He told her he knew how to do it. He told her he’d camped in the northern forest, year after year, always in mid-autumn, just him and his dog, a foxhound mix with the lungs of an Arabian stallion, who tore up and down the mountain trails, covering three or four times the distance he did, the ecstasy never once dimming in its soft brown eyes. Each time he brought along an extra sleeping bag for the dog even though the dog declined to get inside it when the nights dipped near freezing and would maybe sleep on top of it but generally preferred to curl up against him, right in the crook of his head and shoulder so that, as he tried to sleep, he heard and felt the deep breaths rumbling contentedly through the dog’s body.
He liked this part of the forest, he told her, because the shelters along the trails eliminated the need to carry a tent. The shelters were simple plank platforms with shake-shingle roofs, each with four bunk bed frames, all of it sitting on sturdy foundations built with boulders and mortar. The weathered lumber was incised and initialed, some inscriptions with dates going back forty years and some in languages from other continents.
After the dog died, he lost the will to return alone, but the memories stayed strong, the scarlet and golden mountains and forest whispers and the dog splashing through and slurping up the clear water of every brook they came across, a doggie paradise loop running endlessly in his head.
“It was paradise for you too,” she said.
He looked at her.
“Yes, it was,” he said.
That’s when she told him she would go with him. But she added that he had to agree not to expect her to go frolic in any brook or fetch sticks he threw. They had yet to go camping together, anywhere, their enjoyment of nature confined to Sunday walks around the Central Park reservoir. But she ran forty miles a week and had the cut lats and delts of a gymnast. She also said she had backpacked before, an entire week, with her Saluki roomies in Shawnee National Forest. The highest natural elevation in Illinois is about twelve hundred feet, she informed him, two hundred feet short of the Sears Tower. The forest, his forest, was more than four times that elevation. He wondered if she understood what that meant, but he never mentioned it and so did not find out.
They took three trains to the REI in New Jersey. There was an REI in Manhattan and Paragon and other outfitting stores they could have gotten to by subway in twenty five minutes, but the urge to travel, to shake free of the city, was swelling in them both, squeezing out the chronic urban compulsion to get where you’re going and do what you’re doing in the shortest possible time. They bought a midsize backpack “contoured to a woman’s body” and new hiking boots for her; two carbon-fiber collapsible hiking poles; odor- and leak-proof containers for food and water; four days of freeze dried breakfasts, lunches and dinners; a GPS device the size of a very big wrist watch with a screen map that showed you exactly where you were standing and the route back to your car; a first aid kit that had enough medical paraphernalia for a kidney transplant and other equipment that he didn’t think necessary but she did. It all added up to sixteen hundred dollars.
“Jesus Christ,” she muttered at the checkout counter, but he just nodded and put his arm around her and handed over his AmEx, the memories of his quads stretching on the long ascents and the mountaintop vistas that could not possibly be real ganging up on him so that he didn’t know how he would be able to pay any attention to his job or her or anything else in the days leading up to Halloween week.
“I’ve always been more of a beach girl,” she said out of nowhere.
They were midway in the six-hour drive in the new Hyundai hatchback he’d rented at the Budget on 31st Street, neither of them getting sleepy even though they were on the road by four am and were just now hitting rush hour congestion near Springfield. He’d finally gotten accustomed to the jolt of the Hyundai’s turbocharger and its airy whistle and the car’s hyper-sensitive brakes and steering control. After a conservative exit from the city and a law-abiding sixty five mph on I-84, he was gassing it, half to just get there and half to impress her.
“There are lots of little lakes up there,” he said.
“I was thinking more of beaches with oceans, sailboats, boardwalks, kool-aid, Cape Cod, summer stuff, that sort of thing.”
“I like those too,” he said. This was not true. He was a genetic anomaly, a milky white descendant of dusky Mediterranean forebears, who still carried the memory scars of family outings to Jones Beach and the early summer sunburns that scraped him raw and kept him sleepless into the middle of the next week. He was in fact as far from a beach boy as one could get. He didn’t tell her that either.
