“Dislodged” by Josh McColough

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Dislodged,” Josh McColough expertly weaves together the narrative of a father-daughter road trip with a commentary on the delicate balance of human needs and a vulnerable environment.

 

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DISLODGED

Waiting on a landslide in the redwood forest

by

Josh McColough

Two hours south of Grants Pass, Oregon, we encounter a flashing message board declaring Highway 101 closed. Cars are stopped ahead of us at the top of a hill where the road bends into a dark tunnel of trees near Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. Two Caltrans officials in hard hats and reflective vests are turning people around. Heavy construction equipment—dump trucks and excavators on flatbed rigs—passes us in the left-hand lane and disappears into the forest.

  “This can’t be right,” I insist, checking my phone. I have not received any alerts. Then again, we just emerged from the mountains, where reception was spotty.

 “Can we go around?” my daughter asks.

Google Maps recalculates the quickest alternative route: a three-hundred-mile journey east back through the mountains to the interior of the state, then a return west through the mountains to the coast further south. It estimates the detour to be over seven hours long.

“Nope,” I say.

She is a high school student; I am a college English comp instructor. We are in the middle leg of a post-vaccine road trip down the West Coast—Seattle to LA. It is partly a college visit trip for her, partly an excuse to stretch our legs after a year and a half locked down in front of glowing screens. We are from the Midwest and are fed up with the flat, wearying Chicago suburbs—as two-dimensional and enticing as a Zoom classroom. I hate the virus for thousands of reasons, but particularly for what it wrought on the dynamic experience of a classroom, reducing it to nothing more than glowing foreheads. Postered walls and ceiling fans, fish tanks, gaming chairs, plaid bed covers, fairy-lit shelves, rainbow LED light strips, an occasional bong. But mainly blue LED backlit stares from deep within a hoodie. Student gazes that go on forever into a virtual middle distance while you make an utter ass of yourself on camera discussing the elements of a short story or how to write a literary analysis essay. My daughter and I are on opposing ends of the same horrific livestreaming scholastic train wreck—she knows what it looks like to witness a teacher on camera beg, cry, or yell for someone, anyone to speak up and join in conversation; I know what it looks like when a young person, already on the verge—uncertain and unsure—opts out altogether by going dark.

We needed a change of scenery.

“Never underestimate the impact that the physical landscape has on your mental health,” I tell my daughter before our trip, more as a reminder to me than anything else.

We have just reached the California coast after twisting our way down the Redwood Highway through rugged, unincorporated towns—Idlewild, Darlingtonia, Gasquet (pronounced Gas-kee). People in the towns weren’t unfriendly, but on the periphery was a population who, based on the politics spelled out in bumper stickers on custom trucks, had been living and working remotely by choice long before the virus. Plenty of handmade “No Trespassing” signs, one of which read “No Trespassing! Iraq War Vet with PTSD,” a dripping AR-15 stenciled in spray paint underneath. We snaked through sunlit mountain passes along dried-up creek beds, until a blanket of coastal fog swept over a crest and enveloped the highway for a few sudden low-visibility-on-sheer-cliffside moments. When we emerged, the Pacific opened up before us, gray and soupy. Fog and cloud cover melded together, giving everything a vaporous edge. Monolithic sea stacks peppered the base of dark green marine terraces. It was a revelatory moment for us Midwestern pilgrims, who, though we might not have set out on foot from Missouri, felt an undeniable rush in reaching the end of the westward road. We rolled down the windows and inhaled deeply. Then we rolled to a stop at the flashing sign and the line of cars and people turning back.

We approach the Caltrans official, who repeats the message on the sign. “Road’s closed,” she says and hands us a flier. “You can go back to Crescent City, or you can proceed ahead and wait in line until the road opens again at one o’clock.”

“Okay, but what’s happening?” I ask.

“There are active landslides at Last Chance Grade, and crews are working to shore up the highway,” she says. “If you want to wait in line, they’re distributing bottles of water and granola bars. But once you get in line, there’s no turning back.”

So be it.

