I live in a rural community too small and spread out to have a town. My home is on the Key Peninsula, KP, which lies west of Gig Harbor, and is a craggy finger sticking 15 miles out into South Puget Sound. It’s narrow, between one and four miles wide, and is covered by woods and wetlands. There are only a few crossroad communities of small stores, homes and farms. We are connected, barely, by winding tributaries of gravel lanes that change names more often than they change direction.
I rise early this time of year, too early, because a woodpecker starts the day banging its head against the side of my house. What at first I took to be gunshots or a jackhammer is a Northern Flicker declaring his love for his territory, his mate, and our siding.
Then comes another explosion. Our six-year-old flings open the bedroom door followed by his daily full-throated inquiry: “IS IT SCHOOL TODAY AGAIN?” He does homework over oatmeal, or under oatmeal, using the worksheet as a placemat. He fills in blanks and answers simple questions. One: Describe your favorite color. “RAIN,” he writes.
Next we wait together for the school bus on the side of a narrow road walled in by evergreens. The bus emerges from a tunnel of trees and snaps open its doors at the same time every day. The driver is wearing a mask as are most of the kids. I pull mine off and wave as the boy climbs aboard.
Later I tutor students at a local school. A disheveled fourth grader finishes eating cold cereal from a plastic bowl and drops into the chair opposite me, dragging a book on beetles or dinosaurs or outer space intended for someone younger. I joke, “Pull yourself together, man. You look like you slept in your clothes.” He answers, eyes glistening above his mask, “I did sleep in my clothes.”
Afterwards, I ask the teacher what else I can do to help him and his classmates. “Stay,” she says. I stay and after school watch a T-Ball game where every child hits, every child runs, every child scores, but never the same way. It’s like reading the same book over and over but finding a new journey to the same ending every time.
On the way home I make a detour for a popular local who is hitchhiking, all masked up on the side of the road. He is a regular at our local watering hole and at our library down the road. I know this because he tells me every time I pick him up. He is jubilant because the library is open again. “They let people check out 50 movies at a time! Fifty!” He directs me down a series of gravel roads to the land his family homesteaded over a century ago. Most of it was sold off, but he somehow retained a hidden scrap and put a trailer on it.
Whenever I drive to some place new to me on the KP, I wonder whether I will find it, or find my way out. One may start out heading south on the Key Pen highway, a respectable two-lane blacktop, and turn off onto any number of gravel side roads with legitimate-sounding names like “165th Court East SW” before plunging into forest or through naked clearcuts, over salmon streams and around kettle lakes, up and down berry-choked slopes and ravines lost to memory, twisting left and right at imaginative street signs that read “East 165th Court Ave Place West For Now,” or “Died of Measles Drive KP South,” or “Trespassers Will be Shot, Pickled, and Eaten.” At the end of such roads, I often come to rest at some hidden cove close to the still inaccessible destination under a sign reading something like “Joe’s Bay,” a name that will never appear on any map.
My hitchhiking passenger disembarks at such a spot and lumbers into his garden, shifting an armload of books and videos and bottles. He pulls some plants from the ground and hands them to me. “Golden Beets! Fry ‘em in butter and don’t spare the salt!”
The KP has been home to anarchists, millionaires, loggers, and poets. It remains the summer refuge for whatever the opposite of a snowbird is. I have lived here a scant 18 years now — longer than anywhere else in my life. I imagine I’ve met everyone out here at least once. But we all lead separate and even solitary lives in private circles, made worse by the pandemic. Residents on the south end may have little to do with northerners like me. Those on the water may never visit the many who live inland, encircled by towering trees or on the edge of clearcuts in simple homes rented month to month.
When we did run into each other during the pandemic, we were marked by our masks and how we wore them (nose in or nose out?), if we had a mask at all. Even now, we keep our distance like strangers from rival gangs.
But we do know one another. We stand next to each other at the coffee place, at the library, at bake sales, fundraisers and funerals. We have worshipped together, served together, and fought one another across plates of fried eggs and gravy, over cups of coffee and glasses of beer. We walk the same aisles in our one market, the same trails through our many parks, and all those other, steeper trails that wait for each of us. We have stood to welcome the joining of families and the birth of new life. We have stood to join our voices together in celebration and protest, and we have stood side by side to bury our dead.
The outside world periodically pulls me across the narrow bridge uniting our peninsula to the mainland, then over a larger span to distant cities where houses are built closer together than trees can grow. I begin to recall what it was like to live in that urban world instead of the island nation that is the Key Peninsula. I begin to forget the color of rain.
Back at home in the evening, a neighbor emerges from the woods with a half-empty bottle of homemade wine. “Where’s the other half?” I ask. “It was a long walk,” he says. We sit on my deck and sample his wine. Forty or fifty crows glide across the twilight sky to their nearby roost, all silent to protect its location. “Crows are notoriously proud and possessive of their home territory,” I point out.
“So is everyone else on the KP,” replies my neighbor.