The Forest Town

Sometimes, you’re the cause of your own dystopias.

In the quiet, sylvan hills of California, a small town is untouched by the future.

The town’s single road still twists past the same businesses—the same mom-and-pop videocassette rental place that clings to life somehow, in this era of autostereoscopic displays and oct-HD encodings. The same dingy diner under new management, the same hotel with four rooms. In the evenings, a neon sign can be seen flickering in the café window, advertising fresh pastries, and the bistro beside it casts a golden light onto the row of parked cars, as working-class men and their wives celebrate a day’s work in measures of liquor.

Yes, a quiet town, separate from the future into which the rest of the world is racing so breathlessly. Sometimes, driving down one of the many ill-maintained byways, you’ll see a couple drinking lemonade on a faded porch, enjoying the cool summer breeze that blows from the west, the sun streaming through the dusty trees. The supermarket is staffed, and the checkout lady knows your name. To the south, a converted chapel is a museum, chronicling the good old days when men’s men harvested the great redwoods with makeshift hand tools, and floated the timber down the river to the bay.

We cling to our past, yet not because we are scared of the future per-se. We simply grew up in the past, and in some sense, we feel like we belong there. As Earth and the other planets race into the future, we take comfort in our collective childhoods, in our collective story, written indelibly into our most precious memories.

Can you remember the shaded brook, on whose banks we used to play? The park up the winding stairs, with the railing where you once clung after your first bee sting? Your friend’s house, where they had that party for Y2K? The autumn rain? The frostbitten, silver-lined leaves? Or the narrow dirt pathway, winding into the mountains, past the slope covered with dead grass that you used to ride down on sheets of cardboard? You remember cardboard, don’t you?

I do. And these things cannot be touched by the future, whatever it may hold.

I used to look down every time. I used to look down at that tiny spot, invisible from space, where I knew my home must be. And every time I imagined I caught a view through the trees—and then I was gone, pulled away, racing through the sky at speeds inconceivable, in a spacecraft’s desperate sprint against gravity. Part of that greedy future, I would fly ahead of that sleepy town in a single breath, relegating my imagined vision to the past.

But on the next orbit, I would see it again. And again. And every time it was like I was coming back home. That, even as I was part of the future, I kept returning, inexorably, like the clockwork universe, to that sylvan town under the stars.