31 March. San Jose (72°F) to Anchorage (33°F)
The evidence of Levi's disorganization finally presents itself in this, their first trip where he's the one responsible for the details, where he had insisted on being solely responsible. It's two o'clock and they have four hours to get on a plane. Plenty of time if you're prepared. They aren't. He finally mentions they can only bring what'll fit in a hiking backpack. He's still packing his own, somehow both oblivious to and anxious about the passage of time as he packs and unpacks, trying to find room for his new gore-tex boots, searching for his multi-tool and knife, unsure where his wallet or keys are. When Caleb finally takes the reigns, they are getting perilously close to too late, and the bay traffic won't lend them any favors. He gets them into an efficient hustle, corralling Levi's erratic impulses into something focused. They're packed. They're driving. They arrive at the ticket counter — albeit with the subaru left misleadingly in short term parking. They're asked if they want to book return tickets... because they were never booked. Levi's confusion looks like it will evolve immediately into an argument — but they don't have time for that. They take the least inconvenient flight for Saturday morning. There. Done.
They don't have time to get a drink or even eat before they're bundled onto the 6pm flight to Anchorage (by way of Seattle), knees knocking, searching through the coach 'menu' for something to eat. Levi has given himself the aisle seat and forces Caleb to sit in the middle, but this doesn't help his growing anxiety any. If anything, he's resentful of the guy on Caleb's other side, who passes out instantly and doesn't wake up til they land. He pretends he's fine. Caleb knows he isn't. During some turbulence over Seattle (thanks rainstorm), he grips his thigh so tight, the evidence will show up tomorrow in five livid spots.
They're in late and without time to see if Starbucks in Seattle is any better than it is in Oakland, rush immediately into the next plane, off to Anchorage. Levi's given up whatever pretense of fine-ness he's been hanging onto for the last three hours and crams himself into Caleb's side to try (and fail) to nap, one earbud from his phone pressed into each of their ears and the trip playlist blasting, while he draws shapes into the flat canvas of his chest and blots out the rest of the world.
The rest of the evening is a blur of Anchorage at midnight, a hotel shuttle, and then the blessed warmth of their bed and each others' arms. Just before passing out, Levi murmurs a self-satisfied happy birthday to me under Caleb's ear, like he hadn't spent the last five hours testing his patience. Tangling his hair up in his fingertips and pressing an easy smile into his jaw, he sleeps soundly.
1 April. Anchorage (35°F) to Denali (-24°F)
Their breakfast is lazy and outdoors, snuggled into the hotel blankets and their sweatpants and each other, taking in the incredible sights of Anchorage. Levi sips on Caleb's tea and then, nose wrinkled, returns to his own black coffee and the thick sides of ham and mountain of potatoes. Eat up he says, with that knowing tone of you'll need it.
Last night's discomfort seemingly forgotten, Levi is in good spirits as he unveils the next detail of the day, gesturing to a red plane bobbing a couple hundred feet away at the Lake Spenard dock. They are off to sightsee with a bush plane tour around Denali that will drop them on a Denali glacier.
(And then on to their next destination).
1 April. Denali to Talkeetna (50°F) to the Wilds (34°F)
After the tour, the plane takes them to Talkeetna, a town comprising less than 900 residents. As a thoroughfare for Denali, its most interesting feature is that it once had a cat for mayor. (Levi reads this fact off the back of a roadhouse menu as he scarfs biscuits and reindeer gravy, trying to quiz Caleb on whether he can tell the reindeer sausage from the pork).
Where to next? He finally admits that he doesn't actually know where they'll end up. They're going to hike to a no nonsense cabin in the wilderness about six miles north of Talkeetna. And, knowing that The Ritual remains on their minds: he casually mentions that it's through a dense and rocky forest.
They won't be alone yet; for this leg of the journey, they'll be guided North by Walt, a weathered fifty-something who looked more like a leather approximation of a mountain man than what you'd see in the movies. His hands are thick and brown and tough over a rough road map; its inadequate two dimensions show only a huge swathe of green, the forest, with some crude thin streams of blue and one or two lakes. Walt notes with a grimacing smile that the map isn't too accurate. Got this before google satellite maps, he says, not remotely apologetic. Walt is not a man with much interest in or respect for technology. It's hard to get signal out here anyway, in the vast unexplored and untamed wilderness. An inaccurate map and a compass will have to suffice.