After waiting nearly two years to go anywhere, sitting in our car for a few hours in the forest does not feel like such an imposition. Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus. We turn around and claim our moment at Crescent Beach, where we dip our toes in the frigid Pacific and watch a solitary wet-suited surfer bobbing in the waves. We stock up on water and snacks and head into the forest to wait. A flashing police cruiser escorts a line of cars into the forest at a pleasant minimum speed. It feels as though we’re on a guided tour of the redwood forest. We roll down the windows and poke our heads out to look up at the trees. After a few miles, we reach the line of those who ventured before us and stop along the side of the zigzagging road. We don’t know how close or far we are from the construction—from Last Chance Grade.

We emerge from the car, and our eyes are directed skyward. On either side of the road are colonnades of redwoods. Above us, cathedrals soar hundreds of feet and block out all but slivers of the gray-fogged sky. I reach for my phone to FaceTime my wife, but there is no reception. Not one bar.

“Is this place for real?” my daughter asks, not for the first time on this trip.

The road cuts an unnatural, gray-paved path through the woods. The coastal fog has followed us into the forest. The tops of the redwoods sway, yet there is no breeze at ground level. It feels like we are underwater. Voices are small but distinct. Clear. One man tells his kids to put down their damn phones for a second and come out and look around. The kids stay in the car. Another man opens his car door, grabs his camera, and aims his lens upward, the camera’s shutter rapid-fire clicks. A woman worries about having to go to the bathroom. She wonders if she can hold it until the road reopens. The man she’s with directs her into the forest, and she tells him she’d probably get poison oak all over her privates. Another woman climbs atop her camper and peers into the forest through binoculars in a way that signals she knows what she’s looking for. A man emerges from a RV in full spandex; he unhooks a bicycle from the rear rack, straps on a helmet, and turns on flashing LED lights and pedals ahead. “May as well log a few miles while we’re waiting,” he says as he passes us. Another man opens the door to his SUV, setting free two barefoot toddlers, who wobble onto the road. The man is also barefoot. He lights a cigarette. Someone nearby is smoking pot; this seems as good a place as any to do so. A small group of teens in pajama pants and hoodies walks up the side of the road, happy to get away from their parents.

Right now, the road is connecting us differently than when we drove it. Not ten minutes before, the man in the car behind us tailgated me and honked at me for driving slowly, though we were being paced by a police car. I could see his darkened figure in my rearview mirror throw up both of his hands in a “What the hell?” gesture. Now, he gets out of his car, smiles, and says to me, “Not a bad place to be stuck, is it? Just beautiful.”

Wanderers, all of us, forced to be still for a bit. To see what is around us and see one another. These are the kinds of friendships forged among strangers in a church parking lot.

The ground on either side of the road is covered greenly in sword fern and redwood sorrel, bracken fern, wild ginger, trillium, and moss. Shoots of yellow monkeyflower rise above the brush cover. Tanoaks and Pacific rhododendrons (a woman—clearly local—from the car in front of us tells us that we missed them in bloom by about a month) grow between the colossal redwoods. They are what we Midwesterners might think of as good-sized trees—tall but climbable. Though at the feet of behemoths, they appear wispy and decorative. My daughter and I walk across to the other side of the road and look down upon a ravine. The forest floor is brick red, carpeted with dead, needle-like redwood leaves. The trees creak softly.

Then, a whistle—flat, off-key—breaks through the forest, and another whistle calls back. It sounds metallic. It is constant, like a referee’s whistle, but there is no rise time—it starts and ends at full whistle. The whistling surrounds us like the forest itself. Everywhere I turn, it sounds like it’s coming from behind me. A long, off-key whistle. Another that calls back.

An oncoming dump truck blows its horn, echoing like an alpine horn through the forest, and people on the road alert one another. Parents gather kids in their arms, and the truck barrels by us in a whoosh toward what must be Last Chance Grade.

“Good lord,” the woman from the car ahead of us says. “What’s his hurry?”

