Wolfpack

I grew up running with a wolf pack: my four cousins and little brother. During this time, I became acquainted with the extremes of the emotional spectrum. While other children grew up with family trips to the zoo on lazy Sunday afternoons or matching sweaters on Christmas cards, the children of my family had one binding code: everything we did was done in extremes. Whether it was hide-and-seek with the lights off in my grandparent’s farm house or running wild along the rural roads long after sundown, the children of my family grew up knowing nothing of apathy. Instead, we became a pack built on a rough-and-tumble sort of relationship with the ultimate goal of cementing a sense of dominance within the group. Of course, we had our sweaters and zoo trips as well, but these memories are white noise in comparison to the vivid symphonies of other memories that I can recall.

Among the most animated of these comes from the summer I was in eighth grade, a time when Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games warped itself into my family’s collective imagination. Under its influence, the theme of every game we played became apocalyptic warfare. Together we built a universe in which we, a set of six obnoxious pre-teens, were humanity’s sole hope for survival, and as such we armed ourselves for the fight. What started off as weapons of air shifted into solidity as my grandfather took it upon himself to craft a toy very much not suited to a klutzy fourteen-year-old who felt she was invincible: a bow and arrow.

The bow itself was nothing special, just a limber tree branch knotted with string, but the arrows were another matter. I was given a quiver of wooden dowels sharpened to a point and, to top it off, one real arrow with a metal tip. This arrow became my prized possession, so much so that I took to giving it the nickname ‘Bulls-eye’, even though I never actually shot it at anything. The dowels I let fly at practically any opportunity, but Bulls-eye remained untouched. It was, to me at least, a shot that was only to be used in some sort of cataclysmic circumstance, almost as if the existence of time and space itself rested on that metal tip. Nothing less than the entirety of it unravelling would be worthy enough to oversee its release. And as fate would have it, the universe did fall apart that summer.

They say when Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle to tear his liver out while he remained helpless to do nothing but writhe in agony. When my cousin stole from me, I unleashed upon her the fullest force of wrath I could muster. Such is the way it works when one is living with wolves: pride is everything. The protection of ones ego is held at the highest accord, and my hubris had been called into play through this act of theft. All summer long we had been competing to see who could curate the most spectacular arrangement of rocks, pine-cones, broken class, and any other sort of garbage we could find. To think that my treasury had been looted in an act of what I could only imagine was spite felt like some sort of unforgivable sin to me and that it was now my place to cast supreme judgement.

With the rational benefit of foresight, I see now that my actions were completely out of hand, but in that moment I felt completely rabid. If you want to run with wolves you have to prove that you are willing to sharpen your claws and bare your teeth, and I knew my honour had been challenge to a duel. Without any rational thought, my fingers reached back into my quiver as I prepared to play my ace in the hole.

I can distinctly recall how light Bulls-eye felt in my hand at that moment, almost as if it were weightless. Had it held some weight, it may have even stayed my hand, but it remained as light as the feathers it was adorned with. I inhaled as I drew back, thinking myself akin to Katniss, and for a moment time stopped as I took aim. With tunnel vision I aimed that deadly metal tip at the mess of blonde hair that was now sprinting away from me. It didn’t even occur to me in that moment that her reason for moving was to get away from her deranged cousin with a weapon, only that she was running and I felt I had the shot. With the string of my makeshift bow pulled as taunt as it could be, I let the arrow fly. Blood rushed into my ears, and for a second the world seemed to pulse in tune with my own heartbeat.

I told myself that I wouldn’t miss.

And I didn’t.

Or at least, I hit as much of my target as I could considering the fact that my bow was, quite literally, a tree branch and string incapable of shooting with any considerable force. However, it served its purpose well enough to net my arrow in her mess of golden hair. As the realization dawned upon us as to what I had actually done, we all shared a moment of collective horror. I had shot a weapon. At my cousin. A living, breathing member of my family. All over the fact she had ‘stolen’ a bucket of pine-cones from me. No one said a word, but together we shared a silent understanding; the adults must never know.

There was an awkward pause in which no one said anything, until my cousin slowly pulled Bulls-eye from her hair. She held it out to me, and I tucked it back into my quiver where it remained nothing more than a trophy in a case for the rest of my summers. As quickly as the moment had come, it was gone, and with no time to loose, my wolf-pack family and I hurled ourselves right back into the apocalypse. There we remained, frolicking and feral, until my grandmother called from the house that it was time to wash our hands for supper.

