Fortunately, the area is dry, which makes gathering firewood easier. In a few weeks, the cold will set in, and I’ll need all the warmth I can get. This is probably my last chance to hunt for food, too. Maybe I can get lucky and find a deer, or at least something larger than a squirrel. I could use the meat.
Let me give you the grand tour of my little forest camp. Behind me is the makeshift shelter I built out of an oak tree that fell not too far from here. I used the thinner, flexible branches to tie everything together. The roof is made from mud and leaves. Not the prettiest, but it keeps me pretty dry, except in the harshest of storms.
On the other side of camp is my fire ring. Fire is both the life giver and the protector of my area. Larger predators, mostly wolves, shy away from my camp because I always keep a roaring fire at night. I don’t know whether it’s the heat or the light that keeps them at bay, and frankly, I don’t care.
And finally, we have my food locker. Again, made of wood, I store my smoked meat in it. I know the smell of food will bring in more animals than I care to deal with, so I do my best to cover the smell with ground up plants and such. Lichens do a fine job, as do pine branches. In the weeks, months, however long I’ve been out here, it seems to work – sort of.
This is a good spot, as we’re close to the river. Nothing says survival quite like fresh water and a good supply of fish. If you don’t like fish, you’ll get used to it. Just avoid eating the pike, they taste awful. As for the rest, just make sure you give them a thorough cooking over the fire; it gets the fish taste out.
You look like you have some questions again. Hold off on them for the time being and let me tell you a little about me. Years ago, an earthquake devastated my home town, shaking everything to the ground. I’d just gotten out of college--I’m an engineer--and had found my dream job when everything was taken away.
No shame in leaving a place devastated by disaster, right? Well, I thought so too, that is until I received word that my brother died. The fool didn’t know what he was doing and ended up dying when a steel beam fell on him. He was helping in the rebuild, you see. You might call it survivor’s guilt, or whatever fancy term they teach in Psych 101, but I know it should’ve been me. He didn’t have the experience, the training that I had.
Shortly after, I left America and went overseas for a bit, living from hostel to hostel, like a drifter. My favorite place was Ireland. The people there were full of life and understanding. Some saw the pain, deep down again, yet never try to coax more out of me than I was willing.
Another good stop was New Zealand. I stowed away on a cargo ship to get there. The ride was terrible, but the island itself was amazing. The punchline of that story was I intended to go to Australia and mixed up the ships. Either way, it was well worth it. Just don’t call the locals Kiwis. It turns out they really hate it.
My last stop was to return home, to face up to everything I was running from. When I got there, I saw the community had been rebuilt. I had an overwhelming sense of pride, but a great deal more shame. I should’ve stayed and helped, not run away. If I had, my brother might still be alive.
All of that, it’s in the past. I’m doing my best out here, trying to make peace with what I’ve done and how I lived my life. Can’t say it was the best way to live, but at the time I always made the choices I felt were right. I’m sure, since you’re here with me, you’ve been faced with a lot of those times too.
That brings us back to where we are today. Everyone who ends up here did so because they couldn’t accept that guilt they had. Think of this forest as a crossing, the roaring river below my camp the final hurdle if you will. No one knows for sure when the time will come to take the plunge and swim across, but I have it on good authority you’ll know. As me for, I’m not ready yet, far from it.
Tell you what, it’s getting late and there’s not enough food for both of us here. If you’d be so kind as to grab that rifle over there, I’ll teach you how to survive in this place, I call it The Grey Forest.
You want to know my name? My name’s not important, not anymore, but I’ll be your guide. Stick close to me and you’ll be okay. And one day, in the future, maybe you’ll be ready to take a swim to the other side.
What’s on the other side? I couldn’t rightfully tell you, but I’m sure it’s a place better than here. Now, enough questions. Night’s coming, and we have a lot to do. Let’s go.
Written by: Jeremy Croston
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll