Ice and Fire
Friday, March 26, 2010
After leaving Missoula late in the day and crossing the Idaho border after dark, I contemplated the possibilities of what to do with the night. Drive on? Visit one of the nearby hot springs? Hot springs sounded appealing, but I knew that attempting such a hike in the dark would be challenging even if there weren't snow on the ground. The likely possibilty of traversing an icy trail in darkness would have been downright crazy.
Thus, when I saw a sign indicating a national forest campground a mile off the main highway, I decided to at least check it out. Wasn't feeling tired yet, but the thought of waking up early and possibly hitting the springs before making my way on to Oregon during daylight held strong appeal. It seemed worthwhile to at least look at the campground before driving on.
On the dirt road that lead to the campground, I hit a few patches of snow, but crosing them presented no problem. When I turned at the fork to head into the campground, the road became more slippery, but I was still able to navigate it. But when I tried to turn into the area with the designated campsites, the downward slope of the road beneath a surface of relatively flat snow proved deceptive. My car, Tobias, got stuck.
I made several attempts to back out, but it just made the tires spin more. I even got out the hand spade I had brought along as a gardening tool, and repurposed it to try and dig out some of the snow. After a while at that with no noticable improvement, I realized I was just getting cold and frustrated. I pitched the tent by moonlight, and resigned myself to the probability that I would be spending the morning figuring out a way to get the car unstuck, probably skipping the hot springs to make it to the Lost Valley ecovillage in Oregon in time for Friday's visitor orientation event.
I huddled in my sleeping bag and stayed relatively warm there (getting out is always the hardest part), and found my sleep blessed by the bright stars out the tent window and the soothing sound of the nearby river. When daylight arrived, I awoke refreshed and determined to overcome all obstacles.
I alternated between scooping out the snow around the tires with the spade, and repeatedly starting the engine to see if I could get the vehicle to budge. Digging snow proved slow and ineffective, and every time I spun the tires, it made the rut a little deeper. Beneath the front wheels, snow was giving way to icy mud. I was almost ready to give up on the idea of getting myself out, and thought about walking back to the highway in an effort to find help. I also tried turning on the cell phone, but as I suspected, there was no signal available.
If at all possible, I wanted to avoid the extra delay (and potential cost) of walking for help. I didn't know how long it would take to find another driver willing to lend assistance in this remote area, and in the event that whoever I might run into were unequipped to get my car out, squandering a significant chunk of road money to summon a professional tow truck would be an unpleasant last resort.
I made a couple more final, last gasp attmepts to rev the motor and engage the clutch quickly to try and jolt the car free. It budged, just a little, but then quickly returned to resting where the rut was deepest. But a little movement was better than no movement! I varied my technique, and found a a new sort of rhythm. By shifting between 1st gear, revving just enough to move little, then QUICKLY throwing it into reverse and revving again, I took advantage of the momentum as the tires slid back to the bottom of the rut and up the other side. Back and forth. Forward, reverse. If I timed it just right, I could move a little farther with each cycle, using the physics of a pendulum, like pumping on a playground swing.
It worked! After a few tries, I succeeded in backing out of the deep ruts that my front tires had carved, leaving behind two brown puddles. Success felt imminent.
I wasn't quite out yet though. I was backtracking through snow that had been packed into ice, and after moving a few feet, the wheels were spinning again, making a new rut. Again, I used the rhythmic technique of quickly alternating between back and forward, pushing the stick shift around like a madman. With a few tries, I got out of the next rut, moved a little more, and got stuck again! But now I was no longer worried, because these ruts were smaller, and with persistance, I had found a reproducable method to break free of them.
Then, something strange happened. I heard a soft whooshing sound, and for an instant so brief it could have been mistaken for an optical illusion, a streak of orange flame appeared to rise out of the icy ground next to my driver's window, then disappeared. I opened the door, and the snowy ground looked the same as before. I stepped out of the car and tried peering underneath, but saw only snow, piled high enough to prevent me from seeing very far underneath the car.
I got back in the car. On the dash, a cryptic icon I had rarely (if ever) seen lit before was activated. Another smell, even more unpleasant than that produced by spinning the tires began to hit my nose, and something grey was coming out of the air vents. I instantly knew this was not something I wanted to breathe, opened the door again, and stepped out of the car.
Momentarily, a vision more fearful than anything I had yet imagined materialized in front of me. Flames rose out around the sides of the hood at the front of the car. Remembering instructions I had heard as a small child about what to do when a car is in fire (but never, until now, had occasion to follow), I quckly ran away. Far away.
Looking back at the flames engulfing what must have been the engine, I couldn't help but be shocked nearly out of my senses with marvel at the spectacle I was witnessing. Then, a thought: I should get a picture of this!
With that, my mind went into autopilot, and I quickly remembered which backpack my camera had been packed into. It was in the back seat, on top of everything else. Easy to reach, and the fire hadn't reached the cockpit yet. But I knew it would if I didn't act quickly!
