The Burn (Part 1)

Hey, hi, hello. I’m going to post some original fiction, because why not? This was intended to be a self-contained short story. I was thinking like 4,000 words maybe. Well, by the time I “finished” I was at 14,000 words and turns out there’s quite a bit more story here. Of course, that’s going to take some time to write because I am a crazy slow fiction writer. Also it might be unreadable trash, there’s always that. Anyway, maybe you’ll like it. This is obviously a work of fiction and I’ve taken some liberties with the trail described, but otherwise I totally went on this hike. It went a little better than in the story here.

Burn-2

Middle Sister on the left, North sister on the right. This was taken in September of 2016, approximately from where Renny makes camp.

1.

“Well that’s just perfect,” he grunted as his Subaru’s undercarriage bounced off a half-buried rock. Renny was not upset about this because the old, plastic-paneled Outback was used to these washboarded gravel roads. No, far more irritating was the slight haze of dust in front of him, shimmering in the slanted, mid-morning light. On a road like this, that dust could only mean one thing: there was someone right in front of him, headed to the same place, at the same time as him.

“It’s a goddamn Tuesday in October and I still can’t have a trailhead to myself,” he muttered to himself, and sure enough there they were. A new white Expedition bouncing along ahead of him, spewing grey dust in a vast cloud. Probably filled a bunch of college chucklenuts out to drink around an (illegal) campfire by a lake. Or some middle-aged REI warriors out to tame a mountain so they can post about it on Instagram. It would be less annoying if there was more than one trail out here to disperse the crowds, but this was a one-destination trail. Out of habit he glanced over at the passenger seat before remembering he could be mad out loud if he wanted now. “Goddammit!” Yeah that felt all right.

The road wound up a long, mild incline through the forest. Flat, autumnal sunlight dappled through the innumerable Lodgepole pines, whose thin, scraggly masses made up the bulk of the trees. A full summer’s worth of grey road-dust matted those closest to the road, but further out the pines were a healthy, dusky green. Occasionally a massive, red-scarred Ponderosa would punch up through the Lodgepole canopy, towering proudly over the inferior trees, dew-laden needles sparkling in the morning sun. At times the road would wind around a rocky outcropping and a panoramic view would open up to the east, the vast pine forest giving way to the endless sagebrush of the high desert in the distance. Eventually, Renny knew, the road would turn to the northwest, and the space cleared out by the road would reveal the craggy, monolithic face of North Sister. At least it would if this fuckin’ SUV wasn’t throwing up half a road’s worth of dust into the air, which it somehow managed despite going so excruciatingly slow.

Renny tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as he tried to focus on the trees, the view, the morning sun, anything but the wagonload of dickheads in front of him. This was the exactly the kind of thing he was looking to avoid by coming out here in the first place, which is to say other human beings. He tried to distract himself by turning up the radio – nothing compliments the wilds of Oregon like a little vintage Eazy-E, which he could loudly enjoy now that there wasn’t anyone vetoing his musical choices – but Renny’s mind kept returning to the trailhead. The awkward pacing issues that leaving from a single trailhead present. Should he grab his pack and make a dash for the trail, assuming that the goofs in the Expedition will spend half an hour dicking around by their tailgate? Or should he spend some time double-checking his gear, like he should, and hope the others got a move on? Ugh, this was always the worst. Either way it was 50/50 that they would run into each other on the trail. Or worse, ended up camping – “One sucka dead LA Times front page!” – Renny exclaimed, interrupting his own internal monologue for a glorious moment. And there, the sun was reflecting off the thin coat of early-October beauty snow that clung to the slopes of North Sister, and the thick, grasping branches of the Ponderosa pines reached deep into the vast blueness of the autumn sky, but don’t quote me boy cuz I ain’t said shit.

Shortly after the song ended, Dr. Dre’s bass rattling the Outback’s cheap plastic panels, both vehicles pulled into a large gravel cul-de-sac. A freshly painted pit toilet stood on a small rise towards the end of the parking area, and there was one other car already in the lot. The dew present on the windows indicated that this belonged to people already camped. The Expedition found a spot, and an older man in a North Face puffy jacket emerged from the driver side. He tipped a wave at Renny, opened up the back of the SUV, and a goofy-ass golden retriever bounded out onto the gravel. On the other side a lady of indeterminate middle age was stretching her back. Renny hated both of them intensely.

