Franz Jørgen Neumann
That Susan. She was right about catastrophe. And having planned so meticulously for its arrival, she’s not alarmed now that it’s here. She’s calm around the girls and around you and even when alone, like now. You watch her kneading dough, her lips singing a song you can’t hear through the window. Her hair is streaked with flour. She’ll still be lovely when she’s gray. You’re outside chopping wood and shooing biting flies, out of her league but somehow her husband and father to three girls. And yet you’re not completely on board with Plan B.
For one thing, the five of you have only stayed here at the cabin during the warm summers, and never for more than a few weeks. Susan wants to remain through winter and then some, until the pandemic is over. There’s nothing you can say that will talk her out of it, especially as she’s already turned the cabin into a walk-in pantry. There are more dry goods here than in the nearest store, enough propane tanks for a thousand BBQs, toilet paper that could stretch to the moon, plus two packed refrigerators and a deep freeze, all powered by the solar array. And, whenever you finish splitting the wood, there’ll be enough fuel to get you through a Sierra winter.
It’s not cabin fever you fear. There’s an old TV with a VHS player and plenty of tapes, and a wall with hundreds of books that Susan has brought up here on each visit to this getaway built by her grandfather on a grandfathered plot just within the border of Sequoia National Park. Susan has placed the unread books pages out so they’re not judged when it’s time to pick a new read. Reading is Susan’s thing. Your oldest, Amelia, is already reading at a high school level even though she’s only eleven. Millie, at eight, is hitting middle-school targets. Pearl, four, is right on track. She prefers drawing and building things with sticks. You would never tell the others this, but Pearl is your favourite daughter for being, like you, exceptionally average. Pearl, you’re certain, would also have reservations about Plan B, if she wasn’t four.
Take it in. No redwoods, but plenty of lodgepole pines. There’s a decent meadow edged by a stream with a couple pools deep enough to swim and fish in. Right now your daughters sit out on the edge of the meadow having a picnic as you stack wood. It’s idyllic here, despite the ticks and flies. There’s no hint that everyone, everywhere else on the planet is—but Susan’s forbidden you to talk about it. First not with the kids, now not even with her. One of Plan B’s requirements is calling this time away from your lives in Sacramento Earth Year. Susan told the girls that everyone has agreed to take a year off from working, studying, travelling, and buying to help combat climate change and allow the planet to heal. It’s the reason she gave the girls for pulling them out of school a month before the shut down. If the girls have heard talk of the virus, they still haven’t put one and one together. Earth Year is a large fib, but not necessarily a lie, and Susan sees no point in the girls bearing the pointless burden of bad news. They’re safe here. Nature documentaries on VHS, but no internet; walkie-talkies, but no phones. No word can reach them to glum up their existence. You, of course, listen to the news from the jeep, parked at the end of a spur a quarter mile from the cabin, where the nearest fire road passes by. You, alone, know the shape of things.
You wash up in the outhouse, which is far nicer than the bathroom in the rental you left. Here there’s a heated tile floor you installed a few years ago, plentiful light, even a tub that was a pain to lug in by foot, though it’s still hard to hide the dusty smell of primitive plumbing. You enter the cabin just as the soup is ladled out. There’s fresh bread laid out around sunny pads of butter. The girls talk about the scorpion they found in a rotted log that day, about the dam they built of stones, about the fool’s gold they’re collecting and which they’ve asked you to assay. ‘Could be, could be,’ you say. ‘There is gold in these mountains.’
As you clean up the kitchen, Susan begins packing for tomorrow’s hike. The girls have wanted to go exploring, and you’re looking forward to a couple days without chopping wood, though you’re not the biggest fan of sleeping on the ground. That night, in bed, Susan tells you to be careful. You’re sure the girls are asleep up in the loft. Careful, she says again, but it’s because she’s out of pills—the one thing she didn’t plan for. You end up laughing at her oversight until the girls wake, climb down, and you have to come up with another joke to satisfy their curiosity.
Susan’s prepper side didn’t arise until after Amelia was born. You forgave this quirk because Susan continued to have the optimism, beauty, and generosity that made—and continues to make—her seem ten times as alive as anyone you’ve ever met. Who wouldn’t want optimism, beauty, and generosity in their life—and once offered, take it? So pay checks have gone where Susan’s directed them: into extensive cabin repairs, the solar panel array and batteries, the new outhouse, generators, the jeep—while all other aspects of your lives have been put on hold or fallen into neglect. You remain the kind of family that exhausts their cutlery drawer by the end of the day. The kind of family not bothered by worn clothes or cracks in the walls or a little mould on the edge of a block of cheese.
