The pack felt heavy as I trudged along the narrow game trail. I had selected this path because the local elk population had used it for generations.
Now it was my escape to solitude.
A few years back I had accidentally discovered the elk trail while hiking and exploring after school. Howland Hill had always been a place for escaping the hustle of Crescent City.
Yet this was more than merely escaping the city below me. I was trying to escape from my shame.
“Cripes, I need to rest a minute,” I complained.
But I did not sit down or even stop. Instead, I pushed forward, climbing higher into the Redwood National Forest.
The sound of Mill Creek was slowly fading with every step. On my back I carried everything I would need for the next few weeks.
I reflected back on my last conversation with Dad, “I need to just disappear.”
Dad responded by asking, “What good would that do?”
I didn’t have an answer.
All I knew was that I needed to get away from everyone. And packing up and setting out on a long hike seemed to be the only answer.
The idea of leaving civilization had occurred to me in January. It was now late March. The heavy wet weather was still in the air but it would soon clear in time for spring.
“Six weeks isn’t anything,” I told my brother.
Adam jus’ scoffed at the idea. It wasn’t that Adam didn’t believe I could do it; it jus’ appeared as a strange idea.
Soon the game trail disappeared, ending at the top of a ridge. I turned around and looked at where I had just come from.
The sound of the highway was gone. So were the tumbling and rushing waters of Mill Creek.
I pulled the compass out of my shirt pocket.
The ridge ran roughly north and east. I decided to follow it for a while just to see where it would lead.
Down deeper into the forest I walked. When the sun was high, I stopped.
Pulling the backpack from my sweat soaked back, I laid it on the ground.
The sounds of the forest were everywhere. There was no quiet.
The trees were very much alive and making sound. The wind blew through them causing them to gently sway.
As the sound of the swaying came to my ears, I closed my eyes and jus’ listened. Soon I found myself thinking about the last year.
It had been rough for me. I had been mustered from the service; my parents were in the middle of a bitter divorce; and I had difficulty finding a job and an even harder time trying to keep one.
And jus’ last year my youngest sister, Marcy had been run down as she walked from the Woodland Villa Market to their home on Redwood Drive. She was in a wheel chair and no longer talking to me.
Then there was the arrest for stealing. It was made worse by the fact I had worked as a deputy reservist at the time.
Finally my girlfriend told me to move out.
The heaviness in my heart caused me to open my eyes and sit up.
“I’m trying to get away from all that!” I nearly screamed.
I reached over and picked at the top string holding the flap down on my backpack. Out of it I pulled two pieces of store-bought beef jerky.
“It’ll have to do until night fall,” I sighed.
Suddenly I felt naked as I reached for my pocket watch. It was not in its usual place by intention, because I had decided to leave it behind and learn to follow the seasons.
It was time to get back on trail and continued to hike deeper into the woods. My ears and eyes were ever alert for the presents of other people.
Periodically I would come across a strip of orange or blue plastic, evidence that men had once walked the same path. But I wanted to go where no one had been before or at least where there was no sign of a man having been.
“Jus’ think how many no ones are out in that big old world,” Grandpa had once said.
But he was gone now too. The thought had sent a stab of loneliness into my chest.
In the distance I could hear the breaking of water over stone. It sounded small at first but grew louder as I drew closer.
Down the hill from the trial, about 50-feet, ran a small creek, which emptied on large pond.
“Probably an off-shoot from the Smith or something,” I thought. “This is where I’ll set up camp for tonight.”.
I planned to walk further the following day.
A mosquito whined in my right ear and I slapped at it irritably. The sudden movement caused my over-sized and unbalanced pack to shift, throwing me from slope.
Falling, I hit on my right shoulder with a tooth-rattling thud, and began to tumble. I grabbed at the ground with no success, then at a bush, which came out by its shallow roots.
My foot struck something, right leg bent at a painful angle, and I was suddenly airborne, the world revolving as I did an unplanned somersault. I came down on my back and slid that way, legs spread, arms waving.
My shirt pulled up to my shoulder blades; sharp pieces of half-buried rock tore snatches of skin from between them. I tried to brake with her feet.
