"It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here." That was what the T-shirts said that could be bought at the tiny store in the fishing village where my grandparents lived. We lived there, too, for a short time before my parents moved our family of seven to the end of the world.
Where we were going, there would only be us, no other people for miles of trackless wilderness, approachable only by the unpredictable sea. We would have to live without most modern amenities and support ourselves with hard labor, depending on each other for everything.
We had our flloathouse towed several miles away to an abandoned, burned cannery that had operated in the early years of the twentieth century. When we got there the remnants of burnt and rotting buildings were being submerged in the vast, quiet forest. On the beach were the tangled, rusted remains of massive pieces of machinery and the blackened pilings, some with stunted trees growing out of them, of what had once been a pier and dock. The smooth, rounded rocks of the beach were permanently stained by being washed in decades of rust.
My young uncle Lance on a visit, with an artist's eye, took one look at the large rusty gears, levers, and corroded machinery and designed an automobile of sorts out of these parts and assembled it down on the beach. We admired it and played in and around it until the tides and storms scattered it.
Out on a rock lookout that had a spectacular view of the bay was an enormous fuel drum. I used to dance there on the old concrete pad it sat on with my headphones on, rocking out to Bruce Springsteen as a sunset filled the sky and water. I was the last human being on earth.
That feeling came over me so many times, wandering through the ruins. I was particularly drawn to a set of blackened steps that led up to the foundation beams of an invisible building. I would climb up them and stand there, wondering about the past, about the future, wondering where those steps were supposed to lead me.
The five of us kids dug around in the forest and discovered what must have been where the cookhouse had burned to nothing. We found all sorts of dishes and cutlery, pots and pans, and metal plates to stock our forts and play with. We also found odd, Asian looking cups and saucers, most of them broken. When I did a school report looking into the background of the old cannery, I learned that many of the workers were from the Philippines.
Near the creek, where the bears fished for salmon and ignored us, lay a giant steel ring with a heavy, round door flung open. It was the door to the enormous cannery retort. I used to stand on the lip of the ring and stare at the rocks inside it and imagine that it was a portal into the past, to when the cannery was full of life and movement and men working long hours on the edge of nowhere to send wages to their loved ones on the other side of the Pacific.
We found, in a lonely place overlooking the bay, a bleached grave marker, half buried in tall grass above the driftwood. There was no way of knowing who it was that was buried there. If the marker had borne a name the years and weather had wiped it away.
Everywhere I looked, everywhere I wandered in the woods and on the beaches, I was accompanied by a sense of wonder and mystery, an awareness of a past civilization, of long ago people who had stepped where I walked. They had thoughts and dreams and hopes that I sometimes thought they hadn't taken with them when they left. They were still here, in whispers and glimpses.
These ruins were home; the end of the world was the most beautiful, wild, and free place on earth. I never tired of wandering though that old, destroyed and abandoned world.
Years later my whole family flew to Ketchikan, the nearest city, for dental appointments. Coming directly from years in the wilderness, the city was exciting, so full of people and motion and alien noises. We stayed in a hotel and were amazed and delighted with everything, particularly the TV and the indoor bathroom. Being able to order food in the restaurant from a menu was an exhilarating experience. That first night was filled with lights and the sound of music, fireworks, and reveling people. More by accident than by design we had wound up in the city on New Year's Eve.
The next morning we got up at our usual early hour and ran downstairs to the street to absorb more of this fantastic, lively world.
But when we got to the street it was empty. Overnight the city had died. No traffic, no people, no life. We wandered down the deserted streets under an overcast sky, past the silent, tall buildings. The stores were closed and dark--nothing was lit. A dog trotted down the middle of the street. It was the only sign of life.
We had gone from an old post apocalypse to a much more recent one, I thought. We were the last human beings on earth again, this time in a city that had housed thousands instead of a hundred. We were the only survivors; the abandoned city belonged to us. It was a familiar sensation, not frightening. We belonged.
When we finally returned to the wilderness, that was the memory that stayed with me. And when, years later, we left the ruins of the cannery, I partially filled a canning jar with rust-stained rocks from the beach so I could take the post-apocalypse with me wherever I wandered.