by Nick Engelfried.
We were children of the Empire, clueless and careless, set loose to run wild in lands that were not our own. That’s how all the craziness started.
There were three of us, in Brandon’s beat-up car (you remember Brandon, my old college roommate?). Brandon drove and I rode shotgun. Teresa was in back, looking carsick. That long, winding Forest Service road was making her stomach turn.
“I think this is the place,” Brandon said, pulling over before a fork in the dusty dirt road. At the junction was a wooden post that might once have had a sign nailed to it.
This had all been Brandon’s idea. He’d got it in his head to get a bunch of college student friends together for a weekend camping trip in Lolo National Forest, south of Missoula. His original vision was to organize a whole group to experience the beauty and majesty of America’s public lands (I think he’d been reading Edward Abbey). At one point he’d actually talked to ten or so people who said they would come. All dropped out, one by one, except Teresa and me. Teresa’s roommate was last to bail, leaving Teresa alone in her tent.
(Yes, of course I’m talking about that Teresa. Who else would I mean? But this was the early ‘80s. None of us had any idea what unspeakable things would later happen to Teresa.)
Brandon didn’t seem discouraged that it was just us three. He was like that: no matter how much he failed or how many times his ideas fell flat, he never let it get him down.
Brandon scrutinized the Forest Service map he’d unfolded on the dashboard. He looked up and smiled hopefully. “I think the fire lookout is just up that ridge.” That was something Brandon wanted us to do on this trip: find an old fire lookout he’d heard about (he must have been reading Jack Kerouac, too).
We climbed out of the car. It was late spring and the early afternoon was warm but not hot. We were in a forest of Ponderosa pines intermixed with scraggly Douglas-firs. Adjacent to the road was a grassy meadow dotted with balsamroot and wild parsley. I’ll give Brandon this: he picked a good time of year for his camping trip. Montana is dreamlike in May.
“Let’s hike toward the ridge and find someplace to camp.” Brandon waved at the tree-covered hills beyond the meadow. “Tomorrow we can continue on to the fire lookout. Or should we do something different, Randall?”
Brandon seemed to think—incorrectly—I was some kind of expert on backcountry living. It’s true I’d grown up in a small logging town, whereas Brandon and Teresa both came from cities. But where I was from, you only went camping to hunt or fish. I’d never heard of people going out to sleep in the woods just for the heck of it.
“I guess that’s a good plan,” I said, pretending I had some idea what I was talking about.
Teresa had bent to examine something. “What’s this?”
I looked at what she was kneeling over. It was a cone-shaped head of white flowers on a yellow-green stem.
I know now those flowers were meadow death-camas, but I didn’t know this then. I wouldn’t have even noticed them if it hadn’t been for Teresa. But there was something about the intense way she looked at them—it made me want to look again. It seemed anything which made Teresa stare like that must be worth my attention.
Teresa was like that (it wasn’t just that her pheromones caused my head to spin and her body made my eyes pop, though both these things were true). Teresa didn’t give out praise cheaply. When she did, you knew it was something important.
“It’s pretty,” Teresa said softly. Those two words.
* * *
It took much longer than it should have for us to reach the base of the ridge.
For one thing, we had no proper gear. The lightweight backpacking equipment I use today hadn’t been invented yet—but we didn’t even have the heavier backpacks that existed back then. We’d put tents and sleeping bags in stuff sacks which we carried over our shoulders. Food and water, enough for an overnight trip, we carried in our arms. It was slow going, made slower by the fact that we weren’t following a trail. We’d set out straight for the ridge, bushwhacking through the underbrush. It’s a wonder we made it at all.
I led the way, of course. I was strong back then—an athlete who worked out every morning—but my arms and shoulders were killing me by the time we reached a small meadow at the base of the hills. It seemed like a good campsite. I dropped my gear and rubbed my shoulders.
“How about stopping here?” I said.
Neither Brandon nor Teresa objected. They were exhausted, too, and besides it was now late afternoon. We set up our tents: one Brandon and I would share, and the two-person tent Teresa had to herself.
I could feel Teresa’s scorn emanating in my direction as we pounded in our tent stakes. Unlike Brandon, Teresa saw right through me. She knew I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, that I’d probably get us lost. But she said nothing, as though my incompetence was simply what she’d expected. The world had tried to pull one over on Teresa too many times, and she was always preparing in advance not to be let down. Most people, places, and things in life never quite lived up to her high standards.
(It killed me, how nothing I did impressed Teresa. For almost the first time in my life I’d met a person I was attracted to who showed zero interest in me. In high school I’d been a star, the top of my class and the fastest runner. Now, it was slowly dawning on me that in the context of college I was merely mediocre—a fact which was obvious to Teresa. It made me want her more, of course.)
