What did startle him, however, was thatthese footprints were of a naked foot ofa distinctly human shape and proportionbut, by actual measurement, a whopping16 inches long!
— Ivan T. Sanderson, “The Story ofAmerica’s Abominable Snowman,”True, 1969
There is nothing out here but trees. No restaurants or gas stations. Just trees on either side of the highway, broken up by the odd rocky outcropping or pond filled with cattails and floating logs. In the distance, far from any roads or trails, I can see pristine old-growth patches of western hemlock and Douglas fir.
The radio is on. Some kind of folk music plays between static crackles. Saad isn’t listening to it; neither am I. We’re not talking. Maybe we used up all the conversation on the flight from Cleveland. We flew into Sacramento this morning instead of Portland because it’s closer, and we wouldn’t have to wait another day until the next flight into Medford.
Saad keeps his back perfectly straight and stares straight ahead. As each minute of silence passes, it feels more and more like I should have left him at home. This is not his problem. Sometimes it feels like Saad’s life is all mapped out for him and I just screw with that plan, because I’m selfish or stupid. It’s another detour for him, like the conferences or the speaking appearances, all the extras that come with running a popular website. And he’s been there, like a rock, from the very beginning.
I distract myself by thinking of all the thousands of people who followed this same trail westward, looking to cash in on the bounty of natural resources cached away in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest —; the loggers, the miners. Hordes of people, mainly men,trying their luck in a land with less order, less structure, and less scrutiny than the cities back east. The teeming wilderness conjures up both a sense of freedom and a desire to exploit, to take or name that which belongs to no one else.
Turning off Interstate 5, we come to a detour. Two inches of rain fell last night, causing both a landslide and a sinkhole to open up in the middle of Old Highway 99. A highway patrolman redirects us down a quiet road. The patrolman’s uniform, its two shades of blue like the cop in Norman Rockwell’s The Runaway, tells me we’ve crossed the state line into Oregon, the khaki-coloured California cops I know from reruns of CHiPs now behind us. Birds of prey, perched on bare trees, watch us as we pass.
“I can take over the driving, if you want,” I say.
“I’m fine,” Saad says.
“Twenty percent of this state is either Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management property, did you know that?”
Saad shakes his head, keeping his eyes locked on the road ahead. The sun hangs low in the sky, ducking behind the pointed tops of pine trees. A minivan with two canoes on the roof rack drives toward us, passes with a whooshing sound. Saad looks like he desperately wants to talk about something, but won’t. He adjusts his grip on the steering wheel, tightening it and then relaxing it. He swallows and I watch his Adam’s apple move. He’s too logical, too analytical to get hung up like this. I’m trying not to watch, but I almost enjoy it.
“Laura,” he says, turning his face a little toward me but keeping his eyes on the road. “You didn’t …”
“You and the professor … did you …?”
“Sleep with Professor Sorel? No!” I say, relieved that he finally spoke.
“It’s just —; we’re travelling halfway across the country for a man who taught you for only two semesters, six years ago. ”
“I know. Weird, right? But there are those professors, those mentors, who you meet at just the right time, just when you need them, and they profoundly change you. They change your life. I wouldn’t be doing what I do now, there wouldn’t be a website, if it weren’t for Professor Sorel. ”There’s a lie in there, if lies by omission are really a thing. But not the one Saad was suspecting. I don’t feel as if Saad would judge me, or my family; he’s not that type of guy. There are just certain things that I decided years ago, before I even met him, that I would not talk about. I can’t change the past, but I can control the narrative. If I don’t breathe the words into existence they are less real.
This part of Oregon is littered with rivers and ghost towns, volcanic lakes and mountain ranges. I can see myself retiring out here in forty years, maybe buying a cabin much sooner than that. Saad breathes in the mountain air that pours through his window and I find there’s a part of me that is really, really hoping he enjoys it.
The little satellite dish icon in the top corner of my phone screen stands by itself, abandoned by reception bars. I feel liberated, free of cell service, free of Wi-Fi, even the car’s radio fades out into nothing but crackles.
The highway stretches before us and winds through tree-covered mountains. Beyond them are miles of rugged country, backstopped by the Pacific Ocean. This whole area is dotted with logging camps —; Oregon has been called “The Timber Queen of the United States” —; and every few miles, we come to turnoffs that lead into the trees, logging roads that cut through the forest. Trucks carrying timber roar past us.
My clever little shortcut was for naught. The detour forces us to move like a boomerang, adds another forty-five minutes to our journey. We drive north, then curve back down toward Roanoke Valley, as though we came in from Portland. We don’t see anybody else on the road until we get close to town.
“I forgot how much I missed this. Greenery as far as the eye can see,” I say. “I miss it so much, I find myself spending hours staring out my bedroom window toward the tiny patch of wetland on the other side of the train tracks, watching for any bird larger than a gull to fly by. ”
“Maybe you’ll miss the city after a few days out here,” Saad says.
“Not likely. ”