Tipping Point

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Strange Stories

A young man sits by his campfire high in the mountains and mourns the death of the world. He tells us the story of the world's end, how his father predicted the coming devastation and taught him to survive.

Tipping Point


It took me two days to drag his broken body up the steep, debris littered ravine. Once at the top, I knelt in the dirt, sweat dripping from my brow, hands caked with dried blood, and cried over his body.

I pulled my Bowie knife and Army surplus entrenching tool from my backpack and dug a shallow grave in the hardpacked earth. I gathered his bones from the funeral pyre and placed them inside. On the third day, I built a cairn to cover his resting place and protect his shattered remains from scavengers.

Next, I set a ring of the large, dusty gray granite rocks so common on the mountain near his grave and built a campfire. I sat with a small bottle of his favorite rye whiskey and celebrated his life through the long, cold night.

From the time I was a boy, he told stories of himself as a young man. I took a deep draught of the whiskey and let his tales flow through my mind in remembrance.

I recalled the story of how his best friend, Johnny Little Wolf, taught him to track and hunt, become one with the Colorado wilderness. Johnny, a young Native American boy from the nearby Southern Ute reservation, was one year older than my dad.

He and his family lived on the reservation, but they made a deal with dad. They arranged for him to live with us during the school year so he could attend school in our small town. They wanted Johnny to get the best education available. Money was scarce on the reservation; teachers scarcer. During the summer months, dad lived on the rez and learned the ways of the tribe.

Johnny and dad became inseparable friends. Johnny’s father and grandfather, students of the old ways, insisted he honor his heritage and made him learn to track, trap, and hunt.

From his great aunt, Emma Tall Horse, he learned to recognize and prepare edible plants and berries. Folks on the reservation thought of her as a Medicine Woman. She shunned the idea, considering herself an herbalist. Emma showed him the various native plants with medicinal properties.

Soon he was proficient at making weapons, scavenging materials from the wilderness, finding and preparing foods, and simple medicines. Johnny learned fast and passed the lessons on to dad.

I laughed when Dad told me of his first lessons with Johnny, how he followed John up a steep trail leading to a hidden cave high up the south side of Mount Williams. Johnny traveled the narrow, rocky path silent as a shadow. He slipped through the Bristlecone pine, skipped over the loose shale and granite pebbles, disturbed nothing. Dad stumbled and fumbled along behind, trying to mimic Little Wolf’s moves.

By the time they reached the cave, my dad’s footfalls had become surer, quieter, but remained an intrusive presence in the forest. They practiced almost every day for months. The following summer, endless repetition had improved dad's movement through the backcountry. Like John, he moved quickly, silently through the forested landscape. He learned his lessons well and improved on them years later as an Army Ranger.

My dad, William Dodson Rodgers, is . . . was his name. It’s a name I want you to remember. I was nine when the nightmares started. His horrible dreams, driven by obsessive studies of climate change, showed him how the world would end. His groans and moans woke me from my usual dreamless sleep more nights than not.

Worried and frightened, I would lay quietly, listening as he thrashed about in his bed, trying to fight his way out of his dreadful visions. When he woke, screaming into the night, I would throw off my blanket and go to check on him.

I would find him dripping with sweat, wet hair stuck to his skull, breath coming in short gasps. There was nothing I could do but comfort him with my presence. I sat by his bed until he quieted and, at last, fell into a peaceful slumber.

When morning came, I met him downstairs at the breakfast table. His eyes, bruised and haunted, held mine as he told me about the dreams. The visions he described were horrifying.

He told of shirtless, ragged people stumbling along the roadways cluttered with fallen trees, battered cars and bodies. Their parched voices called out for water, food, relief from their misery. Merciless heat sapped their energy, and, one-by-one, they fell to the hard-packed, lifeless earth. 

Too weak to move, they died where they lay. The nightmare vision flashed deeper into the future. He watched the relentless sun crack open their skin and suck the moisture from their bones. Soon, their withered bodies shrunk away to nothing leaving only tattered clothing to mark their passing.

Viewed through the hazy lens of his dark dreams, he saw thousands of others across the world drown in floods as the rains fell, the ocean waters rose, and rivers overflowed.

