What Cannot Be Carried Alone
It was phrasing like polar vortex that whipped folks into hysteria. The media seemed to get a kick out of how that sensationalism shortened fuses on people already running for their lives. Just those few words sent everyone in Jackson County racing for milk and bread, a meal that made no goddamn sense at all.
When I was growing up, you just got by, and when you didn’t have, you made do. This new generation would break into fistfights for a loaf of Bunny bread and a gallon of two percent. So when my wife, Judy, called and asked if there was anything I wanted her to pick up at the store, I just told her to grab a case of whatever beer was cheapest and let the crazies have the rest. I wouldn’t be home anyhow.
Aside from four years of college studying philosophy down east—a pursuit that never made sense to anyone I’d grown up with—every minute of my life had been spent on this mountain. Turned out the folks who thought I was foolish for leaving were probably right. I wound up back where I’d started, running a front-end loader and volunteering on the rescue squad just like every boy I grew up with. At fifty years old, there sure as hell wasn’t much chance of what little I remembered about Nietzsche doing much good now.
I was probably worse off because I thought too much. I lost sleep over shit other folks never batted an eye at. What I did know was that fancy words for winter storms didn’t make much of a difference when it came to hunting a body. Weather was comprised of varying degrees of hot and cold, wet and dry, calm and wind, those three sets blending to make whatever the day would bring. Old timers watched how the fat rose and sank in a mason jar of bear meat to make their predictions, and I guess I trusted that as much as anything else. Whatever a man put his faith in didn’t much matter at this point any way. It was cold, wet, and the wind was running like a striped-ass ape.
In the old days, there’d always been enough men to stand ten or twelve feet apart and walk straight lines in unison to comb a hillside, but that wasn’t the case anymore. As years passed, most of the men I’d grown up admiring found their place in the ground, and with all of the things kids had nowadays—iPhones and Facebooks—the new generation wasn’t exactly lining up to wander the woods when it was eight degrees and snapping pines. So I took Laurel Knob because that was the place I knew best and Charlie Stewart took Turkey Branch and Jeremy Aiken headed into Panthertown and Ted Kinsey was more likely passed out drunk in his pickup truck than searching for the missing boy.
I say boy because that’s what everyone else kept calling him, but when I was seventeen I sure as hell wasn’t coddled. I was cutting pulpwood with men who typically had one or two fingers missing, one man whose broken arm bone stabbed through his work shirt and didn’t go to the doctor until after he’d finished his load. So I’m sorry if I sound short, but the fact that some group out of Atlanta brought a bunch of “high-risk teens” camping to help them get over depression and anxiety and low self-esteem just didn’t sit well with me. The fact that this boy got pissed at a counselor and ran off in the woods, and there I was at eleven o’clock at night freezing to death while the snow piled up, made about as much sense as a philosophy degree.
Austin Cox had been missing for three days and that’s why I say that I was searching for a body. He could have just as easily hitched a ride and been laid up in some motel room in Atlanta with friends getting goony on those new fangled drugs we keep pumping out of kids stomachs, but if he was anywhere in the woods I searched, he was a body, and so that’s what I was looking for.
I didn’t say that when the boy’s mother and grandmother drove up from Atlanta to meet with us earlier that afternoon. Then again, I didn’t say much of anything. The two women did most of the talking and from the way it sounded they were awfully skeptical whether or not any of us knew what the hell we were doing. Charlie Stewart told them they were more than welcome to call in anyone they thought could help, but the reality was that no one knew these mountains better than the men sitting before them and all of the resources available had already been called.
Maybe that’s why they looked at us like all the other outsiders do when they come here, like all of us mountain people did a fine job in Deliverance but best step aside now that they’d brought big city brains to the holler.
For two days, personnel from the Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Forest Service, Emergency Management, and the Cashiers Fire Department had aided us on the ground. Yesterday, a state Highway Patrol helicopter even used thermal imaging, but they’d exhausted their search and left us to finish and maybe that’s what made the two women so angry. Maybe that’s why they looked at us like all the other outsiders do when they come here, like all of us mountain people did a fine job in Deliverance but best step aside now that they’d brought big city brains to the holler.
