My boyfriend’s dad’s name is Bob. Bob grew up in Nebraska and always talks it up but the day he graduated from college he threw a Swiss Army knife, a few pairs of underwear and a bottle of Prell into a knapsack and hitchhiked out to California, never to return, not to live anyway.
Bob is a furniture builder with one hobby: walking outdoors. He walks in the woods around his house, and in national and state parks in the West or Midwest. These trips take up all of the two weeks of vacation time he allows himself at 71.
I know a lot of people say they love wildlife but I would like to award Bob the prize for Person Who Loves Wildlife More Than Anyone Else. Bob will walk two miles uphill through blackberry brambles to see Pileated Woodpeckers copulate and come back two weeks later to watch the eggs hatch. When grizzlies crashed his family vacation in Alaska, Bob didn’t gather up his wife and son and run. He made them crouch in the bushes with him to watch the grizzlies destroy their campsite.
To prevent the tragedy of missing exciting wildlife activity that might occur in the vicinity of his home while he is forced to participate in mundane activities like eating, sleeping, and talking to his family, Bob has set up two wildlife cameras.
One cannot possibly overstate the importance of these two cameras to social life in Bob’s home. If you are a first-time guest to the property you will find yourself hiking down the hill, at dusk, though prime mountain lion territory, to check the cameras for new photos. That said, people love wildlife cam photos. Bob’s parties generally wind up with everyone clamoring to see new ones, and Bob is of course always happy to oblige, with an up-to-date, curated collection of everything from ho-hum squirrels and deer to exciting bears and mountain lions. Last week, he had a new photo of a fox and I was like “Wow, that’s amazing how the fox centered itself perfectly in the frame.” Bob explained to me that he’d actually done that himself, with Photoshop.
Once in a while Bob gets a photo of people, and these are always hilarious, because hey, people aren’t wildlife!
This is a small town and it is not unusual for Bob’s name to come up. When it does, people get very enthusiastic about what a nice guy he is. This is true, but also, I would not fuck with Bob. Sadly I have just done that very thing by using “the F-word,” which Bob hates, but I am trying to make a point, one that you will soon see is correct.
Bob works a lot (by a lot I mean 6-7 days a week, 9 or so hours a day) but he still finds time to walk in the woods near his house. One of his favorite walks is along the fire access road, a five- to six-mile-long dirt road that goes through the moonscape of the old gold mine, then through an old-growth pine forest, and finally back to the house Bob built with his wife some 40 years ago.
Bob has walked this road thousands of times. Some months back he was walking it yet again when he saw that someone had taken it upon themselves to set white stones on all the tree stumps as far as the eye could see. “At first I wasn’t really that conscious of it,” Bob told me on a recent afternoon when I invited him over for coffee to tell me the story. “I thought it was just something cute a road crew was doing when they were bored.”
He was dressed up for town in a long-sleeved cotton shirt and jeans instead of dusty work pants and a T-shirt. Two bouts of chemo took out all his hair, which fell out gray, grew in brown, and many years later, has stayed brown. “I kept walking,” he continued. “Then, I saw the stones on parts of the road where the crew hadn’ t been working. That’s when I was like, ‘This white stone thing is not just casual game-playing.’”
Bob removed the stones. “But the next day, they were back,” he told me.
Bob has a movie-star smile which was very much turned upside down by this white stone business. Fortunately, he did not have to endure his not-amusedness alone. Sally — Bob’s friend, neighbor, and fellow daily walker of the forest — had also seen the stones. While Bob and Sally were in agreement that in the scheme of things the white stones were not really a big a deal, they were similarly united in their recognition of the white stones as a godless abomination.
Bob and Sally asked around. They asked the people who live up the road a little, the people who live up the road a little more, and the people who live still further — maybe 15 households in total. Bob and Sally’s neighbors had indeed also seen the white stones and, like them, been rendered extremely not stoked.
One of Bob’s neighbors said, “They’re like those stupid rock statues people build at the river.”
“Oh yeah,” said Bob. “Cairns.”
“Karen?” The neighbor shook his head. “I don’t think Karen did this.”
Sally wrote a note and left it on a stump where the white stone-placer would find it, saying, essentially, (though I am sure with more kindness than I care to re-enact) “If you could please just stop it with the white stones that would be great.” The next day, the note was still there.
On top of it, someone had placed a small white stone.
Taking this as the stone-placer’s way of saying “I got your note,” Sally placed a pine cone next to the note, as if to say, “I got that you got it.”
The white stones continued to appear. Sally and Bob removed them, and went about their lives, stifling occasional surges of rage.
In general, Bob sleeps pretty well. “But I did have a few nights wondering how I was going to handle this situation,” he admitted. And on one such night, he figured it out. The next morning he rose even earlier than his usual 5:30. He had his tea and granola. Then he went out to the road and found a cluster of madrone trees, a perfect place to both obscure a six-by-eight inch wildlife cam and provide it with a perfect view of all nearby stumps just crying out for some miscreant to deface them with a single white stone.
Twenty-four hours later Bob retrieved the footage to reveal the culprit. It turned out it was Paul. Paul is about 60 with two dogs and lives on the next hill over. Paul and his two dogs were regular walkers on the fire access road. Every morning Paul would walk out on the road, and then he would walk back. He was also the only person Bob ever saw around who he hadn’t asked point-blank about the stones. And there he was on the wildlife cam, his face blurry but his gait, his clothes, his body, his dogs, all unmistakable, reaching into his pocket and setting a stone on a stump. A few feet later, there he was doing it again.
I asked Bob how he felt at this moment. He sat there for a minute, frowning at the cedar tree outside my window, disappointed, perhaps, by the tree’s lack of low branches/inability to be a meaningful partner in surveillance. “I guess I just felt like, ‘This guy is toast.'”
A day or two after capturing his photo documentation, Bob was working and heard the barks of two dogs, coming closer. He ran down to the road and there was Paul. He was about 60 and good-looking, Bob said, dressed in a tan hat and shorts.
“I’m Bob,” said Bob. “I live here.” Then he said, “Paul, are you the person putting white stones on the stumps around here?”
Paul looked at Bob. His face didn’t change at all and then, as he geared up for his lie, it took on the slightest hint of perplexedness. “No,” Paul said.
Then Paul said, “How do you know my name?”
Bob cleared his throat. He’d already missed 90 seconds of work. Was this joker really going to make him miss 90 seconds more? He said he knew his name because they’d met several times and because Paul was the only person who didn’t live here who walked on the fire access road. Then he said, “Well, I have photographs of you doing it.”
Paul got a little mad now. What man wants to be illicitly filmed in the woods by another man? He made indignant noises for a few seconds, then said, “Well I’m not the only one doing it you know!”
“Well, you’re the only person I have on camera doing it,” Bob said. He told me he felt nervous at this point, that he saw things had moved into the realm of confrontation. It passed through his mind that he’d been a wrestler at the University of Nebraska, but immediately after, he thought about how he hadn’t really been that good of a wrestler. “I’d like you to stop,” Bob said, and then turned around and walked back to his shop.
Paul walked off with his dogs.
For a few days stones stopped appearing on the stumps. Bob and Sally were able to walk in peace. All seemed right in the world. . Then, about a week later Bob was walking along and noticed that there were white stones wedged into the bark of numerous trees, about four and a half feet off the ground.
I asked Bob what his next move would be. The Great Plains uprightness in his torso gave way to a coastal shrug. “Probably nothing,” he said. “What are you going to do if someone just wants to be a jerk?”
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