My left one struck a jutting outcrop and turned me to the right. That put me into a roll-first onto my stomach and then onto my back and then onto her stomach again, the pack digging into me, then pitching upward each time I went over.
The sky was down, the hateful slope was up, and then they swapped places. I went the final ten yards on my left side with my arm stretched out and face buried against the fold of my elbow.
Then I thumped against something hard enough to bruise my ribs on that side and before I could even look up from my arm, a needle of pain drove into my face jus’ above the left cheekbone. I grunted in pain and jerked to my knees, slapping.
There was something caught between my palm and cheek; a wasp, I realized, as it stung me again. Then I saw them all around me: buzzing like electric HO train motors, yellow and black, and tail section weighted down with poison.
It was a dead tree that I had slammed into, standing at the foot of the slope about twenty feet from the stream. In the dead tree’s lowest fork, was the gray paper nest. Agitated wasps were crawling all over it; more were flying out of a hole in the bottom.
Pain needled the right side of my neck. Another sting lit up my right arm above the elbow.
Something stung the back of my neck; the small of my back, above the waistband of my bluejeans, where my shirt was still pulled up. I ran in the direction of the stream without any thought.
Jumping in the water, I laid down in the stream to escape. I held my breath for as long as I could before I sat up.
When I did, the wasps were gone, but they had done plenty of damage before I had managed to outrun them. Once out of the water, and moving slow and careful, I examined myself, finding at least half a dozen stings.
My back felt scraped up and my left arm, which had absorbed most of the damage during the final part of my fall, was skinned up from wrist to elbow. The side of my face where the stump of branch had poked her was bleeding, too.
I dipped my cupped hands into the water and washed my face.
Looking at the stream, I noticed how muddy the banks were above the water. I dropped to one knee, wincing as the waist of my jeans chafed against the wasp-stings above the hip, and took up a dab of the brown-gray mud.
Dipping up more, I wet my neck and soaked my arms to the elbow. Then I scooped up mud and began to apply it-not only on the stings but all over, from my shirt collar right to the roots of my hair, finishing with a couple of careful dabs to the eyelids.
It was blessedly cool, and the itchy pain diminished almost at once. Working carefully, I dabbed it on as many of the stings as I could reach, including the one which had puffed up beside my eye.
The stream sounded pleasant as I unrolled my sleeping bag. Again I sat there and listened at the sounds redwood forest offered me.
Then I thought about the distance I might have walked today. I couldn’t judge it. I didn’t want to. All that concerned me was my stings, scraps, cuts and the still forming bruises.
The sun was filtering through the trees as it journeyed westward. Soon it would turn dark and I realized for the first time I was truly alone.
The thought frightened me for a few minutes. Then I pushed it away.
The pond was gentle yet fairly deep. It had a two-foot waterfall cascading over into. The water was clear and the fish could be seen.
In need of drinking water, it was from this pond I decided to get it. But first I had to “purify” it and since I didn’t want to build a fire, I decided to build a water filter.
Breaking off four fairly strong branches from the surrounding Alder trees, I tied them together at the top. Next I attached a red bandanna to the four sticks.
Under that bandanna I attached a second one. This was followed by a third bandanna.
Setting the contraption on level earth, I placed my enamel coffee pot underneath it. Finally I dipped my coffee tin into the pond and poured its content into the first bandanna, which dripped into the second bandanna, which dripped into the third.
I repeated this until I had filled the coffee pot with water. Finally I pulled a sack of trail mix out of my backpack and ate a few bits while lying on top of the sleeping bag.
The little clearing was soon filled with moonlight, strong enough to cast a firm shadow beside me and put ash-bright sparkles on the water of the little stream. Overhead in the black were a zillion stars, which paled a bit when the moon rose.
“The moon’s so bright it must’ve embarrassed all but the brightest stars into invisibility,” I said and then something about it, or about looking at it from where I was, made me feel my loneliness and failure.
The feeling didn’t last long as white fire scratched the sky when one of the stars fell. The streak ran halfway across the black and then winked out.
