I wanted a vacation.
A break from the stress of the world.
A week away from the hustle and bustle of my busy classroom and so I did what any good teacher would do: I decided to play hooky.
I told the children.
I didn’t lie.
I’m a firm believer in “mental health” days and who were they to complain anyways — plus, this was their substitute:
Adored by all . . . wanted by many.
I was leaving him as a token, a gift of my generosity. Stroosma, snacks and Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby in one of his most handsome film periods: 1974.
What could go wrong?
As long as Stroosma didn’t set the room on fire all should be well in my world.
But I didn’t take into consideration the saga of Christopher Dorner, a fired Los Angeles police officer who at this time was still a stranger in Ms. Wood’s world—but that was all about to change.
On the day I was planning to leave for Big Bear, a small group of overly concerned seventeen-year-olds headed into my classroom in a tight little group.
“Ms. Wood,” one of them said with alarm. “You can’t go to Big Bear, that cop killer Dorner guy is loose up there.”
I continued to shut down my computer for the day.
“I’ll be fine,” I said calmly. “Trust me. I’ll be fine.”
One of my militant punk students turned to the others and said, “I told you. It’s Ms. Wood. She’ll kick that guy’s ass! You can’t shoot a bunch of people and not get your ass kicked.”
“No she won’t,” another one interjected. “She’ll talk him out of being bad. She’ll get him to turn himself in. She can talk anyone out of being bad.”
This seemed to settle the collective as they nodded knowingly in agreement, smothered me in a flurry of hugs, and exited the room in search of another “high school crisis.”
I smiled and waved but inside: I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Dodge.
I grabbed my things, hustled out the door and rushed to the gate before another group of little worriers came to find me.
By the time I reached the mini-van my phone was already going off in text messages:
Ms. Wood: Don’t try to find that guy. I know you will. I don’t want you to die.
Ms. Wood: Fuck that guy up . . . take a picture and post it on Instagram.
Ms. Wood: Will you bring me back something from Big Bear? No one ever brings me back something from Big Bear.
“Jesus,” I mumbled to myself as I threw the van into gear and headed down the street.
I hopped on the 605 at Spring, floored it to the 91, jumped the Fastrak until I hit San Berdoo, and almost cried at the sight of my mountain.
Covered in snow—crisp and clear—it held everything I could want for a week: beauty, solitude, and a place to write.
I felt like a kid breaking free from her parents.
If the thought of Christopher Dorner even entered my mind; I don’t remember.
The trip up the mountain was uneventful.
No Dorner sightings.
Just about a thousand idiots who had no idea how to drive the mountain in chains fighting their way up to the resorts and so, what was usually a two hour trip, turned into a four hour parking lot drive where good music, dark chocolate, and coffee provided the only relief.
Stephen, my man, had followed me up the mountain in his own car and by the time we reached Big Bear City, we were ready for a good meal and a good bed.
The next morning, we went about having a lovely weekend sure, as many people were, that Christopher Dorner was long gone, probably on his way to Canada or Mexico by now, far from the grasp of the police.
On Monday, Stephen headed down the hill and back to work and I prepared to spend the rest of my week writing.
I slept peacefully that night on my own. I did not worry about locking the doors, checking the closets, closing up the balcony.
And when the sun came up over the lake at six in the morning, I was dressed and off to my normal routine: to walk the lake and forest path on the far side of Big Bear, close to Fawnskin, a trek that takes a couple of hours and connects with the Pacific Crest Trail.
I didn’t think to check in.
I didn’t think to call anyone.
I didn’t think about anything.
Oblivious to the news of the day, I headed out for a quick bite at the Grizzly Manor Cafe before I hit the trail.
I should have known when a giant man, similar in build to Christopher Dorner, entered the cafe for a quick cup of coffee and the table of deputies sitting across from me stood up with guns drawn that something was up but I just assumed in a small town like Big Bear, the local law enforcement might just be “itchy” for action and willing to keep the antics up for a few days in hopes something interesting might happen.
I smiled as the guy looked around confused before he put his hands up and said to the deputies, “I just want a cup of coffee.”
He sat down close to me at the counter and rolled his eyes, annoyed that they thought he was a criminal.
He grabbed his sugar packets roughly and shook them back and forth numerous times before asking me, “Do I even look like that guy?”
I didn’t want to admit it to him but . . . he actually did.
I shrugged my shoulders, paid my bill, and headed off to the lake.
I parked in a remote part of the trail, put on my gloves and hat and started off at a good clip.
It was a beautiful day—quiet and cool—everything was covered in thick soft powdered snow and I liked the sound of the crunch my hiking boots made on the path.
I was about half way through the forest when I had that strange feeling of being watched.
I stopped: sure that I heard a noise.
I looked around, listened for more noises.
I stepped up the pace.
Suddenly, I felt the labor of my breathing, the struggle of the altitude, and my usual “bravado” of being able to take anyone flagged.
I wondered what would happen if I was attacked?
Would I be able to fight back?