Renny took a deep breath and killed the engine. Time to just grab his pack and dash for the trail, a luxury he could afford now. Worst case scenario, these folks were the kind of unassuming power-hikers that would quickly surpass him on the trail, beating him to the lake. The slightly better-case scenario is that they poke along the trail, he easily beats them and sets up camp, and then they pitch their tent like ten feet away because they don’t understand the etiquette of backcountry camping. Maybe they’re day hiking? Renny glanced over and saw the bedrolls attached to overnight packs. Shit. Meanwhile this dumb adorable golden is running around kicking up dirt and ash everywhere… ash? The hell with it. Renny threw open the door and stepped out onto the gravel of the trailhead parking lot.

It was immediately clear that a massive fire had swept through the area, as recently as last year. The healthy dusky green of the forest petered out right here at the trailhead, which was in a transitional area of half-burnt, brown-tipped pine trees. Beyond the parking lot, the entire forest was a sea of ghostly silver and black spires stretching out to the horizon. The burn was so recent there was virtually no ground cover at all. A brand new trail marker stood at the beginning of the trail, and various Forest Service warnings covered the sign board. Please don’t hike off-trail in the burn area. Okay, why would I want to? The walk is going to be a dusty, ashy mess to begin with. How big was this fire? Did it reach the lake? If so, there was no point in hiking up there, camping was assuredly prohibited if there was a recent burn. There are other people here, and the Forest Service re-commissioned the trail, so obviously – Whunk! – Renny was knocked off balance and his thoughts were knocked out of his head by a mass of golden fur and damp tongue.

“Biscuit! No! I’m so, so sorry! He’s friendly!” A mildly alarmed, mostly amused feminine voice called after the golden retriever, as if there’s such a thing as an unfriendly golden. Biscuit was currently all up in Renny’s face, bounding around and clearly beside himself with excitement. He was clean, at least, as he had not yet had the chance to flop around in the dirt, and also wore a stylish purple and black collar. Go Huskies. For a moment, Renny had forgotten the unwelcome mutual visitors. Now that he had a new friend, he forgot to be mad at them for spoiling his ideal departure from the real world.

“Nah, it’s fine,” he said over the hopping dog. Then he play-pushed Biscuit’s big dumb head and assumed the play stance. “Who’s a big dummy? Is it you? I bet it’s you!” He said to the dog, who possibly took offence, because he stopped jumping and started sniffing his Subaru. Renny gave the dog a playful smack on his hindquarters and stood back up. Time to grab the pack and head up, burn or no.

“He’s just so excited to be out in the forest, I’m sorry if he slobbered all over you,” the woman said, although she didn’t sound terribly apologetic. “Are you headed up to Camp Lake?” Behind her, the presumed husband was rummaging around in his backpack. Renny remembered to be annoyed.

“Well I’m not sure. I didn’t realize how big this fire was, I guess. Don’t really want to slog through miles of ash if everything up there was torched.” He opened up the hatch of his Outback as he spoke, which was a hint at his intention. He was hiking up there anyway, fuck all y’all.

“Yeah, it’s terrible, isn’t it?” North Face had sauntered over to stand near his wife, and he held a pair of trekking poles in one hand. “The guy at REI said the trail through the burn is only a few miles long, though. The lakes and stuff up there are still fine.”

“I kinda figured it was okay if there’s another car here,” Renny replied, pulling his ratty-in-comparison backpack out of the car and slipping one strap over his shoulder. It was a dusty green and had seen some miles.  Whoof, heavier than he remembered. “Well, no time like the present I guess,” he said, slamming the hatch back down harder than intended. The man in the puffy jacked arched an eyebrow, shrugged, and poked his dog with the handle of one of his trekking poles.

“You ready too, Biscuit?” The dog responded with a playful yelp, and then sprinted over to the trail marker to proclaim it for himself to all dogkind. “We’ll be a little while yet, so you won’t have to worry about us tailgating you all the way up to the lake. We’re pretty slow these days,” the man said to Renny, who was no dope and picked up on the Oregonian passive-aggressiveness. He was also in no mood to make this situation any weirder.