The sun was still in the early phase of its flat path above the southern horizon when they turned down the packed clay road into the forest. They stopped at the visitors’ center, which was locked, as was the ranger station several miles deeper in, and the boxy hut at the main entrance was unmanned. But the swing arm gate was chained opened to a post near a sign that listed the forest rules, none of which said anything about no hiking or camping.
“Do you ever see anybody?” she said.
“Day hikers sometimes, but only on the first day. After that, higher up, hardly ever, not this time of year.”
They rolled into in the graveled parking area near the trailheads. She broke out of the hatchback, stretched and right away started snapping photos of him lifting out the equipment against a background of blazing red sugar maples. He was happy already, sucking in the rare mountain air, clean and cold, wishing, as he always did, that he could put it someplace and take it home. She threaded her arms through the shoulder straps of her pack. Looking thoughtful, she did a circuit of the parking area. It’s okay, she said, but by the way she bent forward, it was clear to him that it wasn’t. After they adjusted the straps and the belt, she said it was cutting off her circulation. So they shifted some of the contents to him, and she insisted hers was too light. After more rearrangement, which brought the pack back to its original weight, she said enough, she wasn’t a wimp and pounded off toward the wide opening of the AT with its iconic white blazes. He watched her forge ahead for a bit and then called, “You-hoo, that’s a nice trail, but we’re going on the blue one.” A single Ha boomed joyfully from her. It was what he loved most about her, an uninhibited sense of fun that excluded no one from its big tent, including and most especially herself.
He calibrated the GPS device the best he could. It was a confounding nugget of technology that he’d tried out with mixed results walking around the financial district during his lunch hour. But he’d been on this trail eight times, at least, and getting lost was not an issue. Still, he spread out his paper map on the Hyundai’s hood and started pointing out what they’d be doing. She showed no interest.
“Let’s just go,” she said, her cheeks already rosy with the chill.
The trail was broad, tamed under more than a century of hiking boots and over the first mile all uphill. He was stunned by his loss of conditioning. Within the first half hour, a muscle cramp the size of a grapefruit fisted under his pack between his shoulder blades and settled in. His thighs held up without complaint a little longer before acquiring a perfectly symmetrical sensation that he could only think of as strangulation. Lower body weakness notwithstanding, he kicked playfully through the fallen leaves, the scrunch, scrunch cloaking the wheezing of his breath.
“Do you want to take a break?” he called over his shoulder.
“Noooo,” she cooed. “This is so cool.”
He was never happier about reaching the first overlook, a narrow path, mercifully downhill, to a rock outcrop as flat as a tabletop. Shedding their packs, they sat side by side. There was an unimpeded view of the mountain’s summit, a lethal blade sheathed in defiant white.
“Mt. Washington,” he said, nodding to the northwest.
“That’s so sweet,” she said, sipping from her water bottle and glancing around, apparently looking for something more interesting. “Is that a farmhouse?”
Her arm snapped straight out, index finger pointed into a range of hills and valleys hunched like supplicants before the fearsome mountain. He saw nothing and so placed his temple against her bicep and lined up his sight along the gun barrel of her arm. Her finger jiggled over a distant blue speck, a peaked roof, like the bow of a ship sinking in a spotted ocean. Nearby there was a thin brown squiggle that may have been a road.
“Not much farming up here. Probably just a home.”
“You think? Those poor people! Where do they shop?” She dug her pocket binoculars out of her pack and scanned the sunny landscape.
“There has to be a Fairway somewhere out there,” she said, fidgeting with the focus wheel.
After a time he said, “Let me try,” then “Aha, there’s one.”
“On that third slope, midway up. See, right near the Carvel’s.”
“Yes, yes! Oh, thank God! Can we stop on the way out and get a Carvelanche?”
“Well, usually I get apple pancakes after hiking, but a Carvelanche sounds good.”
“I see no reason why we can’t have both.”
They balanced the camera with twigs and pebbles on a bolder where the timer snapped a picture of them dueling with crossed hiking poles, the mountain peak picturesquely situated between them. On the path back to the trail, she bumped him out of the way. He bumped back. They jousted this way for a bit before simultaneously surging ahead, racing for the lead, filling the air with laughter. He felt renewed, happy she was there. He got a second wind, the muscle memory in his legs woke up. Now he had to dial it back so she didn’t fall too far behind. She rambled through a litany of life topics, then settled on her job, an anesthesiologist assistant at Langone.
