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I turned twenty-five and planned my death.
I'm not sure exactly why I waited until then, except I think I always knew I'd do it, and for as long as I can remember, I've known I'd do it before I turned twenty-six.
It wasn't hard. In fact, it made a lot of things much easier. Life always gets hard. That's a given, and anyone who'd tell you otherwise is selling something. Religion, diet supplements, or hair dye. Take your pick. So, whenever the bills piled up, or the boyfriend didn't call, or my hair looked awful, I could always reassure myself that there would be an end to it, so it didn't matter. Life may be hard, but fuckin' suicide is easy.
Don't misunderstand me. When I was alive, I was very much alive. I did all the things that alive people did. I went to school, I dated, I graduated college, and I started a profession. I kept an apartment. I ate, I exercised, I put on makeup, and I kept my clothes ironed. I didn't spend my days listening to dark harpsichord music or making practice cuts up and down my arms. I didn't do drugs, and I drank only socially. I was well adjusted and, by all appearances, happy.
Except I wasn't. I don't think I ever had been.
I watched happy people and tried to figure out how they were happy. Not why. The why was the easy part. You have money in your pocket and a good- looking guy to hang on to, ergo, you're happy. You have an orgasm most of the time and you have perky tits, ergo, you're happy. You have a home, and a job, and enough money left over at the end of the month for some nice new outfits, ergo, you're happy. You drive your car to your middle- management job and come home at night to your two-point-five tow-headed children and loving spouse, ergo, you're happy. Those are the whys. It was the hows I didn't get.
Happy people always seemed so natural. They just seemed to have "happy" as a part of their skin. I remember, I must have been eight or nine-couldn't have been much older-I asked a classmate how. Just how.
"Allison? How are you happy?"
She gave me a funny look and walked away, and I was called to the principal's office the next afternoon. My parents were there. So was Mr. Ratcliff, the school counselor. I spent Tuesdays and Fridays for the next nine weeks in "sessions" with Mr. Ratcliff. I don't know what he said to my parents, but by the end of the quarter he must have figured out that I didn't intend to do anything to myself, not at ten years old, and after the Christmas break he stopped coming in to get me on Tuesdays and Fridays. I liked Mr. Ratcliff. He was nice enough and we had a pizza party for lunch before the holidays, but we also had gym class on Tuesdays, and I always resented having to miss it.
The adults seemed so settled. The kids seemed so simple. I couldn't imagine being either. Once I realized that I was different, I stopped trying to be the same. I also learned not to ask questions. Once I stopped trying to really be like them, it was easier to figure out how to act like them. So I watched, and I listened, and I copied, and I became what Mr. and Mrs. Davis wanted for their little girl. I became Well Adjusted.
When I was eleven I started hiking with my father. Outings To Bring Father And Daughter Closer Together. A Chance To Bond. I think it was something they read in a How To Keep Your 'Tween Healthy and Happy or some other pop-parenting bullshit. I went at first expecting to 'Yes, Daddy' and 'Of course, Daddy' and 'This was fun, Daddy' my way through the afternoon. But we were both surprised. I loved it. Something about the expanse of world around me. No people, no lights, no noise save what we ourselves made. Massive trees surrounded us. I should have felt small and insignificant, but I didn't. I felt more real. More human. More alive than I ever felt at home, or at school, or with friends, or at the mall.
I reveled in the times that my father could escape from home with me for an afternoon. Sometimes for an entire weekend. We'd take bedrolls, and fire starter, and beef jerky, and canteens, and we'd be mountain folk for a weekend. Just the two of us.
I was my parents' only child. There were no sons upon whom my father could shower his masculine words of wisdom. No testosterone-laden little-boy reflections of his DNA. So, like so many sonless fathers, he compensated by indulging my non-girly interests. Our first full-weekend trip to the woods was, in short, an invitation to disaster.
