Ghost in the Forest: An Author’s Sweet Revenge…by Sue Cauhape

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.

After Travis, Dori, and Hanks, the local trapper, investigate the scene for forensic evidence, a public meeting is called. This is where other personal experiences find closure in the novel.

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

Ghost in the Forest is available in paperback and kindle from Amazon

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.

 

 

 

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4 comments for “Ghost in the Forest: An Author’s Sweet Revenge…by Sue Cauhape

  1. Evan Cantor
    November 30, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    Have you run into fat-bike ruts on your favorite ski trail yet? I did, for the first time, just the other day. I’m neither enthused nor amused!

  2. November 28, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    I just came across this article. I, too have been battling the mountain bikers and their wreckreational activities for too many years — trying to save a wetland park. I set up a couple website blogs and wrote my anger out, hoping to educate those who have no clue about the whims and wiles of mountain bikers and what they are doing to our precious natural places in my Canadian province of British Columbia.

    I can fully understand why Sue Cauhape had to channel her rage in a novel. I am glad I am not the only one who understands the mess mountain biking has wrought on our once peaceful trails, wildlife habitat, etc. Thank you, Sue.

    Mountain bikes are the same all around the world. Mountain biking seems more like a cult rather than a sport, actually.

  3. November 28, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    What were they thinking??? Mountain biking and trail-building destroy wildlife habitat! Mountain biking is environmentally, socially, and medically destructive! There is no good reason to allow bicycles on any unpaved trail!

    Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1996: https://mjvande.info/mtb10.htm . It’s dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don’t have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else — ON FOOT! Why isn’t that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking….

    A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it’s not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see https://mjvande.info/scb7.htm ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

    Mountain bikers also love to build new trails – legally or illegally. Of course, trail-building destroys wildlife habitat – not just in the trail bed, but in a wide swath to both sides of the trail! E.g. grizzlies can hear a human from one mile away, and smell us from 5 miles away. Thus, a 10-mile trail represents 100 square miles of destroyed or degraded habitat, that animals are inhibited from using. Mountain biking, trail building, and trail maintenance all increase the number of people in the park, thereby preventing the animals’ full use of their habitat. See https://mjvande.info/scb9.htm for details.

    Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it’s NOT!). What’s good about THAT?

    To see exactly what harm mountain biking does to the land, watch this 5-minute video: http://vimeo.com/48784297.

    In addition to all of this, it is extremely dangerous: https://mjvande.info/mtb_dangerous.htm .

    For more information: https://mjvande.info/mtbfaq.htm .

    The common thread among those who want more recreation in our parks is total ignorance about and disinterest in the wildlife whose homes these parks are. Yes, if humans are the only beings that matter, it is simply a conflict among humans (but even then, allowing bikes on trails harms the MAJORITY of park users — hikers and equestrians — who can no longer safely and peacefully enjoy their parks).

    The parks aren’t gymnasiums or racetracks or even human playgrounds. They are WILDLIFE HABITAT, which is precisely why they are attractive to humans. Activities such as mountain biking, that destroy habitat, violate the charter of the parks.

    Even kayaking and rafting, which give humans access to the entirety of a water body, prevent the wildlife that live there from making full use of their habitat, and should not be allowed. Of course those who think that only humans matter won’t understand what I am talking about — an indication of the sad state of our culture and educational system.

  4. Elise Roberts
    November 28, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    Mountain biking has gained popularity in the past 2 decades, with trail networks expanding over vast areas of parkland, wilderness areas and urban forests. Visit http://www.trailforks.com and search any area in the Province to see where they are, when none had existed 2 decades ago and at what cost to Mother Nature? Retired seniors cherish nature interpretation, so important to life-long learning, health and socialization. But will the ecological integrity of those wild areas we love to explore, and want to protect, be negatively impacted as bike trails expand everywhere?

    Land managers are doing their utmost to prevent unauthorized trail building by creating agreements with bike groups who have historically built trails without permits. Due to limited public funding, well organized mountain bike lobbyists are, in essence, becoming land managers through public – private partnerships. Bike clubs are funded by profitable bike businesses, who consequently benefit from advertising on mountain bike web sites, thus creating a kind of corporate funded monopoly in natural areas. And electronic bikes are coming that go faster, further and have greater capacity to travel off trail.
    The issue of unauthorized bike trails is especially prevalent on Crown Land where professional environmental assessments are not required in the process. There does not appear to be a democratic public outreach process to other trail users, including local natural history groups who have expertise about sensitive areas, and who would be a valuable resource. For example, Sumas Mountain has one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in BC, a convergence of different bio-geo climatic zones, and inhabited by at least 40 species-at risk and 27 ecosystems-at-risk. The late Glenn Ryder spent years in that area and contributed to the most extensive natural history records in the Province. Yet http://www.trailforks.com shows a vast network of bike trails there.
    To create bike trails, borrow pits are dug for “gold dirt,” the layer of compacted gravel soils underneath the topsoil. The organic and top duff layer of soil is an essential component to a healthy forest, containing tree roots and important fungal networks. Digging around trees can negatively impact important dependencies between trees and fungi. Soil compaction adversely impacts air flow to tree roots and fungal mycelium. Cutting critical tree roots can interrupt the tree’s water and nutrient uptake and compromises its stability.
    Removal of coarse woody debris for trail construction results in another micro-habitat being lost for salamanders, beetle larvae and other invertebrates, an important protein food for bears. Decomposed woody debris is a principal component of soil necessary for future plant growth. Due to heavy use, bike trails must be maintained indefinitely, so this woody debris is never allowed to accumulate and rot. Over time, soils will degenerate and new forests suffer. Young live trees are used for construction material, interrupting forest succession.
    Skidding down steep slopes not protected by rock placement, results in the excavation of a water channel which becomes a stream during heavy rainfall. Bike trail builders have tried to overcome that by building “Roman Roads”. While well-intended, this type of construction involves removal of boulders from the forest floor impacting moss and lichen species that only grow on rock. The reconfiguration of the forest drainage system can result in siltation of mature wetland areas, impacting the habitat of amphibians.
    While larger mammals sometimes use man made trails, smaller species of mammals and amphibians treat trails as barriers because trails create open areas for predation. They become confined to pockets, islands or habitat which restricts breeding and gene flow. Intensity of use of bike trails is much greater than for hiking trails, driving wildlife away and depriving it of quiet refuge areas for breeding, particularly for larger species such as deer.
    The heavily used mountain bike trails are not sustainable, because trails have to be repaired once or twice a year with all the rain. Re-alignment actually means a new trail. Mountain bikes need more and more trails, whereas natural history groups use existing trails. Salal and other forest understory plants are being impacted, an important berry source for bears and birds. Bike trail building done by large groups of well-intended volunteers, happens right through bird nesting season.

    Improved public consultation measures are needed for legitimizing bike trails, on Crown Land especially.

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