How We Survived; Strawberry Canyon ( Nano 2016, Chapter 2)

There are no ends on the earth. Each horizon is just a slice, keeping your mind in place, trying to prevent you from wandering too far. After the exodus started, some people decided that this was the slice for them, and that they weren’t moving. They started digging into the earth, and imprisoning themselves within sprawling domes. José was having none of it.

He’d always been a rambling man, and no dust bowl was going to stop him. Back in the old days before the war, they had seen this happen before. Crops died in the ground, crumbled to dust and left barren earth behind them. He dimly remembered a childhood friend that was sold because his mother couldn’t afford to keep all the children alive. Occasionally throughout his life he had considered looking that kid up, but with the constant fleeing at the time, it didn’t seem likely that he could have any idea where that kid went.

He slowed his motorcycle and pulled off the road for a cigarette. It hadn’t been that long since people had gotten themselves into a big panic and started running, but they had moved fast. Mostly the land looked like it always had, just maybe a little drier. But every 50 miles there was another ghost town, and most of them ripe for the picking, if you knew what you were looking for. He could get used to not paying for gas, or a bed, or cigarettes and food. The road provided.

José squatted close to the land and watched the heat haze shimmer behind him and ahead of him. This particularly road seemed more desolate than most. He had encountered a gas station some thirty miles back, and managed to wring half a tank from its dusty pumps. He had enough to get where he was going, wherever that was. The last sign he remembered said Strawberry-Pine. He could tell from the terrain and the petrified wood all around that this place had once been a forest, probably a national park. The roads were less traveled, the land scarred with canyons and piled up into rounded hills. Somehow this place was even drier than Utah, despite being so high above sea.

He chose south one day when he got sick of east. He had traveled from the pacific across the northern part of the country until the weather started to pressure him downwards. Eventually he stopped trying to outrun it and headed south. During the dust bowl his family had desperately headed north to try and escape it. Nowadays everyone seemed to be trying to escape everywhere. He never seemed to see another vehicle heading in the same direction as him, so he figured he must be going the right way. Bad news followed people.

After a few hours of riding he reached Strawberry. Signs everywhere told him that this was Strawberry hill, and that was Strawberry canyon, and this building with the broken windows and tattered curtains was Strawberry diner. Must have been a hard town to get a chocolate shake. He slowed to near a crawl and kept his eyes out. These higher elevation towns seemed to remain more active than the sea level cities. The people that chopped their own firewood and hunted their own food seemed less inclined to run away as soon as the air conditioning stopped working. He saw a cluster of bicycles near a church and wondered if it was Sunday. When the bell started ringing and people started emerging, he was sure it was.

He cut his engine swiftly after he started catching stares. He stood up from the bike, and let it stand at rest by the roadside. He wasn’t sure exactly what he planned to do, he hadn’t met this many people at once in a while. His revolver was tucked into the back of his waistband, but it wouldn’t do him much good against fifty people. With some luck he might kill eight before they overpowered him. There was a ‘good afternoon’ that lay between them that nobody seemed to want to use. Times had hit hard, but not hard enough here that the first thought on your mind after church was hanging the first person to set foot into your town. José needed gas, so here’s hoping these people were friendly.

At sundown he sat on a porch, eating some stew that tasted relatively fresh, and listening to the yips of distant coyotes. The preacher had welcomed him, eventually, and a little grudgingly. He couldn’t very well turn down people in need, even if they were Mexicans on motorcycles with guns. Hospitality towards nomads seemed easier when there was only one of them.

“What brings you here?” Cassius asked, after giving José a chance to eat.

“ Just passing through.”

“Where to though? How did Strawberry end up between your origin and your destination?”

“I’m just passing through everywhere. Don’t have a home any more. Just getting by in a world gone mad. I suppose my origin is Seattle. My destination is tomorrow.”

Cassius ruminated.

“My sheep go wandering upon all mountains, and upon every high hill. Yea they be scattered abroad in all fields, and there is no man, that careth for them, or seeketh after them.”

“‘Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the lord.”

Cassius was as surprised as he was impressed. He hadn’t taken José for a man of God, but for a lost sheep. Maybe he was a pilgrim, not a wanderer. He wasn’t lost, but perhaps searching.

“Perhaps you’re here for a reason. Maybe this is your destination. Do you think God brought you here for a purpose?”

“A triumph Bonneville brought me here. The road brought me here. Gasoline brought me here. I wander; it’s who I’ve always been. Before this dust bowl, and during the last one too.”

“What do you seek?”

“More days as a free man. I’ve seen people building those golden cages over their cities. Like the world’s biggest storm windows. I don’t want to spend my remaining days in a cage.”

José did not look young. He was graying, his hands were wrinkled, and it seemed like the sun had been slowly cooking him. The road had filled his heart with joy, but it had wreaked havoc on his features. He looked both burnt and burnt out.

“They’re building cages?” Cassius asked. He hadn’t heard much from the outside world in the last few months. The television stations had gone down at the beginning of spring, the radios only broadcast emergency signals and evacuation routes. As far as he knew everyone had been heading east, hoping for respite east of the rocky mountains.

“They call them domes. Word from the east, scant as it is, indicates that they’ve put domes over New York City, Chicago, Columbus, and DC. Construction is underway in Florida, last I heard. They’re air conditioning whole cities. I hear they’re growing food underground, in carefully managed air to keep the outside out. Locking the doors. Building prisons for themselves.”

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Maybe this strategy is for the best; people are trying to protect each other, during these trying times, just like we are here. Even as we protect you now.”

José shifted in his seat, reassuring himself that his gun was still there. He placed his empty bowl on a table and reached for his cigarettes. Cassius declined one for himself. The smoke drifted towards the lantern and the moths cast shadows on the floor as they too searched for the light that their lives needed.

“I can leave here though. I can go forward, keep moving, keep searching for another day. No offense preacher, but you’re stuck here. Your families, your flock, they’re all up here, at the mercy of the world. You hope and pray that things will get better, but I’ve seen the changes out there. People are scared, and they’re moving heaven and earth for safety. They likely won’t have it, because the world has changed too much. We’re not going back to the way things were before.”

“We’ve both seen a dust bowl come and go before.”

“And last time we just moved. People aren’t just moving this time, they’re running scared. They’re locking themselves away from the world in the hopes that this will somehow protect them.”

Cassius glanced at his wife, who had emerged through the doorway to the house. Children were sleeping, it was time to lock the doors, to say the day’s final prayers. He nodded softly and she returned inside.

“You’re welcome to come in and rest for the night. You could leave your bike inside the church if you worry for its safety. I can assure you that no one in our town would meddle with it, but you’re welcome to if you wish to protect it.”

José slept on the porch, and rode his bike silently down the hilly road before starting his engine. The dawn he saw and the dawn that Cassius arose with seemed very different.

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