CHAPTER One: THE END OF THE EARTH


   Greg Cleveland glanced at the odometer; he’d come 12 miles since he left town. The last farmland was about 8 miles back, and since then… Well, he remembered reading a description of some road, somewhere: just miles and miles of miles and miles. He was pretty sure he had found that exact road. Everywhere he looked, he saw only flat expanses of sagebrush; no houses, no pastures, not even as many fences as he thought there should be. He hadn’t seen another vehicle since he left the farms behind.

   The odometer now stood at 15 miles. Presumably, his destination was 15 miles from town. He should be there, but the terrain remained unchanged to the left, right, and straight ahead. Gertrude Stein had once said of Oakland, California that “there’s no there, there.” No, that wasn’t right; she wasn’t actually talking about Oakland, the city – she was merely noting that the house she grew up in in Oakland was no longer there. It had been torn down. Still, it was a good quote, and seemed really appropriate at the moment. If this is where he was headed, there’s no here,  here!

   He pulled off to the side of the road, and stopped the car. He felt a sudden burst of angry frustration, partly because he didn’t know where he was, and partly because of his continuing worry about whether he should even be here, at all. Well, the second part wouldn’t be resolved now, so concentrate on the first part. Was he lost? If so, nobody would even look for him for three days, because he wasn’t expected until Monday. By that time, he would have used up all the food he had just bought in town, and he would eventually be found frozen to death, his body possibly consumed beyond all recognition by coyotes. Well, that was one scenario. Another was that he had somehow crossed over into some parallel universe, and no one – at least, no human – would ever find him. Would his parents mourn; would anybody miss him?

   Okay, after that tension-reducing flight of fancy, time to think about this seriously. Did I miss a turn I should have taken? No, because there haven’t been any turns to take, or to miss. Did I get on the wrong road out of town? (That had happened to him once. Two roads started from nearly the same point, one going northwesterly and the other southwest. It took him almost an hour out of his way before he noticed that the sun was going down on the wrong side of the car.) But no, he had followed the main road all the way through town, without leaving it. Conclusion: he was probably going where he was supposed to be going, but it was farther than 15 miles from town. Having come to that conclusion – and feeling a little more in control of himself -  he re-started the car, and drove forward into the still Unknown.

   At about 18 miles, the road abruptly turned to the left, and Greg found he was looking off the edge of a lava rock cliff into a narrow valley. The start of a descent, followed by a turn back to the right, opened up a panorama including a small community, a large grove of shade trees, and the hint of greenery and water beyond. Reaching the valley floor, he was almost immediately confronted by a large wooden sign, carved with a flying goose and the words: National Wildlife Refuge. He had made it.

   The “small community” turned out to be the wildlife refuge headquarters, with an office building, three apparent residences, and several metal buildings he assumed were garages, work areas, or for storage. The large grove of trees was exactly that, maybe covering ten acres of ground. The three residences had small lawns, just now greening up in the early spring sunshine. Greg parked in front of the office, as a man in uniform exited.

   “You must be Greg. Welcome to Paradise! I didn’t think we’d see you until Sunday.”

   “Thanks. Well, for awhile I was wondering if you’d see me at all.”

   “Why is that?”

   Greg shook hands with Chuck Anderson, the refuge manager, as he explained. “At mile 15, where I was told the refuge was located, I still seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Also, I hadn’t seen another car, or another person, since I left the farm area, a long way back. I thought maybe I’d got on the wrong track.”

   Chuck laughed. “Two things to know: first, out here, distances and times are always approximations. It’s what, really, about 20 miles?”

   “Eighteen, I think.”

   “That sounds about right. The other thing is that you managed to drive out between the morning and evening rush hours. That’s why you didn’t see anybody.”

   “Rush hours? You’re kidding!”

   “Well, in the morning, the school bus comes, as does the mail. The afternoon return of the bus won’t be for another hour or so.”

  “Wait a minute! Both the mail and the school bus come all the way out here, just for you?”

  “No, of course not. That would be pretty inefficient. They service everybody along the way.”

   “Everybody? I didn’t see a soul after I got a few miles out of town. There aren’t any buildings, anywhere.”

   “If you’d arrived by airplane instead of car, you’d have a very different impression. You probably didn’t notice until you got to the top of our hill that you’ve been traveling on a gently rising plateau all the way from town. The country looks flat, but there are numerous little depressions and hollows, each large enough to hold a ranch compound. There are 40 or 50 ranches between here and town, and maybe 75 school kids. Some of the kids have their own cars, so it can be a little traffic-y on the road to town, mornings and evenings. Apparently, you didn’t notice the mail boxes, but they’re there, usually set back from the main road on the tracks that lead to the houses. None of the tracks are very conspicuous on purpose. Folks like their privacy, and don’t mind a mile or so of bumpy road to insure it.”

