6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

Behind the War Paint

     I hand the cashier a twenty dollar bill and turn to walk out the door when a tattered missing person sign taped to the glass catches my attention. Actually, it is the eyes I notice first. His unique name sits just above that blank stare awaiting my confirmation. His 'gone missing' date is over two years old. Missing? Two years? How had I not heard anything? Why hadn’t mother said something? Probably because I never call or visit, I instantly reason with a slight flare-up of guilt. It had been three years since my father's funeral prompted my last trip to the place I was raised, three years since I had set foot in this gas station, and almost twice that long since my final conversation with the man on the poster.

     His name was Cactus Dry Creek and he belonged to the only Indian family in our small mountain town. His tan skin and long black hair stood out as much as his name was inappropriate for central Idaho’s cold, forested climate. Of course, he wasn't born in Timberline. His family moved here from Nevada, which made him a double rarity in our neck of the woods. After the sawmills closed, nobody moved to Timberline; they only moved away.

     Considered an outsider, Cactus wasn’t treated particularly well at his new high school. It wasn't outright bullying. It was more that people acted like they just couldn't see him, like they thought he might disappear if they never acknowledged his existence. Once the primary focus of my peers neglect, due to an innate understanding of math, I was all too happy for Cactus' arrival. At least at first.

     The Dry Creek family bought the house closest to ours. Although we lived a quarter mile apart, he had to pass our place on his walks to and from school. I would watch him out my living room window as he moped past our fence, gaze at his feet, and his younger sister always trailing behind. I quickly convinced myself that I couldn’t stand his dejected body language, so I went out of my way to ensure our paths crossed during the commute. Looking back on it, I wonder if my motivation was simply the fact that being replaced on the bottom rung of the school's social ladder hadn't won me any more friends. I was still as alone as Cactus.

     In any case, he was just as eager for a comrade and we quickly forged a strong friendship. One of those childhood relationships you naively assume will last forever. As I have aged, and friends have come and gone, forever has come to mean a shorter amount of time. Is it like the pessimists say? Are friendships really just a matter of convenience and circumstance? When one part is removed from the equation, do they eventually fall apart?

     Stepping outside into the gas station parking lot, I am greeted by the rich, pine fragrance I have always associated with my hometown. I may have been all too eager to escape this dead-end settlement, but I never discovered another setting possessing Timberline’s access to a wild world of pristine forest and crystal clear streams. Taking in a combination of familiar sights and subtle changes, I drive my tiny hybrid down Main Street where oxidized Chevy and Ford trucks line the strip. The road leads me past a small school building, and again, I find myself sifting through memories of my old friend.

      Like Cactus, I was tall and lanky, coordinated in ways that weren't altogether graceful, and we found a common bond playing basketball. There weren't enough kids in our school to fund team sports, but if there had been, Cactus and I would have been starters on the hardwood. In addition to all the time spent playing on the town park's crumbling court, we also spent countless hours watching games at his house. I remember vivid images of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird battling back and forth like I had front row seats. He had a color television and my family didn't even have a black and white.

     In those days, Cactus had bright and clear green eyes. Nothing like the dead-end stare barely recognizing me the last time we spoke, nothing like the empty expression on the missing person poster. I remember how quickly his eyes began to fade those last two years of high school. From that seemingly magically blessed moment when Cactus touched the grizzly on the playground, he became a different person. I should know, because our friendship was the first thing to die.

     I remember the bear incident more vividly than any memory I can recall. Our small school held grades one through twelve and because all the classes had their lunch hour at the same time, nearly everyone, teachers included, were milling about the playground when the first child screamed bloody murder. As one, every head in ear shot swiveled towards the commotion. As one, we were met with a terrifying sight none of us could have imagined.

     The scream belonged to a young blond girl named Tess and she was running as fast as her short legs would carry her across the baseball diamond. Loping across the grass, considerably behind the terrified child, was the largest bear any of us had ever seen. Several off the younger girls joined Tess in her panicked shrieking and chaos ensued. I recall teachers yanking children off their feet and dragging them towards the school entrance, while larger boys shoved others kids aside in their haste to reach safety. In a split second, our school succumbed to a state of sheer terror.

     Our town had its share of black bear visitors, but we knew in an instant this was something else. Fish & Game officials later confirmed what we all knew. Despite the last of its kind in Idaho having been killed a century ago, there was ursus horribilisis in the flesh, and at our school. While others fled, I stood staring at the charging grizzly in a dumb stupor. I knew full well what the animal was based on its size and hulking shoulders, but I was unable to wrap my mind around the beast’s actual presence. Then, as if to one-up my stupendous incredulousness, Cactus threw down our basketball and sprinted after the bear.

