Thursday, July 1, 2010


I've never felt alone in nature. Solitude has never seemed to me as something to be avoided, nor even truly possible, since I was always approaching something. Only a day out from Willits I was suddenly alone as I followed the rails that would lead me to Eureka. The trains hadn't run in decades. In parts it seemed the tracks need only be dusted off to again be in use. In other sections some archaeology may be required to exhume whats been buried in landslides.

Since the rails traced the Eel River, though usually some sixty to a hundred and twenty feet above it, I had imagined there would be more towns along the course of it. I have been told I have an imagination that makes the world better than it is, and so it was again here. For three days running I had only myself for company - not a fisherman, a kayaker, or a person just walking besides myself. Never had there been a day before when I had gone out into the world and seen no one. There were signs aplenty that there had been people - a shot up sign, a collapsed shack, a conspicuously intact bottle of crown royal, and always the rails - but no people themselves.

Each bend in the river meant either another tunnel to pass thru or another collapse to scramble over. One bend obliged me with both. Half of a tunnel had fallen in, bringing the mountain with it, creating a canted boulder hill, 45 degrees in pitch. None of the stone, however, was made of anything more solid than slate, clay, and mud, stuck together and dried. Too much pressure on one point, or sudden shifts, meant that the stone beneath could shatter and slip like segments of a peeled orange. Some sedges and grasses grew in the more stable places, but the banks of the river some 80 feet below held the shreds of brush that mountain was shucking off now that there was no longer some pestering machine to crawl over it each day.

As I made my way over, a deer jumped from the hollows between two boulders where it had crouched to avoid the heat of the day. His antlers were still coated in velvet. I've never thought of the blacktailed deer as a particularly agile creature, but he leapt from rock to rock sending only the barest ration of pebbles skittering with each hit of his hooves. Surely, I could not do so well as that, but slowly worked my way across, stepping over what I could avoid stepping on, stepping around where I could avoid stepping over. This got me only so far before I found myself at the edge of a scree patch. Any footing one could comfortably get was now in a configuration of a dot held between two dashes. That is, there was the boulder patch, then a single rock, and then after, the broken steel of the rails and the remaining length of tunnel. Separating the three were two scree patches - that is, loose stone not any larger than olives piled many feet thick that has about the solidity of playing dice. Moving over any patch of it must be done quickly and cautiously.

The smarter, though admittedly longer way, would have been to have followed the boulder field down to the river, take off my boots, and wade upstream till I could find a place to climb up again. Instead, without any space to gather speed, I jumped as far as I could, and made the rock, four limbs gripping. Then, I felt my pack slip, drawing me away, pulling my fingers into lengthened arches. I had a few moments to think, though really that's much to polite a word for it. I don't think my brain was much involved, though I knew there could be no way to get down the scree patch without some serious risk. There really wasn't much choice to it. So, I launched off what I could, sank one foot on the scree, and shot into the tunnel, running.

It was not a very long tunnel. In fact, I did not even have to run all the way thru it to make it to the other side in under a minute. I began walking again, with deliberation, so as to induce calm even if I myself was not. Above me swallows flew in an out of the standing arch as of the apse of a church, and they the frescoes come to life. I sat on the rails and lit a cigarette in the crown of my hat. I'm not of the habit of smoking, but certain situations require it.

I wouldn't mind dying out here, even by violent means provided it were done quickly. A lightning strike, or falling from a cliff and bursting like a bag of ripe strawberries, would not trouble me. Had I slipped and broken a leg, or my neck, I might have had to have waited some time for anyone to find me. Or even as has happened to others, dry out in my waiting as days cede to days. It's an inelegant way to go. That may not be likely in a place such as the Eel, but it was a new idea to me then, and may come with greater reason in other spaces. This was only the first.