On Roan

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.