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Into the Woods

When I was a child, the woods were mystery, and home, and adventure. I was first Christopher Robin in the woods. I carried Pooh around from place to place, and observed things.

"That is a stream," I'd say to Pooh-bear, and he'd silently observe that I was indeed correct. Sometimes mom, or dad would tell me something more about my observation, perhaps that some people called it a creek, or a 'crick', or that many streams formed a river that went all the way to the ocean.

"All the way to the ocean?!" I'd exclaim. That was so far away. But Pooh didn't seem concerned, so it was alright.

Later in the woods I was Peter Pan. My baby sister was Wendy, and my tiny baby brother was going to grow up to be Michael, or the little one, what's his name. Anyway, we didn't want to grow up. We wanted to make mud pies and couch sheet forts on the swingset. Important stuff.

Nose in books as a tween I was Raistlin Majere, the sickly mage with hourglass eyes, or Jonathan Harker, collecting evidence of vampires, or a minuteman from the Revolutionary war, or a boy king of a forest kingdom.

I was a cub scout, and a boy scout, and a hairs breadth away from eagle. I could shoot a bow, an honest to god bow, one I'd strung myself with an arrow I had made and fletched myself and track animals and play hide and seek and paintball and always get a fire started at camp and pitch a tent and carve a stool and I was really, really quite good in the woods.

I knew where the dangers were. Knew the smell of animal urine around a den meant to stay away, and that certain plants stung, and that certain other plants made the stinging go away. I could walk in the woods for hours and never get lost, but if I did get lost, I'd know how to get un-lost, because my mind had created a hundred little landmarks without meaning too, and I'd only need one or two to get my bearings again. I had always respected the woods. I had never feared them.

Two Sundays ago though, my father's remains were found in the woods. Wednesday I visited the place where they'd found him.

From Lewiston Idaho you travel out to a place called White Bird, the local Sheriff told me. He was a slim man in slacks and hiking shoes and a plaid shirt. He had a beard like mine, well trimmed, a Van Dyke, but mostly white. His hair was mostly white too. He had a huge deputy with us too. Barrel chested, blonde haired arian looking guy. My wife was with me, eyes moist and sad, and my cousin Jackie, who is late sixties going on forty-five, but who looked as if she might shivver and blow away like a leaf from the emotion of the day.

I looked for White Bird on the internet when I first heard. It's hardly a dot on most maps. It's next to a place called, and I wish I were kidding, Devil's Canyon. Once you get to White Bird, you pass it, and take a logging road up into the prairie hills of Idaho. There are roadrunners on the road, stag and deer in the wood, and cows below in the plains. There are wild turkey and pheasant in the grasses, but none of them showed themselves to us.

The road went fifty miles into the hills, winding, gravel and dirt and we followed the Sherrif's utility truck and it's attendant dust cloud up and up and up into them. I imagined my father on the scooter he'd bought with his last few thousand dollars traversing the loose gravel on a street scooter. It would have been dangerous. It would, we think, have cost him all the gas the little Honda would have held. A one way trip.

Something caught my eye as we drove; it was a glittering stream. It was beautiful and natural, a babbling, crystalline glacial run-off. It turned black in my minds-eye.

At the top of the logging road was a massive pile of gravel, used for covering the road beneath. It was a bleak, reddish black pile of rock so barren that at first I wasn't sure what it was I was seeing. A few plants, blackened and dead, jutted out from it. They'd likely sprouted the year earlier, died over the winter and now were just warnings to other plants that they'd find no purchase. It was warm. Almost hot.

We got out of our vehicals, Jane's little Element and the Sherriff's huge grey pick-up. The skinny officer, officer Johnson, who had kind eyes began to lead us into the woods, off the road. The ubermensch kindly offered his arm to our cousin Jackie, who clung to it. Officer Johnson gave us a quick description of the area, said that the site was about a quarter-mile from where we'd stopped, and without much more ado, set a fairly quick pace off into the woods.

