Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Lost, fiction


“I had to turn back where the rivers converge,” the man said. Marta wanted to listen, but was distracted because he looked so much like Russ. He had the same blond hair, hazel eyes and tall, lean build. And a bit of a beak. His nose wasn’t as big or his knees as knobby as Russ’s; he was a slightly more handsome version of Russ. Russ would have a fit if he heard her thinking that. But Russ was hers, and this man a stranger.

No, Marta reminded herself, not mine, not any more. Russ had jumped ship.

This other man, clean-shaven, clean-cut and dressed in the latest hiking apparel, continued explaining how he had failed on Seward. She questioned him about it.

You’re not going up Seward,” he said. It was more a statement than a question. Marta looked down at her short red tank dress and her bare feet.

“Not like this,” she answered. She had pulled into the trailhead parking lot as the Russ-clone was taking off his pack. She’d asked him which peak he’d come down from. “None,” he’d answered, clearly disappointed.

“I wouldn’t,” he said, now, “if I were you. Do Seymour instead.”

“I’ve already done Seymour, Seward, and Donaldson. Now I want Emmons. I missed it last time.”

Marta thought the man’s look was a cross between envy, admiration and disbelief. He asked how she got past the convergence of rivers. She explained that she had taken a different route, but would pass the convergence of rivers this time.

“That’s where I lost the herd path,” he repeated. “Good luck.”

After the Russ-look-alike left, Marta dragged out her huge backpack, laid it on the hood of her car and began stuffing gear into the bag. She thought about Russ, about his lean, beautiful body. He was so adventurous, so much fun, always full of plans and ideas for adventures. Without him, her life seemed kind of dull and boring.

She had the bag about three-quarters packed when a man stumbled out of the brush. He was about her age or a little older, maybe 45, had a two-day beard, torn clothes and scratches on his face and arms. He staggered slightly, almost as if drunk. He stopped next to Marta and heaved off his pack with a groan.

Marta asked him what happened and he said he’d been lost on Seward for three days and two nights. “Oh, my God,” Marta said, shivering slightly. “I got lost up there, too! Were you alone? I lost my . . .”

“No, those guys were with me,” the man said, sweeping his arm toward the woods. A moment later, a younger man came out of the bushes, looking almost as bad as the first man.

“Where are you going?” the older man asked Marta.

“Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons,” she replied.

The man stared at her, blankly at first, then started laughing. He turned to the younger man, who was approaching them, and said, “She’s going up Seward, Donaldson and Emmons.” The younger man started laughing too. They both laughed hysterically, doubling over. A third man lurched out of the woods, and the first man shouted over to him, pointing to Marta, “She’s going up Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons!” The third man started laughing, and the first two laughed even harder. The first man collapsed on the ground laughing. Marta stared down at him, annoyed.

“I’ve already been up Seymour, Seward and Donaldson,” she said, angrily. She stomped into the woods to pee. It had been a long drive up. There were no facilities here, and the woods were booby-trapped with human feces. It was a hot day and Marta was still bare-footed. She believed in humans acting like cats in the woods and not leaving messes for other people, but apparently even wilderness hikers did not all agree.

She walked in farther than she might have otherwise and picked a well-screened spot. She was deeply insulted. Those men apparently thought she couldn’t make it up the mountains. Was it because she was wearing a red tank dress and had bare feet, or just because she was a woman? Or because she was older? Not that they were spring chickens!

She remembered an incident at EMS where she’d wanted to buy a North Face raincoat with reinforced shoulders for backpacking. The young salesman had looked at her in her summer frock and told her she didn’t need that raincoat. He didn’t even ask why she wanted it. Remembering this after the current insult caused fury to well up inside her. Take a few deep breaths, she reminded herself, unsuccessfully.

The three men were loading their gear in the back of a huge SUV when she came back out. She busied herself on the far side of her car, trying to ignore them, keeping her back toward them. A footstep crunched a stick. The first man was back at her side, looking more dignified and composed.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “We’re more than a little punchy. We went through a lot lost up there. I lost my sleeping bag somewhere in the woods the first night. We wandered around endlessly, ran out of food and water.” He went on and on describing problems. “We got lost where the rivers converged. How did you get by that point last time?”

