If you recall, they were only supposed to see me to Mount Arvon. After having taught me everything they knew about surviving off-the-grid and living under-the-radar, they were then going to just leave me at the base of the mount. They were going to head on to the Keweenaw Peninsula to mine for copper and live off the land. I was going to climb to the top of Mount Arvon where I would meet with an elder medicine man who could break the spell and turn me back into a fish. I was then going to have him throw me into Lake Superior where I could use the Great Inland Sea and Saint Lawrence Seaway to get back to Ocean, my home proper.
They either didn’t recall the arrangement or they just didn’t care to bring it back up. Even as we saw the signs for Mount Arvon, nobody said a thing. We walked along this road that was adjacent to US-41. It was basically a service-drive. And there to our left was this big reflective brown and white sign that said, “Sight to See—Mount Arvon—Michigan’s Highest Point—This Exit”. It was like twelve feet tall. It was twelve feet tall and it was twelve feet off the ground. Huge. Nobody said a word. I watched each of their heads, at one point or another, turn and look toward the sign and pause momentarily. Some even took a couple of ganders. They all saw it. I know they did. How could it be missed?
Yet, for some reason nobody wanted to talk about the highest point in Michigan. There was part of me that felt a little chided. They all acted as if they really liked my story, as if it was the best thing that they had heard in awhile. Bill seemed blown away and I remember Prof even got up and came out of his tent after having retired for the evening. Some story. I guess they were just bullshitting me. They had already forgotten it. Part of me just wanted to stop walking and then just quietly steal off into the woods. It would probably be miles before they noticed I was gone anyway. You see, this is why I just wanted to be alone. I never hurt myself. I never make myself sad. Never mind my stupid story. I thought it is odd that we didn’t even stop to see Michigan’s highest point. We never passed up a roadside attraction anywhere else, no matter how insignificant. It was what they were all about—roadside attractions and sights-to-see. They were all about slowing down, taking life in more gradually, savoring it. Yet, we let this one go by.
The world thought they were just a bunch of hobos—transients. It wasn’t that simple though. I think one day Prof really put his finger on what they were all about. He usually has a tendency to just keep to himself. This is why I haven’t really talked about him a lot. I know there is more going on in his brain than what makes it past his tongue. He is not really part of the drama that unfolds before him, but instead is just merely a witness to it—an observer. Sometimes while we were walking he would pull out from his usual place at the front of the pack next to Caring Sue and let everybody go by. Then he’d walk beside me for awhile in the back—right there behind Machine and Bill. I think usually he just wanted to check up on me. I was always back there by my lonesome. So this day when Prof came back to visit, he really put his finger on it. We were walking near a busy interstate. I mean busy! The traffic was really moving. It was all moving at high speed, but it still looked bumper to bumper. High speed bumper to bumper. People were honking, giving the bird, changing lanes, and cutting each other off. It really did look awful.
Prof pointed to it and said, “Look at that! Just look at it! I can feel it increasing my blood pressure just looking at it. What the hell are they doing? What the hell is at the other end of this race? And at the end of it, what the hell do they think they are going to win? Why would anyone put themselves through that, day-in and day-out? You know? They are all in some big goddamned hurry to get somewhere. Where? I bet that is how they live their lives too! We’re probably looking at the microcosm in the macrocosm. They are going to get to the end of their lives and get struck with a realization. They’ll say, “Oops, I was in such a hurry that I forget something! I forgot to live!” We walked on for a few paces then he turned to me and asked, “You know that most people are already dead, right?”
I shook my head and said, “No, I didn’t know that, Prof.”
He said, “Well, it is true. Most people are already dead. Oh sure, their heart still beats, their lungs involuntarily inflate and deflate, and if you scanned their brain there would probably be activity, but these are not indicators of someone who is alive. Are you alive or dead? It is a deeper question than that.” He pointed to the mayhem on the road and then said, “They’re zombies. The walking dead. They look to us and they judge us. They shake their head and are baffled by us and how we choose to live. You know we do the same thing about them. They think we’re losers. And we think they’re dead.”
I don’t know why he would get all serious and real sometimes, but I guess that was just the way Prof was. He went on saying, “The world is choke full of zombies, Piper. No offense, but I bet your parents were zombies. That is probably why you got the hell out of there. You were afraid that they were going to bite you and turn you into one of them. Isn’t that why you got out, Piper? So you could be alive and live? Is that not what you’re doing right now? You may not have articulated it, but I think you’re onto the dirty little secret about life, Piper. Eternity isn’t something to look forward to in the End. You don’t have to wait for Eternity. It is right here. It is right now. It has always been. It will always will be. The zombies live for tomorrow, but the alive ones know that there is no tomorrow. There are people out there living for the Great Beyond—what a waste of precious life! That is not living! That is squandering a life. That is death! Only a zombie would think that way. The walking dead. I’m telling you, Piper, we’re onto something!”
Caring Sue had touched on this same subject when Fred had asked her why our family backpacked across the country. Of course, she didn’t have nearly as much to say about it as Prof. One time when I had expressed disgust over the boy’s hedonism, Prof reminded me that they were probably just looking for an Eternal moment. So there was never really a hurry with. They knew time and they observed it. They had schedules and sometimes deadlines, but the lived by the light of the day and by seasons. We are talking about rather vague notions of time. And of course there was always time to stop and smell a rose. Wherever there was a rose to be had. It never mattered how small or what color rose—a rose is a rose is a rose. And yet, we skipped Mount Arvon.
