Cape Lookout – A Short Story

According to Oregon State Park Rangers, you should do the following if you see a cougar in the wild:

1. Freeze.
2. Remain calm.
3. Maintain eye contact.
4. Appear large; bulk out your clothing, raise your hands
5. Fight back if attacked.
6. Make noise.
7. Keep children close.
8. Avoid hiking alone.

I saw this printed on a laminated poster that was stuck to the campground’s bathroom walls, five hours and six beers before I went on a midnight stroll at Cape Lookout State Park. I was about 200 feet from our tent when I noticed a pair of eyes glowing in the bushes.

Standing under the eaves of Sitka Spruce Tree, with everything fresh and slick on a rainy fall night, thinking very clearly for the first time in days, I tried to decide which of those steps to take next.

7 and 8 did not apply.

The eyes in the darkness blinked and moved, reappearing a few feet away.

Number 5 seemed like a waste of energy. Even in top form, I couldn’t fight or outrun a cougar.

Really, my only option was to focus on numbers 1 through 4, with a bit of 6. Those were actionable tasks I could throw myself into.

A rustle in the trees put every hair on my body on edge; I braced myself, puffed out my jacket, stood on my tippy toes.

A large raccoon poked his face out of the darkness, and I let out a graceless shriek that was more frustration meeting release, than relief.

*

Since 1890, there have been 24 fatal attacks on humans by cougars in North America. That’s 0.192 per year. Comparatively, it’s piss in the wind compared to the 10545 gun-related deaths in 2015 alone. Still, I don’t put too much thought into the number of people driving around with loaded weapons in their glove boxes and belt holsters.

Sharks only attack an average of only 16 humans per year, yet they have me on edge every time I surf. On paper, this means I spend roughly six hours a month doing something that makes me happy and anxious simultaneously. Having fun is weird.

My wife started Grad School in Portland 3 weeks ago, the day a man opened fire on seventeen people at a community college campus in Roseburg, Oregon. At around 3pm the same day, in a moment between peeking at my Twitter feed and opening a beer, I read “campus shooting” and “Oregon” in the same headline.

This scared the shit out of me for about 3 seconds.

Learning that the massacre took place nearly three hours away didn’t lessen my disgust, make me value my wife’s life any more, or change how I felt about losing my job a week earlier; I have those things in check. It just allowed a momentary wave of relief to wash over me, before the business of reality opened its doors again.

*

When I was ten, I watched the same surfing movie every day, often before and after school, called ‘Bunyip Dreaming’. It’s about an hour long and features a handful of the best surfers in the world from the early 90’s, traveling around Australia’s West Coast. Just before the opening scene, there’s a message that flashes across the screen:

Dedicated to all those
Who want to leave the world
A better place than they found it.

I always thought the message was for people who didn’t want to be alive anymore, because they were sick of living on a planet that didn’t care. Not the other way around.

I watched ‘Bunyip Dreaming’ on Youtube about six months ago and realized I had it all wrong.

*

cape-lookout

I got up early and stood on the beach, watching the sun rising through the coastal fog, imagining that I was nowhere, and that nothing existed everywhere. Nothing. Just me, the ground, and a world of red condensation. No guns, no cougars, no statistics.

We made eggs and toasted bagels at our campsite before heading to the Cape Lookout Trail, which takes you on a big loop above the Pacific Ocean.

I had the following items on my person: an apple, a potato peeler, and a stone with Mark’s full name written on it in black marker pen. That’s my old boss from college, who shot himself seven days after the Roseburg incident, using a gun he always said he needed for protection.

This was a man full of cynicism and insight; a man who did a lot for a lot for the people within his reach; a man who taught people and lead them simultaneously, so that they could do the same. A man I admired and struggled to understand, but not someone I suspected wanted to leave the world behind.

Mark never visited Oregon in his lifetime, but I think he would have appreciated the cold, the silver glow on the ocean in the morning, the fog, and all the rain.

He never liked the sun that much.

*

I think about the city I grew up in, Port Elizabeth, on the coast of South Africa, a lot. It’s already been six years since I left, and they add up quickly. A time will come when the amount of time I’ve lived away from it will equal the time that I lived there. Or I’ll die, and fly home to be scattered in my parents’ garden.

My wife and I talk about having kids sometimes, and when/if that eventually happens, I’ll refer to her and our child as ‘my family’. My own family, the family I call ‘my family now, i.e. my brothers and parents, will become ‘my folks’ then, and when my brothers have kids, they’ll have their own families. That’s multiplication, not division.

I used to feel like I’d escaped my home town, but every time something like Mark’s death happens and I can’t go back for the funeral, it feels more like I’ve transported myself to another dimension where they’re not really dead yet.

In my mind, everything in Port Elizabeth is as it was in 2009. Everyone there lives in the middle of an idea about where I come from.

