I TURN EAST OFF THE STATE HIGHWAY onto Elwood Road. Elwood’s a pretty lonely place—not much more than a one-room schoolhouse, a pioneer church, and a cemetery. Unless it’s Sunday or there’s a wedding going on, you’d have a hard time finding a dozen people in one place. According to ALMI—the Automated Listing and Mapping Instrument—my destination today is at the farthest reaches of Elwood Road, where the pavement runs out and only logging trucks venture.
I double-check the listing on my computer. The “map spot” I’m seeking is the only residential entry in the entire Census block it occupies, sandwiched between two unnamed creeks and bounded by the Mt. Hood National Forest, miles from any other residential properties. It’s got to be a mistake. There aren’t even any services out that far: no phone or electricity. I barely get cell service here in Elwood, less than a mile off the highway. There can’t be any at all where I’m headed. The only residence I can imagine there is a seasonal logger’s trailer.
But hey, I get paid by the mile and I love the solitude. So I’m groovy. It’s late summer, the soft top is peeled back, and Collective Soul’s “Gel” blares from the stereo as I blow by the graveyard. I try whistling, but my lips are too chapped. I grab my big-ass Coke from the center console, take a swig, and downshift for the climb into the Cascades.
After about six miles the pavement becomes hard-pack with a thin dusting of gravel. It’s been three days since the last thunderstorm and all but the deepest puddles have dried in the summer heat. I swerve breezily around the worst of the potholes, then, just for fun I start weaving the Wrangler randomly from side to side as I pound the steering wheel in time with the music.
I’m thinkin’ I’m hot shit until a sleeper curve forces me to hit the brakes and my Coke erupts onto my government-issue keyboard while I slide into the curve. “Fuck!” I reach over to shove the PC out of the way of the deluge, but it slides off the seat, hits the floor, and slams shut with a thwack. And then I hear it. A sound that runs in the blood of every off-road driver in the Pacific Northwest: the air horn of a logging truck. It’s coming right at me on the inside of the S-curve, where there’s no shoulder and a fifty-foot drop into the forest beyond.
The law says the uphill driver on a single-track road has the right-of-way, but fuck that. This guy couldn’t stop if he wanted to and I’m not pinning my hopes on a posthumous settlement. Besides, the Weyerhauser lawyers and their high-priced forensic teams would figure out I was the one who wasn’t paying attention, so even when I’m dead the insurance money won’t do anybody any good. My only hope is to get the fuck out of the way. Now.
I ditch the Jeep. Literally. I pop the clutch and crank hard right, throwing the vehicle into the three-foot ditch on the uphill side of the road. The transmission chokes out the engine and the Jeep continues up the opposite side of the ditch for a few more feet before seizing to a halt. I’m canted at a forty-five-degree angle. The Big Gulp, still in its cup holder, has poured its contents into my lap and the remnants drip into the fir needle carpet that is alarmingly close to my left cheek.
The logging rig sails by so close that the hair on my arms stands up and bits of fir bark pepper my face like buckshot. Instinctively I turn away, but not before a piece flies into my eye. For some reason it makes me think of the time in Kindergarten when Kenny Geraci threw tanbark in my face in the playground. It burns something fierce as I grope one-eyed in the back seat for a bottle of water. I finally release my seatbelt and climb over the seat to snag one. It takes a few minutes of flushing before my eye stops twitching.
By now the logger is long gone. I didn’t expect him to stop and help. For one thing, he would have been at least a quarter-mile down the hill before he was able to bring the rig to a stop. And why would he want to hike back up to coddle the asshole who nearly splattered himself across his grill? He’s paid by the job, not the hour, so time is money.
I climb out of the Jeep and stand on shaky legs where only a moment before I was almost logged out of existence. I ponder my situation while I wait for my pulse to drop from the stratosphere. I notice something at my feet and bend down to investigate. It’s what’s left of the government-issue Garmin GPS that was once attached to my dash with Velcro, an apparent victim of five of the eighteen wheels that just passed by.
Fuck! is all I can think. Then I notice the PC. It’s lying in the ditch just under the driver’s side door. I reach down and pick it up. With the exception of a couple of ugly scratches, it’s intact. I’m glad now that it slammed shut moments before the wreck. I open it gingerly and breathe a sigh of relief when the blue log-in screen glows back at me.
I store the computer safely in its carrying case and turn my attention to the Jeep. I’ve managed to avoid colliding with any major trees, so the body is intact, if a bit scuffed up. Three wheels are on the ground, while the front right one hangs about a foot above it. The opposite rear tire has sunk into the mixture of duff and mud at the bottom of the ditch. Even with four-wheel-drive neither is likely to get much traction. I verify this assumption by jumping back into the driver’s seat and firing her up. Sure enough, the one tire catches only air while the other flings mud and needles.
It’s the winch that saves me. I extend the cable from the front bumper to the nearest tree and attach it, then fire up the motor. It takes a few tries and a few trees to get the Jeep back where it belongs, but forty-five minutes later I’m sufficiently chastened and back on the road at a slower speed, with more sedate Neil Young music playing. I now need the impending Happy Hour more than ever, though I’ve just delayed it by an hour. As soon as I confirm that the address I’m looking for is “Type C–Nonexistent,” I’ll be on my way back to the Safari Club in Estacada for some much-needed R-and-R.
The sixty-foot, second-growth Doug firs have closed in tight on both sides and I travel several more miles before there’s any possible place to site a structure. Just before Milepost 15 the late-day sun begins to make inroads through the forest and I spot some clearing ahead. I slow as I pass through a recent clear-cut, but there are no signs of habitation. Finally I cross the first of the two creeks that define the boundary of the census block I’m looking for. Just fifty yards farther on, a road descends at an acute angle to the left. I don’t need to consult the ALMI map to know I’ve found the right place. I swing onto the road and plunge back into the forest canopy.
The road winds around the top of the butte and I spot the wash of the second creek. Moments later my route is blocked by a gate. I roll to a stop, astounded. A typical rural gate in these parts consists of little more than a length of five-sixteenths–gauge chain strung across the road with a padlock. If there’s livestock involved, then it’s a swinging steel or wire-mesh gate. The accompanying fences are also usually made of wire on wood, not even barbed in most cases. Out here, even chain-link would be a luxury upgrade.
But what I’m looking at now are eight-foot–high, stuccoed walls. And protruding from the tops of them are some very nasty looking shards of glass. What the fuck? Somebody’s really serious about security. Between the walls stretches a pair of equally high, electric-operated, wrought-iron gates. So much for there being no electricity out here; these folks must have their own. What the hell is this place?
I look around for some indication of who or what lies beyond the gate. I see no signs or nameplates, only an intercom box—just a button and a speaker, nothing more. I’ll have to investigate further. The beer and strippers at the Safari Club are seeming farther away now. For a moment I consider just heading back into town and calling it a day. I’m allowed two personal visits for each case, so I can always come back later when it’s not so late and my mood is improved.
Then I remember the last ass-chewing from my team leader and I reconsider.