He trembled as he told his vision of bloated bodies floating in the filthy rainwaters. The turbulent floods spinning the bodies in dizzy circles, slamming them against bits of debris and each other. Their lifeless, ragdoll carcasses burst open, leaking entrails and dreadful bodily fluids, polluting the rivers, streams, and flooded city streets.

The starving peoples of the world crawled through his dreams. They searched barren fields for foodstuffs that no longer grew, parched to dust by the sun, or turned into pale green slime by the floodwaters.

He watched as they broke windows and ripped doors from their hinges, searching the few abandoned markets that had not burned or washed away. Finding only empty shelves, they stumbled away, desperate, hungry, and defeated.

Dreams filled his mind with visions of devastation and the death of millions night after night. Finally, he understood the images were premonitions of dark times to come.

The following week he started taking me up Mount Williams. I never knew if the dreams stopped or dad stopped talking about them. I think the nightmares continued, but he learned to live with them.

I have only vague memories of my dad in the early years of my life. He was gone much of the time. He spent my first six years in the army. During those years, he was away in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Six years as an Army Ranger were enough for him. He left the army, used his GI Bill to study weather and climate in college before changing his major to mathematics, his minor in computer programming. He was fascinated with chaos theory and thought the complexity and chaotic nature of Earth's climate a perfect platform for his studies.

Those years were hard on the family. He was absent almost as much as during his army days, working days as a computer network engineer, and going to college nights.

Soon after graduation, he developed an advanced climate modeling system. Not owning a super-computer, he partnered with NOAA to refine the program and, ultimately, licensed the final product to the agency. 

His modeling system was faster and slightly more accurate than most but, when applied to the effects of climate change, broke down as rapidly as any of the many other systems attempting to examine potential future states.

He was unable to glean any appreciable long-term predictions. On a global scale, long-term weather was far too complex to model accurately. Beyond short stretches of time, his system was pushed past its abilities.

Nevertheless, he was convinced most scientists were incorrect in their assumptions about the climate’s sensitivity to initial environmental conditions. He believed minor changes in any of a variety of variables could trigger a butterfly effect with rapid and devastating results.

The variables (some well known, some only guessed at) were too numerous to count; cloud cover, air and ground temperature, sea temperature, ice loss, CO2 and methane emissions, fluctuation in solar output, irregularities in Earth's orbit, others he might not know or understand.

He feared for the world's future and mine. So, he taught me how to survive the catastrophe he saw coming, passing on the skills he picked up as a boy hunting with his best friend, Johnny Little Wolf. Skills he perfected years later as a U.S. Army Ranger.

The first time we made the trip up the Mount Williams was the summer of 2025, less than a year after his dreams stopped or, perhaps, he had made his peace with them. I never knew which possibility was correct, only that he stopped talking about them.

The trip was the first of many. Dad was convinced it was time to do something, anything, to prepare for a future he thought was coming for us. The dreams had given him a vision of the future he prayed would never happen.

 He drove me into a dead-end canyon, parked his old truck, and pulled out our backpacks. From there, we walked up a long, steep trail littered with dead trees and the debris from old rock slides up the south side of the mountain. It was hard work for him, harder for me.

As we walked, Dad talked, telling me stories about the years with Johnny by his side and the lessons he had learned. He told me more about his dreams and his fears. The nightmare visions remained stuck in his memory, he couldn't let them go. "We're killing the planet and the planet’s gonna kill us back.”, he said. He was neither psychic nor psychotic. His knowledge of weather and the behavior of chaotic systems gave him insight others might misunderstand or ignore.

Many scientists were spending much time and money investigating the potential effects of a warming earth. Each assumed different scenarios, none looked deep into the potential for chaotic conditions to flip the world into a hothouse or ice age. It wasn’t their fault. The underlying order embedded in disordered systems, which might or might not drive climate to a devastating state, remained a mysterious, little known place, incompletely understood.

The hours spent with dad on the mountain helped me adjust to a life without my mom. About a year earlier, a few days before my eleventh birthday, Mom came down with a bad case of the ten-year itch. She left a note saying she was tired of the cold mountain winters and small-town life.

