This Side of a Wilderness: Chapter 1
His favorite memory was of his father, uncle, and grandfather, sitting beside a campfire, while the moon glistened off the lake behind them, and he and his younger brother watched through the screen window of a tent. They looked absolutely free and at peace, as they sat near the firelight in the dark wilderness. He remembered how the flames illuminated their faces, and revealed wrinkles and scars and life experiences. It was many years before he
understood the power of their silence. Now the image lived in his mind like a painting come to life, and the longer it aged, the more valuable it became. All he wanted was to touch that piece of his past, to feel his feet walk through that memory, and once again see the world as a peaceful uninhabited landscape waiting to be explored.
Often he returned there, through the conduit of wandering thoughts, and felt the cool lake air permeate his skin, smelled the pinus aroma fill the air, and heard the soft waves roll against the shore. This remembrance was never good enough, for reality always interfered, and he got
removed from his daydream and returned to the present. Not that the present was so bad, his job took him to wild and scenic locations. But these brief interludes never satisfied, and left him in want of something permanent.
No matter how hard he worked to get what he wanted, he always wanted more. Happiness seemed to be reserved for people willing to sacrifice their dreams and accept something simple. So he decided to think about something simple, like the weather. The weather was what he thought about when he didn’t want to be burdened by contemplations of truth.
The season had been hot and dry, which caused the green to fade from the hills by early summer. Eli Sylvan put his palm against the passenger side window and felt the heat outside. The truck rocked back and forth from a powerful wind that rushed down off the mountains and blew across the high plains. Up ahead he saw his home town with oil vapors collected above the city like a translucent satin sheet pulsating in the wind. This was Casper, Wyoming, a boom-and-bust sort of town currently in a state of boom from the oil and natural gas industry.
“Have I told you about my new RV?” asked Ricky, as he gripped the bottom of the steering wheel loosely with one hand. He looked over at Eli through the yellow lenses of his camouflaged sunglasses, “Eli, you listening to me?”
Eli turned his eyes from the prairie freckled with rusty oil rigs churning and grinding into the sandy ground, “Yeah. I mean no, you haven’t told me about your new RV.”
“Oh man, it’s a beaut’. Thirty-two feet long, two bedrooms and sleeps eight, a fully functional kitchen and bathroom, with a forty-two inch flat screen television. Man, the wife and I are going to be camping in luxury.”
“That’s nice,” said Eli, as he turned his head and looked away. The city up ahead was built in a small valley, and through that valley a trout stream cut down off the mountains and began its course to the sea. Eli’s eyes followed its serpentine shape from the city up to the foot of the mountains. He thought about how peaceful it was to hear water tumble over cobblestones while he stood waist deep in the river with a fly rod in his hand. From up there this city looked small and lifeless, and its sounds were muted by a comfortable distance. That sense of distance was the happiness he enjoyed most.
Ricky held his cell phone in one hand, while steering with his knee, and said, “Awe hell, my wife just texted me. She wants me to go to the damn grocery store before heading home.”
Eli ignored Ricky’s statement as if he were alone in a soundless room and could only hear his own thoughts. He watched the city grow larger until they were inside of its walls. He had lived in cities much bigger than this one, but here in Wyoming, the most uncivilized state left in the union, Casper seemed to be the epitome of contemporary America. Sure the fifty-thousand people were isolated on all sides by a hundred or more miles of unpopulated landscapes, but they didn’t let that deter them from partaking in the feast of consumerism. Everything was available here, whether it be fanciful name brand clothing, 3-D televisions, fine foreign cuisine, or even sporting goods designed for vanity not pragmatism; if not found in a local shop it could arrive at your doorstep in less than a week.
“That was a good day, the boss will be glad we got it all done,” said Ricky, as they returned to the office and got out of the truck.
“Yep, well, have a nice weekend,” replied Eli, while he forced a smile and offered an obligatory wave. He couldn’t wait to get out of there and put the work week behind him.
“Oh we will. The wife and I are taking the RV up to Echo Mountain. Just need to charge up the battery so we can enjoy that big ol’ television.”
“See you on Monday,” said Eli, and got into his old Ford Ranger pickup truck.
He pulled up to Papa Stephanio’s Pizzeria and parked the truck. On the brick wall in front of him was the painted image of a grizzly bear standing beside a mountain stream with
a rainbow trout leaping into the air. Eli sat in his truck
and stared at the painting, wondering how something
artificial, made of acrylic and brick, could create such a
sensation of calmness and serenity. He stepped outside
and closed his eyes to keep the image in his mind and it made him feel like he was home. He reached out into the empty air and felt the pulse of that cold flowing water as it rushed between his fingers and tickled the hair on top of
his hand. Then a muscle car roared by on the street, and
he was pulled out of that image by the sound of loud exhaust pipes reflecting off the brick wall. The pavement radiated heat, which caused the soles of his shoes to feel like marshmallows as he walked inside.
