We are speeding along I-84 running parallel to the Columbia River historic highway with no food and a tank running out of gas because I have gotten it in my head that I cannot go one more Fall without seeing salmon spawn.
Today, like so many other days, my thoughts are looping a refrain:
My poor husband.
My poor husband, so eager to help me, so interested in my happiness, so willing to overlook the booby traps I leave in the fridge by never screwing lids on tightly enough. My poor husband, who has learned not to bring up anything of import in the last hour before I go to bed, lest I spend the next six hours thrashing and crying and threatening to go sleep in the guest bedroom and proclaiming dark statements that never ring true the next morning:
“The Problem is Us!” I always say, laughing about it the next day.
My poor husband who gave up his dreams of being an Hawaiian beach-front living, tan-rocking sculptor in order to drill peoples’ teeth, provide for our family and ensure me the kind of stability necessary to not freak out about the future. My poor husband, a man who is once again indulging me in my quixotic drive to connect with this place by accompanying me on his day off on a trip to a tiny creek upstream of a fish hatchery two hours from our house so that I may see, for the first time, the way a salmon destroys itself in the process of creating new life. My poor husband, who has a wife who is so good at creating visions of the big picture that she forgets to check whether there is enough gas to get them there and finds herself fifteen miles from the nearest station with the gas light flicking triumphantly red.
I keep my eyes on the road as to not attract distraction. If motherhood has taught me anything, it is to remain completely still and exude the essence of the Buddha while my mind trips over half a dozen completely possible tragedies that may well occur in the next five minutes.
“Hey Bun, you wanna pull up some gas stations on your phone?” I ask Adam.
A quick glance at the dashboard sends Adam over the edge.
“For Pete’s sake, Emily, you didn’t get gas?”
How could I tell him that in my drive to get out of the house that morning, to prepare our infant son’s day in the hands of a good friend, to shuttle our toddler to pre-school with the sense that everything was fine and going as planned an normal, that in my deep and unrelenting urgency to feel the blueberry fields, hazelnut orchards and vineyards of Yamhill County whizzing by my face, to feel leather under my hands and a calming control over speed, I had forgotten a little old thing like gas?
“Emily, you cannot do this again,” he says.
“Oh, it’s fine, we’ll just find a station,” I say.
“We’re driving through a National Park,” he says.
“How many many miles come between “E” and “Actual E?” I ask.
I can feel him seething in the passenger seat beside me. We drive fourteen additional miles, three miles past our intended exit, and turn around twice, taking the turn for Eagle Creek Park. The parking lot sits just a couple hundred yards upstream from the Cascade hatchery. We park and pull on our coats and head down to the creek, where we see them down the side of the embankment – about forty, three-foot long Coho salmon treading in about three feet of slowly-moving creek water. They are flopping onto their sides and batting at the rocks with their tails like they were trying to wake them up.
I m here to understand what salmon can teach us about smelling our way home. Adam is here because, despite everything, he still believes in my visions.
I like to think that I have a better-than-average sense of smell. Okay, I can tell you which room of the house my preschooler just walked through by the smell of his shirt. My nose is the final true arbiter of feeling for me – if it doesn’t smell good there is something wrong. Given the old parlor game of “Which Sense Would You Lose?” I usually offer up sight just to piss the largest number of people off, but the truth is that I would never, ever get rid of my sense of smell. Smell has always been the way I feel my way through the world, the way I feel connected. Smell something right and I am transported as if being lifted in the rapture. Get a cold that knocks out my sense of smell and I am overwhelmed with the feeling that I have never loved or been loved a day in my life.
But salmon? Salmon smell with their whole bodies. These salmon swimming in front of us hatched two to five years ago, within a mile of this site, tiny Eagle Creek, which snakes through the gorge and feeds into the Columbia. They spent a few days to a few months in the creek, before going through what’s known as smoltification, a process that prepares them to make the transition from freshwater to ocean water. Then they swim down the Columbia, hundreds of miles, to the Pacific Ocean where they grow and pack on weight before they are ready to spawn. Some go as far as 1,000 miles away from their birth streams, but when they are ready to come home, by God do they fight their way back upstream. They do it by smelling.
Consider, for a moment, the Coho, a species known to travel one hundred miles from its play waters in the Pacific Ocean, smelling its way back home up the Columbia River, through the mouth, past Portland, upstream all the way, fighting the current, swimming according to its sensational sniffer. Dogs smell a thousand times better than humans, and bears smell a thousand times better than dogs. So consider, for a moment, the salmon, which has olfactory prowess that allows it to smell 1,000 times better than the bear.
No one knows what causes the salmon to turn from the ocean, to decide to go back home to spawn. There is no set time, perhaps a combination of cues from the stars, from the moon, chemical cues from deep within their bodies. But when they are ready, they smell their way back home, tracing the scents they have traveled back up the Columbia River, back hundreds of miles, out of the saltwater and back into the fresh, before identifying that turn in the river where their native waters have emptied and hanging right past the Cascade Hatchery, back up the stream to this spot, where the females are floating as if held up by strings, dark shadows in the clear, rippling water.
They are conducting an ancient ritual over which they have little control and I already understand them completely. I know what it’s like to want that. I know what it is to feel crazy struck with the inexplicable desire to have children, to feel the need and the birthright and the endless exasperating yearning to beat myself against a rock for the next generation. I know what it is like to witness my own death in the process, to feel so frayed and done at the point of procreation and to feel the whole time – feeling it in my body – like I was doing the right thing. And I know what it feels like to swim upstream, propelled by an animalistic urge to find my way back to where I belong.
I feel a strange kinship with these bedraggled mothers with their frayed tails, their scales coming off, their eyes about to turn translucent. I feel a real sympathy for the ocean-weary fathers who have come with them, who follow behind, squirting sperm into the eggs they have just laid. In fact, the very language scientists use about salmon makes more sense to me than anything I’ve read in a parenting manual.
The females deplete their reserves. And then they die.
But I am not a salmon. I didn’t die. Well, not in the usual way. I sure think I might have smolted somewhere from single girl to married mother of two, and I haven’t stopped smelling my way home, but I didn’t die. I am here in the cold at the edge of a creek watching what tired parents do even when they think they can do no more and I have never felt more alive.
One of the females, a medium-sized coho, clears a patch of smooth river rock, flopping onto her side and pat pat patting at the bottom of the river until it achieves the luster of wet stone. She’s picked her plot, who knows why, and is beating against that rock like her life depends upon it. Well, not her life. She is clearing space for her redd, the nest she will fill with eggs that will survive her.
“We’re here,” I say to Adam.
We fall silent, inhaling the warm scent of fallen ponderosa pine needles tinged now and again with the acrid smell of rotting fish. The moment passes as we do as travelers do, allowing our hearts to catch up with our bodies.