The Open Road

The thing they never tell you about an open road is that while it’s a long way forward, it’s a much farther way back when you look over your shoulder and see how far you’ve come.open-road
No turns, no budges or bumps or hills, it’s all just flat horizon trailing behind you. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that if you look back over your shoulder and squint your eyes just so, you can see exactly where you started out from. And that point will just sit there, watching you watching it, clucking to itself like the mother hen it is. Going on and on about how foolish you are for leaving when here there’s food on the table and a roof over your head and warm yellow windows smiling brightly at you, waiting to welcome you inside and wrap you up in a blanket all snug and cozy.

  I’ve never been fond of blankets. They always seem to feel like they’re smothering me. And they can itch something fierce. But the worst part about them is that if you stay under one long enough, it starts to feel like your lungs are filling up with the very fabric itself instead of air.

  My mother thinks I’m crazy. A good-for-nothing, lazy excuse of a son who just can’t seem to sit still, shut up and do what he’s told. And maybe I am. I mean, I never did care much for school. Sitting in a desk all day when I could be out doing anything and everything else, who would want that? In fact the only class I ever did like and pay attention in was Mr. McCarthy’s photography class. Now he was something that Mr. McCarthy. He said he’d traveled to every continent at least once, even Antarctica, that he’d been a photographer for National Geographic. Makes you wonder how he ended up teaching high-schoolers in a place as dusty as Rose Hill Tennessee.

  I asked him about it one time. He just sort of looked at me funny for a while before sighing and chuckling sadly to himself. Then he got real quiet for a while before saying,
“My Grandma talked me into it. She told me she wanted her only grandchild to be with her during her last years. So I moved here and I just haven’t left since.” I asked him why. He told me he didn’t know.

  It’s kind of funny because my mother never liked Mr. McCarthy. Or maybe it was that he taught photography, a class she never did approve of me taking. Or maybe it was both. But no matter how you slice it, the fact is she blames him for me wanting to travel instead of just going to community college. Just like my older brother. She also blames him for me not wanting to help her run the family general store, also just like my older brother. The problem is, I’m not my older brother. And why in God’s name would I want to spend my life in Rose Hill when I had an entire world to see? The itch to travel had been pumped into my blood stream and it became the definition of my ambition to get out and see all the world had to offer. Through my own eyes though, not just second-hand sources from other people’s pictures.

  My mother never did understand that. She never really understood me either. Called me ungrateful for not wanting the life she wanted me to want. But I’ve never been the type of person to listen to others and just grovel in submission. So I left.

  The thing they never tell you about an open road is how lonesome it is when you drive it by yourself. Everyone needs someone to talk to, it’s just human nature. But the thing is, I’d rather be on my own and going places I want to be than just stuck in a town that I didn’t want to be in and quite frankly probably didn’t want me there either. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that while it’s lonely, it lets you breath like you’ve never breathed before. It’s invigorating. It justifies every choice you’ve ever made. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that it is the definition of pure freedom.

  I still talk with my brother from time to time. He doesn’t really understand why I left, but he supports me all the same. My mother doesn’t know we still contact each other. My brother says she’s taken all my pictures out of all their frames. It’s like I never even existed he says. My name is now just as much a taboo to her as photography and McCarthy and travel and anything else she decides she doesn’t like.

Not that I mind. It’s good company to have my name compared to. And it’s her fault really. She forced me to make a choice. So I did.

vintage-steering-wheel  The thing they never tell you about an open road is that it sometimes is built with regrets and what-ifs and could-have-beens. The thing they never tell you about an open road is that when you’re looking over your shoulder back where you started, those regrets sometimes seem to rise up out of the ground and wrap themselves around your neck. It’s just like the blanket all over again. But I think the most important thing I’ve ever learned about an open road is that it is so easy to snap your head around, aim your eyes down the road and charge forward, leaving your starting point far behind you. Even though you can always see it, eventually it becomes just a dot in the background of a much bigger picture. And why would you choose to focus on that when you’ve got an entire horizon in front of you, an open road just waiting to be driven off into the unknown?

Redwood

11428980715_f39da7b7fb_oFact: The average Californian Redwood stands well over 300 feet tall at its maturity. They are a species of tree so majestic, so impressive, people from far and wide journey to the sweeping coast of California to see them; wanting to see for themselves whether or not the photographs lie.

The truth is the pictures do not do them justice.

