I pulled off the road, parked behind the boulders. I waited until Avett climbed off from her perch behind me and then swung my leg over the bike. We pulled our helmets off at the same time, and I loved the way her candy-colored hair floated around her face and down around her shoulders. She looked around the densely wooded area that surrounded us with trepidation and awe stamped clearly on her face. We’d left behind the glitz and polish of the nearest designer ski town miles and miles ago.
“Where are we?”
I rubbed my hand through my hair and pocketed the keys to the bike. “This is the back side of the White River National Forest.”
She laughed a little and reached out to put her helmet on the bike next to mine. “Okay. It’s really pretty and clearly no gun-toting bad guys are going to follow us all the way up here, but we didn’t pack anything to camp with in those backpacks. So I’m officially confused as to where we’re going and what we’re doing.”
I took her hand in mine and started for the trees. There used to be a path worn in the brush, a path I made as I walked over a mile each way every single day through these very woods to get to the bus stop, regardless of the weather outside. The path had long since grown over but suppressed memory and ancient instinct made my steps sure as I pulled Avett deeper and deeper into the thick foliage.
“I told you I was taking you somewhere safe, somewhere you can relax and not worry for a few days. That’s exactly what I’m doing. No one knows this place exists.”
She was panting a little as she trudged along behind me, doing her best to keep up with my longer stride and to step carefully over fallen logs and hidden rocks.
“If no one knows that it exists, how do you know about it?” That was a valid question and after forty-five minutes of trudging through rough and unforgiving terrain we came into the clearing where my entire past and childhood rested.
I looked at Avett as she came to a stumbling halt next to me. Her pretty eyes widened until they took up half of her face as she turned her head to look at me with questions overflowing in her gaze.
I pointed to the cabin and shrugged as I told her, “That’s where I grew up.”
She breathed out a disbelieving little laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I grunted and took a few hesitant steps towards the building as memory upon memory assaulted me, making my steps falter and unsteady. “I’m not. My dad bought this land and a few surrounding acres when he was about your age. He and my mom had a dream of being modern day homesteaders, of living off the land and off the grid. But even when you live strictly off the land, you still have to pay the government for that privilege. My folks owed thousands and thousands of dollars in back taxes on the property. When I got out of the army, I found out that they had pulled up stakes and moved with my brother to some godforsaken part of Alaska, to live on a lake in a roughly constructed houseboat. It sounds like a made-up story, but it’s one hundred percent true. They are as off grid as anyone can get, in a place it takes dogsleds and snowmobiles to get to. I haven’t spoken to them or my little brother in years. I don’t even know if they know about my divorce.”
She blinked at me as she tried to process all the information I was giving to her.
“They’re like those people on that show Ice Lake Rebels?”
I snorted out a surprised laugh that she even kind of knew what I was talking about. “Yeah, something like that.”
“You’re right, that doesn’t sound like a real story, but it also sounds … sad? Don’t you miss them? How can they not miss you?” She sounded worried as I tugged on her hand and pulled her towards the rustic, wooden structure. “And if they’re in Alaska, doesn’t that mean we’re trespassing right now? I probably shouldn’t get arrested again now that I’m finally figuring out how to do the right thing once in a while.”
“We’re not trespassing. After I started working for the firm, I contacted the man that purchased the land at auction. He was using the cabin as a hunting lodge. I offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse and told him he could continue to use the property during hunting season, so he sold it back to me.” I cut her a sideways look. “I think I thought my folks would move back if they knew they could have the land with no governmental strings attached to it, but they never did. They like their life the way it is too much to come back, and I think they wrote me off the minute I told them I was joining the military. They never understood why I wanted out, or why I wanted more than the land could provide for me. I haven’t been here since the day I left for boot camp.”
She whistled softly and squeezed the hand that was still gripping hers. “That has to sting.”
I pushed the door open and froze in place at the sight of the barren walls and dusty floorboards. It looked so much like it had when I was growing up. Four walls dotted with cracked windows, a minimal kitchen, a loft with a thin mattress and another one on a cot in the corner. There was a threadbare couch in front of an old wood burning stove and a table made from one of the pines that surrounded the cabin. There wasn’t even a bathroom in the cabin. That meant every night I would sprint across the forest floor to the makeshift house that was nothing more than some plywood and a hole in the ground, taking care of business while wondering if I was going to run across a bear or a mountain lion.
“It did sting. It still does when I allow myself to think about it now. When I first shipped out and I had no clue what to expect, no idea where I would end up or if the risk I took in enlisting would pay off or end up getting me killed, it sucked that I didn’t have their support or encouragement. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my ex-wife, really seemed like the only person I had in the world. I think that’s why I was so oblivious when our marriage started to fall apart. She was my only tie to this life, and she was the only one that didn’t leave me when I was my most uncertain. It was all an act, but it was an act that kept me going when I was a terrified and lonely kid headed to war.”
The cabin was empty, modest, and bucolic. This was what having only what you needed to survive was all about, and it was so different from the way I lived now I had no idea how either man lived within the same body.
I looked at the girl that had brought me back here, the girl that had made it impossible to pretend anymore. I wanted her to see that we weren’t as different as she thought we were, that we didn’t come from the same place, but that was because the place I came from was this vacant, humble existence. I came from nothing, and she didn’t.