***

Everything is short on this trip. Tempers are short. Hotels and restaurants and gas stations are short-staffed, short on menu items, short on services offered. Operating hours of restaurants, cafes, and bars are cut short. Grocery stores are short on items. Trucking companies are short drivers. The window of opportunity to move safely about the country is shortening (the Delta variant is just beginning to spread in the US.). Expectations of a return to absolute freedom are cut short—some states aren’t yet open for business; others never closed.

Still, all routes on our West Coast trip are flush with families packed into trucks, campers, cars, and RVs. Luggage racks, boats in tow, American flags frayed and flapping at speed down every road. It almost resembles what “normal” looked like before, until you’re reminded how far we have to go still. My daughter and I stop at a diner for lunch. The lights are off, but handmade signs insist “We ARE Open.” One of two servers on staff tells us to “sit wherever,” so we find an open table. The place is packed. Our server stops to take our order and explains, “Sorry, it’s just the two of us. And one cook.” The lights are off to save electricity (the owners are clearly short on funds to pay the bills each month during the pandemic). Despite all odds, the server is kind and smiling. She briefly mentions being happy to work again. We don’t understand why. The patrons are short on time and patience. Short on tact. Where’s my goddamn cheeseburger? I ordered it like an hour ago. You want me to go back there and make it myself?

We all fall short sometimes, despite our best efforts.

***

The whistling in the forest continues. Long and flat. Odd and off-key. Another whistle calls back. I wonder if it might be hikers signaling to one another. My daughter walks along the side of the road, just looking.

I hold the flier about work on Last Chance Grade and am stuck on the name. Any chances are hard enough to come by these days, I think. And everything these past couple of years has felt like a last chance. Just leaving my house to scrounge picked-over store shelves for toilet paper felt like a kind of last-chance endeavor. And truly, I am tired of thinking about last chances. What if the last time I saw my parents was my last chance to have seen them? What if the last time I stepped foot in the classroom was the last chance I had to do so? What about that last time I went to a concert and screamed in revelatory joy? Or the last time I sat inside a coffee shop? Or the last time I went anywhere without a mask? The last time I saw my students in the classroom, in spring of 2020, I told them that we might have a week or two of online classes, then would be back in the classroom for the end of the semester. That was right before spring break. My parting, in-person words were, “Have a great spring break—see you back here in a couple of weeks!” Now, I would really like to have had a chance to say, “I care about all of you; please be safe. Stay with your families or check in on them as much as you can. Love them.” We were not given any last chances to do these things until, suddenly, we had no chances for a while.

The whistling cuts through the forest. Over and over again.

The woman from the car ahead of us says, “Ooh, look, banana slugs! They’re all over the place.”

We haven’t noticed them—tiny ground creatures in a mammoth forest—but once we do, it is difficult not to spot them everywhere. Bright yellow or mustard brown, the uncanny (and unfortunate) shape and size of a larger dog’s penis, but with eyestalks. They creep about on the ground over dead leaves and hang precariously on low-lying brush like obscene, slimy ornaments. They consume the dead, and in their wake is a trail of slime-nutrients that fertilizes the soil. I crouch down to get a picture of one that is the color of a ripe yellow pepper and see an even bigger one right next to my foot.

I realize that I nearly stepped on it.

***

I am not a geologist, though I am broadly curious about the reasons why it might not be safe to tread upon parts of the earth, whether it be to preserve the privacy of a wounded veteran or because the ground might give way and wash you into the ocean without warning. Not that we humans are great at heeding warning signs given up by the earth. We exist upon massive lithospheric rafts that float on a layer of plasticine rock. The earth’s crust is but the skin of a grape, relative to the rest of the planet beneath us. We are reminded of this when islands burst forth in the middle of the ocean; when a long-dormant volcano awakens; or when World Series games are interrupted by two plates going bump in the night; or when a tsunami arrives, uninvited, to a tropical holiday. These events are unfortunate reminders of precisely who—or what—is in charge here. Still, we too often move through life not considering our size and stature relative to forces and objects that humble us. Geologic time. Plate tectonics. A virus. A couple of degrees’ difference in the oceans’ temperatures. More rain and less snow. No snow and too much rain. Fire tornadoes. A couple of inches more of the ocean and a few hundred thousand more people underwater.

