Cornered: Town Beneath The Mountains
New wind inside. New love for this town of mine. I drink the beauty of my neighborhood as one returning from the desert would drink handfuls of water.
I drink the cut grass, the swaying trees, even the weeds so coarse and lustrous. They quench my thirst all of them. The liquid trills of birds at dusk. The sparrows, the swallows, the finches. The way the mountains look with a glaze of snow. The way the sun strengthens from spring to summer.
The more light, the better, I say. We need more time with each other barefoot in the parks, playing soccer, throwing footballs, cooking food over crackling coals…Yes, much of this column will be about a park, my favorite park right in the heart of Gardnerville, but first, some backstory.
Last month, I told my friend and editor at the Carson Valley Times that I needed a break, that I had lost something and needed to find it again before I penned another column. I told him I was struggling as an author, that my first book, published last year, a very dark and personal and painful book, had upset some people in the community, had upset some people in my family, that it had taken an entire year for the effects of that book to percolate and manifest themselves in discernible ways people treated me differently. I told him I felt conflicted with the community, that I wasn’t sure I fit in anymore, that I was torn between my more subversive self and my conservative hometown, that I was worried my defensiveness was creeping into my work. My friend, a great friend, said he would support me and give me some time to think about it.
I spent the following month fighting with other friends, family members, anyone really. I threw verbal punches everywhere. Even the fly on the wall got an earful. This went on and on. My wife didn’t know what was wrong with me. I brushed it off as unfairness, injustice, injurious things. I told her I had a right to stand up for myself, that I wanted to teach my boy how to stand up for himself. I was too stubborn to tell her what was really going on, that I was at war with my inner demons, and they were winning.
Of course the day came when my embattled pride broke in a flood of tears. It was a Wednesday. I’d had a blowout with an old college friend. I’d had an argument with my wife. For whatever reason, I couldn’t make either of them leave. I couldn’t hurt either of them enough to give up on me. They both offered me forgiveness, and I took it. I drank it like a man who hasn’t had a drop to drink in all the desert-years of his suffering. I took their forgiveness, and it was enough to nourish me back from the brink.
I don’t know why some kids from Gardnerville have such a large chip on their shoulder. I think it might have something to do with the way our town is situated against the mountains. As kids, we’d project whatever problems we were experiencing in life onto those bluish-gray ramparts. Our yearnings would dip just beyond that ridge. We’d imagine what life was like on the other side. Eventually we’d leave town to answer that question for ourselves. Some of us would find answers on the other side, build new lives far away. Others would return with different answers, or no answers at all, or just more questions.
Gardnerville isn’t a perfect town. There are things about it that bother me. It many ways, it still pulses with the raw, provisional energy of the frontier. Some days I love that energy, other days not so much. But I’m kidding myself to think I’d be happy somewhere else. I know I’m in love with this town. Every day I walk out my door, I fall in love with it all over again. I look up at the shimmering blue mountains and see how they dwarf us all, how we’re all equal in our desire to build meaningful lives beneath them.
Sometimes I forget how proud I am to call Gardnerville my home.
My wife and I, along with our little boy, recently spent a day wandering the community gardens at Heritage Park.
Heritage Park is my favorite park in the Valley not because it is superior to Minden Park, Lampe Park, Stodieck Park, Aspen or Johnson Lane parks (Editor’s note: or Mitch Park – by far the most underrated in the Valley), but because it is the fixed reference point against which I’ve built a family and grown into myself as a man, the fulcrum around which my sense of time has wheeled through the seasons, through the years. I’m probably not alone among Chichester residents by saying I always feel home when I turn left from the highway onto High School Street, pass Carson Valley Middle School, take a narrow right onto Courthouse Alley, beneath the old trees, behind the tire store, then a sharp left on to Ezell. There, on the left-hand side, are the now-familiar gardens, where people are often working on their knees, hands in the soil.
There, in front of us, in the distance, is the first row of houses of my neighborhood, like a low palisade of pastel-colored siding, underscored by wooden fences of varying brown hue. To the right, the park lies like a clean slate of grass, bisected by Gilman Avenue, studded with chalky-gray stone picnic tables. In the middle stands the pavilion with its faux-log pillars and broad concrete steps. Behind the park rise the brick facades of historic Gardnerville, the backsides of buildings, narrow alleyways, slanted power lines, and always that wall of mountains beyond, a structure of its own, huge, magnificent, locking everything into place. No matter where I go in the world, Heritage Park will always be my impression of home.
So the other day we rode our bikes to the community gardens. I noticed that someone had fortified the actual garden area with tall reams of chicken wire. We opened a wooden gate and wandered between the raised garden beds, each a wooden rectangle boasting freshly turned soil, the smell of loam, sprouts starting to show. At the time, there were only one or two plots still available for the season.
