The nine days spent in Table Rock, North Carolina receiving my Wilderness First Responder certification can be classified, I believe, as a vacation for knowledge. For eighty hours we gained a thorough instruction on the various and many ways in which one might care for others and self after arriving up creek without a paddle in the middle of the backcountry. Cuts, scrapes, abrasions, reactions, bites, stings, bruises, hemorrhages, closed fractures, open fractures, amputations, dislocations, hypothermia, shock, trauma, trauma, trauma. This was the course curriculum, with some CPR and mental first aid thrown in for the sake of every outdoor enthusiast’s rounded education. I left my Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course distended with knowledge, filled to the gorge with excitement for the coming adventures, and sad to be leaving my little, tight-knit WFR family ....
This particular fiction piece was inspired by a pair of women in my life - my partner Tierney, who is newer to backpacking, and my grandmother, who passed away last month. Tierney and I made the trip west to Roan Mountain, a section of the Appalachian Trail, in early December 2015. Starting at 10:30 pm one starless, freezing night we hiked along the howling ridgeline to Grassy Bald. We set camp at 1:00 am, half-frozen and chiseled to bone by the relentless wind. But the beauty of Roan expressed itself the following days, and made our long night worth every halting step. This is a fictionalized telling of that cold adventure, where grief for my Jojo was borne along in the story like memories carried by wind.
On Roan, Short Story
With her first step on the frozen trail she feels her foot slip on ice and twist beneath her. There is a pop, a gasp, and her body falling onto the ground. She lies there, acknowledging the heat in her ankle, the tears sliding cold down her jaw. What would he say at this? She wonders. From her back she sees the stars, the first stars she has seen in a long time, and so she is still for a moment, looking upwards.
There is something jabbing as her spine, maybe an end of a tent pole. She shifts, worming out of her pack. It lies there, silent, fat and pregnant. She sits up. She fell on her left leg, banged up her knee, but it’s the right ankle that suffered the sprain, the pop coming from high up in the joint. She rubs at it, staring at the road behind her, marveling at the cold seeping into her behind. It must be twenty degrees out. She feels as if she’s sat on an expanding block of ice, the cold spreading outwards along her body. She turns, faces the parking lot. Even in the dark she sees her car, its headlights glinting in the moonlight, black body sleek and inviting.
Rolling her sprained ankle slowly, she listens. The injury speaks, but does not scream. She cuts a look at her pack, lying there useless to her side, a dead spider on its back. To put it on and continue hiking, or to drag the pack to her Subaru and drive back to the Town of Roan?
After the question comes the voice, floating from the woods to her left, wiggling into her ear. Biting, cold as the night air. It sounds disappointed in her. Come on. Let’s go back. Go home. I knew this would happen. Sigh. That voice. His voice. She plants her hands, gets her left foot underneath her, and stands, grunting with the flexion of her left knee and the weight placed on her right ankle. Looking at the ground she sees the patch of ice that caught her, bought her, and brought her low.
She kicks at it, coughs, and spits, curious how long until the phlegm will freeze.
It takes time to manage her pack back on. It’s too heavy for her two nights on the trail. She wouldn’t have brought this much on a weekend trip to anywhere else but it was her first time packing for such an adventure and she had no one to direct her. She’s found that in grief no task is easy. But she gets the backpack on and, taking a deep breath, stands slowly. With one deliberate step she moves forward on the trail, away from her car, and deeper into the night.
The pain in her knee and ankle quiet as she hikes up the slope. What first come as halting steps racked in pain become a rhythm, a song sung with wind racing along the ridge. Her thoughts slide into the world contained by the beam of her headlamp. In the night the universe is quiet, on the trail it creates itself.
Up the path, up the slope. She hikes through a rhododendron garden, wild branches seeking her, fingers clutching for purchase. They are the hands of an infant, searching for a pacifier, the hands of a lover, looking for a caress, the hands of the needy, wanting the hands of the needed. She passes by, memories hanging in the air.
Above the rhododendrons waits the sprawling ridgeline. From her understanding the trail leads to up to a small bald, back down into a dip between mountains, and then high onto a large bald. Tonight she hopes to hike to the large bald, where she might camp and wake with an unobstructed view to the sun rising behind the surrounding Appalachians. She looks to the large bald, a black shape blocking the stars, a behemoth of deadlight. From up there the first colors of day will find her, the first rays of warmth will reach her.
But God is it cold, and she has so far yet to go. Now that she has reached the ridge the wind batters her, fighting her every step. Her nose, numb, shoots streams of half-frozen boogers onto her upper lip, which she wipes with shaky fingers. Her pack, heavy, so heavy, feels as if she carries all the lies, a cumulative weight of memories in pain.
