One thing leads to another, and in Jack Reacher’s case, one warm and aimless August day, a hitched ride in an empty lumber truck led to East Millinocket in Maine, which led in turn to a decent mid-morning meal in a roadside restaurant near the highway, which led to a halting two-wary-guys conversation with the man at the next table, which led to an offered ride further north, to a place called Island Falls. The unspoken but clearly implied cost of the ride was the price of the guy’s coffee and pie, but the establishment was cheap, and Reacher had money in his pocket, and as always he had no particular place to be, so he accepted.
One thing leads to another.
The guy’s car turned out to be a softly-sprung old Chevrolet, lacy with rust, and Island Falls turned out to be a pleasant little place on a lake, way in the north, where Maine sticks out like a thumb up Canada’s ass, with Quebec to the left and New Brunswick to the right. But most of all Island Falls was pretty close to the north end of I-95. Which was tempting. Reacher had a collector’s instinct when it came to places. He knew the south end of I-95 pretty well. More than nineteen hundred miles away, just past downtown Miami. He had been there many times. But he had never seen the north end.
He had no particular place to be.
One thing leads to another.
Getting out of Island Falls was easy enough. He had a cup of coffee in a hut next to a kayak rental slip, and stood in the buggy warmth of the lake shore and took in the view, and then he turned his back on it all and walked out of town the same way the old Chevy had driven in, back to the highway cloverleaf. He set up on the on-ramp heading north, and waited. Not long, he figured. It was August, it was warm, it was vacation country. The mood was amiable. It was daylight. He was clean. His clothes were only two days old, and his shave was only three. Ideal conditions, overall.
And sure enough, less than ten minutes later an old-model Jeep SUV with New Brunswick plates slowed and stopped. There was a woman at the wheel, and a man next to her, in the passenger seat. They looked to be somewhere in their mid-thirties, clearly outdoor types, ruffled by the wind and tanned by the sun. Heading home, no doubt, after an active vacation. Maybe they had been kayaking. Or camping. Or both. The load space in the rear of the truck was piled up with stuff.
The guy in the passenger seat let his window down, and the woman craned over for a look, too. The guy said, “We’re only going to Fredericton, which isn’t far, I’m afraid. Any good to you?”
Reacher said, “Is that in Canada?”
Reacher said, “Then that’s perfect. All I want is to get to the border, and then back again.”
“Got something against Canada?”
“My passport expired.”
The guy nodded. Gone were the days when a person could just stroll in and out of neighboring countries. Then the guy said, “But there’s nothing much to see between here and there. Nothing much to see through the fence, either. You’d be better off staying where you are, surely.”
Reacher said, “I want to see the end of the road.”
The guy said, “That sounds heavy.”
The woman said, “We think of it as the beginning of the road.”
“Good point,” Reacher said.
The guy said, “Hop in the back.” He craned around in his seat and batted stray items aside. Reacher opened the door and slid in and used his hip to finish the job. He closed the door and the woman hit the gas and they took off, cruising easy through the last thirty-some miles of America.
The last exit was for a town called Houlton. Or the first exit, Reacher supposed, from the Canadian point of view. Then came a mile or so of hinterland, and a little queuing traffic, and barriers and booths and official signs. Reacher stayed in the Jeep until the last car’s length, and then he said his thanks and his goodbyes and he slipped out, and he stepped ahead and put his foot on the last inch of blacktop, directly under the barrier pole.
The end of the road.
One thing leads to another.
He looped back and crossed to the southbound lanes and set up again thirty yards from the barriers. He wanted to give incoming drivers plenty of time to see him, but not enough time to be already going too fast to stop. Once again he anticipated no kind of a lengthy delay. August, daylight, sunshine, vacation country, warmhearted and relaxed Canadian drivers full of generosity and goodwill. Ten minutes max, he thought, maybe closer to five, and it wasn’t outside the bounds of possibility that the first car through would be the one.