“I took a different route last time, but am going that way this time.”

“I didn’t know there was a different route.” The man said.

“There are several,” Marta said. An infinite number, really. She didn’t want to explain about Ouluska Pass, or her own lost sleeping bag. “Where are you from?”

He and the other older man were professors at Union College in Schenectady and the young man was one of their graduate students. “We’re not as stupid as you might think—all three of us are experienced hikers—we’ve done most of the other trailess peaks. If you’re really going up that way, you shouldn’t go alone. If you do, I hope you have better luck than we did!”

They drove off in a cloud of dust that clung to her damp skin in the heat. Marta finished stuffing her pack, changed into shorts and a tank top, put on her boots, and headed up the trail. The pack was heavy with water bottles, a sleeping bag, tent, food stove, clothes and other gear. Soon she was sweating profusely, even though the initial grade was gentle.

The guy who looked liked Russ had upset her even more than the three guys from Union College. An ache grew in her chest. An ache for Russ. She wanted to sit on a mountaintop with him, or canoe though the loon-infested waters of some wilderness lake. Lie beside him in a dark tent with the heat of love slowly cooling. Russ had left her for another woman. Because she was nineteen years older than he, because Russ had always pined loudly for younger women, Marta had expected Russ to leave her for a younger woman. She was done having children and in a different place in her life. Her energy level was lower. And of course, she wasn’t as pretty as a younger woman. Twenty years changes the quality and texture of skin and breasts.

But Russ had left her for Beatrice, the school librarian, who was older than Marta. Was it because Beatrice has been talking dirty to him while they worked together, whispering sexy things in the silence? Russ had reported these to Marta, at first in confusion and then to tease and taunt her. Or was it because Beatrice was skinny (the old hag), whereas Marta tended toward chunkiness. Well, if they wanted each other, let them at it! Ak! The idea of Russ’s lean beautiful body touching Beatrice’s wrinkled bag of skin and bones made her ill.

The trail got steeper and rougher, with big jagged boulders. Marta picked her way carefully. It wound along a creek where dark tannin-laden water rushed around humped rocks. Creek coolness rose from the ravine and caressed her hot face. She climbed and climbed, winding back and forth among the rocks. Up and up.

Then, in a sudden flat spot, she met two descending hikers: a blond man in his late twenties and a blond boy about 8. They looked like an ad from Backpacker Magazine in their matching Khaki shorts and walking sticks.

“Where’re you headed?” The man asked amiably. It was the standard greeting on the trail.

“Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons,” Marta repeated. “Where are you coming from?”

“We were attempting Seward,” the man said sadly, “but we got stopped where the rivers meet.”

Marta asked what happened and the young father explained that the herd path seemed to disappear where the rivers came together. They followed the directions in the guidebook and gone up along the middle creek, but after some time, they failed to find the trail and came back. “Good luck,” he said, “I hope you make it.”

After they continued down, Marta gulped some water and touched some of the damp spongy moss that lined both sides of the trail, and admired the delicacy of the orange mushrooms and wood sorrel blossoms growing in it. Then started up again. She followed the trail up a steep rock. At its crest, the trees opened for a view of the treed and rocky summits of Seward, Donaldson and Emmons, strung in a long uneven arc, off into the distance. The view was stunning, but it made her heart lurch, thinking of her first assault here.

That first hike up these peaks had been Frank’s idea, and Russ had responded with his usual enthusiasm. George came, too. Frank and George were Russ’s best friends, and both around his age. When Russ invited her, Marta said no. She didn’t think she should go with three lean young men 19 years younger than she. She imagined their being annoyed at constantly waiting for her. But Russ worked on her until she’d agreed to come. That was my first mistake, she grumbled to herself.

And my second mistake was agreeing to Frank’s plan without studying the map and guidebook carefully myself. Instead of taking the route recommended by the guidebook, he thought they should head in one stream earlier and hike up to Ouluska Pass in the valley between Seymour and Seward, camp for the night, climb the four peaks, camp again in the same spot, and then hike out. “The map shows Ouluska as flat,” he had said, as he explained his route choice. They all agreed that sounded fine without checking.

