Outline of a short story that is in my head…
Overview: this comes from a scene that I witnessed on a bike ride when I worked as a guide for an outdoors program out west. We were on this beautiful ride, along a mountain creek in the Pacific Northwest. Here I was, this yuppie older guy wanting to be a hippie/anarcho-punk rock professor, along with a bunch of young suburban kids, being raised in the best liberal tradition. As we’re riding along, singing songs, me thinking how cool I am/was, we saw a couple of young kids on a ridge. They were just leaning on their bikes, staring at us. It was quite the contrast, and I will talk about that in the story.
Bikes in the Woods
The engine coughs and dies. I had been running on fumes for the last twenty miles or so anyways. I grab my pack from the back seat and start walking. I have no reason to look back.
I trust that they’re still there. I hope that I can find them. And when I do I hope that I find what I think I’m looking for.
By the time I packed up the jeep for the ride into the mountains I was beyond desperate. “Packed” does not come close to capturing the frantic energy I filled the vehicle with as I threw even more food and fuel on top of the pile of gear that lay where I had torn out the seats.
The contrast between my frenzied desire to escape and my preparations for my previous visit to this forest almost made me vomit. I fought back tears as I jumped into the driver’s bucket, snapped in the webbing, and accelerated slowly in the dark. I knew I had to wait until I had gotten much farther before turning on the vehicle’s floodlights, but turning them on would only remind me of what had become of my hometown. I was already struggling to overcome my emotions and just drive – seeing the seemingly normal landscape, with only slight hints about what had happened, might make me simply park the jeep and wait for the inevitable.
On that previous trip, of course, I was driving a van, loaded with teenagers just entering the chemical joys and horrors of adolescence. We had carefully tied fourteen backpacks to the roof, and we had stuffed the area behind the backseat with all the luxuries of American car camping in the late twentieth century – water filters, sleeping pads, more fuel than we could possibly use, and an assortment of gooey goodies that would only survive while sitting in a van all day in the cool air of the mountains.
I had known that Rory was going to be a problem. His bike was state-of-the-art, but he hadn’t ridden it much, if at all. He had immediately tried to bully two of the younger boys into carrying his stuff, and he had spent more time combing his hair than he had setting up his tent. As we went on our ride he had tried to hang in the back so that he could work his magic away from my eye – he should have been more afraid of my co-leader, who was a far bigger hard ass than I was, but he had a built-in fear of older males, experience earned from multiple beatings.
He was, in other words, determined to be a pain in the ass.
Other than Rory, though, this day had been a special one. We had started early in the morning on a trail that I knew well. The kids were fabulous – riding great, well-maintained bikes, all of the riders active, fit, happy. I had belted out the chorus of a Blur song – woo-hoo – and they had all happily joined in with me, a chorus of woo-hoos bouncing around us as we went up and down, jumping rocks and small trees, having a grand time. I felt a bit less mature than my age should have made me, but being among a bunch of young kids who enjoyed the outdoors had lightened my spirit.
That night we camped below 6,000 feet, which meant that we were living in mosquito heaven. I don’t know if that’s what drove the kids nuts or not, but we had at least one fight break out, something that never happened with all these progeny of peace-loving hippies.
The worst incident came later. I wandered away from camp to see if I could get a sat phone signal, and I heard yelling. My co-leader was wrestling with Rory, trying to get a can of bug spray away from him. It seems that he had tried to light it on fire to torch another camper’s tent.
This ended Rory’s stay with us. We drove him back down the mountain that night.
I’d like to say that things got better, and in some ways they did. The rest of the campers were much calmer with him gone, and we had a great albeit long ride the next day. We misjudged the distance and had to send someone ahead to get the van and come back, but it was a learning experience that the kids thought was fun.
This story came to my mind because of what happened the next day. As we did our last ride along a beautiful creek, we were happily involved in the moment. The pressure release of Rory’s leaving us was just part of the joy that we felt; we had already swam in a couple of beautiful pools, and we were just a few minutes from our lunch spot, with the prospect of a pleasant mostly downhill ride back. Hot showers and food awaited us back in town.
As we made the final climb to the rocks above the pool where we had planned to eat, I glanced into the woods and nearly fell off my bike. On the ride above us, off trail but riding along smoothly, were three kids. Genders were fairly indeterminate because of how dirty they were, and they could have been anywhere from eight to eighteen, but they were completely calm riding on that knife ridge, dodging the roots of huge pine trees, staring down at us.