On the other hand though, there was a part of me that was relieved. I honestly wasn’t ready to leave. I’m sure I would have managed just fine. I would have had a good portion of the spring, the whole summer, and the whole fall to prepare for the winter. The thing is, I just didn’t want to tear myself away from them. I was afraid that if I spoke up they might say that it was time for me to leave, that they had upheld their end of the deal, and it was time for me to go. I didn’t know how much I was costing them. I never heard them complain or make mention of it. I tried to help out whenever I could. If there was a specific chore Caring Sue or Prof needed done, as soon as they named it, I was on it quicker than anyone else. I was a pretty good at collecting bottles and cans too, maybe even the best. I was quick footed, so I would get off into the weeds looking for them and naturally get more ground covered.
So the plan has changed. I was now going copper mining in the Keweenaw. But copper mining wasn’t the end-all-be-all—far from it. It was just their momentary bliss. Well, it wasn’t a bliss either, but we’ll get to that. I ended up staying with them for a few of years actually. I stayed with them until the day when everything just fell apart. That day was the day after we left a man for dead in the woods. First things first though—Copper Country. Then we’ll get to all the other stuff. So simply put—Copper Country was a bust. Despite the name. We were not welcome there. It was clear. It did not take us long to figure that out either. We couldn’t find an in-road with anyone. There wasn’t a single Fred-like soul anywhere. Everybody was mean. We walked from town to town, but it was always the same. People spat obscenities at us and cursed us like we were the Devil himself. I guess there weren’t a lot of jobs to be had and we were perceived as being migrant workers.
Plus, we looked weird. I didn’t know that. There was an incident where we were walking by a bar in Calumet. It was about five o’ clock in the afternoon. We were actually on the other side of the street. Some patrons leaving the bar got a look at us and began a fearless and relentless taunting campaign. It started as they were walking out of the bar. Then they got in their truck, caught up with us, and resumed their taunt. They idled the truck to keep pace with us as we walked down Main Street. Not one of us said a thing in response. We just walked like we had blinders on and looked straight ahead. Even Machine Gun. He was muscular. Machine was a big dude especially in his upper body, but he towed the same line.
They asked, “Hey, what is up with the costumes? Are you the Village People?” He turned to his passenger and said, “Are you seeing this? We got a cowboy, an indian, a soldier, and a priest. You got a hippie couple up front and some retard with a helmet in the back? Hey kid, are you the retard Village People boy?”
Now, I didn’t know who the Village People even were, but I couldn’t help but laugh when they said that last bit about me. I couldn’t hold back my smile when I was talking to them. At first, I just I shook my head to indicate that I wasn’t a retard, but my retard helmet moved awkwardly through the shake, which made them laugh. It actually made me laugh, picturing at what they must be seeing. They had a big truck, not a monster-truck, but you could tell that they were probably monster-truck enthusiasts. They had muscles. Probably not a lot of brains, but they sure had muscles. Meatheads. You could see that from across the street even before they got in their truck.
The driver said, “You think this is funny retard Village People boy?”
I said with a smile, “Yeah, I thought that last bit about me was funny.”
The driver said, “Did ya, eh?”
I then gave my helmet a pat and said with the same smile, “These are my retard credentials.” Then I made a gesture about myself that was probably not what is now called politically correct, but…look who I was talking with.
The driver wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked ahead to check the road and then back to me. He said, “What is the helmet about anyway, kid? Where is your bike?”
I wasn’t smiling anymore either. I said, “My bike got stolen. The helmet was a gift from a good friend. So I always wear it for him because he is worried about me. He was a cop and it is actually police property. If I get stopped for having it though, I will just tell the officer to call him. It has his badge number on it and everything. I don’t know if there is a police officer in the Village People, but maybe I could just be him, if that works for ya.”
The meathead seemed dumbfounded or mystified or something. He just sat there looking at me, sort of nodding like, ‘Oh yeah?’ but he didn’t seem interested in saying anything anymore. He just leaned forward slightly, rolled up his window, and then just rolled away himself. After they were gone, we all had an honest conversation about what we all looked like.
Bear started saying, “Okay. Bill is the cowboy for sure. Who is the indian?”
Machine said, “You are!”
Bear said, “Me?”
Machine said, “Yeah! Well, minus the beard…and with a darker complexion…but yeah! You have long, straight, dark hair parted down the middle. Look what you’re wearing today! Leather Stocking!” Machine burst into laughter. Bear looked himself over and then looked up. His eyes happen to meet mine. He shrugged and said, “Who knew?”
Stephan turned back to Machine and said, “I must be the priest?”
Machine nodded. Stephan shook his head and mumbled, “I’m the farthest thing from that.”
Then Bear said in response, “You’re the dark priest!”
Stephan nodded in disagreement and said, “Bah!”
A few moments later Bill said, “I thought they were going to kick our ass!”
There were many nods and murmurs of agreement. Bear said, “That is why I just kept looking straight ahead.” A few moments later he continued, “Then you got ole Piper back there.” Suddenly he changed his posture and he started doing a caricature of me interacting with those guys, saying everything I said, but with a twist. Everyone really got a kick out of it. I did too. I don’t know what I was thinking. I honestly don’t think I was thinking.
