Don Rogers: A cover story
Last week, an old National Geographic landed on my nightstand, the one with the Afghani girl’s eyes.
My wife had opened a cardboard box we’d lugged for decades. All those moves, all this time. Have we found home at last?
I picked up the magazine. The June 1985 edition. Those brilliant, startled green eyes. Where were we then? Ah, Quincy, the beginning. We were newlyweds. I was a rookie reporter at the Feather River Bulletin, still learning to type after eight years fighting wildfire out of Santa Barbara.
My wife was the one who worked in the woods now, at her favorite job ever at Plumas Eureka State Park, doing whatever needed doing and loving every minute.
We lived just a short walk up from the paper with Drifter, a golden retriever who trotted into our lives with a long lead trailing behind. Aspen, the border collie I mistook for mellow during my first newspaper assignment: Pet of the Week. And Otter, a weenie dog my wife rescued from Highway 70 on her way to work, named for how she dove for sticks.
I ran a dirt track up the mountain and climbed pines and firs because I feared heights and still had in mind jumping out of planes, a type of firefighting I hadn’t done yet. I chose trees on the slope to exaggerate the view, get the fullest effect. I ignored the healed-for-now knee injury that made a future in fire dubious, why I was trying on small-town journalism.
Meantime, I made just about every mistake in my new job, a great way to learn if you can avoid being fired. I turned to Time, Newsweek, National G and Sports Illustrated for what they could teach about writing for a weekly. A statewide award for Best Writing came at a good time, I wasn’t fired, and eventually I did learn to type.
We all were struck back then by the Afghani girl’s eyes. But I couldn’t know she was a seed that would sprout only decades later, long after I’d forgotten her.
Her story hasn’t changed much in the 34 years since the edition came out, I noticed re-reading “Along Afghanistan’s War-Torn Frontier.” Trade out the Soviets for the Americans, mujahedeen with the Taliban, add some drones. Those war-torn borderlands remain war-torn, refugee camps as miserable.
I riffled the pages, thick, shiny, satisfying against my thumb, like shuffling cards. One way, then the other, finally turning a page or two or three more deliberately to find a beginning.
In the same edition is “U.S.-Mexican Border: Life on the Line.” Details change, but coyotes and mules and desperate dreams of a better life across the desert continue on. The story could run today with less editing than you might think.
There are differences, too. One article probes the problem with the Great Salt Lake overfilling from a string of heavy winters, notably absent of warnings about climate change or drought worries. Another story, a travelogue, touts “Fair Skies for the Cayman Islands,” complete with gorgeous photographs. Today the islands’ coral reefs endure repeated bleaching.
I didn’t remember the Afghani girl when six newspapers and two teenaged children later, I dreamed up a young woman from the highest reaches of the Hindu Kush for this weird tale that came from nowhere and roosted on my shoulder, talons sunk deep. All the stranger: I didn’t write fiction; little interest, no time.
“Like the National Geographic cover,” someone said. Oh yeah, that’s right. Of course. Only my invented woman’s eyes were not green as I remembered, but blue, with a flaming ring of yellow around the pupils, piercing, otherworldly, remarkable. Like the character herself, a fictional window into her intellect and soul.
I wrote a couple of chapters of what felt like a novel and dropped it. But I kept thinking about the story. The woman. Her eyes. When would I ever find the time?
The answer came a few years later with an offer while in Vail, Colorado, to take on what became the best job I never sought nor wanted. Would I consider the publisher role?
There’s no logic to this, but I realized thumbing through the magazine this week it was all her doing, being photographed like that, showing up like that on the old cover. Without her, I’m convinced I would have passed up the opportunity, an editor to the bone.
My deal with the devil — me, actually — was I could accept the job if I took my writing life in a new direction, and duh, woke up an hour earlier each morning to do it. She steered me there, to fiction, which eventually led back to the northern Sierra, where this all began.
I like logic and reason well enough, but my life often moves more mysteriously, even mystically. This did not dawn on me until I finally looked closely at her eyes, bright under the lamp, maybe for the first time.
They were not green as I had assumed in dimmer light. No, now I could see they were blue, outlined in a darker hue, with a circle of flame filling in the inner iris. Eyes I only thought I had invented for a character who has haunted me for years, mostly before sunrise. Is it such a stretch to declare she changed my life? Brought us home?
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.