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They dropped down from Charlie's private mountain in the northern New Mexico highlands to Albuquerque, and east toward Texas. Even with a trailer attached to the van, the back was full, so Garland took Freedy on as a full-time passenger in his white Miata.
Garland was a fount of information about everything they saw, but not an ounce of the personal, and even less about their mission. Freedy listened to the stories, fascinated at first, and then slowly tuning the old man out. He once realized that Garland had been talking for an hour and he hadn't heard a word and that Garland was smiling at him as if he knew.
They were sucked into Texas, but most of what Freedy remembered was huge truckstops (full of cheap knickknacks) with a fast-food outlet of some kind attached to each. They didn't stop for anything but food and gas.
They'd left just after dawn and were still driving when night fell. Freedy felt as though his butt had permanently taken on the concave shape of the passenger seat.
They went around the huge lights and towers of Dallas, which loomed out of the plains like a city of Oz.
Finally, in an old campground in the lakes district of east Texas, they stopped for the night. It was as warm at night in October as a warm summer night in Oregon and twice as humid. But Freedy lay on top of his sleeping bag on the ground with a blanket over him, and quickly fell asleep, still feeling as though he was rocking inside the Miata.
Next morning, it was again black coffee, not tasting quite so good this time, and cold scrambled eggs with cinders mixed in, and burnt toast. He ate the food gratefully, knowing that at home he would've thrown it away.
Sometime in the darkness of driving at night they had passed out of the flat plains and into flat forest and lakes. The straight roads were pockmarked with little tourist enclaves -- fishing and hunting. Old cabins and gas stations, dented by time and misuse. The trees got bigger and denser as they entered the Piney Woods territory.
They turned off onto a narrow, rock rutted dirt road that the van barely negotiated by moving side to side avoiding the high points, and Garland mostly followed Fat Jim's chosen route, though occasionally seeming to disagree and choosing a different angle. Both cars made it through. Steve and Scott, of course, roared on by in their motorcycles and came back after a few miles to inform that not only did the road get better a few miles on -- well, we'd all just have to see it to believe it.
About ten bumpy, scary miles in -- which took the best of an hour to get through -- the road suddenly flattened and broadened and then -- unbelievably -- newly paved.
"Old Elias doesn't want visitors," Garland said, cryptically. "But he also loves his comfort."
It had seemed flat for an eternity -- as if mountains and valleys were a fantastical memory. But here there started to be some sloping contours to the land. They rose maybe a thousand feet, feeling as though they were climbing a mountain. At the peak, there was a plateau that was another five hundred feet higher still, and coming off it a spectacular waterfall. They started to drive down a looping road into a lush valley where first generation pines still stood, and a crystal blue lake met the mists of the waterfall.
They stopped at a little side park with picnic tables and restrooms. Garland gathered them at the side of the lake.
"None of this is on a map," Garland said. "The state would probably make a public park out of it if they could -- if they hadn't been bought off. If it became common knowledge, the public would demand it. So one of the rules of entry is that you never talk about what you see here."
Freedy just shrugged. It was a pretty little place, but there were dozens of places just as pretty surrounding his home town of Bend, Oregon. Maybe not quite so manicured, but Freedy liked the wild, disordered terrain. Not quite so park-like as this.
Still -- compared to the flat, dry plains it was indeed nirvana.
The others nodded solemnly. "Who we gonna tell?" Steve said, and his brother just snorted.
They piled back onto their transports and followed the road around the lake. On the other side of the road, a golf course appeared. Perfectly manicured, but without a single golfer though it was a beautiful morning.
A lion loped across the road in front of them. Freedy cried out. But the others were already exclaiming at the herd of elephants at the ninth green of the golf course. As Freedy took in the full splendor of the valley he saw zebras and gazelles. In the dogwood trees, he could see the shadows of monkeys.
At the far end of the valley, at the edge of the lake, was the biggest house Freedy had ever seen. The plateau above them had continued to wrap around the valley, and the house wasn't so much nestled under the bluffs as became part of them. Rising upward in level after level, curling off in rounded parapets and topped by sharp towers. Freedy's eyes wanted to follow every curlicue and colored roof, every sharp incline and angled corner. It was a fractal house, Freedy thought. Always getting bigger and smaller, depending on which way his vision went.
They pulled up to a series of sweeping rounded steps, which led up to doors that were taller than most houses. The battered yellow van looked like a diseased mutant invader next to the grandiose splendor. The Miata looked like a tiny bug. The Harleys for some reason fit right in.
As the last of the roars of the motorcycles bounced off the cliffs, it became heavenly quiet. Except for the sudden yelp from a copse of trees at the center of the driveway. Some kind of monkey, who seemed to be mocking them.
"Welcome to the Last Cozy Cottage," Garland said, apparently without irony.
"If this is the cottage," Charlie said, "I want to see the mansion."
16 hours ago