“No worries. I might do a little off-trail hiking once I get out of the burn anyhow. I’ve only been up here once before.” He looked up at where the trail worked its way up the barren foothills. “Shame about the fire, though.”

The man chuckled and said, “my wife and I probably aren’t up to any off-trail adventures today. And hey! At least the fire opened up some views!” He waved his hand toward North Sister, and he was right. If the trees were unharmed, they wouldn’t be able to see the mountain.

“That’s true,” Renny said, impatient now to be off. “Well, have a good hike,” and with that he beeped his Subaru and walked over to the signboard, which confirmed that the trail went through about three miles of burned area before returning to subalpine forest.

The first mile was a slog, but then it usually is. At least nobody was ten paces behind him, voicing loud complaints every six seconds. Renny grimaced. Muscles which were not accustomed to working make their displeasure known, and it takes some time for them to shut up about it. The trail was miserably dusty. It took all of ten steps to coat his boots and pant legs in grey ash, and when he looked behind him to reassure himself that the trailhead hikers were being true to their word he could see the lingering rooster tail of ash settling back down behind him. There was also very little to look at. The fire had been intense, and there was nearly nothing left alive. The trees were universally scorched, and the ground was scoured clean of all vegetation, with the rare exception of the occasional clump of grass or nascent shrub. The lines of the landscape lay clean, and Renny could see every ridge and wrinkle of the earth. It was eerie, especially considering the total lack of birdsong or rodent life. Usually these trails were bustling with ground squirrels and songbirds. Today the only sound was a light, whispering wind blowing through the silver spires of dead trees.

This would have been downright creepy if the day wasn’t so warm, bright, and cheerful. The mid-October sunshine was out in full force and the temperature was already in the sixties, promising to top out at a pleasant seventy degrees by midday. The plan was to reach his campsite around three or four in the afternoon, and then spend the rest of the day kicking around the lake or reading in blessed silence. Of course, that was several hours in his future after ten or eleven miles of serious hiking, the first third of which was slogging through this dust. Renny tried to imagine what it would have been like standing in this same area as the fire whipped and raged through the forest and was at a loss. He was still trying to picture this as the trail reached the top of a ridge. He stood in the middle of an open space which used to be a meadow and the view opened up to the forest below and the mountains above. Renny gasped.

The snowy crags of Broken Top were directly in front of him, while all three Sisters towered to his right. Below him the forest filled the space below the mountains, and the burn was bigger than he had imagined. North Sister appeared to have a silvery-grey apron that swept along her eastern flank which was several miles wide and seemed to reach halfway to Bend, which twinkled in the distance. The high desert stretched to the horizon in the east, with the occasional butte to liven things up. In the distance, the Ochocos broke up the flat, sagebrush monotony of the landscape. Renny stood there for a full minute before he thought to take a picture, but even as he pulled out his phone and began to commemorate his hike, he knew that not photo could properly relate the straight up fucking majesty of what he was seeing. The petulant resentment he felt at the trailhead was totally erased from his mind.

Shortly after Renny’s first panoramic view and the stark reminder of why he’d spend two days lugging around a sixty pound backpack in the woods, the forest started to show signs of life. Forest fires, even the apocalyptic ones, are rarely complete in their devastation. Quirks in the landscape shelter small pockets of life, especially towards the edges of burned areas. Here and there small stands of pine trees stood mostly unscathed, and the occasional grove of Ponderosas still provided shelter for shrubs and grass beneath them. Birds flitted in from the surrounding, healthy forest. Before too long Renny came across the first stream, which cut through the barren land carrying a load of ash and dirt, but also providing life to either side. Grass and small trees were mostly unharmed here, and Renny took the opportunity remove his pack and splash around before heading further up the mountainside.

As always, the cobwebs in Renny’s mind began to loosen up the higher in elevation he ascended. Despite the ash, despite the REI-yuppies at the trailhead, despite the dreary fog of an unfulfilling career, despite Skylar… goddammit, Skylar. Despite all of it, the thin air made things make sense. Well, no it didn’t. Not really. But the wind would whistle through the grey forest snags and over the next barren rise in the land some birds would peep at each other and fluffball clouds would roll through the sky and get hung up in mountaintops and Renny could at least pretend that the world made sense. It was too soon in the hike to get mopey about women, or work, or the grim anxiety of a life unfulfilled. Autumnal light slanted through the silver trees and fine grey ash billowed up from his boots and the land rolled on among the feet of the mountains and Renny willed himself to stop thinking.

