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Joseph Van Nurden

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Finding the Way- a memoir of the apocalypse
by Joseph Van Nurden   

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Books by Joseph Van Nurden
· Heading North- A Novel
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Copyright:  May 22, 2011

A post-apocalyptic saga of a merry band of modern day voyageurs, punks, outsiders, and survivalists fighting back against tyrannical enemies attempting to destroy their land and way of life.



Within a few short years life on earth was altered forever.
A plague had settled over the land prior to the fires, moving toward the center of the United States from the coasts. The result of an error in the laboratory during the creation of a new vaccine spurred the coyote flu pandemic which claimed the lives of all but a miniscule fraction of humans. Hundreds of thousands of patients in the major American cities looking to escape a week of misery from succumbing to illness during flu season had been inadvertently injected with a plague that quickly escaped the bounds of routine and spread more rapidly than the wildfires that followed at its heels. The strain used for the vaccine was so powerful and mutated so quickly that within a week of it being administered a quarter of the population of the United States was dead, a month later less than a million humans continued to draw breath from the smoky air.
There was a mass exodus of survivors pouring away from the East and West through the navigable routes. These survivors flooded into the Midwest and carried the flu with them. The plague ripped through the Midwest; there was seemingly no haven from the outbreaks, wherever people gathered the plague followed.
Wildfires had ignited throughout the West. Land stretching in a wide swath to the north and south of the coast of California to the Rocky Mountains was either smoldering or enveloped in an inferno. Even the fires that were not yet raging uncontrollably could not be put out, as many of those who generally performed that particular duty had already begun succumbing to the plague. The wildland firefighters that remained battled the blazes and the plague in a futile effort to save what remained of a world changing with each tick of the clock.
In the years leading up to the fires invasive species and new tree diseases had moved throughout the west, killing off large portions of the remaining forests and leaving dead snags standing throughout the countryside. Fire suppression efforts to protect the homes being built in sensitive areas had left a tinder box surrounding thousands of mansions spread over thousands of square miles of land; this tinder box spelled mass destruction for the culture that had created the conditions, yet for the land itself the fires represented a new beginning.
Torrential downpours came through the West suddenly. These dramatic displays of pounding rain, lightning which kept an eerie glow over the land, and deafening booms of thunder put out many of the fires, but also caused immense landslides, which, combined with flashfloods devastated the overdeveloped land and reduced what remained of the expensive homes to scorched heaps of rubble. The root systems of the forests had been ripped out of hillsides to build infrastructure and the rains quickly eroded the ground soil without the support of the trees. The lowlands were flooded, destroying everything in them and carrying along millions of scorched trees which blocked roadways- the escape routes for the would-be refugees from the pandemic and environmental destruction.
As the fires in the West began to wane the Everglades went up in flames. Water had been diverted out of the wetlands to be used by urban populations and successively more constricting droughts had served to ready the undeveloped areas in the East for tremendous fires. All of the sentient beings fled north in an effort to escape as the wildfires spread throughout the drought stricken areas following the advance of the southern refugees into the Appalachian Mountains, also suffering the effects of a prolonged drought.
Following the shuffling population was the violence of the mobs. Bands of thieves and murderers appeared out of the panicked populace and chaos ensued for months on end. Cities and everything in them were looted and started on fire. For several months safety could be found nowhere. Slowly things began to settle into a new order of leadership by ruthless despots. The Upper Midwest was the last stronghold for survivors as the majority of the region came to be controlled by a group of feudal warlords whose only organized opposition existed in the boreal forests and the outer reaches of the mountains. Indeed, the sheer expanses of land and cover needed for opposition only existed in the far northern reaches of the United States and the whole of Canada where those free from the rule of the despots who murdered and robbed in the open to establish their position could gather with minimal threat of attack and avenues of escape.
Scattered pockets of individuals lived out away from the clutches of the warlords among the thousands of lakes and the coniferous forests of spruce, pine, balsam and tamarack- an environment which obscured the view of all eyes during every season. Safe travel was not guaranteed anywhere however, no matter how far away from the fortresses the warlords had constructed. The lawless groups allowed to exist were left to be with the understanding that they kill or capture anyone living beyond the limits. Anyone who could not recite the pledge or prove their fidelity to the warlords was killed.
The renegades, for the most part, and in contrast to the servants, were living lives of absolute freedom. There were prison camps in the far northern plains where slaves were sent as punishment, North America’s version of Siberia, but there were also groups calling it home that considered the same land to be paradise.
One man had risen above all others to become the most oppressive tyrant in a crowd of tyrants. He assumed the moniker of Odin and had consolidated the power of the warlords with himself as the final and sole authority. With the power he assumed the majority of the population was held captive in utter hopelessness. All were forced to obey his every decree or starve to death with the weapons of his henchmen leveled at their heads. He had established a goon squad to crush dissent and had effectively turned those living in the prairies and farmlands into spies, turning in their neighbors to appease the goons and gain favor with their superiors. There were limited resources and what was left was brought to his stronghold to be distributed by his men to keep the slaves in line and maintain his hierarchy.
