Friday, July 29, 2016

Summer, Trader's Falls (III)


"You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific Ocean? They say it has no memory." It was Andy Dufresne who said that, Jack mused nostalgically. Sitting on a washed up log on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, journal in hand, "boiled creek water Gatorade" (as he called it) at his side, watching the sun set over Gitchee Gummee, that adage held true for him on Superior's waters. He listened to the waves for a long time. Zihuatenejo. 

Even Superior's waves seemed rather gentle today. The tide receded swiftly, now, revealing massive black boulders that jut out of the coast, boulders and rock slabs that look like they haven't moved in centuries. He watched the sunset turn the sky different colors -- orange, then pink, then lavender -- describing all of the brilliant colors around him in his journal: on his left, to the South, the forested shoreline curved outwards in brilliant greens -- almost a fresh lettuce green on the shore nearest him, then grass greens and maple greens for the next couple miles of coast, then mountainous blue-greens where the coast rose in elevation towards Duluth; the sun was sinking rapidly into Lake Superior straight ahead in the West, casting the waters in varying shades of blue that darkened with the incoming waves, until they broke with white foam against the rocks, which had taken on a Merlot hue in the fading daylight; and on his right, to the North, Lake Superior opened on the other side of the mouth of Big Carp River, vast waters beneath an equally vast blue sky, as far as the eye can see, framed only by the pines on the Northern shore. 

The sunset had drawn his neighbors from another cabin to the beach as well. Not far from where he sat writing, the female half of a thirty-something hippie couple walked barefoot along the sandy portions of the beach, throwing stones into the lake and taking artsy photographs with a camera, while her bearded male counterpart sat farther down the beach, stoically carving something with a pocket knife. Jack wondered what the woman on the beach was thinking in that moment as she walked nearer. She was pretty in the way that women are when they are troubled in thought. He had seen this couple on one or two occasions at the Big Carp River bridge, and since he had first seen them on day one he had half been expecting that prophetical 'backpacking hippies pass along sage wisdom to the writer camping solo' a la Jan and Rainy to Alexander Supertramp, but so far they had not shown any signs of interest. He wondered if there was trouble in paradise when he watched them disappear into the woods shortly thereafter, neither of them speaking a word to one another. 

It had been a "good" day for Jack -- no episodes or breakdowns. The mountains had succeeded in that. He had woken up at one o'clock in the afternoon, the latest he had slept in years, with the easiness of a man who had recently quit his office job to chase his dreams on the road, in the wilderness, an easiness which was broken by the sharp realization that he desperately needed to figure out a way to boil some drinking water, ASAP. 

He tuned his radio to the weather dial before changing into his jeans and a clean shirt, anxious now that he realized he had wasted half the day, the weatherman's announcement that it was the longest day of the calendar year in terms of daylight only a small consolation. 

"But stay hydrated if your outdoors, folks, it's also going to be one of the hottest," the weatherman said. Jack finished tying his tennis shoes, grabbed the bucket from the corner of the cabin, unlocked the cabin door, and headed out on the trail towards the Big Carp River bridge. 

"Weatherman wasn't wrong," he reflected upon arriving at the bridge. It had been one thing under the shade back at his cabin, but here on the river the sun beat down on the wooden bridge uninhibited. He climbed down from the bridge onto the rocks on the banks of the river until he reached water's edge. He leaned over, running his hands through the water and scooping it onto his face. It felt cold and rejuvenating in his pores. He filled his bucket with river water and carried it up the bank and back to camp, surprised at how sore he was and how difficult it made such a simple task. He set the bucket down on the front porch and rubbed his shoulders, achingly, then set out for his first long walk down the beach, hoping to find drift wood for the fire. 

To Jack's great relief, starting a fire proved much easier this time around; the wood seemed drier today. "Must have rained up here yesterday morning before I got here," Jack hypothesized, "that would explain the swampy hike in." It was boiling the water that proved the tricky part.

Initially, he attempted to boil the water by placing the tea kettle from the cabin cupboards on a flat stone in the fire pit. This took over an hour. And even then, Jack skeptically eyed his first mugful of murky tea. His second attempt went much better, as this time around he boiled the water in a pot on top of the biggest log he had. As these methods proved more efficient, he made notes to himself in his journal under a heading titled "Camping Notes". 