Her boss was taking her someplace with warm ocean water and warmer sand. That was her last communication with us. She never tried to contact us again. I wished, sometimes, I could talk to her one more time. I had no way to do it, didn’t even know where she was.

Dad, the decent man that he was, never said a bad word about her. But the sadness in his eyes told me how much he hurt. He loved me harder than ever after she left. We were a team, taking care of each other as best we could.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Roger thought dad had seen An Inconvenient Truth too many times, spent too many hours with his head buried in climate reports, the scientists clamoring about the inevitable and dangerous changes they predicted. Truth is, they thought he might’ve gone a little crazy after mom left. He didn’t mind their assessment, sometimes he thought they might be right.

Dad just wanted me to live should the world fall apart one day. He believed the falling had begun. “Ben,” he said, “you need to learn to survive. Someday you’ll have to hunt and fish, gather nuts, berries, and edible wild plants simply to survive. You’ll need to learn tracking, hunting, and building shelters. I’ll show you the way. Together, we’ll practice.”

And we did. We loaded lumber, Ham radio equipment, generators, solar panels, fuel, and other essentials into dad's ugly green beast, a beat-up '59 Chevy Apache. We drove as far as we could along a rutted dirt road partway up Mount Williams.

The road gave out in a jumble of loose shale and the pale, sun-bleached bones of fallen trees. So, we unloaded the old truck and carried the stuff up a hidden trail for another three miles to a vast sandstone cave.

I would have walked right by the cave if dad hadn’t pointed it out. The entrance was camouflaged by the carcass of a fallen Bristlecone pine and a jumble of small boulders. I wanted to clear the debris away to make entry and exit easier, but dad said being hidden was essential or might be sometime in the future. The idea of a hidden refuge made a frightening kind of sense.

Dad found the grotto years before following a game trail deep into the pine forest. We made the long walk carrying bits of this and that many times the first summer. The cave system, a combination of one large cavern with two smaller hollow spaces branching off one side, lived near the top edge of the woodland, near timberline.

I don’t know exactly how far up the mountain the cave sat, somewhere between nine and ten thousand feet is my guess. The work we did that first summer was difficult, made more so by the elevation and the somewhat tricky access to the cave entrance. We cleared the rubble from the main cavern, the smaller secondary caves, and the intricate system of nooks and crannies scattered about the grotto.

We made lists of equipment, scrubbed and rearranged them, adding items, and removing others before we felt we were ready. It took us weeks of trips to Army/Navy surplus stores, yard sales, and scanning on-line prepper sites to gather the bits and pieces of survival gear we wanted.

Ready at last, we made repeated trips up the mountain carrying everything we had purchased. We built a refuge inside the cavern and filled it with canned foods, dehydrated military food packets, spare parts, portable solar panels, guns, and ammo. The back wall of the cave, weathered and cracked by eons of ice, snow, and falling rock, provided us a natural vent to the outside. We built the firepit there.

Outside the cave, we scraped out a shallow trench and ran a coaxial cable to a tall pine about fifty yards away. Then we pulled the cable another fifty feet up into the tree and anchored the wire to the HF antenna for our HAM radio set. Then we covered the trench with dirt, small pebbles, and dead tree limbs, returning the ground to a natural appearance.

The biggest challenge was human waste. We investigated the small hollows looking for a spot to dig a latrine, a bad idea, I know, too much danger of disease if we were not careful. We finally decided on a ravine a hundred or so paces from the cave. That would have to do until we found something better. A good supply of sweet lye served to keep the smell, insects, and bacteria in control.

The mountain was my home, classroom, and recreation center every summer and most weekends during the school year. Dad taught me to track game, kill with gun or bow, skin, clean, and cure the meat for storage. He found an old recipe Johnny shared with him years before. We experimented making a batch of elk jerky. We dried thin strips of elk, ground some of it into a grainy powder and mixed it with fat and wild raspberries to make pemmican.

I never went up during the week in a school year. Dad did. He sat alone in our refuge and planned improvements for the coming summer.

“You need more than survival skills, son. You need balance in your life,” he said. So, when school was in session, I stayed busy with studies, friends, and small-town life. Most weekends I spent in town. Dad said having friends and being social might be as important as hunting and tracking someday.

Town life for me was the same as any other boys.

