We sat together after dinner talking quietly in a darkened room, with the windows open to bring in the soft autumn breeze. My friend brought his pipe out from his jacket and held it up, asking for permission. I nodded and said that I enjoyed the smell of a pipe even if I did not smoke.
He said, "You never were one to bother with the vices of the world."
"No." I said, not wishing to say more, though I'm sure my friend could hear the story in the word.
He lit his pipe with a wooden match, puffing in the sweet tobacco smoke with a soft whistle, then tossed the match onto the hearth. "I once partook more freely than I do now, truth be told," he said, "But I suppose age has brought on a bit of mellowing, you might say." He smiled at me behind the glow of his pipe and continued, "It's just me and my tobacco now."
I smiled back at him, rocking slowly in the old wooden chair that was my favorite, knowing that he was waiting for the story. I chose my words carefully when I said, "No, tobacco never was a thing that drew me, but I suppose I cannot hold the claim to having no vices at all."
He released a thin stream of smoke that curled up into the air above our heads. His eyes were sparkling with anticipation, but he remained quiet and waited for me to continue.
"It's a long story, Reynolds, do you have the time?" I asked.
"The missus knows that when I am here I always return late," he said. "She is resigned to the fact, though she does not always approve."
"Very well," I said.
Reynolds made himself more comfortable in his seat, crossing his arms with his pipe held near his face and I tried my best to organize my thoughts.
"I suppose I must begin at the beginning, when I decided to take a long walking tour of the country."
The land was wild in those days, almost completely unmanaged. I was excited about the prospect of leaving my studies and responsibilities behind for a time and being alone with nature and the solitude of the forest. My walk would begin at a place called Salty Bay, where at the edge of the ocean sat the old hulk of an ancient saw mill.
When my grandfather was young there had been a small community surrounding the mill. He worked there before he was called into the army, and it was there that he met my grandmother. During the war the mill burned and the community foundered and then died. My grandfather was dead then as well, laying in a shallow grave in the desert of a far country where his men buried him. My grandmother, so the story goes, was so heartbroken by his death that she died soon after hearing of the tragedy, and my mother was sent to live in the city with her aunt.
The houses were all old and in disrepair, with windows broken, paint peeling, and moss growing on the roofs. They were perched on the side of the hill facing the mill in a haphazard fashion with only the shadow of old roads leading from them down to the water. They were all that was left, except, that is, for the road that lead up from the saw mill into the mountains. I heard that the forest service used it occasionally but I never saw them on my walk.
Once I started on my way, I expected to be completely alone.
If you've ever walked into a mature forest, the place has a way of embracing you, pulling you in farther and holding onto you. The light there is muted, even on the brightest of days, filtered through the leaves and needles of the trees. The trees themselves tower over you, creaking and whispering in the breeze, dripping moisture on your head, their trunks black or dappled gray, sometimes covered in moss. The place is desperately alive, green, and there is a power in it that is similar to the wild ocean. The forest can be a perfectly safe place, or it can take you and eat you up and never allow you to return. There is a beautiful menace about the place, a slow, drowsy, lurking quiet that seeps into your bones and your mind, that makes you jump at unexpected sounds at the same time as giving you the deepest, calmest rest at the end of the day.
I walked into the forest on a bright fall day, a day similar to this day, to follow the logging road up into the mountains where I could breathe clean air and clear my mind of my troubles.
I had found love, you see. I don't believe you knew the girl. She was gone long before you and I met. She had long hair, a dark copper color with waves and curls that I would catch my fingers in when we embraced. I adored her, worshiped her, would do anything for her, and though she said she loved me as well, she was fickle, and when the opportunity presented itself, she moved on and left me. Her greener pastures were my destruction I thought. Life no longer had meaning. If I had been the kind of hysterical person who is self destructive, I would have blown my brains out. Instead, I went on my walking tour.
The first day was quite enjoyable. Once I had moved away from the old town and into the forest, the bright sun warmed me, and the trees kept it from growing too hot. The road was well maintained, with a layer of gravel having been recently laid down. I had song birds for company and the buzzing of bees for my friends. I found myself singing in time to the crunching of my feet on the road. Singing, and then crying, and then shouting out my anger and betrayal. How could she hurt me, how could she hurt me when I loved her so well?
The pain was intense, as was my despair. I found myself seeing less and less of the beauty of the forest around me as I buried myself in my dark thoughts, and yet, even so, I put one foot in front of the other, moving myself up into the forest, up toward the mountains.
