It has been said that people should be nice to writers or else they will suffer a grizzly death in the writer’s next novel. I decided this would be the way to commit the perfect murder … totally legal and very satisfying. But why such rage?
For sixteen years, I lived in a mountain town that morphed from providing ice and lumber in the 19th Century to a destination resort offering year-round recreational options. On any given weekend, the population swelled from 14,000 to 85,000 or more. The challenging Sierra Nevada trails soon became a Mecca for mountain bikers.
Near my home, a labyrinth of trails drew me into the wilderness for my morning strolls. It didn’t take long before near-collisions with bikers ensued. While one incident could’ve resulted in a head injury, another was so irritating I ground my teeth for months. How to cure this smoldering anger? Writing!
To deal with my villains in Ghost in the Forest, I created a story about a young woman, raised in a small lumber town. With the mill closed, the town was saved by the tourist industry catering mainly to second-home owners and mountain bikers. As Dori hikes along her favorite trail on the first day of Spring, she’s aware that cougars and other winter-weary wildlife are particularly dangerous. Coming up behind her, though, is a much trickier animal.
Suddenly, Dori heard the tick-tick clicking of bicycle gears coming up behind her. She jumped off the trail just as a mountain biker slipped past.
“What did you think I was, a bear?” A sarcastic grin crossed his face.
Another cyclist followed silently behind him. Dori muttered assholes as he passed. She watched them bump over the rocky trail, hoping some karmic disaster would befall them. May the points of a thousand hiking sticks be thrust between your spokes.
Resuming her walk, she vowed not to allow bicyclists … to interrupt her thoughts. It was becoming a constant mantra to calm her: don’t let them ruin your day, don’t let them ruin your day.
Then she noticed tiny trails leading off the main track. Nubbly tire prints marked where mountain bikers had furrowed through grass and wildflowers in the muddy earth.
“Damnit, this is my trail. Where do these jerks get off tearing it up like this?” She jabbed her staff into the ground and stopped, taking long gasps of air to settle her bristling rage. “Why am I worried about bears? Men are the most dangerous animals in the wilderness.”
Dori does have a problem with men. Brought up by a strict mother who claimed to be a virgin at marriage, her sexual maturity is stilted. Her estranged boyfriend, Travis, works as the forest ranger in town. She cringes at the sound of his greetings and avoids eye contact. When she meets Cuffy at a local wildlife shelter, she transfers her sexual yearnings to another species.
In a nearby cage, another cougar lounged on a log…. The huge male surveyed his kingdom with an imperious air. … He regarded her with indifference. Something about him stirred a fear in her that reached deeper than the danger of being torn to shreds. His masculine energy seethed under the surface and pierced her emotional core…. she felt his raw maleness cutting through her, disturbing her in a place she had protected for years. Travis made her feel this way whenever their eyes met, even after so many years.
Living in her deceased parents’ cabin on the edge of town, she also abides on the fringe of society. Dori feels so uneasy with the foreign languages, she walks a backstreet trail to avoid the parade of tourists on Main Street. Their urban attitudes and perceived disdain for her as a local increased her discomfort of living in her hometown.
During a visit to Park City, which I haunted before it became californicated, I was shocked to see one of my favorite hangouts replaced by a French bakery. Even the old adobe jailhouse-turned-saloon, where I played countless games of pool, was scraped from the earth, the space marked by a plaque paying smug homage to the silver miners. I used this experience to illustrate in these two excerpts the changes happening in Dori’s town:
Some of the (workers’) cabins had grown by hundreds of square feet, multiple storeys ascending their slanted lots. When Dori looked at these remodels, she could barely remember the seed of the project. Somewhere in all that refurbishment was old man Lawson’s place or the crowded abode of the Connally clan.
A few years before Dori’s father died, the mill closed. … Most of the workers either retired or moved, leaving the corrugated metal buildings to molder next to a huge pile of debris. Then, an inventive entrepreneur refitted the mill to burn the sawdust as bio-fuel, providing electric power for the whole community. Dori had to admit it was a creative use for the derelict building.
The next thing the man did, though, seemed very strange. He patched and powered-washed the metal exterior of the building. When all of its aging flaws were scoured or repaired, the man treated the metal so it would rust in uneven drips and blotches, then painted a distressed newer wooden portion so it would look weather-beaten. … the building now presented a more artistic version of industrial architecture.
