My father used to make fun of me and say that I was afraid of my own shadow. Now that he's gone, I wonder what he would think if he saw me regularly hiking deep into the backwoods alone with nothing but a rifle and a readiness to learn.
Every time I go into the woods, I see or hear something new. Every time. Without fail. Maybe it's the path that God has chosen for me. Perhaps after a lifetime of living in big cities and observing human nature, it was now my destiny to learn what I could from the strong woods.
One time, a coyote appeared on the trail in front of me without warning. I had never seen a coyote or any wild animal that big before except in a zoo. I don't know if it was just curious or hungry because it was winter and my dogs were with me. It stood there, sideways, yellowish grey in its silence. My Labrador puppy ran at it so I had to think quickly. I don't like killing anything unless I have to and, in spite of its alarming presence, it was a beautiful animal. But I sure didn't want my dog tangling with it so I lifted my 12 gauge and fired a round over its head. A shot across the bow. It loped away leisurely and my dog returned safely to my side.
Another time, a big black wolf came darting out of the brush and made a running pass in front of my pooch that was twenty yards ahead of me on the trail. I hollered and it kept on running, never slowing down but it was fast. Not only did I begin to learn that things happen suddenly and unexpectedly in the forest, I also realized the importance of training a dog to stay close at all times.
When I moved to the Ottawa National forest, one of the first things I did was buy a map from the ranger's office. I had a million acres to explore and I had all the time in the world to do it. I drove or hiked down every forest road and trail that was mapped and some that weren't. I even bush wacked a few times and learned that a compass is man's second best friend after a dog. After a year of exploring most of Range County, I felt I had a pretty good layout of the land so when I stumbled upon the Twin Pines hunting lodge along the banks of the Baltimore River, I was surprised.
To get to the Twin Pines wasn't easy but it wasn't impossible. The Cemetery Road that runs past Ewen off Highway 28 turns into National Forest road 630 which is clearly marked on the map. However, there's a trailhead that's covered by thick brush that you won't see unless you're looking for things like I always do.
It was a nice spring day and I parked my jeep just off the edge of 630 and strapped my pistol to my leg and let my dog out. She immediately bolted for the hidden trailhead like she'd been there a thousand times before. Sarah was good like that. She could sniff out my intentions beforehand. All she needed was a quick glance or hand motion in a certain direction when we were afield together and the rest of the game was pretty much in her hands.
I entered the bush and started following the narrow foot trail with the same attitude
that I always carried with me into the forest. Anything could happen and usually did. Engage all senses fully and immediately with sight being the least reliable. Sound was better but smell was the best. And even though my olfactory skills were no were near comparable to Sarah's, I learned that unusual odors like fresh animal scat and impending changes in the weather were easily distinguishable from the normal flora and fauna. Everything seemed more immediate and intense when you wanted it to be.
One of the things I liked most about being deep in the backwoods was the solitude and freedom from distraction. I walked along at an easy pace, concentrating always on not making too much noise as I brushed aside branches and stepped over fallen tree limbs. The only white noise was in my head and I played it at full volume, feeling the rhythm of my past and present, anticipating the next measure of my existence.
I often thought about the last, painful decade of my life as I hiked. My divorce was a life changing experience. Watching my mother die slowly and painfully, hooked up to hospital machines with latex tentacles that squeezed the independence and life out of her, I came to the conclusion while watching her that: losing your freedom meant losing your will to live.
My father's death shortly afterwards threw me into a deep depression that lasted for nearly two years. Even though I tried to explain to him why I did what I did as he was close to the end, I doubted that he heard me even though the nurses told me that he could. His passing was gentle and dignified and representative of the good life that he had lived for ninety three years. The man never spent a night in a hospital bed until it was his time to go.
And now here I was, an orphan at mid life, living alone but free and mostly content, looking out for what would explode next out of the bush and rock my world because that's how it is. True, you can be prepared for meeting up with a bear but it was more difficult to react to the unpredictable nature of humans. So, many times I stopped on my hikes to pull up a tree stump and sit and pray and Sarah would sit patiently by my side, waiting to resume the hunt.
