This One Time, 14

This one time I was hiking up what passes for a mountain around here, having hit that part where each inhale makes it feel like stabbing icicles into your lungs through your bronchial plumbing, hoping any gnats or mosquitoes or whatnot that I accidentally suck down have the good grace to climb out on their own so I don’t have to have a coughing fit and pass out.

The problem I have with this mountain and other mountains like it is that it can’t be a real mountain to me if you get grass on it all the way to the top. Every tree is a crutch to help haul yourself up the slope with, and that feels like cheating. So I work it as a workout for my upper body as well, which is fantastic for the trip uphill, but it doesn’t work so well for going back down the hill. I’m new at this, using my arms to help climb up means I keep going past what would be the comfortable halfway point for making it back down without being tired enough to collapse before I make it back.

I can tell by the nausea and wheezing I’ve been pushing too hard, so I decide to lay down and force a rest. I shrug my pack off, bite into the valve of my camel bag, and take a long drink. The nausea swells and fades and my face and hands go cold. I breathe open-mouthed for fifty counts and things start to go back to normal. Chills come and go, and then I start to feel warm again. I lean back against my pack — it’s not a big one as this is supposed to be a day-hike, but it has a bit of stuff in it just in case it accidentally turns into an overnighter, as I’m not a complete idiot — and close my eyes.

I should have known better. When you’re this wrecked, you set a ten-minute, maybe twenty-minute timer. The problem is that when you let yourself hit bottom like that, you don’t think very clearly. When I opened my eyes, the sun was maybe an hour from the horizon, but it was about ten minutes from a cloud layer that would bring twilight quite a bit earlier.

So much for making it to the top. Unless I felt like spending the night it was time to hoof it downhill. Already the shadows would be long enough that I’d have to be extra careful with my footing. Also, twilight was mosquito banquet time as well as shift-change for the little woodland creatures. The snakes were still awake at this time of year, but I wasn’t in good enough shape to hike quietly. I’d sound like a sack of bowling balls rolling down the hill. The big worry was that it was rutting season for the local white-tails, and those bastards get aggressive. I guy I went to school with incessantly recounts to anyone who hadn’t heard already (and everyone who had heard, if he’d been drinking) the time a twelve-point buck carried him out of the woods to the highway on his rack, where some kind passerby threw him in the back of his truck and rushed him to an emergency room before he bled out completely. I’m not sure I buy all the details that he gives with each recounting, but I trust the veracity of the general theme.

It helps that bucks sparring half a mile away into the woods sounds like an angry lynch mob gunning for you just around that closest bend in the trail. It provides adequate and appropriate motivation. I don’t know exactly what they think you plan to do to the doe they’re fighting over, but they sure do adore their privacy.

Failing light notwithstanding, I took every opportunity to pick up the pace.

And suddenly I was down the hill, seeing the graveled parking lot off in the distance where I’d left my Jeep. I know that sounds like the lamest story on earth, but you have to keep in mind a couple of details. I had hiked nearly four hours to get to where I took my little nap. I was counting on the downhill trip only taking three hours from there, as it had the previous ten times I’d hiked it, and I know there aren’t any shortcuts. At least not marked shortcuts, and certainly not marked with the yellow stripes I had followed to get to where I had turned around.

Just as I popped open the back hatch to dump my pack in, the sun peeked out under that band of clouds I mentioned and vanished below the horizon. I checked my watch and it had been forty-five minutes since deciding it was time to hoof it.

I stretched the cargo net across the back of the Jeep and let it trap my pack to keep it from sliding around. As I flipped the pack over so it would be upright, I noticed a black smudge on it, pretty much dead center. The loading light was on, so I held the pack up the light up to it to have a look to see what kind of crap I’d dropped it in to take my little nap, and it was a perfect handprint, maybe about twenty percent smaller than my huge mitts. I’d certainly never seen it before. I sniffed it and it smelled burned or melted, and in fact, it wasn’t anything that would rub off when I scratched at it.

That was the part of the pack that would have been right against my back, so I put my hand behind me to feel my jacket, and it sure as hell felt like it had a funny patch. I took it off and looked it over. Same handprint, burned in just enough to blacken the material. All the way through, because there it was again, reversed, on the inside of the lining. I started stripping. Same with the hoodie I was wearing under the jacket. Same with my shirt. And my undershirt. And my back was a bit tender to the touch too, like a sunburn.

I had to wait until I got home and arranged a few mirrors to see the smallish pink handprint on my back. It’s never gone away.


January 14, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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