When they got to the parking lot, Frank distributed more food for a big feast at Ouluska Pass. Then the three guys smoked some pot. Marta waved it away. It made her sleepy and lazy and would slow her down even more. She tried to repack her bag. Because of extra food they’d added, she couldn’t get her sleeping bag in. Frank lent her one of his gear bags and George helped her lash it to the pack.

After they had hiked for about 15 minutes, George said, “We need to stop and have the first official bowl of the hike.”

“You guys just had a bowl,” Marta objected.

“We weren’t hiking yet,” George responded placidly, getting out the bowl and firing it up. Marta sat down and drank some water. Fifteen minutes later, they had the second official bowl of the hike. Maybe they wouldn’t be waiting for her, after all.

“God,” Marta said, as they started up again, “this pack seems even heavier than it did before.”

“You always say that,” Russ said, and the others laughed. They stopped for two more “official” bowls in the next half hour, and each time they started up again, Marta commented that her pack seemed to be getting even heavier than normal.

Frank was leading, consulting the map and the guidebook. The others followed, with George, glassy-eyed, bringing up the rear. They stopped at several creeks, looking for the one they needed to follow to get to Ouluska Pass. Frank did the thinking. No one else paid any attention.

“This one,” Frank finally said, and they started up. A clear and well-used herd path followed the creek, which puzzled Marta.

“I thought we were taking an un-used route—why is this herd path here?”

“It’s an old one,” Frank said, “This used to be the main trail at one time, it says so in the guidebook. It went right up to Ouluska Pass, exactly the way we’re going. ”

“Oh,” said Marta, still skeptical. That was my third mistake. Not going with her gut feeling, not being more assertive, not stopping to look at the map and guidebook herself. She didn’t speak up even when the trail got steeper and steeper and it became increasingly obvious that they were on the herd path to Seymour and climbing a trailess high peak with full packs. The plan had been to ditch the full packs before climbing any of the mountains. Marta was annoyed. She was annoyed with Frank and with Russ for letting this happen. I should have been annoyed at myself.

The boys, as she had begun thinking of them, stopped for lunch at a rock outcropping. Marta had fallen behind and was complaining bitterly about how heavy her pack was. She threw down the pack and turned to check out the view. She could see down through the valley and toward the high peaks. Marta stood and soaked in the mountain vista. She loved the way each successive ridge of mountains was a paler and paler shade of green then blue then grey. She felt light and high, as if wings were sprouting from her freed shoulders.

She opened her pack to get out her lunch, and discovered that her pack was full of rocks. Big chunks of granite, and small rocks, rocks of every shape and size. The boys were laughing uproariously. Every time they had stopped to smoke a bowl, Russ had slipped some rocks into her pack. No wonder it had felt heavier and heavier. It seemed sort of funny in retrospect, but it had added to her disadvantage. Lugging the rocks made her even more tired.

“We’re way up on Seymour,” Marta said to Frank.

“Yeah, you’re right,” he finally admitted, “but it’s too late to turn back now.”

After lunch, she really slowed them down. The rocks, her age and weight and the steep climb with a full pack had taken a toll on her energy, and it was almost dark by the time they reached the top of Seymour. They watched a glorious sunset of orange and red bleeding over the peaks, but some of its majesty was lost on Marta, who was simply too tired. Frank said, “We gotta get back to plan A; let’s bushwhack down to Ouluska Pass.

That was my fourth mistake.

No, it was Frank’s mistake. But she could have consulted the map. She could have thought about it. But it was dark and she was tired. Very tired. She had followed Frank unquestioningly, in spite of his obvious error earlier. They had only taken a few steps off the peak when the ground fell steeply away and the brush thickened. And thickened. Became nearly impassable. They had had to shove through it. Thought it was completely dark, Marta was sure they were in a thicket of teen-aged balsam fir. The snags of the dead lower branches tore at her face, arms, legs, clothes and gear. Rr-ri-ip. She stopped to check, and discovered that the gear-bag Frank had loaned her was shredded. Her arms and legs were bleeding, too.