Prof turned to Caring Sue. Under his breath he said, “We might have a problem. He thinks the world is as innocent as he is. I fear that we’ve lent a hand in crafting that notion in him. For being such a smart kid, he proceeds into moments with careless abandon—reckless even. I mean, he essentially walked up to them, took the loaded joke out of their hands, shot himself with it, then handed it back to them to see if they still wanted to shoot him. He got lucky with this one.”
She responded under her breath, “I know. We’ll talk about it later.” Prof nodded and then just dropped it. They thought they were talking quietly enough so that I couldn’t hear them.
All and all, those big guys in the big truck were probably the meanest to us. But some of the older gentleman that Caring Sue approached were blunt and mean as well. One thought she was just a drug addict that was basically trying to get a quick buck to buy dope. I think he thought that she was thinking that mining was like scrapping metal—you know, just bend down, pick it up, take it to a recycler who will pay you by the pound for it. He went on and on about how mining was actually very hard work and that you weren’t going to strike it rich easily, if even at all. One older man told her to just forget the mine, that he’d let her work it off in other ways. When she came back with raised eyebrows and told the boys about that one, they got pretty heated about it, but nothing was ever done. Most people just said ‘no’ and kept walking on. The bottom line was that we just didn’t feel welcome anywhere—judged even. We walked up and down that damn peninsula. Surprisingly, in a place called Copper Country we couldn’t get anyone to talk about copper. Well, there were historical sites, museums and such, but they were useless for our purposes.
Finally Machine blurted out, “Why don’t we just go ride the Mississippi—from the source.” Nobody said anything. After awhile he said, “I’m serious. It is probably only two hundred and fifty miles that way into Minnesota and Minnesota is seriously right there.” He was pointing west. He continued, “I was looking at the map last night when you all had it out and it just struck me how close we are to the source of the Mississippi.”
Prof said, “Piper, do you have your map book handy?”
I turned around so that he was facing my pack. I said, “It is in the front pocket right there.” He took it out and opened it to the Minnesota map. The other side of the page was the map of Michigan. He put his finger in the page and then turned to look at the Wisconsin map. He looked up and over to Caring Sue and said, “He is right. It isn’t that far away at all.”
She said, “So!”
Prof nodded and then let out a simple, “Huh.”
She said immediately, “What?”
He said, “I’m just surprised at how dismissive you are of the idea. Right out of the gate. It was just an idea. I don’t think Machine is the only one who thinks that it might be time to at least start thinking of a Plan B. And you know, as far as rivers go, there is the Nile, there is the Amazon, and then there is the mighty Mississippi. There isn’t a part of you wants to experience that?”
She said, “That’s not the point. This is dead then? We walked all this way for nothing?”
There was a long silence. People were thinking. Maybe some were done thinking and were just looking for the courage. Then Stephan said, “I’m not ready to give up, Caring Sue, but we probably should start thinking Plan B.” He put up his hands and said, “Just thinking.”
Caring Sue shook her head and said, “It isn’t that simple Stephan. If we start letting anything else creep in, then this will surely be a failed endeavor.” Then she looked to Bear, Bill, and me. The three who hadn’t said anything yet.
Bear said, “I think it already is. You’ve got to admit that we’ve been up against a stone wall here. There is obviously high unemployment in this area and to these people we’re just more hands to employ and mouths to feed. We’re anxious and ready to go, but we’re just spinning our wheels here. We haven’t met anybody like Fred and all Fred really ever did was enthusiastically take our money. These people know that we don’t have anything to offer them.” Then he just shrugged. Caring Sue looked to Bill and I, but neither of us indicated that we had anything to add one way or the other.
No decision was really made and we decided that in the meantime we would head back to Houghton. We figured we had the best chance at finding work in a larger population center. Houghton wasn’t nearly as big as Marquette or Escananba, but it was the biggest in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Nobody was talking to anyone else about anything unless it had to do with business. One example of this was a game of rock-paper-scissors we played to figure out who jumped in the dumpster to start a new day. Or maybe someone would ask another to hold open the bag so they could insert an aluminum can into it. This sort of thing. It was Caring Sue who was angry and the only one who was angry. I guess it kind of shows who was really in charge of our little gang. If anybody was for the idea of staying in the Keweenaw to mine copper, then they weren’t speaking up. It was only Bill and I who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion. Though Caring Sue didn’t like Bill and couldn’t have cared less what he thought about anything, his opinion nonetheless held the same weight. But even if Bill and I wanted to stay and mine with, we would still be outnumbered four to three.
We had already changed our tactic a ways back. Now, we were just looking for work. Just plain work. We figured we just had to get in and start working, build a name for ourselves, and then we could start asking about a mine later on. Plus, we were burning through our savings. We spent a lot of money in the autumn to get us through the winter, but then we hardly spent a dime all winter. When I say ‘we’, I mean Caring Sue on our behalf. She managed our money—well at least the stuff that was owned collectively. If Bill made money by playing songs on the street, then that money was his. If Bear made money fixing someone’s car, then that money was his. And the money that I had when I met them? Well, that was mine. They didn’t even know about it as far as I knew, nor would they have even cared to know. On the other hand though, if Bill, Bear, or I found an aluminum can on the ground, then the money gotten from that would go into the pot. Or if we got hired to do a job as a group, then the money earned as a group would go into the pot. Anyway, there weren’t a lot of bottles and cans to be had in the Upper Peninsula and I suppose that is because there weren’t a lot of people. Furthermore, the few people who did live there must have respected their home enough to look after it.