“My boss says I should go to med school.”
“Three hundred thousand in debt and four more years of residency earning as much as a rookie cop, a third of what I get now. Does that make sense? It’s like kicking a field goal and then taking the three points off the board because of a penalty. That’s against the coaching rulebook, right? You never give back points.”
He didn’t know. He despised football and he wondered why, as someone standing right there as neurosurgeons tried to patch together the scrambled brains of ex-linebackers, she didn’t also.
“So Lomas tells me to do it, that the position is there for me when I’m done and even if he’s retired, he’ll make it a condition of his package, that I get hired. I’m looking at him, saying thank you so much and wondering if he’s lost it. A full-time MD opening in a city hospital? It’s like Halley’s comet, once every seventy five years. And every department head has their darlings lined up. I’ve seen it happen. You get a promise and then end up doing rounds at a continuing care community in Utah. What do you think?”
What he thought was that he was suddenly unsure about wanting to marry her. It wasn’t that he planned the trip around this, proposing at the top of a thousand foot precipice, the only witnesses red tail hawks gliding on afternoon thermals. He hadn’t bought a ring although it had become another lunchtime routine, walking around Chinatown, stopping again and again before the same jewelers, imagining himself the figure in a Norman Rockwell painting, the perspective from behind the store window, a tousle-haired farmer youth in coveralls gazing in wonderment above the title, “Moment of Truth.” He started recalculating. Maybe it was better to just move in together, his place in Woodside, or hers in Kips Bay, smaller but a killer location. For a year now, they’d been swapping stayovers, mainly hers during the week, his on the weekends. Did med school mean he had to support her? Was he part of her plans at all? Each question, each possibility climbing onto the shoulders of the previous one, the collective weight causing him to sink into a morass of self-doubt. He stopped and turned, feeling he had to say something to her although what it would be he would not know until it came out of his mouth.
She wasn’t there. He backtracked and found her, standing still and gazing upward. On either side of the trail, the highest branches of the hardwoods clinging to their spectacular dying leaves curved inward and joined like ribs in a cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. The afternoon sun poked narrow beams between the thinning cover, shafts of yellow that held their form at the treetops before mingling and falling in a single golden cascade of light to the forest floor. He had marched right through this, oblivious, blinded by his monkey mind.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” she said.
In one hand, she held her knit cap, her short dark hair, always smooth and resplendent, sprung now in agitated spikes, in the other, her plum SIU scarf. Her neck, olivaceous and taut with subtle musculature, stretched unsheltered from her anorak.
“Magical,” he said.
They still had miles to go, but she said she wanted to hold onto this, so they reclined on their backs side by side in a bed of dry leaves. She gazed dreamily at the treetops and sighed.
“Can we just build a little house right here?” she said.
He laughed but was entranced by the fantasy, one he himself had entertained in many places along the trail.
“I have an idea,” he said, sitting up and taking out the navigation device. “We can record the exact location and then come back.”
He knew the gadget could do this, provide the longitude and latitude of where they were. He pulled up the main menu, selected location and then coordinates, where he was asked to insert the desired coordinates, backed up to location, went to map, which appeared to be showing a lake in North Carolina, fiddled with the four-way arrows, went back to location, muttered “fuck.”
“May I,” she said, holding out her hand while still gazing dreamily at the canopy.
The forest murmured, a mild wind, the first of the afternoon. It was phenomenon he had picked up on in past hikes, the sun at its peak mixing out the cool heavy air and creating warm air turbulence. To him it was a sign that the hike to the shelter was at its midpoint. But they were not at the midpoint, he didn’t think so, and it seemed they were in no rush to get there.
“Here,” she said, placing the device on his thigh.
The screen showed the long. and the lat. of where they were, which she had somehow marked with a silly face instead of a circle.
“How did you do that?” he said.
