CC stood beside the truck, gazing up at the valley walls that towered high above him. Their height, and the illusion of their nearness, was accentuated by the darkness. Their looming mass would have seemed almost suffocating but for the tiny crystalline stars strewn in magnificent array across a cobalt sky.
A cricket chirped nearby, causing him to consider his own size in the scheme of things, while the stream sang an indifferent, but cheery counterpoint as it swept by.
He was exhausted. Climbing up on the running board, he leaned across the seat, reached into an open carton, felt for a can, and peeled off the top in the darkness. He was happily surprised to find that it contained peaches. Using the blade of his pocket knife to stab them, he ate them slowly, the aching solitude a fitting table from which to savor the sweet fruit, the hooting of an owl somewhere off in the trees adding to a sense of unreality.
Making his way to the stream bed, he knelt to rinse his hands and splash water over his face. When he returned to the truck, he crawled into the bed behind the driver’s seat and fell into a troubled sleep. Images of a burning house and blanket covered victims were succeeded by those of a cursing drunk, and then a car careening across a highway toward a turgid stream.
He awoke before the birds, soaked in sweat. The cab was foul from the stale air and from his unwashed body. He’d shut the windows tightly to keep out the mosquitoes but even so, one or two had troubled him much of the night. He felt stiff and miserable.
Climbing down from the cab, a whole new world opened before him. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, he instantly fell in love with this strange place. The long narrow defile through which he had pulled the rig was behind him. He saw that it was merely a bottleneck that formed the hidden entrance to the canyon in which he now found himself. He was parked toward the northeastern end of the valley, the small lake just a few hundred yards behind him.
He could see now that the pond was fed by a turbulent stream that ran right up the center of the valley, more or less parallel to the narrow log road on which he’d parked. It bubbled cheerily as it swept past on his left, nearly finished with its lilting roll down the valley. Most of the canyon still lay before him, to the west. Steep rock walls stood well out to either side, with the west end of the valley shrouded in fog. The surface of the water seemed to smoke in the morning chill, but the illusion of a peaceful stream was broken as he watched an uprooted tree sweep by, then slide across the surface of the pond before coming to rest against the shore near the mouth of the conduit.
The beauty of the early morning twilight seemed pregnant with possibilities, as though the earth, brooding over the coming day, was about to burst into light and song. A blanket of fog cloaked the northwest corner of the valley. The tops of scattered evergreens pierced this gauzy river which, like the stream, seemed to flow inexorably toward him. Yet, unlike the river, the fog was not confined by earthen banks. The breeze that wafted the mist down the valley was generated by interplays of heat and cold, born of convection currents that rose from winter-chilled and solar-heated masses of rock, from icy streams, from the sun-soaked earth and from the errant solar winds born of the rising sun.
As he watched, the trees morphed from an indistinguishable black velvet to a dark mossy green, their little detail picked out with a fine brush. The matte black water of the moving stream became a churning slate gray, and the fog took on an implausible turquoise hue. As the slopes at the far end of the valley caught the morning rays, he thought he saw a flash of light on his periphery. It came from across the lake, from the cliffside. Alarmed, he snapped his head to the left to study the pattern of shadows and light, but saw nothing unusual. He assumed that the rising sun had been reflected in a piece of mica or quartz imbedded in the northwest wall, but he nevertheless felt a vague disquiet because he was now unable to spot it.
This feeling, coupled with the sun’s growing illumination of the valley, made him realize that he was dangerously exposed. The unparalleled splendor of this first morning had, for a moment, made him forget his headache and grumbling stomach, but the fear of being discovered on this open valley floor banished any thought of those small discomforts. He was overtaken by his fears of the preceding evening, and he searched the sky to see whether his airborne antagonist might have made an early start in hopes of catching a careless refugee like himself.
Again he climbed to the seat of the big cab, saddened by the realization that this might be the last time he ever moved the truck. Moreover, it might be the last motor vehicle he would ever drive. The thought sobered him. He turned the key and listened as the engine cranked, pumping the precious vaporized fuel into its hungry cylinders.
His movements were slow and deliberate. He slipped the shifting lever in and out of gear, then settled it into low. Just this one last time he wanted to feel the machinery respond to his commands, for with this last drive he felt that an era was passing. He slipped the clutch, engaged it again, and finally let it completely out, feeling the torque bite the axle, the truck pulling slowly forward. He gently guided the rig up the rough, narrow wood road which lay well inland from the creek that was now hidden from view by massive rock formations.
To his right, a small but beautiful series of waterfalls crashed down the canyon’s north wall, then snaked across the valley floor toward the stream that bisected the valley.
Rolling forward at barely a walking pace, he swung around the larger boulders that had fallen from the canyon walls, and then had rolled hundreds of feet to lay like neglected grave markers along the overgrown roadway. When a turn in the stream’s path brought it close to the road, he found that he had to get down and pry a large rock from his path so that his wide rig could move safely between a steep bank and a stone wall.
Soon he found himself among giant conifers and a grove of ancient hardwoods. He crossed through a flower-laced meadow and, as with a well-groomed woman, seemed to sense rather than smell the bouquet of its perfume. Occasionally the road would cross over a narrow culvert where a foaming brook, born at the base of the cliffs on the north side of the valley, raced to unite with the larger stream on its long journey to the sea.
The stream itself was losing a little of its dynamism as he drew nearer to its source, for all down the length of the valley smaller streams had been adding their volume, resulting in the torrent that was ultimately released beneath the highway, another world away.
The big wheels of the tractor made slow but easy work of the neglected road. Not too neglected, he realized. Someone must have maintained the numerous culverts that carried the water beneath the road from the cliffs to the stream. CC was mesmerized by a herd of deer as they went leaping away across a meadow, the sun catching their white tails that seemed to wave like flags. Still the truck crept on, carrying him past the ruins of an old barn, and alongside uncultivated fields. This evidence that the vale appeared deserted did nothing to ease his misgivings.
The valley looked to be well over half a mile long. The trail he followed continued to parallel the right side of the stream, sometimes skirting it, sometimes drifting away into the woods and pastures, always following the easier terrain. For a time, he drove alongside a beach of hard-packed sand where weird and grotesque boulders, carved by untold centuries of wind and water, towered taller than his rig. Scoured into smooth and rounded monuments, the fantastic configurations seemed better suited to a museum of modern art than to this strange and deserted place.
He stopped the rig within a copse of tall trees where he felt reasonably safe from discovery. The air was redolent with the scent of evergreens, and he leaned back and closed his tired eyes against the glare, while he inhaled deeply to cleanse his head and heart of the shades of death which had been too long with him. He awoke in late morning, dripping with perspiration, the sun high overhead.
It was a warm day for early May. He looked at the massive rock walls that seemed to tower above him on his right, though they were actually hundreds of yards away. He realized that those steep cliffs would store the sun’s heat as well as protect the valley from winds which would otherwise dissipate that heat. Yet the warmth brought a sense of well-being to a heart that seemed long since deadened by discouragement and death.
His clothes were filthy and clung to his sweating body. He had worked hard, and hadn’t bathed in a couple of days. A bath was suddenly very important to him.