I haven’t said anything about this, but perhaps it is time to say something. You don’t necessarily see it from your car. But when you spend your days walking alongside roads, you can’t help but see it. It is disgusting. It is appalling. And it is completely unnecessary. Why do so many people think that the ditch next to the road is a better place for their garbage than the landfill? Why is it that they can’t wait to get home to discard their food containers and wrappers into a trash bin? There is so much garbage on the side of the road. It can’t be just because of a few bad apples. It can be for no other reason than it simply being that people really are that apathetic. They just don’t care. As long as it is not happening on the road that is in front of their house, then all is well. I know our clan wasn’t necessarily part of the solution either, for we only gathered what we could get paid to gather, which was essentially just aluminum. But we weren’t part of the problem either. The Earth was our Mother and we respected her. We always put our trash away in the proper place. We reused it first, if we could. And we recycled whenever possible.
Of course, no matter what, we always found a few beer cans in between towns. Always. Bear explained to me why this was. He said after you finish off a beer, you don’t really want to have the empty canister with you because all that it is going to do is just get you into more trouble. So you just pitch the can or bottle out the window as soon as you’re done. This way if you do get pulled over, you only get popped for drunk driving and not for having open intoxicants. So, you learn something new everyday. And trust me, if anyone knows anything about hedonism, it is Bear Bacchus. He sure knows how to make his intoxicants work for him. Bear was an active guy. Our lifestyle kind of dictates it. We were walking anywhere between twenty-five and forty miles a day a few days or more a week. Still, Bear wasn’t so active that he could afford to have five thousand calories in a day. So sometimes he’d skip a meal. Of course, Caring Sue wasn’t just going to let it lay, she would insist. So then Bear would explain to her the same way I just explained it to you. Of course, she was none too pleased. She would purse her lips and shake her head in disbelief. I don’t think it was disgust. Caring Sue respected people’s boundaries. She might tell you what she thought, but she wouldn’t ever interfere. So beer it was! For lunch and dinner.
We fared a little better in Houghton as far as bottles and cans went, but there was still nothing as far as work. At least as far as the undocumented variety went. Don’t forget that none of us had an ID, so we were always looking to get paid in cash, you know what they call ‘under the table’. I think what we looked like might have been hurting us a little—a priest, a soldier, an indian, and a cowboy. I guess that is what those guys saw. I took off the helmet and just tied it to my pack. Other than the helmet, I think I looked like a clean-cut normal person. Those guys called Caring Sue and Prof a couple of hippies. I don’t know what a hippie from the sixties looks like in 1992, but Caring Sue and Prof did not wear tie-dye. Prof didn’t really have any hair and Caring Sue kept her hair short. I think I said in a prior deposition that you could tell that they probably had been hippies back in the day, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with what they looked like. I thought it had more to do with their attitude and outlook on life and I only got that impression after getting to know them. But those guys still honed in on it though. I guess.
At one point in Houghton, Caring Sue approached me and said, “Piper, can you follow me somewhere for a bit?”
I said, “Of course.”
As we walked away she didn’t explain anything to me or anyone else. This was the end of our first day in Houghton. The second day since Machine proposed a Plan B. Caring Sue was kind of sore with everyone still. I guess she was a little less sore with me because I didn’t say anything one way or the other. There is a lake that runs through the town of Houghton. I can’t remember what it is called now, but we walked along the northern shoreline of it. It was not far from Front Street. I remember that insignificant detail for some reason. Everybody else just stayed back in the park.
When we were far enough away she said, “What ever happened to Mount Arvon?”
My heart started racing. I wondered if this was the point when she was going to tell me that they had to cut me loose. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t expect it to ever get brought up. I said, “I…I…I don’t know. It just came and went.” She gave me the leeway to struggle with words and ideas. It actually didn’t seem like she had anything to say after all. It seemed more like she was looking for something. After awhile I finally said, “Last winter would have been rough alone. I wouldn’t even have made it. I think I’ve learned enough that I would be okay next winter. But I mean being out in the woods all alone with no companionship all winter—whoa! The thought of that scares me.” I was going to just leave it there, but in case she was harboring any ideas of getting rid of me, I added, “Plus, I like you guys. I like traveling. I like always seeing new places and new things. I hope I am not a burden.”
At first, there was a hint of a smile, but as soon as I said that last thing, she furled her brow and asked, “Why would you ever think that? Has anyone here ever told you that you were a burden on us?”
I shook my head and said, “No. I don’t know why I wonder if I am a burden. It is just that kids are generally a nuisance. Adults hate raising them. That is is all I mean.”
She shook her head and said, “No they’re not. No they don’t.”
I said, “Oh. I thought they were and I thought they did. I thought it was something that everybody hated and dreaded, but that you just had to do it whether you wanted to or not. Like going to school. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to go to kindergarten, or first grade, or any of them for that matter. I mean, I liked them all once I got to know everyone and got settled in, but those first few days were nerve racking. If they would have left it up to me, I would have chosen to stay home.”