Would I be able to run?
I patted my pockets and realized I didn’t have my usual stash of Twinkies and Ho-Ho’s for calming difficult situations— my treats always a means of mediation.
I felt my heart beat faster.
I jogged the rest of the way to the bridge and much like Ichabod Crane in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, refused to turn around and look back until I had passed over it and was safely on the other side.
The forest now behind me looked dark, looming, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to walk that way back to the van but the road was no safer covered in ice and snow: I would basically be a moving target for any yahoo making sharp mountain turns there on the 38.
I pushed the thought from my mind and headed down the lake path to the marina.
The wind was whipping across the water, the day had warmed to a lovely high of 30 degrees and so I walked out to the point and sat on the bench above the rocks and thanked God that I lived close enough to a place like this.
By ten, I was safely back home, showered and now warm in my jammies, sitting at my computer, hard into my writing day.
I worked solidly until close to 1:30 when once again my mind stopped—alert.
I looked around.
Something seemed out of place.
Something seemed wrong.
I realized I hadn’t seen my phone in hours and jumped up to look for it, afraid that I was having some parental premonition regarding something going on at home and that it was imperative to check-in.
It took me a good fifteen minutes to realize that my phone was wedged between the cushions of the couch and when I saw the massive amounts of texts I had missed I thought I might be sick.
I pushed in my pass code and prepared for the worst:
Stephen: WHERE ARE YOU???? VERY WORRIED!!!! CALL IMMEDIATELY.
My mind jogged.
That wasn’t what I expected.
It seemed that he was for some reason worried about me.
I hit the next message. It was my daughter, Lexi:
MOM! THIS ISN’T FUNNY! ANSWER MY FUCKING TEXTS!
I went through scroll after scroll of worried messages from family, friends, and students.
- WOOD! ARE YOU STILL IN BIG BEAR???? ANSWER ME NOW!!!!
- WOOD CALL ME I’M WORRIED!
- WOOD SEND VIDEO I KNOW YOU NABBED THAT GUY AND BRING ME BACK SOMETHING FROM BIG BEAR NO ONE EVER BRINGS ME BACK SOMETHING FROM BIG BEAR!
I didn’t know what the hell was going on but obviously something was up.
I checked one more message from my friend Sharla:
You’re nowhere near that Christopher Dorner guy right? Call me when you can.
Suddenly, it all became clear.
I ran to the front door and threw it open:
Helicopters were flying throughout the area.
Sirens were going off in the distance.
Smoke was billowing from somewhere down the hill.
“Jesus Christ!” I shouted before jumping back inside and locking the door.
I didn’t know what to think.
Part of me was really disappointed that Christopher Dorner had been in Big Bear and I hadn’t ran into him.
I imagined how I would have lured him into the mini-van with the offer of a getaway car, a box of Twinkies and an exclusive to his side of the story.
I knew that he had snapped and killed in the name of personal justice but I hoped that it wouldn’t end in more bloodshed.
Right then Matt Vann, my friend and a teacher from Millikan, called.
“You with him?” he asked.
“What?” I said unsure if I had heard him right.
“You with him?” he repeated with intensity.
“No,” I said bummed that I wasn’t. “It’s not me.”
“Damn it,” Matt said. “I was so hoping they were gonna interrupt the State of the Nation tonight with a picture of you and Dorner.”
He hung up with an abrupt “bye” and I rushed to the computer to check the CNN feed.
My Facebook page popped open and I thought it best to write a quick note to let everyone know I was okay. The responses were immediate:
Danny: D.D. I wasn’t worried about you. I was worried about Dorner . . . if he accidentally chose your place.
Timko: Go take him down Miss Wood.
Trevor: He’s never met sassy Miss Wood. There would be a citizen’s arrest for sure.
Cathy: Can you see the smoke?
I was happy to know that so many people had faith in my abilities to rule the world and once again I wished I had had a chance to intervene.
I hit the CNN feed and saw that Christopher was supposedly in a cabin, that the cabin was on fire, and that he was either going to give up or die fighting.
I couldn’t watch.
I couldn’t think.
My heart hurt for everyone involved and I couldn’t bring myself to take a side.
I called my loved ones, promised to stay safe, before I grabbed a blanket and sat in the chair on the balcony looking out over the lake.
I thought of how life can turn on a dime.
How you can be the picture of mental stability, a symbol of strength to your community, someone loved, respected, and then a vigilante outlaw the next.
I thought of his smiling face, now all over the news feed, the people he left behind and I prayed for everyone who had lost in this game.
Just as I was letting the sadness of the day wash over me my phone beeped again.
- WOOD PLEASE BRING ME BACK SOMETHING FROM BIG BEAR NO ONE EVER BRINGS ME BACK SOMETHING FROM BIG BEAR!
I smiled and made a mental note to myself to buy a present for my student the very next day and be the first person to remember to bring him back something from Big Bear: Myself—alive and well—and there for all who love me and some silly little gift to remind him that he mattered in my life . . . that he was important in my world.