"Invest in water filtration device," he wrote, "too many wasted hours on such a basic necessity."

Then again, he thought, that's the beauty of camping -- you were always moving, always working on something for camp; no time in which to dwell on yesterdays. 

He ate a very late lunch of saltine crackers and summer sausage, which he cut into slices with his pocket knife. He enjoyed lunch with his first batch of "boiled creekwater Gatorade" (boiled river water plus a couple squirts of Mio water enhancer), as he called it in his journal. After lunch, he changed into his bathing suit, which instigated one of the few setbacks of the day.

"You know, you probably shouldn't have packed the bathing suit that she bought you for the vacation with her family this Winter, dumbass," a voice told him reprovingly. 

"It's just a stupid fucking bathing suit," he responded, though he knew damn well in his heart it was more than that.

He mixed a second water bottle-full of boiled creekwater Gatorade, grabbed his book from the nightstand, and set out for the beach at the mouth of the Big Carp River on Lake Superior, trying not to think about his bathing suit. That cause was accomplished when he encountered two different snakes in separate locations along the trail there -- two to three foot Northern Ribbon Snakes, grayish black snakes with two vertical yellow stripes down their backs -- which put the fear of nature back at the forefront of his imagination. He loathed snakes; had spent considerable time fretting about snake encounters for days prior to his journey. Still, his fears coming in to the mountains had proved to be much worse than the reality of each encounter, and Jack guessed that was the way it was with most things in life. 

He waded in barefoot across the mouth of the Big Carp River, where the river bottom was sandy and clear. Superior's waters felt like stepping into a bucket of ice water, but it was soothing on his sore, bitten feet. He washed his arms in the water and bent over to dunk his head in, which gave him a momentary brain freeze that reminded him of slurpees when he was a boy. After cooling off in the water, he attempted to do some reading on the beach, but he never did make much progress on Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, perhaps because while Hogwarts had been his only means of escape the past month -- he had already devoured The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix since his psychiatric episode -- here on Lake Superior's shores, his escape was all around him. 

Jack had spent several hours tanning at the beach, and now he had changed into long sleeves and was watching the sun go down. Zooming in from the natural valley above the Big Carp River, a family of ducks landed in vee formation on Superior to his right -- landing not far from where the hippie couple had recently disappeared into the woods. One of the ducks barked out orders to the others. Jack guessed he was the Father duck. Floating now, the family of ducks commenced fishing, dipping their heads underwater as they drifted past him in the current. "There they go, behind the rocks, before I even finish this sentence," he lamented in his journal. 

"Probably time to head back to the cabin soon," he reflected. Even on a hot day, it got chilly quickly when the sun went down over Lake Superior, and the sand flies were coming out in droves, congregating in insect clouds over the water. There were big fish jumping on the lake. 


"Yikes," Jack though on the walk back to the cabin. It was cold and spooky in the darkening woods. The fire had burned completely out by the time he got back to camp, and though it was probably just the wind he confronted a vision in which someone had been to camp and put it out. Terrified, he jumped onto the cabin porch and flung open the screen door, secluding himself inside the cabin away from the horrors of the night. He lit both candles and hung his lantern from the rafters frantically, then locked the cabin door behind him. 

Even in the cabin, he ruminated, he felt more alone than he had last night, for whatever reason; it just seemed to him darker outside the cabin tonight, colder even, and he got the feeling that darkness had fallen more rapidly tonight, like someone was shutting off the lights on him. 

"It's okay," Jack consoled himself as he adjusted the radio dial, taking deep breaths, "I've got Cobain on the radio, Harry Potter at my bedside, and pen and paper on the table". There were all kinds of adventures to be had in a cabin. It wasn't going to be so bad. 

The radio played "Free Bird" and for the second consecutive day he took great joy in knowing that he could connect with a favorite song in a way that would have never been possible before the trip. The first instance had occurred yesterday on the drive up, listening to "Something More than Free" on the cd player, windows rolled down, Isbell waling through the speakers as they sped down the two lane country roads through waving fields of tall grass:

Are you living the life you chose?
Or are you living the life that chose you?
Are you taking a grown up dose?
Do you live with a man who knows you like I
thought I did back then?
But I guess I never did,
did I, kid?