The hike refused to help him out in this regard because hiking through a recently burned forest flat out fucking sucks. Ash is worse than sand in that it just adheres to anything and everything, including the lungs. It makes the physical act of walking more difficult, not unlike trudging through a sandy beach. Plus, aside from the occasional breathtaking vista, a burned forest is a visual bore. All good things come to an end, though, and just as Renny was losing patience with trudging through an inch or so of loose ash with every step, the burn ended. There was a transition zone, of course, but slowly and surely the pale grey snags gave way to singed orange pines and eventually the trail became actual dirt and the trees were whole and healthy. In the distance a woodpecker did his thing, banging his dum-dum head against a tree with a methodical tok-tok-tok! Unseen creatures rustled in the underbrush, and the air smelled of pine needles warmed in the sun. It was an okay day.

As the forest livened up and the hike began to resemble Renny’s expectations, his idiot brain took over, which was the opposite of what he wanted. The idea – the simple, honest, and naïve idea – was to escape into the forest for a couple of relaxing days and reset his brain. Physical labor and the work of “survival” would be enough to cleanse his mind and when he came back down from the mountains he would be possessed with a fresh invigorating spirit which would blast him out of his dreary routine and propel his life back to meaning. Such was the power of the outdoors. At least, that’s what the posters in Columbia Sportswear promised, an idea collaborated by the tourism board in Bend. Besides, didn’t Jack Kerouac spend a summer as a fire lookout in the middle of nowhere once? And he turned out all right. Yet here Renny was, fully embraced by the subalpine forest in the shadow of these majestic Cascade volcanos, and all he could think about was the goddamned girl.

Mousy brown hair hastily tied back in an untidy ponytail, fierce grey eyes blazing at him as she flung her overnight bag over her shoulder one last time and slamming the door between them without a final word. That slam reverberating in his half-furnished apartment, her soft footsteps receding in the distance, the throaty grumble of her Volvo starting up and taking her away forever. Sitting atop a dune at the coast, laughing into the wind, her usually limp hair whipping freely in the salty breeze, her face bright and ruddy and utterly and completely her. Hunched over a book in the university library, cramped in a dim corner completely unaware of being observed, completely unaware that anyone would want to observe her. Backwards, forwards, images came unbidden and at will. Taking her on her first hike. Easy peasy, a simple, mostly flat trail up a burbly, lively creek, and despite the constant questioning of why anyone would want to waste time walking to nowhere she finally stood at the base of Tamanawas Falls and yes, there was the delighted, awestruck gasp. Much later, listening, upset and confused, as she explained over and over again that it was okay, she didn’t mind, she loved him and didn’t mind. Hearing himself, beyond reason, beyond comprehension, really, that he couldn’t, wouldn’t, eventually didn’t, and then that final slam of the door again and again and again.

Renny paused his reverie to unlimber his requisite bestickered Hydro Flask and availed himself to some lukewarm Bend tap water. The thoughts and images were a constant weight and had been replaying pretty much constantly for three months, so they could wait. Meanwhile it occurred to him that the wind sounded a little steadier than it should and after a moment he realized that he was hearing a small river in the distance. He knew there was a proper river crossing on this hike and wasn’t necessarily looking forward to it. The water level should be fairly low, but was still going to be swift and cold. It was possible there was going to be a felled tree-bridge since this was a relatively popular trail in the summer, but there was an equal possibility of getting wet. It was warm, but it was still October. He sighed, thought about Skylar’s laugh, and kept walking.

She was right, of course. He knew it right away. All the maudlin, melancholy self-pity of the last three months were not enough to convince him otherwise. He hated his job, she knew that as well as he did, and when the offer came in from West Virginia University, Skylar jumped on it. Why wouldn’t she? It was the fulfilment of a year’s worth of applications and rejections, it was the promise of a career she’d spent her entire life working to achieve. Where did this bitter spear of resentment come from, then? Yes, of course he knew Columbia had stores in West Virginia, hell there was one in Morgantown even, that wasn’t the point. What was the point? Shut up, that’s what. Why can’t you just accept that I love you, and want you to be happy, and if that means I have to support your bum ass for a while who cares? There were tears, then, when she had said that. Skylar didn’t cry often and when she did it was subtle but effective. It almost worked, and if Renny wasn’t a fucking idiot, it would have worked. But he was, so it didn’t. Skylar was a Mountaineer, an Associate Professor, taking what was due to her. Renny was also a mountaineer, an Assistant Manager, and all he could muster was a resigned indifference to his failure.