It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut when she called Charlie Stewart an inbred hick. It was all I could do not to tell that woman that judging by the pictures of her son, she and her husband had either strapped boards to the boy’s head when his skull was taking shape or more likely she and her old man were blood kin. But Charlie kept calm and told her we were doing everything we could to help her. He told her that with the temperature falling and the storm moving in, we’d even search into the night, something we never did for anyone, not even our own. He held the grandmother against his chest as she cried. He chose, like we’d been taught, to take the high road, to not let his heart take control of his head. He chose to be a man about it, and so I stood there silently beside him and did the same.
The eight-hour battery in the flashlight was almost dead and, though I had a full charge in my backpack, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Snow blew sideways through the yellow glow of the flashlight’s beam, ten inches had already fallen, and it was knee-deep in the drifts. If I’d turned back that second, I would have been lucky to made it to the truck by midnight, but I wasn’t quite ready to turn back. It wouldn’t have been long before I had to, but the grove of laurel pressing against the rock face ahead was the closest thing there’d been to shelter. Any person with half a brain trying to escape the cold would make their way toward whatever looked like shelter, so it was best to at least check before turning back.
The laurel leaves were rolled up like cigarettes with the thick tangle of branches holding the snow off like a roof. In places where time allowed the laurel to grow, it was hard to decide whether the plant was a shrub or a tree. The curled spoonwood never reached heights more than twenty or thirty feet high, and probably topped out at fifteen or so here. The grove had grown against the bluff in a way that created a barrel of open space webbed with twisted trunks, the space similar in height and width to a singlewide trailer stretching both directions until rock faded back to hillside and the laurel gnarled back into a maze. It was no wonder everything from turkey to deer made beds in that place. It was no wonder that’s where I found him.
Austin Cox was curled like he might’ve frozen solid in midair cannonballing into a swimming hole. He lay on his side facing me, his expression no more in pain than if he had simply fallen asleep. Just like the folks said, he wore a red long-sleeve fleece, black pants, and gray boots with a backpack. Just like I’d thought, he was a body.
There was no sense cueing the handheld that far into the valley. The odds of hitting the beacon on Yellow Mountain from there were about as good as me dragging the boy out myself. If I were lucky, the radio in the truck would work to send word, but it was just as likely the battery in my pickup would be frozen solid and I’d have to walk out. I sat down beside him and took off my gloves, my fingers red and stinging as I shoved one hand into my pocket for a pack of smokes. A fireman’s hood had kept my face from freezing, and I pulled it down and let it hold under my chin to smoke a cigarette. There was no visible difference whether I was blowing air or smoke, just huffs of breath swirling upward before catching the wind.
A GPS unit in my pocket would give me the exact coordinates of where Austin Cox had frozen to death, but I knew I could find my way without degrees of longitude and latitude, without some satellite telling me where I was. We’d always marked our place with mountains and hillsides, navigated those woods by creek beds and stars. None of that made much sense to people anymore, especially not when it was as easy as pushing a button. But, nevertheless, we’d found our way before and I would find my way again.
You could call it whatever you wanted but the world right then was cold and wet and windy. You could say it however you’d like, but the boy was dead. Those were the absolute facts of it and there was no sense getting in any sort of hurry. In those ways, the world was exactly the same now as it had always been. Some ran off to study philosophy and some ran off and froze. To believe in a time when it was different was simply some disillusioned nostalgia. To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. I finished my cigarette, pulled the gloves back onto my hands, and headed out the way I’d come. There was still an entire night of darkness before sunrise, and it very well might be morning before I made it back to get him.
David Joy is the author of the novel Where All Light Tends to Go (Putnam, 2015), as well as the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman's Journey (Bright Mountain Books, 2011), which was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award and the Ragan Old North State Award for Creative Nonfiction. He is currently finishing a second novel for Putnam with a release scheduled in 2016. Joy lives in Webster, North Carolina.