The prairies extended in the Northwest from Canada down toward the Mississippi where they were broken by the remnants of the Big Woods and the Mississippi bluff country between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. This prairie land was now the kingdom of Odin.
We, speaking now as a representative of the northern people, knew there had to be isolated groups in the mountains, the Rockies especially. Not all areas could have been exposed to the plague, there had to be some survivors. My people were spread throughout the Northern Boreal Forest of Minnesota and into Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with large areas of land to hunt and forage. We strayed from the north only infrequently for supplies, but for every mile we traveled southward the danger of attack increased. The roads were patrolled to the south and any non party members were shot on sight. The lawless gangs that remained were always dangerous as well, though they were often easier to scare away than the more organized forces.
There was a fourth group of people, ascetics who saw the recent events as omens of further cosmic occurrences. This group was made up of the men and women of the forest that made their homes in the wilderness for spiritual purposes, preferring to stick to their doctrine and interpretation of what the earth had in store for humans. The mountains and streams were their places of worship, their places of spiritual birth. They dressed in bear and wolf skins and were rarely seen within the forest while going about their hunting, worshipping, and keeping their distance from the non-believers, refusing to fight back even as they were being slain.
There was no communication center, no newspapers published- the only things seen by the majority of the people were production quotas that the henchmen brought around to the reestablished farms and slave camps. Production was required at the expense of the people to build mansions and fortresses for the high ranking party officials.
The machinery was still operating to supply the top with everything they demanded, and their demands had turned to lavish castles, palaces, and even mountains once Odin took over. The warlords had created ultimate power for themselves with thousands of slaves constructing monuments while they slowly wasted away to nothing. City streets were dug up and the pavement was used along with the raked over land to build mountains for Odin’s pleasure.
The dump trucks hauled out the gravel after the trees were cut out and cut to length. The roots were bulldozed out and piled where the gravel had been dug out. The backhoes dug into the ground and loaded up the trucks. In days large portions of earth were completely altered to build walls and processing centers. It was rumored that the dead were being processed into food to sustain the living in a new institutionalized cannibalism; apparently one thing the warlords had taken to heart was not to waste the resources they were extracting.
Odin was like a statue except when he absently scratched at his goatee. He dressed in the manner of an emperor and had a throne in a high tower in the middle of his keep which he would sit in to look out over his empire. His dark brown hair floated over his shoulders and covered his neck- tattooed with an axe, not just any axe, but the silhouette of a double-bitted executioners axe. Before his assumption of power he was a trained killer, formerly serving as a sniper and assassin. He rarely slept and kept himself in gladiator condition- daily running ten miles, swimming across his personal lake, lifting weights, and practicing sword and weapon techniques against his underlings, occasionally killing one for pleasure…and food. Odin was obsessed with medieval life and acted in accord. An enormous castle was built out of the stone his men were collecting.
For how much power Odin held he did not have much protection. His arrogance made him think no one would stand up to him; if they did he was certain he would triumph and survive. His main pleasure in life came from hunting and eating, and he was enraged that his men were being kept from the boreal forest which he wished to own more than anything else. He had nothing demanding his time, the power he had established was absolute and through force he dispatched his enemies. The royal hunting grounds covered several hundred square miles of land. Beasts of all kinds were let loose there for him to battle. He would go out onto his land to hunt lions, grizzlies, moose, pronghorn, or sometimes men he had chosen as fair game.
There was a dark cloud hanging over everything from more than just the lingering smoke of the wildfires. The earth seemed angry, but had not yet found a way to get rid of this man and the power he was extending daily. The air was actually clear and improving since the population collapse despite what was being cut down and excavated from it, perhaps a sign that the earth was not yet ready to purge all of the humans quite yet.
There were lingering concerns among the warlords that the virus remained in the areas outside the limits of their grasp and going to those areas would mean instant death for anyone that attempted it. The party first sent small groups of prisoners out with one or two well-armed, out of favor party member guards to see if they would survive. If the groups did not take ill with the plague they were given title and responsibility to the land they ventured into for the risk they had taken; there was never any choice in the matter for the men who served regardless of what happened though. Quickly there began a rush on new land after the first successful resettlements and even the hardiest, most favored party leaders were venturing out, or at least sending proxies. The high ranking party members typically just sent underlings ahead and killed them if they offered any resistance when the title to the land was to be claimed. The junior party members were often forced to serve as small landowners on the land that they had came out to scout.
In the beginning anyone who offered resistance was killed on the spot with no further questioning, but there were not as many humans after that time and the party eventually adopted a more traditional form of chattel slavery for the dissidents rather than outright killing them.
For those in the North there was much to offer- food, water, shelter, all of the necessities along with the struggles that sparked the human spirit. The black spruce bogs of central Minnesota provided good shelter and prevented enemy travel further north into our area. The roads were the only way through for any heavy equipment or slow going vehicles. ATV’s and horses came to be the main forms of transportation for travel into and through the North. Provisions could not be carried in large quantities and hunting was necessary to secure meat. The bogs would swallow up those lacking the proper amount of caution.
