Editor’s note: Libra, written by Kevin MacGregor Scott, won the 2009 Dirt Rag literature contest and first appeared in Issue #145, published in October 2009. Original illustrations by John Hinderliter.
I returned to my hometown a year from the date the last letter came from my brother Frank. The dispatches arrived in three week intervals and then they just stopped. Which came as no surprise. Frank’s fate had been sealed since his entrance into and subsequent passionate affair with the wildness that surrounded our small town.
I notified the appropriate administrative people at school that my brother had died. I left out that he’d been on the run from various government agencies or that he’d been found at the bottom of a frozen crevasse up in the Northwest Territories forty kilometers from the nearest dirt road. Then I drove from northern California to McCall, Idaho, with his letters running through my head.
what truths are they professing to the collegiate herds in california brother? have things worked out to your expectations? well. i sincerely hope they have. spring is arrived. melt and mud. i’m leaving out. i’ve cut things to the quick and can do no more. they’re coming. they know what i’ve done. i suspect you do too. you never told anyone? of course you didn’t.
the bike is ready. the gear assembled. the direction known. the very last thing is this letter.
you’ve been nothing if not solid, jack. ever reliable. i need for you to be in grande cache alberta on or around september fifteenth. that gives me over a hundred suns to sink between then and now. think not of the inconvenience to yourself as i’m doing you a favor by way of creating a minor adventure. which you undoubtedly need. do what you have to. but be there. bring your bike.
I stepped out of the car into a McCall frozen solid and compressed beneath a cast-iron inversion layer. I’d gone west-coast soft. I could hear Frank laughing while I stood shivering in my puffy pink skin, a lumpish desk-driving version of the hardened-off kid I’d been. He’d always been the measure I’d held myself to and most often fallen short of. Which is ironic, because by accepted societal measures I have achieved much more. Yet with every hoop passed through I hear Frank ask, “At what cost, Jack?”
Before I’d been consumed by college, by cranking out lofty chains of words and passing through the hoops of the Prescribed Plan for Social and Economic Advancement, Frank and I had reveled in the great expanse of wildness waiting just outside of town. The Reynolds boys pedaled creaking relics through McCall until inner tubes herniated through tread. Our sorties expanded outward until we broached the tailings of the Frank Church Wilderness that met our small piece of civilization at its edge. Once we found it we’d like to have never come out.
When I think of Frank the vision is always of the boy beaming like light embodied through the dappled shade of a spring forest sharp with the turpentine smell of heated Ponderosa. The first dust of the season whorling off our tires. The instant numbing of snowmelt crossings. He saw the gradual shift of my focus towards higher learning as pure folly.
“What are you, some parlor trick dog? Going off to the big school…paying others to form opinions in your head? They’ll only fill you with what suits their needs best. Educate yourself, Jack. Look around.”
A diminutive and dysfunctional town full of Dickensian characters. Like our father. Sooty Reynolds. Town chimney sweep. Smoke and ash followed him as if perennially returning from the pyre for his hopes and aspirations. His early attempts and failures were set-up enough for him to live through his two sons. He was consumed with our trajectory toward high-paying, respectable careers. We had a hard time believing we were sprung from his loins. The possibility that he might further us toward becoming men of higher standing than his own self-image was the one thing that allowed him to continue reaming stovepipes and scraping flues. He introduced us as his prodigies.
“Jack’s going to write the Great American Novel. Frank’ll star in it.”
Frank and I shot looks at each other. My visible disgust with Sooty masked the conscious awareness that I lacked that star thing Frank had. The strange magnetism. The absolute confidence in rightness and action. He didn’t care about pleasing Sooty. Or me. He wanted only to be far outside of the strapped-down, inhumane, capital-driven world, exploring the outlying mountains aboard his bike.
“The bike is a perfect travel medium,” said Frank. “Quick. Nimble. Quiet. Doesn’t need to be fed. Doesn’t spook. Runs on naught but food.” If he was a prodigy at all you were most apt to know it when you watched him put a bike through its paces.
College arrived suddenly. Frightfully. We parted without handshake or hug. The meaningless words spoken merely a rotten scrim of ice over a widening chasm in ideology and faiths. While I went to jumping, Frank continued the maturation of our early manna into a mad consecration.
The next communiqué came from Ronan, Montana. A generic postcard in a plain envelope sent from Farnsworth T. Giggler:
watched an evening electrical storm far over the eastern horizon sear the rim of the earth from north to south. the divine undeniable in such beauty and force. I’ve waited too long. these places won’t last long enough for people to understand the direct action needed to save them or what will be lost. bike and I are however in perfect symbiosis. steel muscle heart sinew lung and bone, the spirits fuse driven by these wild places I’ve striven to keep intact. stealing…poisoning…squeezing dollars from it must extract an equivalent toll from our collective soul. I love it so much, jack. there’s no room for self-indulgence out here. blah blah blah. I am grown vain.
five flat tires so far. one broke spoke. up and down goes the trail. first person i’ve seen in a week hiking below yesterday. he sensed me…stopped. fearful. an interloper. passing through unaware of his brotherhood with all this. disconnected…as are most. I sat still until he passed. don’t want to talk to anyone but you. you should be here.
this town is mad. the people are mean and drunk. they seem sick. a sick culture. supplies and back into the womb of the mountains.
