It was scary how quietly they were able to come upon him in near-total darkness. Danny faintly heard something nearby, out of the reach of the dim light from the small campfire, and then they were all over him.
It was a black, black night which was accounted for by the fact that it was raining and he was a good fifty miles from the nearest settlement so there was no help from artificial illumination of any kind. Earlier he had smiled; remembering when, as kids, he and his brother had wanted to shoot out the streetlights so stars would be more apparent.
He’d read enough Louis L’Amour that he knew better than to stare into the flames and he had avoided doing so at first. Staring into a campfire made you all-but blind when you looked away into the darkness. But he had huddled around the measly, struggling flames for hour after interminable hour throughout this soggy, rainy night. The coastal air had been fairly saturated, even before the rain had started. Having been soaked to the skin and chilled to misery for hours, he had given up the pretense of being a tough and able outdoorsman. He no longer cared about the rules or about the pretense of maintaining dignity nor even exercising caution for remote risks unlikely to ever occur. Truth was, in that moment, if you’d asked Danny if he cared about much of anything, he would have said “no” or at least hesitated a long time before responding.
Danny MacKenzie was a man in his mid thirties going through the wrenching throes of losing his dreams and the tragic acceptance that life, at best, was pretty mediocre; not at all what it ought to be. Watching a grown man losing his dreams is never a pretty sight. Being present at his moment of truth is pitiful. There had been a time, eight years earlier when he thought the world was his oyster and it would only be a matter of time and dedication before he had the things and ways he wanted. But he had made one bad choice after another and had finally come to acknowledge and, to the extent he had the capacity, take responsibility for his condition. Broke, about to lose his home, little or no work, a young son to care for and an incompatible wife. His shoulders had felt permanently slumped from the burden.
Although he lived in a rural area, that was a relatively recent condition in his life. He had been born and reared in Los Angeles and was, after all, not a man who, in terms of survival skills, owned anything more than an admiration for those possessed by his heroes that flexed the pages of his favorite novels. He was strong enough when it came to that. He could easily split a couple cords of wood in a day and could walk for mile after mile and not tire. And he had been a boy scout briefly, so he knew a few knots and how to build a fire. But he was no woodsman.
Yet Danny knew physical strength wasn’t his primary need as he adjusted the tarp between himself and the mud-bank in his makeshift camp. He needed courage. He needed patience. He needed the fortitude to stick it out one more hour, one more minute, to not cry at his misfortune. He painfully needed faith. He sensed there was a delicately thin thread separating him from getting up each morning and insane ranting about his lot in life. Ironically, one of the thoughts preventing his ravings at that moment was the consciousness of its futility since there was no one to hear. And so he sat. He was immobile, huddled under a poncho, marking time and occasionally glancing eastward through the woods in hope of a brightening behind the hills of the coastal range.
A simple domestic quarrel had begun the misadventure. Mary MacKenzie had gone into one of her tirades during the Thanksgiving visit from Danny’s parents. Frequently her rantings resulted in Danny being given the silent treatment for days. Those times were more painful than the screaming lectures themselves. She knew how to get him in just the place she wanted.
That morning, Danny had wanted to take his family to play and picnic on a remote stretch of Usal Beach on the North Mendocino Coast of California. He had a reliable four-wheel drive pickup that he used for work as a carpenter. So, even though it was six miles in from the paved coast highway, there was little risk involved. Mary didn’t want to go and, considering the forecast of rain and cold, didn’t think it wise to take Joseph, their year and a half old son.
Mary wasn’t a bad gal. She was, in the simplest terms, a pragmatic realist, saddled with an ever-present, negative nature, hopelessly mismatched to a romantic dreamer. Danny was committed to his belief that the principle business of life, after providing for and protecting your family, was to enjoy it. These two misfits had been drawn together five years earlier by impetuous youth, raging loneliness and a shared desire to belong to someone. That drive, sadly, had not been accompanied by experiential wisdom nor parental modeling that might have taught them how to choose a life-mate wisely.
To look at her, one would think Mary’s dominant life principle was to merely survive it with great care – make no waves and hope to wake up again in the morning. If you had asked Danny he could have, fundamentally, found support for that concept — isn’t it obvious? It’s just that he felt mere survival was not much of a challenge and, in fact, in this day and age in America, thought one would have to work pretty hard to not survive. Neither of them knew it then but by May they would be gone their separate ways. America would notch one more divorce.
Weather-wise, November is a chancy time on the Mendocino Coast. Blustery rainstorms have begun on the first of the month and continued past Christmas. There are also Novembers on record without a drop of precipitation. Danny was committed to showing his visiting parents a good time. If Mary chose to not participate, that was her option. But that didn’t mean the rest of the family shouldn’t go along. Besides, Danny was embarrassed at the thick tension in the house and he wanted to get away before it exploded in front of the rest of the family.
