Approaching Wilderness

By Gene Twaronite

e fumbled through his knapsack, rechecking the contents, especially the two loaves of bread he had baked last night. And the fifth of Bacardi—the most buzz for the buck. For a brief moment he thought of the curving naked landscape of his wife, still asleep. She’d worry, of course. Then, wincing, he remembered. He saw a casket covered with her favorite daffodils.  And he saw his stupid stony face, still dry. What was wrong with him? A man should cry at his wife’s funeral.

But he knew Ellen would worry. That girl could worry enough for the two of them. The fact that she was divorced now and her two screwed up kids were who knows where didn’t help. Or that she felt she never had much of a chance to get to know her old man, with all of his business trips while she was growing up. Probably never should have had her, but Sarah didn’t want an abortion and that was that. And he knew the little phone Nazi would call at exactly 9:45 a.m. to check up on him, so he better call her later from the road. Grabbing his walking stick near the door, he slipped off into the pre-dawn darkness.

For a time he closed his eyes as he walked, feeling each rut and turn in the road with his feet while reaching out to touch familiar trees and boulders. Onward the road pulled him, up Juniper Ridge and down through the wash, where the night’s cool air had settled. Off to his right a great horned owl hooted. A propitious sign. He hooted back and laughed.

To the east he could just see the outline of the Black Hills emerging. This was the part of the journey he loved best.  It didn’t matter what far off wilderness he was headed for. It was the act of setting off before dawn in the direction of his goal that filled his heart with joy. Indeed, when he finally did arrive at his destination, its reality never quite matched his initial wonder and anticipation of the unknown. Approaching wilderness was better than being there.

Not that he was much of a wilderness explorer. In his ninety plus years he had managed to actually visit some wild areas, but in reality he was more of a dreamer. Many were the trips he had made, armed only with maps and travel books, from the comfort of his easy chair. Excitedly, he would trace his fingers along contour lines, imagining the feel of changing topography and unfolding vistas. No need to worry about rain, blisters, or black flies.

But this time only a real trip would do. Lately he could think of nothing else but wilderness—all the magical places he had never seen and never would. The Sawtooths. North Cascades.  Boundary Waters. Kings Canyon. The Brooks Range. Grand Staircase-Escalante. Reciting them had always brought him comfort, a distraction from the all too orderly life he had constructed. But now they had become an aching obsession, phantoms of an untrammeled world he still longed to see.

Grimacing, he sat down on a boulder and rummaged through his knapsack. He swallowed half a dozen triple strength Glucosamine tablets and loosened his boots. It’s going to be a long trip, old boy. Keep moving.

In no time he had found his stride. Once he got into the zone, he could walk for miles. Pumping his arms, he stuck out his chest, inhaling deeply. Walking was his answer to everything—hangovers, arthritis, even the loss of his wife.

His plan was simple. He needed to see real wilderness again. Maybe even a wolf or a grizzly. He needed to be out in the Wild.

But Ellen had a different plan. She had found a “nice little” assisted living center. It had won awards and was only a few miles from her house. She would come visit every day.

“Dad, you’ll love it. You won’t have to worry about that smelly old cabin. You’ll have a comfortable apartment and get all your meals in the dining room. You’ll meet new people. Everything is planned, with trips and fun activities. They’ve even got a nightly poker game. You’ll be happy there.”

“So why don’t you just go and move there yourself?”

Ellen clenched her teeth. He was trying to bait her and she knew it. She resented the little boy he had become after her mother died. There was no one left now to tame him. He was all alone in that shack, in the middle of nowhere. One day, she would find him dead on the floor. Why did she have to be the one? He didn’t give a rat’s ass about her or anyone. But no matter. She would not let him win this time.

“Come on, Dad. Don’t you want to be happy?”

“Not particularly. Happiness is overrated, if you ask me.”

