The Last Day: The Story Behind The Song

This essay is the backstory for our song “The Last Day,” which you can listen to below or over here.

This week we welcome a special guest essayist, dear friend and writer Charles H. Fischer, who was with us during the events that inspired this song.

We were driving on Highway 153, as it snakes west up the Methow River valley from Pateros. It was New Year’s Eve. A cold winter fog had set in, and it was hard to see more than a car length ahead of us. Still, our spirits were high. The prospect of champagne cocktails, along with a warm fire in a wood-burning stove, awaited us at the cabin. Brangien was driving the Eurovan, while Daniel was in the passenger seat. My wife, Lisa, and I sat in back, along with our dog Renzo, who slept fitfully on a blanket between us.

Low mountains rose on either side of the road. The river burbled under a new coat of ice. There was at least two feet of snow on the ground. It is always a shock to travel from the gray rains of December in Seattle to the crisp, cold snow of the Methow. It feels like a longer journey than it is — to a new, big country where there is little cell reception, where nights are absolute in their darkness, and where silence is possible again.

We had stopped along the way to hike the snow-covered Dusty Lake in the Columbia Basin. Our dog Renzo was 12, and I remember the day as one of the last big hikes he finished with ease and gusto. It was a bright day, too. We trekked among the basalt cliffs in the sun, happy to reach the van as shadows lengthened, hinting at the night’s bitter promise.

After a brisk hike, it felt good to be back in the van, drinking water and eating chips. Brangien navigated the road in the gathering dark with precision. Brangien’s a good driver. Brangien’s good at a lot of things. She can write and sing. She makes an excellent Manhattan. She does a dead-on imitation of Ethel Merman. And she’s a really good driver. She has that quality that all good drivers have: she knows how to drive. She’s confident when she has to pass another car on a mountain pass, and she can parallel park the van like butter.

For my part, I’m not a good passenger. I’m nervous. I clutch at the window grip when a semi-truck barrels by in the other lane. I close my eyes when an oncoming car turns on its bright lights. I cross my fingers as we hurtle down steep grades. In fact, when I’m a passenger in a car, I perform all of the superstitious and ritualized acts I perform when I fly. It probably goes without saying that I’m a nervous flyer. I think about death a lot when I fly. I also think about death a lot when someone else drives. I think a lot about death a lot of the time. I am thinking about death right now. But I wasn’t thinking about death on the road to Mazama that New Year’s night. That’s how good a driver Brangien is.

It is not just darkness or fog that plague drivers during a Methow winter. White tail and mule deer linger along the highways like visitors from an alternative universe. They stand on the side of the road and stare silently at the cars filled with humans passing by in the night. It is easy to imagine menace in their heads. More than 17,000 mule deer live in the valley; on this stretch of road, drivers kill a few hundred every year. When a deer is killed in the Methow, it is taken to a butcher in Winthrop where it is dressed and packaged for sale.

Near Carlton, we started to talk about food and drink. We’d been on the road for about six hours, when a deer leapt out and skittered along the side of the van — never coming into full view. Brangien slammed the brakes, and the van skidded for a few feet. Renzo flew out of the seat and into the empty bag of potato chips. Brangien pulled over to the side of the road. A car behind us stopped, its headlights illuminated the dark. Daniel and I got out. In the middle of the road, and between the beams of the headlights, a young deer was laid flat on the pavement. His breath steamed out of his nose.

But then he got up. He stood on wobbly legs and took two or three hesitant steps. That seemed promising. Suddenly he vanished into the fog. Brangien got out of the car. “He’s gone. Run off,” someone said. She saw some dents in the door. “He’s probably okay,” I said. There was nothing to be done. Daniel thanked the other driver and then walked Brangien to the passenger’s seat. He’d cover the last 20 miles. And we talked over what happened through many of them. The deer looked fine. Probably in shock. We didn’t hit him straight on. And his sprinting off seemed like a good thing. But the deer took our surety with him, as he silently leapt — on the last day of the year — over the snow bank.

— Charlie

song 10 of 11
well the road was dappled with yellow diamonds
and the Carlton burn shone black
the river sparkled with icy patches
and the valley wore snowpack
it was the last day of the year
it was the last day of the deer
I saw those big brown eyes frozen in the brights
on the last day of the year
on the road they posted the deer-kill tally
the annual car-struck sum
just hours away from the final countdown 
and the number raised by one
I saw the signs
I could see the future but I could not stop in time
we two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine,
but we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne
it was the last day of the year
it was the last day of the deer
I saw those big brown eyes frozen in the brights
on the last day of the year

The Argument is Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils. Learn more about the band here: How The Argument Started and 1 of My 43 Things.

The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks on Medium. Sign up for new song updates.

Thank you for listening.