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On the Murder Line
San Quentin Prison is located eight hours south of the Siskiyou Forest. There is one bus route that travels through this wilderness, into the dead space between Eureka and Yreka. The locals call it the Murder Line. Recently released convicts, prison escapees and drifters hop on this line and vanish into the forest.
One blue-skied summer day, four teenage girls in tank tops and cutoff jeans hopped on the eleven thirty bus from Happy Camp, headed north. One was never seen again.
The road to your parents' ranch coils up from Eureka, a port city in Northern California. You warned me that the road was winding, but I didn't expect the way it bends and twists, collapsing in and out like an accordion, offering one lonely vista. Spin. Offering another. The mountains above, crowded with trees. The snaking river. The falling rocks on the flexing road. My mind flexes with it, in and out, in and out. And then another bend in the road.
Trucks start to stack up behind me, and I search frantically for a place to pull over. A pale sliver of a turnout appears, on the edge of the cliff above the river. I glance at the line of cars behind me. I jerk the wheel, and my car drops off the road, juddering on the dirt. My hands are sticky with sweat. My heart pulses.
I stop the car, yank up the parking brake. I flinch as I envision the brake snapping, the inevitable slide to the river below. Even on flat ground, I picture the land giving way. And I race headlong into the river. I know about the Klamath River from Episode 15: a muddy brown color; Episode 43: so strong that when people drown, their bodies are swept all the way to the ocean. My body will wash up along the shore, hundreds of miles away from here.
I wait for my heart to stop racing, give up and check the parking brake again.
I stick one white, chalky, Dramamine between my teeth. In Episode 13, you said you took two Dramamine a day just to get to and from high school. But still you got dizzy; you still felt sick. Eventually, you said, I realized it wasn't worth leaving the ranch.
Fountain Creek Guest Ranch, the place you grew up. They offer fishing, horseback riding, breathtaking vistas, but most of all, they offer isolation. You grew up in a place where no one else lived.
Episode 18: I could hear myself think, which wasn't always a good thing.
Episode 34: I will never not know what it's like to enjoy my own company.
Your life was idyllic, until a local girl-a girl just like you-disappeared.
Episode 1: When bad things happen in a small town-I don't mean to say it's worse. I don't mean to diminish anyone's experience. But there were twenty-three kids in my entire school. And then there were twenty-two.
Nothing truly bad has ever happened to me, and I envy you this, a clear reason: my life changed when, things fell apart when. I break a sweat and think it must be my fault.
You became fascinated, first by her disappearance, and then by the disappearances of others: local, national, global. You researched, you became a part of the true-crime community and then you started your own podcast. You wanted to make a difference. You wanted to save someone. You wanted to save everyone.
Episode 14: When I think someone somewhere might hear this . . . when I think anyone anywhere can access it . . . Yes, I don't have the audience of Dateline or even My Favorite Murder, but the thing about a podcast is, anyone anywhere can listen. And maybe you will be the one to find someone who is missing. Maybe you hold the key to the evidence that will solve a murder. Maybe I can be the reason someone is saved.
You broadcast from your house on your parents' land: a yellow house with a red roof drawn in lines so idealized, it could be a Disneyland attraction.
I found the ranch website online. It bragged that it was a "family-run business." I saw your picture, you for the first time, and you looked exactly like I thought you would. You looked like me.
Below me the Klamath River is fast and brown. Above me the mountains are piled with trees. From Episode 1, I know that they are firs, pines, oaks, maples, madrones, spruce and manzanitas. I recognize this world from your pictures, but I am not prepared for the sheer majesty of it, the car-commercial, Reese Witherspoon-in-Wild, Instagram-is-not-enough expanse. I've never been anywhere like this. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't even know it existed.
I think, oddly, how excited you would be, if you were here with me, diving into your own disappearance, solving your own mystery. I take a deep breath, and I plug in my phone and press play. Your voice fills my car, gravelly but discreet, breathing mystery.
I release the parking brake, start the engine and pull back onto the road. I pass a strip of highway dedicated to Dear Mad'm, and I remember you told me her story (Episode 19). Dear Mad'm was an eighty-year-old woman who moved to a primitive cabin on the Klamath in the nineteen fifties to garden, hide from cougars and write a book. She decided her life wasn't over, but to do that, she had to leave behind the world that told her it was. She had to come here.
I am sailing, inspired, when the road curves and I don't slow fast enough and the car slides and my stomach lurches. And suddenly I'm absolutely sure I am wrong about everything.
You're not missing; you just logged off. I will arrive at your yellow house and find you there, and I will say, Hey, I was just in the area, longtime listener. And you will stumble backward, afraid. And when your next episode goes out you will say:
This morning my psycho stalker showed up at my house, as if she was in the neighborhood. I think she wants to kill me. If something happens to me, her name is Sera Fleece (pronounced "Fleas").
She is your typical loser/burnout. You know the type. She thought that in life, if she hit certain markers, made the right achievements, her life would pedal itself, would speed off so she could just relax, satisfied, achieved. But instead it kept asking her to drive it; it kept sputtering, breaking down, falling apart. She dropped out of college when she got married. Then she was pregnant; then she wasn't. Her husband left. And she had to start over again. So she got a job but it didn't pay enough. She found another guy but he didn't love her enough. So she got another job that paid less, an apartment that charged more. She found a guy who loved her less, and another one who loved her even less after that. Every year was less, so she cared less and less.
And then she stopped caring completely. And then she came looking for me.
My hands are shaking as I pull into another turnout. It's like you can hear my thoughts, wherever you are. It's like you are watching me. I see vultures circling up ahead, in the space between two mountains. And I wonder if they are here for you or me. I wonder how you would tell my story, if I disappeared.