One thing about Ellen, once her mind is made up, there’s no stopping her. He had even gone to see the place, just to shut her up. He had to admit it wasn’t as bad as he imagined, all shiny bright and perfect. His resistance was weakening. With each passing day he became less sure of himself, less able to resist. He knew his solitary days at the cabin were numbered.

He still didn’t know exactly where he was going, but as he walked the details fell into place as they always did. He would head northeast and keep a low profile, crossing roads only when he had to. He didn’t trust his Nazi daughter. Funny, he couldn’t remember when he had started calling her that.  Maybe it was that clipped, severe way she had of telling him what he ought to do.  Or that she always beat him down with her arguments. Why couldn’t she understand that a man needs more than just security and comfortable surroundings? But surely she would come looking for him once he told her about his plan. Fortunately, there was still plenty of wild country around in which a man could hide from his daughter. He would make for the big timber, then wind through desert scrub to the Colorado, crossing at Lee’s Ferry. Then follow the Paria River to wander through the endless canyons of Escalante. And from there who knows, maybe he would even make it to Yellowstone and see his first wolf.

His reverie was interrupted by a sudden obnoxious sound. Fumbling through his knapsack, he found the source of his torment—the new cell phone Ellen had bought him last week. So we can always be connected, she said. Fuck connections! The world is too connected, too absorbed in its own shit. Why did he ever agree to one? He opened the gadget and pressed it to his ear. Hello. Hello. Then he pressed a button, then another. Hello, goddamnit! It started beeping as if about to explode.  He threw it far and long. The sun was just coming up as he turned from the road and headed into the scrub.

For a while he followed the ridgeline past the Indian ruins. In both directions he could see throngs of new houses and cabins advancing like locusts across the valleys and up the once unsullied slopes. Generations of new retirees and refugees from California and other big government states looking to get away from it all. Pretty soon the ridge would be nothing but an endless line of houses and condos. He was glad he would not live to see it.

Descending from the ridge, he paused at the edge of a narrow wash. From the look of the pinyon-juniper country he knew he was somewhere in the national forest. Coffee would be nice, but he was too keyed up to build a fire. He washed down his breakfast bar with a few slugs of water and resumed walking.

The winding path of the wash wasn’t the most direct way north, but it perfectly suited his mood. He had been planning this trip for years. What was the rush? He knew the state highway lay just a few miles to the east and the wash wasn’t exactly wilderness. But for him it had a wild feel, as if he were the first to explore it. Ignoring a startled scrub-jay, he squeezed through the underbrush and clambered over the rocks with boyish glee.

He flopped down for a minute to catch his breath, admiring the patchwork of sun-dappled colors on the rocks and leaves. No awe-inspiring vista, but it would do. He took off his boots and rubbed his throbbing feet. Though he had walked past the pain for a while, it was back. He knew his arthritis would make him pay dearly for this trip. It was in all his joints now. He could feel them grinding away and disintegrating like the life he had once had. Maybe someday he would do as his doctor and Ellen wanted and have them all replaced. Then he could become the Bionic Man. There would be no more pain, no more startling jabs to remind him of the bittersweet beauty of life and death. O.K., feet, let’s go. One more time for the old man.

His brain swirled. Walking always stimulated him, but this time his thoughts came at him like a flashflood. Childhood memories of family trips to the Smokies and White Mountains came jumbled with fears of falling through the ice alone on a remote Michigan pond and lusty encounters with Sarah beneath a leaky tent in the Everglades. The day when Ellen was born, all thought of abortion forgotten. And the day when Sarah’s lab test came back and the world died.

And he thought of another day when he first started losing words. It wasn’t simply the inability to find the right word, but forgetting it completely. Like looking at water and not knowing what to call it. He would be reading the newspaper and suddenly come to a dead stop at a word that looked vaguely familiar but unknown. Looking it up in the dictionary would only add to his unease, as if it were a word he had never learned.