Fleetwood Mac, "Dreams," followed Lynyrd Skynyrd, then REO Speedwagon, "Ridin' the Storm Out," which whisped Jack away to a blissful high, upon which he disappeared into his writing. There was something intoxicating about being alone in a cabin in the woods with nothing but candlelight, radio, pen and paper. 

"I sure could go for a cold bottled water," he wrote in his journal a couple hours later, "getting pretty goddamn sick of boiled creekwater Gatorade." Still, he reminded himself, he had to continue to monitor his water intake. He was showing symptoms of dehydration and was now second-guessing himself on that first batch of water from the tea kettle -- had he boiled it long enough? did he drink contaminated water? -- paranoia that probably was not helped by the fact that he was properly stoned. 

"These are things you should not mess around with in the wilderness," a voice reprimanded him, "especially this far away from cell phone reception." If dehydration symptoms continue tomorrow, he cautioned, he would have to consider hiking back to the car early, maybe finding a motel somewhere to recover. At the very least, he would have to wake up early tomorrow and boil more water, first thing, as he was already running low again. First significant challenge of trip, he wrote in the journal that night. It made everything feel very real for the first time since he had left home. 

Because he had opted for the sunset at the beach over starting another fire to cook dinner, he was forced to settle for a late supper of cold beans and summer sausage, plus a protein bar and a Motrin for dessert. He found the cabin journal and read through it once more, returning to one of the smallest entries that had been stuck in his head since last night:

I came on this trip to find something my wife and I have lost after 25 years of marriage. Hope you find what you're seeking as well.

Jack wondered for a long time about the man who had written that entry some years ago. He wondered whether or not he and his wife were still together. Ultimately he concluded pessimistically, imagining that the man and wife had probably waged a long and painful custody battle against one another in court, but he truly hoped that was not the case. He hoped that his personal conclusions were merely the projections of a heart that had turned cynical and black over the years. 

He wondered about that second sentence, too: "Hope you find what you're seeking as well." It proved the cause of much mental anguish for Jack, that night, as he had nothing but time and space to ponder its implications. Was he seeking out something on this trip? Or was he simply running away from everything?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer, Trader's Falls (II)

(for Tim)



Sitting on the park bench on the cliff overlooking the Little Carp River Gorge, the red dirt river winding its way through the pines deep below, he felt like he now understood how Christopher McCandless had carelessly perished on his magic bus in Alaska. For a long time Jack had secretly harbored the suspicion that McCandless had rather committed a subconscious suicide – perhaps because all of his heroes died at their own hands, in one way or another – but now all of a sudden he wasn’t so sure. This was not the woods behind Millwood, where he had played as a boy. This was not Brighton State Park, where he camped every summer downstate. These were not even the woods of Northern Michigan, where he had lived in Petoskey with someone he loved a long time ago. This was the Porcupine Mountains in the rugged North – real wilderness like he had never known before.

The drive up had been easy enough, albeit longer than he had anticipated. He was now beginning to wonder if he had taken it too casually.

He had woken up at the crack of dawn in the teepee hell-bent on getting North, into the wild. He packed his bags recklessly, so angry with the world he packed violently, then got in the car and sped out of the campsite before anyone else was stirring; "good riddance," he mumbled to himself. Before nine o'clock a.m. he had already crossed the Mackinac Bridge, which was eerily foggy and empty, and cut across the Lake Michigan belly of the Upper Peninsula in the wet dawn, the pine-studded coast hazy with mist from the stormy lake, having spotted maybe two dozen cars total on the entire morning drive. There was solitude up here, at least.

By the time he made it to the Superior side of the Upper Peninsula, the wet morning had turned hot afternoon, and from then on Jack took the drive leisurely, enjoying the radio and the countryside, his spirits brightening the farther North he drove. He stopped in every speed trap town or tourist attraction that caught his attention: first in Seney, where he stopped at a sportsman’s store only to find it closed and boarded up, where he imagined himself Nick Adams as he walked up to the railroad tracks where Nick had once stepped off the train fresh from war almost a century ago ("a century ago, but the wounds are still the same," he thought); then for lunch at first sight of Superior in Munising, where he bought a sandwich from a deli downtown and walked down to the docks to eat, where he watched the big boats that took tourists to Pictured Rocks roll in; then briefly in Marquette, home of Northern Michigan University, before he remembered that Claire’s old neighbor – the one who used to pick them up from the downtown Petoskey bars that summer when he drank too much – went to school here; and for one final stop in White Pine, population four hundred seventy-two, where Jack chatted bears with a gas station attendant who seemed happy enough to have another soul to talk to. By the time he checked in at the visitor center and found his trail head inside the massive forest, the sun was just coming down from mid-sky. It was about as hot is it got that far North in June.