Then there was another, and then another, going in a different direction. Not just a meteor but a meteor shower.
The sky lit up in a silent storm of bright contrails. Most were momentary white flashes, thin and straight and gone so quickly that they would have seemed like hallucinations if there hadn’t been so many of them.
A few, however lit up the sky like silent fireworks, brilliant stripes that seemed to burn orange at the edges. Then at last the shower began to wane.
When I next awakened the sun had gone down and I felt chilled. So I climbed into the bag and returned to sleep.
Come morning, I bent over the stream to splash my throbbing face, saw my reflection, and moaned. The wasp-sting above my cheekbone had swelled some more, bursting through the mud I had smeared on it like a newly awakened volcano bursting through the old caked lava of its last eruption.
It had mashed my eye out of shape, making it all crooked and freakish, the sort of eye that made you glance away if you saw it floating toward you and usually in the face of a mentally retarded person on the street. After applying more mud, looked down into a pooling area of the stream, I saw the dace a minstrel-show performer, a dark pasty gray face, eyes and lips white.
Speaking to that face in the water, I quoted from one of my favorite childhood stories, “Then Little Black Sambo said, ‘Please, tigers, do not take my fine new clothes.’ ”
The following week I was continually on the move. I had long since put the compass in the bottom of my backpack.
“If God can work for six days, then rest, I can walk for six days, then set up a base camp,” I’d concluded.
That following evening I found myself standing by a slight stream on a grassy bank. Sunlight fell onto the bank in bright yellow bars as three butterflies, two white and a third velvety-dark, brown or maybe black, played, dipping and swooping.
“This is the place,” I said, as I pulled the harness buckle on my backpack, letting the backpack slowly drop to the ground.
The next few hours of daylight were spent exploring my new home. I chose to go up-stream to see what was there.
Moving deeper into the woods, I came to a broken maze of long-dead trees and I realized I was entering some kind of ghost-woods, the site of some a long-ago fire. The ground in which they stood was swampy and wet and rising from the flat pools of standing water were patches of earth covered in grass and swatches of weeds.
On the far side there appeared a low gap in the treeline. I wanted to know more about this area so I decided to cross the marsh, following the outside line of the water.
At one point, I step down onto what I thought was solid ground, only to have my sneaker disappear into a deceptive crust of moss over a soupy pocket of mud. The viscous substance was too thick to be water and too thin to be mud.
Struggling to hold my balance, I got a knee under me and yanked my foot back. It came free with a loud sucking plop, but my sneaker stayed down there someplace.
Now on both knees, I plunged my arm into the water-welling hole which had temporarily swallowed my foot. I felt around in the cold murk, fingers tearing through membranes of roots or dodging between those too thick to tear.
Something that felt alive pressed briefly against my palm, and then was gone. A moment later my hand closed over my sneaker and I pulled it out.
Taking my other shoe off, I knotted the laces of both sneakers together, then hung them around my neck like cuckoo-clock pendulums. I removed my socks, rolled up the cuffs of my jeans up and continued walking.
With branches and roots hidden beneath the surface, I tripped, sprawling full-length, getting a mouthful of gritty, silty water. I saw my hands in that brackish water and they looked yellowish and tallowy, like things long drowned.
Finally, after crossing the marsh, I stopped, put on my socks, then slipped my sneakers on.
Half-an-hour or so later, I found an old logging road. I concluded that it had to be at least 50 years old, judging by the fact, that though it was deeply rutted, it was no more than a trail slicing through the forest.
Following the road, I was about two-hours into it, when I saw what was left of an ancient truck, rearing out of the matted undergrowth. The cab was dark red with rust, tilted to one side with the wing of the vehicle’s rusted hood was flung up, and I could see there was no engine inside; ferns grew where it had been.
Pulling back the growth that covered the partially open driver’s side door, I found the inscription of a name I knew well from childhood: MacBeth Logging. I suddenly understood that I was above the Trees of Mystery and nearly to the grove of Redwoods I played in as a kid.