The ground dropped so steeply it was almost a cliff. Only the thick, nearly impenetrable branches of the trees kept them from hurtling downward in the dark. Hours later, they reached the bottom and found a blow-down. When they climbed painfully through that, they found a swamp. Russ took out his map, studied it, and said,

“Frank, you asshole, didn’t you see that fucking ‘flat spot’ here was a swamp? The rest of it is all cliffs and blow-downs. That’s why they changed the trail, it says,” Russ said, furiously. Too little, too late, Marta thought now, with her twenty-twenty hindsight.

They managed to find little islands in the swamp and set up crooked tents. Marta’s sleeping bag was gone. Russ opened his and spread it over both of them. Russ, of course, wanted sex. Marta decided that was why he had dragged her along, so that he would have sex and his friends wouldn’t. Perhaps he’d hoped for an orgasm loud enough for them to hear, a little jealousy, but Marta was so exhausted she passed out. Later though, she woke up with a root in her back, and no matter how she turned, she couldn’t get comfortable. Russ had wrapped the sleeping bag tightly around his shoulders, leaving her uncovered. The mountain night turned bitterly cold.

In the morning, George broke out the pipe and the boys had a bowl, cheerfully prepared breakfast and packed up their daypacks. Marta said she was way too tired to go on and would wait at Ouluska Pass for them, but Russ made her a special omelet and sweet-talked her into coming along. As they were about to depart, Russ presented a plan B. He wanted to climb a ridge that would take them to Seward, and Marta agreed the ridge was likely to be drier and have better views. Frank said they would stick to plan A. Marta studied the maps and thought it was basically six of one and a half dozen of the other, but being faithful to Russ, she took his side.

Frank refused to change his plans, so they decided to test the presented hypotheses by splitting group in half, with Frank and George taking Frank’s proposed route and Russ and Marta taking Russ’s route.

“We’ll be waiting for you at the top, suckos,” Frank shouted good-naturedly, as the two groups started off in diverging directions through thick trackless brush. Pressing through the underbrush behind Russ, Marta said, “it’s an unfair test, because you’re burdened with me. I am always slower than you guys and I didn’t sleep last night.”

“You were snoring when I tried to poke you.”

“Yeah, but after that . . .”

“The dope’ll slow them down.” Russ said.

“You had some.”

“Not much. I didn’t really inhale.”

“Okay, Mr. President. And, even if you don’t have any more, and go faster, I’ll be just as slow.”

Russ was patient with her at first, but as they neared the peak, he tried to rush her. Over and over, he’d get way ahead and then wait with his arms folded. “PAH-thetic,” he said, as she staggered slowly toward him.

They made it to the top of the ridge, which formed a small sub-summit. The view was spectacular. “Lemme borrow your wide-angle lens,” Russ asked. They shot a bunch of pictures and then headed up the ridge toward the summit. After a long hike, the summit came into view and there was no sign of Frank and George. But just as Russ and Marta approached the last rise before the summit, Frank and George emerged from a balsam thicket just ahead of them and beat them to the top.

“It wasn’t a fair trial,” Russ protested. “I had Marta with me and we still almost beat you. My way was better.”

“Shut up, loser. We won, and that’s that. You could have sent Marta with us.”

“Russ, can I have my lens back, I want to take a couple shots of the view,” Marta said.

“Shit!! I left it back at that sub-summit, sitting on that rock where I changed lenses.”

“We’d better go back that way and get it then.”

“Yeah, we will, after we go up Donaldson and Emmons, come on, let’s get going. Put your name in the canister and let’s hit it.”

They took the herd path from Seward toward Donaldson. It dropped down into the col between the mountains and back up onto Donaldson. They put their names in the canister and looked toward Emmons. It was clearly farther from Donaldson to Emmons than from Seward to Donaldson. Marta wanted to go on. She was tired, but she knew that if they didn’t do Emmonsn now, they’d have to come back later and do all the peaks again. Ugh!

Frank vetoed it. “It’s getting late,” he said, “and you’ll be really tired later. We gotta go back.” The others agreed.