An hour into his hike, he had only hiked a quarter of the four mile journey to his cabin. He collapsed onto the park bench that overlooked the Little Carp River Gorge, falling out of the straps of his backpack and duffel bag, which had wreaked havoc on his back and shoulders already. Dry-mouthed and slightly dizzy, he regretted having relied on a measly sandwich before embarking on such a hike. He regretted having overloaded on caffeinated beverages and chewing tobacco all morning, then exacerbated all that by taking three anxiety pills before the hike.

He understood how easy it would have been for Christopher McCandless to make one fatal mistake in the Alaskan wilderness, seeing now that he had already made several blunders himself. The most obvious blunder was that he had seriously underestimated the hike in to the cabin. He had been to many other state parks and had made the assumption that the trail to the cabin would be well-maintained, perhaps even half-paved in some portions, but instead he had found a narrow, muddy, and mountainous trail that was rocky and uneven with roots. He had only hiked a quarter of the way, and he had already consumed half of his water supply. He hadn’t sweated this much since football and wrestling practices in high school, but that was ten years ago, in another lifetime.

A cool breeze swept into him from above the treetops in the gorge below, and he remembered the fellow solo hiker he had seen at the trail head.

Did you just hike that trail?” Jack was amused to find himself calling over to the sweaty hiker, again ruminating on how unlike him it was to start this many conversations with strangers. The hiker was thin and bald, and Jack couldn’t help but speculate that the man had recently underwent some chemotherapy.

Yeah,” the stranger finally answered, stopping at the side of his vehicle, shading his eyes as if to get a closer look.

How was it?” Jack called back.

I’d say it’s pretty well maintained,” the stranger replied, “gets a little muddy down in the Little Carp River area.” He was still looking at Jack curiously, almost bemusedly.

You see any bears?” Jack tried to ask casually, looking out into the forest.

No bears,” the stranger answered. “Though I did see a bull moose up in Northern Minnesota last week. Crossed right across a trail I was hiking.”

Now, Jack wondered if the stranger had been mocking him. Had his jeans and tennis shoes and novice backpacking gear given him away? Or was this really what they thought of as a well-maintained trail up here? Either way, he felt a little embarrassed.

Still, he was starting to feel better. As he sat catching his breath in the breeze, taking sips from his water bottle and snacking on trail mix, the dizziness from the heat subsiding, the gorge beneath the cliff began to look more and more enthralling. He had been too exhausted when he arrived to really appreciate it. Just a couple steps ahead, the cliff dropped off into what must have been a three hundred foot gorge below, where the Little Carp River, almost pencil thin, rushed in rapids deep below. The green tips of the pines rose up on the either side of the river, reaching only about half of the way up the red cliffs. The gorge opened up to Lake Superior’s vast enormity a couple miles ahead. It was a big as a sky as Jack had ever seen.

Jack didn’t always believe in fate, but he did the moment James Taylor's “Gone to Carolina in My Mind” came on the radio on that park bench overlooking the Little Carp River Gorge and Trader’s Falls below.

Dark and silent late last night,
I think I might have heard the highway call.
Geese in flight and dogs that bite.
Signs that might be omens say I’m going,
I’m going, I’m going to Carolina in my mind.

With new found motivation he slipped his arms through the straps of his backpack, threw his duffel bag over his right shoulder, and marched on into the wild, three miles to go and racing the sunset. Ultimate freedom. 


Holy smokes. He was beat. Finally inside his cabin, he heaped his bags down in a pile and collapsed onto the wood picnic table inside. He didn’t want to move, but he knew he had to. Reluctantly, he got up, slipped out of his tennis shoes, which were soaked in mud from the last mile of the hike, then spread his sleeping bag out on the bottom bunk furthest from the door. His shoulders rigid and sore from the duffel bag, hands and ankles swollen with mosquito bites, he crawled into his bunk and lay there for some time. He was home now.

