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.
.... There is more of this story ...