Last week’s Archdruid Report post introduced five themes likely to be primary factors shaping the deindustrial future before us. It’s easy to talk about such things in the abstract, but harder to make sense of them as a lived reality, and it’s this latter step that has to be taken to understand their impact on our world. For this reason I’ve picked up the toolkit of narrative fiction again. Each of the next five essays will be preceded by a fictional account of one person’s journey through a world shaped by the themes I’ve mentioned. The story begins in the rural Pacific Northwest sometime in the second half of this century.
Adam stepped out onto the cracked blacktop and moss of the parking lot, blinked in the glare of the westering sun. Habit made him reach back with his one good hand to close the door, but he caught himself, let the hand fall. No point in closing things up now; winter wasn’t far, and the place might as well be useful to the bears.
One of the beneficiaries of that act gazed blindly down on him in concrete effigy as he crossed the parking lot. It had a sign in its paws saying Learyville Motel – a neon sign once, though the tubes got a coat of white paint once electricity went away. Another bear, chainsawed from a fir log, stood on its hind legs by the motel office. The bear had always been Learyville’s mascot; the school team had been the Bears, back when there was a school team, or a school for that matter. It would just be the bears’ town now, though.
He stopped at the highway’s edge, tensed himself against memories that pushed the limits of his self-control, then settled his pack on his shoulders and started west. Still, the memories came surging up, blinding him. He thought of Learyville the way it was when he’d been five or six, when most of the houses had families in them and cars still came roaring down the highway in long lines on their way to campgrounds and fishing spots and the ocean beaches. Things had been better still before he was born, so the old folks said, back when gas was so cheap you could drive all day on twenty dollars, and the Learyville Motel had its Sorry – No Vacancy sign lit up every summer evening. Still, the town seemed crowded enough in his childhood; he’d had playmates in those days, and you had to be careful crossing the street.
That was before the war, of course. Once war came, gas rationing canceled most vacations, and a dozen young men from the town went off in uniform, leaving their family’s windows decorated with blue stars that turned gold one by one. Nobody wanted to talk about that, and Adam had to ask his father what it meant, one night when just the two of them sat in the motel office. Afterwards, staring into the night from his bedroom window, he thought about the people he knew who wouldn’t be coming home again. The image that came to mind was an old blanket the moths ate full of holes one summer. The moths had gotten into Learyville, too, and a cold wind was blowing through the holes.
The moths hadn’t finished with the town, either. The summer Adam turned eleven, when the fighting reached Mexico and people stopped talking about the war except in worried whispers, the bridge on the road down to Southport collapsed under the car on the way back from a trip to the grocery store. He didn’t remember a thing between the lurch of the bridge giving way and the hospital room where they told him his mother was dead. His right arm was a mess, and they’d never been able to afford the therapy that would have fixed it, so a mess it stayed.
When the armistice came a year later, most of Learyville buzzed with talk about how soon the good times would be back, but Adam’s father slumped back in his overstuffed chair and told him they were whistling past the graveyard. Though gas stayed rationed and the economy lurched from crisis to crisis, a trickle of tourists came down the highway again, but even that shred of hope turned against the town. Nobody ever figured out which tourist brought hemorrhagic fever to Learyville, but three months afterward almost fifty people were dead. Other epidemics followed, but that first one left gaps in Learyville’s fabric that nothing afterward could patch.
Adam shook his head and kept walking, but the houses he passed stared back at him with empty eyes like so many skulls. That blue one had been Joe and Edna Williams’, before she died of the hemorrhagic fever and he drank himself to death; the green one back there was Fred Kasumi’s before he died and his sons left for the city in search of work; the brick one next to it had been the Dotsons’ since Learyville was a logging camp, and old Marge Dotson lived there for years after everyone else in the family was dead or gone, tending her chickens and her garden until he found her lying face down in her asparagus bed one morning.
