Isolation: Chapter 2
R.E.M. hummed somewhere in the background, unheard and overrated. The radio had been turned down in favor of the sounds of the forest pouring in through the open windows of the Jeep CJ-5. Most of nature’s score, however, was drowned out by four brand-new 37-inch rugged terrain tires, purchased specially for this journey. Richard had the Jeep lifted to accommodate the new tires, an expense he couldn’t really afford, but in his mind was essential to his plan. In fact, it had nearly drained his savings. He had grown accustom to not worrying about money and was hoping to find his way back there again. But he wasn’t leaving it to hope alone. No, he had his plan. And if he spent every penny he had, so be it.
Anyway, Richard was pleased with his purchase. The tires gripped the dirt road nicely, much better than his old touring tires would have. He wasn’t even sure you were allowed into the mountains without a well-prepared vehicle and supplies. He thought he remembered reading or hearing that somewhere. Or maybe that was just during the winter, when vehicles had to have snow chains. It didn’t matter. He was confident he had the right vehicle for the job.
New tires weren’t his only expenditure before driving into the wilderness. He was determined to do this right. On his feet were Merrell hiking boots. He bought them a full month earlier and wore them on his daily walks to break them in. He’d heard the horror stories about inexperienced hikers wearing new boots on long hikes and earning themselves debilitating blisters on their heels. He didn’t have time for blisters. He didn’t have the pain tolerance. Aside from new boots he also sported a new denim jacket and a new digital watch. While at the department store the day before, where he’d stopped to buy the watch and the jacket, he looked himself over in the full length mirror of the changing room and was pleased with the reflection: so pleased in fact that only a knock from the store associate, inquiring, after five minutes of trying on a jacket, if everything was alright, could tear him away. To onlookers, however, he looked like every other suburbanite trying to play rough-and-tumble for a weekend.
His indulgences did have an end, though. Stashed in the back of the Jeep were not the luxuries and faux-camping toys of other upper-middle class weekend explorers, but rather a mostly sensible assortment of survival goods. There was a duffle bag of clothes, a sleeping bag, a backpack bursting with supplies, and a rather out-of-place, old-fashioned hard suitcase. He only planned to be gone a week, but there was food enough for ten days at least – a bag of potatoes, bag of apples, dry goods like rice and oats, canned beans, veggies, meat, hashes and soups. And a twenty-five pound bag of dog food for Brady.
His co-pilot had ridden almost the entire journey with his head out the window. Richard laughed when he thought about the unfortunate travelers behind him on the freeway that morning, the great rivulets of drool flying out of Brady’s maw and splattering across their windshields. It wasn’t a cruel laugh, as Richard wasn’t a man to wish harm or even unpleasantness against anyone. It was the laugh of a free man, unburdened by time and schedules and others’ expectations. Ahh, if only that were true.
He had forgotten for a moment that the purpose of this week-long sojourn was precisely time and schedules and others people’s expectations. Richard pushed the thoughts away. There would be time for that later. The drive had been too relaxing, and would continue to be, to entertain those kinds of worries. Besides, this trip was as much for him as for them. It was his idea. He didn’t plan to spend every waking moment on work. He had decided, after stumbling upon a television marathon of a particular survival reality show, that man needed to get out into nature on occasion, to pit himself against the forces to reveal of what kind of metal he was made. In his life, the closest to nature Richard ever felt was being stung by a jellyfish at nine years old while on a family vacation in Florida. He lay on the beach, surrounded by his family and onlookers, awaiting the EMTs. As his father stood over him urinating on his wound, amid the intense pain and humiliation, he had a brief moment of clarity. He would later recount it to his friends as the first great epiphany of his life. He saw and understood in a flash the connectedness of all living things. He saw the great circle of life like Ezekiel’s wheel within a wheel spinning in front of him. And larger still, he felt the expanse of the universe, felt in his gut the hopeless size of it all, and knew that every part of it, every particle, was connected to every other part. As he lay there in the sand, covered in sweat, piss and sea water, he tried to explain it all to his father, his mother, anyone who would listen. He couldn’t understand why they weren’t listening to him. But all the crowd heard were the incoherent screams of a child, delusional with pain. As the EMTs loaded him into the ambulance, he could feel the revelation slipping away. To this day all Richard retained was the memory of having had an epiphany. All he knew was that he had once known the answer, and a vague sense that he was an important part of nature, of the universe. This feeling stayed with him his whole life, and consciously or not, influenced many of his decisions.