“You picked a great camping spot, Randall,” Brandon said admiringly as he banged the last tent stake into the ground. He smiled that dopey grin of his. We were high enough on the base of the ridge that we could see a rolling forest of Ponderosa pine spread on the valley floor below. It looked endless. It looked like those trees must go on forever.
“See?” Brandon waved. The late afternoon sun was sinking toward the hills. “That’s all public land. It belongs to us, the people of the United States.” He’d definitely been reading Edward Abbey.
(Yes, but exactly which people of the United States did Brandon mean? For whom were those lands held in trust? Certainly not the displaced Kalispel, the Flathead, the Shoshone. But this thought would never have occurred to nineteen-year-old me.)
I nodded dumbly. Strangely, it was Brandon who’d drawn me out here to the middle of nowhere. (Maybe you thought it was Teresa. But while it’s true I was crazed with teenage hormones, ready to do almost anything to get Teresa’s attention, that wasn’t my main reason for coming.) I knew Brandon was an idiot, of course. But beneath his general ignorance of almost all life’s subject matter, I sensed a sincerity of purpose which I could only hope to emulate. There was something Brandon had that I didn’t.
I guess that’s what attracted Teresa to him, too. (Yes, she wanted Brandon. I wasn’t the only one crazed with hormones.) In Brandon’s clumsy sincerity, Teresa imagined she’d found someone who could consort with ideals at her level. Still, it would be cliché and unfair to Teresa to suggest she was only here for a boy. The ideals drew Teresa to Brandon, not the other way around. Ideals always came first, with Teresa.
After putting our tents up we gathered around a flat rock and made sandwiches (Brandon had wanted to cook dinner over a fire, but no one thought to bring matches). The sun dropped lower in the sky.
“Imagine,” Brandon said, “some people want to tear up this land for private gain. They want to log, mine, and graze it to death. But it belongs to us, the people.” (And what about the not-human peoples? The grizzly bears? Wolves? The wolverines? They’d been driven from their land as surely as the Shoshone.) “It’s managed with our taxpayer dollars. We won’t let anyone destroy it.”
I only half-listened. The way I saw things, there were plenty of trees. I figured Brandon was getting worked up about nothing.
“Oh, that’s such bullshit,” Teresa said. She may have liked Brandon, but she would always call things out as she saw them. “This land belongs to the U.S. government—and they’ll start a nuclear war over nothing. Do you think they care what you and me want?”
I’d remember those words of Teresa’s years later, in the courtroom (the last one, I mean. We’d both see plenty of courtrooms during the Timber Wars that were about to engulf the region. But there was one final courtroom, for Teresa).
I never heard such fierce anger in Teresa’s voice as when she talked about the U.S. government. This was the difference between her and Brandon. Brandon had ideals, but couldn’t get beyond goofy sentimentalism.
As for me? I would never catch up to either of them, though I’d try. We were all privileged, but I was most privileged of all. White, male, heteronormative, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical (I wouldn’t have known what some of those words meant. They probably hadn’t been coined yet). What did I know of anger, or even Brandon’s indignation?
I half-listened to Brandon, my horny nineteen-year-old attention focused on Teresa. We sat around the rock eating dinner, children of Empire watching the sun set.
* * *
It was already warm the next morning when we set off up the ridge.
We’d intended to start earlier, but somehow all slept late. We left our tents and most of the supplies in the clearing. (It’s a wonder we ever found our way back to them. Or maybe not, considering the trail of broken branches we left crashing through the brush.)
I was just glad to be hiking without the tents. The trees opened onto a boulder-strewn slope, and soon I felt hot from climbing. I stripped my shirt off and flexed my muscles, feeling the sun on my bare skin. No longer was I tired. A small, furry pika scurried away and disappeared in a hole as I bounded across the rocks. I imagined I saw Teresa give my biceps a lingering glance.
(I felt godlike in my strength, my youth, my confidence. Come to think of it I was godlike, for the people of Empire stride like immortals over the lands they’ve conquered.)
Brandon huffed and puffed as we climbed, not as fit as me. Teresa did better but her forehead glistened with sweat. I kept wishing she’d strip down to a sports bra.
I could tell Teresa was glad when Brandon called for a break, though she hadn’t wanted to say anything. She sat next to him on a big rock while I did balancing acts on an outcrop above them. I hoped Teresa would notice my skill, but she wasn’t even looking my way. She and Brandon gulped from water bottles, looking at the view.