Elated at my discovery, I returned retraced my steps to where I had left my backpack and began to explore the place I’d selected to be my base-camp. It turned out that the ribbon of water was a run off point for a larger pool of water, in a flat area that opened up from the congestion of forest that tangled and intertwined itself with the path of the stream.
The area grew into a marshland. It was a wetland of green vegetation and deep brown earth. The pond was quiet and still on top.
“Like glass,” I reflected.
In its center rose a lump of dirt. It looked much like a deserted island with one single tree near the water’s edge.
“That’s the perfect spot for shelter,” I realized.
I set about collecting small pieces of dead-fall and laying them in a stack. Soon I had enough small logs that I could easily build two lean too huts.
“Now to get over there,” I commented as I reached down and picked up a sturdy pole.
I walked to the marsh edge, looked out at the island, then sat down and pulled off my boots. The soles were wearing down and the heels tilted hard to the inside.
I set them aside along with my jeans and shirt, removed my long handles and folded them up and laid them next to my other clothes.
Feeling shy, I stood up, naked in the late afternoon sunlight. Civilization had taught me that I should hide my body, but nature demanded to uncover it.
I waded out into the stillness of the water.
The cold of the water sent a shutter through my body. I gasped for breath as the little lake rose to my stomach.
Probing ahead with a stick, I reached out and gently pressed the blunt end into the spongy softness of the pond’s bed. I could feel it envelop the pole and suck it in. The earth was soft as I stepped into it and it pressed itself up between my bare toes.
Then the land started to slope up ever sharper until I found myself standing on the mass of isolated soil.
“No higher than my rib cage,” I learned.
I decided to float the dead fall across piece by piece.
The work was difficult and time-consuming. It was dark by the time I placed the first log as I wanted.
I had floated eight of the longest logs I could find and laid them side-by-side. I used the longest of these as a guide as I rasped my way through the others with a Sierra Saw.
I then collected dead fall-logs of half the length of those I had already chosen. These I cut down to equal lengths and laid them out before me.
The hatchet rang as it cut into the wood. I was chopping out saddle notches to fit the logs together.
“Dead fall maybe ‘dead’,” I concluded, “but it sure is tough.”
I laid the first log down and noticed that the ground was uneven. I needed to dig out an area to allow the log to lay flat. Soon the second one followed.
The sun had set before I finished. I had positioned four logs, stacked on top of each other, creating a miniature log cabin of about two feet high. There were four walls and the start of a vaulted roof.
With that I covered the frame in some canvas I had brought with me. I had a home now.
That night I pulled from my back pack the matches and striker. I would have my first fire in seven days of travel.
I wondered as I sat staring into the flicker of flame, if anyone missed me. I finally admitted to myself that I was home sick.
I sat quietly leaning against a lone alder and gazed into the fire until it was down to glowing embers. I banked the fire to save the embers, ate the last of my trail mix and the black berries I had found, looked over my blistered and swollen hands, climber into my sleeping bag under my little cabin and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Weeks passed and I thought less and less of my old way of living.
“The creature comforts,” I had called them.
Instead I spent my days trapping food and gathering nuts and berries.
I knew I was not alone as I had seen the paw prints in the mud several times. Whatever it was, it might be hunting the abundant frogs like I was.
It could also be curious about me. Bears were like that and I remained alert.
The little cabin was growing stronger with each day. The logs were chinked with mud to make them more resistant to the wind at night.
I had placed dirt against the outside logs to reinforce them. Sod from a patch of tall grasses down stream was cut and laid over in place of the canvas. It made the cabin waterproof and the rain that occasionally fell caused the roots to bind together creating a greater strength.
The fish catch worked well too. There were small trout in the pond.
I pushed several small branches into the stream’s bed forming a box shape with an opening. The opening pushed back into the box much like a letter “V.”
The fish could swim in, but couldn’t find their way out. This was strategically placed in the center of the stream as the pond emptied out into it.
Catching the fish in the trap was the easy part. Getting them from the trap to the fire required skill.
I tried all sorts of tricks. I poked at them with sharp sticks. I tried to stab them with my knife. I even tried grabbing the slippery things with my bare hands.
