This short piece was first written for an online site a few years ago. I recently converted it to first-person present tense for the fun of it. Verb tense does change the feel of the story. Not sure if it works or not, but it’s done, so up it goes.
We don’t belong here. This rocky path high in the San Bernardino Mountains is no place for city slickers like us. We aren’t dressed for the weather or the terrain, we have no maps, canteens, or first-aid kits, and no one else in the wide world knows where we are.
We don’t belong, but we’re here. The trail goes two directions: forward or back. The sun is glimmering behind a seductive green fringe of pine boughs, the cool breeze perfumed with the scent of pine is rustling sweet meadow grasses, and the trail is a dusty-brown invitation to continue into the shadowed forest again. Forward or back: decision time.
We decided once already. That’s how we got this far.
A few hours earlier we were all lounging around a hotel pool in the blistering mid-summer heat of California’s Central Valley. There are five of us: Dru, Gary, Alexis, Kyle and me, co-workers by necessity, friends by serendipitous chance. Our company pulls together its best people to set up new locations, and the job involves a month of six-dat workweeks where the shifts routinely top twelve hours. We were enjoying the twenty-four hour break between week two and three, recreating as hard as we could in floating chairs with umbrella drinks, when Dru found an idea in her third mai tai.
Dru is short for Prudence, but I’ve never met anyone with a less appropriate name. Moderation is for monks, she says, laughing, and she has a sunny persuasiveness that makes the most ridiculous ideas seem reasonable.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she says, and that is that. Alexis the designated driver chooses a route titled “Scenic Byway” from the rental van’s GPS, and off we go.
Eight clogged lanes of highway become four, and then two. Brown, withered plains give way to scrubby hills, and the roads empty out. Twenty miles from millions of people, we are the only souls in the universe.
The road shrinks again to one lane with narrow shoulders, and the route twists and climbs uphill through tall trees as straight as telephone poles. Drifts of snow huddle at the tree bases, gray in the shade. Gary opens the windows, and we shiver in our tank tops and shorts. “National Forest,” declares a faded wood sign.
Conversation quiets to murmurs of “I’ve never seen so much green,” and “I wonder what kind of bird that is.”
Kyle, ever the curious one, checks online. “Steller’s Jay,” he says, but we are happier when his phone loses signal so we can christen the world for ourselves.
Ship-mast pines, old-man bushes with clumps of leaves like shaking fists, and bat-squirrels who cling upside-down from branches. We laugh at every new discovery claimed, and then we run out of road. No tire tracks mar the smooth gravel of the turnaround. A trailhead beckons to us from the far side. Fallen pine needles lie thick on the path, undisturbed by any travelers. The sign beside the entrance is unreadable, paint weathered off, surface sanded flat by time’s passage.
I trace the carved symbols by hand, but their meaning is long gone. Dru says, “Let’s see where it goes.”
That’s the kind of suggestion that gets people killed in these wild places on the edge of civilization. Nature doesn’t forgive mistakes. Hypothermia, dehydration, starvation–all those deadly fates are one injury, one slip, one wrong turn away. People die every year because they mistake proximity for safety. I know how stupid this idea is.
I say, “Great idea.”
It’s stupid, but risk is part of life. We live, we dare, we head into the woods. Dru skips along in her flip-flops, Gary grumbles about blisters, Kyle and Alexis complain about sweat, but no one wants to be the first to give up. Then Drew stops at a narrow cross-trail, looking tempted.
There’s stupid, and then there’s stupid. “No turns,” I say.
She walks on, but she asks, “Why not?” so I tell gruesome stories about people dying lost in the woods. Survival is about choosing risks. All decisions have consequences.
A snide remark from Alexis and a joke from Gary lead to an unforgettable discussion about survival and the human spirit. The conversation meanders like the trail. We walk, and we talk, and we soak up the joy that comes with baring your heart and past to friends while getting grit in your teeth, twigs in your socks, and sunburn on the tips of your ears.
One more curve, we agree every time we come around a corner and the trail goes on. One more, until we reach this overlook where the smoggy human grid of the valley spreads out below us. We joke about zombies and escaping the apocalypse, we admire the way the trail dives back into the trees at the far end of the soft forest grass—so enticing—and we look at the sun, not setting yet but soon.
Do we turn back? Or do we toss the coins of our lives onto luck’s table and gamble our futures for the thrill of new and now?
Life never lets us see the endings we don’t make. That’s what stories are for.
Do we walk back safe with full hearts and no regrets? Do we retreat with the itch of what if scratching at our souls for the rest of our lives? Or do we freeze in the dark, caught by a late-season blizzard blowing off the Pacific? Maybe we fall to our deaths, first one alone, the the rest in a tumble of screams when a rotted slope crumbles beneath us. Perhaps adventurers from a generation not yet born will find our starved and withered corpses lost deep in the heart of the wilds.
We stand in a meadow bathed by golden light and weigh a simple choice that is not simple at all. One decision will create a whole ever-after for each of us.
What would you choose?
Photo credits: William Morris, private collection