I have gone too far. I missed the turnoff for the ranch, somewhere between the spins and the trees. I have the mile marker (63), but the numbers don't match, and now my phone screen is a wheel, circling around a lost signal.
You warned me about the phone service. Per Episode 7: There is no cell phone service, none, from Yreka (2.5 hours north) to Redding (2.5 hours south), except for one huge turnout above the Klamath, just south of Happy Camp, where one network (Verizon) gets service some of the time. On any given day, there is at least one car parked out there, on the edge of the cliff, with the sky overhead and the signal, invisible, somewhere above, so the seeker holds their phone up to the sky.
I was prepared. I took screenshots of the directions on Google Maps. I wrote down the mile marker number, but I still missed your parents' ranch. I know this when I reach Happy Camp. There are low buildings scattered inside a wide river basin, a self-pump gas station, a bear with a dial that tells me there's always a chance of a fire. A sign reads Welcome to Happy Camp: Home of Outdoor Family Recreation above a picture of a silver steelhead the size of a shark.
I pull into a deserted parking lot and debate where I should go from here. I could turn around, focus harder, seek out the mile markers as the road twirls, or I could ask for directions.
I have to pee, so I get out of the car.
My head is still spinning. My legs are stiff and my knees wobble as I make my way to the center of town, one block away. I walk up Main Street (you used to call it "the rabbit hutch" because all the meth heads in their trailers stayed up all night, scurrying, scratching like animals in cages). I walk past the police station-per Episode 7, open only four hours a day-past the Happy Camp Arts Center, confusing signage on the door: Don't come in-this is a house!!!
The mill and the silver mine closed in the eighties; that's also when Happy Camp lost the second grocery store and the Evans Mercantile and the video store and the restaurant with the twenty-page menu.
I find the only coffee shop and head inside. It's narrow, with a kindergarten-classroom quality-clean but with too many amateur works of art. There are bookshelves along the wall, a rack of T-shirts in the corner. Six men in various stages of Hank Williams gather in one corner on foldout chairs, talking about lumber. I walk to the back and use the bathroom.
I wash my hands at the sink and ignore my face in the mirror. When I'm not wearing makeup, I generally feel that I don't deserve to exist. I decide that I don't need to ask for directions. What answer could anyone possibly give me? Twelfth tree on the fifth bend?
I duck out of the bathroom and rush across the floor as the men discuss wood infestations. A woman steps in front of me, an empty teacup in each hand. Long, thin dreads wrestle all the way down past her waist.
"All good," she says, no inflection. I duck toward the bookshelves.
"I just wanted to see your books." I lie, because I feel guilty for using the bathroom without asking. I want her to believe that I am a customer and my bathroom use was just incidental. I want her to think that I am a serious buyer in the market for a good book.
"We do exchanges, or the price is on the cover."
I look at the books on the shel. I am surprised by the selection, by the lack of religious books such shelves tend to collect. Instead they have Stephen King's It, well-worn but priced by size at three dollars, A Room with a View and The Handmaid's Tale for a buck fifty. I almost buy it just because I can't believe it's here.
The woman stands over me, watching, not saying anything.
I should ask her for directions; I know this, but it pings that I need to be careful. Anyone could be a suspect. Anyone could hold a clue. And I need to keep myself open. I need to hide my intentions until I define whether you really have gone missing or you are actually here. I think of you, what you would do. How you would keep yourself aloof but innocuous, powered by righteousness.
"Do you know this area well?"
"I grew up here." She steadies her clattering teacup. "What brings you to Happy Camp?" I am sure she knows that I am here alone and that she is judging me for it. In my mind, in that moment, she knows everything about me, and she is smug and superior about it.
"A friend," I answer defensively, and immediately regret it.
"You probably don't know her." I cast my eyes around the store.
"I probably do."
The six in the circle quiet and tilt their heads in our direction. It's everybody's business. The population shrank, and I crossed the line into everybody's business.
"Dear Mad'm," I say like a crazy person. I see three copies of a slim yellow book on a bookshelf, a poster on the wall.
The woman steps back, satisfied that I am a psychopath. "No offense, but I'm pretty sure she's dead."
"I'm a writer." I straighten up. This is my official lie. I do write sometimes, journal entries about how I'm too depressed to write, mostly, but I like the idea of it. A traveling writer, always hunting for a story. "Like she was."
"What do you write?"
"Mystery." It is a mystery what I write.
"Oh yeah? You gonna write about this place?" Whenever you tell people you're a writer, they always assume you are going to write about them. Whatever your plans were before, whatever genre or category, you will find them so sublimely interesting that you won't have a choice but to alter your angle.
"If I find a good story," I say. She nods once, efficiently, picks up her cups, starts to move away. "I'm actually looking for a place to stay." She stops. "Are there any guest ranches around here?"
She names a hotel and a ranch I read about online. She doesn't mention your parents' place, even though I know it's within ten miles of here.
"Anywhere else?" Fountain Creek-the name is on my tongue. Just say it, I wish. Say it.
"Nope. That's it. Small town. You're better off going to Eureka." I came from Eureka. Eureka is three hours and a few dozen hotels from here. It's like she doesn't want me anywhere near.
"I was hoping to find a place with horses." I know your parents' ranch is the only place with horses.
"No, there's not any horse riding around here. You could go out to Yreka, probably."
"I thought I heard about a guest ranch that had horses and fishing or something."
Her eyes stiffen, drop darker. The group in the corner goes quiet again. They are mulling over their cold coffee cups. It's noon at the OK Corral, and I expect a cowboy to stride through the front door at any second and shoot me dead.