Still, in the last few years you’ve begun to feel that the investments in the cabin have gone too far. You’re both well past the age where you should already have a sizeable retirement savings, in addition to college savings for the girls. Instead, all your money has vanished into preparing for disaster. This is not how you feel now, though, not with disaster come calling. You’re grateful you listened to Susan. Any retirement or college investments would have been lost. Buying a place in Sacramento, Plan A, your plan, would have sunk and entrapped you both. And yet. Plan B. It has its flaws.
You worry about having enough food, about being trapped, about accidents. Maybe the highway won’t be plowed come winter—the fire road certainly won’t be. What if there’s an accident, a fall, a burn, some incident that requires you to leave the mountains for help? You’d all be trapped in misery. Not Donner-party misery, but dangerous all the same. It’s not the bears or mountain lions you’re afraid of. It’s little slips, spills, and pricks of misfortune, and the snow that will say: no, you have to deal with it. Here. On your own.
After breakfast, you all head out for the overnight trip, pack on your back, Susan and the two oldest girls ahead of you with their hair in matching bandannas cut and stitched from window curtains. Pearl sits on your shoulders, hands on your cap. You gave her a haircut last week and you’re glad you can’t see your handiwork. You follow the trail to the fire road. It’s always a relief to see the jeep parked there, even though it’s been only a few days since you snuck out here to listen to the radio. The car’s still covered in dust. Wash Me, Amelia wrote a month ago. It hasn’t rained since. Please!, Millie adds now, below. She underlines the plea, then shows you her fingertip, like the dirt is something you did.
You walk the fire road until it intersects a park service trail. Susan sings camp songs as you head into the shade, the girls listening, joining in, making requests. Where the first sequoia appears, Susan tells all of you to breathe deeply and experience how clean the air is. You all breathe deeply. You see no one. Not even when the trail rises up to a curve of Highway 198. There’s not a single car, not even a construction crew using the opportunity to repair the roads. You walk in a row down the highway, under the dark shade of the towering Sequoias. A coyote jogs ahead of you for a good five or ten minutes, almost like it’s happy for the company. You imagine summers haven’t been this quiet since Colonel Young and his Buffalo Soldiers journeyed up here to build this road well over a century ago. Or maybe you’d have to go all the way back to when only native people were here. To re-energize the tired girls, you pretend you are all members of the Tübatulabal; you’re the chief leading the tribe here for the relative cool of summer. But you’re too tired for cultural appropriation, and anyway, what it really feels like is that you’re the only family left alive in the world. It’s spooky. You’d love to have to clear the road for a passing tour bus.
At the General Sherman, Susan lets the girls climb over the barriers and hug the world’s largest tree. You do, too. You smell the bark, see the tiny cobwebs in the cracks, the wood fluid, flowing a few inches a century, every square inch a universe. You camp not far off and sleep under the slivers of star-filled sky. It’s not as dark as it could be; the light pollution hasn’t abated. You are a little relieved.
In the morning you make coffee with the Primus burner turned down to a whisper, but in the forest it’s loud enough to rouse the others.
‘Shh,’ you say as they emerge from their bags. You point to the grazing deer.
When you resume your hike, you let the girls go ahead, just out of ear shot. You try to tell Susan what you last heard on the jeep’s radio: that the virus spread rate hasn’t just levelled, it’s plummeted. Schools are set to reopen, some businesses, too. You might be able to get your job back. A harsh winter in the Sierras isn’t necessary or even wise. There are other reasons to head back down, too. Millie broke her glasses at the beginning of summer and needs new ones. The girls miss their friends.
‘Shh,’ Susan said, and gives you a quick close-lipped kiss. ‘Don’t tear yourself apart. Is there a vaccine yet? Then it doesn’t matter. Earth Year, Dan. Earth Year.’
‘No one works during Earth Year,’ she says, reminding you of the rules of the game.
And so you try to be here, try to take in the majesty of the sequoias, try to buy into Plan B completely. At the locked visitors centre, Susan commandeers a maintenance cart and backs it up. The noise of the beeping must carry a mile. There’s no one to hear it but you. The worry is within you. Imaginary.
‘All aboard,’ she says.
