Sometime in the middle of the night, while I was hard at work moving pallets, opening boxes and arranging Christmas merchandise on the sales floor of the giant wholesale buyers’ club, the clouds moved in and it began to rain. The earth was cold and as soon as the first drop hit the ground it turned to ice. More drops followed, untold millions upon millions of them, and, in the matter of minutes, everything they struck was encapsulated in a growing coat of ice. The rain continued through the night and by the time the sun rose the storm had moved off towards the Cascades, where the increasing elevation forced the clouds higher into the sky and turned the rain to snow. But in the valley the damage had been done and people awoke to a crystalline world in which everyday objects had been transformed into works of art and where every branch and wire were hung with rows of dagger-like icicles.
I paid little attention to nature’s wonderful trick as I emerged from the store and shielded my eyes from the light of the morning sun. I was a night dweller, one of the nameless rabble who worked through the dark hours in order to fill the shelves with merchandise that the good, normal people of the world would happily purchase amidst warmth and light while I struggled to sleep. I hated my job, I hated my life and I hated anyone who had the those things that I, too, had worked so hard to attain but had found denied in what should have been my hour of triumph.
College hadn’t been in the cards for me when I had left high school more than a decade earlier, but a chance encounter with Japanese cartoons in the darkened exhibition hall of a Sci-Fi convention had shown me that there were more things in the world than the Snohomish district had managed to impart in 12 long years of basic education. I was amazed by the images I saw and I promptly sat down and remained in the room until the convention ended two full days later. Those cartoons led me to a lifelong study of the Japanese language, the Merchant Marines and eventually back to college at the ripe old age of 28 years old. For five years I chipped away my education, just over two years of which I spent in Junior College while I worked full time in the warehouse of a local hospital, and then another two during which I got my first taste of grinding poverty as I tried to live on student loans as I finished up my Bachelor’s degree at a four year school on the far side of the state. When it was done I was 33 years old, a new college graduate with a degree that included the words “Cum Laude” above my name, and ready to step into that better, brighter future that I had worked so hard to attain.
But the world doesn’t want 33 year old entry level white-collar workers. And it doesn’t want 33 year old college educated truck drivers, either. I was unemployed and no matter how many I sent, my resumes generated little interest. Without even the meager subsistence afforded by student loans to sustain me, I was forced to returned to my mother’s home where I resumed the residence in my childhood bedroom and where I soon found a pistol in my hand. Every day I pulled the .45 Caliber Springfield automatic from its cushioned bag, removed the trigger lock and turned it over in my hands while I decided whether or not to use it on myself. Every day, after examining its lines and feeling its weight, I told myself I wasn’t a quitter and returned it to its place. Eventually, as the early Summer turned to Autumn and Autumn gave way to Winter I was able to score a job as a seasonal temp worker for a Seattle area warehouse chain.
To this day I have mixed feelings when I walk into a warehouse store. I walk along the rows of pallets and note their perfectly aligned edges. I see how some worker has worked to pull product up from the backs of the pallets and form the boxes into rows along the aisle to give the impression that the store is stuffed to the gills with merchandise. I keep my cart in the middle of the lane to avoid accidental contact with the carefully positioned goods and anything I chance to pick up but not buy is returned to its prior position perfectly faced with the other packages, right-side-up and label out. I know the effort that has gone into the presentation, that some worker has laid hands upon and carefully positioned everything that strikes my eye. And I know that if any part of it was less than perfect, some 21 year-old dickhead shift-manager would have berated the poor worker who had chanced to leave it that way while still exhorting him to work faster.
The truth was I couldn’t give a shit if the world was encased in ice or fire at that point. My shift was over and I was exhausted. My bedroom, such as it was, lay back up in the hills some 20 miles away and I had an appointment with the pistol I kept under the bed there before going to sleep. My big GMC Jimmy had crossed the mountain passes in the dead of winter more times than I could count so, no matter what the weather was, a trip across the valley and then up a few hills was an easy morning’s work. I locked in the hubs, flipped the floor mounted lever to 4 Wheel High and rolled smoothly out of the parking lot while other the other workers were still fishtailing their pitiful econoboxes around in circles next to their parking places.