*

cape-lookout-heading

We took our time navigating the spiraling trail that wraps around mossy cliffs, stopping at each vista point to admire the view: we watched the pelicans airplaining across the ocean’s corduroy skin; we watched ocean swells marching in from the horizon, gathering into raised fists and pounding the rocky crags where lands meets the sea; we watched the sun sneak through gaps in the clouds, decorating the ashen sky with golden brush strokes; we watched a pair of gray whales moving slowly down the coast.

When we got to the final stretch of our hike, to a point where you get a panoramic view of the cape, I took out my peeler and apple.

It’s been over a year since I quit smoking cigarettes and lately I’ve been missing it. Not the coughing and the stinky fingers and the anxiety over health concerns, but the simplicity of a smoke break. A legislated 3.42 minute intermission from the business of being a human. A time-out, if you will. Keeping my hands busy helps.

My wife sat beside me and drank from her canteen while I peeled my apple.

Earlier this year, 130 Melon-Headed Whales beached themselves in Japan. An article online showed pictures of them suffocating on a dirty beach, leaving this world behind slowly and silently, stoically even. Volunteers and veterinarians tried pulling them in the water, but they kept coming back to shore. They fought hard to die.

I wonder what the tipping point for the pod was — when did all the whales get together and make a collective decision to find a better place? What did the whales in charge say to the worker whales who were sceptical about the mission’s outline, or dealing with second-thoughts about a mass suicide? Did all the whales think it was the best decision, or did some kill themselves because of peer pressure? Did some whales fail to show up on the day, and now live alone, carrying a load of survivor’s guilt?

I didn’t want to talk about the whales or ruin the moment, so I kept peeling the apple, working my way inwards. But the big things on my mind kept resurfacing.

Mark shot himself once before. A a few years ago, a man snuck into the shop and ran away with money from the petty cash drawer. While chasing this thief outside and down the street, he reached for his gun and accidentally blew a hole in his foot.

He saw the funny side and laughed about it after getting back from the hospital, dosed on pain killers and wearing a cast up to his knee. He said that he had no intentions to shoot to the guy, just scare him away.

I thought about Mark’s face as I took the stone out of my pocket and held it up to the light. Its brown exterior sparkled as I turned it over a few times, mentally tracing his features in as much detail as possible; his pickle-shaped nose, his blue eyes, the big smile that occupied the downstairs portion of his head. His laugh.

I leaned against a tree on the edge of the cliff. A deadly fall into the ocean offered itself to anyone wanting to leave the world behind. The stone felt heavy in my hand, like I was carrying all the memories of Mark in one object at one time; memories that were built over years, and now live in the fog.

I followed the stone as it dropped, but couldn’t follow it all the way down.

*

Last week in Hawaii, two surfers were attacked by two different sharks in one day, on opposite ends of the same island. An insanely unlucky thing to have happened

I read an interview with one of the victims, a guy in his thirties who surfed everyday, and he mentioned having some trouble with a “ghost foot.” He said he could still feel his toes and it actually felt like they were hurting.

This is a perplexing concept, how people can miss and feel something that isn’t there anymore.

*

cape-lookout-cover

Salmon are tenacious creatures.

They’re born in freshwater streams, miles inland, and migrate to the ocean as they get older. Once they’re fully grown and ready to spawn babies of their own, they’ll head back to freshwater, against terrific odds, all the way to their place of birth.

It’s an ancient and epic journey that kills most of them. Bears and fishermen get involved, along with wild rapids, dam walls and other obstacles. Only the lucky and strong ones make it, and that’s all that counts. The ones that get back to freshwater are the reason wild salmon continue to exist in the world.

Once the survivors have laid their eggs and done their part for the circle of life, death welcomes them home, like heroes. In the world according to salmon, to die a successful egg-layer is the greatest honor, I would assume.

*

I felt really depressed when we started breaking down our campsite, our makeshift kingdom, as we prepared to drive to Portland. There were loose ends to tie up when we got back, obstacles to face; finding a  new job, writing a letter to Mark’s wife, following the aftermath of another gun-related massacre in America.

I started taking my frustrations out on the pegs holding our tent up, using the hammer-claw to bludgeon the earth. The ground was soft from the rain, making it easy to drive the metal ears into it and rip out chunks of brown guts. Every time I brought my fist down, a small part of the monster inside my head clapped its hands.

You are making a mess, my wife told me. Calm down.

I wanted to tell her that I was still sad about Mark, and anxious and worried about our world. That I didn’t know how long it would take to find a new job or how desperate the process would make me along the way. I cannot recall a single time in life where I didn’t have a lot on my mind, and it just seems to be getting worse as I get older.

Why I am so goddamned crazy? I wanted to shout.

Instead, I said that I loved her, and she said it back to me, and then she came over to squeeze my cold hand, to loosen its grip on the hammer.
And so I started pulling the pegs out again, softly at first, but gradually more aggressively. And she repeated the calming process once more, and then again a few minutes later, until all the pegs were out. And it felt like working my tired, gnarled feet into a pair of soft, fluffy slippers that fit just right.
Soon, it was time to go.

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