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DAVE IS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. He is neither tall nor short. He is probably thinner than he should be, all things considered, according to his mom, who is deeply and continually amazed that a boy who eats ten sandwiches a day can somehow get skinnier and taller by the hour. She says he weighs basically the same as he did when he was the world's fattest baby-except now he is five feet taller than he was then.
Dave lives with his mom and dad and one sister. His sister was the world's second-fattest baby, but now she is almost six years old, and she too is getting skinnier and taller by the hour, says their mom. It appears to be a family thing, says their mom, and eventually you kids will be ten feet tall and weigh ten pounds each, and we will have to live in a tall, thin tower.
It is funny to hear her talk about this, says Dave, because as my dad says she might be five feet tall on a hot summer day, and she is getting smaller by the year. She sure is getting shorter every year, though, and if this continues, soon she will be the size of my sister, and my sister will have grown to be Mom's former height, and everything will be all discombobulated.
Dave and his sister and mom and dad live in a cabin on Mount Hood in Oregon. Dave prefers to say that he lives on Wy'east, which is what the first people who lived on and around it called the mountain for thousands of years, rather than Hood, which is what some guy from another country called it one day, and that guy and his friends had guns, so their name for the mountain stuck, but it ought not to be the case, says Dave, that a guy with a gun gets to be the boss, especially of names, which are important. So Dave likes to say that he and his family live on Wy'east, so that is the name we will use for the rest of this story. Half of this story is Dave's story, after all, so he gets a serious vote on names in the story. That's only fair.
* * *
The cabin is near a small river called the Zigzag. It is called the Zigzag for reasons you can imagine. In the river there are all sorts of fish; Dave has counted nineteen species that he can identify and three that he cannot, yet. There are also a lot of other animals and insects, but Dave concentrates on the fish because they are interesting and good to eat. In the woods near the cabin and the river, there are all sorts of animals. Dave has counted more than seventy species and has drawn them on a chart in the cabin according to size. The chart hangs on the wall in his bedroom. His bedroom is the size of a black bear's den, says Dave, who actually crawled into a black bear's den once, after he and his dad made absolutely sure that no bear had been there for a long time. The biggest animal on Dave's chart, curiously, is not a bear, although there are some tremendous bears in these woods, but an elk called Louis, who is half again as big as the biggest elk anyone has ever seen. Louis may be the most hunted being in the long history of the mountain, says Dave's dad. You wouldn't believe how many people buy hunting permits every year for the express purpose of shooting Louis, and every year someone claims they did so, and every spring Louis emerges again from the snowy wilderness of the woods, not at all dead, and looking slightly bigger, as if he'd spent the winter lifting weights in a cave somewhere. That is one mountainous elk, so to speak, says Dave's dad, who says personally he will never shoot Louis, even if he had the chance, out of respect for Louis's remarkable persistence and intelligence in avoiding people who would like nothing better than to shoot him. And Dave's dad also refuses to even touch a gun anymore for various reasons. One of these days, if those hunters don't watch out, says Dave's dad, old Louis is going to learn how to use a rifle, and then it will be a donnybrook and brouhaha of rare proportions which we would be wise to avoid.
* * *
That is how Dave's dad talks, with words like donnybrook and vainglorious and epistolary, and he just expects you to know what he is talking about, says Dave, as if you too had read every book in the town library and every book in the bookstore's lending library and every book in the lost-and-found library at Timberline Lodge up the mountain, where Dave's mom works in laundry services. You would think that my dad had gone to college, says Dave, but this is not so, as yet. He wanted to go to college, but a war intervened, says my dad, and his personal compass got bruised and battered and set toward a new star. That's how he explains it when people ask him about his past. He never says much about being in the war except that not going to college allowed him the extraordinary gift and privilege of meeting and subsequently courting Mom. Dad says if he had never been in the war and afterwards come up the mountain to get some peace and quiet and recover his shaken equilibrium, he would never have met Mom reading a book in the sun in the woods near the lodge, and if he had not met Mom, he would not have the surpassing benediction of being allowed to be the dad not only of me but my sister also, a clean sweep of the possible genders of children, says Dad, so that really, rather than be all upset about missing college and having to be in a war, maybe he should be delighted at missing college and filled with gratitude for having had the honor to serve his remarkable country in a war, however foolish war in general is, and especially in this particular case, was. This is how my dad talks, says Dave, interesting but at angles other than most people do. You have to listen pretty close when Dad talks, partly because sometimes he doesn't talk at all for days, and then when he does talk, it sometimes seems like he is talking about something altogether other than what you thought you were talking about-but he's not.
* * *
Dave is a regular guy. He is not particularly strong or athletic or brilliant in school or handsome or talented in music. He is a terrible skier, even though he lives on a mountain covered in snow every day of the year and people come from around the country to ski there and most of his friends and schoolmates ski easily and well because they live there and everyone skis well except for Dave. He is not much for snowboarding, either, or cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, even though most of the kids he knows do those things well as well. He does like snow, and he likes sliding down the mountain on garbage can lids and old tire tubes, but he doesn't love snow, like his classmates. Most of his classmates either love snow or say they do, and they have ambitions to be ski racers and snowboard stars and travel around in cool vans and get free money from ski and snowboard companies for simply skiing and snowboarding with panache and brio.