And then, at midday, when the sun was the hottest above me, and sweat was trickling down into my eyes, I decided to stop near a small rivulet of water and eat a meal. I lit a fire and put a pot of water over it to boil, and as I waited, I sat against a tree and leaned my head back and looked up through the leaves at the clear blue sky. What does one do when one's life had no meaning? Or when one's life did have meaning, but she had walked away from you, with a smile on her face, saying, "Sorry, dear, it looks like it just won't work out."
My water boiled and I added a packet of spice, a potato, a sliced carrot and a few pieces of beef, then sat against the tree again to wait. The aroma made my mouth water. I suppose it was the aroma of the food, the strangeness of the smell to a place that was normally filled with the smell of green growing things and damp black earth that brought the animal to me.
I don't know what it was. I could not see it clearly, but it was large. I thought it was a bear a first, but I had seen bear before, and I knew the difference. This wasn't a bear. Perhaps it was a wild dog or a wolf, though wolves were thought to have been gone from this part of the country for many years. I could hear it sniffing, and moving through the underbrush.
I lifted the heavy stick I used while walking and watched the patch of brambles carefully. The animal watched me as well for a moment, and then turned and moved back into the forest away from me. I felt a shiver run down my spine and for the first time I began to wonder at the wisdom of my small adventure. Perhaps I should just walk back down to the mill or spend the night in one of the old houses. I don't believe I was afraid, but the thought did cross my mind that if I was hurt somehow out here in the wilderness, nobody would come to find me.
Nobody knew I was on this trail, especially the one person who I wished would know and care. She no longer cared, I thought, so why then should I care. Perhaps I'd get hurt. Perhaps I'd be attacked and eaten. If she didn't care, then why should I?
So I ate my meal, cleaned my pot and walked on, deeper into the forest.
"My God," said Reynolds, "I wouldn't have taken you for a romantic."
I smiled at him. "I suppose it's not a vice to be proud of."
He shrugged, then emptied his pipe into the fireplace. "I believe my missus would argue with you about that. I don't believe she would consider romance a vice at all."
He packed more tobacco into his pipe, and after lighting it continued, "No, the missus would be on the edge of her chair, kerchief dabbing her eyes, eating the romance bit up. I confess to being a bit of a romantic myself, though you wouldn't guess."
I smiled and said, "I know your heart Reynolds, and you're as much a romantic as your wife is. More so maybe, and that's why she loves you as she does, though you don't deserve her."
He puffed and nodded and laughed, "True enough, friend, true enough." He blew a long stream of smoke then and added, "So then, we'll only consider romance to be a small vice that is happily partaken of by all parties. Is the vice of this story romance, or have you not yet reached the juicy part?"
"Romance is but a device, Reynolds, a motivation for my walking tour. Romance and despair sent me there and made the rest of the story possible. Shall I go on?"
"By all means, do. Please, I'm all ears."
I walked on then, taking more notice of my surroundings than I had before. As I moved higher up away from Salty Bay the trees were more often evergreen trees with willow and alder filling the hollows and low places. I passed a few old mossy stumps of enormous size, large enough for me to crawl into the massive hollows in their rotten center. They were testament to the purpose of this old road. Once, long ago, men had come here with their saws, axes, and ropes and cut down these grandfather trees and hauled them away to be made into everything man could imagine.
I didn't see the animal again that day, and I decided that whatever it was, most likely it was afraid of me even if I had good smelling food, and it would therefore leave me to myself.
I enjoyed the walk very much. The forest was drawing me in deeper and deeper, wrapping it's arms around me. Shortly after lunch I reached the point where the forest service stopped maintaining the road and went from walking on gravel to walking on packed dirt and grass. I felt the difference immediately in my legs and feet and found myself walking faster, swinging my arms and whistling to myself. I dared to think that I almost felt happy.
I stopped walking as the sun was sinking down into the west. Night comes quickly in the forest so I wanted to be ready for it. I gathered wood and put up my tent and lit a small cook fire. After eating, I used a bit of rope to to hang my pack up from a branch of a tree that was a small distance from my tent so that if the animal returned it wouldn't rip into the pack and eat my food.
When the sun finally set, the darkness was indeed very dark. And quiet too. I added a couple of nice fat logs to my fire and stared up and the black sky. Earlier in the day the sky had been perfectly clear, but now clouds were rolling in from the sea to the west. The moon either wasn't up yet, or it was hidden, and only a few stars were visible. I sat by the fire for a while, feeding wood into it and thinking about my life. I was feeling different somehow from how I had felt earlier in the day. I felt curiously empty, like I was a jug of water that had been poured out and set back on the shelf. I had felt love and devotion to the girl, then despair and anger, and now I was in a new place. Empty. I was alone, but I thought, maybe I would survive being alone. Maybe nothing good would come from love and marriage and devotion and responsibility. It's possible, I thought, that love was a good thing, but I resolved that I would have nothing to do with it ever again.