It's no easy hike. The hills roll through swamp and melting river runoff, which cuts mercilessly across the path — if you can call it that, this thinned out, unforgiving trail through thick bush — for long sucking straights. Walt's dog stays ahead with him; the two of them are tireless and uncompromising, and the citydwellers are left to pick their way through and keep up or get left behind. (Your man's face when he realizes the closest McDonald's is 71 miles away). It's an honest test of their skills, as beautiful as it is difficult. White topped mountains peer down at them over top the green fingers of spruce and larch, a veil of impenetrable fog making the distinction between land and sky hazy and inscrutable. There is snow in some places, unwilling to melt. In others, the winter sun beats down on them in a merciless laser. By mile four, Levi's knee begins to hurt in earnest and they break for about fifteen minutes, the only time they stop. Lingering too long anywhere with the smell of breakfast on them is a good way to bring in the bears.
They make the cabin by mid afternoon and Walt walks them through their surroundings before he goes. It is as simple as this: there are fish in the lake, grouse in the bush, and rations in the cabin. Do not leave food out. There is a first aid kit for minor problems, a shotgun for bears and a walkie talkie for emergencies. The outhouse is a short walk. Use all the wood you need and replace all the wood you use in the outdoor wood pile. There is a small generator for the cabin lights but no other electricity. Need water? Lake, snow, or a nearby stream.
With any questions they had answered succinctly, Levi and Walt say goodbye and Caleb bids adieu to Dog.
After that, they're on their own.
April 2. 6:31 AM Dawn. 9:38 PM Dusk. 29°F–50°F
Nothing has quite captured the joy of Mt. Diablo until they're waking up hike-sore in a cabin in Alaska, woodfire stove going, their two bodies thrown together in sweats and sleeping bags, the morning clinging to their foreheads in a thin shimmer of warmth. Beyond the clouded windows, the morning seems more like an apocalypse come early. Here where the earth is tilting ever closer as they hurtle through the universe, the unfathomable glow of the rising sun catches all its earthly filth and scratches. Levi coils his arms around Caleb to cage him in, sleep-snoozing in small stretches as the tenor of the light subtly shifts from shrill yellow-white to a hazy orange. The mushroom cloud to the fallout.
But eventually Caleb must get up to tuck more wood into the stove. When he returns Levi tucks into him, nocking his chin into his neck, slotting his knee between Caleb's thighs. It's round and soft, swollen, sore and so he puts it in this safe place, contained. It also feels good, the pain, the way he feels good any time he pushes himself too hard, for too long. The exhaustion that forces all of him open. He is receptive, to the light and the warmth and the lacunae between dreams, when all the meaning floods in.
They could stay here forever, like this. But they don't. They rise. One by one the jackets and pants and boots come down from around the stove where they'd hung all night like garlands, drying. There's a pleasant warmth to them. They find oatmeal in the tiny cupboards and set to making it with powdered milk and oil and dried fruit that Levi finds as he explores, his curious fingers prising each cabinet open in turn to see what secrets await. It's only food now, in April. All the errant bugs or mosquitos or spiders of summer are long since turned to dust. He also finds pots and pans, some meant for cooking over bare fire — maybe they'll try this later — some not. Salt and spices, bags of old tea, mugs and plates and a chipped ramekin, a box of arm and hammer. He laughs, wonders if keeping the cupboards fresh is really a priority here, where the air tastes like it just came off a glacier and the sky is so clean the sun just pours through it.
They eat on the floor in front of the fire, and it tastes good. Then they set out in all their warm gear.
