Christian was an alcoholic who’d left behind a toxic relationship in Missouri when he arrived at his sister’s house in Oregon, driving a gray GMC extended cab pick-up with a toolbox mounted in the bed. Christian’s sister and I had been good friends, spiritual confidantes for nine years; I was aware of the grief that bonded them. His sister was on the eve of her sixteenth birthday when a state trooper knocked on the door in the middle of the night to report their older brother was killed in a car accident. Christian was ten.
Adult Christian was six foot two, his lankiness bordering on gaunt with a long face framed by straight brown hair that he wore in a ponytail. We had never met, yet we clicked right away over our passion for walking in the woods and making campfires. When I asked him about the Missouri wilderness, his eyes smiled. He described how clear the rivers were because of their limestone bedrock, said he always carried his axe and hammock in the truck, built a campfire and slept out in the woods every chance he got.
Christian held up a deck of cards, asked if I played gin rummy.
“No,” I said. “What does it involve?”
“Part luck and part strategy,” he said.
I woke up thinking about rummy when his sister texted the next morning. Christian was making dinner and to come at seven. He served us pork tenderloin stuffed with goat cheese and herbs roasted in a cherry reduction—a meal that silenced us, his sister recalls. Afterward, we cleared the table. Christian broke out the cards.
Two nights later, Christian stood at my kitchen stove with a tea towel slung over his shoulder, stirred Alfredo sauce and told me he was at summer camp when his brother died. Christian was playing in a field with scores of kids when he saw the camp director approach from a distance and thought, she is coming for me. When the camp director asked Christian to follow her, an image of his brother flashed through Christian’s mind and he knew—his brother was dead.
Christian’s sister joined us for dinner; afterward, we sat around a campfire in my back yard and played rummy. Christian’s sister was flying out of town in the morning, would be gone five days, so she bid us good night. Christian stayed.
He told me about the ex-girlfriend’s son back in Missouri and how he taught the boy to chop wood with an axe and build a campfire, tie a lure to a fishing pole and use a knife. Said his one regret was leaving that boy behind.
“Are you kidding me? He’s going to remember those times with you his whole life. He’s going to love you forever,” I said.
Christian reached for a log and set it on the fire. I slapped another round of cards on the bench between us, and Christian talked about wild pigs and what good eating they were. I imagined him and I going deer hunting in the fall.
“What kind of gun do you have?” I said. The question startled him.
“Oh no, I don’t have a gun,” He leaned back from the fire and looked at me.
I shrugged and dealt the next hand. We drank and listened to the crackle of the fire. At two in the morning, I held up the cards. “One more round?”
Christian regarded me for a long moment.
“I have to go now,” he said.
Disappointed, I walked him out through the garage to his GMC, parked in the driveway.
“Man, I love your truck.”
“Me too. My whole life is in it,” he said.
From the kitchen window, I watched him back out of the driveway, thinking he might wave goodbye, yet his eyes were fixed on the road as he drove away.
A week later, I woke in the middle of the night startled—then I heard the pounding on the front door, my dog barking. When I peered through the venetian blind, a car was at the curb with lettering on the side: OREGON STATE POLICE.
The trooper said Christian’s sister was asking for me, that I was to come with him. When I pressed the trooper, he admitted it was regarding her brother. As I closed the front door to get dressed, I knew—Christian was dead.
His body was found in the GMC on a secluded beach south of Tillamook. Christian’s remains would be cremated, but his sister and I drove to the coast, retrieved his clothing from the funeral home and then walked the empty beach where he was found. On the wet sand, I toed remnants of a campfire made from busted pieces of a pallet. Christian’s fire, I was certain.
The tow truck driver brought the GMC back to his farm and parked it in the loafing shed out of the rain. His sister looked stricken, so I approached the driver side of the truck and looked in through the open window. Stale beer was sloshed in the center console. On the floormat, a road atlas and fast-food wrappers, soaked from rain blowing in. Christian’s blue sleeping bag and the hammock laid on the rear bench seat. In the truck bed, crushed cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, his axe and chunks of a wood pallet that matched the pieces I found on the beach. The tow truck driver handed me the keys.
At the state patrol office, the responding officer said that Christian had brought an old Russian revolver from Missouri, the information confirmed by friends back home. Christian’s sister turned to me.
“He knew what he was doing the whole time,” she said.
His regret about leaving that boy behind–the strange oh no, I don’t have a gun—left me wondering if there was something I could have done differently? Was I supposed to have stopped him?
Christian’s ashes were returned in a black plastic box with a white label, his name typed on it. It was me that took Christian’s ashes, buckled into the passenger seat of the GMC, and drove him to Denver to meet his parents, flying in from St. Louis.
Before I left Oregon, I detailed the truck. Cleaned up all the beer mess, vacuumed up the sand, took items in the console—a couple writing pens, a lighter, a Best Western key card, some CDs—washed and returned them. Over the passenger seat, I slung his Levi coat with the fake sheepskin lining and tucked his baseball cap in the corner of the dash.
It felt good to be out on the road with Christian. I blazed through Eastern Oregon and crossed the Snake River into Idaho like there was no end to the places he and I would go, until I looked at that box on the seat. Then I saw his lanky frame in the doorway of his sister’s house, watched him shuffle the cards, felt the jolt of waking in the middle of the night, my dog barking, a state trooper on my doorstep, the remnants of a campfire on wet sand.
What brought us together? I could not say.
I believe the grief of that night his brother died had taken its toll, but it was apparent to me that Christian also found a lot of beauty in this world and there I found purpose in our brief fellowship. For it seemed my job was not to stop him, but to receive him with love, savor the pork tenderloin stuffed with goat cheese. Play gin rummy, sit by the fireside and share stories about time spent in the woods and send him off with the reassurance that he was going to be loved forever.
North of Salt Lake City, I pulled into a mini mart, grabbed a cup of coffee and refueled. Back on the interstate, I listened to a CD Christian had in the deck, as the road wound through Weber Canyon. Out the passenger window, a yellow and black Union Pacific freight train emerged from the mountainside, splendid in the winter sunlight, and traveled parallel to the GMC for some miles.
From the moment we met, Christian knew our time together was careening toward its end, yet I felt nothing but love for the man.
The train pulled away, like Christian, and disappeared forever.
With map and compass in hand, Laura Stride has explored the mountains and forests of her native Pacific Northwest and beyond. She recently completed a memoir that illuminates the ways in which wilderness travel has informed her journey across the unknown terrain of love and sexual identity, grief and mortality. Laura lives between Portland, Oregon and Helena, Montana.