It had rained recently and the trail to the Twin Pines was muddy in places and pockmarked with deer and other animal tracks. I always took my guide book with me to try and to identify them but rarely would you find a print so clear that matched the illustration on the page. A smudged raccoon footprint could easily be mistaken for a beaver track. That's when you had to use common sense and think about what type of trees, food sources or bodies of water might be around. "Detective hiking" I would call it and I relished every second.
After about a mile, the thick forest opened up into a small clearing and the sun was warm enough to want to make me take off my shirt. It was like entering a different dimension and even Sarah seemed hesitant at first, doubling back to me to see if this was our intended destination.
"Go!" I said to her and, reassured, she trotted off ahead down the path but, like I said, I was careful to always call her back when she got too far ahead. I had invested a lot of money and time in that dog and I didn't want to see her become a fast food snack for a hungry wolf.
Another thing about the clearing that struck me was the dead silence. There was a slight wind when we started on the trail and it rustled the treetops above us. Tiny frogs no bigger than half dollar coins also popped into puddles along the way. Even the slightest sounds were amplified in the woods. Even my thoughts seemed too loud sometimes.
On the other side of the clearing, Sarah picked up the trail again that winded through the tall green ash trees and jack pines. Occasionally, she would dart off to the side and search around the brush that enveloped her like a green, low lying fog. At those times, I trusted her instincts and readied my gun to see what she might flush out.
The brown hare didn't have a care in the world. It bunny hopped right out from behind an elderberry thicket and straight into Sarah's mouth. I watched her toy with it for a minute after she grabbed it by the neck and shook it unconscious if not dead, her tail wagging at full throttle the entire time. But she was a bird dog at heart and quickly lost interest in the animal. Just then, I looked up to see a hawk gliding down at us from the upper branch of a tall tree. It annoyed me. The damn thing couldn't even wait until we were gone so I shot at it twice and missed but it got the message and circled off and away. Sarah jumped at the gunfire, probably thinking that I hade made a kill, but I was just happy to sniff the burnt gunpowder that lingered in the air for a few seconds. I nodded to myself and then moved on, confirmed once again that anything can and will happen in the woods.
I knew that sooner or later we had to run into the Baltimore River. It was on the map due west and curved through Range County like a miles long snake that was forever in search of its own tail. It was a beautiful, if not a big river that was suitable for canoeing and trout fishing and I always carried my Pocket Fisherman and box of trout flies with me in my backpack when I went into the Ottawa. Trying to sneak up on a trout with Sarah was impossible because any body of water became her immediate playground but that never stopped me from casting a few times just for the fun of it.
We came upon the lodge after another hour of hiking and the sight of the building surprised me more than a wild animal suddenly appearing out of nowhere. How does somebody construct something this big and deep in the woods without a road leading to it? It was a medium sized wood cabin with a front porch lined with deer antlers nailed to the rails around it. Sarah sensed no danger at all and ran up on it right off. I trust humans less than she does so I holstered my firearm but made sure a round was chambered just in case. People who live in the big city don't think that there are crazies in the country because the things they do don't make the national news often, but if you stick around long enough, talk to people and read the local papers, you soon realize that evil and insanity are present wherever humans are.
I made sure to stomp my boots hard on the wooden porch to announce my arrival before peering into the windows. There was a sign next to the door that read:
Doors are to keep animals out and not people. You are welcome to enter, friend, and stay as long as you like but please close the door behind you.--Twin Pines
This reassured me a bit so I cautiously entered and yelled hello. The first thing that hit me was the strong, musky scent of humans. Most of us don't smell ourselves unless we stink badly. I think its called olfactory fatigue. You become so used to an odor, no matter how bad or good it is, until you stop smelling it completely. So after hiking through the woods for awhile, smelling the presence of people makes quite an impression. One that you will never forget.
Satisfied that there was no one around, I poked around in the kitchen that was fully stocked with can food and bags for rice, beans and flour. There was a wood burning stove in the center and, as far as I could tell, it was the only source of heat in the place. Did anyone really lived here through the harsh winters that dumped up to twenty feet of snow over a period of three months? I doubted it so I looked around some more now that my curiosity was fully piqued.