It had been the most arduous hike of his life. Harder than the five to ten mile walks he went on in Hines Park when he was going through alcohol withdrawals every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday for two years. Harder even then the hikes during football camp on Lake Michigan, freshman and sophomore years, when he had to carry one of the seniors’ football pads and helmets in addition to his own the two miles each day to camp from the dorms.

Jack could have easily fallen asleep then, but he knew he would have to get up soon if he wanted to start a fire; outside the cabin window, the sun was going down quickly over Lake Superior through the pines.

It was another one of the rookie mistakes he had made in his first backpacking trip – losing track of time. While he had planned on getting to the cabin in the afternoon, it must have been close to nine o’clock by the time he actually arrived. It had not helped that he had to go back to the car after a half mile, when he realized he had forgotten the tobacco. “You’re lucky you made it before sundown,” he thought condescendingly.

Next he realized he had left the bug spray in the car. “You’ll be eaten alive,” one of the voices told him, “great”. He realized, too, that he had underpacked on food and water. He had foolishly assumed that there would be a well, foolishly assumed that he could make a trip back to the car for more supplies. There was no way in hell he could make that hike twice more round trip. At one point during the last mile of the hike in, he had walked a solid hundred yards before realizing that he had left his radio sitting in the brush at his last rest stop, still playing; he was that spent.

Don’t worry about that now,” he told the voices, trying to shut them out, “you have to start a fire”. Start a fire, cook dinner, smoke, eat.

On the bright side, he felt hungry for the first time in a month – “first time since I was in the hospital,” he reflected nostalgically. It gave him purpose as he collected kindling from the shrubbery surrounding the cabin, using up most of his newspaper supply as he lit one match after another, trying to start a fire. The morning rain had dampened the firewood and kindling. He was at it for an hour before he had his can of spaghetti on a flat stone in the fire.

He sat on a log beside the fire, smoking, feeling satisfied with the solitude at camp, finally feeling good vibes from the radio. The radio played Tom Petty, “Free Fallin,” then Bob Seger, “Against the Wind,” then The Doors, “Riders in the Storm” – which made him think of K – in succession.

Jesus,” he reflected to himself, “the music on the hike in had been hell.” For the first half of the hike, the only station he got seemed to play exclusively heartbreak songs, dampening the mood of the hike and his heart alike. The music on the second half of the hike had seemed a strange, hallucinogenic trip down the memory lane of his early years: he heard Blink 182, “Rock Show,” which took him back to the trails along the Rouge River with Matt Griffin and Jim Russell, talking forts and middle school love (where the hell were those guys now?); and he heard Springsteen, “Badlands,” which took him back to parking lots late at night in high school, scribbling down poems and stories in a notebook in between sips from a bottle of whiskey; then he heard Clapton, “Cocaine,” which took him back to wild house parties in Ann Arbor, when the world seemed free and fun.

It was eleven o’clock by the time he had dinner ready. He poured the spaghetti out onto one of the plates from the cabin cupboard, put a can of beans on the dying fire for a late night snack, and sat down at the picnic table to eat with the cabin journal laid out on the table, his flashlight lantern hanging from the cabin beams above. The spaghetti was hot, and seemed to soothe his soul as he ate, flipping through the previous entries from the cabin journal.

Killed a whole family of mice. Hope the cabin is mouse-free for the next campers,” one journal entry boasted.

Loved the cabin. Couldn’t sleep at night because of the mice. We set the traps, but we kept having to reset them all night.”

Jesus,” Jackson thought coldly, “savages.” He got lost in the music and the smoke, writing manically under the lantern light, forgetting all fears of mice and bears, convinced he would be one of the lucky campers who did not have any rodent encounters.

Ah! Mouse in the cabin! He jumped on the picnic table bench, careful not to let his feet touch the ground. But the Kerouac in his soul could never harm an innocent mouse. He decided he would let the mouse run free – so long as he stays on the wood floor, he told himself – and he spent the rest of the night sitting Indian style on the bench, writing on the table, dreaming up his creatures from the deep.

Scary outside the cabin windows, now that the sky has turned from burnt orange to violet to pitch black,” he wrote in his journal, pausing to think.

What’s out there?” the voices asked him.

