for a while. But what place would I be worthy of?
From town, Washougal River Road follows the idyllic river upstream through the foothills of the Cascades north of the Columbia. The farther out I ride, the more familiar the landscape becomes. Dilapidated houses sink into the earth farther and farther apart from each other on scraggly forested land. Shoddy fences surround dead playground equipment and doghouses whose shingles have been torn off. Washing machines sit in driveways; some operable, others bound for the trip to the dump that will never happen. Antique, tireless tractors decorate the field edges of thumbprint-sized farms.
I was raised in rural communities so much like the outskirts of Washougal that on my ride out River Road, I silently name the year, make and model of most broken down trucks I see that littered the Trump/Pence-postered yards as they pass through my periphery. On many levels, I feel like I know this place intimately, which is one reason I live in the city.
When I park in the Nelsons’ driveway, I notice the driveway is flanked by a half dozen brown and silver tarps covering what is left of a small yard. Anchored by tent stakes and sandbags, the tarps should delay the erosion of the driveway long enough for the couple to move out, walk away, hand back the house to the other bank.
From their deck, which is barely large enough for five or six chairs, I take in the gorgeous panorama. The land across from us gushes water from three creeks within a hundred yards upstream from a waterfall tall and wide as the Nelsons’ house. Chimney smoke billows from a neighbor’s blue house, near the waterfall. The trees sway. An eagle glides by.
This place, to me, is fantastically beautiful. I feel like I’m in a postcard slice of the PNW relegated to Instagram and the dreams of Bay Area refugees, the wilder tracts of our bioregion cityfolks feel they must prepare to visit with expensive trips to REI.
Corey welcomes me in. I take off my wet gear and realize that after two years, I’ve never seen the man outside work. We hug each other for the first time. Cherie offers me hot tea. They describe how they stand out on the deck together and watch eagles soar beneath wildly morphing clouds; how the full moon rises every month over the hill on the far side of the river; how the trees in autumn change color and drop leaves into a river effusive with winter’s first rains.
They tell me about the landslide, how they went from ‘set for life’ to homeless and soon-to-be bankrupt in three seconds. For days after the slide, Cherie says she could hardly breathe. She didn’t sleep for two weeks.
Don’t you have any recourse, or any way to repair the bank, I ask.
“That first day, I called a builder I’ve known for twenty years,” Corey says. He gave them options. They called an excavator, who said he couldn’t get the proper machinery where he needed it, and didn’t want to put his employees at risk trying. A geotech engineer came up with a hundred-thousand-dollar solution that, if that kind of money was just lying around, they would do. But it’s not. Besides, Cherie says, fixing the bank isn’t even important at this point.
“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” she says.
What is home, if you don’t feel safe there? My own answer is that it is no longer home, a truth I’ve come to more than once about a particular house, town, and recently, a nation post-election. In the latter case, however, I’m not tempted to leave this time so much as I am to dig in and create a home for myself. But the thought of doing so after being here gives me pause.
The house is impressively compact and spacious at the same time. Inside and out, it screams Tiny House, built 50 years before Tiny Houses became cool. Their loft bedroom sets above the bathroom and kitchen. Crystal-studded altars, buddha statues and small goddesses live throughout the space. The couches are super comfortable. It’s as large a house as I could ever want. During our conversation, I find myself distracted by the natural beauty outside the huge square windows. On the sill, I notice an ancient stone tool, or three of them.
“We found that thing when we started digging in the garden,” Corey says. “I know it’s not natural.”
I pick up a rough stone pestle about 8” long, and turn it this way and that. At first glance I think it could have come right out of a riverbed, but the phallic tool is too refined for that. Three potato chip-shaped indents serve as comfortable grips for a thumb and two fingers. I’ve seen things like it only in museums.
I’m reminded of Cherie’s comment about stewarding the land. It impresses me how we humans play games of ownership and development with different intentions: to one person, a tract of land represents only money; to someone else, a hillside is the history and spirit of generations of people, just one in a community of subjects: plants, animals, microbes, stones, all in relation to one another.
Before I leave, I help Corey load a futon into the back of his truck. I sense the peace around leaving is not yet pervasive. For saying that they’re leaving this week, I see little evidence of packing.
They’re debating whether they need to bury the stone tools back in the garden.
“I think we should leave them here,” Corey says.
For two and a half years, Cherie and Corey stewarded this piece of land, called it home, enjoyed every mile of the long commute to and from the Portland area. Home meant, for them, a permanent vacation, a source of constant gratitude.
That’s part of her confusion.
“I wonder, did I do something wrong?” Cherie says, tears welling in her eyes. “Was I taking it for granted? I don’t think I was. I was very present, all the time. Always thinking of ways to beautify it and make it better. Did I not show enough gratitude?”
Corey reaches over to comfort her. He takes her into his arms.
“I think I did,” she says.