Ravines

Words by Josh Stevenson, Images by Evan Hughes

Behind my house three ravines ran one after another, like sausage links. They weren’t real ravines, just abandoned limestone quarries. The people who came to the property after the limestone diggers saw the ravines and thought to themselves, “Now we have a place to put all of our trash.” They had a passion for filling holes in the ground with trash.

The first ravine they had almost filled with trash. Refrigerators, televisions, several calf corpses, a boat, bags of more general trash. The pile sat about thirty feet deep, and sloped from the side accessible to the truck that presumably brought the trash, down to the foot of the sheer rock wall of the facing side. They’d filled it about three quarters of the way—a valiant effort. I could have slid down the hill of trash, contracted tetanus, and slammed directly into the slate of the rock wall opposite the pile.

The second ravine had filled with water. I took my friend Lonnie to see the ravines. When we saw the boat in the trash and the water filled ravine, about the size of a small pond, we each did the math.

“We could ride the boat down the trash pile, and then throw TVs into the water,” I said with excitement.

Lonnie’s face showed an amount of strain.

“Or,” he said, “we could see if the boat floats on the water.”

After a 45 minute debate, we decided to try Lonnie’s idea.

We pulled the boat out of the first ravine and started to drag it all the way around to the second ravine. After ten feet, I dropped my end of the boat.

“This cold is killing my hands,” I said to Lonnie. I looked at his hands. Lonnie lived on a chicken and veal farm. At twelve years old, chores had turned his hands into leather gloves. The skin of his hands had become a single callous. His hands were yellow with callous. I imagined carefully whittling the callous away with a knife, doing no damage to his hands underneath, and yielding two perfect hand casings. It would be as though his hands had molted like a crab. We could then sell these callouses to the highest bidder.

Lonnie didn’t want to whittle his callouses off. He said they were protecting him from the metal strip that ran around the top of the boat. “I know,” I said. “The metal digs into your hands, and the cold makes it horrible.”

Lonnie exhaled as though listening to me made him tired. He would clearly have preferred to strain every muscle moving the boat.

“It’s there to keep people from getting fiberglass splinters,” he said.

I admitted that I’d rather get cut up by metal that had been sitting in a pile of trash.

Lonnie found a rope, but the cold made the rope in my hands painful too. We drug the boat for an hour. We got it to the water. We pushed it into the water. It sank right away.

We struggled and pulled it out of the water, full of water, very heavy.

“I’ve got pitch at home,” Lonnie said. “We can seal the bottom and then it should float.” I went back to the trash pile in the first ravine and found a board in the trash. “This can be our paddle,” I said. Lonnie found a different board, one that had a skinnier part for the shaft, and a fatter part for the blade. “This is a better paddle,” he said. I threw my paddle back in the trash. It smashed into a calf corpse’s head and made a possum scramble deep into the trash. That possum loved being deep in the trash. Being surrounded by decaying waste from human houses, that was the sweet spot for that possum. He felt his anxieties melt away. “Here,” thought the possum, “deep in the trash, is where I’m safe.”

Lonnie came back next week and brought the pitch. We put the pitch on the boat. We put the boat in the water. The boat didn’t sink right away. The boat could go all the way to the other end of the ravine and only be mostly submerged by the time you got there. Then you could dump it out and come back.

We went out to the middle of the ravine and took the rope and tied a rock to the end of the rope and dropped it down to see how deep the water was. The rock sank and pulled the whole length of the rope straight down, and the rope was maybe 20 feet long. The ravine dropped deeper than that. The sides of the ravine climbed 20 feet up above the water. Trees grew along the sides of the ravine, like a fence.

“It’s probably 80 feet deep,” I said. I had no idea how deep it was, but once I was in a canoe with my dad and we were in the middle of a lake in Michigan and I asked him how deep the lake was and he said, “Probably 80 feet deep.”

Finding the depth of the water cost us a lot of water-filling-the-boat time. We made it back to the shore. The water in the boat still swayed, dark and filthy. You could feel the water getting inside of you and turning your blood brown and sludgy. When you rowed, you’d put your feet up on the sides of the boat, so you didn’t become infected by the dark water. The first ravine and the trash felt infectious as well.

Trees grew around the third ravine, and even down into it. Whoever had dug the other ravines out must have dug this one out too, but they must not have found much limestone, or maybe used it for something else, because it didn’t feel damaged or filthy. Things actually grew here.

But we came back one day, and someone had dumped trash in it. Since there was still some room for trash in the other ravine, it seemed like they’d done it out of spite, like they’d gotten tired of just ruining the same old place. The trash included deer legs, but mostly came from a teenager’s room.

I felt sure that the teenager died. Lonnie didn’t think so. But they’d thrown out old photos, and a huge stuffed bear, and a dirty joke book. Wouldn’t a living teenager need all those things? That was my point.

We read the dead teenager’s joke book and found the jokes to be dirty. Lonnie and I hid the book out there in a split in a tree and came back and looked at it once. I never repeated a single one of the jokes, because they weren’t funny. You would only tell the jokes in order to infect someone else. I went out by myself one day and threw the book in the water, and it sank 80 feet down.

I got in the boat. I rowed out. I tried to feel like I was having a beautiful experience, in a boat, on the water. When my dad and I had rowed out on the lake in Michigan, the black glass of the water, the waves building, the wind slapping at us, all of it pushed itself through my skin and filled me with the aliveness of the world. The wind had the will of a person, and so did the water.

Nothing felt beautiful in the ravines. The sides of the ravine shielded the water from most of the wind. The water didn’t move. Trash all around. I rowed with a broken piece of board. The dirty water flowed into the boat.

I rowed over to a limb from a tree that had grown down the side of the sheer limestone wall, and hovered over the face of the water. I looked closely at the limb. A moss of some kind grew there. I looked closer and saw that the moss had some small protrusions, which seemed strange for moss. I thought it might be a lichen. The protrusions looked a little like the alfalfa sprouts we ate in pitas. The bed around them appeared infinitely complex. I looked at the lichen for a long time, letting it erase everything else around me.

I changed position and one of my feet dipped into the boat and the brown water soaked my sock. Water had nearly filled the boat. I rowed back, very slowly, to the shore. I got out of the boat. I tried to tip the boat and empty it. I pushed with all my might and the water swayed a bit. I wanted to empty the boat. The boat was trash itself, but I didn’t want it to sit here full of the water. I pulled at the boat. If I could get it further onto the shore, I might be able to tip it. I couldn’t move it by pulling it. If I pushed it from behind, I could move it, I thought. I would have to wade into the water. I looked at the brown water filling the boat. I waded in and pushed the boat up onto the shore, then I was able to tip it. The water splashed out in yellow waves. The boat was empty. My socks held the brown water to my skin. The water still might infect me.

I looked up and saw the possum watching me. He shook his head at me. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t love trash.

Illustrations provided by the impressively talented Evan Hughes. Follow him on social media and buy stuff. One time he did an ice carving of Al Roker that appeared on the Today Show. But more importantly he makes art with a surreal edge that prefers to hug rather than slice reality, even though it slices reality when it has to.

Ravines

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