We hiked for an hour or so, him pointing out bear and deer tracks, listening to squirrels chatter angrily at us from overhead, stomping our boots to scare away snakes, until we came to The Camping Clearing. I cleared rocks and twigs from the camping area while he scavenged for fallen firewood. But that night, as soon as he started the fire and put water in the cook pot for soup, the clouds moved in. Storms come on fast sometimes. One moment it's clear and moonlit and you're counting the stars in Orion's belt, and the next the sky is black with storm clouds and you're wondering just how waterproof your tarp really is. It was one of those storms. For about fifteen seconds, it was huge drops falling and then it was solid sheets of water and any creature with any sense had moved up into the trees and caves to wait out the torrents.
There we were. A middle-aged advertising executive and his eleven-year-old daughter, armed with a catalogue-ordered Orvis two-man, three-season tent and a couple of flashlights. I was in heaven. We sat in our tent and listened to the rain beat on the nylon. My father told me stories about his grandfather's adventures as lobster fisherman. For a night, I was happy.
The next day, back home, I was clean and warm and in bed, still hearing the patter of rain in my ears and ready to drift off imagining the feel of the ground under my shoulders, when my father came to tuck me in. He had a book in his hands.
"Dani. This is for you. My father gave it to me when I was a bit older than you are now. Keep it with you. Read it, and understand it, and let it guide you."
I turned it over and over in my hands and traced the lettering on the cover and the spine. Wildwood Wisdom by Ellsworth Jaeger. I flipped the pages and marveled at pictures of rope knots and fires and animals and knives and bows and tents. I was hooked.
My father and I spent as much time as possible over the next two years in those woods. At least one weekend a month-maybe two, depending on how often he could get away and how often my mother would let us disappear from the house. We tromped all over Montana, and he taught me how to survive with what I could carry on my back. He taught me how to read a map, and how to use a compass, and to read directions by the stars, and to find water, and to figure out which plants were okay to eat and which ones to avoid, to track away from predators and to shoot a gun if necessary. On my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a new map, and a new compass and a new all-purpose knife and set me loose to plan and scout and prepare and set up our trip. The whole trip was my call, and we would live or die by my decisions. It was perfect.
Then, a few months later, he decided we were done. He and my mother told me over pot roast and potatoes and carrots and gravy. "You're getting too old for weekends with Daddy, Dani. You're not a little girl anymore. You should be spending time with your friends instead."
I should have seen it coming. But I was young and I had started to believe that maybe my pretending-to-be-happy had brought it to be.
I fought with them for hours about it. All the way though the roast and through the apple pie with ice cream and through their after-dinner coffee until the news came on and they declared the matter settled.
"No, Dani. It's not right for a teenaged girl to spend the weekend in a tent with her father. The matter is closed."
So it was closed. No more weekends with Daddy in the woods. But I realized that it didn't really matter.
School started in September and the new Junior High School experience brought a new set of pretend relationships and friend making and blending in. It wasn't all that different from elementary school. Dress the dress, walk the walk, and as long as you don't really care, you'll do just fine. The people who had the hard time in school were the ones who wanted to belong. They tried so hard to be part of the in crowd they lost themselves to the effort.
Junior high and high school were relatively easy. I know what all the literature says about hormones and changes and emotional mood swings and personality difficulties that kids go through from age twelve to eighteen, but it never seemed to hit me that hard. My face broke out, but it didn't matter, so I didn't worry, so it didn't break out as much. I wasn't all that interested in boys-or girls, for that matter-so that made them automatically all the more interested in me. So I dated, and kissed, and let them feel my growing tits while I fumbled at their denim-covered crotches. But I never went any further than that. I knew it didn't matter in the long run whether or not I let the quarterback fuck me in the backseat of his Camaro, but I also couldn't see the point of it. From what I'd heard from the other girls, it wasn't all that great and I couldn't see that it was worth the hassle of a back-seat cleanup. So I kept my virginity intact, and the guys kept sniffing around.