She drives all of you the short distance to Moro Rock. You get out and climb the narrow twisting trail of steps to the top. There is no one coming down the other way. The air is cleaner at the overlook, but not entirely. There is still agricultural haze. Maybe already next week, with schools and businesses reopening, the tide of vehicular smog will wash back in. Staring the other way, across the width of the Sierras, you see flecks of snow on Mount Whitney. Come winter, snow will cover everything. White is also the colour of doom.
‘Have you ever seen such a view, girls?’ Susan says.
It’s a strange question, because, yes, you’ve all been up here many times before. But never alone. You suspect that Susan hasn’t been preparing for disaster, but for this: a national park to herself and her family. She is a misanthropist in disguise, a glutton, an Eve back in the garden. You descend Moro Rock and return to the untouched cart. Susan drives you all to the nearby meadows. There, you watch a bear dozing on a log, its cubs rummaging through the tall grass, unseen. Marmots wait for the bears to leave. Woodpeckers hammer away in the high trees. There are wildflowers, thick and bee-rimmed, in blue and red and cream. And you feel it, suddenly: this is yours. Yours and no one else’s. Sharing isn’t caring. Sharing is contraction, noise, a trample of destruction. This here is yours. A gift. You should accept it until it’s taken away.
You see no one on the long hike back to the cabin. No one stumbles and sprains an ankle. No one cuts themselves and suffers an infection beyond the healing ability of a squirt of antiseptic. Everything is good, as Susan said it would be.
You see no one else for the next month, or the month after that. You finish chopping up winter’s fuel, you read endless books with calloused hands. You now know more about the Enlightenment, the Korean War, and the Raj than you ever thought your brain would ever come to know. The history of the world is a history of struggle and progress and the debt of that progress. You run the jeep once a week so the battery won’t die, but you do the right thing and leave the radio off. Mornings are cold, with a curious rainbow of frost on the meadow before the sun melts it.
Just after the winter’s first light flurry, Susan breaks down to the girls’ daily requests for milk and sends you on one final run down into the valley before the first real snow comes. You take Pearl with you, planning to also get her new glasses. Pearl should be in her car seat, but there’s no one on the road. It’s safe when you’re the only family around. You turn on the radio when you’re out of the forest. Like the last time, there’s music and commercials, no hint of the pandemic. It’s over. It’s over. It never was Earth Year, of course. Your stay in the Sierras was a flash of fool’s gold. Though it’s curious that the roads are empty. You switch to the AM band, the frequency of disaster.
That Susan. Correct again. Schools closed once more. Businesses shuttered. The financial report contains numbers both so enormous and so small that they would make you tremble if you had money to lose. Your investment is in the cabin, in your stores of food, in the solar array, the clothes, the cash that’s hidden in, of all places, the outhouse.
The nearest optometrist is closed, but also out of business. As is the next. You didn’t tell Pearl you were planning on buying her new glasses, so she’s not disappointed. She’s happy you’re driving straight again, so she can get over her car sickness. You try to explain that motion sickness is a conflict of the senses, between what you see and what your body feels, but you’re not doing a good job explaining it. Maybe it’s better that the world around her is slightly blurry and more like a painting then a photograph; maybe it’s better she has, on occasion, a slight unease in her stomach so it’s not a stranger. She, like you, belongs to the average clan, and the average clan is not immune to feeling uneasy.
You stop at a farm stand at the base of the mountains. You buy more than you can eat. The rest Susan will have to can. They sell milk and eggs here, too, out in the open air, and you buy half their stock of eggs and enough milk to reconstitute a cow. Behind the man who takes your money stands a woman braiding her daughter’s hair. None of you are wearing a mask. You can smile at each other, and do, and you realize you have fallen into fantasy, again. The world is far from ending. Not when it offers any stranger that might appear a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, a taste of things that have not ended. Disaster would be fields dried to dust, no sign of life. This is the very opposite of disaster. This is plenty. You thank them and load the jeep. Inside, you wipe the dust from a pluot and hand it to Pearl who nibbles on it for a while before falling asleep on the long drive. She wakes again when you park as close to the cabin as you’re able. She feels absolutely fine, not the least bit car sick.
You carry what you can and follow her on the trail. This is now Plan C: to live as though the world beyond exists and doesn’t exist, that you are safe and unsafe. You will try, as hard as you can, to not let the contradictions make you unwell. You give Pearl an egg to carry to teach her care and attention. And when it breaks, halfway to the cabin, you give her another. On your last run you remove the jeep’s battery, cover the vehicle with a tarp for winter, and carry in the last of the season’s fruit. Snow begins to fall. AQ