by Kelly Sundberg
“The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought, an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
-Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Memorial Day Weekend, 2003.
Indian Creek Guard Station in the Frank Church Wilderness
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River
This is a story about a girl (me) who went to work in the wilderness and came out unchanged. That doesn’t make a very good story, though, so maybe this is a story about other peoples’ grief, or my own grief, or the lack thereof. But really, this is just a story about a girl on the stoop of a Forest Service cabin hugging her knees to her chest, listening to nothing but wind, the occasional crack of a branch in the distance—a deer, it would turn out—and the always-eager gurgle of water washing over stones. Water that cleanses. Water that kills. But, of course, the water metaphor has been overused; it’s a cliché, so let’s talk about the deer instead.
The branches cracked, the sound growing closer. Quickly. Urgently. I leaned forward, peering around the cabin just in time to see the deer burst out of the pine trees. Her haunches quivered. Hooves spinning. Nostrils flared, and lips floated back as if they weren’t attached to her face. But maybe I’m imagining the lips—appropriating the image of a horse. If she were more graceful, she would have resembled a horse. Her legs scattered the pine needles, kicking up the soil, unsettling the earth around her. A butterfly darted off in a flutter. My hand rose to my mouth involuntarily, my gut wrenching sideways.
Something was chasing her. I knew this. I moved back—closer to the door—but still angling my head to watch. I didn’t want it to be a cougar. The summer before, while working at Corn Creek, a guard station on a different section of the Salmon River, I had walked out onto the deck of a Forest Service A-Frame. It was in the middle of the afternoon heat, and I saw a cougar pacing on the trail above me. Its hulking body swung from side to side. That time, I’d backed into the cabin, closing the door, and watching through the window. It paced back and forth for an hour—eyes fixed on the cabin. After that, it gave up, springing up the hillside suddenly. I avoided that trail for months. I have never been fearless. I wasn’t ready to die. I was terrified of cougars, who were so intelligent that they went straight for the carotid artery. For the clean kill. No one wins a battle with a cougar.
The deer disappeared into another thick of trees, and then the hunter appeared: a wolf—grey and lanky. He didn’t look like the computer animated wolves in movies, like black blurry masses with dripping fangs. He was more a very large, somewhat menacing, dog. His face pushed forward, eyes concentrated, the fur on his shoulders spiking, but I could see he wasn’t running as fast he was able. He was pacing himself—trotting.
I stepped off the porch and looked up the hillside. He took no notice of me, only a quick disinterested glance. I scrutinized the trees above the cabin for anything—shadows maybe—evidence of a pack, but I saw only pine trees with blue skies peeking through the boughs. Still, I knew that wolf probably wasn’t alone. He wasn’t running fast enough. When he disappeared into the trees, I shut myself in the cabin and sat down at the desk to read a three-year-old version of New York Magazine, a generosity left by a former ranger, someone familiar with boredom.
I had come to Indian Creek six weeks before to work as a Wilderness River Guard—instructing boaters on wilderness ethics, and inspecting their boating equipment to make sure they were prepared—but so far, I had only seen a few boaters, and the solitude was beginning to wear on me. Once, while hiking the trail below my cabin, I had caught myself talking out loud. I looked around, embarrassed, then realized there was no one around to hear.
Earlier in the afternoon, just before my shift ended, I received a call on the CB radio.
“Indian Creek. Indian Creek,” it squawked. I picked the receiver up with joy. With the exception of my morning check-in, I hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. My co-worker Rick had flown out for his days off, and I was alone.
“This is Indian Creek. Over,” I said into the receiver.
A member of the wilderness trail crew spoke up, “Um, we’re camped up here a little ahead of you, and five dry bags and a boat just floated by.” I felt ill. A boat must have flipped, then been unrecoverable. At the least, this meant someone had lost their supplies, which was no small thing on a river trip that averaged five to seven days, but at the worst, this meant a body (or bodies) had swept away with the wreckage.
It had been a hot week, and the snow melt had caused the river to go from a trickle to a gush. A few days before, some boaters had warned there was a log down over Marsh Creek that would become a problem when the snow melted. At the time, they could float under it, but when the water rose, it might trap boaters. I had radioed the information in to the ranger station, but wilderness policy was not to remove downed timber.
