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“O goat-foot God of *Arcady!
This modern world is gray and old,
And what remains to us of thee ? …
Then blow some trumpet loud and free,
And give thine oaten pipe away,
Ah, leave the hills of Arcady* !
This modern world hath need of thee!”
— Oscar Wilde, (c. 1854-1900)
(*Arcady = Arcadia, the southern region of Greece, for which Pan is the national god.)
Derek was on the trail at 6:00 AM as planned. By 8:00 he reached the first landmark shown on the map he’d picked up at the ranger station. It was a small lake around which the trail led as it crawled over a rise on the opposite shore and disappeared into a dense forest. He was invigorated by the clean, oxygen-rich morning air. The crunching scuff of gravel and earth under foot gave substance to his stride. Pine trees scattered the path with brown needles. Their perfume pervaded the air. Occasionally the more acrid odor of sage brush, Manzanita bushes, and milk weed filled his nose. A pair of chattering chipmunks scampered across his path and skittered up a nearby tree, turning to see him pass in arrogant safety high up among the branches, their cheek pouches puffed with pine nuts. Blue jays squawked and scolded him from their tree top sanctuaries. Derek was in the native lands of nature now. An intruder.
About 10:00 A.M. Derek stopped to rest and eat and drink something. He had kept a leisurely but steady pace along the trail. He estimated by the map that he’d come about 9 or 10 miles, having paused only to drink from his canteen briefly and remove his sweatshirt which had become too hot to wear. He propped his pack against a fallen log and sitting there, spread his food beside him. His appetite was keen, invigorated by the exercise and fresh air at this altitude. His body seemed eager and at home here, alive with sensation sharpened by the surroundings and the ever-present sloping grandeur of Mt. Shasta on his left hand vista.
As Derek ate he realized how foreign he seemed to this place. The cellophane wrappers, printed paper labels, plastic forks, and the processed foods he had brought. Dried figs, sharp cheddar cheese, soda crackers, and salami. Even the fabrics of his clothes and shoes seemed peculiar here. They were a phony fabrication by man of unnatural nature.
Derek sighed, stuffed the leftovers back into his pack, stood and stretched. He was about half way to his destination for the day called Crescent Lake, about 8 miles northeast. That is where the trail would end and he would start out on his own into untrammeled regions. One day out and one day back from the lake. His real wilderness adventure.
He hadn’t seen any other hikers since about 9:00 when he’d passed a young couple coming down from the lake. It was very late in the season for hiking and camping now. By 4:00 Derek had arrived at Crescent Lake, rested, set up his overnight campsite and gathered some firewood. He was alone here, much to his relief and delight. The afternoon sun was still above the hills, casting chilly shadows onto the lake shore through the trees.
Crescent Lake was small, perhaps 100 yards across, set against the side of a hill sloping 500 feet above the far shore. It was fed by several trickling rivulets, nearly dry since the snows had long since receded from the mountain peak except for a few patches of dirt inlaid ice.
Derek did not think about his life, his work, Jenny or Paula. His worries about his frustrating, mid-life confusions dissolved into the trees, the azure sky, the crisp, fresh air. He felt cleansed and refreshed by an impish, childish wonder and delight, absorbed in fascination for this invigorating environment.
Derek took off his dusty hiking boots and sweaty white gym socks. He crept to the edge of the lake, gingerly dodging the rocks and pebbles along the shore. He found a fallen tree trunk overhanging the water. He sat and dangled his feet in the coolness of the clear water. He breathed deeply at the chilling sensation on his feet and ankles. The lake was mostly in the shadow of the mountain now. A gentle, rhythmic splash lapped the shore on either side of him. Water skippers cruised the surface between his legs like a tiny catamaran, oblivious to his unmoving presence. Tiny minnows nipped curiously at his toes.
Derek caught his breath in excited wonder as a granddaddy-sized brown trout snaked leisurely from beneath the log he sat on. The fish was about 14 inches long, a veteran survivor at dodging fishing lures which had done their best to trick him into becoming somebody’s supper. The fish wagged his competent tail and flashed into the shadows toward the center of the lake in search of an evening meal of flies too slow and stupid to avoid becoming food for fish: a silent, submerged hunter who was himself hunted. He was part of the weirdly inverted food chain of planet earth, where in order for one life form to live, another must die — an absurd pyramid of eating and being eaten at the top of which stands Man: the ultimate eater, the consumer of all consumers.
