Like a Night in the Forest
It’s not easy to cry and drive at the same time.
It’s also not pretty.
But there’s no one watching, so I’m really going for it. My face is all scrunched up, my mouth open, my eyes a wet blur of tears. The road is twisty and it’s dark as fuck in the forest in January. If not for the headlights on Clooney, my old Ford pickup, I might as well have been navigating an ocean of black ink. And even though a sick part of me thinks it’d only be justice if I rolled the truck and died in an accident, most of me still wants to live, so I slow down and put on my emergency flashers. I just have to finish this song, and then I’ll be okay.
That’s right: I’m not only driving and crying, I’m also trying to sing at the same time.
When I was a little girl, my Dad would always play this John Denver song as we crossed into the Inyo National Forest. So I’ve had “Cool an’ Green an’ Shady” cued up on my phone like a phantom waiting to be released, and as I passed the sign marking the border and the first strains of the guitar came out, distant and muffled and out of place, singing this song from another time, another life, I realized that I still knew all the words even though I haven’t sung them in years.
But when I got to the line about how your “free spirit flies” all I could think about was my Mom and Dad and Grandma’s spirits soaring over the mountains, watching me come home, missing them so much. So even though I claim not to believe in that stuff anymore, about people watching over you from the beyond or whatever, here I am, crying and singing inside my truck like an idiot. I keep on cry-singing through my stupid salty lips until the track finishes and then I wipe my face with the sleeve of my jacket and blow my nose into my flannel. A real class act.
Let me catch you up to speed: my family’s dead. All of them.
And since it’s my fault, the least I can do is fulfill their final wish and scatter their ashes in Gem Lake, where I grew up.
I’d planned on staying for a week or so, spreading their ashes before I left. But during the 23 hours from Texas it became more and more suffocating in the truck with their three urns beside me, as though they somehow were taking up all the air. And as I approach the vista point that will be my first view of the lake in a decade, I feel anguish and guilt rising in me, overwhelming me, and suddenly I know I can’t wait. I have to get them out of my hands and into the lake. Even though it’s cold and dark and late at night and I’ll probably look like a crazed murderess, hiding the bodies of my victims. Which I suppose I am, and on Forest Service property, to make it worse. But “don’t ask don’t tell” seems like a fine policy in this case.
But when I crest the hill and Gem Lake opens up before me, I can see even beneath the deep indigo sky that there are no reflections on the water, that it’s covered in snow. The lake is frozen over.
Of course it is. I haven’t been to Gem Lake in a decade, but it shouldn’t have been that difficult to predict. It’s fucking January.