Burn-4

The Pole Creek Fire ripped through many square miles of beetle-decimated forest in 2012. It’s going to be a while before the area recovers. This was taken on the foot of Middle Sister looking east. The glacier was behind me and up a very steep climb I had no intention of attempting.

Renny came across the river then. He had been hiking for a good couple of hours, his legs assured him, time for a break to enjoy some water and trail mix, and maybe trick his horrible, traitorous mind into shutting the fuck up for a few minutes. Renny found himself a nice downed tree to sit on which overlooked the river. He consulted his map. Creek. Whatever. It was water and it tumbled down the mountain with its load of glacial gravel and assorted tree parts. He munched some trail mix and traced out the trail on his map. Another four or five miles and he would be at Camp Lake and he could hopefully spend a quiet night in the starlit company of Middle Sister. He glanced up at the creek again, gauging the depth of the water. As he was doing so he heard a muted bark and he stopped moving to make sure of what he heard. Yes, there it was again, a series of playful barks presumably from a very friendly and goofy golden retriever named Biscuit. Renny sighed and tried to find the creek crossing but couldn’t immediately see it, just a hundred useless cairns left by scores of jackasses. He looked up to where the trail continued, checked his map and realized that what he was looking at was an unofficial user trial. Biscuit barked again, louder and closer, and Renny made a hasty decision.

The user trail was well defined, but it became readily apparent that it was not a maintained Forest Service trail. Renny meandered through a meadow, the sun sinking low in the sky despite it only being early afternoon. Well, the sky is lower here, after all. The trail wound through some trees, and then skirted the creek for a bit before climbing randomly atop an older moraine. Scrubby trees were abundant here, and the creek was quite a bit further below him than he expected. He had heard nothing further from Biscuit. Skylar had retreated to her sodden, heavy home in his chest. Renny looked up into and watched a jet silently scratch a white mark across the blue as it made its way from Seattle or Portland to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Back down to earth, Renny noticed that the user trail was about to ascend further, up a series of ten or twelve rough-hewn, extremely unpleasant looking switchbacks. He stood at the base of the hill, which went from like zero to vertical immediately, someone just brute-forced the trail here, fuck it. Renny took a breath and slowly made his way up.

At the top was more up. This happens a lot when hiking in the mountains. After the next section of up was more up, and after an hour or so of this, Renny began to wonder if perhaps he had made an error in judgement. He was wearing the latest in outdoor sportswear, but sweat wouldn’t be denied and the internal heat of exertion was at least good for banishing self-abusive repetitive thoughts for a while. And then, oh yes here we go, the trail leveled out and the trees became small and squat and rumbly-tumbly boulders scattered across the landscape and Renny was standing on the very feet of North Sister. Snow dusted the steep slopes about a thousand or so feet above where he stood, but the air was a good ten degrees cooler up here than it was at the trailhead. Renny relished the cool breeze which swirled down from the mountain slopes. He had rejoined the creek, and could now pretty clearly see its source, which was a fat glacier perched on the slope of Middle Sister. The trial continued on through the scrubby trees for a while before the trail followed the creek up to the glacier. Renny had every intention of going up there, but first he needed to locate a campsite.

After a few minutes of aimless wandering through the alpine trees and rocks Renny found the bones of an old, absolutely illegal fire. Well, at least the vandals had made a fire ring first. Renny shook his head in righteous indignation. Like, seriously, you have to hike through how many miles of devastated forest before you get here, and you light a goddamned fire? “Everyone sucks but me,” Renny said out loud, and then paused. He hadn’t spoken for hours and his voice sounded strange to him, unpleasant and flat. Rather than profane the mountain air further, he absently kicked away the fire ring, scattering ashes and charred bits of wood. The campsite itself was ideal. Renny pitched his small, two-person tent against an overgrown moraine – trees and shrubs had made the giant mound of loose silt and gravel their home – and there was a nice ring of alpine pines surrounding a fair amount of empty space, which both blocked the wind and opened up the view. Once his tent was in place he sat inside of it momentarily and gazed up at the mountains, which towered above. He absently took a few pictures before stowing his phone away in his pack, which he then shoved in the tent. Renny was not particularly worried about getting robbed up here.