“Any people?” I asked.
The voice came on again. “There was no body. I mean, nobody.”
“Roger that,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye out. Indian Creek out.”
At that time, I had been reading a lot of transcendental wilderness bullshit. In the wilderness, death means rebirth, right? The circle of life—a phrase made famous by a singing lion. I’d gone into the wilderness to be reborn. I kept waiting for God to speak to me from the rocks. And sometimes, when I sat very still—the wind ruffling my hair—I heard the beginnings of a voice. Kelly, it whispered. Kelly.
Kelly, you are so very lonely. And afraid. Do you know why? Because you’re stuck in the middle of the wilderness alone.
By the way, this is your inner monologue. Not God.
God was silent on all counts.
You see, for the wilderness to work its magic, to still that anxious voice inside you and grant transcendence, you have to like yourself first. None of the books will tell you that. They might command you to know thyself, but they won’t command you to like thyself.
It was time for my shift to end, so I finished my paperwork, locked up the cabin, and went down the long wooden steps to the beach by the river. I sat there for a long time, watching the water rush by, looking for the bags, the boat, bodies, anything. The boat and bags must have swept by without my noticing. The water was moving fast; the prehistoric rocks filled with ancient petroglyphs and archeology trapped the water in their compact grip.
The afternoon upstream wind picked up—heat rising from the canyon floor. Across the river, the land was scorched black from a forest fire. Whitish, scarred trees rose out of the ground like skeletal fingers pointing accusingly at God. The night before, I had dreamed of Mary—my best friend, Megan’s, mother. I was looking across the river at the dead trees. Some of them were still burning, but just slightly. Mary was standing in the middle of it, and I was crying for her to get away from the fire. But the river was too fast and too swift for her to cross.
As a child, I spent nearly as much time sitting on Megan and Mary’s couch as I did at home. My mom and I loved each other, but we fought terribly, both of us strong-willed and stubborn. Once, after a particularly draining fight, I ran to Megan’s house. She was my best friend, but Mary was the one who comforted me. Mary saw my red-rimmed eyes, and without saying a word, handed me her Nintendo, so we could play Tetris. In an hour, we were laughing, and I had forgotten what had seemed so important just minutes before. Mary had youthfulness about her. She taught Spanish at the high school, and hers was a home for wayward children. On Friday nights, while Megan and I were cruising Main Street in her car looking for boys, the nerdiest kids from school would be parked in my spot on the couch.
When I dropped out of college for the first time and moved back home, I was ashamed, and the problems with my mom had grown worse. Megan had moved away for college, but I still had my spot next to Mary, who by then had an oxygen tank by her side as well.
Six years later, I was back in college and working for the Forest Service during the summers. Before I left for Indian Creek, Megan called. Our parents still lived one block from each other, and we were both home visiting. When I walked in the house, Mary was laying on the couch under an afghan watching Law and Order. She raised her hand and smiled—a weak smile. “How’s the University of Montana?” she asked.
I smiled back, that kind of false smile that people use on the dying. “Oh, I’m not in Montana anymore.” I said.
Megan had just walked in from the hall. “Mom, Kelly’s in Boise now,” she said.
Mary closed her eyes. “Oh, right,” she said. “Boise.”
Megan’s room was the same as it had been in high school: A Beatles poster on the wall, a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD, an incense holder on the bed stand. Her bed was covered in a black and white bedspread with a silkscreen of the Beatles, a graduation gift from Mary.
We’re in our thirties now, with children of our own, and that bedspread still hangs over the back of Megan’s couch, but Mary is gone. She’s been gone for years now. That day—the day before I left for Indian Creek—was the day Megan told me Mary had entered the final stages.
That morning, Sheri, my Amazonian, redheaded, psychic boss called me via satellite phone and told me the news. Two men, in different groups of boaters, had died underneath that log. One of them had been rowing a raft, shirtless, with no lifejacket. He was swept under the log, and his body disappeared, which explained the ownerless boat and dry bags. The other man wore a life jacket, but he was overweight and got pinned under the log. His friends tried for hours to get him unpinned. I couldn’t help but imagine the struggle. At some point, they surely must have realized he was dead, yet they persevered, attempting to recover the body, to salvage something from their loss.