I followed almost immediately behind him, keeping up. Jane and my cousin lagged a bit. The ground was uneven and grass covered rocks making the path seem smoother than it was. There was a path, possible worn by investigators, but it seemed like a common place horses would be taken too. I saw hoofmarks and droppings from horses and deer. I realized I was wearing bad shoes for a hike. I'd brought my loafers, not my tennis shoes. They were back in Kirkland. It made me feel a pang of anger at myself that was overblown.

The path, I thought, might have been used by the turkey hunters that had found my dad's remains. It was certainly used by my dad. He'd taken that black Honda offroad. It was a little rough on foot with all of the reddish black volcanic rock around. At some rest stop I had heard the hills were all a massive prehistoric lava flow. He would have had a lot of trouble with the heavy scooter on a rocky game trail like the one I was following the Officer on. The rocks cut and rolled underneath my feet. The branches overhung the path, whipped me as I passed.

The officer was unsure for a moment where exactly to go, so he had us wait a moment while he scouted around. The turkey hunters, he'd later tell me, had left bits of toilet paper around to help show the police where to find my father's remains.

I think Jane squeezed my hand then. I murmured something about what the officer was up to. That was the first I'd noticed that the tall blonde cop was helping my cousin. I paused in the woods and I looked around. It was pretty here. Warm. Flowers dotted bits of prairie that peeked out from beneath evergreens. I noticed, not for the first time in weeks, the weight building in my heart. I examined it like you might examine the weight of a gun to see if it felt like it fit in your hand or not.

Then the officer returned, and we kept moving at a slightly different angle than before, and before very long I came upon him stopped near a small copse of trees. In the midst of those trees was a smudge... or a stain in the grass, almost a burn. The grass was yellow and black and looked slightly greasy in a vaguely man-shaped swatch. He explained that's where he had found my dad. He explained again for the fourth of fifth time the details he'd explained on the phone, and that cousin Jackie had explained to me that he'd explained to her. How he'd emptied his pockets of so few things, a nail clipper, a pack of cigarettes, thirty dollars in bills that were no longer fit to be used, and had, along with his glasses and clothes and windbreaker, in fact been cremated with him just a day earlier.

The officer explained again how there had been a gardener's spade with him that was a little dirty, and how they couldn't find his ID or the license plates from the scooter, or the key to the scooter, so he figured my father had buried those identifying things somewhere in the woods, and how he'd had deputies search the area and turn over rocks for hours looking, but they'd never found any of those things.

And I kept staring at the smudge for awhile, and then I went over and looked at where the scooter had been left. Then I looked at where his little blue bag of bug spray and thermos, the one they thought had been full of crushed pills and Jack Daniels had been left, and cast around in the grass a little, hoping uselessly to find something the police had missed, something he'd left for me to find. There wasn't anything.

Jackie and Jane cried, and I held them both, and I guess I cried a little, but nothing that released the stone in my heart, they were just a few moistened tears of sympathy. Jackie asked the massive officer to help her pull up a sapling by the roots to take home and grow. The small yearling tree she'd picked was impossible for him to yank from the ground. That sword was for a different Arthur. Jane found a tiny one, and pulled it up though, and gave it to her as we walked back. I collected a few spring flowers and pressed them into my wallet, just to have something.

Then we walked back. Somewhere along the path, the giant of a deputy pulled out another Jane-sized sapling Jackie, perhaps to make up for his earlier failure. When we got to the trucks, Jane wrapped the roots in paper towels and one of the officers drenched them with water from a bottle, and then gave Jackie an evidence bag to put the soggy, paper-wrapped sapling roots in. I just stared on a little dumbly at the whole affair.

We got back into the trucks and left. The woods were... just the woods. They hadn't changed. I had. I didn't see them the same anymore. The icon on my mental desktop was a different color. The woods were full of the opposite of wonder and adventure. They weren't a mouth, eating and spitting up and wriggling and dying and being fed upon. They weren't a gluttonus cycle of feast and famine.

They were just a bunch of trees.


Even in tragedy you write beautifully, Chris.
I'm so sorry to hear about your father, I had no idea.
My thoughts are with you and Jane.
Thank you
Then the officer returned and we kept moving at a slightly different angle than before and before ve

May 2012

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