I knew this corner, but didn’t. I had stood on that modest rise before, map and compass in hand, scanning for the telltales of a ghost town. Facing Northwest, near sundown, you looked for lines of rotting fenceposts, traces of windbreaks, hints of wagon tracks or broken foundations. It was amazing what could be discerned in the near shadows. What troubled me was I recalled a T intersection, not a crossroads.
What those shadows never delivered was the elusive St. Olave. By my reckoning, the village should have been someplace very near here. It was spoken of in maybe a dozen times in diaries and journals, with one local newspaper article thrown in. And, for me, a handful of personal stories. But never in court, tax or census documents. Years ago, I was part of a loose group of groups trying to pin down where it had been. But, up to this particular moment, I hadn’t been thinking about St. Olave. And perhaps that is the trick, like one of those Zen Jujitsu things ... discovery comes when we’re not seeking.
Discovery certainly wasn’t on the minds of the management team who had been summoned to a Sunday morning meeting with Corporate’s scariest hatchet man. I’d landed in Cedar Rapids the night before, scheduled to meet regional management at 0600. By 0620, I had fired two, demoted three and put the first fear of God in those left at the table. Just before I adjourned the meeting, I laid a set of very specific deliverables for those still at the table.
“These stand until Production Committee says otherwise. This is an opportunity to redeem yourselves – not by my recommendation. This is no easy path, but it is a chance. VP Ops approved purging down to unit managers, but then asked me to throw out this lifeline. You can take this or not. I don’t really care.” Shock mingled with skepticism and the second fear of God on their faces.
“If you are willing to perform, you sign at the bottom of page eight and return it to me. I will wait in the corridor for ten minutes. This is a literal signing on. All others, turn in your ID tag at the table. Security will escort you to retrieve personal property. HR and counsel are on site to formalize separation documents. References will not be provided.” And that last twist of the knife showed me at my heartless best. While not formula, I’ve found incorporating two terrors and a vicious twist in such meetings yields results from the survivors.
What took four weeks to set up, was completed in four hours. About right. I left the site at 1024. At the hotel, I dumped the kevlar vest, shucked out of already sweat-soaked clothes, then grabbed a shower. I lay on the bed in the AC coolness for an hour before heading downstairs for lunch with a high school acquaintance Mom had badgered me into calling.
Pre-breakfast Sunday business meetings work very well because the targets finally understand how seriously last-chance my visits are. Sunday social lunches suck, because the churchies crowd you into a corner, where you almost suffocate from the intrusive, extended graces they drone through.
Near the end, Berkley asked if I ever thought about our days searching for the St. Olave Country. I offered a noncommittal sideways head tilt. First, it was more polite than saying it was a pointless quest which I hadn’t thought about in a decade. More importantly, it closed off further conversation on the matter. Things wound down to a mutually disinterested silence. We parted with tepid mumblings about keeping in touch, but didn’t bother trading cards.
Despite my pleas of time constraints, Mom had emailed God and everybody about me being back in town. Which is how I ended up lunching with Berkley. Then a well-meaning cousin-aunt or somesuch arranged a family tea in Dubuque, which is where most of the oldsters lived. That way, more of them could make it. So, unpleasant business, drifted-apart friends, now doddering family. This trip had turned into a pilgrimage of tedious pleasantries. Getting out of town seldom looked so good.
I got on Federal 161 and headed northeast, still resenting the imposed obligation. In my head, I was already prepping for the next evening’s sit down with the excessive safety incident facility manager in Bismarck when flashing lights from a portable light-up sign brought me sharply back to here and now. “URGNT SIT AHD, TUNE 88.3” marched across the screen. I dialled the radio to hear the recorded message. URGNT indeed. A tanker hauling industrial lubricant flipped at the Fillmore access road, and started leaking. Highway cleanup was on the scene, but delays up to four hours were expected.
Without hesitation, I slowed to cut across the grass median to head back towards Cascade. I saw in the mirror a few others do the same. A couple pulled off altogether. I imagined them poring over AAA maps, trying to figure out how to continue eastward via backroads. I had that part down already. This was the “St. Olave Country” Berkley spoke of at lunch. I knew it like the back of my hand.
Back in high school, I searched along every stretch of backroad in Jones and Dubuque counties. There were maybe a dozen others. Most of the guys were older, most OK. Some were really creepy though, muttering on about the OWG, black choppers and other shit. Each had personal reasons for searching, but those only ever hinted at. Each also had a theory about exactly where the settlement had been, mostly we agreed it must have been in this area.
For the three of us from Jefferson High, the common factor was that we all had grandparents who had a story of driving through St. Olave. Of course, that would have been be driving wagons through the place. None had stopped, because the town “gave them the willies”. Interesting how all three spoke of the same sensation. Dad’s dad was pretty young, and drank a lot even then. But he used that exact phrase.
