Letters

The car leaves the road: small car, Honda Civic sized. It shudders and is airborne. Wobbles in the way of weightless things, although it must weigh several tons. Rolls onto its roof, slams the ground, and bounces. It has strayed only inches onto the shoulder, but there is no shoulder–it’s gravel and dirt and soft with spring rain. The car has stayed parallel to the center line, more or less, until the bounce.

It lands hard on all four tires, perpendicular to and miraculously off the road.

Paul has been driving us north to go birdwatching. He pulls over and lets me out. Before he continues on to find safe parking, we see that the wrecked car is full of people–four of them–all still in their seats.


I’ve spent the morning writing letters to poets. They’ve given copies of their new books to PLAYA, where I work. Three poets, who’ve spent the last two weeks composing new words in solo cabins on the edge of Summer Lake. The books will go into our library. These three are about extinct birds, about fly fishing downstream of Cold Mountain, and about the lifetime and creativity of e.e. cummings.

I’d barely gotten to know the poets while they were here–I’d been away at readings and meetings and conferencing only to return to deadlines that kept me sequestere. Now I held the results of their time in the desert. Moved by their words, I wrote my thanks by hand. I used special paper I’d carried with me for years. I used a new pen I’ve designated for journaling and correspondence.

Then on to Highway 31 with Paul, toward Summer Lake Wildlife Area. April is one of the finest months there, and it’s half gone.


Seeing the trashed car, I’m thinking this could be bad–a lot of blood, head wounds, lacerations, maybe entrapment. I took so many first aid and EMT trainings while I was guiding that I go into autopilot. The last class was many years ago, and I may not remember every detail, but I can at least get over there and stop someone’s bleeding. Or I can try.

They’re kids, mostly. One toddler in a car seat in the back, two school-aged kids, and a somewhat older person at the wheel. They’re all crying, naturally, and pale with fear. I check for any spurting wounds, anyone unconscious, but they’re all alert and awake and mostly okay. I go from asking if they’re okay to reassuring them, “You’re okay. You’re okay. It was really scary, but you’re okay.”

They’re spattered with some kind of liquid–it looks like coffee with grounds–and I realize it’s the soft mud the car has rolled in. One window is broken; others may have been open. There’s blood, but not much.

There have to be neck and spinal injuries, minor or otherwise, and I want to assess them before they move, but as I call for help they all exit the car. They get out carefully, helping each other. They are dazed and don’t want to sit. They wander too close to the road. Broken glass is everywhere, and the toddler is drawn to it.

“Sit,” I tell them, “you can get dizzy and fall.” Paul has come back with ice, paper towels, and the cloth napkins we brought for our picnic. One girl, hurt the worst, has a cut finger. We wrap her hand and coach her in keeping it elevated. “It’ll bleed less that way.”

The driver gets on her cell to her husband. “I feel terrible,” she says. “I messed up. I’ll never drive again.”

The young boy who’d been riding shotgun was hit on one cheek by something flying through the car. He thinks maybe it was a rock. “Dude,” he says. “My face hurts.” We give him ice, have him hold it to his cheek. He says, “I was going to see my father. Now all I can think of is if I’ll get to see him.”


Hours later, at the wildlife area, Paul and I will proceed with our day in a somewhat shaken state. We end up taking more time than we might have otherwise. We stop to watch birds at every pool or riverbank we can find. Ducks feed relentlessly on the water; shorebirds are working the sand spits. We see a pair of Caspian terns, many ring-billed gulls with their slender wings and mewing calls. Sixty or so dunlin, with their black-washed bellies, the largest group I’ve seen here of these small waders. Later in the year, there will be more of different types of birds, and fewer of others.

The place is full of life, though, the perfect place to be.


Highway 31. Beautiful and isolated. Narrow. Traveled by pickups, hay trucks, SUVs, massive RVs piloted by one small person, Sprinters with bikes and cargo tops, government trucks. At night the lonely headlights come from Paisley to the south or LaPine to the north. Brilliantly lit semis, their trailers stacked with hay. Their container lights bright with caution orange that are steady and unblinking. Farther west, the massive darkness of Winter Ridge and Orion sinking and sparkling white. Sometimes so much hay goes out by night that the trucks move in gorgeous caravans of elaborate light and astounding sound.

Rough Road. Photo by Rebecca Lawton.

Poets have used headlights on the road and the stunning panoply of stars in their words and in the art on their book covers.

Just before encountering the wreck, Paul had slowed when a deer crossed just in front of us. Luckily we’d seen her and had time to react. She’d been standing as still as marble behind a barbed-wire fence, the rest of the herd closer to the playa. Without apparent effort, she’d sproinged from standing to leaping the fence in one smooth move.

“They do that,” Paul said. I thought of The Yearling and the trouble when it got too good at jumping fences.


Back at the wreck, everyone stopped. Or almost everyone. Only a few cars passed without slowing. Most drivers either pulled off the road or paused to ask if they could make a call or otherwise assist. Everyone drove either very large pickup trucks or sizeable SUVs. The little white car that had rolled and bounced was dwarfed by them.

When two fire-and-rescue vehicles arrived with lights flashing from Silver Lake, thirty miles north, they asked if anyone had witnessed the accident. Paul and I said we did. The paramedic saw my binoculars, which I’d been using to bird en route, and asked where we were staying, in case the sheriff wanted a statement. We told him we lived nearby. He looked surprised until we said he could reach us by calling the PLAYA office.

One of the women who’d stopped told the paramedic, “We’ve got walking wounded here,” and turned to us to introduce herself. She lives at the ranch with a No Smoking barn not far up Highway 31 from us. It’s one of the best landmarks on the road, one of the first you learn when you live out here. I didn’t think to ask her how the barn got its name, although I’ve wondered.


At the wildlife area, teal and gadwall and shovelers raft over the water. The wind blows cold and clear but not biting, as it’s been all winter. Paul has spent as much time looking at the drapes of snow on the ridges, the colorful layers of rock, the changing light, as at any of the birds. I admit that I love the wild life we get to touch when we bird, but I also like the excuse to get outside.

Summer Lake. Photograph by Rebecca Lawton.

I think of the letters back home and am glad they’re written. I think of the kids and wonder if they’re with their father yet.

I ask Paul what he wants to do for his birthday two weeks away. For the first time ever, he says he wants to go birding again.


Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, March 2019), available at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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