But at night, in bed, after the post-football-game party, I'd lie in bed and run my fingers over my breasts, and I'd remember the feel of his groping, grabbing fingers through my cheerleader sweater. With my own hands, I'd rub and stroke the way that it should have been done. I'd imagine what it must feel like, the cock (I let the forbidden word rest in my throat) without the jeans to cover it. I'd seen pictures, magazines sneaked into the girls' locker room after cheerleading practice. I'd heard the other girls talk about it, about the smooth head and the veiny shaft. I'd explore my own pussy with two fingers, feeling the heat of my own body. I tightened around my fingers, and pictured his hands around a football. Strong hands. Good for handling a football, but so clumsy on my body.
I'd listen to the tick of my Mickey Mouse clock and close my eyes and imagine that he knew what he was doing as I fingered myself to sleep.
When I graduated from high school and packed my things for my first year in college, I came across Wildwood Wisdom, given to me so many years earlier. I hadn't looked at it since my parents declared the outdoors verboten. It was shoved to the back of my closet, forgotten and dusty. I sat there on the floor that day, the book in my hands, drinking in the remembered smell of damp leaves under my feet and the sounds of rain pelting nylon. The book came with me.
My college roommate was a twit. But she was a happy twit, caught up in the whirlwind of sorority rush week and fraternity after-football parties. It made her giggle and she thought it was important, and it didn't really matter to me, so we got along just fine.
Besides, I knew two things. I had rediscovered the woods, and I'd be dead within the next seven years. So, if she wanted to chatter away like a squirrel about her pomponsand midterms and next week's bonfire, so be it. I could listen and nod and she'd still be happy.
There are advantages to knowing you're not going to live for long. Primarily, it's a lot easier to get involved in so-called extreme sports and activities when you've already got a picture of the absolute longest you're going to live anyway. When there's a definite end in sight, it's much simpler to take risks. After all, what's fear if not the knowledge that your activities could quite easily damage your future? When there's no long-term future, there's nothing to fear.
I spent the weekends hiking.
Serious hiking. Not quite mountain climbing, but only because I couldn't afford it, and real mountains were scarce within driving distance of my dorm. But there were some amazing rock climbs within a few hours' drive. And spelunking. Enough to keep my interest from wavering. Caves abounded in the mountains and hills. I had a car, so with the investment of a nominal amount of gas money, I could escape for the day or the weekend.
At first, my folks worried. Their little girl risking her beautiful face and oh-so-perfect body out there amongst the rocks and the trees and the wild animals when she should instead be looking for a good husband like all college girls. But then they looked at their friends' children and saw the neon spikes and the black eyeliner and the piercings and the tattoos, and realized that the risks I was taking were minor in comparison. I was healthy and wholesome. I was Well Adjusted.
So, they bought me equipment for birthdays and holidays and supported my outdoor hobbies. I did climbs, and scaled rocks, and rafted Class IV rivers. By the time I finished my bachelor's degree (advertising, of course; my father was so proud) I knew every inch of the woods within 200 miles of campus, and I could handle myself in almost any situation.
I was twenty-two. I had my degree, a job lined up, and a rented apartment, and I knew I only had to maintain the image of 'alive' for another three years, tops.~~~~~
I dated. A few flings. Physical attractions, nothing more. Dinner and dancing and movies and concerts and sweaty nights in tangled sheets. They were fine. Nothing that lit sparks, and nothing that I couldn't walk away from the first time either of us got bored. The sex was usually good, and sometimes very good. But nothing as earth shattering and knee shaking as the magazine articles and novels spoke about. An orgasm was an orgasm was an orgasm, and I could get the same release with my own fingers as I could get from any of the men I took to bed with me, but we always had fun. And I figured that was a reasonable result for all concerned.
One night I was lying in a post-coital warmth with Mark, a sometimes bed- buddy. We'd known each other through work for a few months and had dated off and on for about three weeks.
I traced the curve of muscle on his chest and listened to him breathe.
"Dani. You don't let anyone in, do you?"