A similar thing happened in Truckee, CA when the occupants of an industrial building were evicted so the new owner could remodel for an art gallery. At $2000 a month, the gallery soon closed. The building has been empty ever since. Meanwhile, the former occupants relocated to an industrial area beyond the view of Commercial Row and paid twice the rent for half the space. Likewise, as more urbanites moved in, the locals moved to Idaho.
Dori’s nemeses do meet their grizzly fate when a deer chased by a cougar collides with the most offensive biker. The force of the impact breaks the man’s neck. The cougar’s lunge lands on the shoulders of the second biker, sending him head first into a boulder. He is paralyzed.
I was assigned to cover a meeting of the Bicycle Coalition where the chairwoman announced that CalTrans bicycle route signage had arrived. I kept my opinions to myself as a young man added that CalTrans is responsible for cleaning the bike lanes. He reported that an old-time resident said, “why don’t you clean the lanes yourself. The taxpayers aren’t responsible for your recreation.” He concluded with an indignant “that’s the old-guard attitude around here.”
Due to his arrogance, my teeth started to grind again, but I knew exactly what to do. This abbreviated version of Chapter Eight illustrates the emotions that flare within exurb communities:
As predicted, the animal rights representative and Maggie, a local wildlife rehabber, were nose-to-nose in conflict. “You people spend millions chasing little old ladies in fur coats and you don’t give a dime to people like me. I work my butt off actually helping animals.” The young woman struggled to get a word in as Maggie leaned over her.
Such was the debate Dori heard as she entered the community center. Looking around, she saw no familiar faces. Who are these people? … Hanks and the ER doctor huddled in consultation. Dori knew they were in for a brawl with the forensic results …. Even with all the photos, these people were too hyped up to listen to reason. They wanted revenge.
As she pressed into the wall, she felt the growing rancor between various stakeholders in this incident. She hadn’t seen this much hell and damnation since the union called a meeting when the mill closed. … The whole town was in a state of siege, fighting for its life. This uproar felt the same.
On the front row sat a middle-aged woman clutching a handkerchief. She alternated between dabbing her eyes and slamming her fist on her thigh. The man next to her cupped himself around her, saying nothing. He seemed helpless to console her. …
A shifting mass of people clamored around a huge board with photos: one of a mountain lion pacing the fence around a schoolyard, another a tourist’s photo of a family posing beneath a tree, a big cat peering down from the branch above them. A montage showed a hunter with dogs treeing a cougar, the cat falling from the tree, and finally the hunter holding up its dead body for a proud display.
Someone actually had the gall to hang a cougar pelt from the corner of the board. Dori examined it more closely, putting her finger through a bullet hole in the chest. The pelt measured about five feet from nose to tip of tail.
“My God, it’s so small,” she whispered in awe. “I thought they were much bigger than this.” Dori sickened as she held it out to assess its width. She could almost smell the bloodlust rising in the room. This was going to be a horrible night.
…Tapping the mic, Travis coaxed people to settle down. …he beckoned Hanks and the doctor to join him. To begin, Travis ran a program showing how the footprints and estimated trajectory fit with the doctor’s explanation of the men’s injuries. This proved that the lion didn’t attack the mountain bikers.
Hanks took the mic. “I won’t be hunting any cougars this time. … Then he addressed the man and woman on the front row. “Mr. and Mrs. Moseby, I’m sorry to say this about your sons, but they just got in the way.”
At that, the father shot up from his chair, nearly knocking it over. “How dare you say my sons just got in the way? My Darin’s dead because of that animal and Billy….” The man struggled to control his grief. “God only knows if he’ll be all right again. So you’re just going to let that damned animal go?”
“As you can see by our forensic evidence….”
“But that animal killed my son!”
“No, actually it didn’t kill anybody. Your son, and I hope you’ll pardon me if I sound glib, but Darin died from a body-slam by a deer. The cougar never touched him….”
“Damn you! This is outrageous. I’ll have you fired.”
“Yeah, you just do that. You know, more people die from hitting deer on the highway than get killed by cougars. … As for mountain bikers and hikers, there was a couple down near Placerville who had an accident similar to this one. Fortunately, they survived, but they were damned sore for quite a while. With more people going into the wilderness, these encounters are going to happen more frequently….”