I played football and basketball, went to movies, dreamed about cars and girls. But weekends and summers on Mount Williams with my dad remain my favorite times.

I learned skills other boys knew little or nothing about. In time, I became an expert survivalist. Sometimes I imagined myself as a young Daniel Boone or Jim Bridger, exploring the unknown, conquering new worlds. The capabilities he gave me were necessary, it didn't really matter if the world he forecast happened or not.

His reputation for paranoia came from his belief in the science of climate change. That and the fact he neither liked nor trusted politicians, believing they loved money more than their constituents. He thought the entire world was in terrible danger, a peril elected officials ignored.

One night as we sat in the cave, warming our hands over the fire, Dad tried to explain his thoughts to me. He talked about things long over in lengthy, rambling denunciations of people and events that meant little to me.

He blamed politicians and the oil and gas mega-companies the most but told me there was blame enough to go around. Staring into the fire, he raked his fingers through his long gray hair, shook his head. “I just don’t know, son. It looks so simple to me. The world is changing. We can see it, measure it, feel it. But, still, most people don’t believe or don’t care.”

When I asked him why he sighed in exasperation and told me he supposed most people were too short-sighted to see past the end of next week.

He shook his head again and said, “Seems most folks just can't grasp the future. Guess it’s hard enough to think about next week or next year. Never mind ten or fifty or a hundred years from the present. Our lives are too short. Humans aren’t built to think of time extending beyond their own short lifespan.”

He told those stories so often they’re embedded in my brain forever, scribbled dark in indelible ink. Memories of our last talk remain with me. We were sitting in our cave roasting Pheasant over the firepit.

Pulling a wing off the Pheasant, pointing it my face like a pistol, he said, “Time was those voted into public office cared about the country and its people. Hell, folks cared about each other. We lost track of that somewhere along the way. Life got hard, both parents working just to make a go of things. It got so they didn’t have time to give a shit about anything but immediate family.”

He told me that, over the years, energy companies organized, used their enormous wealth to fight the climate scientist’s views. The scientist's fought back with statistics and spreadsheets, facts on sea-level rise and diminished ice sheets, predictions of flooded cities, and enormous wildfires, but they lost the battle.

 Disgusted dad told me, “Scientists told us the world was in trouble. People doubted. The influential leaders in the fossil fuel industry denied the danger of their products, insisted they could not possibly alter the climate. All but a few listened, breathed a sigh of relief, and went on with their lives.”

When scientists questioned their beliefs, the CEO’s grew stubborn.  “Let’s pretend, for just a minute, you’re right,” they said, “the changes you suggest take hundreds, even thousands of years. A dramatic change in our environment, however unlikely, is far in the future, we have time to fix it.”

World leaders debated the truth of global warming long after scientific theory became a proven fact. They talked, and promised, and wrung their hands in apprehension and did – nothing. 

“The scientists could be wrong,” they said. “Even if they’re right, the crisis is far off in some distant future, we have plenty of time,” they said. “If we reach a tipping point, we can still save the planet, reverse the damage.”

Dad sat, head bowed, looking at the cave floor, “They were wrong. There was no time, never had been. They lied. To themselves and the world,” he said.

“Ben, I truly believe the world’s environment is in the early stages of dramatic transformation. I’ve studied the words of a small handful of scientists who think the changes could come much faster and be more devastating than the most common predictions.”

I knew the story, had listened to it all before. That small group of people found evidence supporting drastic variations in climate over short timeframes. Change that could happen in ten years or less.

Their evidence, based on the Younger-Dryas event, a brief period of rapid cooling of the earth followed by even swifter heating indicated time was shorter than many scientists thought possible. The Little Ice Age gave them more ammunition for their theory. Few listened, fewer believed.

Then, when I was fourteen, changes in the environment accelerated. It was 2029, the hottest year ever recorded. Hospitals overflowed as people suffered heat exhaustion, cramps, and stroke. The death toll in the southwest U.S. and around the world numbered in the tens of thousands.

The same year, the President of the United States of America, perhaps the most powerful man in the world, sided with the energy companies. He used his influence to give more power to the oil, natural gas, and coal industries, set them free to do as they pleased.