An axe-wielding serial killer hiding in the woods?”

Alien beings?”

Wouldn’t be that bad,” all of the voices agreed.

The radio changes when the stars come out over the Great Lakes – it magically comes to life, with stations from all across the lakes that never came in during the day now loud and clear. In the night, Jackson wondered if he had truly lost his mind while he listened to the Cleveland Indians baseball station, which made no sense to him whatsoever. Then he started to hear strange beeps and buzzes from the radio – sounds like extraterrestrial communications, one of the voices commented – and not for the first time he got the strange premonition that the ghosts of sailors in the depths of the lake were trying to speak through the radio; this time, he thought, it was obviously the ghosts of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the big freighter that disappeared on Superior a long time ago, when the gales of November came early.

Jackson put his pen down and sat up, looking out the cabin window into the darkness of the forest. He realized he had been writing all night. He was in a cabin in the woods miles and miles from anything; he was okay now. The past four weeks had seen his writing cease entirely, and it felt good to be back in the good place, far away, but he knew he had to stay vigilant – the bad thoughts would be back again soon.

The radio played “Today” by the Smashing Pumpkins.

Today is the greatest
Day I’ve ever known
Can’t live for tomorrow
Tomorrow’s much too long

Jack remembered when he had used those exact lyrics as an AIM away message back in middle school. Those innocent days were a memory he could fall asleep to. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Summer, Trader's Falls

"They say that these are not the best of times
But they're the only times I've ever known"

Billy Joel, "Summer, Highland Falls"



As the cornfields of mid-Michigan devolved into the pines of Northern Michigan, he started to forget that he was a broken man. The exit ramp from I-75 North led him to downtown Cheboygan, where he drove through the little Main Street that was very much like every other Main Street in every other small town Up North, with it's coffee shop, post office, Audie's Market, bait and tackle outfit, Cheboygan Brewing Co., Duke's Dogs, and Dairy Queen, then got lost on the dirt roads on the outskirts of town before finally finding the ranger station in the deep woods, where he checked in without making any small talk with the attendant. He pulled into the campsite with the big teepee standing tall against a backdrop of white berch trees and cedars, stepped out of the car at last, and breathed in the fresh, crisp smell of pine, which reminded him of boyhood summers on Burt Lake. It was all right now.

There had been a hole in his heart since he had left Green Bay three weeks ago, so he set up camp hastily, laying out his sleeping bag and pillow on the bottom bunk in the teepee, laying momentarily to dream he was an Indian, then set about walking the dirt road that encircled the campground; he desperately needed to see the lake. The campground was strangely crowded for a Sunday night, he thought. A slew of RV's parked along the prime lakeside campsites blocked most of the lakefront, but after about a half mile he found a little trail through a patch of woods in between two RV sites and followed it to a small beach with a public dock. Lake Huron's shores here were swampy, with cat tails and duckweed clouding the lake surface, seaweed covering every inch of the shoreline. Two boys were fishing lazily off the dock. Jack shielded his eyes from the setting sun and looked out to the horizon. As far as he could tell, this was merely a bog that connected to Lake Huron -- not Lake Huron itself. Dejectedly, he turned around and headed back to camp, avoiding eye contact with the families of RV campers, who were eating hot dogs and hamburgers at picnic tables, while others smoked cigarettes in folding chairs around the fire. This didn't look like camping at all.

"This is only a pit stop before the real adventure," he thought to himself as he built a tripod of logs in the fire pit back at camp. "There won't be any people in the mountains."

It had been a dry summer, so he had no trouble starting a fire with kindling and newspaper; the flames took to the logs quickly. Jack stood to admire his work and camp. The moon was slowly rising over the tops of the pines, the smoke from the fire drifting up through the chimney of trees above towards the purple sky. He found Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the handheld radio his Dad had bought him for the trip, settled into his recliner chair, and forked a hot dog onto a spear to roast over the flames. He took them black and charred. 

"Dammit," he thought. His solitude at camp was short-lived. No sooner than he had taken a bite of his first hot dog, a family of three pulled up to the campsite next door to his in their SUV. The car doors opened, and a Mom, teenage son, and younger sister stepped out. They spent the next hour setting up their tent, blowing up air mattresses, and fighting over who got to use the electrical outlet to charge their phones.

