This summer I sojourned to the Mt. Hood Wilderness Area in Northern Oregon. Over a span of four days I hiked nearly 40 miles and in the process endured soaking rains, too-little food and water, poisonous plants, venomous spiders, blood-sucking flies, and the possibility of an attack from bears, cougars, or perhaps even Bigfoot. At the end of the ordeal my feet were blistered and sore, my legs and back aching. In such a state was I that the meager prospects of a gas station sandwich and a Motel 6 seemed downright epicurean.

For many, this type of willful deprivation from modern comforts amounts to little more than masochism. As far as I’m concerned, such suffering is sheer joy when compared to the pain visited upon man by his fellow man. Concomitant with deprivation from society’s riches is deliverance from its ugliness.

Not that I was wholly without, of course. I carried a tent, sleeping bag, stove, food, and other camping essentials with me, not to mention memories of my cultured, civilized life. But I was pleased to find that, surrounded by trees, rocks, water, and sky, I had little need for those memories. Indeed, whatever I couldn’t carry, Nature provided, and I lacked for nothing.

Upon returning to the world of men, I found all that I needed and then some.

And then some.

And then some.

And so much more than I could surely do without.

***

On the trail I met few other people, but those I did happen upon looked me in the eyes, smiled brightly, and offered a warm greeting. Not once did I exchange names with these strangers, nor did introductions seem appropriate. After all, did I need to know the species of giant trees that towered over me to glean their symbolic import? Rather than seeing a tree as a “400 year old Douglas fir” I saw it as an embodiment of all that rises above the earthbound horizon; the Tree of Life.

Names, individuating traits of all kinds, draw attention to a particular form. In so doing, they detract from the underlying reality from which that form springs. They keep us from seeing the forest for the trees, in other words.

Nameless before me, the distinguishing aspects of their identity made unavailable in the briefness of our encounters, these fellow hikers appeared as archetypal human forms: man, woman, boy, girl. United under big trees and a bigger sky, unaware of the prejudices that might divide us, we were brothers and sisters, children of Nature, all born of one House and sharing a single home. The wordless flash of the eyes that I shared with them is perhaps as close as we get in the West to the gesture Namaste (the divine spark within me honors and respects the divine spark within you).

Returning to the trailhead, piling my weary body into an automobile, and driving 30 miles back to town, the first person I encounter is the front desk worker at the Motel 6. His nametag bears the name “Omar.” Omar has a long scar across his left forearm, sunken eyes, and missing teeth.

“New Hampshire,” he says, looking at my ID, “Never seen one of these before. What are you doing out here?”

I explain that I came from Denver, where I currently live, to visit friends in Eugene, and finished my trip off with some hiking in the Cascades.

Continuing to look over my ID, Omar notes that our birthdays are only five days apart.

“We’re almost exactly the same age, bro,” he says. “You obviously take better care of yourself than I do, though. I would have guessed you’re a college student.”

Omar looks his age, however, and I tell him this.

“Yeah, bro, but I’m a mess on the inside. Stomach ulcers from drinking too much moonshine. My liver almost failed when I was 25. I used to work for a renaissance fair. Walking on stilts 12 hours a day. You have to be wasted to stand on stilts all day in a costume in the summertime, you know what I mean? I don’t drink no more. Just smoke weed. I like my speed, too…”

Omar trails off and continues preparing the paperwork. He’s said enough, though; enough to seem ugly to me. Or all-too-human, at any rate, which amounts to the same thing. Perhaps we could all appear as gods to one another if we only had the grace to smile, remain quiet, and make ourselves scarce.

Not blatantly acting like beasts wouldn’t hurt, either. Unloading my car, I see a man picking through the dumpster. A junkie in a smoke-billowing Ford Taurus pulls into the spot next to mine and gets out with a prostitute. A woman too obese to rise to her feet is helped out of the passenger seat of a Buick by her husband. Teenagers party in a second story room. One slouches drunkenly over the balcony, smoking; a gust of wind blows the cigarette from his mouth.

A shave. A shit. A shower. A spin through the cable TV offerings. Every channel reporting the same story: some kid, in the very city I’m to return to the next day, wasted a bunch of people in a movie theater during a screening of the new Batman movie.