His laugh caught Brady’s attention and the dog turned to look at its master. Richard met the animal’s gaze with affection. Only a year ago he had thought the dog homely to look at. The long, flapping ears, the folds of skin on its face and neck, the sagging eyes… When Richard first brought the dog home he wondered if he’d ever get used to the ugly mug, but the warmth and loyalty Brady showed quickly won him over. He soon regarded Brady’s characteristics as noble. Richard scratched the dog’s head and ears, and the dog responded by licking its master’s face.
“Cut it out!”
Richard pushed the dog’s big face away and continued to scratch its head.
“We’re getting close, boy.”
Brady simply looked at him with big, dopey eyes, basking in the attention.
After two hours drive, Richard sure hoped they were getting close. The majority of the time had been spent on a minority of the miles. Unfamiliar with the mountain roads he was navigating, he split the difference between wanting to make good time and get to his destination as quickly as possible, and taking it extra slow and careful, and kept the Jeep just below the speed limit. If there was a speed limit on these roads. He hadn’t passed a sign for at least forty-five minutes. For that matter, he hadn’t passed a car, or any other sign of civilization (apart from the road he was on) in at least as much time. An hour earlier the asphalt ended and the road turned to gravel, eventually giving way to dirt. He had forgotten to set the trip odometer so he had no idea the actual miles he had driven. He knew his destination was approximately forty miles east of Interstate 5. Those were forty miles straight. He had no idea how many more miles the twists and bends in the road added. He was heading into the thick of it, the middle of the Oregon wilderness.
Twenty-two years he had lived in Oregon, and never before had he ventured into the mountains like this. He moved from the east coast to attend Reed College. He expected his intellect to be welcomed there, even (he occasionally day dreamed) celebrated. Not that he considered himself one of the great thinkers, but he did carry a general sense of superiority over others. It wasn’t arrogance, and he rarely flaunted it, it was just a closely held personal belief that he was, if ever so slightly, smarter than most people. The conviction was fostered by the fact that he had, grade school through high school, consistently ranked in the top five-percent of his classmates. Had his school offered any honors classes he surely would have been enrolled. And just as surely, his bubble would have been popped. Richard lived in a small Maine community, with a total population of fifteen thousand, and high school enrollment of around three hundred. His intelligence was such that he was at the top of the relatively small sample group, but would have been at the bottom of comprehending and following honors-level curriculum. Of course he didn’t know this, and so off he went to college with an inflated sense of acuity. It was then left to Reed College to do what his former educators could not: burst his ego and serve him a sobering reality-check. He was so excited the morning of his first day of classes. Eight hours later he was an emotional wreck. He locked himself in his room the next two days, pouring over his textbooks, knocking his head against the wall, and cursing his old teachers for not preparing him for college. It didn’t occur to him until a month had passed that the problem could be his own: that he wasn’t as smart as he thought. The realization settled slow and heavy on his shoulders like a death shroud. He lasted only one semester at Reed before transferring to Lewis and Clark.
It was there he met Kristine. Richard had dated occasionally in high school. Mostly first dates. He was pleasant enough at first meet, but the pleasantness gave way to tedium over the course of dinner and a movie. Both his parents were stay-at-home types. His father could usually be found in the living room, laid back in his easy chair, book in hand. His mother was content to sit in the sewing room, mending or making clothes for her children. That, or sitting at the kitchen table with the latest Reader’s Digest. Rather than rebel against this laid-back lifestyle, he learned at an early age to embrace it. Most of the other children in town couldn’t wait to get away to somewhere exciting. The few young ladies who said yes to his shy invitation soon found he was yet another part of the town they were so eager to escape. Richard, to his credit, didn’t take it personal. He was able to entertain himself just fine at home, taking after his parents, with homework or a good book. He was confident the right woman would appear in good time. And so Kristine did.
Good time is a subjective term. In his mind she appeared at the eleventh hour, on the verge of late. Before heading off to college, Richard wrote a timeline for the rest of his life. Even while drafting it, he knew it was a silly exercise. He didn’t expect every event to happen exactly as and when he wrote it out. But he was fairly confident in the major plot points. Engaged by twenty. Graduate and marry at twenty-two. First child at twenty-four. Last child at thirty, and so on. His twenty-first birthday was fast approaching and he didn’t even have a girlfriend, let alone a fiancé. He had already suffered the defeat of Reed, he wasn’t sure his life could take another setback. Late one night after an uncharacteristic evening of heavy drinking (i.e. two pints of beer and a shot of Jagermeister [the latter forced on him by an inebriated classmate celebrating God-knows-what]) he borrowed a lighter from a friend, took the handwritten timeline behind his dormitory, and proceeded to light the piece of paper on fire. Just as he did, he first heard and then saw a group of female students standing outside the girls’ dormitory across the way. In the center of the group stood Kristine, a nondescript type in the eyes of most males, but something about the way she looked at him, seriously, and with non-judgmental curiosity while the other girls pointed and giggled, caused a stirring inside of him. He held the burning paper in his hand until a gust of wind snatched it out of his fingers and placed it squarely against his chest. The flames licked at his shirt and chin and Richard frantically slapped his breast to put out the flames. The spectacle elicited further giggling and laughing from the girls. All but Kristine, who watched him with the slightest smile. And so it was that Richard entered her life, on fire. And even though he managed to put out the flames on his shirt, a fire had been kindled in his heart.
