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East of the Mountains

Guterson, David


In his first novel since Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson writes about a physician's journey from the safe confines of science to the desolation of the wilderness, both literally and metaphorically. Dr. Ben Givens is a retired cardiac surgeon and a widower, who we learn at the beginning of the novel is suffering from terminal colon cancer. The story is about his plan to shoot himself while bird hunting with his dogs in order to avoid the pain and suffering he knows will accompany his advancing cancer. To protect his reputation, his daughter, and his friends, he devises a plan to make his death appear accidental.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 in East of the Mountains, © 1999 by David Guterson, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.

Lisa Dittrich, managing editor of Academic Medicine, is the editor of “Medicine and the Arts.” (Unsolicited submissions are welcome.)

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Walking north on Wanapum Road, heading toward the Vantage Motel, he met another traveler. A long-haired drifter with thick tresses across his face, lean, tall, sun-burnished, he wore an oversized black leather jacket, its belt hanging limply from worn loops. He hadn't shaved recently, the hair sprouted mostly on his chin and upper lip, and he smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. “Hey, partner,” he called to Ben. “I like those hunting dogs.”

“Why don't you take them?” Ben answered.

“Can't,” said the drifter. “I'm on the road.” And he showed Ben his thumb, pointing east.

“I just spent an hour and a half doing that.”

“It's the dogs, probably. Hide them in the bushes.”

“Why didn't I think of that myself?”

The drifter shrugged. “Who knows?” he said. “Where are you trying to get to?”

“West,” said Ben. “Across the mountains.”

“Well, why don't you cross the river there? Go over and pick up Highway 26. People slow down at the intersection.”

“It's the wrong way,” Ben pointed out. “That's east, and I'm headed west.”

“Well, maybe, but it's only a mile east. Put the thing in perspective.”

“It's still the wrong way,” Ben argued.

“There's no wrong way,” the drifter said. “Whatever gets you there.”

… They set out toward the river. The drifter asked Ben about his damaged eye, and Ben told the story of his accident, the young people in the Volkswagen van, the attempt to rent a car. He said he'd come over the mountains to hunt quail, but with his eye swollen the way it was, he couldn't see well enough to shoot, so he may as well go home.

“Hey,” said the drifter. “You can still hunt quail. A lot of people shoot one-eyed.”

“It's not the best. No depth perception.”

“Adjust,” said the drifter. “You can do it.”

They set out to cross the highway bridge, the drifter with Ben's duffel over his shoulder, Ben with his rucksack against his back, his dogs checked on tight leashes. The way was narrow, so they went single file, the drifter leading in silence. The Columbia here lay broad and flat. To the east the breaks rose toward the plateau, and it occurred to Ben to hunt chukars. He had never hunted this stretch of country. It was all new terrain, unknown. But what difference could that make to him? Hunting birds in the open air was exactly what he'd come for.

They crossed on the north side with traffic coming at them, and as they did, the mallards in the lee of the bridge got up in a great slow easy flush and winged downriver, low, a hundred yards, where they settled again in long skated skids that raised pockets of white water. “Too bad you're not a duck hunter,” said the drifter, calling back over one shoulder. “You'd be knocking ‘em dead right now.”

“Nothing against duck hunting. They're just not what I've come for.”

“You're hunting other birds,” observed the drifter.

© 2002 Association of American Medical Colleges