This "forest" has always had special meaning to me. I say that in quotes because it's not really a forest per se; it was planted here about a century ago, and it only covers a few acres. You can tell by the uniformity in size and the perfect spacing between the trees. Aptly named "the Parallel Forest", it's a sight that's hard to find anywhere else, and one that's certainly unique to this National Wildlife Refuge.
Most people come here for the mountains. Very few know about our special forest. There's no sign to mark the spot, only an easy-to-miss gravel parking area. But I like that. Ever since my Sophomore year, I've felt like this forest unofficially belongs to us. When I'm not on duty, this is where I go at the end of the day to relax. It's my favorite part of the whole million-acre park, and I'm not even quite sure why. It's not what the average person would consider beautiful and breathtaking, like the view from the summit of Elk Mountain or Mt. Scott. And why I keep torturing myself by coming here I don't know.
The peppery scent of ancient cedar. Could that be it? Or maybe it's the way the shards of gold sunlight contrast with the dimness of shadows, making the ground look like a loosely-woven afghan when the air is still. Or maybe it's how that afghan changes to a sea of flickering campfires every time this brisk, late-winter wind picks up. Some say the place is haunted; maybe that explains part of why human traffic here is so little. Oh, it's haunted in a way I suppose. Maybe there are ghosts of workers from long ago who planted these trees. I get much more of a nostalgic feeling when I'm here than a haunted one. A sad kind of nostalgic feeling. A feeling like I want to go back in time to when these woods were our hideaway. When we could meet here after school to unwind with the whole place to ourselves.
I didn't become a ranger here just so I could patrol this little corner I hold sacred on a daily basis. I've always had a deep reverence for nature. Geoy (His real name was George, but I nicknamed him "Joey" and somehow "Geoy" stuck) used to bring me here for that very reason. On duty or not, I'm rather defensive when it comes to our little corner. Most people that visit the Refuge are just normal folks wanting to get away from it all. Some come from the city, some are soldiers from the nearby military base. Once in a while, however, you do catch someone up to no good here - imbibing alcohol, vandalizing, dealing dope, whatever - and it's part of my job to confront them. I don't enjoy it, but I can get very tough when need be.
Several steps into the woods, I find myself lost in the magic already. A cannon boom from a few miles away provides a beat to this meditative excursion that I've always enjoyed. Otherwise, uncanny silence. Like you've entered a portal into a land where time stands still. Sometimes, on an especially lucky day, you might see an eagle soaring high above the treetops; or happen upon a family of deer sitting around in the shade, loving this hideaway as much as you. A stray prairie dog isn't unheard of (or a copperhead; you do have to watch your step here, just like with anywhere else in nature). But with the exception of the cannons and the sound of distant jabs in the dirt, all is quiet today.
I'm beginning to feel uneasy now. I was hoping to strike up a friendly conversation with whoever this visitor in the green pickup is, but now I don't know. The park will be closing to all activities - save driving through on the highway - soon. I'll give a polite reminder about that, but from the sounds I keep hearing, this guy seems to be on a full-blown mission. I ease up from behind, crossing fingers in hopes that the cushion of cedar needles coating the ground is enough to stifle the sound of my steps.
The unease graduates into anger. Territorial instinct raises my pulse. No one dares defile our special spot! The one we carefully picked out thirty years ago! The one where Geoy worked so hard to...dig.
Thirty years ago. They always say time flies, but does it really? No. Not when you've spent every one of those years wishing you could erase this mistake. He's never forgiven me, and I don't blame him. We had it all planned out. Our years in college would give us all the time we needed to think about the wedding as we prepped ourselves for the real world. Then, our high school graduation caps had barely the time to land on the turf of the football field when he overheard it. At the party, while casually talking to some friends, my exact words: "He may be no Tom Cruise, but he's my Geoy and I don't care." I didn't mean for it to be taken as an insult. I wasn't implying that he's ugly, it's just...being a typical silly girl at the time, I had a crush on Tom Cruise. That's all.
The sun casts an orange sorbet hue - just like it always has this time of evening - over the grassy clearing beyond the final row of cedars. This was where we buried it. Three days before graduation. Three days before we broke up. I'm staring at the back of this vagrant's sweatshirt hood and contemplating jerking the shovel out of his hands. "Find another place to do your geocaching!" I work up in my lungs to yell. But I calm myself down.
"Good evening! What are you up to out here?" I make sure to straighten my ranger hat as always when I find myself in a confrontation.
"I..uh...was just..." What must be a skyward stare of pondering follows. Then the hood lowers. And he turns around. That's when it hits me what year this is. I gasp, and I feel my face light up. He already knows this voice. I already know that cute, soft, hesitant voice of his. He hasn't changed a bit - aside from a slight hint of silvery gray now adding a pinch of elegance to all his handsome features. I, on the other hand, have changed. I never was much to look at, but now I'm twenty pounds heavier and I know this formidable outfit can't be helping anything. But one thing about my Geoy: He always saw people from the inside.
"Cassie!" It's a smile. He hasn't forgotten my name, at least. But I sincerely hope he has forgotten...
"Well imagine that!" he declares. "I didn't even have to hunt you down; you remembered!"
Yes, I remember. Our crude "time capsule". As he hugs the tall, dirt-caked mason jar, I hug him. Thirty years ago, before the breakup, we vowed to return to our hideaway this year. My lips quiver as I hear the rusty lid loosen with an age-toned crackle. He holds the jar out to me in the manner of presenting a gift, complimenting the gesture with a very Geoy-like gentleman's bow. A fighter jet rumbles past the marbled face of a young full moon up above. Down below, a cricket here and there begins to bring our forest to life.
Geoy's lips quiver as well. As I slip his nostalgic class ring back over my finger, I laugh and we cry. "Well imagine that!" I say. "It fits now."