He set out to load his work truck with some things they might need. It was already filled with odd tools and bits of boards and such from his construction job. Danny called his pair of golden retrievers, Mudd and Sally. Before the tailgate was fully down, Mudd was over the edge, wiggling and whining at the anticipation of a ride. Sally, the bitch, on the other hand required a lot of coaxing. She seemed to like to go but had an apparent fear of jumping into the truck. Being in no mood for lengthy coaxing, Danny simply picked her up and threw her in. She smiled at Mudd, in that silly way some dogs do, as if to say, “See, you don’t have to exert yourself. I didn’t and I still get to go.” With the addition of a cooler containing some food and soft drinks the four, Danny, Joseph, Betty and Martin, along with the goldens, were ready and on their way.
It was about an hour’s ride to the Usal Beach turnoff. The two-track, dirt road from there to the beach could be iffy this time of year but they found it to be in pretty good shape. Usal was an area that had once, long ago, been settled as evidenced by old homesteader’s orchards of apple and pear trees, corral fences and such. Now it was simply an area owned by California-Oregon, a major lumber company. They leased the grazing rights to a local rancher who ran a medium sized cow-calf operation. Feed was relatively sparse in this part of the country. If he didn’t supplement with cut hay, a rancher would do well to support one pair on twenty to thirty acres.
What people liked about Usal was that it was quiet and accessible but little known so it was rarely crowded. On this day, Danny drove his truck onto a deserted, gray Usal Beach with medium-sized combers roughly pawing at the sand of the circling shore. Usal River terminated here and, as it constantly changed its path, it created an always different arrangement of the land and an always-new challenge in terms of how to get across or past the river and access the beach on the other side.
The access was relatively easy on this overcast day and after fording a side-stream that was only about 40 feet wide and, at most, a foot deep, they were soon parked on the gray sand about fifty yards from the surf. Danny got out of the truck and heaved Joseph up to his favorite perch on his dad’s shoulders, legs wrapped around either side of his neck. Joseph grabbed his dad’s hair with both hands. He treated the hair as reins in order to steer their way along. If he tugged the hair on Dad’s right side, that’s the way they would go.
Betty and Martin got out the other door and walked on the beach, collecting stones, driftwood and scavenging for interesting refuse surrendered from the sea.
Danny’s dog, Mudd, had earned his name honestly from the old adage, “His name is gonna be …”. From the time he was a young pup he had been a roamer. If not watched constantly, he would run off and disappear for hours or even a couple of days. Several years earlier, when he was about eleven months old, he had disappeared for three weeks. One day a neighbor had informed Danny that she had spotted Mudd, on the local Indian reservation, running with several semi-wild dogs in a pack. Danny went out to get him and Mudd came a’running as Danny stepped from the truck.
There was a fast rule between Danny and his dogs, he’d never whup them in the truck. The truck was sanctuary. Danny figured that way the dogs would protect the truck and its contents but he also hoped that the dogs would tend to stay in the truck if it was “theirs”. Mudd may have been a tramp but he wasn’t a dumb tramp. He ran a wide circle around Danny and leapt into the truck from ten feet away, easily clearing the side of the bed. He grinned at Danny and wouldn’t get out when they got home. He stayed in the truck until sometime long after dark, when Danny had given up on him.
Like most retrievers, Mudd had a passion for chasing sticks, balls, frisbees or anything else that he could bring for a likely sucker to throw. He would chase and retrieve until he dropped to a crawl from exhaustion but still wouldn’t quit until Danny made him. Sometimes he would have a bloody mouth from retrieving rough objects but he never quit his passion. Sally was the disinterested exception, as if she really just didn’t “get it”. It seemed that she thought she was above all that chasing and running foolishness.
Nonetheless, she would half-heartedly chase after Mudd until he met her on the return trip with his prize in his mouth. Then she would turn and lope back with Mudd. She never seemed to grasp the concept of all this exertion and repetition but she didn’t seem to want to be completely left out either.
Danny and Joseph played with the dogs, throwing sticks of driftwood and watching them retrieve for quite some time until Betty called them to look at a unique collection of critters in a tidepool among some craggy rocks.
Danny had been distracted for less than five minutes but Mudd needed only ten seconds or so to disappear. Once he did, he was heedless of whistles, calls, cajoling or threats. Out of sight and he was gone. The double whammy was that Sally was the consummate caboose. She would never run off by herself but she’d follow Mudd to the ends of the earth. They were gone.
Martin strolled far down the beach in one direction while Danny and Joseph went in the other and climbed a low hill in search of the dogs. But Danny knew he was only going through an exercise. He and Mudd had been together for too long and played this game too many times for Danny to really think he was going to find Mudd this way. It wasn’t as if Mudd was lost and needed a sound or whistle call to help him find his way back. There could be no doubt that he heard Danny’s shrill, loud whistle. He simply had something more interesting that he was focused on and Danny’s whistling was probably just not even registering in Mudd’s single-minded brain. The call of the wild coursed strong in Mudd’s genetic chain.
It was getting late and a decision had to be made. Joseph needed to be taken home, bathed, fed and put to bed. Mary would surely give Danny an extra tongue lashing for the late hour as it was, and Danny supposed that would just make her more “right” for asking him not to take Joseph to the beach in the first place. At the same time, Danny couldn’t just drive off and leave his dogs. “Incredible Journey” aside, they were a long way from home.