While it’s assumed from the word go that Holmes is crazy, this is both an oversimplification and a copout. Couching what occurred in Aurora in terms of Sane and Insane does no more to get at the heart of the matter than any other pair of opposites. Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Happy and Sad, Liberal and Conservative, Carnivore and Vegetarian, et al. never account for context; never ask what is appropriate for the times.

In a world rife with violence, how is one to qualify the taking of life? If Holmes had worn a U.S. Army uniform and made a pincushion out of a Mosque full of “suspected militants” in Afghanistan, he would be a hero. But since he took out a theatre full of his compatriots, he’s a psycho killer. A freak. The Joker incarnate.

Is it possible for the world to go so mad that killing everyone makes sense? The virality of Zombie movies suggests that, at least on a subconscious level, we’ve considered this scenario. More broadly, is there anything about Holmes’ actions that are sane? Admitting that there is, or even that there could be, if only as an honest intellectual exercise, is the beginning of a real discussion of what went down in the Denver suburbs. Nobody, however, who doesn’t want to be considered a wacko dares to suggest that Holmes is anything but crazy. The media least of all.

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you a breaking news bulletin:

An on the scene reporter—blonde, female, early 30s, wearing a navy blue suit—seeks shade under the shadow cast by the news van. A cameraman—mid 40’s, broad shouldered, wearing a vertically striped button down shirt, a 4 day beard—fans himself with the torn off top of a pizza box. A newly-hired intern—on summer break, quite certain that television, and especially cable television news, is not his bag, in part because he’s been jaded by what he considers to be Jennifer’s entitled, feminist worldview, and also owing to the fact that he just kinda wants to hang out and, you know, like, eat shrooms and see the Tetons and the desert and the Redwoods and shit before he gets all serious about life, man.

Imaging how his parents might react to his decision to take a year off from school, the Intern offers Jennifer her bottle of Evian mineral water spray.

She accepts it and says mid-spritz, “I don’t think it’s really going to make much of a difference at this point. As soon as I step out of the shadows the sweat’s going to start pouring down me. I’m going to look like a sweaty pig on national television. Jesus Christ it’s hot here. I thought that Denver was in the mountains. It’s like, a desert here almost. Wait…we’re in Aurora…and that’s different than Denver, right? Denver at least has some goddamned trees. This town just seems to have car dealerships and hotel chains and malls and random taquerias sandwiched in between paycheck advance stores and gas stations. If I lived in this steamy shithole I’d want to fucking shoot everyone too.”

“Aren’t the Tetons close to here?” asks the intern.

“What is that, one of those Indian casinos?” says Jennifer.

“They’re mountains. Haven’t you ever heard of the Tetons? I think they’re in Colorado. They might be in Utah, though.”

“Wyoming,” says the cameraman, absently picking a piece of dried cheese—which he refers to as “boxarella”—off of the pizza box top.

“I went there on vacation with my family when I was a little kid. My dad made me hike around this lake with him. I stubbed my toe on a rock about halfway through. I was little enough—I think I was 8 or 9—that my dad could have carried me, but he made me walk. I kept thinking that if a bear came, I wouldn’t be able to get away. I told my dad and he said, “If a goddamned bear comes, there isn’t shit you could do anyway, even with two good feet.”

“Is Wyoming south of here?”

“North. Northwest to the Tetons. My pinkie toe never did heal quite right. Look, it bends to the side.” The cameraman slips his right foot out of his sandal and waggles a peanut-shaped, hairy phalange at his coworkers.

“Aww…poor little toe toe…do you want Daddy to kiss it? Quit being such a whiny little Hobbit man bitch and do something useful, like getting ready to shoot. We go live in 5 minutes.”