Claiming climate change was bullshit, a hoax perpetrated by enemy nations, he removed all environmental and financial restrictions on the energy company’s rape of the earth. There was no coming back from the damage they did.

Other countries made vague, unenforceable promises to stop the damage of fossil fuels, to develop clean energy solutions. The promises, an effort to appease the portion of their populations alarmed by scientific predictions, went unfunded and unfulfilled. They died a slow death of political and financial malnutrition.

A small handful of countries attempted to make the needed changes. They were too few, too little, too poor to alter the outcome. The future was set and was coming for us all.

Dad was a fine man. I trusted him above all others. When he told me it was time to make the cave our permanent home, I agreed. We shuttered the house, discontinued the utilities, and left.

Uncle Roger tried to talk us out of it, insisted dad was paranoid and paying too much attention to conspiracy theories. I listened to his reasoning and ignored it.

My father trained me on a lot more than survival. He taught me about honesty, honor, and strength. It turned out, dad was not paranoid. Nor was he psychic. In his ramblings, he had foretold the future predicted by science.

The oil, coal, and gas companies flourished. CO2 poured into the atmosphere by the thousands of metric tons. The West Antarctic Ice sheet shrank faster each year, the melting Arctic tundra spewed uncountable tons of methane into the air. The world started to die.

My world exploded, and I was left to face a new, increasingly dangerous world by myself the summer I turned sixteen. Two days after my sixteenth birthday died and left me alone in the world of his dreams. Our mountain sanctuary is a smaller, lonelier place without him, as is the outside world.

He slipped early one morning while we were out hunting. He was looking for sign of deer or elk, strayed too close to the edge of a narrow canyon wall. I’ll never know if a noise distracted him or glanced movement from the corner of his eye, or maybe, was just lost in thought. He stepped on a loose piece of shale, lost his balance, fell a fifty or more feet down the side of the mountain.

I was following behind, looking for tracks, hoping for dusky grouse or wild turkey.  I saw him disappear over the edge, rushed to help, I stumbled my way down, sliding the last twenty feet on my ass. I couldn’t help him, dared not move him. There were too many broken bones, too much blood.

So, I held his head in my lap, wiped the blood from his face, and let him whisper out his love amid warnings about life without him. He died, his voice as weak and broken as his body when he whispered my name. I leaned close to his mouth as he told me Earth was entering its last years as a life-sustaining world and in its passing, would spread death, disease, and revolution across the land.

His last words, “More people will come to the mountain, escaping the heat, the violent weather events. Tornados will come, bigger and stronger than ever before. The same for snow and rainstorms. Be careful, wary of strangers, cautious of the even the folks you recognize. It's a dangerous world now. You will know when the end is close, trust no one you do not recognize and be careful with those you do.”

Digging a grave in the rocky terrain was almost impossible. SO, I did the only thing I could, hoped it was a fitting tribute and farewell to the man I loved. I gathered limbs from the Lodgepole pine, tied them to a tarp, and pulled his body high above timberline.

Once there, I scavenged dry, dead wood for almost two days. I built a platform of the debris, settled him atop it, and, using some of our precious gasoline, set fire to the structure. I sat on a nearby boulder and watched as the fire consumed him, the flames carrying him away to wherever, whatever comes next.”

Sometimes I think about scratching his name into the wall of our cave, so people will know his name after I’m gone. I’m not sure it matters. Those that come after me (if any do) may not be able to read or write. Literacy is for the preservation of civilization, a way to tell our stories and pass down knowledge from one generation to the next.

Small family groups and individuals trying to survive an Apocalypse are more likely to need food, water, and shelter. Basic reading and writing ability will not help them much and will probably be forgotten over time.

I think survivors will likely fall back on the old ways, pass down their brief histories verbally. I imagine wandering storytellers sitting around campfires telling of the time before the world grew ill and died.

Their stories, growing bigger with each telling, the truth twisted and stretched, will birth new heroes and villains. Their stories will be told for generations. I wonder if some version of my dad will persist. Will he live again through their tales?

If humans live long enough to prosper, literacy might return, preserved by a handful of men and women living in the safest places. Those few may hold on to the capability.

If they do, I imagine they will become like the mages of old, thought of as wizards, like Merlin. Their knowledge, however small, will give them power over others.

