Rocky Mountain Runaway
I stumble, surprised to be knee-deep in snow. I’m breathing hard, and though sweat is dripping down my back, my ears and face are numb. I pull my tracker hat to my chin to cover as much skin as possible.
“We better head back.” I look over my shoulder. “Step into my footprints. It’ll be
easier for you to walk.”
I picture this trail in summer. Where is the rushing stream where years ago Emily and I dipped our sweaty feet? Where is the rock on which we sat and took a long distance look at Emerald Lake glistening in the early morning sun? The last time we were here, Emily and I already were swimming in hard feelings, though I still cannot pinpoint why. Was she working too much, with no time to talk? Or was I? Perhaps just bitterness and resentment of our
monotonous life. It didn’t matter. For years we’d never exchanged a harsh word, but now we couldn’t stop bickering. Yet, hiking this trail on that warm summer morning, all was beautiful. I wonder if we’ll ever hike anywhere together again.
I glance back at the footprints I’ve just left. I can hardly see Carmen, though I know
she’s there. When I face forward again, there is nothing but a tabletop of untouched white. I’ve strayed, lost my concentration, lost my way. Which way should we walk?
Emily and I once wandered off a trail in Kings Canyon. At first, I thought “no problem,” but after twenty minutes with no sign of other hikers, panic seeped in. The Sierra Nevada mountains extend from California into Nevada, and the image of two specs of humanity lost among millions of rugged acres had made my mouth go dry. We didn’t own a compass or map. We didn’t know what we were doing. I kept reassuring Emily, but didn’t believe a word I was saying, and I don’t think she did either. We were lost! But then we heard a faint sound beneath the hot buzz of cicadas: rushing water? All we had to do was find that river. So, Emily and I headed towards the sound until white water leaped up before us. We were safe! We followed the bank downstream, crossed a bridge, and returned to the lodge with the shared joy of overcoming danger.
But is there a river to find out here, and where would it lead?
I picture the map: head west. I turn away from the morning sun and plod ahead. Each step requires focus so progress is slow, but this shouldn’t take long. I gaze to my left where the terrain slopes out of view. Is that a river?
The descent is steep and my hand plunges into snow as I balance myself. Beyond an outcrop of rocks there’s a drop-off. It must be the river. As I rush forward, my foot slips and I slide into a ravine. I expect to crash through ice, but as I slide to a stop, I realize that this isn’t a river at all. It’s just a small valley of snow that looks like a million other small valleys of snow.
Once again, I’m lost in a national park, but this time it’s freezing and I’m alone.
I trudge up the incline. Which way now? I check my body: toes numb, fingers frozen, salty taste of snot in my mouth. This is not good. I must keep moving. I seem to be descending, the snow slightly less deep, so I’m making progress. Then again, the trailhead could be twenty seconds to either side and I’d never know it. There’s so much unmarked space out here.
Step after step and another. I can’t tell how long I’ve been in these woods. Why am I out here anyway? What led me to this point? Carmen is dead. I will never see her again.
“Why did I bring you with me?” I say.
Carmen had seemed so real to me on the plane, in the motel room, at dinner, in the hot tub. Talking together with steam rising in the frigid mountain air. That was the thing about Carmen: real or imagined, she could talk about anything.
But now she’s not talking nor following my steps, her bleary affection is reduced to a pale mist over white snow. I fight the urge to stop. I miss her so much I can’t even explain it to myself. What was so special? She was simply a woman with a pleasant personality. It could have been anyone sitting in the office next door, filling the growing chasm between me and Emily. She was different, exciting, and then she got sick.
I lift my eyes. Am I getting anywhere? They’ll find me frozen, picked apart by wolves. If I do escape, they’ll have to amputate toes, maybe even feet. I feel nothing below my ankles.
I trudge forward, head pounding. It’s the altitude. I always forget, but my body reminds me. I gulp at the air, trying to feed my lungs. I’m an old man who’s taken on a young person’s hike with nothing and no one to help me. As I struggle to lift my leg from a shaft I’ve drilled with my boot, I notice three-pronged tracks in the snow. Squirrels? Raccoons? Wolves?
I remember a short story about Russian nobles returning home on a snowy night. Their horse-drawn carriage bounces along a lonesome country road, when they notice the shining eyes of a wolf. Soon there are more sets of shining eyes and panic sets in. The coachman urges the horses into a gallop, but when he looks back, he sees the pack in full stride closing the gap. The husband-and-wife huddle together as if that will save them, but the wolves know their work. The pack dashes past the passengers and snaps at the legs of the two horses who collapse in a heap. Noble screaming fills the air as, one by one, the couple is dragged from the carriage.
I wonder what I’ll do if a pack of wolves stalks me. It’s not far-fetched. I’m easy prey. One hundred eighty pounds of fresh meat, out here alone, defenseless, ready to be dragged down and picked apart.
I stop to see if I can figure out which way to walk. I’m breathing hard, the pulse behind my ears is pounding, and I feel nauseous from the pain and cold. I could throw up but stop myself, partially because I don’t want to spoil the pure white snow.
I hear a faint voice: “Hello?”
Is that real?
I hear the voice again: “Is anyone out there?”
“Yes!” I am screaming. “I’m here.”
“Keep talking. I’ll follow your voice.”
“Over here!” I’m still screaming. For a moment I’m embarrassed by my panic, but I
A park ranger wearing snowshoes appears between two distant trees.
When he waves my body goes limp: I’m saved.
I wipe my nose on my sleeve, loosen my hat that had been pulled down to my chin, and try to calm myself. I don’t want him to think I was worried, though I don’t know why it matters to me.
He comes up to me smiling. “I saw your car. When I radioed the front gate, they told me you went in about forty-five minutes ago.”
Only forty-five minutes?
“I knew you couldn’t have gotten far, but there’s a storm coming so I figured I better go look for you.”
“How far are we from the trailhead?”
“Five minutes. If you walk in the right direction.”
“I must have been wandering in circles.”
The ranger points. “Unless you picked that exact path you’d be wandering for a long
“Thanks for coming to get me.”
“Why are you out here anyway?” He must know I have no idea what I’m doing.
“I’m not sure, but I won’t do it again.”
I follow the ranger’s eyes to gray clouds moving in over the treetops.
“They’re predicting another foot by mid-afternoon.”
“You’ve convinced me. I’m going back to my inn and taking a long hot bath.” The thought recalls an image of Carmen, talking in the steam.
“Where are you staying?” He turns and calmly starts to walk.
“Rocky Mountain Inn.”
“Nice place. First time?”
I tell him about Emily and the story of our first visit. I talk about our lives together and our great adventures. As the ranger smiles and nods -- he’s so young -- I think how nice it is to talk to someone.
Stewart Bellus grew up in Brooklyn NY during the 1960's. Although an attorney by trade, Stewart has always carried a passion for writing and travel. His publications include Moments of Truth, The Villa, and Tip of the Tongue. His work has also appeared in literary journals including Confrontation, Mediphors, Washington Lawyer, and Paradise: an anthology published by the Florida Literary Foundation Press.