An instant later, with the flames leaping up in front of the windshield (but nowhere else that I could see yet), I found myself opening the door, reaching in, and grabbing the backpack that contained the camera, and throwing it a good distance away from the vehicle. But now, in the flicker of a thought, with the interior of the car engulfing my immediate attention, I forgot about the camera, and split second decision making took over.
It all came too fast to deliberate, and action happened faster than conscious thought. Somewhere inside, I knew that every second spent in or near the car constituted a growing risk to to my very life, but with my hands just a few feet away from the bag containing my netbook, along with the external hard drive that had the only complete copy of the digital music collection I've spent years putting together, I risked a few precious seconds pulling it out and flinging it on the ground.
But then, there was my altar bag, with all its sacred relics, gifts, and treasures. I grabbed it. The brand new forest shoes my friend had spent day after day knitting to give me for the journey were sitting on the dash, still in tact. Without hesitation, I took them too. But then, I remembered the box with my paper journals (several years worth) in the trunk! In order to get to that, I had to remove my bike from the rack, and toss it out of the way to safety. At this point, I realized that it would be more effective to just grab anything I could than try to prioritize and sort, so on my way to the journals, I emptied out the whole trunk!
Observing the fire's progress, I noted that it was still only coming out around the hood, but getting bigger. Continuing my circle around the car, I opened the backseat door, and momentarily considered whether there was anything else I absolutely "had" to save. Food stocks, pots, pans. This was all I saw in front of me, and mindfulness of the imperitave for bodily survival returned. Unfortunate to lose, but...
With my hand already on it, I grabbed only the grocery bag I had filled at the co-op just before leaving town, containing $100 worth of heavy bulk nuts, dried fruits, beans, oats, rice, my favorite spices... There were other boxes of travel food and supplies beneath it, but I could not risk taking any more.
I got a good distance away, and watched as the flames spread. A thought, momentarily lost, returned. My camera? For a second, I couldn't even remember if I had actually found that backpack and pulled it out amidst the panic.
A moment of recall, I saw the backpack, and the camera was out. In a sense, it seemed absurd to be standing around taking pictures while my life as I had conceived it physically went up in smoke, the remains scattered all over the ground in tatters. Yet... What else could I really do?
Words from Sarah Fimm, which I had played on my last radio show before leaving town, echoed through my mind, and I uttered them while my mind blanked.
Everything seems lost;
It's you reminding us
that everything we are is fragile.
As the fire burned low, leaving behind a charred metal skeleton, I began to consider walking back to the highway, but when I turned around, someone was already walking my direction. A local, who works at a local salmon hatchery, surprisingly within easy walking distance, had seen the smoke and smelled the rubber.
He gave me a ride to the Lochsa Lodge, another couple miles down the highway where I was able to use the phone to call my lifeline back in Missoula. He was also kind enough to buy me a hot breakfast.
Another local advised that to get the charred remains of my car out of there would likely involve a hefty fee to bring in something capable of hauling it out. The waitress suggested that she might be able to get a hold of some people who might be able to get the car out of there for little or no money, helping me avoid an excessive and wasteful expense.
At this stage, I was far more concerned with getting my remaining possessions out, going back to Missoula to confer with my coven family, and figuring out what the hell to do next. Worrying about the car's remains was secondary, but I had no idea what I was going to do with it, so I said, "Sure, if you know anybody who wants it and can help get it out, I'd be happy to have them take it."
She suggested that someone she knew who works for the Forest Service might have a suggestion, and offered to call. I was a little uncertain about this, but I figured I had to trust somebody, and if this waitress knew someone in the Forest Service that she trusted, I would bank on that as much as anything else. Her Forest Service contact had no idea what to do and no real advise to offer, but instead of giving us a little time to sort it out and consider alternate solutions, they immediately contacted local law enforcement, and within minutes, a local cop and another forest service agent were sitting across the table in the lodge cafe, interrogating me.
I gave them a full rundown of what had happened. The cop said that since there was no collision, no other vehicles involved, and no property damage, I would not get a ticket or be charged with anything, but that I would be responsible for getting the vehicle out of there, which would require something with a flatbed trailer and 4 wheel drive. He immediately followed with the question, "So, which towing service do you want to use?"
Bewildered, I had no idea how to answer, so I asked if he had any recommendations. He used his radio to contact several, and went through several attempts before finding one with the needed equipment.
Meanwhile, the ever helpful waitress (who later apologized that her attempt to assist me had inadvertently resulted in this) offered to ask the cook to drive me back out to retrieve my stuff. I accepted the offer, and when we got there, the forest service and law enforcement were already on the scene. I would have preferred being able to gather my scattered belongings in peace, but by this point, I was starting to get used to the idea that on this day, very little was turning out the way I wanted it to. The officers were already taking photos, and the cook would need to return to work soon, so we quickly set about carrying my stuff back to his car.
I was shocked to discover that the bag containing my computer and hard drive, apparently not moved quite far enough away from the car, had gone up in flames as well. Just to confirm that it was really what I thought it was, I stirred the wreckage, revealing the barely recognizable remains of my hard drive, black with char. I heard a voice, barely comprehending it, advising me against poking around in debris that may not yet have cooled. I backed away, and left it behind.