“The Tetons are much younger than the surrounding Rockies,” says the cameraman, ignoring Jennifer. Making her sweat his preparedness is the only defense he has against her domineering manner. “You can tell by their jagged peaks—the more jagged a mountain range’s peaks, the younger it is. Most of the Rockies, they’re in decay. As big as they’re gonna get. The Himalayas, now, that’s a mountain range on the rise…”

“Maybe I should go see those,” thinks the intern. K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu. Who sings that, Bruce Springsteen? I don’t have a passport, though…”

Jennifer’s phone rings. She gestures frantically to the intern, imitating the writing motion. The intern hands her a pad of paper and a pen. Jennifer sighs loudly several times and says, “Slow down. I need to get this right.”

The cameraman is thinking about how he never really forgave his father for the “Toe Incident,” and how, more broadly, the Incident stands for the type of macho affection that he could never reciprocate, least of all to his old man, whom he treated with passive aggressive resentment, a behavior that came to a head when he refused to eulogize the man at his funeral. At the time, he explained his decision by way of saying it was “too painful.” The cameraman wiggles his pinkie toe and, in a moment of honesty, admits that he really just had nothing nice to say about his father, who was regarded by most as “kind of a prick”.

“Alright you cum stains on the face of broadcast journalism, change of plan. We do a quick segment from here and then roll the footage of my interview with the survivors. That will buy us enough time to get over to Holmes’ apartment, which I’ve just been told is rigged with explosives. Maybe they’ll find some human remains in the fridge…it’s been a while since we had a cannibalistic mass killer in this country. Christ, anything to make this story more interesting. Mass shootings are about as common in the news today as high-temperature records. Am I the only one with the ovaries to admit that nut jobs going on killing sprees is about as stale as Clinton blowjob jokes?”

Jennifer gives herself one more spray with the Evian water, checks her face in a pocket makeup mirror, flattens the navy skirt fabric to make sure that her inordinate sweating has not produced anything that could even remotely qualify as a “camel toe,” and steps out in the sunlight, where the cameraman is preparing the shot.

The intern looks up at the sky and sees a seagull flying overhead. “What’s a seagull doing in Denver?” he thinks. “It’s, like, a symbol of my life: a creature that’s surviving perfectly well, but isn’t where it belongs. What made it leave the Coast? Or maybe this one was born here…maybe it’s, like, a 3rd generation Denver seagull…”

The bird dives away as a news helicopter roars past overhead. The intern get the confirmation from the studio, begins to count down: “You’re live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program already in progress

Labeling Holmes a nut job is the path of least resistance. It allows Americans to dodge the tough questions about the shooting and go about their business, assured that justice will be served. It ignores the fact that our country has an abundance of young men who are intelligent, full of displaced aggression, and armed to the teeth. It deflects attention away from the killer in you, in me, in us.

Particularly after spending several days in the woods, focusing on the individual rather than the collective strikes me as unnatural. As if to see the tree for the forest without asking: “in what type of forest could such a tree grow?”

Politicians and would-be-pols alike, members of the media, talking heads, are always addressing “The American People,” a title that carries implications of benevolence and rationality; some kind of all-mighty “We”. But when somebody goes rogue, it’s always that American Person.

The American People learn of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. The American People collectively mourn and ask, “Why?” An American Person is paraded before a jury of American People and sentenced to 875 consecutive life sentences, or else a gang rape and a bed sheet noose—whichever comes first.

Automated rental car return. Automated boarding pass issuance. Auto flush toilets and automatically activated sink taps. An app to check that my flight is on time; an app to suggest activities in Portland should my flight be delayed. A machine that captures an image of my naked body and sends it to a U.S. Government employee sitting in front of a high-resolution display screen.

“Whoopsie…looks like we moved there.”

The first person to speak to me at the airport is a blond woman wearing the uniform of the United States Department of Homeland Security

“We’re gonna have to try that one more time.”

Listen, lady, there is no “we.” There’s you, with your bad perm and your State garb and your infuriating singsong manner of speaking, and there’s me. I’m the guy standing in his stocking feet inside of the goddamned Freedom is Slavery Machine. I’m the guy rolling his eyes and making no attempt to mask his annoyance at this whole rotten procedure as he thinks, “If this isn’t a police state, what is?”

“We” undergo a second body scan. “We” hold still for three seconds this time. “We” step out of the Violator 8500 and move to collect our personal belongings from the gray plastic bins at the end of the conveyer. But before “we” can put our shoes and belt back on “we’re” pulled out of line and handed over to another U.S. government employee at a machine adjacent to the X-ray booth.

