The sun was still some minutes from rising over the mountains to the east when Dan Wyman swung his truck into the gravelly parking lot of the Cascade Ranger Station. He skidded to a halt in front of a rustic looking stained log residence. A sign hanging from a chain attached to two wooden posts carved with totemic symbols read
Cascade National Forest
He grabbed his worn green ruck from the seat next to him and hopped out of the truck. His heavy boots sank slightly in the dry, dusty gravel. He took a moment to stretch leg muscles gone stiff during the long, twisty drive up from the foothills. He sampled the unsullied mountain air, inhaling deeply as he approached the lodge. It was a traditional log structure with carved stone columns as vertical corner posts. Three windows fronted the entrance. Two smaller ones framed a large wide one running to the left of the entrance. The only thing Dan could make out clearly through the window was an infant fire smoldering in the stone fireplace. The sun, having finally mounted the peaks to the east was busy filtering a blanket of gray over the darkness of night. He kicked the dust from his boots and stepped into the lodge.
The interior of the lodge smelled vaguely of cedar. A number of souvenir racks were displayed about the room. There were post cards, hats and t-shirts, books and bumper stickers, as well as a large glass case containing dozens of small porcelain figurines of forest animals. A long, wooden counter ran parallel to the back wall where a set of stairs lead up to a second level. Brochures and fliers were stacked neatly along its length, but no sign of a service bell. He warmed his hands by the crackling fire and stared at the map hanging above the fireplace. Two days in the woods with a couple of college students searching for a myth... What was he thinking? He traced the path of the hiking loop on the map with tired blue eyes. Could be a long couple of days.
Dan turned to find a rotund figure grinning at him through a bushy red beard.
“Corporal Killian!” Dan smiled as they embraced. “It's been too long, Kill.”
He tilted his wide brimmed ranger hat back and clapped his old army buddy on the back.
“Well, that's what happens when you retire...”
“Eh. I'd worn a uniform long enough.” he gave his friend a long look. “Looks like you've gone up a size or two.”
“Hey!” he smoothed out his tan button down shirt and sucked in his gut. “The food up here beats Army chow.”
“Coffee, Sarge?” he placed a couple of cups on the wooden counter.
Dan nodded and took the cup.
“So tell me about these kids?”
“Ugh. These kids are killing me, Dan” he shook his head and sipped on his coffee. “They go to the university in the metro. One of 'em is studying to be a zookeeper or something, I don't know.”
He motioned Dan over to a couple of chairs by the fire. The gray of the morning was melting away outside the window.
“So anyway, they been buggin' me for weeks wanting to come up here for an expedition to search for a Bigfoot” he chortled heartily, “A Bigfoot!”
“So you weren't pulling my leg about that?”
“Wish I was” he rolled his eyes. “I told em' they could camp the park as much as they want, but apparently Bigfoot doesn't come into the designated recreational areas.”
“He's a rebel like that, Kill” Dan said.
Laughing, he leaned forward in his chair and grabbed a folded map off the table. He tossed it to Dan.
“I figured you could hike the game trails that loop north and west and then back down south of the periphery.”
Dan ran his finger along the path highlighted on the map.
“That should be far enough out to satisfy them.”
Dan folded the map and slipped it in his jacket pocket.
“Why am I doing this again?” he asked.
Killian rubbed his left side with a dramatic, faux grimace.
“Funny how that always seems to act up when you need a favor.” Dan said.
“Hey, if you'd prefer to have the shrapnel in your side...”
“Alright, alright... you win.” Dan grinned.
“It's good to have you back up here, Dan” Killian rose and cleared the table of the coffee cups. “We've missed you.”
It had been nearly five years since Dan had left the Forest Service. He'd joined up after his discharge and spent four years as a Ranger at Cascade National Forest. In fact, he had been the one to recruit his old army buddy to join. They'd worked together for nearly a year when Dan took a leave to care for his wife, Penny, who had taken ill.
“It is nice to be back,” he glanced out the window. The sun had finally broken its misty gray shackles and was bathing the forest in radiant sunshine.
“Any thoughts about maybe coming back to work? We could use ya...” Killian gave him a hopeful glance.