Renny walked back to the trail, which meandered through the subalpine firs and paralleled the creek, which was getting smaller and faster with every step. Renny, who felt about a hundred pounds lighter for having ditched the backpack, made his way through the squat, deformed trees that filled this last, relatively flat area before the mountain began for real. Soon, the wind-sculpted firs began getting sparse, the trail started back uphill, and the trail began its final ascent up Middle Sister. He wasn’t entirely sure, but Renny wouldn’t have been surprised if the user trail he’d been following eventually found its way to the summit, which was still a couple thousand feet above. Renny wasn’t feeling that ambitious, but he could at least drag himself up to the foot of the glacier, which sat comfortably above the treeline. As the trees receded below him, the landscape became one of various sized rocks. Freshly melted glacial ice tumbled down the rocks to one side, the wind was still mild, the volcanic face of Middle Sister stood in front of him, the entirely of Eastern Oregon spread out behind and below him. Oh, Oregon.

After a good half-hour of scampering up and around progressively larger and larger boulders, Renny finally approached the glacier. Hayden Glacier? Sounded about right, although by the looks of it he wouldn’t have to worry about its name for too much longer. He walked up to the base of the glacier, which was comprised of dirty, compacted, pocked ice, and kicked it. Some flecks of ice flew back into his face, which he clearly deserved. Renny chuckled to himself, and found himself a nice, round rock to sit on. It was a good rock. Once upon a time it was a blob of molten lava, ejected from one of the Sisters, where it cooled in the air before bombing back to earth. Lava bomb. Renny regarded the trail from which he came, down, down, down to silvery dead forest miles below him. The burn was impossibly huge, impossibly wide. In the distance Bend twinkled, beyond that the desert yawned to the horizon. His eyes, however, were drawn back time and time again to the grey burned forest. How long until it recovered? Fifty years? Longer? Whatever, he’d be an old, old man before this view was more green than grey, and that was a bummer.

Know what else is a bummer? Losing a girl because you’re a prideful dipshit. Skylar was worried he didn’t want to go with her because she might make more money than him. Nah, that’s dumb as hell. One, who cares? Two, a career in retail management would end up making more than one in academia. Then why why why, you make no sense! Not crying but listless, slowly understanding that what they had was dying, eventually turning into frustrated rage. Fuck you, then, you silly dumb asshole. Skylar didn’t get mad until she got mad, then she got maaaad. Renny didn’t want to live in West fucking Virginia, obviously. But that shouldn’t be a deal breaker, wouldn’t be permanent, just a first step, besides it’s not like he was doing anything here. Oh, but the mountains and the forest and the endless volcanic weirdness of Central Oregon. Great, what’s more important, me or the mountains. The mountains? Fuck, shit, hell, butts. Something twinkled below, caught Renny’s wandering attention, that’s not a rock, that’s not the creek, that’s by my tent and what the fuck is that? That’s a person.

A chill settled on the top of Renny’s head and dissolved through his body. The figure, and it could be nothing else even it was just a shadowy shape from this distance, was at least a half mile away, perhaps further because it was far below where Renny was perched on his lava bomb. Renny tried to focus on the figure, tried to make sense of it, but it moved furtively, there was no detail from this distance. All he could figure was that another hiker followed the same user trail he had and now was looking for a place to pitch a tent. Annoyance replaced the initial alarm, and Renny stood up. It would take a while to get down there, so hopefully the person saw his tent and decided to piss off on his own. Goddammit, he went all the way the hell out here to avoid exactly this. Can’t a guy hike out into the wilderness and be alone with his self-indulgent misery anymore? Renny grunted and started to pick his way back down the rocky trail.