She hummed, her lips turned in a cryptic smile, eyes closed, bits of sunlight on her cheek. A minute later, faint beneath the afternoon breeze, he heard the low, regular breathing of her slumber. He envisioned her in a two piece swimsuit, a stylishly mismatched top and bottom, on the pebbly sand at Race Point after a morning of body surfing, stretched out on a towel, drawing in the brightness like some sunlit creature being reanimated. That is not a vision he should deny himself. Maybe with a double dose of SPF 50, a hat with a wide brim, a beach umbrella, he could do it. He should do it. Look at what was she doing for him. It was a good idea, it gained traction. The summer was eight months away, but they did not have to wait. They could fly down to Florida or better yet Costa Rica. Yes, he thought, yes, sliding into the vision so smoothly that he, like her, was soon quite asleep.
He went at the trail hard, his anxiety masking the dead weight in his legs. Resting the way they had, stretching out in the delicious speckled sunlight, had been a mistake, allowing the day to catch up on them, out of bed at three in the morning, six hours of driving, attacking the trail like escaped felons. For him, the nap in the forest bed was deep. Her too; he had to shake her awake. Repeatedly, he turned to make sure she was keeping up; she was, but it was wasted effort by both of them. They weren’t going to make it. They would have been better off backtracking to the first shelter. But the plan, his plan, the plan he’d so lovingly described to her, was first night at the second shelter. That was another two miles, according to his device, an hour at least. He was tripping over trail roots while looking at the sky, and it happened very quickly, the way it does in the mountains, radiant autumn light all at once acquiring a deeper hue, bluish, a precursor of night that would be lit only by the stars if they were lucky. He kept fending off the prospect of disappointing her; she was such a trooper, following him without a word of complaint.
He hurried back to meet her.
“We have to camp,” he said, dropping his pack. “Wait here.”
At this elevation it was all evergreens, spruce and fir and pine, and he scurried among them, looking for a clearing. They didn’t need a lot of space, just enough for two sleeping bags and a fire, but it needed to be flat and free of roots. By the time he got back to her and led her to the site, another layer of shadow had settled on the forest.
“Put out the sleeping bags and unpack the stove and dinner,” he said, remembering to say “Please,” and then, “I’ll get firewood.”
He was trying hard to keep the irritation out of his voice and failing.
“Are we in trouble?” she said.
“No,” he said, handing her his flashlight. “Keep this on. If you hear me yelling, wave it around.”
“We are in trouble.”
“Nope, not at all, we’re camping. Right here. We just need to hurry up a little.”
Firewood was abundant, not the case near the shelters. By the time he had scooped up three armfuls, she had unrolled the foam mats and sleeping bags and was standing near a fire pit she had made, a circle cleared of leaves neatly surrounded by stones. Her arms were crossed tightly over her chest and white puffs of her breath swelled and vanished in the flashlight beam. Through the trees the day had faded along the ridge tops into a final band of deep ruby.
“This is good,” he said. “We can sleep near the fire. Can’t do that in the shelter.”
She nodded, energetically. “You cook. I’ll build the fire.”
They sat on the ground, back to back, with two aluminum plates of rehydrated fettuccine alfredo. The fire was strong, she knew what she was doing, crosshatching the wood, the building-a-house method. Warmth flickered against his face as the night wind shifted direction through the flames.
“Food good, ground hard,” she said.
He walked into the woods to rinse the plates and cookware, as far as he could go and still see the fire. In all his hikes he had yet to cross paths with a bear, but the way things were going he didn’t like their chances. She had spread out their plastic tarp, and they huddled together on it, using their packs as pillows, watching embers leap from the fire, tiny red meteors burning with ambition to reach the sky and gone in an instant. He could ask her now to marry him, a rare moment, a rare place they would never forget. But he couldn’t untangle himself from his incompetence, forced to set up camp miles from where they should be after all he had told her about the first night in the shelter, having the place to themselves and yet surrounded and warmed by the spirits of all who had been there before. He had offered her this and failed to deliver. At the moment, he did not see himself as marriage material and saw no point in giving her the opportunity to corroborate that opinion.
