It’s that time of year when we all tend to look back and reflect on the paths our lives have taken over the previous twelve months. For many of us, much was predictable: we managed the same obligations and the same routines that we have embraced for some time. For most of us, there were also a few unpredictable challenges and pleasures that either threw us off kilter or enriched us in unexpected ways.
My year has been full of surprises. In January, I was dealing with infuriating physical limitations and gearing up for a political fight. By February, I had acquiesced to both and, determined to use my new-found time constructively, had turned to a writing project I had neglected. I was deeply involved in that undertaking when my friend David Hoefer contacted me in May and said it was time to wrap up The Last Resort.
I wholeheartedly agreed and immediately switched gears. Both of us devoted the entire summer to our goal of publishing by the start of the fall academic year. We edited, polished, proofread, worked with our designers, struggled with software, launched a business, and, on August 17, produced a book we felt was ready to release to the public. It was an intense few months, and it was worth every bit of the hard work.
We are enormously pleased with the book’s reception and with the feedback so many of you have provided. Thank you for giving The Last Resort a chance and for indulging in a little nostalgia for a time long lost. I am most grateful for the people this project encouraged me to reach out to: my father’s former students, Sherry Olson and Alan Strahler; the family of my father’s former colleague, Charlie Denny; my father’s cousin, John Allen Moore; the family of my father’s best buddy, Bobby Cole; my childhood friends, Lorrie Abner Gritton and Marcy Feland Rucker; my cousins (you know who you are); my long-time writing friends, Roi-Ann and David Bettez and Rogers Bardé; and the next generation of forest ecologists, Bill Bryant and Tom Kimmerer.
This is also a time to look toward the future, toward the fresh start offered by the new year. In September, I enrolled in a nine-month writing program to sharpen my skills and provide the impetus I need to finish my first novel. The holidays have provided an opportunity to focus on that project, and I feel some momentum as we enter the new year. I intend to commit to that undertaking—at least until life’s unexpected twists and turns shove me off my intended path.
Here’s wishing all of you a year full of challenges that change you for the better and surprises that kick you out of your happy routine.
As I have worked on two large-scale writing projects over the past year, I have been awash in memories: memories of my parents, one gone a quarter-century, one gone a half-century; memories of the small Kentucky community where I grew up; memories of my early childhood surrounded by my father’s professional colleagues; and flickering memories of momentary interactions with long-lost relatives that I’ve tried to tease out of the recesses of my mind. These are the tricky ones, the ones that may shed some light on unexamined family relationships that altered the reality I knew.
My current project requires solving a fascinating puzzle: Why did my maternal grandfather, whom no one in my immediate family ever knew, make the choices he did? What motivated him? While I have been able to uncover a lot of his story through dogged research, what clues exist in the family stories that I do know or that I can remember?
Memory, unfortunately, is always unreliable and usually fickle. We have all been startled to learn that someone else’s memory of an event we recall so vividly does not at all match our recollection. Whose memory is right? How can we both be so certain about our differing stories? Has our memory been altered by hearing someone else’s retelling or by seeing a photo or video? Or did we dream it? How many family arguments and estrangements have been propelled by our illusions?
In 2016, Seamus Carey, president of Transylvania University, spoke eloquently about the fickleness of memory:
“The problem is memory itself. It is difficult to remember well. No matter how hard we try, memory flickers; no matter how earnestly we struggle, memory plays tricks with our thoughts; no matter how firm our promise to hold on, memory is the morning mist, so bright and stellar at its birth, so quickly burned away by the sun of another day.”
As each day passes, our minds are filled with ephemera collected from a multitude of sources. We spend our waking hours, and part of our slumber, sorting through this mass of information. By necessity, some gets moved to a shadowy corner. Some gets pinned to the forefront of our awareness. Some gets temporarily locked inside a box, only to reappear unexpectedly after an unsolicited and sometimes inconvenient provocation.
We cannot tame them, these unruly memories. We cannot hold them, even if we want to. Our unconsciousness regularly seizes control of our consciousness and sweeps them away. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes it’s for our own good, although we may not recognize it at the time. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we do everything we can to cling to the few memories we have.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still honor what I can’t remember. Or those whom I don’t remember. I will rely on others’ stories, on other photos. I will construct a memory that nourishes me and inspires me to build memories with those who are here with me now, chasing this wild dream we call life.
In memory of Buddy, whom I can only remember with love.
[Following is a guest blog by the author of the Introduction to The Last Resort, David Hoefer. I invite other readers to share their thoughts about The Last Resort for future blog posts. You can contact me here.]