It wasn’t. But the second car was. Which was more of a minivan, really. But not the kind of thing a soccer mom would be proud of. It was old and grimy, and somewhat battered. Light blue, maybe, when it left the factory, but now colorless, almost, faded by sun and salt. There was a young man at the wheel, and a young woman beside him in the front, and another young woman in the back. The van had New Brunswick plates, and it was trailing a puff of oil smoke, after pulling away from the customs post.
But Reacher had ridden in worse vehicles.
It slowed and stopped alongside him. The passenger window was already down. The woman in the front said, “We’re headed for Naismith.”
Which was a place Reacher had never heard of. He said, “I’m not sure where that is.”
The guy at the wheel leaned across and said, “The Allagash, man. About an hour west of Route 11. After going north for a bit. It’s a little town. Where you get on the wilderness trail through the forest. It’s a really cool place.”
Reacher said, “North of here?”
The guy said, “Beautiful country, man. You should see those woods. Really primeval. Step off the path, and you could be the first human ever to set foot. I mean, literally. Ten thousand years of undisturbed nature. Since the last Ice Age.”
Reacher said nothing.
The guy said, “Get it while you can, my friend. It won’t be there forever. Climate change is going to take it all down.”
No particular place to be.
Reacher said, “OK, sure, thanks.”
One thing leads to another.
He looped around the rear of the van and the girl in the back slid the door on a rusty track and he climbed in. Behind him in the load space were two big backpacks and one hard-shell suitcase. The seat was some kind of nylon cloth gone greasy with age. He got settled and slid the door closed and the van moved off, puffing smoke again, from the effort.
“Thanks,” Reacher said, for the second time.
The trio introduced themselves. The girl in the back was Helen, and the girl in the front was Suzanne, and the driver was Henry. Henry and Suzanne were a couple. They ran a bicycle store in a place called Moncton. Helen was their friend. The plan was Henry and Suzanne would walk the wilderness trail north from Naismith, to a place called Cripps, which would take four days. Helen would be waiting there with the van to meet them, having spent the same four days doing something else, maybe antiquing in Presque Isle and Caribou.
“I don’t like the woods,” she said, as if she felt an explanation was required.
“Why not?” Reacher asked, because he felt a response was expected.
“Too creepy,” she said. “Too dark. Too full of bugs.”
They puttered onward past Houlton, and then Henry turned off on 212, which soon joined Route 11 going north, which was a pretty road. Saddleback Mountain was ahead on the right, and on the left was an endless expanse of woods and lakes. The trees were green, and the water glittered, and the sky was blue. Beautiful country, just like Henry had promised.
“I don’t like the woods,” Helen said again.
She was in her late twenties, Reacher guessed. Maybe thirty, tops. She was paler than her friends, and sleeker, and more cared
for. Indoor, more than outdoor. Urban, rather than rural. Like her luggage. She was a hard-shell suitcase, not a backpack. Henry and Suzanne were stockier, and tousled, and wind-burned. But not older. Maybe they had all been college friends together, still a threesome more than five but less than ten years after graduation.
Henry said, “The woods are actually awesome, Helen.”
He said it kindly, full of enthusiasm. No hint of confrontation or scolding. Just a guy who loved the woods, unable to understand why his friend didn’t. He seemed genuinely intrigued by the possibility that he could walk where no other human had ever trod, in all of history. Reacher asked where they were all from originally, and it turned out that Henry and Suzanne were from the suburbs, of Toronto and Vancouver respectively, and it was Helen who was the real country girl, from what she called the trackless wastes of northern Ontario province. In which case he figured she was entitled to her opinion. She had earned it, presumably.
Then they asked where he was from, and his bio filled the next few miles. The Marine family, always moving, the dozen elementary schools, the dozen high schools, then West Point, then the U.S. Army, the military police, always moving all over again, some of the same countries, some new, never in one place long enough to notice. Then the drawdown, and the discharge, and the wandering. The hitched rides, the walking, the motels. The aimlessness. No particular place to be. Henry thought it was all very cool, Suzanne less so, Reacher thought, and he figured Helen didn’t think it was cool at all.
