Legends never really die, they just go into retirement. Stories fade into irrelevency, the actors behind them move on, become the mythical equivalent of Walmart greeters. Ten centuries ago, Saint Nicholas was a fierce figure, a crimson-robed protector of the youth of Scandinavia, raw with the cold and smelling of a thousand miles of Arctic wind. Now he's something you see stenciled on your grandma's panties, or a pez dispenser, or God forbid, one of those flappy things that used car dealers keep outside their lot during the holiday season, endlessly waving away in a generated breeze.
Yesterday's Paul Bunyan, once filled with cultural significance, is now just another odd statue in the center of town. All those Spring-heeled Jacks, Jersey Devils, Loch Ness Monsters, Yetis and Bigfoots and Betsie Rosses and Paul Reveres are nothing but kitsch now, but they remain nonetheless, diminished but usually garulous.
And my hobby is tracking them down for an interview.
I found Saint Nicholas slumming it outside of Boise, working as a seasonal store greeter. He was ringing bells for some charity that was too broke to be the Salvation Army. He told me to fuck off, and I had to have a friend do the interview for me because he only talks to pretty girls.
I found Paul Bunyan at a boxing gym in Jersey, trading stories with John Henry. Wong Fei Hung works at a library in Shang-hai and doesn't seem to like children much. I still have no idea where Pecos Bill and Davie Jones are.
My wanderings take me the world over and usually not to places that bother with glossy brochures. The exciting spots, the ones that draw the crowds, are still vital and full of life. They have their own legends, new and exciting ones which get Hollywood options and become internet memes. I hope I never run out of so many folks to interview that I have to go find the Slender Man. I'll stick with safer ones like Bloody Mary or the Highgate Vampire.
Today's trip brings me to the Tambopata National Reserve, a humid bit of nowhere tucked into the east of Peru, somewhere between nothing, anywhere and not that much. A long flight by jet turns into a longer flight by single-prop plane and then an interminable drive finally ending in an endless boat ride up a brown-water river fetid with mosquitoes and algae and all the forgotten remains of the world.
Usually, when tracking down a legend, it's a matter of simply casting your nets, catching that one elusive clue to their presence. Once you have that clue, you're in the right neighborhood, so to speak. Davy Crockett's never too far from the Alamo. Butcher Pete's got his knives and his women. Calamity Jane has the circus in her blood.
And others, not so much.
My quarry had his fingers everywhere. From Boston to California, the depths of the Yukon to the northern reaches of Mexico. Later on, I found his mark in Osaka and Europe and, when he went off his rocker a bit, even in Katmandu.
I stepped off the boat and the tour guides, bored out of their skulls and more than a little drunk, gave me a half wave and a vaya-con-dios, gringo and they were off. They said they'd be back in a day or two and I didn't mind a bit.
No one was here at this small island to greet me, just towering jungle and a hell of a lot of parrots, who seemed to be here for the salt licks nailed to the occasional tree. It was hot in the way that only a place that was hot all the time could be. Everything extruded damp and sweat. Even the flies seemed to have that tropical to-hell-with-it attitude.
I squelched into the tree-line, finding something resembling a path into the jungle.
Before too long, I found what I was looking for on the trunk of a large tree the trail was forced to go around: a small white ring of tendrils, barely the size of my hand, surrounding a central longer spire. It looked like a fungus Isengard, if it hadn't been sideways on the trunk of a tree.
Up close it didn't resemble anything I'd ever seen. It wasn't a faerie circle, the remains of a moth cocoon, or an avant-garde art experiment. Bizarre. New. Unprecedented.
I got up again, wandered down the trail. There was another. And then another a hundred feet beyond that one.
By that time I was deep in the jungle. The strong tropical sunlight filtered down from above in waves, striking a glow off of the dust and pollen in the air. Far in the distance, I could hear the wildlife: tamarin and capuchin monkeys, the drone of insects larger than any you'd find in a Hoboken suburb, and the cries of the innumerable parrots.
I found him sitting with his back to a large and massive tree, its roots spread wide, almost like it was embracing him. His beard was long and that indeterminate color which only the very old can produce. He appeared to be sleeping at first, but the gleam of his eyes betrayed him.
His smile was broad and he was holding a book in his lap. It was Fifty Shades Of Grey.
I closed the distance and held out my hand. "Mr. Appleseed? I'm Ed Watts. And I'd like to hear your story."
He took my hand with an enthusiasm which belied his age. Beside his head, I saw one of the miniature not-fungus enclosures.
I began to ask him about his new hobbies. He opened his mouth, made to respond and then promptly fell asleep. As the first snore broke out, his hand fell down, brushed a root and, with a small rustle, a tiny white ring grew from the wood...