Full on oatmeal and jerky, they travel light through the trees, though Caleb's got a skillet in his bag and Levi's got a bum knee so it goes slowly. Everything is slow, all the hours stretched long across the day by a wilderness that has never known rushing and won't rush for two men picking their way through it. They peel off their gloves and run bare hands over trees that have been growing for a hundred years, lean and tall with myriad branches stretching up in earnest prayer. Levi puts his back to one and lets Caleb press into him, the bony elbows of a larch needling his shoulderblades as their kissing also becomes an earnest prayer, and their shared breath grows quick and their gloves and bags and hats fall to the ground so they can worship in earnest with jagged sounds and rough movements. They lay on the ground after and look up at the sky through the trees.
"Sometimes I think about how the earth will just carry on without us if we destroy ourselves. Do you know what I mean?"
The rest of their day is simple and wonderful: bacon on a skillet over an impromptu fire, granola bars and clean water. They spy a red fox poking near the tree line, trying to make sense of these new smells and watch it watching them, the amber eyes alert and nose active. It disappears back into the trees. It knows that no good comes of men.
They clean and move on, and Levi is alive with the newness of this: do not leave a footprint and tread lightly. He is not this way, but he can be. He can be many things, and most of them here, and with Caleb.
Back home, by the lake, they try their hand at fishing with mixed success. Mixed because Levi doesn't understand that the joy of fishing is in sitting and waiting and talking. He is either too interested in the talking (so that the fish carry off his lure and leave him with a broken line) or too focused on forcing the fish to bite — which naturally he cannot do. It rapidly becomes apparent that his earlier boast (I'm gonna get ten times more fish than you) is not coming to fruition. Caleb has two fish and Levi has none.
(A bear is the only witness to this failure. They see it on the far side of the lake, just before heading in to lock the fish in the icebox... and the cub at her heels.)
"Watch yourself," Levi says to the bear.
And like his voice is traveling on the breeze, she looks up and considers them.
April 3. 6:28 AM Dawn. 9:41 PM Dusk. 17°F–39°F
Wednesday brings a new kind of waking up: the kind where the concept of Wednesday has become irrelevant and they've begun to sync with a part of themselves that is very old and very wise. Waking brings something different about the cabin and the world just beyond, they can feel it even in their bed. Caleb has to prise himself out of Levi's reluctant arms a little earlier to top off the wood in the stove. The windows are edged with frost and when they turn to it, their breaths foam on the air before joining a thousand glittering beads of a thousand breaths from the night before.
They fuck and it's quiet and soft, sleepy, warm. They make love.
You are real to me. From Levi's heart to Caleb's ear, but also from the tight knit of his arms, bone to sinew, from the gentle sounds he can make when he can stand to be gentle, more of a sigh than anything — a primordial language that came before all the others and lives in their shared dna. He can stand to be gentle here. He can stand what it means to be slow. What it says about him. The truth is this: he is in love and he is weak.
They have coffee on the porch and watch the sky wake from a monumental slumber, its unfurling pink tongue licking its mountain teeth while its breath sticks like foam, no difference between god and man in a cold world. The fog of its belly expands with every breath, swallowing the mountain and then swallowing the tree trail down to its valley groin. From there the fog lumbers toward them in silent threat. A storm is coming and they don't have much time. But on the porch it feels like forever, with safety so near. Safety to a man is a closed door, this is a newer instinct, but—
—there, just a few feet away. Levi sees it.
They move quietly, these boys, because they know what it is before they can get a good look. The animal of them knows, the lizard, with darting eyes and a testing tongue, its every cell understanding danger above all else.
Bear. Levi is down on his knees, hand stretched out and pressed into the earth. He and Caleb are not small men, but next to this massive paw print in the earth, they may as well be children, waiting for the neat sound of a fist. With claws.
They know the door is not far, and the shotgun is not far beyond it, but these two men don't run for safety, they stay here and squint towards the oncoming storm, for where the trail ends.
That way, Levi says.
Caleb can see farther. Into the treeline.
They stand and wait, these two lean figures cut against milk white fog pouring through the trees. They wait for a mother bear and her cubs to come ambling out of the trees and the sequence of events this will set into motion. Levi's breath falls into a pattern so old he almost can't remember when it started. Diligent breath, slow breath, you could almost believe he isn't there, but for a racing heart. Excited heart, ready to face the consequences, ready for life or death. He'd been born ready for it — everyone is — and now the promise is just there in the ocean of green and brown.