Most houses are built to accommodate a woman. Lace curtains in the windows, flower vases, delicate doilies placed neatly on the dining room table. This is the way women mark their boundaries. The man of the house is usually restricted to furnishing a basement or a garage that, if he's lucky enough, can be considered completely his own territory. Hunting camps were like that, exclusively male in decor with unmade bunk beds, torn overstuffed sofas and gun racks on the walls. This place was perfectly balanced the way it was furnished. There was a visible ying and yang between masculine and feminine, between leather and lace and soft and stern. Even the artwork showed compromise. On one wall of the living room hung an oil painting of a mature buck fighting off a pack of ravenous wolves in the thick of a snowstorm. You could see in the buck's eyes that it knew death was near yet it stood in a last defiance of impending doom, determined to maintain its unique beauty and dignity until the bitter end.
In contrast, on the opposite wall there was an equally large portrait of a young girl kneeling in a field of daisies and gathering flowers on a bright summer's day. She wore a bonnet that covered her golden hair and shaded her strawberry freckled face from the sun. It was a peaceful scene, reminiscent of childhood innocence and far removed from the savage danger that faced it across the width of a small space in time and distance. I stood squarely in the middle between the two and felt that I had somehow stumbled upon the center of the universe after all my travels and tribulations. Maybe God lived here. Or maybe I had just been talking to myself too much lately.
Sarah seemed very at ease. She was normally a very hyper dog like most Labradors, but she moved around the place, sniffed a bit and then plopped down on a throw rug in front of the sofa like she was willing to spend the night. There were some books on a shelf and I scanned the titles and authors which were equally divided between a man and a woman's taste like everything else in the cabin. Louis L'Amour westerns stood side by side next to romance novels by Danielle Steele. Whoever lived here probably never heard of deconstructionism and queer literature. Or if they did, they didn't care about it.
The only bedroom also maintained this separate but equal motif between the sexes. There was a bunk bed on the left hand side as you entered it and it was, of course, unmade. A queen sized bed on the right side was covered by a floral quilt and had a canopy of pink, thin silk over it. I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks and also a bit hungry so I sat at the kitchen table and ate a handful of trail mix that I brought with me. I unfolded my map of the Ottawa and tried to calculate how far I had hiked and how much farther it might be to the Baltimore when I heard voices outside. Instinctively, I reached for my sidearm and thought about placing it on the table in front of me as a show of force but that would be a rude thing for a guest to do, so I walked out onto the porch instead, hoping for the most friendliest of encounters but, nevertheless, ready for the worst if need be.
I saw them coming up the trail behind the cabin, directly opposite to the one that lead me to the Twin Pines. They weren't talking loudly but voices carry easily in the forest and Sarah was already barking, not out of fear but in the hope of making new friends. She was my medium, my go between that bridged my suspicion of evil human nature and just plain folk. When Sarah saw the old couple, she ran playfully towards them and they laughed and the woman rubbed the dog's belly when it rolled over at her feet. The man greeted me like an old friend.
"Well, hello there!" he said. "We weren't expecting company."
"What a beautiful dog!" said the woman.
They must have been pushing eighty at least but I was amazed at how spryly they stepped up the trail, exhibiting a youthfulness in their demeanor that would put many Internet addicted teenagers to shame. He was of medium height and thin framed but sturdy looking with a face lined with a farmer's determination that betrays a lifetime of hopeful waiting and watching. The top of her head reached his jaw and you could easily see that they fit each other perfectly. I always judged couples by imagining how they would look on the dance floor together and I could easily see these two effortlessly tripping the light fantastic for hours on end, smiling in each other's arms and sharing a secret that only people in love could understand. That was my first impression, a purely physical one.
Sarah jumped at their feet as they came closer and the woman said, "Can I give your dog a treat?"
"Sure. If you think she deserves it," I said, feeling relaxed because they appeared completely normal and harmless, a friendly old couple that liked dogs and welcomed strangers without question. But then an evil thought crossed my mind. I'm prone to such flashes of brutality because I've seen the very worst in people in my life in my travels and I've learned to think at times like the devil. Suppose I was the lunatic? Neither one of them looked at my pistol but what if I just pulled it out and shot them both right here and now and robbed them or killed them for the fun of it? What could stop me? Secure for a moment in the power I now had over this harmless old couple, I felt embarrassed and smiled broadly to offset the dark imagining that had just crossed my mind.
