25 Feb

From the Swamp (part 1)

Don’t be surprised if you’re ever on the interstate west of Spokane and the road kill still looks alive. Here, where the urban sprawl gives way to tall pine forests and then to high, treeless plains, things don’t die easily – despite the open skies, the lack of obstructions, the frequency of collisions. Exit at Fishtrap Lake and beyond the still-snarling dead possums on the roadside you’ll see the landscape turn strange. Unlikely mounds of rock covered in wispy grass, small abrupt hills that seem drawn by children, a crooked tree here and there, winding roads – it’s like something from a Dr. Seuss story. A perfect setting for a murder.

There’s no way, of course, that Chris Vance could have known what would happen once he headed off the highway toward the campground at Fishtrap. Though he’d claim later that he’d had a bad feeling about the place, the truth is he had no such premonition. But he did have an argument with his passenger and friend, Mike Wallace (yes, Mike Wallace), which soured the entire evening. Chris wanted to stop for the night; Mike wanted to push through to their destination – Hood River, Oregon – where the two would spend ten days windsurfing.

It began with playful college-boy goading, but when Mike finally said, “God, you’re always pussin’ out,” the awkward silence that followed confirmed that he meant it.

“Fuck you,” Chris said, spotting a sign for a campground and pulling on to the off ramp.

It was Mike’s turn to pay, and his mood was improved when he discovered how cheap the place was — well below the price of your typical KOA or other side-of-the-highway campsite. As he gave the gregarious, gray-haired campground owner twelve dollars, he felt like he was getting some revenge for Chris’s pigheadedness. They only had four and a half hours left to Hood River. It was ridiculous that they were stopping now, at nine o’clock.

Outside the office, Chris was standing at the edge of a small inlet, examining the labyrinth of docks and small fishing boats. The inlet was flanked on one side by a 20-foot cliff; a red and white hand-painted sign warned that cliffjumping was prohibited. The sun had set recently, leaving a still-blue sky, but robbing the world of shadows. Mike stood by his companion, saying not a word, but following Chris’s gaze to a spot on the surface of the shallows where bubbles were rising like boiling water.

They said nothing to each other, despite being faced with this blatant curiosity. Was it a bullfrog? A spring? A swamp creature awaiting the hour when the campfires went dim?

“We’re at site thirteen,” Mike said. Behind him, a floodlight turned on, illuminating Chris’s squinting face.

They got in the car and drove 30 feet to site thirteen, where they wordlessly set up the tent and unpacked their sleeping bags. Chris crawled into bed first and listened to the quiet chatter of campers across the grounds, the snapping of twigs in fires, and what he thought sounded like waves lapping the shore, the origin of which was as mysterious to him as an easy friendship.