I tell my daughter, “Stand next to that tree and spread your arms out so we can get a sense of scale.”

Some redwoods are hollowed out so cars can drive through them. Not far from where we are is a famous redwood playland (complete with a talking Paul Bunyan) that will cost admission to explore. We don’t consider how long it took for this tree to grow so large, but who isn’t tempted by a priceless photo or social media op? Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot. It’s where and how we fall short.

This is what will kill us all, I think, as I click pictures of my tiny daughter at the base of a two-hundred-year-old tree. If last chances are the fuel for redemption, our tank feels so close to empty.

Whistling again.

***

I long to understand why my daughter and I are stuck in a whistling forest. Why our West Coast road trip itinerary—Leg 4, Day 7—was blown to hell by an ominously named piece of land. What I learn, long after we return home, makes me thankful that I did not know about Last Chance Grade while we were there. A 2015 engineering feasibility study characterizes this stretch of Highway 101 as failing frequently and the ground beneath the road as unstable. To a Midwesterner, driving along the edge of the California coast is a vertigo-inducing, heart-palpitating experience anyway. If you are the driver, the fear of falling into the ocean is more omnipresent than the image you had in your head about a fun, carefree, top-down thrill ride along a classic stretch of Americana. If you are a really specific kind of Midwesterner, you may obsessively recall grainy dashboard camera videos of cars jettisoning off the Pacific Coastal Highway into the ocean below. No guardrails, nothing stopping the car’s launch. Each time the road hairpins and the land slips away and the height above the ocean becomes clear, I get dizzy, while attempting to maintain calm for my daughter, who is in the back seat, also sick. As I recall that drive now, my palms are sweating.

But here lies Last Chance Grade, existing at the intersection of physical and human geography. There have been hundreds of landslides in this area, dating back to the late 1800s. Some of the more recent landslides have been caught on camera and are shocking in their force—their ability in moments to wash away human-made structures engineered to be permanent and unmovable. This three-mile stretch of the 101 undulates, fractures, dips and, ultimately, fails because it is built upon four deep-seated landslides that are actively in motion. The highway fails because the ground beneath, part of a large subduction zone, is not stable enough to support a highway. The geography of much of populated California is like this, though, and that a major highway runs across an active landslide may only be surprising to pragmatic Midwesterners who think, “Kind of a silly place to put a road, isn’t it?” But that thinking runs counter to the ethos of California, which my daughter and I learn later as we walk around San Francisco and a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hits at the California-Nevada border, causing rock and boulder slides along another major highway while we traipse up Lombard Street and take pictures. We don’t even feel it because we aren’t standing still.

To the east of the road where we stand is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, home to thousands of animal species in addition to the old-growth redwoods that have existed for up to a couple of thousand years. To the west of the road, a mile or so, is the Pacific. It pounds the base of the cliff upon which the highway has been built, accepting residual detritus from the landslides. This is the physical geography.

Also to the east of the highway—beyond the UNESCO-protected forest—are multiple tribes of indigenous people who have inhabited the land for centuries. The 101 itself is the main artery that supplies communities up and down the coast with food and other essential goods. Block the artery, and food deserts are created. All human inhabitants are taxpayers. All human inhabitants are affected when the road shuts down and will be affected if the road has to be moved. This is the human geography.

The problem of the road has brought together experts in both human and physical geography to consider solutions. After years of economic impact studies, risk assessments, geotechnical investigations, ground surveys, botanical studies, wetland delineations, traffic studies, biological assessments, the road still fails. The ground is still unstable. People, communities, still are left stranded. Doing nothing is not a viable option. Though perhaps by engaging communities in coming up with a solution together, the devil’s bargain will be less difficult to swallow: Cut into some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway further east; or tunnel beneath some of the most beautiful, ancient, protected lands to move the highway underground.

The two-mile tunnel is scheduled to open in 2038. As of today, it is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.