Dan shrugged his shoulders. He'd entertained the notion briefly in the months after Penny's passing, but he never felt quite ready, or willing. Her death made him feel empty, and any thought of trying to fill the hollowness inside filled him with guilt. Moving on with life seemed almost an abandonment, so as his grief calcified he desperately preserved that void in his heart, as if her absence was all he had left of her.
“Mmm. I don't think so, Kill...” he rose from the chair and paced the room. “Thanks for the offer though”
Killian was readying to pour them some more coffee when they heard the crunch of tires sinking into the gravel of the parking lot outside. Dan could hear the thumping baseline of rock music pumping from a car stereo and he made his way to the front window. A purple Volkswagon bus, caked with dust, sat parked just outside the lodge. The door slid open and a sprightly young woman hopped out. She had dark brown hair cut short with curls that fell in rings around her ears and danced along her rosy cheeks. She wore a thin green flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and her bright blue eyes darted enthusiastically.
Killian was at the door.
“Come on,” he smiled. “I'll introduce you to your platoon, Sarge.”
He was enjoying this entirely too much.
Dan stepped out onto porch just in time to see a stringy young man lugging a backpack around back of the van. His blonde hair was deliberately unkempt and fuzzy sideburns angled half-way down to his chin. He squinted uncomfortably at the bright blue sky as he finally leaned against the van to rest. He was saying something to the girl as she went through the backpacks.
“Erin. Oliver” They both looked up as Killian approached, “This is Sargent Dan. He's gonna be your guide on this little...quest of yours.”
Erin's eyes flashed angrily.
“Excuse me? It's an expedition.” she snorted and rolled her eyes at them. “Quest makes it sound like we're looking for dragons!”
Behind her the young man, Oliver, was smiling and nodding as he watched her lecture Killian. There was something in the way he looked at her, admiration mixed with intimidation, and... something else.
“...And just last year they discovered an entirely new species of Hooded Gecko in the Mekong Delta that has been around for over 200 million years without anyone noticing so don't tell me...” she was peppering Killian rapid fire, like a boxer with his opponent against the ropes.
Oliver cleared his throat and stepped forward offering his hand to Dan
“Uh, good to meet you... Sir.” he said, “I'm Oliver.”
They shook hands and watched as Killian finally threw up his hands in surrender to Erin's fact-bombing.
“Okay! Okay! I apologize!” he turned to Dan and said “Godspeed, soldier.”
Killian retreated towards the lodge. Dan couldn't decide whether his last look back at him was one of pity or satisfaction. He picked up his ruck and turned to the two erstwhile monster hunters.
“Let's do this.”
“So how long have you guys been monster hunters?”
They had been on the trail for just under an hour. The forest was now fully awake, and the chirping of birds and skittering of animals provided a pleasant bed for conversation.
“What did you call us?” Erin asked.
Dan could hear Oliver suck in a breath.
“Oh, dude. No...” he whispered with a knowing smile.
“We're scientists, okay?” she said, “Cryptozoologists to be precise.”
“Ah. I see” he said, “Sorry.”
“It's alright, man” Oliver said, “It's just, well, the field doesn't get a lot of respect as it is, and when people start saying 'monster hunters' you know, it just kinda seems all Van Helsing and stuff.”
They hiked on for another couple of hours and eventually the trail came to track alongside a small bubbling creek. Erin rushed ahead of them to search the creek side, presumably for tracks. Dan watched Oliver gaze at her as she knelt down to examine the rocky bank.
“So, you and Erin...?” he asked.
“Hmm? Oh! Uh... no.” he stammered, “we're just, you know, friends.”
“I see.” Dan smiled. Who was this kid fooling?
Oliver swatted at an insect buzzing his face.
“What about you, married?” he said.
“My wife and I were married for thirty-five years” he paused for a moment, letting the warm breeze wash over him. “She passed away a few years back”
Oliver sighed. “I'm sorry... I...”
“It's alright, kid. Don't worry about it”
Up ahead Erin was waving her hands at Oliver.
“Ollie! Bring the camera. Might be a print!” she called.
Dan took the opportunity to have a seat on a gnarled old tree stump. He was in fair shape for a man his age, but his knees needed the break. He watched as the two of them snapped pictures of the ground and talked excitedly. Erin was all smiles now, and Oliver feasted on her joy as they laughed together. She could be a lovely young woman when she wasn't climbing down your gullet for some perceived insult, he thought.