As a side note, anyone in the community can rent one of these plots. That’s why it’s a community garden. If you don’t have your own garden, or you’ve spent years trying to break through Gardnerville clay in your backyard, it’s a great option. I often see young families there, kids dark with dirt, holding spades and watering cans.
As another side note, I have an awesome garden in my backyard, the result of years of working the stubborn soil. In the last two summers, my Chichester corn has grown taller than my roofline. I don’t say this to brag, although I’m very proud of my corn, but to say that gardening is one of the things I enjoy doing with my son. In the garden I can teach him about faith, about devotion, about planting a seed and watching it grow, nurturing the smallest sprout into something that bears fruit….
Okay, back to the story. There’s always a moment in Gardnerville in the springtime when the air becomes heavy with the scent of flowering trees. You know it when it happens, a critical mass of sorts, because the sweetness in the air has a heat to it. You can both smell it and feel it. It’s overwhelming in the most pleasant way. Well, wandering around the garden beds on this particular day, that smell hit me. The wind had shifted, and the smell broke all around us. It led us to a section of the park just north of the garden beds, where someone had fashioned an idyllic bower in a small grouping of trees. Not elaborate. Just a bench. Some stones and flowers. Some decent shade in which to sit and savor the air, listen to the wind in the leaves, gaze out on the park and the greater town.
We also walked the new mediation path. It’s a Celtic knot of a maze that winds the walker inside and out. Someone had left painted stones along the route, and each bore a one-word message: “Dream,” “Create,” “Peace.” There were other messages, too. The whole thing was pretty trippy, and by “trippy,” I mean I tripped over myself many times.
We strolled over to the work shed next. Wheelbarrows of all colors turned upside down and stacked against each other. One had been painted pink. I don’t know why, but it struck me as one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen—a pink wheelbarrow glowing in the spring sunlight. There were also shovels and rakes, their blades and teeth caked in dirt. On one side of the shed was an old white bed frame. I guessed someone was planning to convert it into a garden bed. It looked like the kind of shabby chic thing you’d find in a Gardnerville antique shop. The ingenuity alone of trying to convert it into a garden box delighted me, hearkened back to that can-do frontier spirit that so characterizes this town.
The last place we checked out was the new children’s garden. If a racecar garden box can’t get kids excited about gardening, I don’t know what can. There’s also a long, curvy flower bed lined with brightly painted bricks. All the colors of the rainbow. It looked like Candyland. I never wanted to leave.
As yet another side note, I’ll point out that volunteers built these gardens. Local businesses and organizations donated funds and supplies to help. People gave up their Saturdays to move dirt, build fences, plant trees and flowers. Sometimes I forget that I live in a town where the residents really, really care about their community. It’s easy for me, personally, to get burned out on some of the local politics, the sometimes divisive public debates I used to cover as a reporter for The Record-Courier; but in my heart, I’m glad that people care enough about this community to have those debates, to show up to the polls and vote their conscience.
Okay, the last thing I noticed about the new children’s garden was a makeshift memorial tacked to the post of the entrance gate. Two words written on a sheet of paper: “Remembering Roger.” There were also some messages penned on a bulletin board above. “I’m going to miss you, Roger,” read one. Another said, “Still making people smile.” I don’t know who Roger is or what his life meant to the people who wrote these messages, but I imagine he had something to do with the new garden. So I would like to thank him and all the people who help make our community better.
Memorials are tough. How do we sum up someone’s life with a single message, a plaque? How do we pay tribute to the entirety of someone’s life, their personality, their character, the way they lived, the way they loved, the things they saw, the things they endured? I don’t know. As a writer, I always try to break into that inner character, to find the real motivation behind our actions, why we are the way we are. And it’s almost always an impossible task. Because words can’t capture all the things that make us human. To those we love, we each pay tribute in our own strange ways.
About five years ago, I was hiking up Jobs Peak Trail off Foothill Road. It’s one of my favorite trails in the Valley, less crowded than Faye-Luther and less strenuous than Genoa and Sierra Canyon trails. Where the Jobs Peak trail reaches the base of the mountain, there’s a creek. Like every mountain creek, the water runs cold and clear. Bits of mica shine like gold in the sandy streambeds. Around the creek a mesh of willow and alder and aspen and wild rose and wild currant. In those days, I’d hike up there by myself. Splash cold mountain water on my face. Watch the nuthatches work their way down the glossy trunks of alder trees. I’d often leave the creek to go up into the Jeffrey pines. To sit against the base of the trees, on those natural mats of dried pine needles and soil. The smell there was earthy yet crisp, resinous, faintly sweet and sere. I would sit beneath the pines with a notebook and pen and just write.