"I'm looking for the Baltimore River," I said to them. "I've been walking for a couple of hours and I thought that I would have reached it by now."
"You 're closer than you think," said the old man and when he got within an arm's reach I could see the shine in his perfectly blues eyes that reminded me of my father's. He was, in fact, the same size and build as him but the woman was nothing like my mother who ended her life obese and bed ridden with a deep, sad frown permanently etched onto her face. Even the coroner couldn't do much with it except affix her dentures in such a way that made her face stretch in a distorted strangeness that none of her family could recognize.
"Where's your manners Tom?" asked the woman. "Invite him in for some lemonade. It's a hot day. Would you like a glass of cold lemonade young man?"
"Thank you, ma'am," I said and I noticed an accent in her voice that wasn't local so I had to ask. "Are you folks from around here or just spending the summer months?"
It wasn't uncommon for people from all over the world to stay in Michigan's upper peninsula during the warmer months. Many owned trailers or lodges that they buttoned up for winter, leaving the snow lovers to their own devices for six months out of the year.
"We're from Kentucky," she said as she led me back into the cabin and offered me a seat at the kitchen table were I had just set my gun down a few minutes before.
"What are you hunting?" asked the man as he sat down across from me. She poured us a couple of tall glasses of lemonade and set them between us and smiled at the table like she had heard this conversation a million times before. I tried to sound legitimate. I didn't want to tell them that I was afraid of the woods and the unexpected so I lied.
"I'm shooting anything that's in season. Squirrels, opossum, crow."
"You must be a good shot, then," he said, leaning back a little in his chair. "Not many people hunt those critters with a hand gun."
It was his way of telling me I was full of shit and we both knew it. But he wasn't challenging me in any way, I could sense that so I offered to show him my pistol. By doing that, I not only shifted the balance of power into his hands, I also demonstrated that I was a good sport.
"It's loaded," I told him.
I took the piece out of its holster, pulled back on the slide and ejected a round and then handed it to him. He reached for it gingerly and held it in one hand and then the other, testing its feel before finally saying, "You can actually hit small critters with this thing?"
"Came close to dropping a hawk on the wing on the way up here," I said and I must have sounded like a twelve year old because he chuckled.
"Okay, deadeye. What's your name. Mine's Tom Morris and this is my wife Helen."
"I'm Jim Bigger," I said and he turned to his wife and they smiled at each other again, that secret smile between two people who have lived intimately for decades.
It made me a little uneasy so I took a sip of my lemonade and he handed me back my gun. I slid it back into my holster without chambering a round. That would have been very rude at this point. Sarah, who was left on the porch, started scratching at the door.
"I almost forgot about your dog!" said Helen. "Let me fetch a chunk of venison jerky." She reached into a cabinet and pulled out a strip of meat from a tin and threw it out to Sarah who pounced on it and carried it off the porch to sit under the shade of an apple tree in their yard and work on the jerky.
"Are you hungry?" asked Helen. "I can fix you something if you want."
"No thanks," I said. "You folks are mighty kind to strangers."
"We don't get many visitors," said Tom. "Our grandson comes by once a month by canoe and leaves us supplies and that's about it."
"Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. You were looking for the Baltimore. I'm surprised you didn't smell it you were so close."
"Go take him down to the river," said Helen. "I'll fix some lunch."
So we left her in the cabin and I followed Tom down the trail where I had seen him and Helen come out of the woods from. I was amazed at how sure footed he was for his age because I remember my father having great trouble with balance as he became elderly. The man walked with knowledge and purpose and he led me down a hill about fifty yards to the banks of the Baltimore River, a shiny rippling stream that was wide and shallow.
"Here she is," he said as if he were pointing out a prize heifer. There was a wooden canoe sitting up on the bank and he must have read my mind.
"Care to go for a ride?" he asked.