And how could anyone expect them too? Pictures don’t show the liquid kaleidoscope of light on the forest floor, the way even the tiniest rustle of wind can shift that mosaic of leaf and shadow. Flung along within that wind and dampening the air float mingling hints of spray from both river and ocean. The roar of these not so far off bodies of water stand backdrop to it all, humming the never-ending hymns of this ancient world. No moment in the Redwoods is ever the same twice. And attempting to catch details of that one moment with an imprint of light on paper is laughable really. The only sort of impression that can do the Californian Redwoods justice is that of one made on the mind.

My first memory of the Redwoods comes from when I was four. It was my birthday and my parents were going to take me to the magic forest where they fell in love.
To an adult these trees are dwarfing; to a child they are infinite. Little neck craned up at the heavens, it was impressive I didn’t topple backward from straining my gaze so high.
I remember clouds intertwining with the tops of trees and I swear at that moment the canopy was playing doormat to the golden gate of heaven.

“I found out where the angels are,” I informed my parents solemnly as I pointed to the treetops. They laughed and Dad bent down to ruffle my hair.

“Angels eh? That can’t be right kiddo, you’re down here not up there.” And with a scoop of his arm I was up on his shoulders, feeling almost as tall as one of those trees. Mom pulled out the camera with a smile and snapped a picture.

It does not do the memory justice.

Fact: The average Californian Redwood lives to be almost 700 years old.

The average human lives to be around 70.

My father outlived neither.

In the end it was an accident. Slippery roads and too much fog and suddenly all that’s left of Daddy are a tombstone that bears his name but not his face. The man who loved trees and forests and everything about nature, as though they were both his parent and child all at once lies still, buried in a wooden box. It surprises me still that Dad didn’t spring up and out of that hole in the ground and chastise us on killing trees on his behalf. It makes me doubt on if that was even really him in there.

Is there any way that he could lay still in the cool dark of the earth, surrounded by what was once forest, but without the spinning of the kaleidoscope. This is the man who refused to put hardwood in our house because he said it made him nauseous. There is no way he could rest easy without that ever-changing shimmer of light and shadow. And even if it was there, it would pale in comparison that of the day I turned four.

That moment was perfect.

That moment is long since gone.

It’s been almost five years now since the last time I saw my Dad and what we could have had still haunts me. All the days we could have spent together. The stolen glances and murmured words him and Mom could have shared when they thought I wasn’t listening.

All of it gone.

Uprooted.

And since then, I haven’t been able to stomach the thought of going back to the Redwoods. Mom has offered that we could go, just the two of us. With a gentle hand tucking loose strands of hair behind my ear she’d say that he would want us to keep visiting the forest and that he’d see it through our eyes.

Biting my tongue was all I could do from asking why he didn’t just see it with his own.

Fact: The Californian Redwood is an endangered species. Logging and pollution and practically every other foul thing humanity does have finally made an impact so gargantuan it threatens the very existence of the tallest living beings on Earth. It is a hard truth to swallow. Looking back on it, I think that might be why Dad loved the Redwoods so much. Not just because they are beautiful but also because they are precious and need protecting. And maybe, just maybe, he saw angels in that forest too.

And as I find myself finally standing once more among the Redwoods, all I can think about is that Dad must still be here. Sitting up on a cloud in the canopy, one too many strains of the neck out of view and watching me. I almost feel like asking him if he’s watching me, if he’s been waiting.

The truth I’m not sure why I’m here. I had taken the car out driving and I had ended up here. The first beams of morning light were beginning to catch in the fog, painting it baby pink. The kaleidoscope sighs in response and begins to pick up the pace of its dance, energized by the dawn.

“Hey Dad…it’s been a while. It’s my birthday, but you already knew that… I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you before. It’s… been hard.”

My words are greeted by an epiphany.

IMG_0388-266x400No forest is ever truly silent or still, but I swear at that moment even the river and ocean have fallen mute. And for a heartbeat I can feel both him and the forest listening. With the heart of a child and the body of a young woman I almost wish the forest would replay the part of its ancient song I first heard when I was four. I wish but I know it won’t come true. No forest is the same way twice. And even if it could be, I’ve already made it break one of its rules today.

So I compromise. I finally turn my mind away from memory and allow myself to see the real world before me.

It is still not perfect.

It is still not the same.

But that does not mean it isn’t worthy of notice.

Bird song begins to fill the woods and that is when I know the Redwoods are finally beginning to awake, however groggy they may be. I find myself noticing wet on my cheeks. I don’t remember starting to cry.

I try to find my voice to let Dad know I’m leaving but it catches in my throat. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid. Dad did always say our actions speak louder than our words.
And so that is why decide as I get back behind the wheel, head much clearer than when I first came here, that the thing I want most for my birthday is to plant a tree.