They slowed and turned left onto a narrow rural two-lane that speared straight west through the trees. There was a rusted enamel sign that said Naismith 40 miles. It was possible the road had once had shoulders, but they were long overgrown with underbrush and broadleaf trees that reached forty feet tall. In places their branches met overhead, so that for hundreds of yards at a time it was like driving through a green tunnel. Reacher watched out the windows, left and right. Either side he could see not more than five or six feet into the vegetation. He wondered how much more primeval woods could get. Brambles and brush were tangled thigh high, and the air looked dank and still. The ground looked soft and springy, densely matted with leaf litter, damp and fecund. The blacktop ribbon ahead had turned gray with age, and the heat it was holding made the air above it thick with tiny insects. After five miles the windshield was soupy with slime, from a million separate impacts.
Reacher asked, “Have you been here before?”
“Once,” Henry said. “We walked south to Center Mountain. Which was boring, man. I like to stay below the tree line. I guess I’m a forest dweller.”
“Are there animals in there?”
“Bears for sure. Plenty of small stuff, obviously. But the underbrush never gets eaten, so there’s no deer. Which is interesting as to why. Predation, most likely. But by what? Mountain lions, maybe. Or wolves, but no one ever sees them or hears them. But there’s something in there, that’s for sure.”
“You sleep in a tent?”
“Pup tent,” he said. “No biggie. Double-bag your food, wash around your mouth in a stream, and there’s nothing for the critters to smell. Bears like to eat, but if you don’t lay out a picnic for them they’ll leave you alone. But you know all this, right? I mean, doesn’t the army train everywhere? I thought you got sent out in every kind of terrain.”
“Not in a forest like this,” Reacher said. “Can’t move through it, certainly can’t move vehicles through it, can’t shoot through it. Clearing it with napalm and explosives would take forever. So we’d have to maneuver around it. Best kind of natural barrier there is.”
They drove on, over a surface that got progressively worse. The encroaching brush had nibbled out fist-sized bites of blacktop on both sides, and then tree roots had punched out deeper holes, and the winter freezes had elongated the cracks, and the state’s fixes had been infrequent and hasty. The old van’s suspension creaked and pattered. Overhead the green tunnels became more or less continuous. In places leafy vines hung down and whipped the roof.
Then exactly an hour after leaving Route 11 there was a cleared length of shoulder with a board sign on it, which had words burned into it with a hot poker: Welcome to Naismith, the Gateway to the Wilderness. Which Reacher felt was about an hour too late. He felt that particular threshold had been passed long ago.
Henry slowed the van and the road curved to the left and came out in a clearing about the size of a football stadium. Dead ahead was a lake shaped like a crooked finger, first pointing north and then curling east. The road became a kind of Main Street leading straight to the shore. At the far end was a kayak pier, and left and right were low wooden buildings, with vacation cabins near the water, and a general store and a diner and small residences further from it. There were side streets made of the same battered gray blacktop. Naismith, Maine. A miniature town, in the middle of nowhere.
Suzanne said, “I’m hungry.”
“I’ll buy lunch,” Reacher said. “That’s the least I can do.”
Henry parked the van in front of the diner and shut down the motor. The world went silent. They all climbed out, and they all stood and stretched. The air was somewhere halfway between fresh and heavy, the tang of the lake water mixed with the smell of the trees, and there was no sound beyond a subliminal drone from a billion tiny insect wings. There was no wind, no rustling leaves, no lapping waves. Just hot stillness.
The diner was all wood, inside and out, rough stained boards worn shiny in places by hands and elbows and shoulders. There were pies in glass cases and eight square tables draped in red checkered tablecloths. The waitress was a flinty woman of about sixty, wearing a pair of men’s eyeglasses and carpet slippers. Two tables were occupied, both by people who looked more like Henry and Suzanne than Helen. The waitress pointed to an empty table and went to get menus and glasses of water.