Derek stared at the distorted slant of his bare feet beneath the rippling water. He shuddered a bit as a sudden chilling breeze wrinkled the lake. The glow of setting sun above the hills around the lake dimmed to gray. A nearly full moon appeared suspended like a china dish on a blue-gray wall.
That night Derek lay on his back in his sleeping bag listening to the gentle hiss and snap of his nearly spent camp fire. The mighty, silent canopy of night sky splendor consumed him, as it always did when sleeping outdoors in the mountains. Derek thought the same existentially overwhelming thoughts that had pervaded him as a child. Confronted by the unfathomable, infinite vastness of macrocosmic space brought into focus the microscopically inconsequential nonentity of Earth by comparison. He felt the awesome eschatological apathy that always occasioned the experience.
Derek wondered how astronomers ever managed to get over the feeling of their own utter insignificance; a majestic humiliation brought on by this clashing contrast of magnitudes. The microcosm within the macrocosm; a flea on a flea on a flea on a flea, ad infinitum. The was, the is, and the will be of infinite space and time and matter and the inestimable magnitude and power of twinkling stellar energy: the face of God.
There was nothing to save him from these thoughts except to sleep; to not be — until the chariot of dawn was driven by the sun to slay the dark illusion of the night and restore myopic sight to those who need eyes to see.
Towering trees seemed to touch the stars above him. Through the boughs a breeze whispered a hushed and haunting hymn.
In sleep he dreamed he heard the simple piping of a flute. There were words he would not remember in the morning — words without a voice to sing them, as though a child were humming a rhyme to himself:
“I hide in the fuzz on a butterfly wing.
I ride the on waves of electron rings.
I hear the songs that a ladybug sings.
I can be small, like the tiniest things.
I like to play leapfrog over the sun,
Run around Venus and Mars just for fun.
Jogging to Pluto is just a short run.
Heavenly hopscotch is easily done.
By changing my viewpoint I’m smaller than small
I fly with my thoughts! I’ll never fall!
I decide to be none! I decide to be all!
I am immortal — immeasurably tall.
You’re just a man! You’re weak and small!
I dare you to find me! I dare each and all!
You’ll never see me. You’ll never get near.
I am a god! I don’t have your fears!
I’m here, then I’m there. I’m free to be free.
I don’t need to eat or breathe or pee!
I am who I am. It’s fun being me!
The same Pan I’ve been, and always will be!”
* * * * * * * * *
The morning was cloudy and cool but it cleared by 10:00 when he stopped to rest. Derek removed his lightweight jacket, wearing only jeans and a dark green tee-shirt with his company logo on the back; a cloud of arithmetic symbols and a lighting bolt. It was a remnant of the Nimbus Software summer softball team. He wanted to be the pitcher but could never master the proper slow, high-arch, back-spin needed to make batters pop-up or ground out, so he played second base instead.
Climbing a steadily sloping ridge was hot work as he tramped through the thinning pine trees across the volcanic lava rocks strewn on the hillside. Finally mounting the summit of a ridge Derek paused to regain his breath. From this vantage he could clearly survey a broad panorama of forest rolling across the Trinity mountain range to the eastern horizon.
Before him a steep decent of about 1,000 feet would bring him to a narrow meadow of tall grass which lay about 2 miles from a river. He plodded stiff-legged, sliding and zigzagging sideways down the slope to ease the speed of his descent. In places he slid in finely powdered dirt and loose gravel, dodging sagebrush, Manzanita branches, boulders and an occasional tree. He sneezed at the dusty, musk scent of the tinder-dry brush. He grabbed at red-barked branches for support. There had been no rain here for three months. He had been warned about the dry conditions and the threat of forest fires, usually caused by careless campers and hunters.
About 11:30 Derek finally slid and staggered to the bottom of the ridge, half crawling beneath a dense stand of tall brush at the edge of the meadow. Dusty, sweating, thirsty and scratched he eased the pack from his back and sat on a rock to dump the dirt out of his boots. The harder than expected climb down to the meadow, gave Derek a sense of boyish exhilaration.
After some canteen water, cheddar cheese and crackers, Derek shouldered his pack to begin the final leg of his hike to the river which lay across the meadow. He’d walked no more than one hundred yards along the edge of the meadow when he stopped and stood breathlessly still.
There, near the middle of the meadow stood two mule deer, not more than fifty yards from him. They had both their heads bent to the ground, intent on grazing. What a delightful sight, he thought. Though he knew he might see wild animals in the woods he was still surprised to see what was, for a city dweller, a rare sight.