     The basketball court was off to one side and out of the giant animal’s path. Like the other kids and teachers, Cactus could have reached the school's side door, but instead he charged an intersecting route towards the bear like a man possessed. As the massive grizzly lumbered past the jungle gym area, Cactus closed the gap, made an incredibly athletic springboard jump from halfway up the slide and landed right at the bear's back feet. With his legs still churning, Cactus grabbed ahold and yanked the grizzly's stubby tail. The monstrous creature's reaction was an instantaneous spin with teeth bared, but Cactus had never stopped moving. The tall Indian boy was already ten yards past the bear and moving faster than I had ever seen another human run.

     Now, a grizzly can outrun a horse over short distances, and although this one didn't give chase, I am not convinced it would have caught Cactus that day. The bear, after spinning about and seeing Cactus fly by, actually sat down for a second, as if it were protecting its tail from getting pulled again. Along with the rest of us, the grizzly watched in disbelief as the young man cleared the baseball diamond and sprinted into the bordering forest beyond.

     By then, I was the only person left standing in the schoolyard and I had never moved an inch. The rest of the teachers and students were just mouth-agape, wide-staring eyes barely visible from the windows and doorway. Had we really just seen that? First a grizzly where there couldn't be one, and then the unimaginable stunt Cactus pulled. None of it seemed possible. A second later the stunned bear was back on all fours and running its initial route past the side of our school. Moving in opposite directions, both animal and boy were quickly lost from sight.

     Lost in thought on my drive through Timberline, I almost fail to notice I am passing the old Dry Creek cabin. As of my last visit, I saw their familiar vehicles still parked outside and I was tempted to stop by. They would have loved a quick visit, but rather than face the momentary awkwardness of seeing someone for the first time in ages, I have always been one to let a stale relationship disintegrate into dust. This time, there are no cars in the driveway and the windows of the quaint A Frame are boarded over. A rusted For Sale sign sits half fallen over in the weed infested front yard. For all I knew of their whereabouts, the rest of the Dry Creek family had gone missing along with their son.

     I was the first to look for Cactus that fateful day all those years ago, and found him a quarter-mile into the dense forest, sitting at the base of a granite boulder, pale-faced, shaking, and breathless. His eyes were wide with fear and I noticed a tear had recently streamed down one of his cheeks. Cactus recoiled at the sound of my approaching footsteps before realizing it was me.

     “What the hell was that, man?” I demanded. “You could have been killed. You should have been killed!”

     Cactus snorted a quick hysterical laugh and a glob of snot burst from his nose. He ran both hands through his thick, black hair, pressing his skull tightly as if trying to keeps his brain from exploding. He looked at me and his tense shoulders finally collapsed in what looked like total, unexpected relief. My friend then recounted what happened and it was the only time I ever heard the tale told exactly so. From that point on, details quickly changed, heroics were amplified, and the legend of Cactus Dry Creek grew beyond control.

     Just a minute before everyone heard the first blood-curdling scream, Cactus had seen his sister on the jungle gym swing. When the Grizzly appeared and was heading in that direction, helping his sister was his only instinct, his only choice. It wasn't until he was in mid-air, leaping off the slide that Cactus noticed the empty swing still swaying as if recently abandoned. What he didn't know was that a second after her brother had last noticed her whereabouts, she had jumped from the swing and ran towards the drinking fountain. After the bear had been spotted, she was amongst the first children safely inside.

     “I saw that thing heading straight for Skye... or where I thought she was, and I just reacted. I was trying to distract it.” A few minutes later, after his crazy round eyes had relaxed and we could hear the distant voices of our teacher closing in, Cactus revealed another truth, another angle on the story I never heard again. “I don't think that bear was after anyone,” he said. “Honestly, it looked spooked to have found itself around so many people and was just trying to get out of there.”

     “And the tail pull? Are you insane? I can't even believe I'm talking to you right now!”

     “I almost ate dirt on my landing,” he replied sheepishly. “My feet got tangled for split second and I had to grab something.”

     Cactus' life changed instantly and dramatically after touching the grizzly. He was the closest thing to a celebrity Timberline had ever seen. Turns out, it was a tagged bear out of the Glacier Park area in Montana. For some reason, the big beast had abandoned his turf and wandered over three hundred miles from home. The day following the incident, Fish & Game Officials had the young Indian boy pose next to the slumped body of the giant bear. Cactus' fierce pose, standing with one foot atop the dead animal's shoulder, was circulated widely in the northwest, a brief write-up even appearing in National Geographic Magazine.