In the spring, because of the snow, boaters either had to fly in to Indian Creek, which was expensive, or put in at Marsh Creek, which was dangerous. Once on Marsh Creek, there was no outlet until they reached Indian Creek. Before I could arrange a plane to fly them out, the friends and family of the dead men needed to float downriver to Indian Creek. The trip was at least twenty-two miles, so it would take a day or two for them to arrive. I needed to line up charter planes and provide medical care, if necessary.
I had taken a Wilderness First Aid course where I learned how to do all kinds of bad-ass things, like snap a dislocated shoulder into place, make a splint out of a ski pole, and even amputate a leg if needed, but I had never actually had to put any of that into practice. The only thing I had used my first aid kit for was cutting foam donuts to put around my own ankle blisters with duct tape. I didn’t trust my ability to help anyone.
After we talked about the boaters, Sheri told me about the funeral. They had buried her father the day before. They’d put his ashes in a tackle box. The way he would have wanted it.
As a young woman, I had an affinity for friendships with older women. In high school, when I wasn’t visiting with Mary, I was working in a bookstore with three amazing, hippy women who fawned over me, giving me the advice and support I didn’t think I had at home. When I graduated, they wrote me letters and visited me in college, always encouraging me to be myself, to be individualistic. Under their tutelage, I blossomed, so full of pride. My mom, a fairly conservative Lutheran, wanted me to have safety and security, but I wasn’t interested in being safe, and she was scared of my attraction to danger.
Still, in my early twenties, that attraction to danger manifested as self-destruction. At that point, an eating disorder I hadn’t come to terms with yet was consuming my life, I fell in love with an abusive and narcissistic man, my friendships were faltering, and I had no wise women left to guide me through this turmoil.
I wanted Sheri to be that woman. She was psychic, or so she said. This was more of a curse than a blessing. She didn’t want to know things. Once, during Forest Service training, we were all sitting arguing around a long office table. I wanted to speak up, but felt too young and inexperienced. I kept my thoughts to myself, staring at the table instead. Suddenly, Sheri told everyone to be quiet. She looked straight at me. “Kelly,” she said. “Do you have something you want to say?”
Had she read my mind? I couldn’t be sure, but I felt nervous nonetheless. I didn’t like the idea of someone prying into my brain. I was so full of secrets. There were so many things I wanted to hide, because deep down, I believed I was bad.
After that, I guarded my thoughts closely around her, but she still knew things. Once, after that man had left me, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, wanting him back in my life. Sheri and I were sitting on the cabin stoop when she sighed and spoke up.
“He’s not going to ask for you back,” she said. “At least not yet. The irony is that one day he’s going to wake up and come back to you, but by then, you won’t care.”
It was what I needed to hear, and she was right. He did come back—years later—more than once, but I never wanted him again.
Sheri also read auras. She said she could look at someone and see their aura, know things about them. People always asked her, “What is my aura?” And she would tell them, say something like, “Your aura is purple. That means you’re dynamic and spiritual.”
But I never asked her about my aura. I didn’t want to know, because I thought something would be wrong with my aura. I pictured it as black and broken.
If God couldn’t forgive me, then maybe nature could. When I went to Indian Creek, I knew I was running, but I didn’t know if I was running towards or away from something.
In the wilderness, waiting is often the most important survival skill. At 3:30pm, after the shift has ended, wait until 4:00pm to go for a walk. This is when the sun dips behind the canyon, and the heat isn’t so extreme. At 5:00pm, after your walk, drink a cup of tea on the stoop. This delays dinner, which is very important, because after dinner, the night stretches into one long, dark bout with loneliness.
The week is the same. On Wednesdays, the trail crews start and end their shifts. That means every Tuesday night, before they fly out on Wednesday morning, is a party. On the one Wednesdays a month that they fly in, they’ll bring produce, and it’s been so long since you’ve had a salad you’ll want to cry, and you’ll hug the young guy from North Carolina who has been angling to sleep with you in the cabin, and you’re almost lonely enough to let him in, but not quite.
