With road trip season approaching vaccinations rising, and the gradual re-opening of the world, we’re finding ourselves daydreaming about and even, gulp, planning, road trips. This wonderful piece from Jen See captures the unpredictability at the heart of every road trip and we’re delighted to feature it again -Ed.
They drove into the woods in a van with suspect wiring, the night black among the trees, the passing landscape a blind country. At their last stop, the van hadn’t started. They’d sat, dumbfounded, until suddenly, it had roared to life. They really had no idea what was wrong with it or why, as if on a whim, it had chosen to turn on again. Their minds had already been far ahead down the road, chasing the vanishing horizon.
They’d left California earlier that same day, but it seemed like they’d traveled several times around the sun in the course of that single long day of gas, food, and yet one more coffee stop. Coffee fueled their progress and their laughter down the arrow-straight interstate, “the 5,” in the peculiar parlance of Californians, whose intimate relationship with their freeways is both unique and necessary.
Traveling north, the 5 follows the gentle upward tilt of the Central Valley. It feels intuitively right that we should travel uphill when heading north, and the Central Valley obliges. The climb is imperceptible, though, and out the window, rocking along on its well worn shocks, the view was seemingly flat farmland as far as the eye can see.
Then the terrain changed and suddenly they were into the southern Cascades under the panopticon gaze of Shasta’s hollowed-out peak. The van wallowed through the curves like a ship in heavy seas and soon enough they discovered that the brakes didn’t do a hell of a lot. They shimmied between big rigs and campers, swapping non-stop stories the way mountain bike people do. There was that one time — the cadence of anticipation echoed through the stories as they hurtled northward up the highway.
They were headed to Oregon. They had bikes and camping gear and freeze-dried food and a flask or two of whiskey, because it would be wrong to head out for an adventure without the whiskey. The forecast called for rain and they were pushing their luck with this late fall run into the rainforest. But they’d packed their layers and their rain gear and plenty of exuberance, and of course, the whiskey.
The coming of night erased the lines between earth and sky and the trees loomed over the road, dark black-on-black silhouettes. The highway gradient increased and as the van labored upward, fog hung heavily in the air and bright white snow gleamed in the passing headlights. No one had said anything about snow. The A.M. radio faded in and out, shifting frequencies at random, from a traffic report in a city over a day’s drive away, to an advertisement for a car dealership in Dinuba, a long way from the dark road they now traveled.
Inside the van, they joked about the weather and buzzed with the energy that comes from having made an escape from the world. The moonless night, the crackling radio, and the deep old-growth forests gave the whole thing the atmospherics of a B-grade horror flick, the kind that plays on repeat on a late-night cable channel.
In the back, the bikes shifted like restless horses as the van lurched around the road’s corners. The bikes, the five friends, the piles of random gear, the six packs of beer — pent-up energy filled the van to the bursting point.
On the dark, two-lane road, absent any signs, they missed their turn on the first pass. The van turned reluctantly around like an aircraft carrier at sea, taking up the entirety of the small parking lot in front of a wood-sided country store. The store was closed now, thanks to a summer season interrupted even here in the rainforest country of the western Cascades, by fire and drought.
Soon they’d found their cabins for the night, but there was no sign of any host or, more importantly, their keys. In the silence of the forest, the darkness felt deeper and their hold on the world as it is, rather than as they imagined it, began to slip loose. On a dark night in the woods, the mind imagines fantastical things, the trees alive with malice and demonic creatures. Sometimes, every instinct rebels against rationalism.
And now, the van decided it was done playing along. The key turned uselessly in the ignition. The lights went out. It turned out the electrical system really wasn’t all that. They began to think that maybe, just maybe, they should have paid a little more attention when the van refused to start earlier in the evening. It was too late for that now. And there they sat, the car dead, alone in the dark.
Logic reasserted itself. They clambered out of the van and walked back to the store which turned out not to be that far away or as uninhabited as it had initially appeared. There they found a man wearing a red flannel shirt straight out of central casting. The lights were on and he had their keys and he told them where to find their beds for the night. He also had jumper cables to revive the recalcitrant van in the morning.
They walked back through the night, gravel crunching beneath their feet. The shades they’d imagined behind every tree melted away against the reassuring solidity of the keys in their hands and their glinting flashlight beams. Back at the van, they stood a moment, contemplating the task of unpacking and carrying their gear.
The gear pile looked daunting. They decided to try the ignition again, just in case. Sure enough, the van decided to start again. Apparently, the damn thing had a sense of humor. Somehow it had become a conspirator, part of a grand scheme to make certain that they did not leave the woods without the adventure they’d come there to find.
Photo by Trey Ratcliff