     He allowed the legend of the grizzly to take on a life of its own and people were all too happy to take the tale and run. By never sharing what he told me, the townsfolk chose to believe that he had somehow tapped into the spiritual powers his Native American ancestors allowing him to perform miracles of courage and wonder. He became an overnight shaman, a mystical man in the whitest community imaginable. People suggested incredulous scenarios, and Cactus didn't refute them. Before long the bear was twice its actual size, probably rabid, and only due to his brave confrontation with the animal were dozens of children spared a certain, bloody death.

     His new found stardom included the attention of our school's attractive females as well as the admiration of Timberline's rough and tumble crowd of young men. Most of them the sons of loggers, these boys fought hard and drank even harder before having even graduated high school. Cactus became a sort of cultish figure head to our town's adolescence because he would attempt any proposed dare, no matter how risky, or ridiculous. People assumed that anyone man enough to tug the tail of a grizzly was brave enough to face any danger.

     I was probably the only one who knew Cactus couldn't swim when he agreed to jump 80 feet from the rail road bridge into Timberline River. The water below the drop wasn't particularly deep and the current was swift, but I never saw Cactus bat an eye when the challenge was presented at school. I overheard people talking about it later, saying he calmly bobbed to the surface and seemingly let the current take him downstream and out of sight.

     Whatever the task, Cactus was up for it. From exploring half-collapsed mine shafts, to chasing a wolf pack away from an elk kill in his bare feet, the young man seemed born without fear. He never bragged about his exploits, or challenged anyone to replicate his feats; Cactus just seemed to go through the motions with an expressionless visage and let everyone else get caught up in the excitement. Like a magician, he'd perform a stunt, vanish from sight, and then reappear after his audience began to worry that something bad must have happened.

     Months after the bear incident, I noticed a particular dullness overtaking his once bright eyes. The attentive young man I had known quickly took on a thousand-mile-stare where he could dutifully engage someone in minimal conversation, but his focus seemed absolutely elsewhere. As time went on, his face barely registered any emotion at all, matching his reptile like gaze. When we graduated a short time later, I realized it had been a couple months since I had seen him share so much as a passing nod in the school hallway.

     As I park my hybrid in front of the house where I was born and raised, I realize it is the location where I had my last, brief conversation with Cactus. I had been loading my old hatchback with the clothes and supplies I would need for my first year of college. The used vehicle was a graduation gift from my parents. Cactus was ambling past my driveway, again staring at his feet, when he noticed me tying luggage to the top of my car. He stopped and looked at me with his head cocked sideways as if trying to remember something. I was surprised at how gaunt and pale his flesh had become, his dull eyes sunk deep in the cavernous sockets.

     “Cactus?” You okay, buddy?” I remember feeling awkward about calling him that as we hadn't been friends in some time. It felt pathetic to me at that moment, like I was clinging to something long gone. He looked up at me with that same empty look I had come to expect, almost as if seeing me for the first time. His long, slow sigh was barely audible.

     “One of these days, I'm gonna keep runnin',” he said. “Keep runnin' and never look back. I don’t want to know if anyone is watching anymore.”

     My young friend, looking impossibly aged, walked off after that cryptic message and I let him go without a word. I didn't know what he meant. I didn't know what to say. At that point, I'm not sure how much I even cared. His life, his story, was in a place I was leaving behind, and I knew I would never again call this small town home. My excitement about moving to the big city and starting college took precedent over anything happening in the lives of others.

     Climbing the wooden steps to my mother's cabin, I stop and look back at the base of the driveway where an old friend and I had shared our last, awkward exchange. I suddenly wish I could relive that moment, but what would I have said? What would I have done different? I hear his last, monotone words once again and picture his face on the missing person sign. Maybe Cactus was trying to tell me something that day, something he knew had to happen in order to preserve his own life. Maybe he did need to keep running and never look back at the place and the people who saddled him with so many expectations. Maybe he was letting me know that he too needed a fresh start.

     I picture him sprinting through the forest as wild-eyed as he was the day he touched the bear. Only, in my mind, there is joy on his face and an endless clarity to his vision. A sensation defying all logic and reason leaves me feeling as if Cactus is still out there running through the dark and wild woods. Except now, he isn't running towards or away from anything, he isn't running for an audience, Cactus is simply running to feel the wind on his face, to feel his heart pound in his chest, to ensure that he is still alive, and more importantly, living for himself.

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