They stand there so long the fog rolls around their ankles.
The snow starts soon after.
They go inside and eat. Plain food first, oatmeal and granola bars, coconut oil off the spoon because their bodies need it and it's fucking strange and good. Peanut butter and then peanut butter kisses.
Later, as the snow thickens, they get bolder, cooking up fish and potatoes, Levi sitting there peeling, earnest and careful — more careful than he's ever done anything probably — with the edge of a hunting knife. Caleb shows him how to do it and Levi laughs. They teach you that in the catering corps? And nicks himself on the knife for his joke. They eat and laugh together, talking. They lay together and nap. They stare out the window and draw crude drawings. Then re-enact them.
Later still, they venture outside, mucking around in the fresh snow, already a foot thick but light enough that it won't last. It won't pack into snowballs so they cram fist fulls into each others' faces, laughing, make snow blobs on their backs and sighing to the spitting sky.
They heat a bucket of snow to just below boiling and make coffee. Levi has his on the floor, cradled between Caleb's knees, head bent so that his back is a curving, yielding bow. He thinks first how strange this is, how foreign. Not the strong palms kneading and rubbing sweat away with hot water. Not the fingers roughing dirt out of his hair. But this. Submission. No, it's—
He gropes for a word as Caleb runs a steaming cloth down the winged blades of his shoulders, up his spine. He gropes for it as the windows cloud and time begins to stre e e e tch over the seconds. When Caleb presses his face into him, and Levi looks up, eyes all liquid and uncertain, it comes to him.
Yes, he surrenders to these hands. He surrenders to the man that wrote him a letter, the man to whom he couldn't even say thank you. He surrenders his body, leans heavy into the shape of these thighs and the belly, not to take charge of some part of him for once, but to simply exist. He surrenders to the helplessness, the weakness of it, he surrenders to needing to be taken care of. Fuck, shit, damn. There is a chorus of voices that clamor at him: bitch boy, sissy, fucking f——, but none of these voices are his own. There's heat pricking at the corners of his eyes and he surrenders to this too. I need you. Yes. I need you.
Later they hold hands where no one can see them, under the unearthly green glow of the night sky, unfolding like an apology: only the sky doesn't make apologies. Neither do they. It snowed down eighteen inches on them because it could, and then took them away. The bear tracks are obscured now with frozen lace, and here and there the evidence of the storm peeks between shining wet rocks. But the storm is gone. The bear is gone. The sky turns into deep black. And they are, as they have always been in this world: alone.
April 4. 6:24 AM Dawn. 9:44 PM Dusk. 23°F–41°F
The snow is gone when they take their coffees out and consider the world beyond their safe, warm womb for the first time that day. The idea of Thursday is less abstract than Wednesday, because there is a kind of anticipation that comes of knowing tomorrow they must leave, even when they don't want there to be. They sit with it, coiled together like rutting snakes, which Levi tells Caleb about in excruciating detail as he wakes up, finding it funny for some reason, how they writhe and writhe tighter around each other and then fling themselves apart.
(They writhe tighter and he kisses him softly on the lips, tasting like coffee. Did you know snakes smell with their tongues, Levi asks, dreamily. Caleb did.)
With the snow relegated to nothing more than soft crunches under bracken where it's clinging to the cold, they go hiking again, winding long and slow around the lake, touching wet sprigs with their bare hands, sinking in where the rolling hills were soft and yielding, scraping where it gave way to loose and razor sharp rock. The shotgun is on Levi's back today. Caleb has a rifle they liberated from the outhouse, after a long discussion about why it was there in the first place. The last thing a man wants when he's shitting is for a wolf to come nosing around.
Caleb had smiled and Levi felt like his whole world was ending.
