One June morning a few years ago, I woke up from a very vivid dream that laid out my plans for the day.
In the dream, I’d gone back to the property where my childhood best friend lived, back on my hometown of Bainbridge Island. Like much of the Island in reality, in my dream the land had been completed developed and was almost unrecognizable. I had my camera, and decided to be bold and knock on the door of the new McMansion. I told the owner that I was a journalist (ha!) who used to play on the property as a child, and would it be ok if I took some photos? She agreed and started showing me around.
It was still generally the same — a house surrounded by grassy farmland. But in the dream I was really focused on getting to the back of the property, where I remembered a forest with a stream winding through it. I loved that stream. The woman walked me back to where the forest had been, but of course it had all been clear cut. And the stream was now a fast moving, muddy river lined by houses and packed with people. (Including a man with Ectrodactyly, but that’s just requisite dreamworld weirdness.) I knew the land was different, but I just hadn’t been expecting that much. How does a little Bainbridge Island stream become this huge active river?
I woke up motivated. It’s been years since I thought about that property, and I could only remember being there once since the family friends moved away in the late ’80s. I did a quick inventory of my Saturday. I didn’t have a single plan. What was I going to do — sit around working on offbeatbride.com while mostly just fucking around online? Walk to Volunteer Park for the second day in a row? Harass my friends again with pleas of “I’m wonweeee…”? Instead, I would go to Bainbridge and photograph that land. I would document it.
I called my mother to see if I could lump in a visit with her, and asked on a whim if there had been any development on the property.
“No,” she said. “In fact, it’s totally grown over and abandoned.” Awesome, I thought to myself.
Despite the unseasonably cold weather (Junuary, everyone in Seattle calls it), the Northwest was in full on frontal GREEN mode. The intense green of late spring is the trade off for all the gray, so even if I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my outing, I knew I’d at least get in a solid dose of super lush intense green. And a creek. I love creeks!
Since the whole idea was a whim with low or no expectations, it didn’t seem right to bring anyone with me. “Come with me to this place I haven’t been in forever to see stuff that I’m not even sure is still there!” So it was just me and my dog Sassafras on the 1:10 ferry to Bainbridge Island, mulling over my destination.
Here were the facts, at least as much as I could remember: My friend Kate’s mother and step-father lived there from the late ’70s to the late ’80s. The land was semi-abandoned when they’d found it, with the decrepit farmhouse falling apart even 30 years ago. I think they rented the property for some ridiculously low amount (like, $100 maybe?), but the landlord was never present and it always felt like they were sort of squatting. The family lived in their refurbished school bus they’d parked on the land, but as the family of four became a family of five and then six, they started doing what they could to utilized the dilapidated farmhouse.
The house was tucked into a circle of aging trees — a couple oaks (I think?) and lots of plants that you could tell used to be fancy, but were so overgrown that who knows what they used to be. There was this awesome area overgrown with intense vines that felt like a little igloo made of plants, and some rose bushes buried inside a blackberry thicket.
The farmhouse had been in the middle of perhaps five or six acres of farmland, long since gone to tall grass and deeply rutted. Past the field, there had been the forest with the stream winding through it.
The forest floor had been relatively clear from undergrowth, and I remember spending a lot of time in the dirt at the edge of the streams. Kate’s mom was a practitioner of the “do whatever you want, kids” school of parenting — the kind who made even my “benign neglect” mother look like a hover mommy. I have vivid memories of entire summer days spent by the stream acting out elaborate forest fantasy games with Kate and her big sister Kristan (who I think spent the bulk of her adolescence stuck babysitting us).
I found the property just as my mother had described: deeply overgrown and nature-gated by a seven-feet tall wall of blackberries. The neighborhood deer clearly come and go frequently, however, so it was easy to find a deer path through the brambles.