“Eli, there you are, come on over and pour yourself a beer,” said Kevin, as Eli sat down. “You’re running a bit late, get stuck at work?” There were four other people at the table, but only one of them acknowledged his presence, the rest were consumed by an advertisement playing on a digital kiosk mounted on the wall.
“We were working up in the Big Horn Mountains and blew a tire on a rough patch of road,” responded Eli.
“That sucks man. You ready to get this weekend started?”
“Yeah, I’m just glad to be off of work.”
“Oh man, don’t even think about that. Listen, I’ve got quite the party planned for tonight. There’s at least a dozen women coming over, and I just got that new video game Alien Hero. So what do you say, you in or what?”
“I’ll stop by.”
“Yeah, you better.”
Eli looked around the room at all the flat screen televisions and pictures of sports icons hanging from the walls. Even though both these mediums presented real life imagery, they seemed artificial. The bear and the trout and the river and the trees on the painted wall outside made more sense to him, those were the type of images that calmed his nerves. All the people in the room made him feel confined, as if they had control over his life and the reality they selected strung around him like a barbwire fence, so he stood up and said, “Alright, well thanks for the beer, but I’ve got to run home quick.”
“You’re not gonna wait for the pizza?”
“I’ll catch up with you later, just got something else I need to do first.”
He walked outside and stood before the giant mural painted on the outer wall of the building. The image began to move, and he saw water droplets rocket off the tail of the fish as it erupted from the surface of the stream and captured a dragonfly in its mouth. The grizzly bear turned its head and looked at Eli, he seemed so real and close, but as Eli brushed his hands across the surface the life faded and was replaced by only abstract colors. He got in his truck and drove away while wondering about the synaesthetic power of inanimate things.
When he returned home he poured dog food into the dish by the backdoor, then shuffled through a stack of mail. Six envelopes were billing statements, the other three were junk. He opened the junk mail first. Two of them were credit card offers, and as he held them both in his hands a mischievous grin crept onto his face. With the kind of money these credit cards offered he could do something crazy and spontaneous like take a cruise ship around the world. Maybe he’d get lucky and maroon on a deserted island as the only survivor. There he could test himself without any human or mechanical interference. Then he would know what he was really made of. Then he would understand.
It would be great to disappear, to create a new identity and become whoever he wanted, to become who he secretly has always been. It invigorated him to think about how it would feel to start a new life with no responsibilities and no burdens from the past. But he knew well enough burdens followed him wherever he went, and responsibilities were a lot like dandelions – no matter how hard he tried to fight them, they always found a way to grow.
The third envelope was a brochure for community education offered at the local college. The Wilderness First Aid training sounded appealing, but he figured whatever they were teaching could easily be learned from a book on his own free time. There were six different foreign language classes, but whenever he had been in another country he made do with knowing a few key phrases. Then he saw a course for acrylic painting. As he read through its contents he thought about how he felt after seeing the mural on the side of the wall, like there was an intrinsic power that could only be understood by each pair of eyes that saw it. He set the pamphlet on the table and gazed out the window to imagine his masterpiece. In order to receive this degree he would have to complete eight online classes. This seemed absurd to him, taking online courses to become an artist. It had always been his presumption that artists were born as such, and then refined through hands-on training with a master. Maybe the great ones didn’t even need to be trained; they saw a world so magnificent and unique they had to paint it – that was the only way they could understand. He tore it up along with the credit card offers and tossed them into the overflowing garbage can.
Eli retrieved his checkbook from the freezer, and the postage stamps stashed in the silverware drawer. It always seemed like a ridiculous hassle to have to pay these bills. How could he live without the internet, or a cell phone, or electricity, or running water, or heat, or garbage removal? These simple luxuries were the reason he woke up and went to work every day, so he could enjoy a life of comfort.
It was still light outside as he flipped the flag up on his mailbox and hopped into the pickup truck. There were a dozen cars parked outside of Kevin’s house as Eli stood in the front yard and prepared to be sociable. Strobe lights flickered in the windows, and he felt the bass from subwoofers vibrate the
cartilage in his knees as he walked to the front door and
entered. He never cared too much for parties or people, but misanthropy could easily be cured by several alcoholic drinks.