Frank had a new plan. “If we just drop into the valley, we can follow it back to Ouluska Pass. It will be much shorter, see?”

“We have to go back the way we came, so we can get my lens.” Marta said.

“We can’t. We don’t fucking have time.”

“That lens cost over $200.”

“Our fucking lives are worth more than that. We can’t risk it.”

Marta said she was going back the way they came and get her lens. But Russ said he had stopped to take pictures several times and wasn’t sure where he’d left it and she probably wouldn’t be able to find it in the dark. Finally, Marta agreed to the plan that all the others had consented to. I wish I hadn’t agreed, I might have found the lens, and Frank’s route turned out to be a disaster. Russ never apologized for losing her lens. Russ had never apologized for losing the lens, she repeated to herself. He never had been big on apologies.

They dropped into the valley. Frank followed the creek through the steep-walled canyons and thick, trailess brush and they followed Frank. It got dark and they kept hiking and hiking. Marta got more and more tired and Frank looked more and more puzzled. He stopped to consult the map by the light of his headlamp. “We’ve done something wrong,” he said.

“No shit,” Russ said, “we should have fucking been there by now.”

“I think I know what we need to do.”

“I hope to hell you know what we need to do, because I don’t think Marta’s going to make it much further.”

“Well, what’s your big plan, Mr. Fucking Know-it-all?”

“We’ve been following your plan all weekend. You’d better get us out of this.”

Frank made a turn and everyone followed him. Marta was dragging and George dropped back and walked with her. Her flashlight grew dimmer and dimmer and then quit entirely. They had had nothing to eat since lunch and were out of water. They’d left their food and water filters back at Ouluska Pass, expecting to be back there in time for dinner. Marta started tripping, falling, staggering, and crashing into things. She had to pick up her limp, rubbery, leaden thighs with both arms to step over each log, and since they were bushwhacking through a blow-down, there lots of logs.

“Just go on without me,” she finally said. She didn’t care if they left her there alone. She wanted them to. She didn’t want to walk another step. She didn’t care if she died. She really didn’t care.

To their credit, they didn’t leave her. George came back and lifted her to her feet and walked with her. Frank gave her another flashlight. One step at a time, they walked. And walked. And walked. The boys took turns half carrying her, first George, then George and Russ, and finally Frank. Sometimes one on each side. Hours and hours passed. Somehow, Marta didn’t know how, she was beyond comprehension at that point, they had found their way back to Ouluska pass and camp. The boys, who had practically dragged her for a long time, lifted her into the tent.

That was over a year ago. Frank had never invited Marta on another backpacking trip and Marta was glad. She had gone backpacking with Russ and put up with his complaining about how slow she was, but they had never had a misadventure like the one Frank had led them on.

Marta had “zoned out” thinking about her “ordeal” with Russ and his friends. (Russ was the one who had started calling the trip an “ordeal.”) She had walked a long ways and reached the first of a series of three lean-tos. No one else was there yet. She decided to stay at the first lean-to. She would have longer to walk in the morning, but would be carrying a lighter pack.

While she was spreading her sleeping bag, a couple arrived and peeked into her lean-to. “Where’re you headed?” Marta asked.

“Seward, Donaldson and Emmons,” the wife answered

“Me, too, I’ll see you up there.”

“We met a young man with a boy in the parking lot. He said they lost the trail at the convergence of the rivers.” The wife said.

“He told me, too. I’m a little worried about it. I really don’t want to get lost up there.”

“Nope,” said the man, “neither do we.”

While Marta was cooking dinner, she heard male voices coming up the trail. Fifteen young men emerged into the clearing, college students, she guessed.

“Where’re you going?” she inquired.

“Seward, Donaldson and Emmons,” several of them chorused. They looked young and strong and eager.

“Me, too, I’ll see you up there.” Marta was sure they’d get there first. Maybe she’d run into them as they came down. They all smiled, waved and hiked on.