With their help, a few of us may survive, spread, regrow civilization. The return of civilized peoples may not happen. I hope it will. So, I write what I have seen and heard here at the end of the world, filling the pages of my ledger, knowing no one may ever read it.

It has been eight years since dad died. Since then, I’ve been alone most of the time. Oh, others are living on the mountain. A few I recognize from the early days when I was still a kid.

Back then, when he was still with me, we sometimes ran across them on the mountainside and spent a few minutes talking about the hunt before moving on. Others are new to the highlands, running from the devastation below. I don’t see them often, avoid them when I do. The location of my cave is still a secret. No one has found it, not yet.

We catch sight of each other from now and then, wave a quick hello, and move on. Trust is fragile in the world these days. Each of us isolated, taking care of ourselves and our families. To be too close to others is to risk danger, looting of supplies, perhaps death.

Change is inevitable. Sometimes the changes come slow and sneaky, creeping up on a person like a cat after a mouse. Other times they happen suddenly, like heat lightning exploding out of a cloudless summer sky.

The change that brought an end to the world we knew was of the sudden type. No one knows the precise date and time the tipping point came. It came and went without notice. The devastation it triggered followed a few years later.

 The tipping point signaled the end of a long downhill slide. The troubles started slowly then quickly built into a crescendo of destruction. All I know for sure it the tipping point came much sooner than expected. 

I remember the worst it. Dad and I called it the dying time. Meteorologists said 2030 was the hottest year ever recorded. It wasn’t news. They’d said the same thing about every year since 2019.

The year was significant because that was the year of the great Antarctic ice sheet’s melting accelerated to levels never seen or predicted. It was the year wildfires ignited forests from California to western Colorado and south to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. The U.S. became one vast, unstoppable furnace.

By late summer 2031, the Greenland Ice Sheet succumbed to the planet’s continual heating. Groaning like a foaling horse struggling through a long, intense labor, the melting ice birthed uncountable gallons of freshwater. Massive chunks of ice, riding the flow, slipped into the Atlantic. The seas rose, not by inches but feet.

As the oceans grew hotter, the Atlantic storm season became longer, the storms stronger. A new rating system became necessary. NOAA created a Five plus rating for all storms more powerful than the old monster hurricanes like Katrina. The one that tried (and failed) to kill off New Orleans back almost thirty years ago.

In 2031, the year dad died and left me on my own, fifteen five-plus storms pounded North American. They didn’t have names, naming didn’t matter anymore. Storm 3 finished the work Katrina started. New Orleans vanished from the earth in late September that year. Numbers 2, 7, and 11 erased Galveston and Corpus Christi. Houston remained, much of the city a newborn lake, depth unknown.

The hurricane winds and torrential rains ripped buildings apart, uprooted trees, killed off wildlife, and drowned cities. The great cities of the east coast, from Maine to Florida, now existed as occasional islands rising from a shallow sea. An estimated one hundred-thirty million survivors abandoned the drowned cities.

For five years, the oceans continued to rise. Most of Florida vanished under the waves. The peninsula now just a nubbin sticking out into the Gulf of Mexico. D.C., New York, Boston, and most other major east coast cities drowned.

Sewers flooded. Contaminated water flowed through streams that had once been major streets, mosquitos filled the air in the outlying swamplands. Disease filled the land. The death toll uncountable, floating bodies in rivers and brooks delivered illness and death downstream. There was no escape.

Dad didn’t want us to live in total isolation from the world. He was a devoted HAM radio operator and had taught me those skills. Alone in my shelter, I listened to the world die. People from the United States, as well as those from far off lands, told of torrential rain falling in places it had never fallen before. Like the biblical flood had returned. Other’s spoke of no rain at all, crops, herd animals, and people dying of thirst.

All remaining hope faded away, and my heart broke as I listened. Bursts of static gave way to voices telling their stories of a world on fire. The American southwest was an inferno, devoid of life. Refugees leaving the drowned coastal cities were caught in the flames. They perished in the burning, in the floods, in the storms.

The disenfranchisement of the lower and middle class, of the Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, and the most impoverished whites that started long before I was born increased with a ferocity that rivaled the swiftly changing climate.