The dry wood burned quickly, all of it reduced in maybe an hour to a nest of glowing coals. The air had stilled, each decrement in wind accompanied by a drop in temperature. They tried to zip the sleeping bags together, but it wasn’t happening and the more they tried, the colder and less nimble their ungloved fingers became. They gave up, dug towels and all the extra clothes they had out of their packs, burrowed with all of it into the sleeping bags and tightened the draw stings above their heads. She said something, but it sounded more like soup boiling than language.
“What?” he said.
“I feel like I’ve been stuffed into a sock drawer,” she yelled.
“Ah, this is the life.”
They talked about the hike and how salty the dinner was. He pulled a water bottle from his pack and passed it to her with the warning that if she drank too much she’d need to get out and pee.
“Not a problem. I’ve got a steel tank down there.”
“I’m learning so much about you.”
Their talk thinned out, fewer things to say and longer silences in between.
“What time is it?” she said sleepily.
“About nine,” he said, although he knew it was earlier.
“Wow, ten hours to dawn.”
“We can do twenty questions.”
She chuckled. He waited, but there was nothing more.
He slept as he always did when camping, horribly. It was a mockery to even call it sleep, irregular intervals of drifting under and rising up, no clue about how long he was out. He learned never to check his watch. Discovering that what had seemed like half the night passing was still hours short of midnight only cast him into a slough of boredom. During the first years, craving slumber, he rolled incessantly, left side, right side, stomach, seeking the right position. It was always futile, and jammed in his sleeping bag, the more he turned the more he became tangled in his clothes. His dog patiently endured getting bumped and pushed throughout the night, serenely recovering from the previous day of romping and getting ready for the next. After several years of not comprehending why a sleeping bag on a mountainside was different than a mattress in a bedroom, he realized the best he could do was lay on his back and stay that way. If sleep came, terrific. If not, he tried not to fight it and just watched his mind go where it wanted. He supposed it was a kind of meditation. It was restful in its way and in time he was able to shift into periods of semi-sleep and semi-dreams, brief, wispy wavelets that touched him lightly and were gone in a heartbeat.
Once, near a lake at dusk he had seen a great-horned owl swoop into the weeds and rise with a black snake writhing in its fearsome talons. Lions of the forest, these owls, a fitting name, though it seemed to him their call, three quick hoots, was more commentary than ferocity. It was the call he heard now in one of those half dreams, tugging him against his will to the surface. But it was not an owl, it was her, keening softly, sadly, deep in her bag. He extracted himself halfway and leaned over her, barely discerning her form in the faint, lingering glow of the fire, a curled-up human-size cocoon.
“Evie,” he said, touching what he thought was her shoulder but turned out to be her hip.
She groaned out a few words.
“What?” he said
“I’m so cold.”
“I know, I know. I’ll do something.”
He freed himself from his bag and spread his jacket over her. With his camp knife he sliced a strap from his backpack and tied the flashlight around his forearm. It wasn’t tight enough so he sliced off another, longer strap and with one hand yanked at the knots until his arm throbbed. Grabbing the tarp he circled the campsite, gathering leaves into bundles that he tossed over his shoulder. Each load he carried back and poured over her. He stumbled a lot, but somehow didn’t fall. He kept it up until the pile was waste high. He knelt.
“Can you breathe okay?”
More mumbling, indecipherable, a voice on the other side of a wall. Of course she could breathe; the leaves were dry and held plenty of air. Still, he scooped out an air hole so he could see the top of her bag and the pattern of her cap within. He re-entered his own bag and wiggled along the ground through the cushion he’d built until he could feel her body against his. Her limbs relaxed, to him a sign that he should press closer. They were like two eyeless subterranean creatures who had found each other in the absolute absence of light. He was still sweating a little from his leaf work, but he knew that wouldn’t last.
“Did you warm up?”
It was the first thing he said after crawling on his hands and knees into the new light of morning. She was hunched over their little butane stove, cooking oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, trying to be quiet, but in the forest the sound of an aluminum camp spoon stirring in an aluminum camp pot cannot be muted.
“More than that,” she said. “I was hot. How did you know to do that with the leaves.”
