Avoiding Cabin Fever at Onion Creek

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?”

I groaned.

“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.

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