There was a bench along the way and she motioned me toward it. We sat and she said, “Piper, raising children is a choice. Especially in today’s world where there are so many options for bother men and women. There is no mandate somewhere that says you must make babies, except in the Bible. Thank goodness! You see, I am the sort of woman who would have ended up resenting my children. I have always had wanderlust. I have always longed to be free. I don’t want to be chained down…to children…to a home…to a career. I don’t even want the responsibility of a car!” She shook her head and continued, “That is not me. That will never be me. Fortunately, I knew this about me at an early age. I also knew that I liked girls and that the boys with their little penis thing weren’t interesting, so…”
We looked out at the water. The landscape was light by an orange late day sun. Then she she said, “You know, the reason why nobody said anything as we passed the sign for Mount Arvon is because we were afraid to bring it up. We hoped you had forgotten about your story. We were afraid that if we jogged your memory, you might make good on it. Nobody wanted you to leave.”
I didn’t say anything, but that felt really good to hear. I felt this warm, tingly sensation from somewhere within the center of my being. I was beaming. That is what it felt like. Then she said, “You never talk about your parents—do you have any?” And then suddenly, everything went cold and numb. Why did she have to ask that? I didn’t want to go there. I thought I would never have to go there again. I did shake my head to indicate that I did.
She said, “They are not adoptive parents?”
I shook my head to indicate that they weren’t.
She said, “Are they still alive?”
I shook my head to indicate that they were.
She said, “Do they love you? Do they miss you?”
I shook my head to indicate that they didn’t.
She said, “Come on, Piper. I don’t believe that.”
I didn’t want to talk about it dammit.
After awhile she said, “Piper, I think we are about to leave Michigan. You are a fourteen year old kid. I know you don’t like people saying that, but it is true. In the eyes of the law you are just a child—a minor. We might be unknowingly kidnapping you right. We will have no idea until we’re cuffed and then imprisoned.”
I immediately interjected, “No, I love you guys!”
She said, “Another way that can be read is that you have Stockholm Syndrome.”
I protested, “No I don’t, Caring Sue!”
She said, “You don’t have to sell it to me, Piper. You have to sell it to a social worker or even the shrink who will be assigned to your case.”
I said, “My case? What are you talking about, Caring Sue?”
Then she looked at me and if looks could kill, well then you know how it would go. She said, “Now give me something.”
I didn’t want to talk about it dammit. But she wasn’t going to let loose. It was the first time that I just wanted to get away from her. It was the first time she made me uncomfortable. I screamed at her, “I just don’t understand why they didn’t put on a rubber! Just put on a fucking rubber! All I heard growing up was about how much I costed! Do you have any idea how much it cost to raise a child? Do you? The question got asked of me so many times I finally went to the library and looked up the fucking answer! I don’t know why the United States Department of Agriculture keeps statistics on it, but they do. According to them, in 1990 dollars it costs on average one hundred and eighty-eight thousand, eight hundred and fifty-eight dollars and some odd cents to raise a child from birth to eighteen. I don’t have that kind of fucking money! I am just a kid goddammit! I didn’t ask for this! You should have put on a fucking rubber! A couple of dumb fucking monkeys! That is all they are! They showed us how to do it in school with an actual condom and a banana. It wasn’t that hard! You don’t even need a high school diploma!” I had already started crying while I was screaming at Caring Sue but when I was done it just turned into all out bawling.
At this point, we had already been sitting on a bench for a while. She just let me cry. I didn’t even know where she was. My eyes were so puffy and bogged with tears. My nose and nasal passages were clogged with mucus and boogers. My head already hurt from the pressure of all that I had pushed out. I started to dry my eyes with my hands when I felt her next to me. She said, “They say you should never hand tissue to a person who has just begun crying or who is actively in the process of crying. They say handing tissue to a person suggests to them that they should stop crying and dry their eyes. You don’t want someone to stop crying until they are absolutely done. I say, let ’em get it all out!” She then handed me some tissues.
We just sat there for awhile, not speaking. She was taking in the scenery. I was drying my eyes and blowing my nose. After awhile she said, “You are right, Piper. They should have just put on a condom. Children are a gift and they should be treated as such. They are certainly not a debt. They are certainly not a liability. Shame on your mom and dad. I can assure you, Piper, that you are a gift to us.”
I started crying again and said, “I don’t want to live on Mount Arvon. I want to live with you guys.”
She moved closer, gave me hug, kissed my cheek, and said, “Don’t you worry, Piper, you’re not going anywhere except with us.”
We pulled away. She was smiling slightly. She sat back on the bench, then I did the same. After quite some time she said, “Yeah, I think Prof and the boys are right. This place just doesn’t want us. It is beautiful though, isn’t it?
I shook my head in agreement.
She said, “Lets head back. I’ve got a concession speech to give.”
And so, when we got back Caring Sue told them that she was on board with the Mississippi run. She said she liked the idea because there would definitely be work along the Mississippi, and just our kind of work too. But she didn’t totally eat her words either. She let them know how disappointed she was that everyone gave up so quickly on the Michigan copper dream. She talked about how much and how far they had all traveled together to fulfill a particular dream, and then to just drop it without a second thought and run off for another was wrong in her eyes. Finish what you start. She said that even though it was a moot point,she still just wanted it out there as to why she was so angry. Everybody just apologized. Nobody offered a rebuttal. They won. They were getting what they wanted. She lost.
Caring Sue walked alongside me for awhile as we headed southwest along the southern coast of the Lake Superior toward Wisconsin. I think she was still grieving the loss of her dream. She said, “I just wanted to take a pick-ax and just hammer out one piece of pure copper from Mother. That was it. Even if we only found just one piece and the whole summer was a bust otherwise, I just wanted a piece of pure copper that we birthed from Mother. We have pieces from everywhere else, but not one from here. Such a shame. This is the only place on Earth where such a thing can be found, you know? But I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.”