The mountain pass grew narrow. Richard shuddered to imagine what would happen if he encountered opposing traffic. There was simply no room to pass. The forest came right to the edge of the road, almost overtaking it at times. To his left were a small run-off ditch and then the steep climb of the mountain, and to his right the equally steep descent. Scars occasionally cut across the dirt road as rainwater exceeded the ditch’s capacity and forged its own way down the mountain. Richard and Brady bounced in their seats as the Jeep traversed the deepest one yet. His foot eased slightly off the accelerator. He was a confident driver, but with no one around either to impress or prove anything to, he allowed for a little more caution. Besides, he thought he could see a turn-off ahead.
The Jeep rolled to a stop. To call the turn-off Richard stared at a road would be a joke. He thought the road he was on was as primitive as it could get, but the path before him was completely overgrown. Two car-width parallel indentations in the grass and brush, and the unnatural lack of trees, were all that separated it from the surrounding forest. He almost drove passed, but a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree at the head of the path caught his eye. Brady looked expectantly at its master.
Richard stepped out of the Jeep, his boots finding their first purchase in non-suburban soil. He came around the Jeep and approached the still as yet illegible sign. Years of decay had destroyed several of the painted letters, but after brushing off as much dirt as he could, he was eventually satisfied that the sign read “Porter’s Retreat.” Kevin hadn’t been able to tell him why it was so named, or who Porter was. Although he had never been there personally, Kevin assured Richard it was remote but comfortable. He didn’t even have pictures, just stories from his wife Cheryl’s side of the family. And even they hadn’t visited the cabin in over a decade. From what Richard understood it was built by Cheryl’s great-grandfather as a hunting shack, and then upgraded to a (very) modest retreat by her grandfather. Kevin and Cheryl had never used it, Kevin being too attached to the internet and technology because of work. So when Richard mentioned in passing one evening over dinner with his friends his intent to get away somewhere remote for a week, Kevin spoke up and offered to let him use the cabin.
“It’s sitting there, empty as a politician’s promise. We’d be happy to let you use it. Cheryl, you can give Richard directions, yeah?”
Back in the Jeep, Richard slipped it into gear and turned onto the path. He took it slow, more thankful and proud than ever for the new tires. According to Cheryl’s directions, the cabin was just over a mile ahead. One more mile and his vacation would officially start, even if it was a working vacation.
He was getting nervous. What am I doing here, he wondered? Would the gamble pay off? Was a week enough time? Had he brought everything he needed? Waves of anxiety swept over him. He fought back. He’d spent two weeks writing a packing list, and he brought every item on it. He was here to get away from distractions and work. And as far as the gamble: it had to pay off. It had to.
The path sloped up and down, skirting large trees and rocky outcroppings, and winding its way ever closer to its own termination. Richard had a vague idea what to expect when he reached the end of the line, but tried not to have any concrete expectations. This was a new and difficult exercise. This was the same man who, at eighteen, wrote a timeline for the rest of his life. Richard was a goal oriented man, preferring to leave nothing for the fates to decide. He never considered himself a control freak, especially after marrying one, but he did like the feeling of being the master of his own fate. This trip was designed to challenge that part of his nature. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into, and it both frightened and exhilarated him.
God, would he ever reach the cabin? The path seemed to go on forever. As usual he forgot to check the odometer at the path’s head and so had no idea how far he’d come, but it felt like miles. Had he misread the sign and taken the wrong road? He began to look for a place to turn around, but just like the previous road, there was absolutely no room. The prospect of driving the path in reverse convinced him to forge ahead.
He was soon rewarded with the sight of a clearing up the trail. Something leapt within Richard’s stomach. Had he made it? Brady picked up on his excitement and pawed at the seat. The Jeep emerged from the shadow and cover of the woods into a small, sunlit clearing. Richard felt the warmth of the sun on his fingers as they gripped the steering wheel. He brought the Jeep to a halt, put it in park, and shut off the engine.
“Well, boy. We’re here.”
To the right of the Jeep, nestled in the trees and set against a backdrop of the valley below, stood Porter’s Retreat.