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The Circle

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The Circle

  The Circle

  Kurt Manship

  Copyright 2014 by Kurt Manship

  The solitary man walked briskly through the large stretch of open meadow, surrounded on all sides by sparse mixed stands of evergreen trees and underbrush. The distant snowcapped mountains and the abundant lush greenery added to the beauty of the warm cloudless day. The man's confident and determined pace and his strident yet relaxed movements, despite a noticeable laziness in the rhythm of his arms, indicated that he was someone who felt at home in this place. And he truly did feel at home here, many miles from the nearest man-made structure that could be called a house and miles further still from any place he had ever been prior to a day ago.

  For nearly sixty years now, ever since his father had taken him on a week-long backpacking trip as a teenager, the wilderness – all wilderness – had become a second home to him. Not really a physical home but a spiritual and emotional home. The wilderness was where his mind spent many of its daydreaming hours. In the form of specific carefully selected locations, the wilderness was also where he physically had spent much of his free time – time that was never substantial, but always more precious than any other except for the quality time he had spent with his family. How fortunate he had always felt that he had grown up, made his career, and raised his family so near to some of the largest remaining expanses of “unimproved” landscape in the lower 48 states. That his father knew and appreciated the wilderness and had made the effort to share his love of it with him always kindled feelings of gratitude within him.

  Less than a couple of miles back the man had veered off the only established trail in the area. Since then he had been walking on untrammeled ground, void of evidence of human impact. He carried with him only a small backpack which could not possibly contain sufficient supplies for him to spend a safe or comfortable night in the out of doors – especially at this high elevation which promised near freezing nights even after warm summer days such as this one. Yet the man's current distance from the nearest road and the angle of the late afternoon sun made it clear that within a few hours darkness and cold would engulf him without the comfort of tent, sleeping bag, pad, or pillow.

  Grizzly bears, and wolves and a few black bears too, inhabited this area. The man was well aware of that fact. It was essential to his design. Bears often infiltrated his thoughts and dreams of wilderness. Occasionally, real bears appeared to him also. On the third morning of his very first backpacking trip, as he stepped onto a footbridge crossing a small river, he looked up to find himself face to face with an adult black bear who had decided to cross the river from the opposite direction. Bear and boy stared at each other for an unforgettable moment in time from a distance of only about 40 feet. But in that moment the boy connected with that bear and, he felt, with all bears, in a way that would forever attach itself to him. When that magical moment had elapsed to its completion, the bear quickly turned tail and sped away into the forest. The transfixed boy, meanwhile, promptly retreated to his father at the nearby camp and excitedly reported the incident which for him marked the beginning of a lifelong reverence and awe for bears.

  Over the intervening decades on a few random, unexpected, and thrilling occasions he had other encounters with his favorite animal species. Once while driving a rough, winding, and lonely road through sagebrush-covered hills, two small black furry cubs came into view as he rounded a curve. He watched them for a few cherished seconds as they frolicked and wrestled with each other on the road, oblivious to the slow moving vehicle that carefully came to a stop just a few feet away. That sight also fixed itself into the man's memory. His wife, who had been fast asleep in the seat beside him, after being gently coaxed awake and focusing her eyes on the wonder in front of her, expressed more enthusiasm than the man had ever heard from her over any scene of natural wonder. “Oh, they are so cute,” she exclaimed. Seconds later the two cubs suddenly took notice and scampered off the road and down the slope to the nearby riparian area where their mother certainly lurked in the cover and safety it offered.

  Reminiscing about his wife brought on a melancholy in the man. His marriage was probably typical for couples who spend nearly all of their adult lives together. They loved each other and were always faithful and devoted despite having to deal with many of the struggles and difficulties that are common in marriages and in raising children. He felt no regrets about any of the major decisions in his life and an overall satisfaction with everything. But he did feel sadness when he thought about the cruel illness that had quickly and unexpectedly taken his companion of nearly fifty years from him less than a year ago. But that sadness dissipated considerably when he reminded himself that she would be spared the same pain he had experienced on the occasion of her illness and death. Grief and heartache, he knew, constituted a significant part of every worthwhile and fulfilling life. And even though he had endured his share of adversity, he felt that he had managed to achieve happiness by always striving to focus the truly important things in life. He now understood how Lou Gehrig, whom he had just recently come to admire more than ever, could make his famous statement that he considered himself to be the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

  A large boulder, suitable for his needs, just within the forest cover made a good resting spot. Even though the man was not tired he climbed onto the rock, removed his pack, sat, rested, and took in the wondrous view of the earth and sky. Here, under this rock, would be a good place to hide his things, he thought. Perhaps trained hounds could track and discover his hidden items here, but that would never happen. No one would think to search here. He was sure of that. The man enjoyed a moment of prideful exuberance as he considered the ingenious puzzle he was leaving behind. No one would even know he was missing for at least a couple of weeks, and the tell-tale clues he had left behind would more likely lead searchers to other more personally familiar locations. Getting here without leaving a trace of his travels or his destination was the trickiest arrangement of all, but the man was satisfied that his identity and presence at these coordinates at this time were known, and would remain known, only to God and himself.