"In? Mark, you just spent the last twenty minutes 'in'."
"Stop, Dani. I'm being serious. You let me into your bed, but that's it. You've got your heart closed off. Hell, you've got it buttoned all the way up to your collar. You swing through, then wipe out your tracks behind you. It's like you're trying to keep from making a mark anywhere. Like you've taken the idea of 'leave-no-trace' camping and made it part of your entire life."
I didn't know what to say. I wasn't sure there was an answer. I was twenty-four. I figured there wasn't much point in making marks or creating connections. I'd only need to worry about it for another few months.
~~~~~~ I turned twenty-five in January. I've always loved winter camping.
I could hear the trees whisper at the intrusion I was causing. 'Leave no trace' hiking is a misnomer. Despite our best, our most conscientious, efforts to be a part of the woods and the ground and the rocks and the trees, they know we're there. They have their own voices, those growing, living beings. And if, when we enter their world, we show the proper respect and attempt to be a part of where they exist, they'll let us hear them speak. I listened as I walked.
The weight of my pack was reassuring. Months, years, dozens-maybe hundreds-of these hikes had taught me the tricks. The extra padding duct- taped to the shoulder straps, the sleeping pad rolled against the small of my back. I always packed carefully. I wasn't coming back, but years of preparing for trips had taught me not to be sloppy. I had no intention of being sloppy or hurting before I finished.
No, I was nothing if not prepared. Planned and packed and prepared. My rent was paid through the end of the month, and there was a note in the mail to my landlady giving my notice. My fridge was empty, as was my bank account. The day before I left, I put a box in the mail to my lawyer (my will was up to date and signed) containing keys to the apartment and notes for my parents and a few friends. He'd take care of things for me. I had one more paycheck due from the ad agency, and I'd left instructions to turn it over to him. I'd been offended by trail-trash enough times so that I didn't like the idea of my pack and its contents being left in the middle of animal country, but there was no real way around it. And the idea of someone seeing my body, my dead and messy body, repelled me. Eventually, of course, it would be discovered, but the point was that I'd be far enough out and in a remote enough area as not to be "found" until natural processes had taken over and whatever was left would be relatively unidentifiable. And there was always the hope that a bear (or some other forest dweller) would find me and hasten the natural process. If nothing else, the scavengers would come for the bones. I was a 'leave no trace' camper. Figured it was best to end that way as well. The last thing I wanted was to be discovered and to cause a ruckus. This way I'd go quietly and unobtrusively. I wanted to leave life as I had led it.
I parked my car in long-term camp parking lot and paid for three weeks. I'd rather have not had to leave it anywhere-I hated details that weren't wrapped up-but there was nothing to be done. I had to have a way to get to the trailhead. I locked the doors and left the key in a magnet box in the wheel-well. Someone would eventually find it there.
I started thinking about things seriously months before my birthday. The biggest decision to was method. I could shoot, but that didn't really matter. How hard could it be to aim down your own throat? But I decided against it. I didn't like the idea of leaving a gun out there to be stumbled upon. It just didn't seem responsible. I was good with a knife- you have to be to be a successful camper-but while I just didn't want to live, I certainly didn't want to hurt myself in the process of not-living.
I settled on the easy out-pills. Sleeping pill prescriptions are ridiculously easy to get, and I didn't think I'd need more than a couple of months' worth. Combine them with some leftover painkillers and I figured it would be a nice, easy, relaxing drift away.
And the location. It was a valley about four summer-hours' hike from the road. I packed along snowshoes and figured on doubling that time. Maybe a bit less. Regardless, I thought I'd be safe from discovery until spring.
Which left me with nothing else to decide. And it was a comfortable feeling.
The hike was easy. Snowshoes make even the deepest snow relatively simple to hike. I hadn't been out as much as I'd planned this winter, and it took a couple of miles to get my muscles warmed up, but once the blood was flowing and the kinks were out, it was an easier hike than it was in summer. The snow was loose but deep, and it packed easily under my weight. I was making good time.