"Jesus, do they have to set up their tent so close?" Jack wondered bitterly, throwing in a pouch of chewing tobacco. But as the sweet wintergreen burned his gums, he realized something. He drifted off to the other place. He saw yelling and screaming matches in a suburban kitchen, brother and sister sitting behind the rails of the upstairs balcony, courtroom hearings and moving trucks, and he felt guilty for having blamed them for interrupting his night. 

It was a close game, at least. We’ve got a close one in game seven, folks,” the announcer said on the radio, “Golden State leads Cleveland forty-five to forty-two heading into the break.” Jack retrieved his flashlight and toiletry bag from his backpack inside the teepee and set out on the trail through the woods to the campground restroom, which was lit by a single golden light scarcely visible through the branches. He was brushing his teeth and washing his face with bar soap in the sink when a fifty something year old man wearing a Navy Veteran tee shirt walked in. 

"How's it going?" Jack asked when the man finished up at the urinal and walked over to wash his hands. 

"Good, you?" he answered with a surprise in his voice that made Jack suspect that the man probably thought all young people had no respect for a Veteran. 

"Not bad -- after I found the place," Jack replied, wiping his face with his little yellow Michigan towel. 

"Oh, this is our eighth year up here," the Navy man said, starting to walk towards the door, "we like it up here." Before leaving, though, the man paused, as if with a sense of fatherly concern, "You just up here for the night?"

"Yeah, this is actually a pit stop for me," Jack said excitedly, "I'm heading into the Porcupine Mountains tomorrow."

He thought the man showed the slightest sign of a smile. "My wife and I are thinking about making a trip there one of these years."

"I'm kind of nervous about the bears," Jack blurted out, surprised to find himself confessing his inner fears to this middle-aged Navy veteran; it was unlike him to ever start conversations with strangers. 

"Bears, yeah," the man said, scratching his chin, as if looking for the right words. "I think if you just stay away from them they're likely to stay away from you. Make a lot of noise."

And in a strange way, it made Jack feel a little bit better, a little bit braver even. 

"Well, have a good one."

"You too. Stay safe up there." And the Navy man exited through the door, gone into the night forever. 

Jack followed the light of the flashlight down the trail back to camp, trying to remind himself that Christopher McCandless was probably never afraid of bears. He sure did hope that he could find bear spray somewhere in the Upper Peninsula, though. When he got back to camp, he turned up the radio for the start of the second half, over the sounds of crickets and bats and other night critters coming to life in the woods, over the sounds of "Finding Nemo" playing in the neighbor's tent -- sigh -- his soul content at least with the utter darkness and the dying fire. 

"Damn," he said out loud an hour later, when the Cavs sealed the game in the dying seconds, speaking out loud for the first time to himself. His voice sounded strange in the campfire light. He felt the darkness coming back again. This was all it took, and he didn't even like the NBA. 

Despondently, he kicked over the last charred log burning on the fire, so that it fell away to orange embers, sealed the hot dogs in a bear-proof zip lock bag, and retreated to the bunk in the teepee with his radio. Here, at least, it was cozy and homey, with his sleeping bag and pillow laid out on the bottom bunk, his radio and water bottle sitting on the Indian blanket spread out across the ground, and his flashlight lantern casting shadows across the canvas walls. He couldn't figure out why he had the dark thoughts. 

"I should've fucking known," he thought to himself, "as soon as the Tigers blew the game in the bottom of the thirteenth on the drive up, I should've fucking known." 

"Or maybe it's just another mood swing," another voice told him. 

"Or maybe it's the three hours of sleep you got last night," another one said.

What was supposed to be the grand baptism of the adventure had been spoiled by the dark thoughts. Jackson closed his eyes and curled up in his sleeping bag, averting his eyes from the scary scenes of his past, which were playing like a horror movie across the shadowy canvass walls, but it was no use. When the dark thoughts came, they came.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Independence Day

Here I am, madman in a cave, writing manically in the dark, Strand of Oaks blaring from the speakers, shut in from the world while literally every other soul in the nation is out celebrating in the sun, drinking beers and talking, going on boat rides, eating hot dogs and hamburgers, playing with fireworks. Here I am, because I fucking hate the Fourth of July. Here I am, in a place I've never known before. But it's alright, Ma, it feels like home here.