Frank’s calling arrived with our bearing witness to an event in the mountains north of town. We were seventeen and eighteen then. Accomplished riders. Brothers beating on each other with bikes instead of fists. We heard the metal clank of machinery and the whine of two-stroke engines while climbing a steep backcountry scree trail. At the apex we lay in the browning grass with hearts pounding and watched men systematically knock down the mountain opposite the valley between us. Raw skid trails, where logs were yarded and loaded onto idling trucks, ran down the ravaged natural ravines. Spent diesel came on the air. High on the hill small figures laid down tree upon tree with a rending crack of old wood tearing at the bole.
Frank watched silently. His jaw set and eyes pale in the midday sun. I began to whisper but he waved me down as a sharp report came across. Then another as the men took to chasing something large and black pell-mell down the mountain. The thing stumbled and rolled. A man stopped and held his arms out in a triangle and another report came across the valley. The bear, my mind accepted that it was a bear, took off running again until the ground ran out beneath its feet and it cartwheeled off the mountain and into the sky, gyrating clumsily as it plummeted until it disappeared from sight forever. The men queued up small and primal on the rock shelf and stared downward. The wind soughed mournfully, but its plaint was voided by the smoking yarder blowing its horn long and hard at which the men slunk back to their positions on the hillside and resumed cutting it down.
We rode home mute that day. The strangely detached viewing of the self-destructive angles of man affected me greatly. But in Frank some sort of internal scale that had been teetering for some time suddenly buried itself against the stops.
After this he began to immerse himself in these fantastic rides deep into the Frank Church. He’d be gone for two days. Three days. A week. Returning ragged and skinny and quiet. But with a haunting in his eyes. It was then that Sooty gave up on him as an object movable by no one but Frank.
When I left for school Frank moved out of the house and took up in a spartan cabin twelve miles out of town. Not long after, the front page of the Idaho Statesman ran a bullet that read:
MONKEYWRENCHERS STRIKE LOGGING OPERATION
DAMAGE ESTIMATES IN EXCESS OF 250K!
The pictures showed smoking hulks of machinery. A charred Peterbilt log-hauler that looked like it took a bomb. News of the event ran electric through the state. “E.L.F.” people said. “Radical goddamn tree-huggers” they grumbled. “Californians.” A strange chord rang in me.
Life carried on, however. Sooty continued sloughing out chimneys. I took exams and carefully planned my future. And I wondered about Frank.
When the school year ended and the college town performed its annual emptying, I drove home to McCall and rode out to see him. Outside his cabin several out-of-state cars were parked. When I walked in the front door I found Frank surrounded by several serious looking men I didn’t know. All went silent.
“So the prodigal returns,” shouted Frank, breaking the tension. “I’d completely forgotten my brother and I are going for a ride today. I’ll catch up with you guys later.” Frank put his hand on my shoulder and shuttled me quickly out.
His cabin resided near the old trail up to Pearl Lake and we rode it slowly. Frank avoided the obvious questions I was about to ask by asking me about California. I spoke about college life. Girls. Beer. Bongheads. We climbed through large stands of tamarack and spruce. The warming earth exhaled sweetly. We stopped and picked morels growing out of the singletrack. At the lake we stripped and waded out until the mud bottom fell away and we floated pale and small beneath the immense swath of Idaho blue. Small cutthroats dimpled the surface by the hundreds.
“Who are those people, Frank?”
“Friends. Business associates.”
“What business is that?”
He smiled faintly. “Protection. Subversion. Shifting of dominant paradigms.”
“Protection of what?”
“What do you think?” He said, turning on me. “There are but a few things worth protecting. What’s the most sacred and precious thing on earth?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well you should, goddamnit Jack. Look around.” He made an all-encompassing gesture with his arms while maintaining an incredulous look. He sunk beneath the surface and stayed down for a long time. That strange chord rang in me again. When he came up he was halfway across the lake.
“This is all we’ve got, Jack. They’ll ruin it if we let them. Extract every last dollar from it until it’s just a pile of lifeless rock. Pull your head out of your ass.”
charged by a sow grizzly large as a draft horse. thought it was over. seen mountain goats. mule deer. marmots. moose. cold clear star sprent nights. the aurora undulating and streaking in colours unimaginable. utter and complete isolation. pedaled through a valley of quivering aspen bound by peaks and shot through with newborn water. caught jeweled trout with maps of forgotten worlds etched in obsidian over their depthless backs. they flash like daggers at the bottom of a rivulet you could step across. dry lightning touched a ridgetop snag and it burned all night like a sentinel of the almighty. dug a fulgurite long as my arm the next morning from its root. nothing weighs on me but the unavoidable townships. I could stay up here forever. don’t even know what day it is. I know my fight is over. I pass the torch to you…
I read it three times and put it in the box in my desk drawer with the other letters. Two term papers in two neat piles stared at me. They suddenly seemed affected. Irrelevant.