I stopped as our troop rode past, grunting and sweating and enjoying the sheer exuberance of adrenaline and youthful energy and being outside. As I looked at the three riders they stared right back, still skillfully avoiding obstacles while maintaining speed. Their performance was even more mesmerizing because of the state of the bikes they rode – old road bikes, with turn-down handle bars, disconnected derailleurs, and no brakes. I looked down at my brand new fully decked out mountain bike and wondered how I could be afraid of these trails when three prepubescents pedaled gracefully down a much trickier slope with much worse gear. I suddenly didn’t feel quite as skillful, and I tucked my tail between my legs and rode down to the parking lot where the van waited.
The peculiar rain/mist mix that is the Pacific Northwest drips off our heads as we unload our gear. Bikes are taken off the trailer, rafts are spread to be semi-inflated and dried, and campers gather their smelly, dirty, marvelous gear. The sun occasionally breaks through, but for the most part we just keep getting wet, as the river in back of our house flows gently around the bend, heading for the Pacific.
This is the moment when we notice things starting to go wrong. Kids call on cell phones, get no answer, wander off on their own despite our best efforts to keep track of them. This is a small college town, one with a strong hippie, independent legacy, but I still get a little frantic thinking about campers getting home safely. We start making phone calls – nothing. We start calling some of the campers’ cell phones – again, nothing.
What the hell is going on?
We had come in after dark, and things looked mostly normal through the precipitation. City lights showing off their sort of sickly orange glow, other headlights coming at us. It didn’t seem as if anyone was heading in town, but this was a valley town filled with outdoorsy types who usually couldn’t wait to head to the wild on the weekends. That outgoing traffic had seemed pretty normal.
The next couple of days felt off, though. I was sleeping in the boathouse behind the headquarters at that time, sort of between paid-for living spaces, taking advantage of the fact that summer was here and bathing in the river after dark was easy. I always liked sleeping on rafts, anyway – the smell of rubber and toulene has become soothing for me.
But no bosses showed up on Monday. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. I needed my paycheck on Friday – it was getting close to fall, and I needed to head to the ski resorts to take some of the training courses to work on patrol. I was getting a bit anxious.
When Friday rolled around, and the food in the kitchen headquarters was pretty much just cans (lots of them, of course, because we were stocked for the rest of the season, but still just cans), I figured I should look around. The ankle I had twisted on a recent trip was feeling better, I was sick of fishing by that time anyway, and the cliff upstream that I worked out climbing moves on was getting old. And I was a bit concerned that no one else seemed interested in visiting our headquarters – that was highly unusual, as lots of townspeople stopped by, even if only to complain about spending their tax dollars on what they thought of as ridiculous projects.
Going into town didn’t help.
Some houses were boarded up, while others looked broken into. I saw movement behind some of the boards, but the growing sense of dread that was occupying my stomach told me not to go any closer. My walk through town ended pretty quickly; I went back to my shed by the river and grew increasingly agitated.
I always thought would make a good punk band name: Increasing Agitation.
I have to concentrate. Some big shit has obviously gone down, and I need to move. In movies, the ones who stay are always the ones who get killed. Right? I didn’t know anymore…
And that’s when I packed the SUV and headed for the hills.
What I Saw
I didn’t get far that first night. I knew the exact trailhead that I had first seen the bikers on, and I had gotten very close, but after walking around one corner I realized that there was smoke coming from the trailhead parking lot. That couldn’t be good, I thought, so I returned to the vehicle, intending to spend the night there. I wasn’t able to give up that security just yet, I realized.
That night was brutal. I figured that I would be smart and sleep outside the vehicle, afraid of potential human marauders. After two hours of not sleeping a wink due to the seemingly endless noises of small nighttime animals, and one crash that sounded massive (and was probably a small branch or pine cone falling from a tree), I rather ungracefully climbed back. I doubt I slept more than an hour or two, and I kept thinking of my warm boathouse shed, with the gentle sounds of the river in the background.
The next morning found me sleeping in the vehicle, windows rolled partially down. The same noises continued from the night before, but daylight made me braver. I gathered my gear and headed up the trail.
The smoke was gone. Whatever had burned was not in my immediate visual range, but the stench still hung close.
My concerns about whatever drama had overtaken the parking lot at the trailhead soon began to disappear, however. The beauty of the Pacific Northwest assuaged my fears. The aroma of majestic Douglas pines made skin tingle, and the fresh dew rising from the forest floor helped me imagine some sort of pastoral playground. As the trail switch-backed up the canyon, slate-grey cliffs with isolated pine trees clung for dear life to tiny outcroppings of rock covered by just enough soil, and the sun played hide-and-go-seek with me from behind wisps of cirrus clouds scudding along the high desert sky. I had water and food, the means to procure more of both, and my standard backcountry kit, and the uncanniness of the city was already leaving.
After a quick lunch break and a quicker nap, I headed up the mountain again. I did not know where those bikers were, but I remembered them close to the creek bed, and the canyon walls were spread enough at this point to give me plenty of view.