A tall, gray-haired man with features like Hawkeye Pierce swabs my hands with a sampling wand. After a few seconds the FOURTHREICH 500DT beeps and displays several lines of red text.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to follow me.”

“Can I ask what the problem is?”

“Your hands have traces of a suspicious substance. We’re going to need to undergo some further tests.”

“We’re” following the uniformed man past the security checkpoint to a backroom. “We’re” thinking to ourselves, “Fuck, I shouldn’t have smoked that joint before coming to the airport.” “We’re” hoping that an anal probe isn’t involved, but at the same time, “We’re” acknowledging that our ass is the cleanest it’s been in 4 days, so if a stranger is going to poke around up there, it’d might as well be now.

An American Person, beltless, shoeless, wearing a sea green v-neck t-shirt and a black flat cap, has the door to the backroom closed behind him by a representative of the American People. He thinks: you’ve committed a cardinal sin—you’ve let yourself be cornered.

One must adopt the psyche of a hunted animal nowadays if he intends to preserve his liberty. Blend in with the pack. Don’t linger alone on the periphery. Always leave yourself a means of egress. And never, ever, let the fuckers corner you, whether it’s in a motor vehicle or a movie theater or a backroom at the airport.

I hear the beeping and humming of machinery as my bags are run through a scanner; the *snap* of latex gloves; the cold, monotone verbal instructions explaining to me the ways in which I am to be violated; the bad, rehearsed joke meant to detract my attention from the forthcoming violation.

“I will encircle the inside of your waistband with my index finger. I will sweep the palms of my hands up the inside of your legs, from ankle to thigh. I will ask you to hold your arms out to your side and then I’ll run my hands along the outside of your body, from below the armpit to the ankle. You can leave your hat on, as long as there aren’t any large critters under it.”

I will thinly disguise my anger. I will tighten up as your hands brush against my penis and scrotum, gently slide over my buttocks. I will note that not once have you looked me in the eye. You can bet your ass I’ll detail this tyranny in a snarky blog post.

My person and belongings turn up clean and I’m free to go. Slipping my belt, shoes, and hat back on, I have the feeling of redressing after an impromptu, impersonal fuck.

The problem, come to find out, is the presence of chemicals on my hands known to be used in explosives-making.

“Must be the fuel from my camping stove,” I say. “I just spent a few days camping up in the Columbia River Gorge.”

Only now does the officer look me in the eye.

“Where were you?”

“The Eagle Creek Trail, parts of the Pacific Crest Trail.”

“I hiked the entire PCT when I was a teenager. Averaged 30 miles per day. That’s some mystical country up there.”

I examine his countenance. His features are covered in a veneer of shame. This man has no taste for authority; for feeling up strangers in a dimly lit back room.

How, then, did he arrive at this life juncture? Is he just a victim of “the economy”; of modernity; of biology; of a prevailing logic? Is he “just following orders”?

All of us are victims, at the very least, of the mysterious force that thrust us into being with an assurance of Death but no blueprint for Life. Those who are able to augment their existence with a personal quality become empowered and cease being victims. Those who cannot do so are forever “just following orders”: from the State, God, Society, Great Men; from some Other.

But many of history’s worst tragedies were carried out by people who were “just following orders.” Unable to overcome their victimhood, they victimize others, with the intention of ridding themselves of feelings of powerlessness. This, however, only worsens their condition. For in the end, he who does the violating is himself violated.

“Mystical” is how the officer described the Cascades. What is the opposite of mystical? That is the word I’d used to describe the experience of standing in a room with a uniformed man who considers you a potential threat and consequently feels you up.

Men are like Sphinxes: they speak in riddles and kill those who do not answer: “Man”.

Men are always talking but never listening. They say what need to be said and then some.

And then some.

And then some.

And so much more that doesn’t need to be said at all.

Men give too much news and tell too few stories. So allow me to tell you one.

Once upon a time there was a sullen girl who lived with her husband on the edge of town. She always wore a sour face, and all the more if you offered her something sweet.