I put one last log on the fire and retired into my tent and slept.
I slept very well too. I awoke just as the sun was rising up over the tops of the mountains to briefly brighten the day with dew sparkling on every leaf and needle. The sky was still heavily filled with clouds except for a sliver of clear sky on the eastern edge. The sun would shine on me for only a short time that day and then it would climb up behind the dark gray blanket of clouds. I packed my gear away, ate a handful of nuts for breakfast and then began walking up the road again.
As I walked, my mind was almost completely blank. I stared at the trees around me and walked, and when the rain started to fall on me, I put on my coat and walked. When the mud from the road caked my boots, I scraped it off and kept walking. I started to feel an urgency to move forward, almost as if something was pulling me onward. I walked faster, and then I jogged. Why, I did not know, but I knew that I needed to move up the road. I didn't think there was any real reason, and I think I was rational the whole time, knowing that nothing was pushing me, nothing was pulling me, there wasn't any urgent reason for me to move forward.
But what if there was? What if there was something wonderful ahead of me, or what if there was something horrible behind me. Perhaps my subconscious mind is aware of some great danger behind me and so urges me onward away from it, I thought to myself. What if I was going crazy? Was I having a nervous breakdown.
I was jumpy with fear, almost running, looking back over my shoulder, trying not to giggle, when a few feet ahead of me a great bolt of lightning struck the top of a tree splitting it in two. One half fell on one side of me, the other half fell on the other side of me. I'm sure I screamed but the crack of thunder had deafened me and the bolt of fire had blinded me. When my eyes cleared I looked at the blackened, smoking, core of the tree, half on one side, half on the other, and then sat down in the mud and cried. I leaned against the tree and sobbed and blubbered and then finally admitted to myself that I had been in love with the girl and now she was gone and I would have to move on.
When I was done crying, done with the girl, ready to start my life over, I found that I was soaked to the skin, covered in mud and soot, and then I sneezed. And then I sneezed again. I looked around for a good evergreen tree to hide under to keep out of the rain and to my amazement I saw a small cabin sitting back from the road among the trees.
I sneezed again, and made up my mind. Even if the cabin was infested with bees and lice and ants and had a family of squirrels living in it, I was going to spend the rest of my day with a roof over my head.
The cabin was old. Probably as old as the logging road itself. But even as old as it was, it was still snug and the roof didn't leak. It was an old log home with cedar shingles and a large fireplace built from smooth river stones. It appeared that someone from the forest service had been here at some time because a small stack of firewood was piled against one wall. I chopped a few pieces of kindling with my hatchet and built a fire, and then I stripped off my wet filthy clothes and wrapped myself in my green wool blanket.
The fire soon warmed the room and made the old log walls glow a cheery yellow color. Outside the world was wet and gray, and inside I was dry and warm. It was perfect. I spent the day feeding the fire, drying my clothes, whittling on a piece of wood with my knife and thinking about what I would do with my life now that I had decided it wasn't over after all. I never considered how lucky I was not to have been killed by the lighting or by the falling tree. Perhaps I should have, but I didn't.
At dusk I made myself dinner, spread my tent out on the floor of the cabin and laid down on top of it to sleep. Again I slept very well. I slept deeply without any dreams, and then some time in the very early morning, long before the sun was up, I found myself awake with my eyes open wide in the darkness.
The fire I had built in the fireplace was almost gone except for a few coals glowing faintly orange. They were just bright enough to serve as counterpoint to the blackness of the room, making it appear as if it was even blacker than it was. The rain had stopped, as had the breeze, and the quiet surrounding me made my own breathing sound loud in my ears. I felt rested, but I also felt that I had not woken up naturally on my own. It was as if I had a sleeping memory of having heard something, but I couldn't say what it had been. I lay there in my blanket for a moment, holding my breath and listening intently, but I didn't hear anything.
I rolled over then and felt for my clothes, hoping that they were dry, when I heard a rustling sound over by the wood pile.
Ah, I thought, a mouse probably. That's what woke me up. I thought this place must have quite a few mice. I sat up and dropped my blanket, and fed a couple pieces of wood into the fire. The coals sparked and flared and the wood caught, brightening the room. I stood then, naked, planning to put my dry clothes back on, but when I turned away from the fire I found that I was not alone in the cabin any more.
"Hey, you can't stop there. Where are you going?" Reynolds almost wailed.
I laughed. "My throat is dry. Would you like a drink as well?"
"I suppose," he grumbled and then said thanks when I handed him a cup full of ice water.
"Water, eh?" he asked.