   It was Greg’s turn to chuckle. “Fancy that! So, we’re not quite at the end of the earth.”

   “Well, no, we sort of are; the road ends here. Come on. Let me show you your domicile. Did you do a little shopping in town? Enough to last you a day or two?”

   “I did. I’ll be good for awhile.”

   They walked across the compound to a small house, with a small rectangle of lawn in front. Not a house, really, he found as they went inside. More of a cabin – one room, with bed, table, stove, chairs, book shelves, small dresser all together, with door to the john and shower in the back.

   “Not the Ritz,” said Chuck, “But clean, warm, and adequate, I think.”

   “Yeah, it looks fine. I think I’ll do okay, here.”

   “Well, you must be tired from your adventure in the wilderness. Get settled, then come over and join us for dinner about six. You can meet the rest of the Andersons, and have a meal you don’t have to prepare for yourself.”

   “You sure? That sounds good.”

   “See you then.”

***

   Dinner turned out to be more than a family affair. In addition to Chuck, his wife Alice, and their two high school-age daughters, the rest of the refuge staff was also present. “The rest” were brothers, Tim and Rusty Johnson, who comprised the maintenance crew. During a hearty meal of roast beef and vegetables, they did the usual round-robin trading of basic information. Chuck, it turned out, was originally from North Dakota, had gone to state college there, and had worked on two North Dakota national wildlife refuges prior to this one. Greg guessed he was about 45 years old, maybe showing a little too much time sitting in the office, but still in good shape. Alice – Mrs. Anderson – was from Minnesota, but her family had moved to North Dakota fairly early in her life. She and Chuck met at college. Fair haired and still trim, Greg thought she carried her 40-ish age very well.

   The two girls were much alike in general appearance, tall and athletic, both with long, straight hair. Victoria, the older of the two, was a brunette, a senior in high school, and probably only a year or so older than her blond sister, Amanda. Victoria readily joined in the dinner table conversation; Amanda seemed a little more restrained. Typical, pretty, high school girls, Greg thought.

   The Johnsons seemed to Greg to be typical Midwest farm boys, “boys” being relative, as both were obviously several years older than him. They lived with their parents on a ranch somewhere west of the refuge, and worked the ranch when not working part-time on the refuge. From the way they joined in the conversation, it was clear to Greg that they were “part of the family.”

   For his contribution to  the sharing, he named himself as one of those rare “native Californians” – born there, all his schooling there, and not much travel outside the state. He attended a state college, but one in the northern part of the state that, in addition to being the local “teacher’s college,” specialized in forestry, wildlife and fisheries programs. He’d had the usual miscellaneous short time jobs during his high school and college years, but this was his first real career position.

   As they left the dinner party, the Johnsons suggested that Greg come over to the “bunk house,” and “shoot the breeze” for awhile. It was still early, so he walked with them across the compound to the other house. This turned out to be slightly bigger than his home, having a main all -purpose area, like his, but with a separate bedroom. There were a couple of old easy chairs, and a table holding kitchen supplies and a small television set.

    “We usually go home after work on Friday, and help out dad with the chores,” said Tim. “But he claims he doesn’t really need us, so when we got the dinner invite, we decided to stay over and go home tomorrow morning.” He noticed Greg looking at the old TV. “Not worth turning on, most of the time. Rabbit ears don’t do the job down in this hole,” he explained, as he reached a gallon jug of red wine off a shelf.

   “Oh, I don’t drink,” protested Greg.

   “College boy doesn’t drink?” Rusty asked, with a little skepticism in his voice.

   “Well, not much. Mostly beer, and not a lot of that.”

   Tim set the jug and three mugs down on the table. “This isn’t hard liquor. It’s just wine. Not very good wine, but wine, nevertheless. As the Good Book says, “A little wine for your stomach’s sake’.”

    Rusty picked up a mug. “Think of it as your aperitif.” He took a sip.

   “Don’t you have your aperitif before dinner?” asked Greg. He still hadn’t picked up his mug.

   “Do you? Well, maybe it’s your aperitif for breakfast.”

   “How about it’s just a nightcap?” asked Tim, as he handed a mug to Greg, and took the last for himself.

   Greg took a sip. He wasn’t a wine connoisseur, but he knew enough to agree it wasn’t a very good wine. Even so, it felt good going down, and tasted okay. He took another sip.

   They “shot the breeze” for quite awhile. Greg didn’t remember many specifics.

 

 

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