The only time I saw her smile was at the beach, and even then she took care to hide it away from the world, as if she and the ocean were sharing a secret.

Forgive me…that wasn’t much of a story, was it? Only another riddle. Well, here’s one more: What does a mountain know that a man does not? Let this be the Sphinx’s riddle of our day.

Right…back to the storytelling!

I’m somewhere in Eastern Oregon, driving a winding road through high desert, at the back end of a procession of cars that’s being held up by an RV towing a Jeep. There’s an opening to pass: 7 vehicles to get around. I pull out. I hesitate, doubtful that I can make it. I gun it.

The engine meows to life. “Not enough power,” I think. “You cheap bastard…you should have known better than to rent a 4-banger on a tour of the West. A lot of good that 20 bucks a day you saved by not renting the V6 will do you when you’re a pile of broken bones and crushed organs on the side of the highway.”

I kill the AC to get a few more ponies. The accelerator is to the floor. Now it’s just a waiting game. The point of no return. Death a real possibility. And the only way to safety is accelerating as fast as possible towards the grey SUV that would turn my body into the consistency of Dinty Moore beef stew.

Two vehicles left to pass. The driver of the SUV I’m on a collision course with flashes their headlights. I stare down the dotted yellow line at the spot in front of the RV that I need to get to. I put on my right turn signal so the oncoming driver doesn’t think I have a death wish. I’m parallel with the RV. I downshift. The tachometer shoots into the red; the speedometer creeps over 100. The SUV is close enough that I can make out the terrified faces of two females in the front seats. Clear of the RV, I cut the wheel to the right and with tires squealing, the car threatening to lose control, I’m back, safely, in my lane.

A much better story…wouldn’t you say? And this one even has a moral: the fear I felt on that stretch of Oregon highway was of an altogether different character than the fear I experienced at the Portland airport. The former had a life-affirming quality; the latter suggested a sort of living death. Indeed, surviving an actual brush with death left me exhilarated, while escaping a brush with law enforcement left me nauseated.

The first type of fear, a mere autonomic response, is soon forgotten. It is similar to what I felt in the wilderness when looking over the side of a precipice or nearly losing my balance while crossing a rushing river stone by slippery stone.

The second type of fear does not go away. It lingers on the edges of consciousness. Like a malevolent spirit it threatens at any moment to strike out of the shadows.

Having disenchanted the world, man can now only induce this effect on his fellow man. God can no longer be blamed for the worst kinds of wrongs, and with nature indifferent, that leaves us as the sole purveyor of what has been, and might still be called, Evil.

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BRIAN ECKERT recently gave up his SUV and life in an idyllic New England seaside town for a single speed bicycle and the smog of Beijing, China is back from China and living in Denver, Colorado. Check out more at his website.

4 responses to “On Nature Walks, Anal Probes, and Shooting Sprees (Or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation)”

  1. A true and expertly told story.

    I always like the little sneer that your writing sometimes takes, then balanced out with the beautiful moments, here most obviously the towering presence of nature but also the program interruption. You made something mystical happen there, too, in its way.

    I don’t know, what can we do with these two fears we carry around? Head out to them giant trees, or start by reading a story like this about it.

    Thanks for getting this out, Brian.

    • Brian Eckert says:

      Nat, thanks, as always, for reading. I’m not quite sure where that “interruption” came from–seemingly willed its way into existence–I considered cutting it at one point, but it provided a nice balance to the piece, I thought.

      My favorite part about Nature: you don’t have to think about it. It never fails to wordlessly amaze and cleanse the spirit. And, though it may not come across, I like sullying my soul in the marketplace and all it’s attendant flies. Cities are their own wildernesses.

  2. Erika Rae says:

    Nat’s got it nailed: the balance of the sneer with the beauty with the awe. This is some fantastic writing.

  3. Rickey D. Blowpop says:

    Still starting sentences with ‘And’, are we ? Christ. . .
    Your piece tackles a plethora of possibility, and leaves me hungry for an assassination of singular particulars. . .each one a spin-off of such a hit show.

    I liked it.

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