On Thursdays, the mail plane arrives at 9am, and this is the best and worst time, because the pilot will bring a newspaper and a new batch of magazines, and he might even sit for a cup of coffee. Once he leaves, you won’t see anyone but boaters, and they don’t usually linger.
Time must be marked in these increments, or it blurs into a haze of blue skies, chirping swallows and warblers, and rushing water that eddies out into an endless, swirling continuum.
The first boater who showed up for help was from a completely different party than I expected. He had a fistful of gauze packed over his eye, but blood was seeping in. The river had taken control of his oar and thrown it back in his face.
I tried to be reassuring. “I’m sure you’ll be okay,” I said.
His college-age daughter hovered around him, and although he was trying to seem confident, his good eye looked tearful. “I’m a surgeon,” he said. “I need my eyesight.”
I called in a plane from the nearest town, and we talked while we waited for it. I chatted as if it was no big thing, as if this man’s eyeball wasn’t obviously crushed. He even laughed a bit. When the plane came, he looked relieved.
“They’ll take you to the hospital,” I said. “My mom works there. It’s a good hospital.”
He looked relieved. “Really?” he said. “Really?”
I nodded convincingly. “You’ll be in good hands.” He believed me.
But the thing is, for a town of 3,000, it was a good hospital, but it was a rural hospital with only a few doctors on staff. They didn’t have the resource for complicated surgeries. I knew they wouldn’t be able to help him. My lies made me sick. He was going to lose his eye. He just didn’t know it yet.
Solitude is overrated. Edward Abbey wrote “Somewhere in the depths of solitude, beyond wilderness and freedom, lay the trap of madness.” In the Salmon River Canyon—the Impassable Canyon—hermits used to squat on homesteads along the river, with hundreds of miles between them.
One of those homesteads, Buckskin Bill’s, was preserved after his death by a private couple from Germany. Now, after a few hot days of floating the river, boaters can stop and buy an ice cream cone or a cold beer. This outpost is firmly within the wilderness boundaries, but it was grandfathered as a private residence before the wilderness was created.
Once, after buying an Eskimo Pie, I unwrapped the silver foil and took a tour of Buckskin Bill’s house—a sturdy, handmade, sod and stone creation. On a shelf, I saw something gruesome in a jar. I leaned in for a closer look, licking the chocolate off of my ice cream, and gagged.
In the jar were twin cougar fetuses connected together by a single, tiny umbilical cord. They were covered in yellow fur, but they looked remarkably like human fetuses. After killing a cougar, Bucksin Bill had found these twins in the womb. They curled into each other like a heart. Something protective in me stirred at the sight.
He must have felt something too, sadness maybe, morbid curiosity, maybe both? He kept them, pickling them in formaldehyde. Out of love, I like to think.
Buckskin Bill was a hermit, but he wasn’t always solitary. He liked company. In his later years, he travelled widely, even going as far as Iceland and Russia. He once said this:
“When you die, you have to die by yourself anyway. But you should enjoy [life] up to the last minute.”
That Memorial Day weekend—just after I found out about Mary, at the same time that Sheri was burying her father, those two men were dying in the river, and another man was losing his eye—my mother was in Texas holding on to her brother, who was dying of cancer. Except she probably wasn’t holding him. Because we didn’t hold in our family.
I hadn’t known my uncle, or any of my extended family. Not well, anyway. My mother’s parents both died by the time she was thirteen. My father’s father died when I was four. We lived in Idaho, and the rest of the family stretched across Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Kansas. I had cousins I had never met.
When my uncle was diagnosed, he and my aunt drove across the country in their RV to see us. In his eyes and my mother’s eyes, I saw love, but also, regret. All those years had passed apart. We were all so alone.
After the plane left with the surgeon and his daughter, and his fellow boaters got their permit and paddled on downriver, I didn’t see anyone for hours. The radio, which usually buzzed with background chatter, was oddly silent. No one else seemed to be working on the holiday weekend, and the groups that had put in at Marsh Creek were taking their time to arrive. I made lunch, tidied the office for the seventh time, wandered around the scorched earth of the beach picking up “micro-trash,” as Sheri liked to call it—rubber bands, pieces of plastic, bits of paper. Then, I readied myself for the worst job—raking the poop. The Forest Service had recently invested in a completely self-contained, self-composting toilet for Indian Creek. Because Indian Creek was in the wilderness, it couldn’t have a regular outhouse, which required trucks to pump out the waste every few months.