Thousands of lakes, some of which took weeks to explore, and dozens of rivers stretched throughout Northern Minnesota, offering a plenitude of shelter and a means of travel. Canoes and kayaks were the only way to get through the thousands of lakes that dotted the land of the boundary waters. Many of the large border lakes alone could easily support a small army. The forests were deep, dark, and dense. In the canoe country there were no roads or even footpaths that existed to move people around and for those fit physically it was the safest place to be. You needed to be a truly experienced woodsman to set off on foot through the canoe country. An experienced woodsman may find themselves where they may not be lost exactly, but where the trail certainly was lost somewhere. If you could keep your wits about you then survival was possible. Native hunting parties had gone out without a calendar and did not worry about being back for work- they were doing their work when they were out and if they did not have meat they had no place else they should go. In the case that they had food all of their needs were met until they could reconnect with the tribe.
The deer population had been thriving. There are enough animals for anyone that could hunt. Compass, survival skills, and a good knife are essential to anyone with a time limit to being in the woods, although only the knowledge was needed to actually survive- all of the necessities could be utilized from the forest. A good knife could provide you with food, clothing and shelter. There certainly was enough water around. The loss of cities and changing of the seasons would slowly rid the lakes of impurities; all that mercury from the ubiquitous clocks would disappear. The chemicals created by humans would slowly go away and it will once again be deemed safe for pregnant women to eat fish out of a lake.
Out in the wilderness your bank account did not matter. You could not go out shopping for food or an extra pair of long johns. You could not hire a bear to give you a ride back to a town. It was only with your own wit and skill that you would survive. A firm center, something to live for, a fiercely burning inner fire is what kept a person going. If you did not panic then the hunger could not destroy you for weeks. Calm must be found to survive. In the wilderness you have to keep track of where you are by paying attention to your surroundings and marking distinguishing features of the land in your mind from all viewpoints- a wind-toppled red pine often looked completely different when approached from an unaccustomed direction. You cannot count on help finding you in time. You have to accept that your life is in your own hands and you have to do anything you can to work through the difficulty. A broken leg, a deep puncture- these things are terrible to face in the wilderness indeed. Set traps, lick your wounds, and do what you can to survive, or at least perish with dignity. Fight until the end.
There were beasts in the forest that competed for the deer, rabbits, moose, and other game animals. Cougars, bears, beavers, bobcats, lynx, fishers, pine martens, wolves, coyotes, foxes, muskrats, moose, deer, porcupines, otters, raccoons, skunks, wolverines, woodchucks, and weasels; there was plenty of diversity among the mammals of the boreal forest. Many of the mammals were rarely seen, but without the fires and internal combustion engines of humans they were increasing in number and competition for food. A new balance was being struck every season between the animal populations, constantly fluctuating and adjusting to the availability of food. Lynx populations could be directly correlated with the population of snowshoe hares, Fishers could be correlated with porcupine populations, and the creatures at the top of the food chain- cougars, bears, wolves, and humans were reaching a balance in populations with what they ate- everything.
The north saw temperatures reach sixty degrees below Fahrenheit in the winter and snow was typically in the air for six months of the year, yet June, July, and August were often the only months with no snowflakes in the air for the entire month. The area around Tower, Minnesota is the coldest place in the lower forty-eight states.
The easiest time of the year to track was in winter, but that was the only thing that was easier in winter. We were shielded in the forest and had the cover of the lakes and trees so we did not worry so much about tracks.
The seasons certainly brought large swings in temperature. The summer months were usually between sixty to eighty degrees Fahrenheit, while occasionally reaching ninety or one-hundred degrees- though infrequently. One thing about being surrounded by water and receiving a lot of rain is that it often stays hanging in the air as well and the humidity is intimidating-for many, myself included, it is more oppressive than thirty below temperatures.
The skirmishes with the outlaw groups were a constant threat throughout the forest. There were always groups that wanted the land we lived from. We were able to avoid any overly large battles since we, speaking as a man of the north, could disappear for a time and ambush the enemy when we were able to secure the advantage. The enemy did not know where to find us so they had no choice but to send out small search parties- for all their leaders knew, their soldiers could have been killed, held captive and giving away secrets, or they could have deserted or even been accepted into the humble ranks of the free. There were no attempts at communication from the warlords; all we could gather was what we could imagine from the maps and notes that the dead soldiers had carried with them. They typically showed the areas where the group had searched. From the maps we gathered we knew where to look for the bodies of our neighbors.
There was no indication of remaining numbers for the enemy, or even for those living in the north. Estimates for remaining population usually settled somewhere around five-hundred thousand spread across North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. We did not care to send our own people out to attack when the plague was still lurking in the clearing air; there was no need to do so. We were in paradise where we roamed and would gladly accept new friends among the thousands of square miles of free land.

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