As several readers have noted, The Last Resort, with its dual emphasis on human interest and scholarly fact, is unusually structured. Sallie and I didn’t prepare it from a model but that doesn’t mean the book is entirely without precedent.
About the time The Last Resort was completed, I stumbled on to a work that seemed surprisingly parallel in content and format: John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez. It had originally been published with additional material, including a species catalog, as Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by Steinbeck and his friend and co-author, the Salinas marine biologist Ed Ricketts. That earlier volume was published in 1941, a mere two or three months before Pud Goodlett began keeping his journal on Salt River.
Of sailing and science
The original Sea of Cortez is really two books in one—a blend of California varietals. Like The Last Resort, it attempts to balance human interest and scientific information. The first segment, written by Steinbeck and later published solo as the logbook, is a day-to-day account of a scientific collecting trip aboard the sailing ship Western Flyer to the Gulf of California, that long, warm tendril of ocean separating the Baja California Peninsula from mainland Mexico. It is marked by Steinbeck’s particular gift as a philosophizing poet or a poeticizing philosopher, without really being either.
The second segment, written by Ricketts, documents the results of the expedition: a substantial taxonomic record of the invertebrate marine life cajoled—swimming, swaying, and stinging—from the waters of the Sea of Cortez. Along with his earlier book, Between Pacific Tides, co-authored with Jack Calvin—a similar catalog for intertidal life of near-shore California—Sea of Cortez allows Ricketts to lay claim to significant contributions in the development of West Coast marine biology, despite his death at the young age of 50 in 1948. The Log from the Sea of Cortez, repackaged in 1951 without the scientific content, substitutes Steinbeck’s memoir and tribute to his friend, “About Ed Ricketts,” for the species catalog.
A whisper of things to come
Sea of Cortez was not a trial run for The Last Resort, and I do not mean to imply that The Last Resort is in Steinbeck’s and Ricketts’s league. For that matter, I have no evidence that Pud had any knowledge of Steinbeck’s sideways foray into plant and animal study, although he was a fan of Steinbeck’s other work, including Travels with Charley. Nevertheless, the two books do share a similar form—one that is rather unusual in American literature, and maybe in other world literatures as well.
If you’ve enjoyed The Last Resort, consider also Sea of Cortez or at least the shorter reissue. Steinbeck and Ricketts make the unusual both intriguing and important.
The young boys who camped with Pud at The Last Resort in the winter of 1942-43 were novices, members of his Boy Scout troop whom he patiently tried to teach fire building and First Class Cooking. Bobby Cole and Rinky Routt had already gone off to adult training camps sponsored by the U.S. military. The youngsters Pud recruited to replace them struggled to know what to pack for their weekend in the woods. According to the mildly frustrated Scoutmaster, “Those boys carted the biggest pile of grub and accessories you ever saw, and of course didn’t take along enough blankets.”
Winter camping and winter hiking hold a special appeal for me. First, there are no annoying insects. You rarely work up a sweat hiking or taking care of routine chores. If you’re lucky, the ground will be frozen and mud will be at a minimum. You may even have a little snow on the ground whose whiteness brightens the entire landscape. Dripping waterfalls may have transformed into elaborate ice sculptures.
But one of my favorite aspects of winter hiking is being able to see the contours of the land amid the denuded trees. You can almost imagine how the quiet little stream carved out the trench now at the bottom of the steep hillsides. You can get a close-up view of the heavy rocks that have shifted with the earth, now forming primitive sculptures reminiscent of a Cubist painting.
And today, with the availability of aerial drone photography, we can even get a true bird’s-eye view of the topography of an area, as if we are one of the Red-tailed Hawks Pud regularly saw soaring above the camp.
Thanks to the skills and beneficence of Bobby Cole’s son-in-law, Brad Wilson, I am able to provide you an aerial tour of Pud’s Salt River camp as it appears today. The land has changed little since Pud and Bobby wandered the woods and fields 75 years ago. The road leading from Fox Creek to Bonds Mill is now paved, but the river is untouched and the rich bottomland is still being used for agriculture.
The following video starts just east of the camp and follows the river downstream to its intersection with U.S. 62 near the little community of Fox Creek. As the video ends you’ll see the cemetery in the foreground and the church steeple in the background. During the journey, you’ll see the mix of woods and plowed fields surrounding the camp. If you look closely about 35 seconds in, you’ll see the drone dip its camera to catch a fleeting glimpse of the boys’ masterful stone chimney, which still stands.
What a gift! It took me 56 years to find my way to my father’s beloved camp for the first time. Now I can indulge in a virtual visit, refreshing my memory of the terrain and the contours of the land, any time I'm unable to hike through the actual woods. Thank you, Brad and Julie Cole Wilson, for letting my imagination soar.