(It killed me, that Teresa was attracted to a bumbling idiot like Brandon. I never held it against Brandon, though. And what was more baffling, he seemed completely oblivious. The guy genuinely had no idea Teresa would gladly have gone to bed with him. At the time I put this down to his overall cluelessness about life. I didn’t know about Brandon, yet.)
“The lookout must be right up there.” Brandon gestured up the ridge as we finally started climbing again.
The first time Brandon had mentioned the fire lookout, I’d thought it was silly. I couldn’t see the point of searching for a run-down building that wasn’t even used anymore. But the idea grew on me, as Brandon’s ideas had a way of doing.
“Can you imagine spending a whole summer in a fire lookout?” Brandon asked. “That used to be the only way the Forest Service had to detect fires.” (And it was necessary, throughout every corner of the realm, that fires be detected. Fire is unruly, and the Empire cannot abide unruliness.)
“Imagine spending all that time alone.” Brandon’s eyes glowed with excitement in his face glowing with sweat. “Do you think you could handle it? I’d like to try.”
I nodded as if I were sure I’d be a good lookout. The truth was, while I now saw the romance in Brandon’s vision, I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. You know me: I’ve always needed people around.
“I could do it,” Teresa said.
I turned and for a moment saw right into Teresa’s calm, fierce eyes. I’m sure she knew the thought of all that loneliness scared me to death. I know I hadn’t a shadow of doubt Teresa could survive it.
(Perhaps the Empire was overzealous, stationing all those lookouts out there. There was always a chance one or two might go insane—that the loneliness would get to them, they’d begin sympathizing with the unruliness of fires, and start having seditious thoughts.)
We reached what had looked from below like the beginning of the top of the mountain. It turned out to be just a small promontory that gave rise to another steep slope. Brandon frowned.
“Let’s have lunch,” Brandon said. He sat down in the dirt. Back turned to the cliff face, he looked much happier.
Teresa and I sat, too. Below, the Forest Service road we’d followed yesterday cut through the forest like a wandering strand of brown yarn. It was the only sign of human activity. (Well, except the trees, rocks, the birds flitting in the bushes. Weren’t they signs of humanness, too? How could you separate the life of this place from the people whose lives have always shaped it? They used fire as a tool.)
We took out sandwiches and water. As I chewed, my eyes lit on something near the horizon I hadn’t seen before. A square-shaped patch of brown. So the old road wasn’t the only sign of our kind of civilization, after all.
Teresa saw it, too. Her eyes grew hard. (I remembered that look, when the jury announced its decision. But they never proved anything about the explosives. To this day I don’t think Teresa would have done that.)
“Clear-cut,” Teresa muttered, like a swear word.
It was far away, almost not noticeable in that vast expanse of trees. But it was a clue the trees were not, in fact, infinite. Not that I thought about this then. Only later would I begin putting pieces together. Slowly, Brandon and Teresa’s ideas grew on me, as they tended to do.
Soon I’d return from my first year of college to my home in Washington’s North Cascades. The clear-cuts there would seem bigger than I remembered, and to be spreading outward faster than I’d imagined possible. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if not for Brandon and Teresa. They were offspring of the Empire, too, but they were more awake than me.
Before graduating I’d be arrested for the first time, here in Lolo National Forest. I’d make a statement to the press about defending our public lands, something like Brandon would have said. Maybe I’d mention grizzly bears (but not the Shoshone, the Kalispel, the Flathead. I wouldn’t mention the right of fires to burn through their accustomed forests).
I’d spend just one night in jail that first time. But you know what my life’s been like. I enjoy leading those groups of eager young high school kids out into the mountains, now, for the Institute where I work. It gives me hope, how much more aware those kids are than I ever was at their age. (But when I return to Portland, that city built on the graves of dead trees, I see the brown faces of other children gathered in the park at Lloyd Center Station. They avert their eyes from me, for my skin and clothes identify me with the Empire. And I ask myself, Is it their land, too?)
As for Brandon, I lost track of him over the years (we didn’t have Facebook then). I hope he found a nice man to settle down with. I like to think that, like me, he escaped the worst of the craziness.
And Teresa—well, at one point her name was plastered on newspaper headlines all across the Northwest. Perhaps it was inevitable her ideals would get her in trouble (few things anger the Empire more than its own disobedient children). But she never deserved what they did to her.
All this was in the future. We had no clue it was coming, that afternoon in Montana.
“There it is.” Brandon waved expansively, smiling (he hadn’t noticed the clear-cut). “Look at it all! America’s public lands!”
We’d never find the fire lookout—we probably weren’t even on the right mountain. Miraculously, though, we’d manage to relocate our camping gear and make it back to the car.
“See, Randall?” Brandon beamed. “Isn’t it beautiful? Aren’t you glad you came?”