After eating and washing up, Marta decided to scout out the herd path. Since it was a “trail-less peak,” there were no official trails, but there should be a well-defined herd path from all the people who hiked the trail along the same route. She walked past the second lean-to and waved to the couple eating dinner. The college boys were eating and drinking at the third lean-to. With her ADK guide and her Barbara McMartin guide, she found the herd path without difficulty and started up. It was as wide and as well traveled as a marked trail. She didn’t even need the guidebooks when the trail made several turns described as difficult. The herd path was, as Russ would say, “beat.” (“This trail’s beat, man, too many people.”)

Marta realized that the only way to know if she could make it past the rivers was to go up to where they converged. According to Barbara McMartin, that was a long ways.[1] She would probably be better off relaxing, sleeping and worrying about it in the morning, so she went back to camp. She passed the college boys throwing Frisbees around their camp in the waning light, and it made her think of Russ. He was a college student when she first met him. Robbing the cradle, her friends had said. She heard later than when Russ’s aunt had met her, she had relayed the message to his Mom that she Marta was pretty and nice. Marta wondered cattily what Russ’s Mom and Aunt would think of Beatrice, the old bag. She felt a flare-up of rage and betrayal. If only he had left her for someone his own age. Or younger.

Marta could not imagine Beatrice hiking up Seward, Donaldson, and Emmons. In a flash of understanding, she realized she was doing this hike partly to prove something to Russ (and to Frank and that idiot at EMS). Not to George, because he had been consistently nice to her. She wanted to prove something to herself, the self wounded by those others. Mostly, she wanted Russ to realize that she was better than Beatrice, that she could climb these mountains and make it up Emmons without him, without anyone, by herself. She wanted to be the mountain woman she imagined Russ wanted. But she was too old to ever be that woman.

Of course, she wasn’t doing it just to prove something to Russ and the EMS guy who would never know anyway. She’d always done a lot of hiking, climbing and camping, and loved it. She loved the out-of-doors and nature. But all of her adventures had been with some man. First her father, then her boyfriends had planned the trips. Someone male had always been the motivating and driving force. Russ was good at that, better than she was. But she had planned this trip with no help from Russ. She hoped she could do it. Those confusing converging rivers worried her.

Somehow, she had to get past the rivers. She got out Barbara Mc Martin again, and read what McMartin wrote about the rivers:

When you come to a place where several streams converge, the herd path becomes discontinuous and is hard to follow. Continue along the left bank of the center stream until you pick up the trail again.[2]

Streams? Marta said to herself, streams? Everyone’s been talking about rivers. How hard can this be? McMartin makes it sound pretty simple. But a seed of doubt lingered.

I’d better get up early, she thought, to make up for any time I lose trying to locate the herd path.

Laying in her bag, Marta thought again about her adventures being planned by men. It wasn’t just the, planning adventures. Worse yet, she defined herself by the men in her life. She felt like a failure because Russ had rejected her and because she was without a man. Did she need a man to be a success? Was she not a person in her own right? She drifted to sleep imagining herself standing triumphant on the peak (with Russ bowing down before her in admiration).

In the morning, Marta sponge-bathed, ate and packed her daypack quickly. It was a clear cloudless day, but she tossed in a raincoat for good measure, her cameras, zipped in plastic, extra lenses, lunch, a little extra emergency food, her headlamp and an extra flashlight. “In my new life, I am traveling light,” she sang as she started up the trail, thinking of Neil Young, and Russ, who loved Neil Young like she did. (Did Beatrice, the old bag?) Marta wasn’t traveling light. Traveling light was not her forté.

The couple was eating breakfast, the college boys were drinking coffee and packing up, and they all wished each other good luck. Marta set out at a pace that would have awed Russ, had he been there to see it. She told herself that it was because she had to travel a very long ways that day, but then admitted that the real reason was that she didn’t want the college boys to think she was slow. The college boys were too much like Russ and Frank. She was afraid even the older couple would catch her too quickly. She walked so fast she almost ran.

When the trail got really steep, she slowed down a little, but still kept pushing herself. “I may need the extra time,” she said aloud. The trail went up and up and up. There were several stream convergences, but no problem.

