“Grow a tree for ten years; grow men for a hundred”
Light brown to dark brown. My last living memory. The rain drops splashing to rest on the freshly patched up spot on the hill. Ever increasing, the water seeping down into the soil, down to the seed, the final seed. The water washing the dirt from my hands. The water washing me away.
I won’t live to see this seedling through.
At eighty seven years old, I die now, knowing that I have perpetuated the beauty. I die now, knowing the seeds have all been sown.
“Welcome to Crestfield Camping and Recreation! The place where Mother Nature lays her head!”
Unbelievable. This overly excitable girl behind the counter could easily be a carbon copy of the girl that was behind the counter back then. The girl who cooed at me, all bright eyed like some cartoon animal. Why is it that places like this always have to hire the same people. The same overly cheerful girl at the desk. The too-tanned guy in the khaki shorts with his defined calves and two day old beard who’s only job seems to be to wander aimlessly through the woods annoying picnickers with inane facts about grizzly bears. The overweight fellow in the merchandise booth, who’s only exercise is lifting his chubby arms up to point out which kayak is the one being rented out. Any one of these people could have time-warped from my childhood visits here. Every one of them is just as hard to deal with now as they were back then.
“I’m looking for the Grayson Ridge Trail?”
“Grayson Ridge? Um… I’m not sure you have the right park.”
“Oh, you might not be sure. I am sure.”
“Well, I’m sorry but I’ve never heard of it.”
Funny how a sunny disposition and a bright smile can quickly and efficiently be verbally smacked off someone’s face. Funny how being difficult can get things done, too. Because Miss Sunshine has turned to the call radio behind her and began the process of passing me off to someone else.
“Yeah, Rick, I got a guy here looking for Grayson Ridge…”, The assumption is that Rick is Captain Calves, “That’s not on our map, so it’s not here, right? Oh, I see, it’s closed down? Alright, what do you want me to do then? Are you sure? Alright, I’ll send him your way.”
Oh please don’t…
“Well, Rick says that the Grayson Ridge Trail has been closed for at least ten years now, something about bears…”
Isn’t it always about bears.
“…but he’d be more than happy to answer your questions about it. He’s right outside in the parking lot.”
I’m sure he’d be more than happy to answer my questions. I’m sure he’d be more than happy to answer them with answers that are entirely too wordy and go far beyond what was asked. I’m sure the word “bear” will come up about seventy two times in this conversation.
Squinting against the sudden shock of walking out of the dimly lit fake-log cabin reception area and into the heavy midday summer air, I’m quickly, too quickly, greeted by Captain Calves. The over-eager beaver smile planted on his face almost hurts my eyes more than the sun.
“Hey there, camper!”
This isn’t going well already.
“Grayson Ridge, huh? Wow, haven’t heard that name in years! My father used to talk about it all the time. Said it was a huge hit back in the 90’s. Had to be shut down because…”
“Go figure. I never had the pleasure of being mauled by a bear back when I used to walk that trail. But I guess that doesn’t rule it out.”
You know that “someone farted” frown that hits someone’s face after they hear something unpleasant? That moment when the corners of their mouth drop like dead birds from the sky. Captain Calves has one wicked “someone farted” frown now. What have I done?
“Well, it’s more for the protection of the bears than the people. We don’t have violent bears here at Crestfield. They found out later that the path was cutting into an area that housed a lot of bears and it was disrupting…”
I’m sure what he’s saying is fascinating. Really. But my mind, and eyes, have wandered to the cute girl that just walked out of the “Forest Birds Museum” across the lot. Perhaps it’s not the beauty as much as the familiarity. I quickly shake off the thought and glance back at Captain Calves, his mouth moving almost inhumanely. Like some kind of ventriloquist puppet. I half expected his lower jaw to plop right off onto the searing hot asphalt below.
“…and the bears were having issues finding food…”
Wait! Now I know why I recognize that girl!
“Kat! Hey, Kat!” This is the first time my tone has raised past total indifference since I got here. “Kat!”
The girl glances over at me. It is her.
“…the bears… what, oh… uh, sir…”
No time, Captain Calves, I have more important fish to fry. Or feed to bears as the case may be.
“No way! Carter?! Carter Mason? Is that really you?!”
