Authors: Brian Doyle
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The little crossroads hamlet called Zigzag in this book is
the actual little hamlet of the same name in Oregon in any way, shape, or form. I just love the name and borrowed it cheerfully thievingly. On the other hand, the Zigzag River in this book absolutely
the real Zigzag River on the holy mountain Wy’east, complete with tiny meadows and huge rocks and old cottonwoods and relentless burble and ice-cold pools clear as glass with young fish holding in them like tiny silver knives. My thanks to that brief but adamant river for allowing me to try to write down a bit of its story.
Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
We will never, we cannot, leave [animals] alone, even the tiniest one, ever, because we know we are one with them. Their blood is our blood. Their breath is our breath, their beginning our beginning, their fate our fate. Thus we deny them. Thus we yearn for them. They are among us and within us and of us, inextricably woven with the form and manner of our being, with our understanding and our imaginations. They are the grit and the salt and the lullaby of our language.
—PATTIANN ROGERS, “ANIMALS AND PEOPLE”
The unthinkable / is thinkable.
DAVE IS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD.
He is neither tall nor short. He is probably thinner than he should be, all things considered, according to his mom, who is deeply and continually amazed that a boy who eats ten sandwiches a day can somehow get skinnier and taller by the hour. She says he weighs basically the same as he did when he was the world’s fattest baby—except now he is five feet taller than he was then.
Dave lives with his mom and dad and one sister. His sister was the world’s second-fattest baby, but now she is almost six years old, and she too is getting skinnier and taller by the hour, says their mom. It appears to be a family thing, says their mom, and eventually you kids will be ten feet tall and weigh ten pounds each, and we will have to live in a tall, thin tower.
It is funny to hear her talk about this, says Dave, because as my dad says she might be five feet tall on a hot summer day, and she is getting smaller by the year. She sure is getting shorter every year, though, and if this continues, soon she will be the size of my sister, and my sister will have grown to be Mom’s former height, and everything will be all discombobulated.
Dave and his sister and mom and dad live in a cabin on Mount Hood in Oregon. Dave prefers to say that he lives on Wy’east, which is what the first people who lived on and around it called the mountain for thousands of years, rather than Hood, which is what some guy from another country called it one day, and
guy and his friends had guns, so
name for the mountain stuck, but it ought not to be the case, says Dave, that a guy with a gun gets to be the boss, especially of names, which are important. So Dave likes to say that he and his family live on Wy’east, so that is the name we will use for the rest of this story. Half of this story is Dave’s story, after all, so he gets a serious vote on names in the story. That’s only fair.
* * *
The cabin is near a small river called the Zigzag. It is called the Zigzag for reasons you can imagine. In the river there are all sorts of fish; Dave has counted nineteen species that he can identify and three that he cannot, yet. There are also a lot of other animals and insects, but Dave concentrates on the fish because they are interesting and good to eat. In the woods near the cabin and the river, there are all sorts of animals. Dave has counted more than seventy species and has drawn them on a chart in the cabin according to size. The chart hangs on the wall in his bedroom. His bedroom is the size of a black bear’s den, says Dave, who actually crawled into a black bear’s den once, after he and his dad made absolutely sure that no bear had been there for a long time. The biggest animal on Dave’s chart, curiously, is not a bear, although there are some tremendous bears in these woods, but an elk called Louis, who is half again as big as the biggest elk anyone has ever seen. Louis may be the most hunted being in the long history of the mountain, says Dave’s dad. You wouldn’t believe how many people buy hunting permits every year for the express purpose of shooting Louis, and every year someone claims they did so, and every spring Louis emerges again from the snowy wilderness of the woods, not at all dead, and looking slightly bigger, as if he’d spent the winter lifting weights in a cave somewhere. That is one mountainous elk, so to speak, says Dave’s dad, who says personally
will never shoot Louis, even if he had the chance, out of respect for Louis’s remarkable persistence and intelligence in avoiding people who would like nothing better than to shoot him. And Dave’s dad also refuses to even touch a gun anymore for various reasons. One of these days, if those hunters don’t watch out, says Dave’s dad, old
is going to learn how to use a rifle, and then it will be a donnybrook and brouhaha of rare proportions which we would be wise to avoid.
