We are sheltered, those of us who live in cities and suburbs, from the land. We have our trees and parks and nature preserves, but they are approximations, idealized constructs of what we would like the land to be. In Summer Lake, Oregon, where I recently spent two weeks at the Playa artists’ residency, the situation is reversed—the land is real and it’s we visitors who are the icons of another place. It can be a difficult adjustment. It requires some letting go of what we normally live with.
Playa is about as remote as one can get in the continental United States. It sits in the high desert, 4,500 feet above sea level, and seems endless in every direction. Highway traffic yields to cattle drives. The nearest town is 17 miles away and boasts a population of 239. The nearest supermarket is 70 miles. Distance like that becomes a narcotic as well as a reality; it isolates you, unplugs you, and offers space for meditation, creation. That’s part of the idea behind Playa: to visit is a gift of time, the only dimension here that seems subject to limits.
At night, from space, this region resembles North Korea—no lights to betray a civilization. In daytime the vista beyond cabin windows yields pastels of scrub and sky—yellow and green and gray, gray and white and blue—and of course the lake, a huge albeit illusory one. Summer Lake from Playa seems as big as a sea, stretching for miles to barren coasts. But from what I’ve heard it’s only two feet deep in most places. Miles across and two feet deep, like the Internet. Never mind the science behind this phenomenon, because out here, science doesn’t matter. The lake is magic, it is alive. When the wind blows—and it blows hard—it sometimes shoulders the water to one side and exposes the putty of the lakebed. A shape-shifter of a lake to feed our hallucination.
Apart from the occasional semi rumbling by on Highway 31, the only sounds are ducks and blackbirds, doing their thing without the usual human interference. And wind.
The only other people at Playa are the support staff of four, and the other residents, six during my stay. Each has use of a private cabin, and visual artists also get a studio. Apart from two communal meals a week there’s not much planned contact with the others, and yet a sense of camaraderie grows, organically; artists, despite the differences of discipline, often have similar work processes and ways of looking at the world. We speak a collective language that others can’t decipher, and when we hear it, we gravitate. So it wasn’t long before we made it down to that town 17 miles away, to its little saloon, to share whiskey and stories.
It’s all very inspiring, and yet I was strangely uninspired at first, although the Playa folks say that’s not uncommon. Those residents who stay longer report it takes the first two weeks to let go of the outside world. Those who must leave after a shorter stay often say they were just starting to feel comfortable. Being older now, and too conditioned by a lifetime of noise and responsibility, I expect it would have taken longer still for me. The concrete that surrounds my life at home has set.
I did work, however—there’s little else to do besides admiring the place and hiking the nearby trails. Wrote the first couple of chapters of a new novel, two short stories, maybe a dozen blogs, and edited a ton of work I’d previously written. But the big flash of inspiration, the knockout idea, the stay-up-all-night-and-write-it story never came. Still, I am not disappointed.
If acclimating to Playa might take a month or so, inspiration might yet come, after a time back home when I’ve had the chance to remember and process what I saw and did there. It’s what writers do, after all. We experience what we can, but rarely write about it straight away. We need time to connect what we know to what else we know, and then to what others know, before it begins to make sense. So I am hopeful inspiration was planted in that outback, and will take hold now that I am back in the sheltered land.
Perhaps it already has. I’ve noticed some things lately while at the keyboard: a more thoughtful, imaginative state of mind, a willingness to spend more time exploring the subconscious of my writing, a patience related to the open, endless spaces. Perhaps the dimension of time is not limited after all, and Playa’s gift transcends one’s stay.
We shall see.