***

The metallic whistling in the forest sounds urgent—a bit like a call for help. I listen for voices—for people calling out—but don’t hear anything. I don’t know what it communicates. I think it sounds lonely, and then it sounds deeply melancholy. I think it sounds like a warning, and then it sounds like an urgent call for help. Dump trucks speed past us in the opposite lanes and blow their horns; the sounds ricochet off of the trees, reverberating bass throughout the forest. Could the whistling be nothing more than construction sounds ahead of us on Last Chance Grade? I am reminded of a story I heard once on NPR about a scientist in search of the quietest place on earth, free of human-made noise—aircraft, traffic, cell phones, construction, voices. You have to travel so far to get away from human noise. I consider how easy it is to hear other travelers’ conversations. People think of forests as quiet places, but they are acoustic marvels. Communication travels efficiently, by evolutionary design. Animal calls seeking a partner in the springtime. Calls warning of predators in the area. Whistling perhaps designed to baffle stranded travelers. I imagine someone up in a tree, blowing a whistle and peering down at me through binoculars, laughing as I turn around to try to find the source.

I remember a story from college of a woman named Julia “Butterfly” Hill who took up residence in the canopy of an old-growth coastal redwood. Later, I learned that the tree is still there—located a few hundred miles from where we were. She lived in the tree for 738 days on a six-foot-by-six-foot platform to protest a lumber company’s clear-cutting practices. In fact, the company’s overlogging resulted in a catastrophic landslide that buried much of the town of Stafford in

Humboldt County in 1996. She was regarded by the public as a nuisance, an eco-warrior, a curiosity, a crackpot, a neo-hippy, a savior. I remember this. From her tiny platform, she took media calls, debated CNN anchors, responded to mail she’d received from critics and supporters, studied field guides to identify the birds that inhabited trees around her; she let the tree sap cover her feet so that she had better grip while climbing. Loggers shouted vile insults up to her. It was all very loud at the time—everyone had an opinion about her, about the loggers and logging company, about the environment and “environmentalists,” who tended to be cast as a fringe, neo-cultist movement. So West Coast.

But since Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s tree residency, it has been proven that trees communicate with one another via an underground network of fungi. They work together to survive by transferring nutrients—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, hormones, water—to one another. Within a community of trees, there are hubs—mother trees—that nurture their young by way of hundreds of kilometers of fungi below ground. They send excess carbon to the younger seedlings, and if a mother tree is injured or dying, they can send messages to their seedlings to help strengthen them and defend themselves from future issues. Mother trees are vulnerable, though. You take out a mother tree, the system beneath it likely will collapse.

The whistling continues, bouncing off trees.

***

The distinct whistle remains lodged in my head long after we return from our trip. After the trembling San Francisco, across the interior, seething San Joaquin Valley, down through LA. The whistling follows me. It is a call back to that place—to those hours spent in pause, waiting, looking. But I do not know how to discover the source. I sit with my laptop and some wine and fumble about with far-too-literal search terms.

Whistling in redwood forest.

Whistling noises Pacific northwest redwoods.

Odd metallic whistling redwoods Pacific coast.

Eventually, I find the right combination of words and discover a thread in a forum where others are searching for the same thing. Same location—Jedediah Smith redwoods, Del Norte county, California. Original posters describe the noise as a “referee’s whistle” or “a long, electrical whistling” with another slightly off-key callback. I’m excited by this—others heard the same thing. Crowdsourced responses mean well, sometimes. It is, they say, the trees rubbing against one another. Elk in heat. Bigfoot. Deer. Deer in heat. An owl. Military exercises. Bats. Forestry workers. Mountain lions. A waxwing bird.

A bird. A bird seems like a promising lead, so I search for birds common to that area and become suddenly grateful to the massive online community of ornithological enthusiasts’ meticulous dedication to recording sounds. I listen to dozens of bird sounds with my eyes closed. Pacific wren. Acorn woodpecker. Townsend’s warbler.

Then I hear the unmistakable, indelible off-key whistling and the callback.

Ixoreus naevius. The varied thrush.