* * *
That is how Dave’s dad talks, with words like
, and he just expects you to know what he is talking about, says Dave, as if you too had read every book in the town library and every book in the bookstore’s lending library and every book in the lost-and-found library at Timberline Lodge up the mountain, where Dave’s mom works in laundry services. You would think that my dad had gone to college, says Dave, but this is not so, as yet. He
to go to college, but a war intervened, says my dad, and his personal compass got bruised and battered and set toward a new star. That’s how he explains it when people ask him about his past. He never says much about being in the war except that not going to college allowed him the extraordinary gift and privilege of meeting and subsequently courting Mom. Dad says if he had never been in the war and afterwards come up the mountain to get some peace and quiet and recover his shaken equilibrium, he would never have met Mom reading a book in the sun in the woods near the lodge, and if he had not met Mom, he would not have the surpassing benediction of being allowed to be the dad not only of me but my sister also, a clean sweep of the possible genders of children, says Dad, so that really, rather than be all upset about missing college and having to be in a war, maybe he should be
at missing college and filled with gratitude for having had the honor to serve his remarkable country in a war, however foolish war in general is, and especially in this particular case, was. This is how my dad talks, says Dave, interesting but at angles other than most people do. You have to listen pretty close when Dad talks, partly because sometimes he doesn’t talk at all for days, and then when he
talk, it sometimes seems like he is talking about something altogether other than what you thought you were talking about—but he’s not.
* * *
Dave is a regular guy. He is not particularly strong or athletic or brilliant in school or handsome or talented in music. He is a terrible skier, even though he lives on a mountain covered in snow every day of the year and people come from around the country to ski there and most of his friends and schoolmates ski easily and well because they live there and everyone skis well except for Dave. He is not much for snowboarding, either, or cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, even though most of the kids he knows do those things well as well. He does like snow, and he likes sliding down the mountain on garbage can lids and old tire tubes, but he doesn’t
snow, like his classmates. Most of his classmates either love snow or say they do, and they have ambitions to be ski racers and snowboard stars and travel around in cool vans and get free money from ski and snowboard companies for simply skiing and snowboarding with panache and brio.
Whereas in Dave’s experience, skiing and snowboarding inevitably mean freezing and soaking and crashing into bushes and thickets and desperately avoiding trees and then slogging all the way back to the place where you started. In Dave’s experience, cool snowy mountain adventures usually conclude with a bad head cold and something that you hope is only sprained rather than actually broken, which will cost the family money which we do not have.
love being in the woods, even in the snow, and he does love walking and running for miles and miles in dense and unpopulated forest and climbing above the tree line and gaping at the line of mountains running south in a straight line from Wy’east all the way to the California border on a good day. He loves that more than anything except his mom and dad and sister, and he loves that his mom and dad are cool enough to trust him to walk and run alone in the vast forests of the mountain, carrying only water and a compass and a poncho. They started letting him wander in the woods when he was ten years old. First he was allowed to wander anywhere within a mile, as long as he was home before dark and avoided the road and the river; as his dad said one million times, the highway was far more dangerous than anything he would ever encounter in the woods, even bears and cougars, and the river was where accidents went when they wanted to happen.
When Dave was twelve years old he was allowed to wander anywhere he wanted, as long as he brought a compass, a poncho, and a bottle of water. His dad went over topographic and weather maps of the mountain one million times with him until he was sure that Dave knew every river coming off the mountain, every road to avoid, and the most pressing concerns about weather; of all the places on this green earth where weather can hurt or kill you right quick, said his dad, this is the king of those places, more than a desert or an ocean. Snow comes fast, temperature drops fast, rain turns to ice fast, rivers burst their banks fast. Know where you are, and be wary of the weather; within those constraints, you are a free man with your time, if your domestic and academic responsibilities have been executed responsibly.