"You betcha," I answered and Sarah had already jumped the gun and was splashing in the clear, cool waters waiting for us to join her. I helped him push the bow of the boat into the river and he nimbly jumped into the front and grabbed an oar as I shoved us deeper and hopped in and sat down on the back plank.
We rowed upstream for about a quarter mile with Sarah swimming along without showing any signs of tiring. A playful river otter swam out to greet us from the opposite shore and teased our bow by swimming under it a couple of times before getting bored and drifting away. I was sure the dog would see it and go after it but, like I said, she was a bird dog exclusively and found little interest in other animals.
Tom guided us to a spot on the far bank and we nestled the canoe against a slight sand bar and stepped off to stretch our legs.
"I want to show you something," he said. "Not many people know this is here."
I had to pick up my step to catch up with him and his stamina once again caught me off guard. This was no ordinary old man.
We bush wacked through the brush and thick pines for about a half an hour, following what appeared to be a deer trail by the bend of the branches and tall grass in spots. I'm sure he knew where he was going but I couldn't help glance at my compass every now and then just out of habit. Sarah was working the thickets around us busily, keeping a perimeter that constantly shifted forward.
I couldn't help thinking how I wished this old outdoorsman had been my dad. The one that brought me up never took me in the woods, never put a gun in my hand or paddled a canoe with me.
We cleared a ridge in the woods and walked down a slight slope towards a small clearing. It had the same feel of the one I crossed on the way to the Twin Pines, the same stillness and eerie sense of isolation that didn't mesh with the rest of the forest. The ground was also different here. I could tell that it had been turned over by someone or something long ago. Tom suddenly stopped and turned to me.
"Do you know what you are walking on?" he said. He seemed strangely taller and, perhaps, even younger if that were possible. Sometimes a man's physical size is completely opposite to his character. I've met gigantic men who were mental midgets without decency when I shipped as an able bodied seaman in the Merchant Marines. And I've known small men who, by the force of their intellect or character, commanded respect. Tom appeared to me as one of them now, an apparently frail eighty year old who was full of hidden surprises. I shook my head.
"Your walking on the graves of the Flannigan clan."
"Who were they?" I asked, wondering if he were pulling my leg but I noticed Sarah's behavior change since we arrived at the spot. Instead of sniffing along the ground as she usually does, she had lifted her head and sniffed the air all around her like she anticipated a change in the weather. She also began to point but I couldn't tell at what.
"They were a pioneer family that came to the upper peninsula during the middle of the eighteenth century looking for silver."
"But everyone knows there's only copper around here," I said and he smiled back at me, his eyes shining under the cloudless blue sky.
"They did, too, at first," he continued, "But an Indian chief told them about a mountain up the Baltimore that had silver but he warned them not to try and find it. The indians said it was evil and they avoided it."
"A mountain? Here? The only mountains are the Porkies and they're not real mountains like the kind they have down south or out west."
"Well, of course not. The Ojibwa didn't know about what we call real mountains. Actually, it was just an outcrop, a branch of the copper vein that runs through these parts."
"So what happened?" I asked, settling back on my heels to hear a whopper. "Cabin fever? Wild animals? What?"
"Well," he said, pausing to take of his baseball cap and wipe his brow. "Nobody really knows for sure. The Indians say it was Windego that got the family, all seven of them, they had three teenage sons and two younger girls. You know about Windego don't you? The evil, flesh eating demon that lurks in these parts?
"Yeah. I've heard of him. But who found them and buried them and what did they die of?"
"That's the strangest part. A French trapper stumbled upon them in the spring after the thaw and said that only their bones was left, like the wild animals had chomped all down to nothing. After he made his report in Range and told the sheriff the location he hung himself without leaving a note or saying another word to anyone else."
"No kidding?" I said, not believing a word of what the old man was telling me. Of course, I could easily check later and he probably knew it and didn't care. I figured he was just having some backwoods fun with me so I amused him and tried not to smile.
When we got back to the cabin, Helen had fixed us some pasties, meat pies stuffed with beef, potatoes and vegetables that were favorites amongst the locals. We talked some more for awhile over the food about hunting and fishing and the weather until I thought it was time to go.