Back at the lodge, I now had time to sit and think. The kind waitress bought me beer, and I wrote in my journal, contemplating possibilities for the future. Would I end up staying back in Missoula for a while longer, working another job (or one of the same jobs again), putting paychecks away, delaying the entire voyage months (likely a year) into the future?
The prospect of putting these dreams on hold for yet another year, after tasting it so close to my lips, led me into some very depressing thoughts. Even if I did stick around in Missoula, life would not be the same. (And who wants the same thing over and over and over again anyway? Not me.) I had moved out of the once-cozy basement room to make room for the next person, who was likely already moving things in. Everything there was wrapped up.
I could probably go back and make hourly wages sitting in the corner hammering away at code, which wouldn't be entirely terrible. But even before I quit that job, the available tasks had shrunk due to lack of new clients, and the jobs that remained involved things I could barely force myself to stomach anymore. (Not they weren't super-nice to me there, because they were. It was a situation of having an employer I liked, but hating the job more with each passing day until I found myself forgoing optional hours, because having less money didn't seem as bad as being cooped up with in stiflingly bureaucratic projects while my sedentary body deteriorated.)
Maybe I could get another job, doing things that might be slightly more satisfying but pay smaller hourly wages, but that too, left a bitter flavor. I found my notebook, and scribbled some thoughts.
Back to Missoula, back to the drawing board.
I am STILL seeking to learn and find devotion.
I am STILL learning to care for myself, manifesting beauty
I am STILL here to manifest food for my tribe.
I am STILL going to learn to manifest shelter.
I am STILL creating new forms of self-expression.
I am STILL going to make music.
I am STILL...
go deep into debt?
When the truck to haul away my car came, I gave the man my credit card. (The cop stood over my shoulder while I did so. Doing his job. Reflecting, I had to admit reluctantly that he had, in a certain sense, been right on two counts: I had no busniess being in that campground without 4 wheel drive under those conditions, and the mess was my responsibility to clean up so other people wouldn't have to deal with it. Given the practical choice, I'd still rather let some bureaucrat write it off out of a federal budget whose practical difference in anybody's daily lives would be virtually nil, than put real people (myself or others) under more financial stress, but now I was not in a strategic position to make such a choice.) When I pay that balance, it will leave my checking account depleted. A still have a few hundred in savings, and a little cash, so I haven't hit rock bottom on money yet.
When the coven rescue party arrived, it was in full form. Everyone from the inner circle had come, because nobody wanted to volunteer to be left behind. I love this group so much! Somehow, we managed to cram all my remaining stuff plus 5 people into that car. (Minus the bike, which I donated to the people at the lodge who had shown me kindness.) We rode back while I recounted the tale and began to relax just a bit, finding strength in these bonds of friendship and support.
Knowing how much energy and work I've put into this, they immediately offered to chip in and help get me on a bus to Eugene. "You're not giving up now, are you?"
This is what I love about these friends. Many well-meaning and "sensible" people would likely advise me to do the "safe" thing, try and get another job in town for a while, save up and buy another car, and maybe do the voyage another year. But beyond encouraging me to follow my will, they have personally stepped forward and offered to solicit donations from the community to help replace my netbook. (I replied that if there are such donations around, at this point, I'm not convinced that buying another laptop would be the best use for it, though I haven't entirely ruled out the possibility.)
As for my car, it was a sacrifice. Not a reason to heap regret upon myself about one mistake or another, but a form of liberation. One of my spiritual comrades observed that I was on Nez Pierce land; the ancestral spirits there helped me give up something I hadn't been able to do on my own. I bought it 10 years ago, at a time when I was far less informed, and even when it would later become a burden, it was hard for my rationally materialistic mind to part with the remaining benefits of the "sunk cost", even when someone whose writings have inspired me greatly over the years (a man I hope to visit next month) recommended getting rid of our cars as one of the most effective ways to "drop out" from the culture of mutually assured misery. Using a gasoline-burning vehicle as a means of transportation was counter to the mission of learning and promoting sustainable ways of life.
So, now liberated of that, I am back in Missoula for the moment at the OAO temple house, getting my bearings, typing and uploading media more slowly than normal while I hobble around on a borrowed Mac laptop with its unfamiliar interface. I am also growing increasingly eager to obtain a bus ticket (or, failing that, walk by the side of the road with my thumb sticking out), find my way to some ecovillages, and learn what I can. The Adventure, far from over, is just getting underway.
P.S. My coven friends have suggested using this website to collect donations.
One mental block I've already found myself overcoming is that there is no shame
in asking for help when one truly needs it. If anyone reading this
happens to have money and feels like using it to help finance my journey,
donations can be sent to the coven's address, and they will find a way
to get it to me while my physical address is in flux. Checks can be
Ben Kinder (care of Opus Aima Obscuræ)
PO Box 2666
Missoula, MT 59806
(I don't have an account that can receive funds setup at paypal right now, though I might consider setting that up at some point. We'll see.) Blessed Be.