Fiction, 2/26/12

The campground in the Redwoods National Park was almost deserted when the beleaguered cyclist rode in and found a site near the river. It was early afternoon and it was a weekday, and the cyclist had spent the morning climbing hilly terrain along the Pacific coast in 80-degree heat. From breaking camp at four a.m. and riding almost nonstop until two, he had covered more than ninety miles and was ready for some well-deserved rest.

He unpacked his tent, erected it, and arranged his bedding. He walked down to the river and stripped off his clothes and laid in the gentle current, letting the frigid water numb his aching muscles and lave away the sweat and grime. Once the cold became unbearable he found a flat rock in the sun and stretched out on it to dry. He dozed off at some point, drunk on sunshine and utter, mind-numbing fatigue. Wrens and nuthatches warbled in the redwoods overhead as the sylvan nudist slept on the rock. After an hour he roused, feeling refreshed, and he put on cleaner clothes and walked back to his site to fix a meal.

While he was down at the river, another traveler had arrived and set up camp a few yards away. This one had come on foot, carrying his belongings in an enormous backpack. His dark green canvas tent was up and he was fiddling with a white-gas stove on the picnic table, trying to get a pot of coffee started.

The cyclist was apprehensive as he walked up the bank. He was not given to casual conversation and in fact preferred not to speak at all, unless there was good reason to. But to get to his camp, he had to pass directly by the backpacker’s site.

“Hello there,” said the cyclist as he neared. “How’s it going?” These were the first words he had uttered all day.

“Hello, good sir,” the backpacker replied, adjusting the blue flame on the stove. “I’m doing great, simply fantastic. A cup of coffee?”

“Oh! Well, yes, that sounds really good. I’m Ben, by the way.” Ben approached the table and extended his hand.

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Ben. I’m Jake.” They shook hands. “Coffee should be ready in fifteen minutes or so.”

“Awesome, thank you!” Ben paused, and then started walking in the direction of his camp. “I’m going to eat something first, because I’m starving, and I’ll come right back for coffee.”

“By all means, take your time.” Jake had a scraggly beard, the same shade of light brown as the unruly mop of hair on his head. His sky-blue eyes had a piercing look, but they smiled generously when his lips did. “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, and it looks like you’re pretty well set-up yourself.” He gestured toward Ben’s camp.

“Yep. Just rolled in about an hour and a half ago. Alright, see you in a bit.” The two men continued on with their business, their campsites within sight of one another. Ben was famished. He made two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the last of his bread and peeled an orange. He forced himself to chew each bite slowly and he ate the orange between the first and second sandwich. Pulling out a book to read, Ben glanced over at Jake’s site and noticed him rolling what appeared to be a cigarette, or perhaps a joint.

Just as Ben finished his last bite, the campground received two more travelers, one after the other. Both were men, and both were riding bicycles fitted with saddlebags. One was young, tall and wiry, with blonde hair and wide-set eyes. Ben waved to him from his table. Blondie waved back. The other man was much older, maybe in his fifties, and he wore glasses and had a five-day growth of beard on his chin. Ben waved to him as well, and received a curt nod in reply.

Ben decided to wait for the newcomers to get settled before he ventured back to Jake’s site, to see if maybe Jake would invite them to the kaffeeklatsch, too. Sure enough, as Ben watched, Jake visited each new camper and exchanged words, and soon there was nodding and general murmurs of agreement. Their tents were erected with practiced, unhurried efficiency. Once the others started moving toward Jake’s table, Ben rose on his aching legs, grabbed his tin cup, and followed.

It had grown cool under the redwood canopy, and Ben crossed him arms over his chest for warmth as he sat down at Jake’s table. Introductions were made as Jake poured the strong coffee into their cups. The blonde young man was Hollis, and he was a first-year college student biking home, to Vancouver, B.C., for summer break. He spoke with a lisp and had only four fingers on each hand. Mark, the older man, was a retired mechanic and was riding up and down the coast “because it was there.” Mark turned down the coffee and instead took pulls from a twenty-two ounce can of Icehouse beer he had produced from his pack. An unopened can stood next to him on the table. Mark was brusque in manner and he seldom spoke.

Jake waited quietly for the others to finish their spiels before he began. “I am a journeyman,” he said cryptically, training his intense gaze on each of them as he talked. They were all seated around Jake’s picnic table, which was strewn with maps, several cameras, reams of notebook paper, and a couple dog-eared paperbacks. One of the books, Ben noticed, was titled The Worlds Beyond: Extraterrestrials and Their Ilk. Jake went on: “Under the tutelage of The Exalted One, I am seeking higher truth, a heightened understanding of my place in this cosmos.” Jake had a soft, high-pitched, earnest voice, and his almost constant eye contact unnerved the others.

Ben and Hollis exchanged wary looks. Was this guy just bat-shit crazy? “Of course,” Jake continued, “it’s taken me some time to realize this role, this vocation of mine. I used to be completely oblivious. I had blinders on for most of my life. I’m thirty-six now, and it pains me to think of how much time I’ve already wasted.” He pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it with a match. He inhaled and held it out. “Cannabis, anyone?” There was a shaking of heads, polite demurral.

Sensing the hesitation, Jake took another drag and set it on the edge of the table. “I used to be a carpenter, made really good money, too. I had a house, and I even had a wife and a daughter. Man, I thought I was living large.” He spoke slowly, mesmerizingly, and his eyes bore into them.

“But all of that changed after I had ‘The Dream’, in which The Exalted One spoke to me via spectroscopic telepathy and told me that my current existence was sheer folly, a base mockery of the cosmic potential of this planet, and that to better prepare myself for their imminent landfall I would be wise to eschew the trappings of my petty life and roam the Earth as an emissary, to see with my own eyes the futility of my species. I am to document these observations, which will be compiled in a report upon his arrival. His broadcasts guide my travels and his wisdom fills me with hope for the deep future.”

The others had been rendered speechless. Jake seemed not to be expecting a response—in fact, he was nonchalant, busying himself with lighting the joint, which had gone out. He had said his piece; now it was time for the others to chime in.

Ben found himself staring openly at Jake, trying to read him. Was he for real? Seconds passed in silence. Suppressing a smirk, Hollis finally asked, “So what happened with your wife? And your daughter?” The others cringed, and collectively wished that Hollis had not gone there, inviting disaster.

Jake answered unhesitatingly. “How interesting that you would ask that. I of course knew you would, even though I far more to say about the latter, less benighted portion of my life, but such is the strangely sympathetic nature of the species. We conduct ourselves ‘ad hominem’ to the end, which is clearly problematic for the fitness of the planet.” He paused thoughtfully and sipped at his coffee.

“But to answer your question: I just explained to them, as I have explained to you, the gravity of that which was revealed to me. I told them that, because they were now privy to The Exalted One’s proclamations, they should take heed and follow suit. Suffice it to say, they balked at my admonition, and I bade them farewell.”

Thence followed another spell of awkward silence. The afternoon light filtered through the needled boughs and Ben felt a sudden, acute pang of loneliness. “Huh,” grunted Mark, and he stood up to walk back to his site. Jake nodded to him.

“Thanks for the coffee, Jake. I’ve got some laundry to do,” Ben lied, also standing up. Hollis followed him with his eyes, cursing himself for his lack of an excuse. “See you guys later.” Without waiting for a response, he walked back to his tent and laid down on his bedroll. He started drafting a postcard but stopped when he realized that he knew only one address, that of his father’s apartment in Reno, and his father no longer lived there. He put down his pen and noticed with dismay that nightfall—and the blissful, dreamless sleep of those too exhausted to be troubled—was still hours away.

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