Finally in frustration I grabbed a small log and wielding it as a club, beat three trout into submission. While dinner did not look elegant that night it was tastier than the tubers and frog legs of the previous nighttime fare.
Nothing was left to go to waste. Even the skin and bones of the fish were to put to use.
Nightly, I would go to the water’s edge and bait another set of stick traps. I had five of them in different places along the island.
I would wade out to them and drop the scrapes into the traps. And each morning I would return and discover two or three crawdads in those traps. There were usually enough for breakfast along with a strong tin cup of ‘alder leave’ tea.
Twice, I had killed a rabbit with a deadfall trap I had set. It was a simple but brutal device that would knock an unsuspecting animal in the head, killing it.
I would balance a heavy log on the end of a wedge pole. Then farther back from the wedge pole I would place a single-stick in the ground.
On top of that I would lay another stick. On the piece of wood that was lying on its side would be another piece of wood balanced on end.
The trick I soon realize was the center of balance in the dead fall. I would lay a fresh tuber or some other vegetable on the stick laying on it side and wait.
Most of the time I would return to find the trap still set and the bait gone. A simple examination revealed how I could get better results, and soon I was successful.
“Should have put a hole in the bait stick sooner,” I thought as he picked up my third and then fourth rabbit.
I examined the bait where I pushed it through the hole.
“Hardly a nibble on it,” as I observed as I bit into the wild water crests.
Around the evening campfire I worked at making a hunting arrow. I had no obsidian so I ‘improvised’ as my survival instructor would have said, by fashioning it out of wood.
I whittled it down to shape then worked in some notched to create barbs. Then I set it on a stone near the fire as I worked on straightening the shaft of a future arrow.
As I heated the length of stick and bent it into shape, I chewed on a slender string of deer hide from a recent cougar kill. I had managed to carve off a hind quarter of the deer without seeing the large cat.
“That had to be at least three miles from here,” I thought as I gently worked the leather onto the ends of the small game bow.
With a few feathers robbed from a blue jays nest and pitch collected from the skin of a pine tree, I worked on affixing the feathers to the end of the arrow shaft. Then I worked the wooden arrow tip into place and touched the runny pitch to it.
Each night I worked at making arrowheads of wood and shafts with feathers for flight. During the day I practiced until I could hit a moving quail as it scurried away, but before it could break for flight.
With my ‘skin of civilization’ stripped and living bare, I turned red, then bronze. My body also went from soft to hard.
I wore a breech clout; hand hewn moccasins of rabbit skin and around my neck hung my Bowie-knife. It was drape there on the end of a wide leather band.
I always carried it with me along with thick walking stick. I had carved it and decorated it with wet leather so that it would harden around the staff.
My beard had also grown out and matted with debris every day as was my hair. And every night I bathed in the pond. I learned to groom myself using a single twig from a tree picking the leaves and small pieces of crap from my facial hair.
Everyday was spent exploring for and gathering food, which sapped much of my energy. The air had grown hot and the breeze did not come as often as it had.
This made me feel lazy. Even the animals appeared to grow lazy.
They would sit and sleep during the hottest part of the day then come out in the evening. I started doing the same thing.
The coolness of the evening brought with it a new scent in the air. I could not identify it.
I sat and listened for along time, carefully searching for movement or shapes that did not belong. I did not travel far from his island.
Something was out there, but what. I didn’t know.
Late one night, long after the evening fire had been banked and I had curled myself into my sleeping bag, I heard a piercing scream. The sound frightened me, causing me to pull my knife from its sheath. While, it sounded like a woman screaming from terror in the night, I knew better; it was a cougar.
The next morning I discovered the tracks it had left. I spread my hand with held fingers wide and failed to cover the track. It was large.
“Wish I had paid attention to the tracks at that deer it killed,” I muttered.
The mountain lion had walked around the entire edge of the little lake. A chill ran up my spine and I shivered.
It was then that I turned and looked over my right shoulder, where my eyes met with the cougars. It was stalking me and had I not looked back, I would have never known it was there.
The cat emitted a low growl that turned my stomach. I gripped my walking stick in my left hand and came up yelling. The lion sprang backward as I pulled the bowie-knife from around my neck.