They finished by the creek and the three of them continued on hiking late into the afternoon. When they rounded a bend and found a clearing nestled up against a short ridge Dan called for a stop. Erin showed no signs of fatigue, but Oliver had been puffing pretty hard for the last hour. It was a good place to camp for the night.
“Alright, guys...” He slung his sack to the ground and inhaled deeply, “Let's down for the night here, eh?”
Oliver's eyes brightened thankfully and he slumped to the ground.
“On your feet, soldier!” Dan used his command voice, but softened it with a wink. He saw that Erin was already laying out the tents.
“You're on wood gathering duty, kid.” he pulled Oliver to his weary feet “Come on. We get the fire going and we can eat.”
Oliver trudged into the brush, slapping at the mosquitoes dining in the early twilight. While he was gone Dan built a rudimentary fire pit and helped Erin raise the tents. She seemed more relaxed around him.
“So, Ranger K called you Sarge...” she pounded a stake into the ground. “Were you ever in Iraq?”
“Yeah” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I read something once about a species of scorpion in the Middle East that dates back to the Pleistocene” she said. “Supposed to be the size of a small dog.”
“Can't say I ever saw something like that” he laughed. “I once woke up with a camel spider damn near a foot long sleeping in my helmet though.”
They were still laughing when Oliver returned with a heaping armful of wood. He dropped it in a pile next to the pit.
“...Wood...” he huffed and puffed. “...Eat...Now...?”
“Take a break, kid” he said, “I'll put the stew on.”
Oliver sprawled out on a blanket near the tents and Erin, notebook in hand, took a seat next to him. Dan watched as Oliver rolled up on his side, leaned on one elbow and watched her take notes. By the time he had a small fire going the two of them were deep in a conversation punctuated by fits of laughter.
Later, after supping on old army ration stew, they sat before the dying embers of the fire and attempted to spot stars through the gaps in the tree cover overhead. Dan's body eventually offered its surrender.
“Alright, kids. These old bones need to turn in” he groaned as he rose and stretched. “Snuff that fire out before you bed down.”
He slipped into his tent and closed his eyes. Outside, a light breeze tenderly tickled the forest trees.
Dan woke quick, and slightly panicked, a legacy of his years of military service. He raised up on a single arm and listened. He'd heard a rustling of some kind outside the tent. Perhaps some small animal looking for food? He was sure he'd secured the supplies before turning in. He sat up and pulled on his first boot.
It was Erin's hushed voice.
“I'm trying!” Oliver said. “I can't find the other flashlight!”
Dan saw a beam of light bouncing around outside the tent.
“Here.” Erin said. “Let me look...”
Dan hastily pulled on his remaining boot, unzipped the tent flap, and crawled out into the bracing night air. Erin and Oliver froze as he glared at them.
“What the HELL are you two doing?” he checked his watch. It was just past 1:00 AM.
“Okay. Well, Dan.. You see...” Oliver sputtered.
“It's like this,” Erin interrupted. “Most researchers assume the Sasquatch is primarily active during the day, but I have a theory that they might be nocturnal...”
Dan put his face in his hand, rubbed his eyes and sighed deeply.
“We just wanted to scout around a bit.” she continued.
“You wanted to stumble around, in the dark, in an unfamiliar wilderness for a Bigfoot who works nights?” he said.
“We were going to take the flashlights” Oliver turned his flashlight in Dan's direction, and quickly turned it back away when he caught Dan's unhappy expression. “We didn't think you'd let us go.” he finished.
“Well, you got that part right at least.” he muttered.
Erin, predictably, wasn't done arguing.
“But since we're all up, maybe we could...” she said
“Negative, soldier” He was in the command voice again. “You two will return to your tents, and I won't see you out before 0600 hours!”
Erin huffed, but retreated back towards their tent. Oliver hesitated, glancing at his watch.
“Just to be clear...”
“Six o' clock, Ollie. Don't come out before six o' clock!” he barked.
Oliver scurried back to the tent and Dan took a deep gulp of night air. He reflected on Killian's parting smirk a day earlier as he slithered back through the narrow opening in the tent flap and struggled to find sleep once again.
