I got a cup of coffee two towns back, from a convenience store where time had stopped. It was all dust and wood paneling, like a forgotten picture wedged in between the boards of an old wood trunk. The place smelled stale, like locals and truckers were still allowed to smoke in there. The bathroom was a grandparent’s bathroom, with Coca-Cola crates and pump bottle honey-scented hand soap that’d probably been there for years. The food was all trucker food. Vienna sausages and Little Debbie snack cakes. It felt like 1974. It was five days to Christmas.
The clerk was named Janette. She had gray hair and a hard smoker’s face. I wondered what Janette in the mountains was thinking just before dark in the winter in a convenience store 30 miles away from any major town. I’d be plotting to drown the emptiness with theatrically bad singing and a TV turned up too loud. This place was dead silent. I told her I couldn’t stand the cold, that I should have bundled up, but I was too stupid to remember that temperature decreases with elevation. She said she liked the cold because it gave her an excuse to stay inside and make hot cocoa “and such as that.”
I asked for directions out of habit even though I had them already, she gave them to me accurately, and I left. It was impossible to imagine a reality where I’d go there again.
You’re supposed to put chains on your tires when it’s snowing, I heard that in a movie once, and I was on this winding treacherous mountain road without them, nursing my horrible coffee with its Styrofoam cup that was cold to the touch somehow. I didn’t have a death wish, I just knew nothing about snow. It didn’t even occur to me that the mountains would have snow on them. I couldn’t help it. I’m from a place where rain is a novelty.
The idea of being in the mountains was to get away from the self-loathing the holidays bring to those without money or friends. My day job had become managing regret, and I took the day off to kill a tank of gas and be someone who didn’t know you’re supposed to have tire chains in the mountains. My operating theory was that regret is a problem of space and time. A few hours and a hundred or so miles would fix it.
It worked for awhile, but things turned on me. The sun had gone down. The idea that I could hit ice and die had become real. My speed got unsteady and I was swerving because I knew nothing about the road. During the day I pretended I did, driving one-handed with my arm on the center console, probably to deceive myself, but at night I was a teenager, hands at 10 and 2, lost on a mountain that was familiar only as a possible location for an Unsolved Mysteries segment about the despairing ghost of a failed gold miner.
Slowly but surely, the regret came back, hot and concentrated, like a beam of light through a magnifying glass that finally sets a leaf on fire. “You failed. You were weak. You’re pathetic. You’ll get home and no one will ask where you went. Got any friends? Of course you don’t. You should disappear. You’re a burden. That’s why you’re out here. And you can’t even drive out here. ” My inner monologue had become Don Rickles as the devil. I pulled over to let a trucker pass.
Then I killed the engine, got out, and walked into the forest.
I couldn’t see the tops of the trees, but I heard snow falling off branches with that deliberate brushing sound. All the things I heard told me to turn back and drive off, but I didn’t. I walked further out into the trees, until even the light from passing trucks was gone.
The wind resisted my footsteps like a brick wall. My socks were soaked. My hands were cut from walking into a tree. I fell down. I dropped my keys. I immediately assumed they were gone forever, that a CHP officer would find them in the spring. But I kneeled down and dug around through the snow until my hands got too cold to keep digging. Finally I found them, right behind me, above the snow. I didn’t need to dig at all.
Dropping the keys made all my failures sharper, reminding me of every mistake I’d ever made and some I didn’t. Evil Don Rickles wasn’t even riffing anymore. He was yelling. I deserved this. I was such a failure I couldn’t even keep my damn keys in my pocket like a normal person. Then I started talking to the air. “Come on! Kill me! Kill me in the mountains!”
Further out. Further out. I would go as far into nothing as I could, and then keep going. That’s what I was worth. So further out. Further out.
Then I imagined being someone else watching me. A warmer, more benevolent Don Rickles. This loser in a thin jacket and loafers had probably walked all of five hundred feet in an erratic semicircle, and he had already fallen down once, and now he was yelling at the wind. I imagined that person saying “football is probably not the sport for you.” I started laughing. I even started laughing at the imagined CHP officer who would say I died of being an idiot.
I had exiled myself for no reason. I read my emotional playbook all wrong. I skipped “maybe you should just read a book or turn some music up too loud” and went directly for the stupidest possible option. This lonesome mountain drive, this morbid tourism, this complete meltdown a few hundred feet from the road. Entirely alone, in the middle of nowhere, I had managed to make myself the center of the damn universe.
I was using this dark mountain to make my self-punishment more dramatic and thus less real. The coffee wasn’t some high lonesome American experience. It was just bad coffee. Janette at the convenience store wasn’t a character in some brooding little short film. I had no reason to be up here, trying to die in a forest. I was literally fighting the wind. I had every reason to go back home and face my boring failure instead of replacing it with grotesque failure. A couple false starts and I was out of the trees and back at the wheel.
After a couple miles, I saw a house over the hill to my left. One of those inaccessible mountain houses. The kind you imagine just appeared one day because it couldn’t have possibly been built. The kind with no visible driveway. In the day I thought it was abandoned because I saw no cars. But now I saw smoke coming out of the chimney. They had a string of those giant red and green Christmas lights nobody buys anymore and a lit-up cross on the roof. They had no incentive to decorate, no neighborhood competition. Nobody drove out here to look at Christmas lights. Nobody would ever notice them except truckers who happened to look left. For some reason, it was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.