I didn’t say anything in response, but she could see that I was hearing her. After a minute or two Bear said, “Goddammit!”
Caring Sue furled her brow, she reached up, smacked him in the back of the head, and said, “Hey! You watch your mouth! It is fine if you don’t want to believe, but you can mind the rest of us who do!”
He said, “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!”
She said, “It doesn’t matter!
He said, “I’m sorry!” Then he just stopped walking and said, “We can’t leave. We’ve got to go find you one piece of copper. Just one. It won’t take that long. ”
Caring Sue raised her eyebrows now and said, “We are not going to trespass and steal, Bear!”
He said, “You’re not. But I am.”
Machine said, “Count me in.”
Stephan said, “Me too.”
I said, “I’ll go.”
Bill said, “Hell yeah!”
Bear immediately spoke up. He said, “We’re not doing this because it is wrong, Bill. We’re doing this for Caring Sue. We’re thinking about somebody other than ourselves.”
Bill threw up his hands, “I know, take it easy, jeez!”
Bear said, “No I don’t think you do know Bill. This isn’t going to feed whatever that weird fantasy you have in your head about being an outlaw honky-tonk man. This isn’t a heist or even a burglary. Technically, it will be a theft, but we’re not taking anything that is worth more than maybe a dollar or two.” He turned and asked, “Am I right, Prof? You think maybe a dollar or two?”
Prof shrugged said, “Sure. Probably not even. I think pure refined copper is only about two dollars a pound on Wall Street. If even that. And we’re talking about something less than that, so…”
Bear turned back to Bill, “You see that Bill? It isn’t a heist. There is nothing to add to the Legend of Outlaw Oklahoma Bill, okay?”
Bill said, “If you don’t want me to come, just say so.”
Bear said, “Bill, I don’t even want to live with you anymore. You are a free-loader. You never bring anything to the table except an empty plate. You have all these games and gimmicks that you use to try to manipulate the people around you into taking care of you, and I am tried of it. Sometimes your games work. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about it. It has been a long winter, Bill. There was nothing to do in the winter, but now it is spring, and it is time to work. I am ready to work and I really don’t want to put up with the same shit I put up with last year, capiche?”
Bill said, “Whoa man! That is a little harsh. I didn’t know I didn’t bring anything to the table. Maybe I am not the hardest worker here, but I work. I pull my weight. I remember swinging an ax last fall and taking down a lot of trees. Am I the only one who remembers that? I don’t know Bear, but usually when I find myself being as judgmental as you’re being right now, I usually step back and I ask—who is this really about? Cause Bear, I think what you are probably doing here is a little thing called ‘projecting’. Perhaps it might be time for you to look in an actual mirror instead of simply seeing your own faults cast upon me.”
I watched Bear’s left hand clench into a fist and move toward Bill. I wasn’t the only one who saw it because Machine immediately stepped in front of Bear and wrapped his arms around him and tried to bulldoze him the other way.
Bear said, “Just let me kill him. Let me just fucking kill him. I’ll just kill him. We’ll dump his corpse. Then we’ll move on like nothing happened. The Bill-problem is solved. Nobody will know. Nobody will care. I bet his prints aren’t even in the system. Some outlaw, huh?”
The whole time while Machine was bulldozing, he was saying, “Nope. Not today. You don’t really want to hurt him. You think you do, but you don’t. You’ll feel bad tomorrow. And if you kill him, you’ll want to die too. Trust me.” And like all things—it passed. Cooler heads prevailed. Nobody got hurt. Bear ended up conceding that he may have been a little harsh and of course Bill still played the victim. Played it for all it was worth. Got every last drop. Bear didn’t clench hist fist again, but nobody would have faulted him if he did.
From of our walks through Copper Country we knew where some of the larger commercial mines were located. We were told by more than one person that none of them have operated since the sixties—at least. They were historical markers even if they hadn’t been officially designated that way yet. We went to a hardware store, bought a five pound sledge hammer, a carpenter’s crow-bar, and a box of dust masks. We visited a few different mines before we found one that was up to our standards. We needed one that we could break into, but it also had to be fairly accessible once we did enter it. Obviously, we didn’t have the tools or the know-how to deal with a vertical mine-shaft. We needed something that went into the side of a hill or a small mountain.
After four or five tries, we eventually found our mine, or well, someone’s mine that we were going to steal from. Prof came up with a brilliant idea of simply leaving the tools inside the mine as a payment for what we were taking. We thought it was a fair trade. It was just another example of how we justified our misdeeds. We were trespassing, then we were going to break in, then we were going to take something that didn’t belong to us, and then leave a couple of things as payment that the owners of the mine probably didn’t want. You couldn’t convince us though that it didn’t make it all better. Of course, they would prefer that we simply mind our own business. If we couldn’t do that then I’m sure they would prefer that we not break the law, and that we not trespass against them, and that we certainly not steal anything from them, and then not pay them for the stolen goods with the tools that were used to commit the theft. We had it all worked out though, so we could steal with a clean conscience.