But it was quiet. Snow does that. Deep snow on the ground wraps the woods in a muffler, and the falling snow adds a layer of soundproofing between the outside world and your ears. I think that's one reason people get lost so easily during winter hikes. It's silent, and there's nothing to listen to except the voices in our own heads. They start listening to what's going on inside, and they stop paying attention to where they are and where they've been. That's a good reason to be in the woods, until you let yourself get too wrapped up in it. Which is what I had done. I was reciting "But I have miles to go before I sleep," for the third time when I realized I was off the trail. Far off.
I was worried. Winter woods are trickier than summer woods. The landmarks change, snow quickly fills up your tracks behind you, everything looks the same, and the normal "find your way back" tricks don't work. And winter woods are less forgiving. In the summer, you can find fresh water and something edible almost anywhere. But in the winter, you're limited to snow and ice-both of which are too cold to be suitable for hydration. Your body has to work too hard to warm snow or ice up to make either of them truly beneficial. And you're competing with winter-hungry deer for what's left of the edible greenery. It's not impossible to survive, but it's damn difficult. And it is impossible to do it comfortably.
It's an odd worry, being lost, when you didn't plan on coming back in the first place, but this was not what I had planned. It was messing with my schedule, and I didn't pack enough extra food and water to account for more than two days out in the cold. There was no way I was going to leave my body in some place I didn't know. I was suicidal, but not inconsiderate. Families use these woods, and it wasn't right to let some kiddo and her parents stumble on my body and ruin their vacation.
I cursed silently, then out loud. "Fuck." It felt good. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" My voice echoed in the icy silence. I looked around again.
Quick inventory. Blanket and tarp, beef jerky, tea bags, water. Pills and first aid kit. Compass, headlamp, map, and fire starter. I could still get to where I wanted to be, deep in the woods, but it would take some work and probably an extra day. Okay. Focus.
I checked my watch and my surroundings. I figured that I was only, hopefully, a mile or so off course. Best bet would be to turn around, head back towards the car until I found the trail again. And best not to dawdle.
It was about an hour later when I first heard it. Something stumbling around in the woods ahead of me. Of course, in the winter the woods play tricks with the sounds. Things miles off sound like they're yards away, and noises right behind you can be muffled to the point of silence, so I wasn't sure what I was hearing. I kept on walking.
The sun fades fast in the winter. It was a full moon night, and the moon shone brightly on the snow between the tree branches. I turned on the headlamp, but decided it was too dark to go on. I didn't want to risk a slip off the trail, not at night.
It was a cold night. I started a small fire for cider, and cocooned in my blanket and tarp, warmed by my own body heat and the flickering flame. I watched the stars dance in the sky above me and took inventory, examined what I was going to do. Checking blocks and making sure I was still doing the right thing. I couldn't come up with a valid reason not to do it.
My parents would be upset. I was their daughter, but our relationship had been polite and distant since high school. We were family, but I couldn't figure out what that meant, exactly, and I was pretty sure they didn't know either.
I had friends, people to spend Friday and Saturday evenings with, but no one who would notice I was gone until I didn't show up for work on Monday.
I had a job, but what did that mean? I created nothing. I invented words and pictures to convince people to spend money and consume more things. No. That wasn't enough.
I watched the stars move across the sky until the blackness faded to the royal blue and reds of the sunrise.
That's when I heard it again. That same stumbling around in the woods. But this time it was definitely headed my way. I slipped out of my blanket and picked up a stick from the fire. I could see a shadow moving in the trees. A person-shaped shadow, but a small person.
A couple of seconds later I saw him. Just a boy. He couldn't have been more than fourteen. Dark hair, scruffy clothes, obviously cold, and obviously not coherent. He stumbled past me without looking my way. He was off-trail, and underdressed. Jeans and a flannel shirt. Leather hiking boots, no hat, no gloves, light jacket. He wouldn't make it through the night, but going after him would mean changing my plans.