I started my tour at the house — it was really, really falling apart, although the wooden boat Kate’s stepfather had supposedly been rehabilitating in the ’80s was still parked out front. The house clearly spent a few years as a party destination for Island kids, but even the party detritus was crumbling. I found a local newspaper on the kitchen counter that read, “The Bainbridge Review Congratulations the Class of 1994.” That was the year after I graduated high school, meaning all the kids who partied in that house are in their 30s now.
The house didn’t feel especially safe to wander around in — I was reminded of that one time I explored a half-burnt down house in my neighborhood; that one time when I fell eight feet as the second story floor collapsed beneath me. Granted I was 13 and being dumb, but that shit was scary and I wasn’t interested in a repeat fall 20 years later.
I walked my way through the fields surrounding the house. I found an abandoned claw foot bathtub, some rusted machinery. There was a five-gallon bucket in the grass that held a tragic surprise: three drowned field mice, bloated and floating in the rainwater that had killed them. I dumped out the death trap and left it upside down in the grass.
As in my dream, I was focused on finding my way back to the forest and the stream. Sassafras kept up as best as she could, bounding through the grass that was up to my knees. The edge of the forest was walled off by another huge thicket of blackberries, but I saw a deer as I approached and followed its path back into the woods.
And there I was: right in my dream! Except for that the creek had not become a river. Instead, through the lens of my adult eyes, I could see it for what it had always been: an ideal salmon spawning creek. Gravelly bottom! Protected edges! Shallow water. This, people, is totally where the salmon come to die.
I also noticed the old growth stumps that I hadn’t remembered from childhood. But mostly it was pretty close to my memories from the early ’80s. There were definitely some Bridge to Terabithia moments while crossing the creek on moss covered fallen trees. Also, of course the forest wasn’t as deep and mysterious as I’d recalled — I could hear cars passing on High School Road just through the trees. Mostly, it just made me happy to see through my 30-something eyes that I’d spent so much of my childhood in such a lovely place. And that the lovely place was still there!
Exiting the forests, I looped through the field again, back towards the farmhouse. I poked around a bit until I found the viney igloo. Sassafras immediately headed for the dark enclosed area under the vines, but I could barely barely crouch-crawl my way in. I spent some time hunkered in the dark, loving the enclosed-ness of it. As a kid, it was totally like the most awesome nature fort EVAR — although then as now, the soil underneath was pretty wet. And then, as now, there was a bit of mystery to the whole thing. What the fuck was the story here? When was the house first abandoned? Were these vines supposed to grow like this? Who used to live here? Who owned the property?
I headed back toward the car to get some water and scared the hell out of an adolescent deer — it bolted through the bushes, sending scotch broom petals exploding behind it.
Sassafras made it clear she was happy to rest in the car, so I figured I’d leave her while I went back and did a couple self-portraits. I did various silly things that would hopefully prove worth it in context. Then I packed up my stuff and left.
As I drove the mile to my mother’s house for dinner, I considered. On a pragmatic level, nothing profound had happened. I hadn’t found any latent memories to startle me into some kind of epiphany. I mean, I was glad I documented the property. I have NO IDEA how roughly a million dollars worth of prime Bainbridge Island real estate is being allowed to sit there totally abandoned and fallow, but it can’t stay that way forever. …But there was no singular special realization or magical experience. I didn’t find a pot of gold.
But wait. Then again, the sensation of following a dream was pretty remarkable. I mean, how often do you get to wake up and humor your subconscious chewings? My dreams aren’t usually re-enactable … I mean, the last really vivid dream I had was about making out with John Krasinski, and the bulk of my dreams involve sitting on the Bainbridge/Seattle ferry, riding back and forth. (Not even kidding: my subconscious loves the Washington State Ferries!)
But a beautiful afternoon spent outside in a mysterious place is a kind of magic. That has a profundity all its own, right?
And the fact that I have this story to tell, of waking up and doing exactly what I’d dreamed. That’s another kind of profound. I didn’t dream telling this story, but the dream led me to the place where there was a story to tell.
I’ll take my magic where I can get it.
Walk through the dream with me: check out all the photos.