He thought of Sarah and how she would have hated losing even a simple verb. For him losing an occasional word now and again was more inconvenient than disturbing. After all, he still had thousands left inside him. It’s no big deal. But Sarah would have been horrified. For her, words were everything.  Fortunately she was sharp right till the end.  He could think of few advantages to dying before your time, but maybe this was one.

He slowed his pace, as if trying at the same time to slow his thoughts.  Breathing deeply, he started to remember something from this morning, something he was supposed to do.  He checked off the things he had done.  Turn off the stove.  Shake the toilet handle.  Lock the door.  Then what?  It probably wasn’t important.  That had become his mantra lately in response to all the little nagging feelings of forgetfulness.  A man shouldn’t have to remember every fucking thing.  Just getting up in the morning is hard enough.  Who cares what day it is?  They’re all alike, coming one right after the other whether you’re ready for them or not.

He left the wash and trudged up the next ridge to get his bearings.  Wheezing, he slumped on a boulder and shook his head.  What a pathetic old geezer.  But at the sight of the Coconino Plateau, he quickly forgot his pains.  He was a boy again, on a trip to Grand Canyon, where he had his first vision of a wilder world beyond the guardrail.  He could feel himself falling into the multi-colored layers below as the canyon walls closed around him.  It was the same feeling he always had when he hiked down into the canyon.  It was like walking back into the earth’s womb when life was still emerging and all things were possible.

After a quick lunch of cheese and fruit, he laid back and let the sun soak into his joints.  It was already past noon and he still had a lot of ground to cover.  He watched as a collared lizard bobbed its head from a nearby rock.  He bobbed his head back.  Even without words there were still ways to communicate, though he wasn’t sure exactly what was being said.  The lizard bobbed its head again.

He headed down the ridge toward the distant forest-carpeted plateau.  For the most part he kept to the trees, following whatever shade he could find in the open woodlands. Occasionally he would hastily cross a gravel road where the spell was temporarily broken.  He was resting more frequently now and for longer periods.  He couldn’t remember when he had last walked so far.  He leaned backed against a big pinyon.  The shade felt good in the hot summer afternoon.  It wouldn’t hurt to rest a while longer.

When he awoke the tree’s long shadow told him he had slept too long.  Only a couple of hours remained till nightfall.  He had hoped to make it at least to the interstate, but he knew it was still far off.  He set off again at a brisk pace, cursing his old body.  For a while he managed to keep it up until he tripped over a log and fell on his bad knee.  Slowly he got up, cursing yet another offending joint that had let him down.  Leaning heavily on his walking stick he hobbled on, feeling stupid and alone.

He decided to make camp in an outcrop of lichen-crusted granite that rose like a castle from a grove of venerable oak trees.  There was a nice private wedge between the rocks, filled with oak duff, where he could bed down for the night.  There were plenty of dead branches nearby and in no time at all he had built himself a competent campfire.  Building a good fire had always been proof of his manhood.  At least there was one thing he could still do.

He cleared a flat rock and laid out his dinner.  He opened a can of split pea soup and set it upon some coals.  Then he cut a slice of bread and a wedge of cheese. He had plenty of trail mix and beef jerky, enough to last for days.  He was certainly better off than John Muir, who often explored the High Sierras with little more than some tea and flour. What more does a man need?

Then he remembered the rum.  By his third drink his memories were well lubricated.  Stirring the fire, he thought back to a camping trip in the Smokies.  Just out of college, with his two hippie friends, he recalled the camaraderie of that moment—three outlaw rebels against the war, the Establishment, tradition, and anything old—hiding out in the wilderness.  But mostly he remembered the drinking and pot smoking around the campfire.  Then stumbling up to their sleeping bags on the bear platform and talking each other to sleep with philosophical bullshit.