The mine we chose was covered over with a few hundred boulders. I’m sure at one point there was a name for the mine. It was one of those where the sign no longer existed. Most of the boulders blocking the entrance were manageable. Some of them required more than one person and a couple of them required all seven of us to get them to move. I started to become skeptical that there was even an entrance behind all those boulders, but lo and behold after awhile it began to emerge. It was framed with big wood beams. It took a good two days to get the opening clear. It was at the end of the second day of clearing that we were ready to descend into the mine. However, we were just too tired to even make an attempt that evening. It was another day of exhausting physical labor. We decided to sleep on it and go in right after breakfast in the morning. We never set up our tents in the prior evening. We didn’t do it for this one either. We slept under the stars.
We spent the following morning in the mine wandering the first couple thousand feet. We all had our flashlights scanning the walls of the cave looking for that glistening orange metal. The only thing Stephan could talk about all morning was sorcery. That isn’t what he called it. It is what Bear called it. Stephan called it ‘divination’ and he explained how it all worked throughout the morning as we futilely looked for a vein of copper. I didn’t understand. I just tuned it out as he rambled on incessantly about it. At lunch, we went to the opening of the mine for some fresh air and sunshine. Stephan ate very little. Instead, he spent lunch alone off a ways from all of us. He seemed to be meditating. When everybody was ready to go back into the mine, Caring Sue went to fetch him. When they caught up with us, Stephan was carrying two sticks. I guess these two sticks were actually magical wands and they were supposed to help us find a copper vein. It was imperative that we believe him though. He needed us to all had to get behind him—and believe.
Nobody was actually willing. Well, Caring Sue was. Bear said he was on board too, but we all knew it was only so he could have a laugh at Stephan’s expense. Over lunch, while Stephan was meditating, chanting, communing with the gods, or whatever the heck he was doing, we were having a conversation about what the second half of the day would bring and how we were going to approach it. It was decided that we would just continue heading on down into the mine, but instead of scouring the walls for signs of a vein, we would instead focus our efforts into getting to the end of this cavern, getting to the last place where someone was busy mining nearly fifty years ago.
It turns out that our initial venture into the mine had gotten us about as deep as we could go with it. We had given up just a few hundred feet too soon. If we would have delayed our lunch break by just five minutes we would have come upon the dead-end. The mine was flooded. It might have continued on for miles, but it didn’t matter because it would have been miles and miles of water. Obviously, our collective morale was pretty low. Our prospects didn’t look promising for this hole in the earth. We spent two days opening her up! We were all aching from the manual labor. Now we find out that it is all for nothing.
Suddenly Stephan said, “Are you all ready to get behind me now? Even if all you want to do is make fun of me the way Bear does, I guess that will work too! I’m serious! It is just energy! I mean, it would be better if you threw deliberate intent my way, but I will take and use whatever you guys can thrown at me.”
Since we had nothing to loose, everyone conceded—even Bear. He didn’t even make fun of him one time. In fact, he even looked at Stephan and in all seriousness said, “Ideally, what do you want from each of us?” I guess he really figured he had nothing to lose.
Stephan said, “Ideally? If all six of you could just put copper in your mind’s eye. Whatever copper means to you. Think plumbing or electrical if you want. If you’ve got a geological vision, then use that. And I want you to breathe deeply, deliberately, and slowly. And if you could chant on the out-breath, that would help. Like this…” He showed us and it was the typical New Age ‘om’ chant. I looked over to Bear, but he was taking it seriously, like he were taking orders from a medical doctor, or listening to a lecture by a scientist he adored. But it wasn’t any of that. It was the same sort of thing that had always been prime for the picking. And when I say picking, I don’t mean like in the plucking of fruit from the tree. I mean as in picking on of somebody or something. Of course, it was always just for fun. I think in this instance though, Bear just really wanted to please Caring Sue, and if sorcery was what was needed, then sorcery it will be.
Stephan continued, “And no flashlights. In fact, lets shut them down now. We are not using our sight. You can go ahead and leave your eyes open if you wish. It does not matter either way. We are not going to see our way through this. Forget your touch. We are not going to feel our way through this. At first, the only thing you will hear is our chant. Then at some point you won’t even hear that anymore. Our ordinary senses have failed us in this endeavor, so we are just going to simply shut them down. We have all heard the anecdotes about what happens to people who lose a sense and what happens then to the other senses. Well, lets see what happens when we lose all five!”
And so we began our ascent out of the mine. Stephan was in front of us with his magic wands. We were just breathing and chanting. At first, we were kicking the backs of each others heel, but we got that all sorted out pretty quick. It didn’t seem like anything was happening though. Stephan’s magic wands didn’t seem to be sensing any copper. We just kept going and going. The mine shaft wasn’t uniform all the way through. The width and height varied. There were points along the way where the shaft would widen and get taller for a few feet and then get smaller again. You could hear the difference in the way our chanting would echo off the mine-shaft walls. There were times where you almost had the effect of being in a room. You could hear when you arrived and you could hear when you left.
In one of these rooms, Stephan stopped as he began to exit it. With us following behind in a single file line, he said, “Hold on. I think we should spend some time in this chamber. The rods feel different for the first time. Stay as you are, breathe, and chant as you exhale.” So we all stayed in the center while he seemed to be examining the room. There were times when I felt him near me. I think he was hovering the wands over the walls like you would with a metal detector. That is what I was imagining anyway. I couldn’t see anything, though I think my mind was making things up as I stood there breathing. Things would just appear to come out of the darkness, but I knew they weren’t real. I felt Stephan in my vicinity a few different times. Sometimes I would hear a scratching sound against the rock.