Whereas in Dave's experience, skiing and snowboarding inevitably mean freezing and soaking and crashing into bushes and thickets and desperately avoiding trees and then slogging all the way back to the place where you started. In Dave's experience, cool snowy mountain adventures usually conclude with a bad head cold and something that you hope is only sprained rather than actually broken, which will cost the family money which we do not have.
However, Dave does love being in the woods, even in the snow, and he does love walking and running for miles and miles in dense and unpopulated forest and climbing above the tree line and gaping at the line of mountains running south in a straight line from Wy'east all the way to the California border on a good day. He loves that more than anything except his mom and dad and sister, and he loves that his mom and dad are cool enough to trust him to walk and run alone in the vast forests of the mountain, carrying only water and a compass and a poncho. They started letting him wander in the woods when he was ten years old. First he was allowed to wander anywhere within a mile, as long as he was home before dark and avoided the road and the river; as his dad said one million times, the highway was far more dangerous than anything he would ever encounter in the woods, even bears and cougars, and the river was where accidents went when they wanted to happen.
When Dave was twelve years old he was allowed to wander anywhere he wanted, as long as he brought a compass, a poncho, and a bottle of water. His dad went over topographic and weather maps of the mountain one million times with him until he was sure that Dave knew every river coming off the mountain, every road to avoid, and the most pressing concerns about weather; of all the places on this green earth where weather can hurt or kill you right quick, said his dad, this is the king of those places, more than a desert or an ocean. Snow comes fast, temperature drops fast, rain turns to ice fast, rivers burst their banks fast. Know where you are, and be wary of the weather; within those constraints, you are a free man with your time, if your domestic and academic responsibilities have been executed responsibly.
This was how Dave's dad talked, sort of scholarly but blunt. Dave's dad was a decent guy, although he was a real stickler for domestic and academic responsibilities. Dave's mom was not quite such a stickler that way, but she was a total stickler for kindness and tenderness toward Dave's baby sister and respect and reverence for everything else alive, as she said. We are omnivorous mammals, and so we are designed to have to kill and eat certain of our fellow beings of every shape and sort and size, but we will do so with respect and reverence for the inestimable value of that life we are taking in order to aid and abet our own lives, as she said. And we will make a concerted effort to not only defend life against those who would take it without respect and reverence but encourage and seed life where and when we can, which is why she planted flowers and vegetables all around the cabin and in any and all sunny spots nearby and volunteered one afternoon a week at the raptor recovery center on the other side of the mountain and stood up at town meetings and school board meetings to remind everyone that clean water was the paramount gift and virtue of their region and that their clear duty as residents was to defend clean water against any and all attempts to foul rivers and creeks and lakes. This was how Dave's mom talked, passionately but simply, and when she stood up to speak she sounded tall, thought Dave, even though she was hardly five feet tall and getting smaller by the year.
* * *
The last person in the cabin I want to tell you about is my sister, says Dave. She is five years old, but she is one advanced being, that's for sure. She rambles widely. Her name is Maria. She is almost six years old. Her birthday is next week. She does not talk much, but she sees little things in the woods that no one else sees. She too is now allowed to roam on her own outside the house, but she has four markers past which she must not go, cross her heart. One is the big rock that looks like a hawk, which is as near to the highway as she can go. One is the huge red cedar tree that might be a thousand years old, which is as deep into the forest as she can go. One is the copper beech tree that someone planted many years ago, which is as close to the river as she can go. And the fourth point on her campus is Miss Moss's store, which is as far down our road as Maria can go. She signed a contract with Dad about all this, and she knows if you sign your name, then you are bound to keep your word. She has short red hair. She sleeps late in the morning but then stays up at night looking at books and drawing maps. She says her greatest ambition is to be me. I point out that she cannot be me inasmuch as I am me, and she says we will see about that, Dave. I say for one thing I am male and she is female and she says maybe those are just labels, Dave. This is how she talks when she talks at all, which she does not do so much. But she hears and sees everything, that kid. You wouldn't believe the things she sees when we walk in the woods. She found a bear claw one time stuck in a tree in a place where I had been leaning for ten minutes and never saw it. She has found deer antlers and animal bones and baby birds in nests and arrowheads and one time a hunting knife so rusted with what we thought was blood that our dad took it to the police station down the mountain in Gresham, just in case. One time she even found a pair of sneakers frozen solid inside a chunk of ice when we were up on the mountain past Timberline Lodge in winter, and how she saw those in the ice remains a mystery to this day, for they were new white sneakers inside a white block of ice among a pile and jumble of blocks of ice fallen off the Joel Palmer Glacier. Joel Palmer was one of the first white people on the mountain, and there's a story that his moccasins wore out as he climbed over the peak in winter, and he had to come down over the glacier barefoot. Maria says those sneakers must be Joel Palmer's sneakers, and he didn't want to get them wet, maybe, because they were so shining new. Our dad thawed them out and dried them carefully, and now they sit on the shelf over the fireplace with a card explaining how Maria found Joel Palmer's sneakers. See, a card explaining the exhibit for visitors, that is the sort of life we lead in our cabin. In our family, we leave room for the possibility that someone will come in and wonder about the new white sneakers above the fireplace, and if that happens, why, then, we are prepared for that.
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Doyle