In a good way. If you can call it that
With this rifle they pluck two grouse out of the underbrush, easy. One bullet to the head. Twice. No muss of the shotgun pellet. But also no thrill of the chase, no pleasure in stalking — though Caleb had told Levi once he could find no pleasure in killing animals anyway. Levi wonders idly if that extended to people. He thinks of Frank and Colombia and revenge and decides that it likely doesn't always.
The field dressing takes ages. Levi explains how to pull the feathers without tearing the skin — no easy feat with grouse and that thin skin — but no explaining makes the task go faster. They sip their rations, eat, keep plucking. They do their best, leave the heads and feet and entrails in the brush for the foxes, and then circle back round the long way as Levi explains there's a faster, more wasteful way. They're hungry. There will be no waste.
Back home (yes, it's home now), they scrub down and settle in for a spell.
Levi fishes around in his pack and draws out a book, taking up the valuable room that another pair of socks — or perhaps eight granola bars — could have been using. Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris. It looks worse for wear, like Levi's had it in more than one backpack on more than one occasion. Years old, pages dog eared and then dog eared again, scrunched and brown where he had probably spilled coffee on it, bent from being sat on or fallen on, green at the spine, maybe — hopefully — from grass. A receipt so old the ink has worn away falls as he shuffles a lean finger through it, then another one from the back cover, maybe six months old: NAPA Auto Parts. They look out of place there on the cabin floor, a reminder of the place they'll have to go back to eventually, of the endless materialism and blind eye to nature. It feels wrong, ugly. Levi gets down on his bad knee and scrapes them off the floor, cramming them into his fist and then into his pocket, almost like an apology.
If Levi apologized.
For once he doesn't hand this book over to Caleb, doesn't say read this. He also doesn't make any excuses, or explain himself. They nestle together because Caleb doesn't need explanations. He is a willing body and Levi wraps around him, the little pricks of string lights providing just enough light for him to read without squinting.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.
He doesn't read very well.
Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, salt-silvered wood in the clear light. "I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work," he said. "You don't want to talk about it here."
"I don't want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You've got to talk about it, so let's have it. Just don't get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase. Molly and Willy will be back soon."
It's clumsy, slow, he sometimes reads things twice and doesn't know he's read them twice. Sometimes he does know. But he continues anyway for a time, picking his way through each sentence with a low and earnest roughness, like he's reading something important. In some way or another it is, but more important is the quiet tenderness of a shared moment, a rebellion against who he is or maybe it's who he's always been.
He closes the book finally and sets it aside and they sit in the silence and he can stand it. Silence. His own thoughts punctuated by the stove as it chews through aged wood.
We should chop before the snow starts again.
It's not a matter of if, not here. Whether it's before they leave or after, the temperature will always drop again. The snow will always come again. There is a comforting rhythm to the wild here that they've only just begun to tap into. A rhythm that stretches from the yawning caverns of ice canyons to the frozen lace trees and blue, impenetrable lakes. A rhythm that has gone on for thousands of millions of years and won't stop for them and won't stop long after their dust is whipping together through radioactive air currents, or buried together in a hole in the ground. The magnitude of it is overwhelming, armed only with an axe and a parka.
But they take control of their environment, these few feet of it, and they do what they can. Chopping wood, chopping vegetables, tucking the plucked birds into a skillet and basting them with oil as they cook long and slow because everything here is long and slow.
They eat one apiece and are still hungry enough for the vegetables. Chopping wood is hungry work.
For once, when Caleb boils up water and makes tea, Levi has a mug of it, feeling it warm him from the inside out. He lays sleepily in Caleb's chest and stares out the glowing cabin at the beautiful expanse of the universe stretching on into infinity. He say it's fine, I guess and means I understand.
April 5. 6:20 AM Dawn. 9:47 PM Dusk. 25°F–43°F
It's the last day.
They know it's the last day from the moment they wake up, clinging to each other in body but to the land, and the cabin, in spirit.
Breakfast is huge, the remaining eggs fried crisp with thick oil, grated potatoes that Levi squeezes out with a towel, after trying to remember anything useful from the seasons of Alton Brown he watched in recovery. All of it is a piecemeal mishmash of questionable memory. His greatest contribution is wet vegetables will steam instead of sear, and he says this with the kind of certainty that he says most things, though he has no idea if it's true. They find a bit of ground venison in the back of the icebox and assume it will be fine if fried long enough.