No engines or modern technology are allowed in the wilderness (except for the airplanes), hence the composting toilet was designed by Europeans to compost on its own. Because the boaters have to pack out their own waste, the Indian Creek toilet becomes a destination, a place where wilderness-goers can take a long, luxurious dump in private.
Every afternoon, when the heat was at its worst but the boaters had usually departed, I climbed around to a shed at the bottom of the toilet. I opened the door, held my breath, grabbed a rake with poop encrusted tines, stood on a ladder that overlooked the holding tank, tossed some kind of blue poop-eating algae into the burping tank, then raked it all together. I had worked some pretty menial jobs before, but nothing compared to raking poop. It’s hard to be enraptured with the wilderness while stirring a vat of festering fecal matter.
Once I had the door to the shed closed and locked, I heard voices from below. I looked down the boat ramp at the beach. Boats were pulling in. They were here.
There were ten or twelve men and women, mostly in their thirties, and they didn’t react the way I had imagined. No one wanted to fly out. They wanted to continue on their trip. They couldn’t understand, they said, why they should stop. It wouldn’t accomplish anything to go home. They’d tried to save him, but once his body was swept away, there was nothing they could do. For a long time, they just sat on the beach. Finally, they decided they would make the trip last as long as possible. None of them was eager to get back to the real world.
I was stunned. My first inclination would have been to fly home and crawl in bed, as my usual first response to trauma was to hide. And weren’t they worried about the danger? The water would likely get higher, I advised them. But they were determined to go on.
I would have thought they didn’t care, if not for the smell. When a few of them came into the office, there was an overwhelming smell. I had to fight not to gag, not to let it show on my face. They huddled together, their faces inexplicably calm, but the smell was recognizable. They smelled like a wounded animal, like decay.
When they left, I locked the office. My shift had ended. Rick would fly in that evening once the air had cooled enough for the plane to land, and I had Memorial Day off. I wouldn’t need to deal with any more crises for a couple of days. I went to my cabin, changed out of the ranger uniform that made me look like a shapeless, brown rucksack, and put on some shorts and sneakers.
I wasn’t a runner, but I had been running lately, finding it an easy way to get out of my head, to forget about all of the suffering going on around me. I started running down the trail alongside the river. This was the wilderness Abbey had written about; every noise was magnified. The sound of the water competed with the sound of the wind, and the tree branches swayed and rustled. I stopped when I saw some scat on the trail, kneeled down, grabbed a stick and poked at it. It was wolf scat. Fresh. I stood up suddenly, breathing fast from my jog, and looked around. I had the eerie feeling of being watched. The hair on the back of my neck rose, but I shook off the feeling and continued. I wanted to run to Pungo.
Pungo, an archeological site just below Indian Creek, was full of pit houses—ancient dugouts that the Shoshone had lived in or used for storage. All that remained of the pit houses were indentations in the ground—barely recognizable—like potholes, but once in Pungo, my imagination always took over, wondering what the wilderness had looked like all of those years ago, if the magic would have been more accessible to me then.
I turned a corner, almost there, and stopped. Just to the side of the trail, I saw a hooved leg. I stepped closer. It was the deer. She had been torn apart—not inefficiently—legs pulled off and stomach wide open. Blood stained the ground above and below her, but there were no guts or innards around; she had been picked clean. Except for her eye. One eye—glossy and white—stared at me from her skull. It looked at me accusingly. Or pleadingly.
I wanted to cry out, I couldn’t help you. I almost did. I almost said it out loud.
My day off. Rick had arrived the night before, and, suddenly, Indian Creek felt lively. “Ranger Rick,” he was called affectionately on the river. He had worked at Indian Creek for years. Sheri was his best friend, and years before, she had flown in a red, velvet couch for his cabin, which was just above mine. He had painted the wood floors bright geometrical shapes. It was his home. Still, after all of those years, he, too, was ready for civilization. He had travelled to Europe during the off-season and met someone, an exciting and passionate man, in Amsterdam. Rick wanted to see him again, and Indian Creek was a tough place for visitors. He was ready for culture, he said. He wanted to be an organic farmer in Italy.