Nobody was there. Renny kept a sharp eye out as he made his way back to his tent, but saw no further movement, no further glimmering. By the time he was halfway down the slope he had pretty much decided that he had, in fact, saw nothing. Actually, it was probably Bigfoot. Roaming the mountains and rocking his Timex, enveloped in his secret Bigfoot camouflage, like he do. When he approached his campsite he was now annoyed that he let himself be drawn back to his tent before he was done poking around the glacier. Sure enough, there was no sign of anyone else. No giant footprints, no regular footprints other than his own. Well, whatever, might as well see about taking some nature shots. Renny unzipped the tent, dragged his pack over, and fished around for his phone. Which was totally gone. No, fuck you, it’s there. Where else would it go?

Renny took the time to set camp while he emptied out his bag looking for the missing phone. This was a trick he played on his brain, which was at least not thinking about the girl for once. Oh, it’s no big deal, whatever, I’m just rolling out my bedroll and getting dinner out, I’m definitely not worried about losing an expensive piece of electronics. Obviously it just settled down to the bottom of the pack. Obviously. So he took his time, took out each piece of equipment bit by bit, as if performing an inspection. Oops, almost out of Band-Aids. Yep, that’s important. Totally a priority. He wasn’t fooling himself, but he tried. When there’s only one item left which is clearly not a phone but you’re still pretending there’s a chance, well, maybe it’s time to give it up. Where else could it be? Renny dug his hands in every last pocket again, ran his memory back, knew he put the goddamn phone in here, searched the seams and pockets of the tent, nothing nothing nothing. He slumped, hands in his hair, a sudden rush of emotion flooded him. Renny cried. It was too much.

He didn’t care about the phone, not really. Shit, it was two years old anyway, a relic. It wasn’t exactly a safety device, either. Not up here. Then what, why, what? Renny angrily wiped the tears off his face and stood. No, fuck this, someone stole it. He saw them, he knew he saw them. Renny wasn’t a tracker, but if someone had been there surely it would be obvious. He abruptly left the tent, stood up, looked around the small clearing where he had pitched it. Boot tracks, but his book tracks. Nothing else obvious. He looked up at the craggy, white and grey face of North Sister, but she didn’t know. It didn’t make sense! Why take a ratty old phone and leave the expensive, barely-used backpacking equipment? Shit, the burner alone cost a hundred bucks, more than his phone was worth. He climbed up the moraine that rose above his tent. It gave him a vantage point, but just more nothing. Nobody. The phone was gone. So were the pictures. The pictures he hadn’t backed up.

Dinner was a fairly miserable experience. His hundred dollar, lightweight backpacking stove decided to donk out so it took approximately an hour to heat a cup of water to the point where his dehydrated food envelope was even remotely edible. Lukewarm and lumpy. Gross. Renny didn’t really pay too much attention. Camp chores were minimal without the need for a fire. He walked down to the glacial stream and went through the motions of filtering the water, even though when you can see the source it was probably a good bet he wouldn’t get sick. Eh. He tried to read for a bit but he was wrung out, and after half an hour of attempting to read a single sentence he gave it up and tossed it back in the tent. Given the time of year and his proximity to the mountains, he would be out of light by five o’clock anyway. Once or twice he got up in a half-hearted attempt to track down the phone thief. Nothing. As soon as the sun dipped behind the Cascades the temperature dropped another ten degrees. Cold, hungry, sad, alone. Great trip. The mountains fucking rule.

Renny waited until the stars came out. It was a last ditch effort to not feel like total garbage. They shined radiant and cold. Their infinite, glimmering sprawl in the black sky did nothing to assuage the sodden, empty feel that had settled over him since he discovered the missing phone. Renny zipped up the tent, gave a disdainful look at his tiny, polyester “pillow,” and burrowed into his sleeping bag. He was here to prove to himself that he had made the right decision. He chose location over love. Threw it all away for the ability to have a day like today. Despite knowing, knowing, that there was nothing else here. His job as a retail drone, justified because he sold overpriced gear to the upper-middle-class. Disdainfully dismissing West Virginia because, so help me, they didn’t have real mountains. All this trip has done was put his failure into perfect perspective. The futility. The colossal dumbassedness of it all. The hike was supposed to be a reboot, a reminder. Even the comfort of the mountains had been stripped away. Over and over, round and round, images and imaginary conversations, Renny’s mind finally drifted off in the cold mountain air.

 

Part two is up next, and things take a a bit of a turn. Also the protagonist gets marginally less whiny, so there’s that to look forward to.

This entry was posted in Original Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s