So about five years ago, I was hiking on the same trail. I came across a strange pile of rocks just off one of the lower bends. The rocks were small, stream-smoothed, as though someone had gathered them from the creek higher up. I bent down and examined them closer. A few were pearly white, polished to a glimmering sheen. I rolled them around in my hand. I had never seen anything like them in the streambeds and couldn’t figure out how they had gotten there, how the whole pile of rocks had gotten there. I put two of them in my pocket and headed up to the creek, concluding I needed to examine them at home with my magnifying glass and amateur geology book. They were beautiful rocks.
An hour or so later, after my usual respite, I was walking back down the trail. I saw a woman at the same spot I had found the rocks, kneeling down at the edge of the pile, raking her hands over the stones as though she were searching for something she had lost there. When she saw me coming, she stood back up, adjusted herself. She was a middle-aged woman dressed in sporty attire: warm-up pants, trail shoes. I want to say she was wearing a fanny pack, but I can’t remember it exactly. I do remember she looked upset, not in an angry way, but in a sad and distressed way. I said hello. Part of me wanted to keep walking. But I stopped and looked at the rocks with her. I made a comment how strange they appeared, how random and beautiful. I asked her if she knew where they came from. She sighed, nodded sadly. She told me she had put them there. She told me she lived down by the trailhead and had been making regular trips up the mountain to leave a couple stones at a time…Guilt pricked my insides. My sinuses began tingling. I could feel the weight of the polished stones in my pocket. Why? I asked her. She explained. Her husband had been killed in Iraq several years earlier. He wasn’t a soldier. He was a private contractor. One of the first causalities of the war to touch Western Nevada. He had loved hiking in the hills behind their home. These stones were for him.
When she was out of view, heading up the hill toward the creek, I took the stones from my pocket and dropped them on what I knew then was a shrine. They clinked against the other rocks. I hadn’t had the courage to tell her I had taken them. I had told her that I worked for the paper and would be interested in sharing her story, if she were ever inclined.
The greatest power any writer or journalist has isn’t necessarily in the story they tell or the way they tell it. Much of their power lies in the choice they make to tell the story in the first place, in that critical decision, facing limited resources and deadlines, about whose story is worth telling.
I don’t know that woman’s name. I can’t remember if she ever gave it to me or not. I regret that in the years between then and now, I wasn’t able to tell her story. I just want her to know that I’m sorry for her loss, and that every time I hike up that trail with my family, I think about her.
I’ve also been thinking about riots. We’ve all seen the news. Riots on the streets of Baltimore. Riots on the streets of Ferguson. But I’ve seen rioting in other places, too. Nonphysical places. Online. In the comment sections of news articles. All over social media. I’ve seen some heinous behavior. Hateful pictures. Hateful acts of speech. It took a while for me to realize that all these flame wars about this issue or that issue are really just cover for our greater cultural wars. They’re really just cries about how many of us don’t trust each other, don’t understand each other, can’t hear each other, would rather yell and marginalize each other. I had my own riot going for a while on Facebook, lashing out at old friends who disagreed with me on certain issues. Later on, reflecting on the madness, I affirmed in myself a personal belief that physical violence crosses a line that can never be re-crossed and thus must never be acceptable, whether in our police departments or in our political protests. But I had to admit that there is violence in rhetoric, too. I had seen it in others and seen it in myself. Physical rioting and verbal rioting have a lot in common. They both grow out of rage, frustration, desperation. They both attack something out there in the world that doesn’t have much to do with the emotional state within. They both call attention to something beneath the surface, a sharp distrust, a stubborn hurt that goes way, way down.
Back in Gardnerville, this town beneath the mountains, this bucolic little garden spot where I’ve had my first love, my first heartbreak, my youth and adulthood, my happiness and despair—in this town, my home, I finally decided I don’t want to riot anymore. I don’t want to hurt anyone, whether with sticks or stones or words. I want to be honest with people about being a writer, the terrible responsibility of putting words out into the world, what it’s like to receive both love and hate for your work, what it’s like to hurt people with your words when you never meant to. I’ve done a good job of covering that up in the last year, of pretending I have all the answers. The truth is I don’t have the answers. I’ve been looking for them my whole life. I wish I had more for you, but I don’t. The one thing I do know is that letting go of pain is hard, and that by letting go, we find our humanity. We find each other.
Scott Neuffer is a freelance writer who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Maria and son Andres. He recently published his first book, “Scars of the New Order,” which is available in local bookstores and on Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Besides reading and writing obsessively, he enjoys long walks on the beach, any beach, and poorly scripted romantic comedies. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @scottneuffer.
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