That day, he let me do my laundry in his cabin. He had a hand-cranked Amish washing machine that met wilderness standards. I put the clothes in with some water and detergent, then twisted the crank to agitate the sudsy water. After rinsing the soap out, I put them through the ringer. When the excess moisture had been squeezed out, I took my basket to the laundry line. While hanging the laundry, the sun shone on me brightly. I saw myself in the scene of a movie, peaceful, domestic. A silver fox ran by above me, pausing to cock his head at me. I smiled at him while I pinned a cotton shirt to the line.
Still, as the blue sky hovered above me, airplanes were buzzing in and out of the airstrip. Memorial Day was the first busy day of the season, and the darkness in me thought the domesticity couldn’t last—that, in the movies, there was always someone hanging laundry on the line just before the bomb detonated or the world exploded.
Rick walked by, smiling, and invited me to have lunch with him in his cabin. He made elk patties with pickled garlic and salad. We each had a glass of red wine. The food was delicious, and I ate every bite with relish. He looked outside and saw clouds building.
“You should probably get your laundry,” he advised. “It looks like a microburst is coming in.”
I pulled my laundry from the line, running it into my cabin. A swift wind had picked up. The sky black. The trees shook forebodingly. I ran down to join Rick in the office that was located just below the cabins. I didn’t want to be alone during the storm.
As I ran to the office, the wind picked up quickly, and raindrops blew sideways into me. Rick was standing on the stoop. “We should head into a cabin,” I said.
Rick looked at me and shook his head. “The cabins are surrounded by trees that could fall. The thinning crew identified them as hazard trees. We’d better find a low spot somewhere. Come on. Let’s head to that rock.” He grabbed my hand just as thunder cracked right next to us. I jumped. The wind furious now. “Hurry,” he yelled to me over the wind. We ran and crouched on a large, flat rock perched on the edge of the river canyon just as the downpour started.
I was terrified but Rick was laughing. “I love storms,” he shouted. He looked at me intensely. “Breathe,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“Like this,” he said, taking a deep, long breath through his nose into his chest. “When storms come up like this, the air is charged with negative ions, and they’ll make you feel joy. No one really knows why, but the same thing happens when you walk under a waterfall. The negative ions in the air by waterfalls, and oceans, and in storms will make you happy. They release endorphins.”
I was skeptical. He looked at my confused face and smiled. “You think I’m crazy!” he shouted. “But I’m right.”
He took another long, deep breath and laughed. He really did look crazy, with a long beard and broad smile. I started to laugh, too. He crouched on that rock and beat his fists into his chest, shouting madly. He smiled at me, took my hand, and I took a deep breath.
I felt something expanding inside of my chest—fear, excitement, happiness—I don’t really know what it was Lightning boomed above me, and I looked up just in time to see a tree swaying then crashing into the ground. A great plume of ash rose like smoke. Then another tree fell, and another. The world was shaking, rumbling, and cracking, and I was perched on a rock in the middle of it, holding hands with a strange man.
When the storm ended, I felt released. Maybe Rick’s crazy ideas about negative ions had worked, but I don’t think it was that. For a moment, my loneliness had abated. I felt connected to—touched by—another person. I had come to the wilderness seeking change through solitude, and I hadn’t found it, because I wasn’t ready. The woods couldn’t heal me when all I could think about was Megan, Mary, Sheri, my mom—people I loved who were hurting while I was unable to help. I didn’t want solitude any more.
Abbey was right when he wrote “The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break.” The beautiful thing about the preservation of wilderness is that, if protected correctly, those pit houses will be there when I’m gone. The rock and sun will last, but I’m only here for a time. Given the choice, I don’t want to be alone.
Maybe I did change, but if so, the change was circular. I wanted to be that young woman again, the one who sought out hippy women, Spanish teachers, and psychics. I wanted to know my family, and I wanted the beauty of the woods, but I also wanted to be touched and loved. Most of all, I wanted to like myself again.
Kelly Sundberg‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, Quarterly West, Mid-American Review, The Southeast Review, Slice Magazine, and others. She has an MFA from West Virginia University and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University.