“I can’t stand the hustle and bustle,” Wes said, the westerly ocean wind ruffling the wisps of white hair spilling from under his battered baseball cap and over the broken collar of his plaid shirt. I’d watched him start a roaring fire in a constant downpour in that shirt, tending to the splayed and cedar-skewered Coho salmon like a helicopter dad. The plaid shirt (and the Makah t-shirt underneath, depicting a proud, stylized thunderbird with a the gift of a whale in its talons) were still miraculously dry. If it could be said that a dark cloud hangs over those with a sour disposition, then Wes (though salty as the Pacific), seemed to exist under the perpetual shelter of an old growth cedar. In our layers of fleece and rain gear, my students and I looked like the wastefully over-packaged pieces of fruit one finds in Hong Kong grocery stores, and the cold wet still seeped in.
I scanned the deserted plain of the campground and the pewter skyline where it met kelp-strewn swaths of beach for the “hustle and bustle”, but only the dinner bell cries of crows and gulls punctuated the tidal roar. Wes meant the village of Neah Bay, of course, not the recreational outpost where my students and I made camp for our week-long stint at the Makah Reservation. Neah Bay has streetlights. It has teenagers who troll the streets in souped-up cars, cracked windows vibrating with obliterating bass, and it has the highest population density on the reservation. It is what folks around here mean when they say “town”, but for all that, you can walk the length of the main drag in the middle of the day without sharing the sidewalk with more than a stray dog. You can sit at the marina undisturbed and watch sea lions and bald eagles duke it out over the by catch and fish guts fishermen toss overboard, and you can sit in the only laundromat in town all morning, tapping away at your keyboard, and never see a soul.
But Wes prefers his old place out by Shi-Shi Beach, and the spruce trees that shielded his trailer from the dirt road, allowing only wind, water, and whale sounds to filter through. Local politics and family drama drove him into town, where signs of the reservation’s rampant heroin epidemic and eighty percent unemployment rate are harder to ignore. He would, he told me as he poked a finger into the tangerine flesh of the Coho to gauge our dinner hour, hop a boat and move to tribal lands in Canada if he had the means. There, you can still find places where people don’t use cars or buy food that comes only in boxes or cans. Even the old women are shapely because everybody walks, he muses, carving an hourglass shape in the air with his meaty hands. You get out of your car and someone leads you to their home. “You will be my guest,” they insist. “Here’s the fridge, the washing machine, the best bed in the house, and here are the keys to my car. Help yourself.”
Later, chasing salmon eggs fried in butter around my plate with a fork, it felt like Thanksgiving. Wes brought not only the large Coho, but two huge halibut filets, packages of cured salmon, and mason jars packed with white king, Chinook, sockeye, even tuna. Our bus community was greasy and happy, stuffed tight with the largesse that Wes delivered and cooked right there at our rainy campsite, asking for nothing in return. As we shoved our plates away in final surrender, he insisted on playing “lotto”, a tradition he began with the very first bus folk he met back in the early nineties. Everybody’s name went into a hat and one was drawn. To that person, Wes would give a small neat roll of bills: thirty dollars, but it came with conditions. “No candy, no pop, and no chewing gum,” he warned with a mock frown, ticking the forbidden items off on his fingers. “Use it to get something that will remind you of this place.”
The lucky student whose name was drawn blushed and smiled, overwhelmed by his act of simple generosity. She would spend it, I knew, and spend it well, probably at Washburn’s General store in town, which carries everything from dried beans to mops to books about Bigfoot. But I also knew from experience that she would spend the money to please Wes, rather than out of any need for a memory-jogging memento. My first visit to the Makah reservation, and my first time meeting Wes, was fourteen years ago. He likes to give me a hard time about all that I’ve forgotten about that week-long visit, but I remember the important things. I remember the salmon. I remember the curious tension of “studying” a place and a culture that has so often known that word to mean “exploitation”. I remember the beaches and wind and the high, startling calls of bald eagles, and I remember Wes, who said, “You will be my guest. Here is everything I can afford to give, and some that I can’t. Help yourself.”