The food was the same as Reacher had eaten in a thousand other diners, but it was adequate, and the coffee was fresh and strong, so he was happy. As were the others, not that they were paying much attention to what they were eating and drinking. They were talking amongst themselves, running through their plans. Which sounded straightforward enough. They were all going to spend the night in pre-booked cabins, and at first light Henry and Suzanne were going to set out walking, and Helen was going to drive back to Route 11 and look for whatever she could find. Four days later they were all going to meet again at the far end of the trail. Simple as that.
Reacher paid the check, said his goodbyes, and left them there. He didn’t expect to see them again.
From the diner he strolled down to the kayak pier and walked out to the end of it, and stood with his toes above open water. The lake was a bright blue spear pointing north and then turning east into the distance, more than ten miles long, probably, but not more than a couple hundred yards across at its widest bulge. Overhead was a vast high bowl of summer sky, completely cloudless, unmarked except for wispy contrails eight miles up, from transatlantic jet planes heading to and from Europe, in and out of Boston and New York and Washington, D.C. Great Circle routes, way up over Canada and Greenland, and then dropping down again to London and Paris and Rome. Straight lines on a spherical planet, but not on a flat paper map.
At ground level the forest crowded in on both sides of the lake, unbroken, a continuous green canopy covering everything that wasn’t liquid. There were hundreds and hundreds of square miles of it. Ten thousand years of undisturbed nature, Henry had said, which was exactly what it looked like. The earth had warmed, the glaciers had retreated, seeds had blown in, rain had fallen, and a hundred generations of trees had grown and died and grown again. Elsewhere on the giant continent people had cut them down to clear fields for farming, or for lumber to build houses, or to burn in stoves and steam locomotives, but some parts had been left alone, and maybe always would be. You could be the first human ever to set foot, Henry had said, and Reacher had no doubt he was right.
He walked back past the vacation cabins, which were all q
uiet. People were out and about in other places, clearly, doing whatever it was they were there to do. He found a turn to the left, which was basically north, where there was a hundred-yard side street, which he followed, and at the end of it he found a wooden arch, lashed together from bark-stripped trunks stained dark brown, like a ceremonial thing. A literal gateway to the wilderness. Beyond it the trail started. It ran straight for twenty yards, all beaten flat by booted feet, and then it turned a corner and disappeared. Next stop, the town called Cripps, four days away.
He stepped under the arch and stood still on the first yard of the trail. Then he moved forward, twenty paces, to the first turn. He took it and walked onward, another twenty paces, another twenty yards, and stopped again. The trail was about four feet wide. Either side the forest crowded in. The trunks were spiked with dead branches all the way to the canopy far overhead. The trees had grown tall and straight, racing for the light. They were two or three feet apart in some places, and more or less touching in others. Some were ancient and mature, all gnarled and burled and a yard across, and some were younger and slimmer and paler, exploiting the gaps, like opportunistic weeds. Below chest height the undergrowth was dense and tangled, a mess of dark-leaved thorny runners snaking among dry and brittle twigs. The air was still and completely silent. The light was green and dim. He turned a full circle. He was forty yards from the ceremonial arch, but he felt like he was a million miles from anywhere.
He walked on, another twenty paces. Nothing changed. The path wandered left and right a little. He guessed some kind of parks authority kept the underbrush trimmed back, and left it to passing feet to crush new seedlings. He guessed without that kind of human intervention the trail would close up in a year or two. Three, tops. It would become impassable. Reclaimed by nature. He guessed wider bulges had been hacked out here and there, for campsites. For the pup tents. Near streams, maybe. There was nowhere else to sleep the night.
He stood for a minute more, in the green filtered light and the eerie silence. Then he turned around and walked back to Naismith’s token Main Street, and he followed it out the way they had driven in, to the board sign on the shoulder, with the welcome. But there was no traffic leaving town, and after a moment’s reflection he realized there wouldn’t be, not until the next morning. Presumably the check-out time for the vacation cabins was eleven or noon, which meant that day’s exodus was already over. The diner and the general store would need occasional deliveries, but the odds were long that a returning truck would be passing by anytime soon. He stood in the heavy silence a minute longer, for no real reason other than he was enjoying it, and then he retraced his steps, through the town toward the lake.