The ever-increasing heat, floods, and storms devastated food supplies. Tensions increased between white America and those it had dispossessed. Civility between the races grew more ragged and, finally, collapsed. The poor and hungry revolted. Terrorism grew faster than ever.

Peoples of the United States banded together in their various colors, ethnicities, and religions. Those not like them were enemies that must be excluded and persecuted when found. The food wars devastated entire tribes of these no longer diverse groups.

Other countries, those with fewer personal weapons than the U.S., faired a little better. They had fewer riots and wars, shared more, cared more for each other. Still, they died in the hundreds of thousands.

Each night I sit and listen to the HAM operators telling their stories but can only listen to the heart-rending tales from near and far for so long. The accounts of pain, terror, and devastation eat at my heart. I need to put the radio aside and take a break.

In the mornings, at first light, I walk outside the cavern to sit on a weathered stump of what once might’ve been a massive Ponderosa Pine. Tossing a couple of broken branches, big around as my arm, into the campfire, I use a long, narrow branch stripped of its dry, gray bark, to poke at the fire, waking the fading embers.

I always look up to find the stars, but there is only darkness. Those lights of heaven have long been hidden by thick clouds, black with ash. My gaze wanders to the distant western horizon, backlit by the eerie reddish-orange glow of the still-raging fires.

The forests of the southwestern states are burning, have been aflame for years. Someday the fires will die, when the last building, tree, and withered blade of grass is consumed. Their ashes will eventually settle to the earth and, with the clearing of the skies, the heat will increase.

Each morning I sit out here on the mountainside remembering the world that was and grieving the world that is.

Sometimes I daydream about my childhood and the way the world was before. Born into a rootless military family, I spent those early, forgotten years traveling from one Army base to another. 

The travels and the brief home places they represented were mostly in the lush green forests and greener lawns found in the southern United States, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas. Some of those places are still green, I suppose, those that remain above water and those that still have any water at all.

Remembering the time before the great dying is like dreaming of life on a different planet in some far-off star cluster tucked neatly into a remote corner of the galaxy.

Thinking back to those days, I picture the lengthening shadows of the elms and maples creeping across the lawn as the evening sun moves ever westward and twilight approaches. 

I can still hear the cicadas humming in the evening breeze and see the fireflies lighting the night. Those days are long gone and will not return in my lifetime or for many lifetimes to come. They may never come back at all.

Humans had gone and stuck their heads in the sand, hiding from reality for far too long. We had done our damnedest to destroy the planet and had done an excellent job of it. I dream of the lost past and wonder if we can ever bring it back to life. I fear my life will be far too short.

Each day I look up at the smoky orange sky, taste the ever-present grit in the air and mourn the death of my world. The flavor of seared trees and dirt lying heavy on my tongue, I rinse my mouth with a sip of coffee and spit it on the ground. Spitting didn’t help, tiny burnt embers floated there too.

I suspect the gritty ash will fall from the sky for a long time yet, years perhaps. Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and most of California have had no rain or snow. Haven’t had any for almost a dozen years now.

That part of America, dry as parchment paper, was like a furnace. Wildfires raged, pushed higher and higher by the screaming Santa Ana winds, flames licked the sky, smoke, and ash rose in the thick columns of scorching heat and drifted east on the high winds.

Still, I am here, thankful to God for my dad. Hope diminished but not gone. I am luckier than most. Dad’s dreams saved my life. Up here, the elevation permits some rain and snow. The moisture continues to fall in brief, intense spells each year. 

There’s water to be had if you can find a way to store it. The ashes must be strained out, then the water boiled. The possibility of disease scares me, so I cook the hell out of it, so far, so good. The growing season lasts longer now while the snow season shorter. The winter snows stop coming in the middle of February.

The early spring rains still come. When they arrive, I’ll replenish the water supply. But the dry times return earlier than ever, somewhere around the end of March. They always do these days. That’s a fact I live with here in the new world.

Some of us will survive. Some always do. Our children (and theirs) will learn to live in this new world. Generations from now the environment will even out, life will begin anew. I hope the peoples of the world alive five-hundred or a thousand years from now do a better job of protecting the planet than we did. It would be hard to do worse.





Submitted: January 10, 2020

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