If I could describe Kat’s smile to you, it wouldn’t be as wonderful as it is. It’s a sight I haven’t seen since we were both about fifteen. Both of us dragged here by our respective parents for fun in the great outdoors. Both of us completely enthralled by it. That last part was sarcasm.
How did Kat put it back then? “Great my ass!”
“Well well, Miss Kitten, what drags you back here? Last I checked, you’d rather be dropped toe first into a vat of boiling oil than come back here.”
“Bah, what makes you say that?”
“I do believe your exact words were ‘I’d rather be dropped toe first into a vat of boiling oil than come back here’.”
“Oh, right. Well, just so happens I came back to, um, find something. What about you?”
“Actually, I’m here to find something too…”
What memories define your youth? What things can you close your eyes and still see vividly in the pitch blackness inside yourself? The biggest memory that I’ve always carried with me? A tree. Not an average tree by any means. A golden tree.
I remember me and Kat playing by it as kids. The tree was our “secret place”. Our getaway from obnoxious campfire songs and splashing around in the smelly lake while our parents slather us with sunblock. The tree was the only thing worth going to Crestfield.
Never in my life have I ever seen another tree like it. Even now I can’t tell you what kind of tree it is. At first, I’d spend hours at the library flipping through tree books looking through all the pictures for the big tree with the golden blossoms. Afternoons whittled away sitting in my cubicle Googling and Wikipedia scanning. I even consulted several tree experts. Tree experts!
But no one could identify that tree.
I finally gave up, about six months ago, and decided it was time I just went to find it myself. Something about that tree had called to me my whole life. Ever since our last trip to Crestfield. It was always there, illuminating the back of my mind with it’s oddly glowing flowers.
Something inside me told me I had to find that tree.
“No way, you too?!”
Kat’s glistening, deep eyes widened. That soul melting smile returned again. The crumpling of her cheeks, straining to contain it.
“I’m here to find that tree too! My whole life it’s all I’ve been able to think about.”
“Then we find it together! It’s only appropriate since it was our tree.”
“Right, to Grayson Ridge it is then.”
“You can’t head to Grayson Ridge! There are still bears…”
Captain Calves? Really, again with the bears. Not interested, buddy. I have a beautiful girl and a beautiful tree to look after. Why don’t you go get checked for sun cancer you golden-brown freak.
“This is it, Grayson Ridge. Or Rayon Ri, as the sign says.”
I turn the old white-lettered wooden sign over and over in my hands, the letters mostly warn away by age and no upkeep. I’m surprised to hear Kat’s laugh from behind me. The same laugh from when we used to talk about how ridiculous our dad’s looked as they attempted to assemble tents or start fires.
We walked in silence for the next few minutes, surprisingly close together. The path practically walking itself. Despite the dilapidated state it was in, the path remained clear in our minds. Every few steps we’d have to point at something else, the other nodding in remembrance. The boat launch into Cascade Lake where we used to push each other in. A rope that once held a Goodyear tire swing. That weird rock we’d draw inappropriate pictures on with chalk. Everything felt the same as it did back then. But something was off. When we reached the climax of our trip. Something was horribly off.
“Oh no… they couldn’t have…”
Kat sank back against a nearby tree, her eyes instantly watering up. I followed her depression-inducing gaze. When I finally realized what she was looking at, I could feel my heart sink.
“It’s… it’s gone! How could they!”
She was right. How could they? Such a perfect tree, and they just come in and chop it down?
“Hey, what are you two doing back here!”
The booming voice startled us out of our shock. We both turned at the same time to witness a man come stumbling down a nearby embankment. He was every cabin dweller you have ever seen. Big bushy beard, plaid flannel shirt. All that.
“Sorry, we… we came to see this tree but… it’s gone.”
“Ah yeah, that tree was cut down years ago. Shame too, ‘twas beautiful.”
“Why did they cut it down?”
“Well, the man keeping watch over it had to leave. And as soon as he stopped tending to it, the tree started to wilt away.”
“The man keeping watch… of course! Old man Bilson!”
How could I forget the old man. He was always stopping by, checking the tree for damage, picking off the dead flowers, picking up seeds that dropped from them onto the ground.
“Right. Bilson. That was his name. Yeah, ever since he got sick, the tree was never the same.”
Unfortunate seemed to be the only way I could put it. That tree was my fortune, and it was gone. Unfortunate.