The interstate was jammed and I eased my truck into line with everyone else unfortunate to be going somewhere that morning. We headed North at a snail’s pace to the scene of a massive pile-up. I looked in awe at the twisted wreckage, one of the cars on its side, still smoldering despite the steady stream of water the firetruck on-scene poured upon the hulk. Later, I learned the accident was fatal. Likely some other poor work-a-day shlub like myself trying to get to or from the place that barely paid for his daily bread. God rest his soul.
Where Interstate 5 North met Highway 2 I slipped off the three lane freeway and onto the two lane bridge known as “the trestle” that first spans the Snohomish river and then crosses the width of the flood-prone valley elevated upon row after row of concrete columns. This road, too, was crammed with cars moving no faster than a slow walk and the normally quick trip took an interminable amount of time. But as the end of the bridge gradually approached, I noticed one place where the cars dared not go.
At the end of the trestle, Highway 2 takes a sharp right turn and heads South along the edge of the Snohomish valley before eventually resuming its Easterly route up over Stevens Pass. At the same point, an exit branches off towards the North and the town of Lake Stevens via another local highway. There is, however, a third option: a branch exit onto a road that leads dead east, right up and over the rim of the valley.
The road is one of those pieces of pavement that would never be built today. More than 300 feet tall, Cavalero Hill rises up like a sheer escarpment above the floor of the Snohomish Valley. From its top, a trip down the hill is like a ride over a waterfall. As you approach the edge of the precipice, the landscape on either side falls away and the horizon fills your vision. Ahead, the City of Everett sits atop what seems to be a small knoll and beyond it lies Possession Sound, Whidbey Island and finally the snow covered mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. For a moment it seems as though you will fly off into space, but then the road tilts and your perspective skews into a headlong dive towards the valley below. In the old days, that road went all the way to the floor of the valley and then up and onto a rickety two lane trestle where cars sped towards one another inches apart with no margin for error, but in the early ‘70s some thoughtful civil engineer designed an on-ramp that reaches up fully a third of the hill’s towering height and slingshots you down onto a Westbound bridge that whisks you safely across the valley.
Headed East, the way I was going that icy morning, an improved off ramp similarly reaches up onto the slope. But once you begin the ascent of the hill itself, engines strain to make the climb and drivers find themselves pushed back against their seat cushions while their vehicle struggles upward like an airplane fighting against a stall. Even in the heat of summer it is an arduous climb and now, that road stood as empty and icy as the Matterhorn
From my position on the floor of the valley, the situation seemed hopeless. Everywhere I looked was a line of cars blocking my progress. To the South an endless, slow moving procession headed towards my home and to the North a similar line headed more-or-less away from my house. But ahead the hill was open and, deep inside of me, something simply snapped. I pointed the Jimmy’s hood ornament at the slope and mashed the gas.
I saw them looking. Mortal men and women trapped in their tiny cars as my massive GMC thundered by and accelerated towards the slope. People gaped, mouths fully open in shock and one man had the audacity to lay in his horn in a hopeless attempt to dissuade me from my chosen course of action. But no fucks were given that day my friends and I hit the hill at fully 50 miles per hour.
The earth tilted upwards and the sky filled my vision. The weight of my body shifted onto my back, like an astronaut preparing to launch into space, and the GMC began to claw its way up the hillside. The tires skittered on the icy pavement and the truck slipped to the side but I corrected the steering and stayed hard on the gas. One tire found traction and then the next and with increasing confidence and speed I rose up and out of the valley on a plume of snow and ice, ascending to the edge of the precipice and onto the flat ground beyond without incident while those below could only watch in amazement. I could not – would not – be stopped.
Maybe it’s crazy but something inside of me changed right then and that morning and before I went to sleep I made a conscious decision to leave the .45 where it belonged under the bed. The next day I did the same and, although my life didn’t get better right away, I never again picked that pistol up with the thought of turning it against myself. The world sucked, I knew, and the roads that I thought should have been opened to me after years of hard work and sacrifice had been jammed by the narrow minded bastards who had achieved their stations in life before I had thought to go there, but there was still a way ahead. I could stay trapped behind them forever or I could climb the hill and go farther than they ever dreamed. There was only one real way to go.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.