In my third year of college I read about the wrenching of three logging outfits in Oregon. An equipment yard and three field operations torched over a weekend. The reporter mentioned bicycles being used to reconnoiter and commit the remote crimes synchronously. Violence against property they called it. I marveled at the semantics.
Not long after, Sooty called. Frank had disappeared from town. “Left out without word one,” he said. “What do you make of a son like that?”
More incidents occurred at random. Governmental agencies stepped up efforts. No one person or group owned the acts. The media labeled the events and perpetrators with clever titles. Ecotage. Eco-terror. Eco-terrorists. And finally, domestic terrorists.
The last event before Frank’s first letter arrived was the burning of seven multi-million-dollar starter castles being built along the banks of the Upper Salmon River. No one was hurt, or ever had been, but the massive structures were turned to ash on their foundations.
Darian McDiggler of Spillimacheen, Alberta, wrote:
crossed the border hidden in the international spine. no customs. no lines. no laws but those natural to human beings. hardest riding yet. took a nasty crash. came to in the cold dark. sutured a spectacular knee wound closed by firelight. no matter. the mountains are even more grand here. I stay within them much as I can. venturing out and seeing the ruination…clearcuts…mines…oil derricks in the distance with their proboscises sucking the earth’s marrow. shortsightedness drives me mad. a revolution of the mind, jack. that’s truly what’s needed. but how?
lonely pedaling today. I’m just tooo damn small. the pen just may be mightier, brother. might be that the novel sooty proclaimed you’d write may be the way. I don’t know. I’m teetering over an abyss. I often think of the falling bear.
grande cache coming up. the trail grown thin or none at all. weather changing on the minute. snow, snain, hail, rain, sun. fingers grown notably skinnier. surprised myself…my reflection in a pool of water. grande cache. see you there.
The date came quickly. One day I looked at the calendar and realized I was due in Grande Cache in two days. Through maddening means of transport I arrived on the fifteenth. No Frank. I rode into the timbered hills knowing it was impossible folly. I asked around in town. Spent a week meandering. Nothing. I gave my bike to a ten-year old kid who heeled me the entire time I was there. Then I went home.
A few ideas came. Frank was hurt. Frank was dead. I was an unwitting pawn in one of Frank’s secretive plans. I decided the best thing was to go home and wait. When I arrived, a G-man in a suit was waiting with all sorts of imperious questions about Frank. Haven’t heard from him. No one has. Piss off.
The final letter arrived two months after I’d returned.
heard you came brother. with your bike. the kid is adventuring around town on it just as we used to. rode with him a while.
had to pull stitches from my knee and cut away some infection and re-stitch. great fun. better now, but laid in the mountains for a week unable to move for all the will in the world. in this time of stillness i came to terms with myself. probably best I missed you. you’re the only person who might’ve talked me out of it. I know I cannot endure one day where they’ll put me should I return. and you know I’ll never turn their way.
I meant to give you something. maybe it’ll find it’s way into your hands yet. I’m riding northward. this is all I want and all I’m built for anymore.
funny. I first rode for escapism…I rode off anger and discontent. i rode for zero impact. now I ride simply for the love of it. the indescribable joy of moving myself across this rare earth. a fitting and proper mindset for an ending.
I think of you with every other pedalstroke brother
The coroner pulled the sheet back on my brother’s mummified mortal shell. I nodded. I escorted Sooty back out to my car. Frank should have been left where he’d fallen rather than having been dragged out by a couple of ice climbers with a travois. Sooty stared at the floorboards.
“What you think he was doin’ way up there?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“You think he was the terrorist that did them things?”
“No. I do not.”
I teach literature at the college where I did my postgrad. I was deep into a pile of essays when the knock came.
“Are you Jack Reynolds?”
“Do I look familiar?”
“I see so many students…”
“You gave me your bike. Nine years ago. In Alberta.”
He lifted a tattered journal from his backpack and set it on my desk. “Your brother gave me this to give to you.”
“He said I could read it if I kept it to myself.”
“How was it?”
“I think your brother was a great man.”
“Well.” He looked around my confined office briefly. Uncomfortably. “I’d better be off.”
“Where’re you going?”
“I’m riding back up before winter sets in.”
“Yep.” He leaned forward and shook my hand. “Thanks.”
I sat and stared at Frank’s journal for a while then opened it and it was warm in my hand. Like a torch handle.
We’ve published a lot of stuff in 26 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.