The former road, now a spongy leafy path unmarked by tire tracks, meandered crookedly through dense stands of cedars huddled beneath the outswept arms of bur oaks. Shadows pooled in a deep draw to my left. After a hundred feet or so the road broke into a small clearing dominated by a tall barn, its upper beams exposed like rows of rotted teeth. On either side were two smaller outbuildings, one a rusted railcar, the other galvanized tin whose siding hung in tatters. It was unearthly still, even the incessant cries of snow geese heading to roost along the river having died away. Not a breath of air moved.
I waited at the clearing’s opening and listened. The sun dropped another degree to brush the tops of the distant trees. Clearly I was running out of light. But I hesitated and waited a few moments longer, restless eyes roving the gathering shadows, ears alert even above the incessant ringing that stands as an eternal reminder of a misspent youth with guns, and here I was again, ready to tackle the world at full-tilt boogie.
I reached under my jacket and hauled out the Glock. Okay, I thought, let’s do this.
More frequently than I care to admit I question my sanity for committing to another photographic project. A friend once told me that as he was being schmoozed about a job he wanted nothing to do with, he tuned out the chatter to formulate a resounding answer why he could not be involved. When the time came for a response he opened his mouth to say “no” and heard “yes” instead, much to his consternation.
“I hate it when that happens,” he said.
We let emotion snare us rather than letting reason dictate its own intractable logic. It’s also difficult to say no to something you find meritorious. Beneath the obvious pitfalls of dissociative behavior lies a comical tendency toward indulging in Quixotic quests. Jousting with windmills is as much a part of our nature as staring at the night sky and wondering what’s out there. Not that we’ll ever truly know but we’re damn sure not about to give up trying.
Like my friend, I said yes when I should have said no. Not long ago another friend asked if I wished the project were done with, to which I replied that I was indeed quite eager for its conclusion. Afterward, my response sounded hollow and false. Something else is at play here than me running about with a camera though I haven’t the means to decode it. The best I can explain is that we’re drawn to the things that fulfill us, also that it’s a one-way street. Once started, there’s no turning back. That’s not to say that a vacation now and then isn’t warranted.
Taking a break was uppermost in my mind when I dragged myself kicking and pouting to the truck one evening last week. My destination was two abandoned barns along East River Road, both tucked back into woods with only their upper beams visible to mark their presence. Just getting there posed its own set of difficulties not the least being the deep muck and soft shoulders. Parking was a whole ‘nuther thing, leaving me queasy about pulling over too far and not at all confidant that four-wheel-drive could free me.
At the first site I slowly angled onto the shoulder and felt the truck sinking but at a manageable rate. I walked down a grassy two-track to a small clearing in which one large barn stood surrounded by two smaller outbuildings. It was a lovely spot and I was thinking of tracking down the owner to ask if we could camp there some evening when from the nearest outbuilding rose a shriek of metal on metal followed by scraping and clattering. The noise was like a knife cleaving my resolve. Making it worse was the memory of my asking myself whether I should pack a pistol and the answer that I wouldn’t need it. Not listening to one’s hunches is a surefire recipe for disaster and one at which I unfortunately qualify as an expert. It wasn’t always so but age and a laid-back rural lifestyle seem to have dulled my edge.
While mentally berating my lack of foresight I looked around for a solid stick or plank to use as a weapon if needed and found nothing. For a long time I stood there paralyzed with indecision until a barred owl called. It was in a tree about ten feet away, its liquid black eyes boring into mine as if challenging my loutish trespass. Who? it asked. I wanted to reply that I often don’t know myself but instead backed away to make my escape. Perhaps the other barn held fewer intangibles.
It didn’t. The road narrowed to a worn center track with greasy edges, making me worry that I’d meet another vehicle. The barn itself looked very interesting but the shoulder was black with muck and impossible to navigate. I drove an extra mile until I found a place to turn around, and headed for pavement and something strong to drink.
It’s often when we’re acting childishly, stupidly or illegally that we most feel the eyes of others—or something—upon us. Isolation does nothing to dampen the sensation. As a Baptist teenager I chalked it up to God’s omniscient scrutiny though now I prefer guilt, another traditional Baptist trait.
Advancing across the clearing on my return visit I felt that familiar prickling between my shoulder blades, part uncertainty and part feeling silly, which might be the true impetus behind most guilt. That my steps brought me into sight of a battered windmill whose presence explained the previous clattering uproar didn’t slow my inexorable march as much as make me feel even more ridiculous. If our journey is predetermined as I was taught then whoever is in charge has a twisted sense of humor. For a moment I wavered there, halfway across the clearing, the Glock drooping, until the barred owl once again called out. The pistol snapped up and I moved onward, determined if nothing else to see this through. If asked why I couldn’t say to myself or the owl, knowing only that the road takes us to unlikely places and we in our unwitting folly are forever helpless to alter course.