And then, there it was. The angle of the slope had let up a little, the woods opened widely, and there was a convergence of streams. Something about the spaciousness of the area made it look like a convergence of rivers. Larger streams and smaller ones joined together. The place seemed almost magical, or spiritual. It was beautiful. She stood and soaked it in.

But it was confusing. Which was the center stream? Marta chose one that seemed to be rather central and followed it for a few minutes, but there was no sign of a herd path, so she came back and followed another. Still no path. She cast wider and wider circles, hoping she would encounter the path. No such luck.

The herd path could be way, way, way up one of these streams. I have no idea how far, the book doesn’t say, Marta thought. And if I pick the wrong one, I’m S.O.L. But damn it, she could do it. She would do it! She would write Russ a postcard from the base of the mountain and tell him she’d done it.

Marta went back to the stream she had picked first, and started up again, deciding to stick with it. She climbed and climbed and climbed until the stream became a trickle and then disappeared. No herd path. Clearly, it was not the right stream. Now what?

Well, how does one get to the top of a mountain if one doesn’t have a trail? One just keeps going up. That’s what I’m going to do. If I keep going up, I have to get to the top. When I get there, I can follow the herd path back down. I won’t get lost coming down. Marta felt changed, charged with determination.

She went up and up and up, pushing through thickets of balsam, walking through open woodlands, clambering over logs, until she came to a small cliff. She started climbing the cliff, using roots and branches for handholds and rock ledges for footholds. A chunk of rock came loose. A rush of wind, a sudden feeling of lightness and speed. A sense of confusion, treetops spinning, unexpected sky. And pain. Everything hurt. She had fallen backwards about twelve feet onto the rocks below. The trees seemed incredibly tall and airy, reached way into the sky. Birds moved among the branches. A small cloud passed with strange rapidity. The air was fresh and damp and tasted piney, the rocks hard under her back. A jay screamed at her. Gradually, she regained her breath.

She realized that no one in the world knew where she was, no one would find her. Should she go back? She didn’t even know how to get back. This would really show Russ. She imagined the headlines, MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN DIES LOST IN WOODS. DECAYED BODY FOUND MONTHS LATER. She got slowly up, felt her bones and wondered what to do. She sat down and looked around at the wild forest and cried.

“This is really stupid,” she said aloud.

Then, not knowing what else to do, she stood up and started climbing the cliff again, more carefully, testing for loose rocks. Beyond the first cliff was another larger cliff, too large and steep to climb. She walked along the bottom until she found a way, and then there was another one. She climbed along the bottom and then up several shorter sections and when she pulled herself up onto the top, there was the herd path.

She couldn’t believe it. She had begun to think there was no herd path; that it didn’t exist at all. And there it was. She followed it up over a series of ridges to a false summit and then on to the canister at the top of the real summit of Seward. She put her name in the notebook inside, noted that none of the hikers she had met coming up had made it yet, and found her name from when they had been there before, with Russ’s, Frank’s and George’s. Not very many people had been up since then, and none in the past few weeks. She dropped down into the valley between Seward and Donaldson and up onto Donaldson, and recorded her name again. She was on a roll and wanted to have lunch on Emmons. She set off down the herd path at a trot. It occurred to her that none of the others had caught her yet, but then again, she had taken an unconventional no-herd-path route. Perhaps it had been quicker.

The herd-path to Emmons was long, full of sweeping mountain vistas, beautiful, windy and uneventful. Then, there she was, putting her name in the canister. Hah to Russ! Hah to Frank! A small hah to the men who laughed at me and the guy at EMS. Yay for me! she thought. Success! She stood on the benchmark at the very top, held her arms to the sky and yelled, “I’m here!” at the top of her lungs. “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” her voice came back.

The echoes reminded Marta of calling from the top of Panther, another trailess mountain. She had been 16 and the only one in her party of family and friends to make it to the top. The grown-ups were slow and tired and wanted to turn back. Her brothers had obeyed her father when he hollered to come back. Marta, headstrong and stubborn, had kept going. That success met with anger from her father and jealousy from her brothers and their friends. This success was less tarnished.