He awoke four hours later with a jolt.  The booze had mostly worn off, and he had become suddenly aware of a sharp rock projecting against his spine.  Now he remembered why he hadn’t camped again since his twenties.  Shivering, he pulled his blanket tighter around him.  Dawn was still a long way off.  He could feel every joint screaming at him.  What was he doing here?  He stood up and stared at the stars.  But the stars that had always fascinated him were now just alien points of light.  He didn’t have a clue where he was.

He built up the fire, stoking the flames ever higher as if to make his memories burn brighter again.  But all he could remember was something about heading northeast and the sound of a cell phone smashing.

He made instant coffee, then gulped down a breakfast of trail mix, aspirin and glucosamine.  Rising stiffly, he spread apart the fire’s ashes and pissed on them with a painful, erratic stream.  His knee was still bothering him from the fall.  But he knew he had to keep walking.  He turned to the northeast.

After a few hours, he was no closer to an answer. At least for the time being he had largely moved past the pain. His rest stops and naps were getting much longer. When had he become such a wimp? There were days when he could walk twenty miles and more, or so he thought. He hated the hobbling old man he had become. But most of all, he hated not being able to remember.

It was late afternoon when he came to the interstate. For a long interval he stared helplessly across the wide expanse, relentlessly flowing with the Friday traffic of northbound city dwellers heading for the high country. He saw it as a great river blocking his way, the antithesis of whatever it was he seeking. He took a deep breath and made a run for it. A blue Hummer doing ninety just narrowly missed him as its owner flipped him the bird. Struggling to higher ground, he grabbed the trunk of a ponderosa pine and hugged it. And he thought of his wife. Sarah, where are you? Please forgive me. And for the first time in years he cried.

The setting sun felt good on his back as he headed upslope through the tall trees. After several miles he came to an old forest road with few signs of recent use. It was headed in the right direction, so he readily acceded to its linear command.

As he passed over a brook, he paused to admire the intricate handiwork of the stone bridge. It seemed out of place in this world, a testament to a distant age when workmanship still mattered.  Obviously the work of Civilian Conservation Corps elves, he mused, that legendary race of craftsmen who forged wonders out of native stone and timber while helping to rebuild a battered country.

Suddenly three sullen riders on ATV’s roared past him, nearly knocking him over. He looked down the road in disgust.  There are no answers here, old boy, and you know it. All this will lead to is another road. Off to his right he noticed a steep canyon running up a nearby slope, its sharp rocky mouth entreating him to climb up and explore its hidden corners.

With newfound confidence, he turned away from the road and followed the creek as it trickled up the mountainside. He clambered around huge boulders through tangles of wild grape vines and thorn bush that tore at his face and clothes. He was far into the canyon now, beyond all that was safe and secure. There would be no one to know he was up there, no one to know he was gone. But then he saw a face. Ellen! How did she find him? He would not go back. He must keep going. But he was getting weaker. Just need to rest a while. He leaned against a rock and gazed up the canyon. He could see wonders ahead—the fabled canyons of Escalante. Wonders at the heart of the world. He closed his eyes and dreamed.

*  *  *

The hospice was bright and clean, with a perfect view of the San Francisco Peaks. Ellen had taken him here after the last stroke. Neighbors had found him lying unconscious just a few hundred yards down the road from his cabin. She sat at his bedside, hoping as always for some little sign of recognition. But she knew there would be none. She stared at the face of the father she barely knew. Come on, Dad, give me something, anything. But it was just that same old stupid stony face. He opened his eyes, staring not at her but at somewhere in the distance, at the last wild empty places. Then he smiled and bowed his head.

Ellen closed his eyes. She wanted to cry but couldn’t. Well, at least you gave me that much, old man. You finally made it to the wild. You’re home now.

 

_____

Gene Twaronite’s fiction has been published by Avatar Review, Fast Forward Press, Heinemann, Highlights for Children, Read, and The Write Room. He is the author of two juvenile fantasy novels, The Family That Wasn’t (www.thefamilythatwasnt.com) and My Vacation in Hell (www.myvacationinhell.com).


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