I arrived in Onion Creek in December 1981, the day a snowstorm dumped a foot-deep blanket across the landscape. My parents had purchased Onion Creek Square only a few months before, and this was my first time seeing it. I had just graduated from college, and I needed a place to stay as I organized my job search and planned the next stage of my life. I arrived late in the night, a passenger in my stepfather’s pickup, and I slept most of the way there. When we arrived, he showed me to my room, and I fell across the bed exhausted. I slept until mid-morning the next day, and then I woke up anxious to see the place that was now my home for the immediately future.
Onion Creek Square was a country general store located in a rural area about two hours north of Spokane. The surrounding landscape was hilly and dominated by Tamarack pines. Few people lived in the area until the 1960s, when back-to-basics homesteaders discovered and settled it, and even then, when I arrived, probably fewer than a hundred persons lived within ten miles of the store. It was a log building on a ten-acre lot. We lived in a two-bedroom mobile home next to the store.
It was a sunny day, but cold, and the sunlight reflecting off the deep snow burned my eyes. Across Onion Creek Road, snow fell from a pine bough in a powdery curtain. Though not fully awake, I was amazed how beautiful and pure the land looked. How rustic. How peaceful. Yet I felt stressed and disoriented. The day before had been bad, and I was uncertain of my future. I had graduated college knowing everything I needed to know to start a business career, but also feeling certain that was the last thing I wanted to do.
“It walks,” Merle said, as I stepped into the store. “But does it talk?”
“The hell you say!” he said, chuckling.
Beside my parents and their one employee, Denise, the only other person in the store was a regular customer named John. I poured a cup of coffee and joined John by the wood-burning stove. I wanted to warm up and wake up. But looking at the deep snow outside the window, I suddenly felt oppressed. I’m a city boy. What am I doing in the country?
I saw two horsemen riding up the street. They wore cowboy hats and dusters, and against the snowy background, they resembled a vintage photograph of a time long ago. As they neared the store, I saw rifles strapped to their saddles. They had long hair and one was a Native American. To make the anachronistic image complete, as they dismounted in front of the store, I saw that both carried six-shooters in Western holsters.
Oh god! What did I get myself into by coming here?
But that night, or the next day, or perhaps a week or so later–I don’t really remember–I began something that would define who I am, what I value, and how I wanted to spend my life. In the winter, we closed the store at 6:00 PM, because no one drove those icy, mountainous roads after dark. After dinner, I returned to the store, tossed a log or two in the iron stove, and sat in front of it to read. I had always been a reader, but at college I read what was required rather than what I wanted. Now, for the first time in years, I could dedicate hours a day to pleasure reading.
The first novel I remember reading at Onion Creek was Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I had seen the Roman Polanski movie based on the novel (Tess, 1979) at a campus theater only a few weeks before I graduated, and I liked the story so much I decided to read the novel. I read other books by Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. I also read D.H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. My reading then came to the American shores, as I picked up the novels as my countrymen. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernst Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and William Faulkner’s Light in August. I favored classics, but I also read contemporary novels like Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins.
I have no idea how many novels I read that winter, but for five, six, or seven hours every night, I read. In my mind, I remember it as an idyllic moment, and I visualize it almost like a Norman Rockwell’s painting–the wood-burning stove, the cane chair, in which a young man sat, bent over a book. You might think of it as a still life, for its lack of motion and the perfect arrangement of details, but it is clearly a portrait. In those hours, I learned who I was, what I valued, and how I wanted to spend my life.