Map: Washington, setting of “Boris’s Bluff” by Iris Graville

This is a guest post from Iris Graville who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Washington. “Boris’s Bluff” first appeared in Oregon Quarterly Magazine, Summer 2013 when selected for first prize in the Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest, Student Category. Enjoy.

Boris’s Bluff. You won’t find it in hiking guidebooks or on topographical maps. Guides don’t take visitors there, either; tourists wouldn’t be impressed by this rock outcropping, a twenty-minute wander from our home the two years we lived in the isolated village of Stehekin, Washington. But Boris’s Bluff awed me.

It was Boris, our tabby cat, who first led me there. It’s not so much a bluff as the alliterative name we gave it suggests, but more like an over-sized, moss-flecked pitcher’s mound. Just beyond the sloping rock, cottonwoods and pines start their ascent to the foothills and peaks surrounding it. If not for the slice of sky visible through the canopy, you could believe the world ends right there.

Stehekin, translated as “the way through,” was named by Skagit and Salish tribes migrating between the east and west sides of Washington State. My husband and I and our two kids vacationed there regularly over the course of ten years. We’d arrive on a passenger-only ferry that navigates once daily up fifty-five-mile-long Lake Chelan. Highways were blasted through a stretch of the rocky lakeshore, but none ever made it all the way to Stehekin and its cliffed shoreline. Telephone lines never got there either, and the mountains shooting up from the valley floor block cell phone transmission.

Long before our move to Stehekin, vacations there schooled us in the way of life in this village of eighty-five, fringed by North Cascades National Park. We practiced Stehekin-style grocery shopping—mail your list and blank check to the Safeway store at the other end of the lake; pick up your groceries at the boat three days later. We outwitted biting black flies and temperatures in the upper 90s by skinny-dipping in the icy Stehekin River. On a stay during a winter holiday, we woke to three feet of fresh snow, read by kerosene lamp when the hydroelectric power went down, and inched a vintage pick-up along single-lane, ice-crusted village roads.

Early on in our visits, hikes into Stehekin’s backcountry renewed my zeal for my work as a public health nurse. As the years went on, though, my fire for promoting health for the poor and underserved began to sputter; trekking the mountains no longer re-ignited me. I dreaded yet another referral for a pregnant teen, or sitting again in a cigarette-smoke-infused apartment teaching a harried mom alternatives to yelling at her toddler. I couldn’t face more refugees who had forgotten to take their tuberculosis medications, or hear once more from supervisors that we had to increase visit numbers. It all weighed on me like an overstuffed backpack, its straps digging into my shoulders and its heft pounding my lower back. I began to question if nursing, the work I had felt called to, was what I was still meant to do.

Finally, one year, instead of vacationing in Stehekin, my family and I moved there. They wanted adventure. I sought escape. Hoped for my own “way through.” That first fall and winter, I filled two journals with run-on sentences of complaint, criticism of myself and others, questioning of my values, and fear. I didn’t realize I was writing the textbook on burnout. By the time most of the snow melted, I had only questions. Had I failed? Or was I being nudged to different work?

One spring day, Boris and I again tramped to the bluff. He coiled beside me as I sat on the sun-warmed stone, his purr vibrating in the windless air. I breathed in Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. Reaching a hundred feet upward, their long history preceded me. At the base of their trunks, saplings signaled new growth. Snowy peaks towered five thousand feet above, their ridges cascading in ripples of purple beyond my vision. Unexpectedly, I sensed that Boris and I weren’t alone. The cement block of worry about the sick immigrants and the struggling teen mothers lifted from my back. Tears welled as I grasped that I have my part to play, but it’s not up to me alone. On Boris’s Bluff, I embraced both my smallness and my greatness.

I don’t live in Stehekin anymore, but it lives in me. Boris died a couple years ago. I didn’t go back to the old house, or the old job. My family and I moved to a community on a rural island in Puget Sound. Here, I balance work as a school nurse with writing. I’m seeking still—not escape, but attention to God’s presence. So here, I climb the saltwater-lashed cliffs of Iceberg Point and sit among firs, their wind-twisted trunks bowed toward the ground. I imagine the Coast Salish of the past, fishing for salmon and gathering gin-scented juniper berries on that “way through” the Cascades, perhaps pausing awhile at Boris’s Bluff.

Iris Graville’s profiles and personal essays have been published in national and regional journals and magazines, and she blogs regularly from Lopez Island, Washington. Her first book, Hands at Work—Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work with Their Hands, received several awards including a Nautilus Book Award. Iris is on track to graduate in August from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts low-residency MFA program where she serves as nonfiction editor for Soundings Review. Her vignette, “Boris’s Bluff,” is an excerpt from her thesis, a memoir entitled Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.

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