Then the animal rights representative pushed forward to address the man, speaking in a tone of voice as if he were a small child. “Mr. Moseby, this man is only being reasonable. We’re invading their homes to the point where they have nowhere to go. They are the ones who need protection from us. Besides, the environment needs top predators like this one. They’re important because they keep everything in balance…. It would be an injustice to kill this cougar.”
“Who are you to speak of justice, young lady?” Another man stood up in the second row. “A mountain lion killed my wife while she was jogging. My children lost their mother and I lost my wife to a mountain lion that deliberately chased her down. Do you call that keeping everything in balance? …
Maggie then rose. “Killing the mother of those cubs wasn’t enough justice for you? That lion was young. You could still see the spots on her hind legs. It was probably her first litter and your wife got too close to the den….”
Now the bicycle coalition rep bounded to the front of the room and grabbed the mic out of Hanks’s hand. “It’s the State’s job to provide safe trails and roads for our use. That’s why we pay our taxes. It’s … your job to keep our trails safe.” He tapped Hanks on the chest. Hanks wiped the man’s hand away and reclaimed the mic.
“What do you mean your trails?” Dori could no longer be silent. “Those two bikers almost ran me off my trail. Yeah, that’s right, jackass. MY trail. I’ve been hiking those hills since I could walk and you plunk a bike rack at the cow camp and lay claim to everything? Who do you think you are?”
“Hey, I don’t know who you are and I really don’t care how long you’ve lived here, lady. We bikers as you call us saved this backwater with lots of new business and culture. Our lifestyle is a lot greener than that damned lumber mill ever was. The more bikes come into this town, the healthier we’ll all be. So if you don’t like what’s happening here, move the fuck away.”
“Oh you’re so concerned about the environment? I couldn’t help notice all the little trails cut through the forest. You seem to think you can point your bikes in any direction and rip through the plant life. Crush animal burrows, create erosion, and God knows what other damage you do to your precious environment.
“Besides, it’s not the State’s job to … keep you safe. You don’t look like you need a babysitter, for Pete’s sake. When you go into the wilderness, take responsibility for your own safety. Be aware of your surroundings….” Then she looked directly at Michael sitting there with a smug expression. …
“And while I’m at it, Michael, what are you doing to educate your customers? Are you telling them to be courtious toward others on the trails? Or do you just pat them on the back and say chew ’em up, dude! This Share the Road campaign you people have is the most hypocritical bunch of hogwash I’ve ever heard.” His grin vanished. Dori couldn’t stop herself. “You know something, you’re right. I shouldn’t call you bikers. It would be an insult to the motorcycle gangs.”
At that, Michael rose with fists clenched. “You’re out of line, Dori, and typical of the old guard in this town. The mill’s gone and good riddance. And good riddance to you and anyone else who can’t keep up with the times.”
Ghost in the Forest portrays a community in transition and a woman caught up in the turmoil. There are several issues that need to be met with compromise. Dori finally discovers what she needs to do to solve her dilemmas. Can transitioning communities do the same?
Meanwhile, writing this tale has put my anger to rest.
Sue Cauhape has written feature articles for the Deseret News, Reno Gazette, and Our Town Truckee. As a member of the Jibboom Street Poets in Truckee, CA, she produced a book of poetry based on her experiences with her horse, Abby, a “fierce-eyed Appaloosa mare.” Her fascination with the buckaroo culture of northern Nevada inspired her novel, Paradise Ridge. For the novel, Ghost in the Forest, she incorporates her experiences volunteering for a wildlife shelter as well as hiking the beautiful trails around Truckee. Sue currently lives with her husband, Jeff, in Minden, NV, where they are members of a local ham radio club. She is now working on a novel about amateur radio based on a murder-suicide pact carried out by a pair of elderly members of the club. Though born and raised in Salt Lake City, she’s lived outside of Utah for nearly forty years. Recent trips to southeastern Utah have reminded Sue of how awe-inspiring and fragile that land is. She is quite amazed and shocked at the growth of the tourist industry and the possible harm such growth has done to the wilderness.While she believes tourism has many benefits for visitors and locals alike, she hopes that the industry will temper its growth so as to maintain a reasonable balance of enjoyment for all concerned.