Atop of the first bald, the smaller bald, she can see the lights of Elizabethtown glowing a pumpkin orange. She rubs her hands together and snuffles her nose. It feels like she has ice cubes shoved up her nostrils. She rolls her shoulders and groans at the ache between them, her heavy, heavy pack pinching around the muscles of her neck. The wind gusts and she hears him whispering, words carried softly, swiftly. Her knee vibrates. Her ankle throbs. Her heart hurts. She looks back down trail from which she has come, longing for the warmth and comfort of her car. Yet she turns north on the trail, and continues to hike.
She descends from the small peak, hoping the wind will slow in the shadow of the looming larger mountain but the gusts only grows in intensity, and from the white beam of her headlamp she can see fine granules of dirt lifted from her trail to be cast down the dark slope. It is a wind tunnel. The lights of Elizabethtown are now hidden by the bulk of the first bald. A pack of clouds have covered the moon and her Milky Way. Her headlamp flickers, dims, and fails. She sobs.
Stopping, turning her back to the wind, she looks for the familiar pangs of panic but they do not come. Her eyes adjust to the night and she can see the trail, its definition dulled by night shadows. She may continue, if she chooses. She takes a deep breath, blows it out hot, and turns to face her destination.
There is one deliberate step, followed by the next. She bends at the waist, as if pushed down from behind, dominated by her pack. She stumbles along, half-blind, exhausted, wondering when was the last time she drank any water at all? The last time she ate any food? She sucks at the nipple to her water bladder, pulls a hard granola bar from a pack pocket. She drinks and hikes, eats and hikes, and, leaving the dip in the trail, begins to ascend again.
The wind slows as she climbs. Her going is easier now. This wind, so cruel, rages below. She can hear it beneath her, and the feeling of escape grows within her breast. Empowerment fills her chest, calms the aching in her battered legs, releases the tension her pack has created. She climbs in the dark, seeing the path before her with the resolution of a drunk headed home. The moon has evaded the clouds and she cheers at the flood of light. The mountainscape is cast in a pale gleaming. Grim trees and frozen shrubbery wiggle at her in the whispering wind. She hikes past, walking tall, smiling, neither curious nor caring about the snot frozen from cheekbone to chin.
She steps over stones, these crumbling bones of the mountain, her mountain. She ascends higher, higher, until the crest of the bald is definitive in the moonlight. The wind rushes to meet her approach, but it holds no bite now. The voices have faded. There are no secrets left to tell. She pushes the wind away, and it moves politely to one side. She laughs, unclasps her pack, and lets it fall to the earth.
Weightless. Freedom. She races for the peak, flying over a smooth dirt path. And, now with a full view of the world around her, she sits on the ground and cries.
When she does return for her pack she moves stiffly. Her body cooled off while she sat and heaved heavy tears, admiring the accomplishment, alive with the thrill of it all.
Setting up the tent is difficult, but she manages. The moon, so bright atop her bald, resists the cloud veil until her last stake is hammered into the cold earth and she has pulled her pack into the tent with her. Then the moon vanishes behind clouds, and does not return.
Later, awake, staring up at her little waterproofed ceiling, she takes a few long, deep breaths. She is wearing three layers of tops and bottoms, and two pairs of gloves and socks. She has put a blanket at the foot of her sleeping bag, and has wrapped another around her body. It’s not so cold when you do all that, and tonight she is comfortable. She is exhausted. But what keeps her eyes open, shining is the realization of her awakening. It is quite the sensation. Her past, her history, her experience led her here tonight. Right now. Words that have only ever been words now hold meaning. I am enough. I am whole. I am.
What an adventure the night has been. She rolls on her side, smiles at the wind beating against the tent cover, and falls asleep, assured that however dark the night there is one truth that she can rely on. The sun will always rise again.
Wheels touch and jump and the plane slows. San Francisco, welcome. One week in the Bay Area, this sprawl of population, gnarled and tangled up in each other as many roots seek to survive in shallow soil. The West Coast has called and I have answered, ready to explore in the vein of passion which has thus defined my spinning existence – by being out of doors, with and without company, among the redwoods.