Marta thought the others might be along soon, and the summit was rather small and cramped. A big avalanche of tumbled rocks slashed through the trees on the far side and she decided to eat lunch on top of one of those rocks. She climbed a ways down to find just the right one. She unpacked her provisions, spread them out on the rock, took a deep breath, and looked out over the valleys, the river, the small lakes nestled in the trees.

She had just taken the second bite of her sandwich when she felt an odd prickling sensation, and she looked up toward the peak. In the midst of an utterly blue, totally flawless sky, a bit of black cloud came peeking over the summit. In a few seconds, it was over her. She leaped down off the rock, stuffing her food back in her pack, trying to find shelter. A moment later, it started to rain. Hard. Marta dashed under an overhanging rock. It poured, like water coming over a waterfall. The blue was gone; the whole sky was black.

Sheltering her bag, Marta dragged out her raincoat. Walking back in the rain over all those mountains did not appeal to her. She remembered reading in Barbara McMartin that there was an alternate but little-used and at some points discontinuous herd path at the bottom of the slide she was on that joined up with the Northville-Placid Trail and followed the river back to camp. Walking to the bottom of the mountain and following a mainly flat trail back to camp sounded easier, so she lunged out of her shelter into the downpour and started down.

Soon her clothes were glued to her skin. Bending her knees to walk down the steep rocky slope was difficult. She had imagined the trees would give shelter from the rain, but it was raining so hard that when she finally reached them that there was no relief from the downpour. She found the herd path and started down into a ravine so steep-sided it was nearly impossible to walk. The path kept disappearing because there was no place for a path. It was torturous, and the heavy rain made it worse.

After several hours, the path reappeared at the bottom of the ravine and the rain let up a little. It was still raining, raining hard and steady, but not pouring. Eventually, she made it to the bottom, to the main trail and to the river. And then she trudged and trudged and trudged and trudged. She kept thinking she’d be there soon, and when she saw a lean-to, she thought at first it was the college boys’ lean-to, but no, it was deep in the woods, not in the open. Am I lost?

She sat down inside and got out her wet map. She was ten miles from camp, totally wet and exhausted. She hadn’t learned from last time to study the map before she acted. Under the raincoat, her clothes were wet. Beyond wet. Her gear was wet. Inside zipped plastic bags, her camera and lenses were somehow wet and probably ruined. Everything was soaked. She decided she had to keep walking or she’d get hypothermia.

She walked and walked and walked. Every step became more and more torturous. After a while, she began to think she couldn’t make it. She fell into a semi-stupor. And walked and walked and walked, more and more slowly, trying numbly to keep moving forward. Her body felt dead. Energy drained away. She’d thought she’d won when she reached the top of Emmons. She’d forgotten she could still die on the way back.

The rain dwindled to a light drizzle and then stopped. And then, there it was, the college boys’ lean-to.

They saw her coming and called to her, “did you make it?”

Suddenly, she felt more alive. “Yes,” she called back, “I made it!! I did all three peaks and came back on The Northville-Placid trail.” The boys cheered and hooted approvingly.

“Did you guys make it?” Marta asked. She could barely stand.

“No,” One of them said, “we lost the herd path. None of us could find it and we finally gave up.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Marta said. And she was. She had been so happy to make it and wished them such pleasure.

At the next lean-to, the story was the same. The couple had lost the herd path at the “rivers.”

“You just walked more than twenty-five miles over some of the most difficult terrain in these mountains,” the man said.

“Oh,” Marta said, “that’s why I’m so tired.”

The woman handed her a cup of hot soup. Marta sipped. Then she thought, I met all these peopletwenty-one of them—who started up these mountains in the past couple days, and only the middle-aged woman alone made it. The one in the parking lot with the red dress and bare feet. Me! Astounding. She made it. She handed the cup gratefully back to the woman and started on her last quarter-mile, writing postcards to Russ, Frank and George in her head as she walked. The words, “I made it,” would be enough. She didn’t need to say to Russ, “Beatrice is all yours, buddy.” On the other hand, why bother even saying she made it? They didn’t need to know, as long as she did. And finally, finally, she did.

[1] Get actual mileage from first lean-to?

[2] This is not the actual quote, but from memory from a long time ago. Find real quote if possible.

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