We continued to breath and chant. Then suddenly a light opened up in the room. Not that kind of light. It was just Stephan’s flashlight. He said, “Okay, so I think this chamber got carved out and is wider and taller than the rest of the mine because there was a deposit here. But I don’t think they scrapped everything out of the bowl. I scrawled on the walls and ground in a few different places where the rods indicated. Now we just got to get to work.”
Then more lights came on and we began to break ground—literally. Machine and Bear were given the hammer more often than not. They were the strongest among us after all. The rest of us got to hold the crowbar while they pounded the end of it or we pulled boulders away as they broke them free. We were coming up with a whole lot of nothing. The first few holes were pretty deep and wide, but they were coming up empty. There started to be some chatter about calling it a day.
Caring Sue said, “Can we give it another hour? I think Stephan is right about this chamber, maybe not the specific spots, but he is about the chamber. What if it only takes us an hour tomorrow morning? We’ll curse ourselves for quitting too early today.”
Bill said, “And what if that hour comes up a dud?”
She said, “Then nothing. A fruitless hour spent today is worth the same as one spent tomorrow. Might even be worth more actually. We won’t have to go through with it tomorrow. A fresh day with one less wasted hour for sure.”
Bill said, “Well, zero times anything is still zero.
She said under her breath, but loud enough that Bill could hear her, “You’re telling me.”
Aside from Bill, there was nothing more said about pushing on for another hour. I think they might even have gone longer. But it didn’t matter because wouldn’t you know, some quarter of an hour later, one of the boulders that was pulled away had something interesting going on beneath. It wasn’t a lot of copper, but it was certainly copper! It was actually what prof called ‘a geode’. It was the weirdest thing because it looked like copper crystals. Prof said that that is exactly what it was—it was quartz mixed with copper. Needless to say, Caring Sue was elated. Everybody was happy. We broke the one side away from the boulder and then found its matching puzzle piece in the earth and broke that away too and took that with us. Machine carefully nibbled away rock away from the geode with the end of the crow bar. He just gently tapped to break off rock.
Bill said, “Careful! Not too much!”
Machine said, “I know, Bill. I got it.”
Prof said, “You’re doing fine, Machine. Just keep going as you are. Easy does it.”
Machine got it all cleaned up pretty good. It looked like a boulder about as big as a softball, but it could be parted in such a way that when it was, it expose a copper quartz geode. Machine handed it to Caring Sue and asked, “Is it too heavy for you to carry?”
She smiled and without hesitation said, “Heavens no! I would never question the burden of any of my children!”
Machine smiled and cocking his head slightly said “Alright then, we’ve got you your copper, lets get the hell out of here!”
We then proceeded out of the mine. We used out flashlights and other senses. As soon as we got out, Caring Sue ran to a nearby lake where she washed the geode. We left the shovel and crowbar just inside the opening as payment for the copper. Then we carried, pushed, and rolled all of the boulders back into place. It all went back together a lot easier than it came apart.Maybe we didn’t put it back just as we found it because we had the mine reburied by evening’s twilight. Again, nobody assembled their tent. We were all beat. Machine put four cans of beef stew on the fire and I think we were all asleep before it even got hot.
Suddenly, I was awoken by a loud clapping noise and someone shouting, “Hey! You hungry! What the hell? Wake up!” It was Machine. He was talking to all of us. Each one of us had fallen asleep. And with his antic, each one of us just about jumped out of our sleeping bag. He was clapping his hands, slapping his knee, very proud of what he had done. He had fallen asleep too, but managed to get himself back up. He woke up to find all of us asleep and the stew to the point where most of the water had boiled off. He added some water, stirred it, and all was well with it. Nothing got burnt too bad. He put some tortillas in a frying pan and while they were heating up he decided he ought to wake everyone up. Nobody had eaten since lunch so everyone had an empty stomach. They did need sleep, but their muscles were torn, so they also needed protein.
We all sat up, ate stew and tortillas, talked, and laughed for awhile. The boys smoked. Everyone was in good spirits. Our bodies were battered and beaten, but our stomachs were full and are spirits were high. We got our copper—a beautiful and unique specimen at that! We all got zipped back up into our sleeping bags and were laying there around the fire. I felt so cozy. Sleep was starting to take over. It was a crisp late-April evening in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Milky Way was so vivid. Orion was still up hunting and Sirius was loyally following close behind. It was too early and too cold for mosquitoes. I remember laying there, looking up at the Milky Way, and just feeling like I was in paradise.
Then Caring Sue said, “Boys?”
Nobody answered her right away. We were all still awake. I could see their eyes glancing about in my peripheral vision. Finally Machine took the initiative, “Yes, Carin’ Sue?”
She said, “Lets go ride the Mississippi.”
Machine immediately got back up and out of his bag, stood up, and began howling. Bill was not long after, then Bear joined in, and then finally Stephan. They went on for awhile. Howling back and forth. They were competing with one another—not just for loudness, but also for beauty, depth, and tone. I looked across the fire. Prof had his hands behind his head so that his head was resting in his interlaced hands. He was looking up at their display and just smiling. Caring Sue couldn’t contain her laughter. When she felt my eyes on her, she looked to me, and with her wide smile shook her head in disbelief. After they settled down, only moments later, wouldn’t you know off in the distance, off to the west even, what did we hear? The Howling. We were being beckoned.