We drive and drive that last day. Looking for a sign. Of Todd, I guess. Any kind of sign. We head for a stream which the guide says has more German brown trout than any in California. We enter the valley out of Loyalton and I’m disturbed by what we see. The valley has burned, completely. There is new growth beginning and a carpet of green underneath but the mountains are stippled with the jagged husks of burnt pines and the stream is clogged with giant white Lincoln logs.
From a display by the creek we learn this is the aftermath of the 1994 Cottonwood Fire which burned some 48,000 acres of Tahoe and Toyabie National Forests. We are looking for a sign. Of Todd, I think. We keep driving up the valley, hoping something will change and finally, it does. Seven miles in, a large gray animal runs across the road, I yell, gray fox, Bob says, coyote. He’s right, a thick one at that, its fur rich and luxuriant, not the scraggly ones I’ve encountered in Death Valley. This one looks like Shanti. Is it our sign?
I put the CD back in, Robbie Robertson and The Red Road Ensemble, one of his native American expeditions of the 90’s. The gorgeous chorus of vocal chanting transposes us into a different time. I think of “Thirteen Moons” again, Charles Frazier’s odyssey of The Trail of Tears, and reach for Todd’s well-thumbed copy to read out loud to Bob. I’m searching for a favorite section, The Booger Dance, but keep turning up a different passage which seems to want reading instead. Bear, the leader of the ragtag band of Cherokee in North Carolina, is recounting the death of his first wife. She has been trying to pull him to the other side for a year and he has been grieving through the passing of her ‘four souls.’ The last one is her bone soul and when it finally goes, he is free of his grief.
Back in Cottonwood, it’s a dark day, sunset with snow beginning to fall. Not the cheery white flakes of the hot springs, but a sad nuclear fallout on this barren landscape. Bob reminds me that the earth is like the human body, this choked river is like a central artery which has been clogged, polluted but will recover, is recovering. We are looking for a sign. Of Todd, I’m pretty sure. We climb higher and higher on the four-wheel drive road towards Bear Valley, a campground in the heart of the burn zone.
The crossroads we come to is full of places to go, civilized roads with numbers and names, but we are not in a civilized place. It is a wild place, devoid of people, wildlife beginning to reappear, no place for them to hide. We spy two deer, one tagged with a radio transmitter, they stare us down and win. We head back for the hot springs.
We’re not finished with our search but have no more ideas. Then as we nearly finish our descent to the valley, we spot an arrow pointing to Dark Canyon. Its late, we’re tired, we’ve been on four-wheel road for three hours now. What could possibly be up here that we haven’t already seen? One look at each other and we know we’ll try again. I turn up the road and we start slowly climbing.
The road scales a pine forest on the edge of a valley and then opens up to a kind of Scottish looking landscape, open rock faces and two ridges on either side. The road is not good and gets worse, then worse. As we turn left up the canyon it becomes a rocky affair and we find we cannot go any further. We get out to explore. Five paces from the car Bob says, “I guess this is what we’ve been looking for.” I don’t know what it is but have a few ideas. See what you think.
Is it a shillelagh, Jack McGee and Booboo’s famous phrase for discussing their private parts, literally, the Irish billy club? Or is it instead The Scream, carved from an upturned burned stump by some unknown Sierra woodcarver? Or is it Todd himself, his bone soul crying out from the burned wilderness, “Let me go. I’ve had enough this time. Don’t follow me. Let me go.”