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. 

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