  Perhaps an hour passed before the man made his move. He slowly and methodically removed all of his clothing except for his uncharacteristic camouflaged briefs. He chuckled about how noticeable he would be if he had worn his usual whitey-tighties. From his pack he removed a pair of all-leather moccasins, slipped them onto his feet and laced them up snugly but comfortably. He then removed four flimsy plastic containers of various sizes – the largest being a 16 oz. store-bought bottle of water. He stuffed his clothes into his pack which he then wedged into the good-sized crevice where the boulder met the rest of the earth. With his back against the boulder and pushing with his legs he gave it a solid heave. Slowly the boulder rolled just enough to allow the pack to slide a few inches further underneath. After the man allowed the boulder to roll back to its natural position, and after rearranging a few nearby rocks and branches, his belongings and the fact that he was ever there were effectively concealed. The boulder had been heavier than he expected, and he paused a moment hoping to regain some of his lost energy. He was thankful that the strength in his legs, unlike in his arms, was only slightly diminished.

  Ready now for the next leg of his journey, the man gathered his containers into his hands and began walking. His gait was now less strident, less deliberate, but still assured in its direction, which he knew would take him even further away from the nearest, but now distant, trails and roads. After a mere half mile the man opened up the two medium sized plastic containers from which he poured and scooped out into his hands quantities of bacon grease and salmon oil. These he applied liberally over all of his exposed skin. Native Americans, he had re
ad, used the grease from bear fat in this same way to protect themselves from mosquitos and other biting insects. He saw no reason to believe that bacon grease would not serve that purpose just as well.

  After tossing the two empty grease containers into a nearby clump of thick brush, the man continued on his way. He was now encumbered only by his water bottle and the smallest of the four containers. He walked on at the same relaxed pace as before, his thoughts and his senses more focused than ever. A childhood visit to the pioneer cemetery in Idaho City played out in his mind. One special grave there epitomized his current endeavor. Even as a young boy he had understood and accepted.

  He walked on, sipping a little water now and then. His destination could not be far. Darkness was only an hour or two off. He could not guess whether or not he would put to use the contents of the small container. Only two scenarios were possible now. Which one would play out was not for him to decide. He was not even sure which scenario he preferred. But he was sure that he would recognize the place he was looking for – if he actually got that far.

  * * * * *

  Near the recently revitalized ghost town of Idaho City, Idaho, is the town cemetery. Like many such frontier-town cemeteries, it is nicknamed Boot Hill. The cemetery entered into being at the same time as the 1863 gold rush which created the town. Ponderosa pines dominate the landscape around Idaho City, and the cemetery is no exception.

  During the intervening century between the town's gold bust and its revitalization, the cemetery was largely neglected and ill-maintained if not completely forgotten. Like most frontier-town cemeteries, the graves there are placed and oriented somewhat haphazardly. Time has erased most of the evidence of many of the sites. Others are only slightly more discernible. Still, there are many that are quite identifiable due to their large headstones or other man-made markers. Fences, composed of rusted metal or decayed wood, mark off the boundaries of a few.

  One special grave sports a modest headstone and a 150 year-old wooden fence. Within the confines of this fence, and even distorting it at one corner and dislodging the grave's headstone, grows a massive Ponderosa – centered precisely over the place where one would expect to have been the heart of the dearly departed some six feet below. The tree's size suggests that it must have sprouted within a very short time after the interment of the grave's resident.

  * * * * *

  “Hey Jason, come here, you've got to see this.”

  “What is it?”

  “Just come here and see for yourself.”

  Cole hurriedly zipped up his pants and walked the few steps to the location that had caught his attention and piqued his curiosity. Jason, meanwhile took his time emptying his bladder before heading toward Cole. Both of them had dropped their heavy backpacks just off the trail, but on their belts they each carried sizable canisters of powerful capsaicin-laced bear spray. It would be foolish to hike in this area without it, the ranger had told them.

  “That is one massive bear crap,” said Cole. “There must be at least a gallon here, maybe two. I'll bet that bear feels better now.”

  The scat was spread over an area at least four feet in diameter. The bear had obviously been in a state of intestinal distress when it had paused here to relieve itself, the result being the object of Cole and Jason's current fascination. “A major blowout” is how Cole referred to what the bear must have experienced. The outer edges of the befouled area consisted of mostly undigested or partially-digested mountain ash berries. The two hikers had seen large numbers of the solid orange berries growing abundantly along the trail as they hiked. They both had wondered aloud whether or not a bear would eat such a bitter and seemingly un-nutritious snack. The evidence in front of them offered an unequivocal answer.

  “What is that?” asked Jason, pointing to the main deposit, a conic-shaped pile of fresh putrid fecal matter eight inches tall. “It looks like a leather string or cord of some kind.”

  About two inches of leather lacing was protruding from the pile. How much of the lacing remained hidden within the pile the two hikers could not surmise. But upon slightly closer inspection they also noticed a small amount of fabric, stained and shredded and therefore difficult to discern or positively identify. And although neither hiker felt inclined to prod or poke around forensically in the scat, they both would conclude that the fabric, if that was what it really was, had a camouflage pattern to it.

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