We moved in a slow circle to the right, the mountain lion alone waiting for the attack, for the cat had no fear of me. Once I realized this, I resolved to disregard my fear.
I was now as much a part of this forest as the cat was, so sprang at the lion. It reared back showing its fangs with a startling hiss. The animal swiped at the air menacingly and backed away.
I moved against the cat again. And again the cat reared back and displayed its teeth. And again I feinted an attacked towards the cat.
This time I was close enough with my right hand to strike a cutting blow with the knife. The mountain lion screamed in pain and backed way off.
The cat circled a little to my left and crouched down low.
I remembered as a boy watching the family’s house cat. We kids would tease it with a string and it would give chase, and jus’ before it would spring it would lock its gaze on the object and then the tail would twitch at the end.
I searched for the lion’s tail. I kept an eye on its black tip as I slowly sheathed my knife.
It started to twitch wildly as I placed both hands on my walking stick. I held it over my shoulder like a baseball player at bat.
The mountain lion leaped at me.
I swung the stick turned club jus’ as the cat started down. The blow landed right on the lion’s head.
It spun out of the air and lay on its side momentarily. The walking stick shattered upon impact.
I immediately drew my knife, expecting the cat to get up and launch at me again.
The cat rose slowly and turned towards me. It growled a deep menacing throaty growl then turned and ran into the woods.
My instinct had grown strong I learned at that moment as I sensed something behind me.
I turned, expecting the cat to be there, ambushing me from behind. Instead I came to look up into the face of a large bear as it stood looking down on this puny man.
I raised the gleaming blade above my head and scream wildly at the bear. The bear raised his left paw up and wildly raked the air, then dropped and turned to disappear into the woods as well.
Shaking and fearing another attack by the mountain lion or a threat from the bear, I retreated to the island. I stayed there without food or sleep for two days and nights.
The night sounds returned to their regular voice. The days remained hot and stagnant. Gone was the strange odor of the mountain lion. Nor did I see the bear.
Still I remained hole up on the island. The night of the second day, I finally fell asleep, exhausted.
As I slept, I dreamed about the fight with the cat. I thrashed about in my sleeping bag until I had once again beaten the animal by cutting it.
Then I turned and came to face with the bear. I screamed and raised my knife forcefully into the air.
This time though the bear didn’t leave after pawing the sky. Instead he spoke, “Man, it is time for you to leave and go back with your kind.”
“I don’t want to leave,” I protested.
The bear shook his head, “Your pain is gone now. It is time to go home.”
The bear turned, and walking upright, disappeared into the woods. I jerked awake and lay there in the darkness, listening to the night-time sounds. I realized I was dreaming.
It was the first dream I’d had while in the forest. I smiled as I rolled over and fell back to sleep.
The next morning I awoke refreshed.
I went down to the fish trap and beat the five fish it held. I took them to the island and cleaned them and started drying them by the fire I had built. I collected all the crawdads I could, then tore down all the traps.
I boiled the crawdads and left them to cool as I wondered along the edge of the pond gathering black berries and other wild edibles. I returned with my gathering to the island.
Slowly and methodically I packed my belongings together and stuffed them into my backpack, along with my sleeping bag and what food I had gathered.
I collected the broken pieces of my walking stick together and placed them in the fire.
As they burned and the sun rose I chopped smooth a block of wood. took my knife and carved my name and the year into the logs face and placed it in the center of the little cabins floor.
“Never thought ten by five foot hovel could be a home,” I spoke aloud.
I sat down and leaned back against the lone alder on the island. I slowly worked on a piece of jerked rabbit and reflected back on my uninvited stay in the wilderness.
It had been a good stay and ‘Brother Bear’ was right, it was time to go. I laughed at myself because I realized that I actually regarded the bear as having spoken to me for real.
Yet, I knew it was more than a mere dream for the bear had come to me.
With a few croaks of a frog somewhere out on the pond I was on my way towards civilization. I was still clad in my breechclout a week later when I came to the bridge that crossed Mill Creek.
But this time, I was no longer a man wanting to be alone.