“I don’t suppose you know what kind of tree it was?”
Kat must have been thinking along the same lines I was. If we could at least learn about the tree, maybe we could find another one. Or at least information on them.
“Sorry, I don’t recall it’s name. However, Old Man Bilson would probably know.”
“What? He’s alive?! He has to be…”
“He’s coming up on eighty seven years old, I believe. He’s been fighting off that damn cancer for years and years, but it just won’t take ‘em. Tough son of a bitch. Real nice guy though. Lives in a cabin just a mile or so down the path. He always welcomes visitors, if you wanted to ask him yourself.”
“Thank you, we just might do that.”
The old man indeed did welcome us into his home. Not only that, but he actually seemed to remember us. A smile crawled onto his wrinkled, gray face. The cancer reducing him to skin draped over bones. His eyes sunked deep into his head. Almost skeletal in nature, he still seemed to maintain his warmness.
“You kids and that tree… I tell ya, I ain’t never seen no one as blessed by the Euphoria Blossoms as you two were. If that ain’t somethin’ else…”
“Euphoria Blossoms? Is that what those flowers were called?”
“Oh yes, the Euphoria Blossoms are quite a thing o’ beauty. Legend states that the flowers have the power to actually alter your mood. Even the gloomiest of folk can’t help but fall under their spell. A blissfulness unlike any other. That’s why they have been planted all over the world.”
Kat, who before couldn’t bare to look at the dying old man, immediately bounced upright and looked into his eyes. “You mean there is more?!”
“Of course, young lady. Plenty. I know, I planted them.”
“You planted them? Why?”
“Why else, my boy, but to spread peace and happiness. To spread beauty. That’s my purpose in this world. To plant the seeds to the Euphoria Blossoms in the soil, and bring forth a new generation of warmth.”
“But now… you can’t anymore.”
For the first time, the old man looked sad. His already vacant eyes seemed to retreat even further into the folds of his face.
“That’s… right. I had only twenty more seeds to plant before they were all ready. But I got sick and couldn’t finish the task that was handed to me…”
“Handed to you?”
“Eighty seven seeds. That was how many were supposed to be planted at any time, or at least that’s what I was told when I was a kid.”
“Why eighty seven?” Kat beat me to the question.
“Couldn’t tell ya. All I know is the life cycle of one Euphoria Blossom is said to be eighty seven years. I’d be willin’ to bet that’s why I’m on death’s door step myself.
“What do you mean?”
“Tomorrow is my eighty seventh birthday, you see. And I bet you that I don’t see the end of it. I’m just too sick. Too tired. And to think, I couldn’t find the right place to plant the rest of the seeds…”
“The right place?”
“You can’t just go throwin’ those around all willy-nilly. I had to find the places that felt right. The places that needed their gift.”
I did understand. That tree was special, and it needed to be placed away from where it would be harmed. Put in places of true tranquility and peace. Those other seeds needed to be planted. I needed to plant them.
“What if we…”
“…planted them for you.”
For a moment, me and Kat locked eyes. She seemed to be thinking the same thing as I was, which wasn’t surprising at this point. We were both touched by the Euphoria Blossoms, and we both knew what had to be done.
“Would you… would you kids really do that?”
“Of course, we owe a lot to that tree. The happiness it brought, the power of it’s memories. The bad times in my life…”
“Mine too. The memory of that bliss brought us through all of it. It wouldn’t be fair not to put that back into the world.”
“Then please. Take the seeds. They’re in a box, buried by the stump in the woods. Search out places that need the gift of the Euphoria Blossoms. And plant them in the soil. After the last ones are planted, the trees will begin to grow, and then… then…”
I’ve never seen someone die before. But I couldn’t imagine anyone could go more peaceful than Old Man Bilson.
At eighty seven years old, I die now, knowing that I have perpetuated the beauty. I die now, knowing the seeds have all been sown.
Laying down in the grass, next to my beloved wife of over sixty years, Kat, the two of us hand in hand, I watch as one small seedling pushes it’s way into our world. The new beginnings of the Euphoria Blossoms. Turning to see her crystal eyes once more, to see the smile that carried with it the warmth of the blossoms themselves, I let the familiar light wash over me. The bliss of the blossoms already returning to this world. To us.
And with my final breath, the cycle begins again.