The next morning found Erin still quite displeased with him. Oliver tried to mend fences, but the girl had quite the stubborn streak. They breakfasted silently on rice cakes and jerky. Erin scribbled notes in her pad while Oliver leaned back, eyes closed, resting. The kid clearly hadn't slept much.
Dan studied the sky. It was more gray than it had been the morning before. A good deal cooler as well. The mild breeze of yesterday now had a bit of chill bite to it. Thankfully the thick wood provided decent cover, but still, he thought the weather bore watching.
They set out, and once again Erin took to the forefront. Dan was grateful as it spared him her angry glare. She ranged a good 30 to 40 yards ahead of them, occasionally stopping to examine what might be a footprint or other sign of their quarry. Dan found himself having to slow his pace for poor Oliver, who was having even more difficulty than the day before. There wasn't a tree root or small rock in sight that he didn't manage to catch his foot on and nearly trip. To make matters worse, today he had been suffering vicious sneezing attacks inspired by nearby wild flower patches. He was an exhausted, runny-nosed, miserable mess. And it wasn't even mid day yet.
Dan tried to take his mind off things with conversation.
“You doin' okay there, Ollie?” he said.
Oliver sniffled and rubbed his nose on his sleeve.
“...Man... I hate nature.”
“Isn't that kind of strange given that you're studying zoology?” he asked.
“Huh?” he paused to sneeze, it was a small one. “Oh. Nah, man... I'm not studying zoology. That's Erin. I'm an English major.”
Dan stopped to give Oliver a breather. In the distance ahead he could see Erin photographing a copse of trees.
“Let me ask you something, Ollie.”
“Sure.” He was rubbing his arm where he'd tripped and scraped it against the ancient bark of an old pine tree.
“Why are you out here doing this?” he waved his arms around at the wilderness. “Do you even even believe in Sasquatches and Chupacabras and hooded lizards?”
“I... umm, Erin...” he threw up his hands. “I don't know, man. She's my friend... I guess. I like spending time with her.”
They started walking again. Dan smiled. Oliver was out here looking for something alright, but it wasn't a Bigfoot.
“You know, I met my wife in college,” he said. “first time I saw her was at a weaving class.”
“You weave?” Oliver asked
“I have weaved, yes, but that's not important.” he continued “I had ROTC training every morning at 0500 hours”
“Five AM!” Oliver said.
“Yeah, but listen” he said “Every day when training finished I would race across the quad to make it to that weaving class on time, merely to be in the same room with her.”
“Yeah...” he said.
“Oliver, I spent nearly a year taking weaving classes, beginner to advanced, and I absolutely hated weaving.” Dan laughed recalling the memory. “But I kept going because I thought it was the only way I could ever spend any time with her.”
He stopped them again so he could look Oliver straight in the eye.
“I spent nine months of my life weaving what might have been the ugliest red and gold rug anyone has ever seen, before I decided to stop pretending to love something she loved and instead offer something real. Myself.”
“How many weekends are you going to spend looking for creatures who may not exist before you offer her something real?”
Oliver broke his gaze and looked ahead at Erin who was standing in the path, hands on her hips, her dark curls cavorting in the increasingly austere wind.
“And it worked out okay?” he said unsteadily.
“Thirty-five years, Oliver” he said “But trust me, kid. No matter how much time you end up having together, it won't be enough.”
Oliver dropped his pack on the ground and began jogging up the trail to where she waited. He glided over the rough path like it was perfectly smooth pavement.
Dan supposed he should have been concerned about her reaction, but he wasn't. He'd seen them together.
He watched as Oliver shook his head and motioned to the woods around them. Then he smiled, bigger than Dan had ever seen him smile, and pointed directly at Erin. The shock on her face rendered into a broad smile within two heartbeats. Her blue eyes sparkled fiercely and they embraced.
Dan turned away and took a seat on a fallen tree covered with thick moss. He found himself overcome with emotion. It was all so familiar. The vacancy inside him reserved for Penny seemed to throb.
He thought about love then, and the way we clumsily paw around after it. How we constantly draw ourselves in reach of it, but never risk to grasp it with both hands, or have the strength to let go once it's gone.
He watched Oliver hold Erin under a canvas of leafy green. He used both hands.