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