Consider San Carlos. Think suburbia to San Francisco, but with an industry of its own. Where families go to grow, where retirees go to slow, where young business professionals looking for cheap rent seek to actually save the money they’re working so hard to earn. This is where I’ll make my base, with a college friend who is with a company on the leading edge of 3D printing. This is Prescott. He’s a humble brood hailing from the pines of North Carolina. I’ve taken to his calm manner and ability to chew the gristle of what he needs to say until his words turn to bone, straight and clean. Prescott, as my consummate host, takes me hiking, running, and exploring the many parks sprinkled around San Carlos. This is an expansive arena of sight – city to the north, bay to the east, ocean to the west. Visions of the state sliding into the ocean after the mighty San Andreas Fault cracks and rips loose western California, the adrift state to be swallowed whole by a hungry Poseidon are morbid and unreasonable. I shift my perspective, imagining long runs along the ridgeline, sunset hikes with the falling sun lighting the hills in a blooded orange.
If I surfed, knew about surfing, understood at all the feeling of riding a wave along a rocky shoreline then this would be where I’d set my bubble of existence, to grow or contract with the rising and ebbing tide. Built upon the flatland between ocean and mountain range Santa Cruz exists to service both affluence and hedonism. A surf community with an affinity for cycling, hiking, and artistic expression I find myself reunited with my Road Angels of Keys to Freeze, Dakota and Chelsea, the same weekend El Nino sends fifteen foot swells to the shores of Santa Cruz. Surfers run along the boardwalks, walkers watch the surfers run, and the waves continue to bash themselves to mist against the craggy beach. It is sunset, a dramatic scene. I feel the ocean spray and turn my cheek to its touch. The next morning, Dakota and I jog up into the foothills on a sunny morning, afterwards we drink horchata and burritos at the local taqueria. In a casita Dakota and Chelsea have rented we talk into the night about travel and purpose in travel, specifically the path that I find myself on, the path that I’m pursuing. They offer gentle advice and the next morning we go back outside, to run and walk and observe the indominatable ocean once more before I leave for Berkeley.
In the height of the counterculture revolution of the 60s and 70s Berkeley emerged as a premiere player, where experimentation leveraged new perceptions of reality and patterns of life. Here I travel to participate in an eight hour interview with a cycle tour company. The afternoon before my long and demanding ‘hiring event’ I run off the excess of nerves by scrambling up muddy slopes cut into the mountainside where the University of California-Berkeley rests. It is a pretty view yet I can’t shake the disgust felt in observation of smog, smog, smog blanketing the bay between San Francisco and Berkeley. Smog thick enough to slice, dice to a powder, arrange in a line to snort up, a quicker way to poison the body than our casual, slow bio-accumulation by breath. As wonderful is the sight of sunlight refracting off the excess of molecules suspended in heavy atmosphere I realize that I’ll be unable to live Berkeley, or across the bay, or up in the hills surrounded by my ten million neighbors. I am thankful that, if hired, I’ll be living in national parks rather than here, there, anywhere with a population density over 10,000. From my perch I wish for an open vista and sunset storm along a desolate stretch of Midwestern highway, where the only activity will be the grasses bending to the breeze and dry soil churning to mud in the deluge. No wishes will be granted tonight. I descend with the approaching dark, photograph in a lackluster manner the family neighborhood of Berkeley, and go to bed. The next day I complete my interview, take no more pictures, and return to San Carlos, preparing to depart for home on the East Coast.
California, a state so big it might as well be a country, with cultures and sub-cultures running north to south along the coast, west to east between the slopes of the Sierras, is mighty and proud and alluring from afar. I’ve explored the peninsula with some satisfaction – in one week I've passed through only three towns in the mighty sprawl but it feels as if I seized my vacation and throttled it with great gusto. I didn’t go out in the city of San Fran, rather contented myself in visiting old friends living outside the city. I filled myself exploring sunlit trails new to me.
The Californian skyline, to an East Coast body such as mine, holds mystique, intrigue, a waft of lurid breath tumbling from over the Appalachians and into my foothills. I went to smooch the source of breath and got my lungs full of California in the process. So as I step onto the plane and head home, I can let out a slow and easy sigh, assured that when I come back to my bed I will not be surrounded on all sides by the weight of population, by smog swallowing my life's little fishbowl, by light pollution hiding the stars most important to me. And so I leave for home, to touch down in NC, and to sleep, hoping to wake the next morning with a winter sky hinting at a spot of clean Sunday snow.
I have five distinct animal personalities in my life. What they and I share is at times tenuous, though ultimately fulfilling. I struggle at times to appreciate their individual dialogues, and have found that photographing them helps me gain perspective on their own experiences. I argue that domestication is a gift and burden for the pet. We teach our animals the way of life, outlining our expectations for the relationship. What an interesting dynamic we create. So I photograph these moments, recording the mundanities of petdom, of the domestic life. Yet when I create conversation to their posturing I discover the true stories, their stories - their moments, their perspective, and the unsettling discovery that I may not be the one in control. *if you're reading this on mobile, flip your phone or tablet horizontal to read the photo captions.