Ear-Flap Hat
by Leah Mueller

I wore a pink wool ear-flap hat
on a visit back to the Northwest
after four years in the Chicago suburbs.
No one in Illinois liked Peruvian headgear,
though temperatures were frigid in the winter-
my hair froze into icicles
when I stepped outside after a shower.

My rebound to the land of my birth
hadn’t gone well. Midlife returned me
to flat brown cornfields and brick six-flats.

I figured I’d save money,
and live again among people
who spoke their minds: not the
Northwest tribe of passive-aggressive
ghosts, people who complained because
they thought I was loud, and talked too much.

In Illinois, I stayed up late,
drank beer, spent hours debating in hot
apartments, while friends told me
“We don’t do that here” and
“You’re not on the west coast
any more.” I dreamed of Mount
Rainier, and evergreens,

and the Washington coastline
with its severe rows of sagebrush,
damp bristles thrashing
as rain squalls blew across the ocean.

I bought a plane ticket to Portland,
drove over mountain passes coated
with unsalted ice, soaked naked in hot springs,
wearing only my ear-flap hat.
Around me, people with beatific faces
slowly lowered their bodies
into the steaming water.

Drove north to Olympia:
drank espresso downtown
while surrounded by hippies of
various ages: Evergreen students
and townies, all of them clad
in wool and fleece, proudly
sporting ear-flap hats.
I had found my tribe again
after years of fruitless wandering.

In Olympia, I picked up a friend
and a sack of marijuana cookies.
We drove to the coast, and I
danced like a child in the foam,
wearing my ear-flap hat,
while pellets of snow rained down from the sky.

I felt sure I was home at last
and would return to live there forever,
as soon as I could get my ass out of Illinois.

In the morning, at the hotel restaurant,
my husband phoned, and I spoke to him
enthusiastically about my adventure.
A man at the next table
told me to keep my voice down,
because he was trying to enjoy
a quiet breakfast with his family.
We were the only people there,
so he struck me as bizarre.
I had some re-acclimating to do.

I was face to face with
the troll at the gate, but nothing
would stop me from returning-
so return I did, a few months later:
with my ear-flap hat,
perched on top of my head
like a flag of victory.

PHOTO: Author at Ocean Shores, Washington (February 2011).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I wrote this poem about my experience of visiting the Pacific Northwest in February 2011, after four years living in the Midwest, land of my birth. I’d previously resided in both Washington and Oregon from 1985 until 2007, then left the area on a whim and returned to my roots. In 2011, I realized the Midwest represented my roots, but the Northwest was my branches. I still feel that way.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Leah Mueller is an independent writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of one chapbook, Queen of Dorksville(Crisis Chronicles Press, 2012), and two full-length books, Allergic to Everything (Writing Knights Press, 2015) and The Underside of the Snake (Red Ferret Press, 2015). Her work has either been published or is forthcoming in Blunderbuss, Memoryhouse, Atticus Review, Thank You For Swallowing, Sadie Girl Press, Origins Journal, Silver Birch Press, Cultured Vultures, Quail Bell, and many others. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.