The deer were moving slowly away from him as they fed, flicking at flies with long ears and short tails. Derek squatted to remain unseen by the pair. The buck was the larger of the two and had a fine set of antlers. Derek marveled at the sleek grace of their form and large, soft, nearly oriental eyes. Their smooth tan fur and silent steps blended with the tall dry grass of the meadow.
As the deer advanced further from him Derek decided to circle around them through the trees surrounding the meadow to take a position in front of them at the edge of the meadow. From there he could take some pictures. This was the first time on his trip he’s seen anything he wanted to photograph.
When he arrived at the spot Derek stood slowly from his crouch, being careful to stay out of view and to move noiselessly. He raised his camera, stepped forward “Indian style”, one foot in front of the other, then snapped the shutter. The auto-wind motor whirred forward to advance the film. On hearing the sound, the buck raised his head, ears perked up, followed by the doe, they stood still but intensely alert.
Derek was not quite aware of a hint of oddly misplaced of cedar scent in the meadow.
From among a shadowy stand of trees on the opposite side of the meadow, perhaps 75 yards away, Derek saw a tiny puff of white smoke. Both deer started forward. In this same timeless moment Derek felt the sensation of being at the center of an explosion. There was a shattering crash, though he didn’t hear it with his ears; an incandescent flash, not seen by his eyes; no pain, only a terrifically violent shock. He thought dimly, “This was the feeling of being struck by lightning”.
A sense of utter shriveling weakness overcame him as the meadow, trees, sky and mountains receded into a great, vague distance. Derek saw his body slump to the ground as though he was high above it, looking down like some hovering bird. He sensed that he was very badly hurt but could not imagine how or why. In alarm he swooped back down to his body with the simultaneous realization that he had been shot. He felt numb and dazed, but no pain. All in less than a second.
For what seemed an eternity Derek lay stunned, yet intensely aware, as shouting voices and footsteps approached. There were faces above him. Someone lifted his helpless form to tear away his pack and shirt.
“God damn Billy, he’s hit! Shit! Oh, shit! Oh, Lord Jesus, man…get his shirt open!”
Billy Joe Jaras and his brother Virgil had been deer hunting together every year since they were in school together in Valdosta, Georgia, more than 15 years ago. They played varsity football at Valdosta High. In Valdosta everybody played football and everybody hunted. Just something everybody did growin’ up. After high school they joined the Army and went to ‘Nam like most everybody else, ‘cept for Yankee, pinko draft-dodgers.
Virgil Jaras met his wife while he was stationed at Fort Ord. After the Army, he stayed in northern California so he and his wife could be near her kin people. He got a job in the hydroelectric plant at Whiskeytown Dam. Billy Joe followed him 6 months later and settled too. It wasn’t like down home in Georgia, but the work paid real good and there was plenty of forests for huntin’ and fishin’.
They bought double-wide mobile homes on lots right next to each other, just like they lived in when they was growin’ up. Just the night before they was sittin’ by their campfire, tellin’ stories about the old days back home. About stuff they used to do in school and about girls they had screwed and about drinkin’ and fightin’ and about their old huntin’ dog, Sparky. They each drank a six-pack of Coors and threw the empties into the ashes.
But right now Virgil and Billy Joe were just trying to stop the blood from bubbling out of Derek’s body. The bullet had gone all the way through his chest and passed out the shoulder blade.
Derek tried to speak. He wanted to find out what was happening. He still couldn’t feel any pain. He found that he had no voice. He tried to move but the body did not respond. Then he realized that he was not “in” his body. He was looking down at it from above. He could perceive Virgil and Billy Joe, but not with the same vision which he saw things through his body’s eyeballs. He “knew” they were struggling with makeshift bandages made from torn strips their own t-shirts. He saw them lifting his body but he couldn’t feel the motion. His body’s head lolled to one side, the arms drooped limply, dragging on the ground as they carried him, almost running, across the meadow.
“Oh my God! I must be dead!”
He thought of Jenny, his beautiful wife. He had always loved her. And of his business. How could they manage without him? The major accounts he dealt with personally, the meetings, decisions.
“This isn’t fair! I can’t die now! This is totally stupid!”
Derek felt a violent resentment at having to leave this body and life behind. Life suited him. He had been very good at living it. He wasn’t ready to leave it yet!
“Oh My God!” he thought in desperate horror.
“Yes? You called?”, Derek felt a voice say to him.