"Always remember to tell your mother you love her," said Helen to me as I was leaving and Tom clucked at her but walked with me down the trail towards forest road 630 a bit before he stopped and said goodbye.
"You're a good boy," he said, shaking my hand. "I can see that. Stop by again sometime." He patted Sarah and then turned and walked back to the cabin and we hiked back to my jeep and then drove into Moss City.
Honey, the night waitress, poured me a cup of coffee when I walked in to Grandma Byrd's like I had done a thousand times before. I asked her about Twin Pines and the Flannigan expedition but she never heard of either of them but then she wasn't originally from the upper peninsula. Just then, Maki, walked in I was sure he would know since he was a local and used to scour these woods when he was boy.
"Doesn't ring a bell," he said. "But lots of weird stuff has happened around here, especially back in the mining days. I wouldn't doubt it. You can check at the library to be sure."
"You mean you never even heard of the old couple that lives in a cabin by the Baltimore River?"
"Hell, I know there's some folks that are holed up deep in the woods but they like it that way. They don't want people to know about them."
I went to the library and searched through the archives but I couldn't find anything. The sheriff didn't even know anything about a Twin Pines cabin and he started looking at me kind of funny so I stopped asking questions. I made up my mind to go back out there again and take my camera next day.
It was the hottest day of the year and Sarah panted thirstily along the entire path from the forest road. Even the shade of the thick forest trees offered little relief and when we reached the first clearing a swarm of gnats and mosquitoes attacked us relentlessly. Thick flies appeared out of nowhere and covered Sarah's body and she quickly lost any interest in the hike and looked at me for relief but I was just as miserable as she was.
When we made it through the clearing, the shade once again protected us from the bugs but not the heat. It got worse with every step we took and I was constantly opening my canteen so that we could both cool our tongues. I was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery--if one existed. Once again, the Baltimore seemed father than the five mile trek as indicated on the map. Unless you've been down a certain trail hundreds of time in each season, there is no way you can recognize normal landmarks. Things change that fast in the woods. Winds knock down tree branches. Rainfalls create streams were none existed before. I looked hard for some recognizable sign and when we started climbing a slight rise, it seemed to me like that was the last one before reaching the cabin. But it wasn't. At the bottom of the long slope, Sarah bolted and ran far ahead out of my line of sight.
I called for her to come back but she didn't. I quickened my pace and then stopped dead in my tracks. It was the Baltimore River. Sarah jumped into the water, obviously thankful for the cool, wet relief. I looked back behind me up the hill and the chilling sensation that I was lost cooled me also. Worried, I checked my compass but the needle wouldn't settle towards north. It swung around in slow circles, first clockwise and then counter clockwise. I looked up at the sky. The sun was directly over head. And then I saw her. About fifty yards before the river bent downstream. Naked, young and wading thigh high in the middle of the river. She had long, straight black hair that reached the middle of her tan back. I didn't need to see her face. Even at this distance, I could tell she was beautiful, thin. I watched her slowly and delicately splashing water on herself and heard the river giggling as it flowed across the shallow rock beds in front of me, anxious to reach the girl and splash against her flesh, slide between the crevasses of her parted legs, get scooped up by her hands and run down over her perfect breasts before continuing its journey, knowing that it had temporarily been part of something wonderful and fleeting.
Sarah saw her too and barked. She looked back over her shoulder at us and smiled and then started walking to the opposite bank in long, careful strides across the slippery rock bottom, her hands lifted to her sides like a tightrope walker and I could see exactly how fine her body was. At the river's edge, she looked at us again and waved before reaching towards a man's arm that appeared from the center of a tall bush nestled on the bank. It pulled her swiftly into the woods, lifted and swallowed her up in the foliage and she was gone. And then everything was as it had always been in that place. No cabin. No mysterious gravesite. Nothing except a timid outdoorsman and his dog with a loaded gun who didn't like to talk about what happened when he went into the woods alone.
Blessed are the peacemakers...
a white cop, a black kid
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"Writing so edgy you can feel it..."--Linda Collison, author of Water Ghosts.
"Writing so edgy you can feel it..."--Linda Collison, author of Water Ghosts.