He stood in the doorway and gathered his wit, but nobody seemed to notice he was there. Upstairs was a crowd of people, but Eli only recognized a few faces. In the corner was a mini-bar with a hired bartender, so he walked over and ordered a drink. He tapped his feet and tried to avoid all the eyes in the room. Everyone seemed so fashionable and important, as though they believed it was their right of birth to be rich and famous. He wondered what Meriwether Lewis would think about this new world he had once explored in its natural state.
Then he noticed something on the far wall. It glowed in
vibrant and hypnotic colors, as if it were a portal or passageway into another dimension, and his entranced feet carried him towards the image. Mounted at eye level was a framed painting of a tropical shoreline, where dark skinned women stood topless, and the ocean looked so distorted in its hazy colors it almost seemed real. He rubbed his fingers around the wooden frame, and wiped a smudge off the glass cover with his sleeve. The noise in the room faded and was replaced by the sounds of ocean waves scraping into the sandy beach. He began to hear the women speaking in a language he couldn’t understand, but they sounded so exotic he could listen to them forever. Then he felt a tap on his shoulder, and as he blinked several times he saw a young woman in a purple dress with long blonde hair looking at him through curious hazel eyes.
“That’s a great piece, isn’t it?” she said, and gestured
towards the painting.
“Yes, I’ve been here a dozen times but never noticed it.”
“He’s had it for a long time. I should know, I’m his cousin.”
“Really?” said Eli, as he returned his eyes to the painting.
“It’s a Gauguin, you know. Not an original of course,” she said with an ostentatious chuckle and flicked the hair from her shoulder, “but it is one of a limited first edition prints. It cost my uncle a small fortune when he bought it for Kevin.”
“That so?” replied Eli, while trying to listen to those women speaking in their native tongue.
“So my name’s Annette,” she leaned in between him and
“Sorry, I’m Eli.”
“Of course. Well this is one of my favorite Gauguin pieces ever. It’s the one that made him famous you know.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, I just love the way he blends colors together to create images that seem almost surreal. He was the master of
abstract realism. Ah, it’s a shame that great artists only come along once or twice in a generation. If that.” She watched
him stand there passively with wrinkles on his forehead, as though this were the first piece of art he had ever seen and
just now realized human emotions could be justified by a static
two-dimensional image. “So, what do you think of it?” she asked.
“Good? Come on, you can do better than that.”
“Well, I’d say it’s, it’s oceanic.”
“Yes. You know, deep, fully encompassing, and filled with life and mystery.”
“That’s an interesting way to explain it,” she said, and tilted her head to reacquaint herself with his appearance.
Eli looked at her but only saw a brick wall, a barricade that separated him from his imagination. “It was nice to meet you,” he said, and took one last look at the painting then walked away. On the other side of the room was a large flat screen television where a group of guys were gathered around on an L-shaped couch playing video games. As Eli approached he saw Kevin stand up to greet him.
“What’s up man, I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show. Have you played this game yet? It fucking rocks man. Check it out, you’re fighting with a team of aliens who have come to earth to eradicate the zombies. It’s awesome, right?”
“Sounds almost, surreal,” replied Eli as he looked over his shoulder at the painting on the far wall.
“Yeah, well we’re in the middle of a battle right now, but sit down and we’ll get you in the next game.”
Eli sat down and sank into the couch. He had been here many times and played many games with many beers, but never before had he noticed the sensational imagery on the screen – he had always been wrapped up in the selfless conglomeration of hanging with the guys. Tonight it was different, he saw the game broadcasted on the screen like a million individual paintings with scenery and characters designed by a mind that took the time to create a masterpiece. He drifted off while thinking about how great it would feel to design something strangers would admire long after he was gone.
“Yo Eli, it’s your turn.”
“Yeah, you’re up.”
“Alright,” he said, and leaned forward in his seat to take the controller. The game played as Eli piloted the device in his hands. No matter how hard he tried, this game couldn’t properly design what he saw in his mind. He was trapped in somebody else’s imagination and could only exhibit a limited degree of navigation. There must be a way to gain full control of his thoughts, and display them in an accurate and unique form. The people in the room faded from his view, as he became distracted by thoughts of a separate perception. He dropped the controller on the floor and stood up in a bolt, spilling his drink in the process.
“What the hell man!” said the guy who sat next to him on the couch.
“Where you going Eli?” asked Kevin.
“I need to leave.”
“What? You can’t do that, the party just started. Finish the game at least.”
“I gotta go.” And he rushed for the door, pushing himself through the crowd.
As he walked down the stairs, Annette stepped in front of him and said, “There you are, I was looking for someone to get into an intellectual conversation with,” and placed her hand on his shoulder. He brushed her aside and continued out the front door.