Across from the Dotson house was the Hungry Bear Café, with the stripped and rusting shells of a dozen cars still in the parking lot. Those broke Adam’s pace, though he made himself keep going after a moment. Those cars didn’t belong to tourists or locals. They started arriving one or two at a time in the years right after the war, full of young people convinced, like their hippie grandparents before them, that going back to the land was the wave of the future. Some of the newcomers moved into empty houses on the edge of town and tried to farm for a few years before loneliness, sickness, or the thin acid soil that had defeated the original homesteaders in the 1800s drove them back to the city or straight to the Learyville cemetery. Few came to farm and fewer stayed long; better land could be had close enough to urban areas to provide a market for cash crops.
No, most of the ones who came had a different dream. They parked their cars in the café parking lot, paid for one more civilized meal, and then headed out into the woods, convinced they were destined to found the tribal societies of an age about to be born. Those who spotted Adam tried to talk him into coming along; their excited gestures and bright eyes lit up a grand vision of life in the wilderness in harmony with nature, walking the hunter-gatherer path. The first few times he’d gone back to the motel with his head afire, and his father had to sit him down and explain exactly what would happen to a bunch of city kids who thought nature would welcome them with open arms. He’d been right, too. Some of them came stumbling back out of the forest months later, starving and shivering and riddled with parasites. Others never came out at all, and Adam got used to finding their bones in the woods when he and his father went hunting deer in the hills outside of town. For them, nature had opened not her arms but her jaws.
One group left something else behind, though, and that was what made Adam halt and then push himself onward outside the café. There had been six of them, three boys and three girls, none of them much older than Adam himself, and they’d gone into the woods with whoops of laughter early one summer. Three of them died in the usual ways as the forest patiently tested them to destruction; the three survivors came back as winter came and the rain changed to sleet, two of the boys carrying one desperately ill girl. The Prices took them in; the boys struggled back to health and fled in someone else’s car as soon as they could, but the girl, Sybil, stayed.
She had some kind of relapsing fever – probably from a tick bite, Vinny said, though he wasn’t sure, and by then there were no doctors within reach. She had no family and nowhere to go, so the Prices gave her a home, and she returned the favor by caring for them when she was well enough. She and Adam found their way into a relationship within a few weeks. It wasn’t love, or even sex, so much as the raw loneliness of a town that by then had only a dozen residents. Still, lying in each other’s arms or sitting by the Price’s fireplace, they talked about marriage, imagined a future when the tourists came back and the two of them ran the motel. When the fever finally took her on an icy February day four years later, Adam walked down to the river and thought long and hard about jumping in before he turned and went back to the motel.
By then the cafe was open only on Saturday nights, when the last handful of locals gathered to share a meal and play cards by firelight, and the motel was all closed up except for the manager’s home and two rooms. Another war was going by then, a civil war this time, and the only visitors were government draft agents scrounging the countryside for anyone fit to carry a gun. Adam got used to the way they’d look at him, size up his crumpled arm, and reluctantly decide that he wouldn’t earn them their bounty. Finally even the draft agents stopped coming, and life in Learyville became a round of waiting, never very long, for the next death.
Call of a bluejay shook Adam out of his memories, and he turned around. Afternoon was turning toward evening, but no smoke rose from the chimneys of any of the houses he’d passed and no light shone from the windows. The general store, post office, and gas station that anchored the western end of town were tumbling in on themselves, half overgrown already with blackberry vines. In the distance, a stray gleam of red sunlight hit the big concrete bear in front of the motel, made it glow like an ember about to go out.
He drew in a deep breath, reviewed the things he’d packed: all the clothes he owned that hadn’t gone to holes yet; blankets for sleeping; a cooking pot, tinder, and the flint and steel he’d learned to use once matches stopped being available; some useful tools; a tarp for shelter, and rope and stakes to put it up; bandages and a bottle of the herb tincture Carol Price used to make for wounds; down at the bottom of the pack, a ring that had been Sybil’s, and the six best asparagus crowns from Marge’s garden, on the off chance that he’d find a place to plant them someday. He had a good sturdy knife on his belt and his father’s revolver in his coat pocket; the one thing he didn’t have was a destination, but that didn’t matter much, not just then.
Tears pushed through then, and dampened his face. There had been one last grave to dig this afternoon, this time for his father; one more hole in the fabric; that was over now, and so was Learyville. He turned west and started down the highway, leaving the town to the bears and the dark trees of the forest.