I am overjoyed. I call my daughter out of her room, and declare, “I found it!” I play the sound for her, and she says, “Cool,” and recedes back into her iPhone. For me, though, it is a transportive sound. I am back in the forest—in those hours when we were forced to take a good look and listen to where we were. I look up information on the varied thrush, and find it is an ordinary, robin-sized bird. Mostly black with bands of pumpkin orange on its breast, wings, and head. It exists primarily in the Pacific Northwest, though it migrates seasonally up and down the coast when breeding. Still, it is a predominant fixture of the damp, green forests along the Pacific, and like grunge, its haunting call is something of a signature sound of the region. It is also held in mythical regard by both amateur and career bird lovers alike. A post by the US Fish and Wildlife Service about the varied thrush quotes ornithologist and illustrator Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who described the varied thrush as “perfectly the voice of the cool, dark, peaceful solitude which the bird chooses for its home as could be imagined.” In his 1909 book The Birds of Washington, Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the song of the varied thrush as “a single long-drawn note of brooding melancholy and exalted beauty—a voice stranger than the sound of any instrument, a waif echo stranding on the shores of time.”

I am entranced by the descriptions of the sound itself. I stack field guides on my table at the library, and I thumb through all of their descriptions of the song of the varied thrush:

“Song utterly bizarre: long, vibrant, metallic, breathy notes spaced far apart: zeeeeeeng…. Zoiiiiiiiiing… zeeeerng…” (Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America)

“Song a long, eerie, quavering, whistled note, followed, after a pause, by one on a lower or higher pitch. Call a quivering low-pitched zzzzew or zzzeee and a liquid chup.” (Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America)

“Call a short, low, dry chup very similar to Hermit Thrush but harder; also a hard, high gipf and a soft, short tiup.” (The Sibley Guide to Birds of North America)

It is an elusive, solitary bird, not easily spotted. By all accounts, the varied thrush likes it that way. How grunge. I stare at pictures of the varied thrush, and it sparks another memory. I recognize the bird somehow, and I can’t figure out from what. Eventually, the Internet tells me that it is the bird that appears for a few seconds in the opening credits of the ’90s television show “Twin Peaks,” which is so fitting, I decide its use must have been on purpose. The varied thrush is the ultimate Gen-X bird.

***

In the end, it is one p.m., and miles ahead of my daughter and I, blockades open. All down the line, people return to their vehicles. The timeout has ended. I do not want to leave this place, though I want to see Last Chance Grade, maybe to thank it. This diversion will become a centerpiece memory of the trip itself. My daughter and I will recount how we stumbled into a magical interruption on our trip down the coast.

In the end, the line of cars moves forward, and we are pulled along with them. We all move on. We come out of the trees. Out of the banana slug forest. Away from the call of the varied thrush. The road twists and dips through the redwoods until the trees open up to a clearing, and we can finally see it.

In the end, there is a scarred hillside that refuses to stay put, and then a cliff over which things have been falling for many years. Covered wagons, boulders, sediment, stones, cars, trees, dead leaves, mud, construction equipment, banana slugs, fallen redwoods, roots, mycelium. It all slides down into the Pacific. In the end, Last Chance Grade turns out to be neither a place—a pin on Google Maps—nor a natural sight to behold. It is a geological riddle. As the road crosses the Grade, we can see car-sized boulders and mounds of soil that have spilled onto it from a recent slide. The road itself becomes nothing more than jagged pavement and compacted dirt—a callback to its original trail state. Above the road, Caltrans pickups and dump trucks and earth movers and graders and men in hard hats are crawling about the hillside like ants. Thousands of pounds of machinery look barely attached to the earth it seeks to shore up, and I am struck with the familiar sensation of vertigo. In the end, we pass safely across Last Chance Grade—that point of convergence between human and physical geography—a precarious road clinging, like the rest of us, for dear life against all natural forces acting upon it. A waif echo stranding on the shores of time.

***

 

Josh McColough’s short fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Puerto del Sol, Split Lip Magazine, and SPLASH!, and his nonfiction in New World Writing. Josh received his MFA from the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program and currently teaches English composition at the College of Lake County in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter @joshmccolough, where he mostly shares pictures of his Bernedoodle Gus.