Danny didn’t ponder long before he made the tough decision to stay and let Martin drive everyone home. They could return tomorrow morning to get Danny and the dogs. Quickly the toolboxes were opened and rummaged for equipment that might provide warmth or shelter through the night. A small propane torch, a plastic tarp, a flashlight and some wood scraps for kindling a fire were the bounty.
Suddenly, with the sun extinguishing itself in the sea, it was dark and Danny was alone in this quiet place. The only sounds were the distant, rhythmic surf-crash and the occasional splattering of a drip from a tree branch.
The only firewood available was an old cattle fence and penning corral. Danny blasted himself the fool for not keeping his framing hammer out of the toolbox so he could have ripped the fence apart. He searched the pickets, prying the loose ones off while silently apologizing to the rancher if this pen was still in use.
Having collected a sparse bundle of firewood, Danny packed it back to the spot where he had decided to make his stand and spend the night. It wasn’t a great spot. It wasn’t even flat. There weren’t many choices for wind and rain protection on this relatively barren coast. He thought of hiking inland a bit for better shelter but he wasn’t confident in Mudd or Sally’s ability to track him to wherever he might go. Nonetheless, he had some shelter under a large, old redwood that afforded a modicum of protection from the wind and the rain which was beginning to come down by giant drops.
Even without the rain, the fence-wood was damp due to the coastal environment. It probably was laced with salt due to decades of exposure in this environment. It was very reluctant to burn. Thankfully, the propane torch was able to offer enough heated persuasion that a meager fire would sustain itself with an occasional prod from the torch.
Having started a fire, Danny set about making his camp tolerable for the night. He had his army surplus, rain poncho on and spread a plastic tarp on the sloping ground to give him something relatively dry to sit upon. And so he sat.
Danny could sleep briefly from time to time but the sleep never lasted long since the tarp would slowly slip downwards on the muddy slope toward his fire. On top of that, aching joints or numb flesh would periodically moan him back to consciousness. The brief lapses of shuteye did little to hurry the endless hours of darkness that occupied the plodding distance between him and sunrise. And so it went, hour after seemingly intolerable wet and cold hour. Doze, wake, shift, pull poncho tighter, whistle, feed the fire, scan the darkness, shift, doze….
There was never a question that he could make it through to morning. Sure it was miserable and a little spooky but there was nothing life-threatening. This was not weather with potential for hypothermia. Even if a bear came along, Danny could probably have dispatched it with his .357 magnum revolver. The black bears in this area weren’t terribly large and the fire and man smell would probably discourage their presence anyway. He was glad his dad had drilled him in preparedness. One of the tenets of being prepared in the woods was to always pack a firearm. So survival of the night was not the issue.
Danny tried to laugh as he pondered that his present misery was nothing more than a present materialization of the wretchedness of his life in general. He and Mary were grossly mismatched. But Danny already had a failed marriage under his belt and this time there was Joseph to consider as well. He had to make this work. But what kind of life could he offer to Joseph if he and Mary were going to be so unhappy? What would be the example they would set? Wouldn’t Joseph be better off having a father that could show some real spirit and happiness, who could set an example of how to enjoy life and be responsible? Or was that actually a comfortable, irresponsible excuse for abandoning his family for his own comfort?
Suddenly there was something wet wriggling against his right hand and forearm. There are moments, in a lifetime, that pass so slowly and are so filled with such thoughts that a person thinks, in retrospect, that time had all but stopped. This was such a moment. In less than a second, Danny’s heart jumped to his throat choking off a scream. Danny shuddered and began to wrench away, thinking of the revolver and cursing himself for not keeping it handy under the poncho. He was amazed that a bear could sneak into his camp so quietly and then decided that it must be due to the rain which had softened the ground and twigs besides muffling sounds with its patter. As his left hand grasped the flashlight to use as a club, and his right probed for the Smith & Wesson, another critter was abruptly on his left side and groping for his ear. The intense terror was immobilizing until, just as suddenly and within the same initial second of time, Danny realized his neck and face and ears were being smothered by licks from Mudd and Sally.
The rush of emotion was strong and joyful. He hugged his dogs and called them “good boy!” and “good girl!” and let them lick him. They lavished his face and hands with their warm tongues. Danny felt requited for his decision to stay the night and his misery was forgotten. Suddenly he acknowledged his exhaustion and just wanted to be home with his family.
When daylight came, he and the dogs would begin walking out. Martin would meet them on the way and drive them on home to a hot shower, a good meal and comfort. Maybe Mary would have been so worried about his spending the night in the wilderness that she would be glad to see him and decide to be nice to him. He would work extra hard to make his marriage work. Home and family, from this perspective, suddenly looked very precious. He had it to do. He would man up no matter what it took.
Danny thought it was pretty ironic that Mary didn’t like the dogs but it was they who would be the catalyst making him redouble his efforts to mend the marriage. He wondered if maybe Mary would let the retrievers into the house when they got home. Maybe just into the small area next to his chair. Maybe only for an hour or two they could they could lay there, get their heads rubbed and be rewarded in this home they were saving.
Copyright Rik Goodell 2008