After, they lay around, waiting for the heavy food to sink into them. A long day awaits.
But before that, Levi slides something out of his pocket.
Two somethings, really.
First: a chunk of mottled brown. From our hike yesterday, and maybe Caleb remembers him bending briefly to retrieve something from the ground, something forgettable. I think it's mammoth ivory. You could carve it or polish it or something. He hands this over, like a boy giving his crush a shiny rock, or his favorite, most abused toy. It's worse for wear, chipped in many places, probably no good for shining up — but it's theirs.
Second, a couple crumpled pieces of paper. Written over and scribbled, Levi's handwriting looking precisely as it ought to, somehow, loose and erratic, all the letters awkwardly spaced like a man who hadn't had much practice writing and wasn't used to putting things in lines. Some in pencil and some in pen, blue ink smudged with black, the evidence of revisiting it again and again.
I never wrote a poem before. It's not an excuse or an apology. If anything he had been curious about the process and unsure how to learn. I wanna try again soon.
I want to wake to an ending world. it would start like this: men making bad decisions. no. we are the men. and we are the decisions. I want the world to end like this: bad decisions making men like us. but we wake and end the world. but we wake and make we the world.
we are dry desert animals in a long dry spell we pride ourselves on going without wear the badge of it in our fur praise the space between our meals the holes between our teeth we move without eat without fuck without but when the summer storm opens its belly we split open, wide and yawning learn with from the drowning
Later, they pack.
The trail back to Takeetna is arduous, like moving against gravity. Walt and Dog seem no more happy to see them alive than Levi supposes they'd be to see them dead, though Caleb has a scrap of venison in his fist for Dog. Fast friends. Walt asks if they've seen bears about. They have. He issues the closest thing to a compliment he seems capable of giving: "Thought you'd call in for sure." They didn't.
The bush plane is waiting, and it's a short ride this time, no glacier visits or peak flights. They are back in Anchorage, and the hotel is waiting. Amazing how long a day can be in the wilderness, and how short in civilization. They marvel over the coffee and tea options in the hotel, a strange luxury after merely five days away.
April 6. 6:21 AM Dawn. 9:45 PM Dusk. 34°F–52°F
They leave early, at dawn's first light. But the flight from Anchorage is delayed, so they stroll through the airport, looking lazily at the art dotting the corridors or hanging from the ceiling. Here in the airport, the bushplane looks large and looming. Out on the glacier, it was a mere red speck, a blemish in the endless white. Humans are always pulling in the world around them, Levi thinks, staring up at the plane — talking about great rooms and vaulted ceilings, pittances of freedom in their meager domains. The fear of the vaulted sky keeping them cowering indoors. He understands it, in the way that anyone with half a brain can still feel the primordial fear in their dna, the way the cave calls to a man when the shadows are stretching too far. But he also understands that shadows seem longer in the cave than on the ground.
It had felt good to be out there in the face of real danger. Like a gauze had been lifted momentarily from him. He has never been to war, he has never been to a developing country, he's never made much of a habit of backpacking or camping. Levi's brushes with death have always been of his own making, a strange construction of metal and gasoline. Racing is the closest he's ever felt to being out here in Alaska, on alert, his body an animal smelling for danger and for prey.
They stop at the next art exhibit and read.
Crested auklets nest in colonies on rugged cliffs around the Bering Sea. After being caught with long-handled nets, they are traded as a delicacy from Diomede to Wales, where villagers age and eat them, sometimes referring to them as "stink birds."
Levi laughs, and wraps his arms around Caleb, right here in the airport in a red state where everyone can see them. I'm your stinky bird he says, a husky sound against a notched ear.
The flights aren't long. The drive is even shorter.
And then they are back in the thick of it, neat houses like little tombstones, all lined up and clean. And they fall into bed and into each other, still roiling from the memory of it, still turning around each other in the endless and hyperfocused orbit that is each man to the other.
And eventually they sleep.