“An idea I got from an old Russian movie. Two trappers in Siberia in winter don’t make it back to their cabin when night falls. And the temperature is like sixty below, right? So they work like madmen, cutting all these tall reeds and forming it into a mound that’s about eight feet tall and wide. They burrow inside and end up having a fairly restful night.”
“I did too. Under the leaves. Thank you.”
After breakfast, they explored the area around their camp and sat near a brook coursing downhill over a swath of copper-colored rocks. The day had begun with chalky streaks of clouds that were now being steamrolled by a dark front approaching fast from the west.
“We should go back,” he said.
“To the shelter?”
“To the car. We can drive down to Concord, find a motel, eat pizza, shop for antiques. Support the local economy. They need it.”
“It’s not going to get warmer?”
“How do you know that? Anyway, we can do the leaves again.”
“Not if it rains. Wet leaves would make it colder.”
“Oh,” she said, the single note stretched out unhappily.
They were mostly silent as they broke camp. He said there was a top shelf playhouse in Concord and they’d likely be showing something good for the foliage tourists.
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“I forgot to ask. Are you sore?”
“Nope. I never get sore.”
“That’s the spirit,” he laughed. It was more intriguing body minutiae. The steel bladder seemed to be real; as far as he knew, she exited her bag not once during the long night. But never getting sore? He wasn’t so sure.
She snapped a picture of the cold fire pit and followed him back to the blue trail.
“We’ll be in Concord in time for lunch,” he said, starting downhill. She wasn’t following.
“I don’t think so.”
“Someplace else you’d rather go? Northampton is fun. A longer drive though.”
“Well, here’s the thing. I had this thought about how when things happen to you, in that moment there’s no perspective, no objectivity, you’re just doing what needs to be done. And then later, sometimes months later, or years even, you remember it and think, ‘My god, did that happen? Did I really do that?’ And it becomes a story. In this case, it would be a couples’ story, something you and I together would be telling other couples over breadsticks and wine for the next forty years, how you buried me in autumn leaves on Halloween night in the White Mountains to save me from the frost. Think about that. Isn’t that a jewel, a life jewel that you can’t buy or plan for?”
He watched her, in her new boots and new pack, fluffs of her black hair curling up under her cap, somehow more lovely after a perilous night and rubbing her face clean with a damp towel than she was the first time he met her at the hospital in her crazy erotic scrubs. He knew what she wanted, more stories, more couples’ stories you can’t buy or plan for, and they wouldn’t be found downhill.
“Alright,” he said. “You go first. Just keep your head up, okay? It’s easy to lose the blazes.”
She started back up the mountain, to the second shelter or the fourth, or wherever it was she wanted to go. Behind her, he was able to work undetected. He had read that others had done this and seen pictures on the Internet so he didn’t give up after the first two failures. When she glanced around and asked him to help her find the next blaze, he slipped his work into his jacket and caught up and together they searched the tree trunks. A light rain started before they reached the second shelter, and they unpacked their ponchos, hers orange, his purple, both with pointy hoods, two scoops of Italian ice ascending the trail. At the shelter, she went along the walls and beams reading the carvings and took a picture of one in Chinese characters.
“What’s it say?” he asked.
“Zhang, year of the rooster.”
She sat beside him on the lip of the shelter’s platform. The rain made a barely audible patter against the hard autumn leaves. An ashen mist had crept out from the trees and now floated above the forest floor.
“It’s getting warmer,” she said.
“I have something for you,” he said. She looked at his opened palm and what it held, the thinnest of twigs bent into a miniature wreath held together with pine needles.
“Is that what I think it is?”
He nodded. She spread the fingers of her left hand, and he carefully urged his handiwork along her ring finger.
“It fits,” he said. “I think.”
“It does,” she said, “and it’s about fucking time.”
Bill Schillaci is a freelance writer who covers the environment and worker safety. His short fiction has appeared in online and print journals, including, most recently, The Capra Review, Scarlet Leaf, Adelaide, and Poydras. He lives with Thea, his mate of 40 years, in Ridgewood, New Jersey.