What did I tell the others about why I was looking for it? Not a thing. I kept it shut about my thought it might be a portal to other worlds. That came from something Grampa said about how not all the folks there looked right. Like they belonged someplace else. Maybe another world. And the feel was strongest at the swift, dark creek dividing the town. While crossing the creek, he said he couldn’t keep his eyes away from a series of pools upstream of the bridge. It could have been the drunk talking, but I didn’t think so.
Anyway, the three of us were in high school together. Funny how three kids with a family connections to the village ended up at the same school. Sort of like how some of the older guys had been in the Army together. Or the pair who had been in jail together. Or the black helicopter guys who had all spent time under psych observation. Like bananas, we seem to come in bunches.
It was Berkley, me and Robbie Peck. It was Peck’s grandpa Wilson who gave his youngest daughter the best description of coming into St. Olave. He was in a Vet’s Home by then, and dozed off or forgot what he was saying a lot. But Lydia Peck was given the most detail about St. Olave anyone had.
Eugene Wilson was headed north, he thought for Dyersville, maybe someplace else. At the last cross road, going straight looked dicey, because the road jogged around a rocky knob just past the cross road. But if it went straight north, it would save time.
With a patient hand on the reins, he coaxed the horses over and around. Once past the rock, the road dropped in a gentle curve for a quarter mile. He was surprised when he came to the houses. He turned to look at the rock, only to find it barely discernible. Not only did it appear much further away, there seemed to be a haze he hadn’t noticed before. About the houses, he couldn’t recall what kind or how many. He was more clear about the fast creek dividing the place, the patchy, pale mist that hugged the surface. Crossing the bridge was the toughest part of the whole trip, he said.
Grandpa Wilson may or may not have seen people, and didn’t much care, “cause there was this weird electric feel up and down my backbone, right down to my butt.” It gave him the willies enough to just keep the horses moving right along. He took a breath, frowned and asked his daughter where the hell Edna was with his damn dinner. Lydia just said she would ask on the way out. That was easier than telling him his wife was dead nearly thirty years. Wilson had already forgotten his daughter was there, and turned back to watch Wheel of Fortune.
In school, there are always groups: jocks, brainiacs, stoners, D&D guys, Godboys, that kind of thing. We became the St. Olave Trio. Truth was, St. Olave was the only thing we had in common. Peck had no friends or other interests. Berkley liked powerboating and had a semi-hot girlfriend, but she dumped him for spending more weekends on St. Olave than her. Mine might have, but I left town before she could. That spring, Dad had been laid off by Cargill, then in August got an offer from Puget Elevator Corp., looking for someone to take over a hydraulics project because the guy doing it got run over by a runaway semi in Oakland. Yippee, we weren’t poor any more. Except we moved to Seattle three weeks into my senior year. That sucked. Sucked for the dead guy’s family too.
Things quickly went to crap. Mom left Dad, and my sister and I moved with her to Bellingham. When her girlfriend moved in, I moved out. Hillary was OK, and I saw how much happier Mom was, but it was just too much change in too short a time. To everyone’s surprise, I ended up with a degree in finance, then made a name in the west coast corporate scene for scrambling and backstabbing. I left a lot of bruised and bloodied egos behind as I climbed the ladder at a rate that sometimes astonished even me. I think it was that I still looked like a geek, but the immature niceness had pretty much washed out. That made me perfect for the never-see-him-coming fixer/assassin Corporate wanted. Who was so good, he got sent on a mission to his old hometown. Which brings us back to right now.
Turning North at Cascade put me on a pretty familiar stretch of asphalt. Once I hit Epworth, a right on to Route 20 would get me to my aunt’s in 40 minutes. The road was rougher and more patched than I remember, but I was still making pretty good time. In twelve years, a few new houses had been added to the landscape. I had loved the old two storey places. Solid, stolid, declaring they were here to stay forever. The new ones were invariably ranchers clad in brick and stucco, cowering behind evergreen windbreaks. Classics vs. crapholes. Same deal for old and new barns.
All around the houses, old or new, corn fields rolled off to the horizon. Not long before the harvesters would be shearing the landscape. I remember these kind of days. Frost in the mornings heating up to the 80’s in the afternoon. And the terrible sinus headaches I used to get from the change. I drove on, mostly on autopilot, except for intersections. Then I hit this one...
Yeah, the T intersection that wasn’t. There was a clearly a gravel road on the other side of the segmented concrete ribbon. My interest in St. Olave had come alive again. I checked my watch, thinking about the family gathering. The goal-oriented action would have been to turn right, boot it for five minutes, make a left at the New Gospel Crusade hall to run up to old Fed 20. Once there, it would be bumpity-bump along the narrow two laner right into Dubuque. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
I stared at the other side of the intersection and the little knob that kept it from being a straight across drive. A knob just like Eugene Wilson talked about. After looking left and right three times, then three more, I navigated onto that North-bound gravel track. The gravel was not fresh, but nothing was growing up through it. It skirted the knob, then started gliding downhill in an unhurried way. Just about the time I thought I had made a mistake, a few houses came into view. Was it? Really?