Twilight. The echo of coyotes off the mountains beyond the lake drifts through the cold August air. The sound makes the mile and a half from here to the other side of the water seem like a stone’s throw. I sleep comfortably now, but years ago when John first brought me here, the baying made me shiver. I tried to put it out of my mind, tossing and turning in my sleeping bag, feeling vulnerable with the yelps and howls and moonlight streaming in.
Tomorrow I’ll climb the last mountain that John climbed before he left me. It’s a few miles back off the lake, and a bushwhack almost all the way up. Branches and roots and brambles. John said there’s a waterfall near the top, not a big one but if you follow the compass right you can find it, and it’s beautiful to see despite its small size. It helps you pretend that these mountains are as clean and beautiful as they were years and years ago, before any of us were born.
As I lie here I feel the baby kicking. My friends said that I’m stupid coming here by myself under any circumstances, but pregnant? Maybe they’re right, but it’s too late to think about that now.
The last thing I write in my journal before I fall asleep is that the coyotes sound closer this summer. They’re moving in, taking over their land again from all of us who built marked trails and cabins through it.
In the morning I sit up before the sun is more than a hint of lightened clouds above the treetops. Stretching, I say good morning, out loud. I suppose I expect it to echo, even though there isn’t anything for it to echo off, yet. As it is, the words land like a thud against the trees and leave me with an eerie awareness of being alone. I quickly eat a cold breakfast and put together a day pack with enough to get me through a night if I get caught: warm and dry clothes, sleeping bag, flashlight, map, first aid supplies and lots of water, plus a day-and-a-half’s-worth of food. The pack grows heavier as I move away from the lake towards the mountain. The sun turns the clouds a yellow-blue, but it’s still cool like August mornings are. It feels good. As my muscles stretch, any misgivings about the trip seem to massage their way out through my feet, where they grind into the soft morning earth.
As I walk I avoid the stinging nettles. They’re everywhere and I stop and pull pants over my shorts. The nettles remind me of John who always said “Watch the nettles!” every time we’d see them on a hike. He’d say it over and over, each time he saw a patch: “Watch the nettles! They’ll sting, you know.” As if I didn’t. As if it ever stopped him from hiking in shorts. “Someday, Lil,” he’d say. “Someday you’ll be able to find them without me.” He’d laugh, wink at me and keep walking. He’d try to slow his pace to accommodate my shorter legs but he’d forget after a minute or two. He’d walk at his own pace again, silent, and I’d hurry, gasping to keep up with him, six foot two with long legs.
The maples and oaks keep the rising sun off of me, but still I’m starting to sweat. I pull a red bandana from my pocket and tie it around my forehead. It keeps my hair from dripping sweat into my eyes.
He was always very quiet when he hiked. I remember a conversation: I said something about the trees, something like, “Check out all the birches.” When he didn’t answer I kept going, “Look, all the white birches. Birch bark, that’s good for starting fires, right? Can you take it off the trees or does it have to be dead first? I’ve only ever seen white birches, are they all white?”
He stayed quiet, nodding his head as I talked and talked. Over time I learned to stay quiet too, but in the beginning I didn’t understand why. It’s a little like fishing, he used to say quietly. “If you make too much noise, all the fish will go away. And the fish are why you’re there, you know?” His silence reminded me of that every time I spoke and he didn’t answer. At first that made me angry. When I understood, I just felt foolish for forgetting.
I check my compass and veer a bit to the east, and in twenty or thirty minutes I pick up an old herd path. It’s a little overgrown with scrub grass but still passable, and it lets me think more about John and less about the way up the mountain. It starts to incline, just slightly. I stop for a water break and eat a large handful of raisins: my second breakfast. Through the tops of the pines the sun is rising higher, and the sky has turned to a solid, clear blue. The baby moves, like a tapping under my belly. The idea that in just a few months this bumping, kicking weight will be alive—just as alive as John and I used to be and as everything surrounding me now is, just as fragile as the saplings and plants I step over—although I know this, it is not real.
“Are you ready?” I ask, but there’s no response. “Ready to go up? Take a deep breath.” I pause to consider what I’ve said; the woods are still.
I zip the water bottle and bag of raisins back into my pack and fasten it loosely around my hips, under the baby. As I climb, I wonder what he’ll think when I knock on his door, if he’ll hesitate, taking a moment to register what he sees. Six months later, with a swollen stomach, with my hair cut short.
I try to think of other things, because when I don’t my mind drifts back to him. I see myself knocking on his door and asking him why the hell he didn’t write like he’d promised and why did he really leave anyway? As I hike, arm stretched behind me so my fingers can massage the knot in my shoulder, I want to imagine our reunion, imagine him shutting the door in my face, turning away. I hate that he’d more likely open his arms and hold me and talk for hours. I want to be able to justify hating him. Not understanding is like a curse, a final gift, but it’s mine.
The trees get smaller as I get higher, and the underbrush clears. I strip to my shorts. “Nettles are nothing, Lil,” he’d say, “you can get rid of the sting, and it doesn’t last long anyway.” He’d tease me for wearing pants in the early mornings as he stepped around yet another nettle patch. “Feel the dew on your legs. It’s the morning that you’re feeling.”
When I last saw him, he was leaving to teach at a year-round environmental camp in Yellowstone, to kids who came on vacation with their parents and to school groups. He believed that in just four or five days he could change a child’s life. I take a long drink from my water bottle and look out at the dense maples and oaks around me. If I tell him that I’m carrying his child, I wonder if he’ll think it’s enough to see it for half a week every summer.
The way he left: waking me up on a Saturday morning, face with two days’ whiskers, blue eyes close to mine, after almost four years together and talk of engagement, “Good morning, Lil, I woke you up because I’m leaving,” just like that and when I sat up I saw his coat by the door and car out the window, with the engine running and a hiker’s pack upright, sharing the back seat with the dog.
“I went home this morning, early, to get my things.”
I sat up, confused.
“It’s time to go.” He just looked at me, shrugged, like he’d done this a hundred times before.
“It’s time to go?” I was sarcastic, mocking, suddenly, fully awake.
“Yeah.” He said it like it was the most natural thing in the world.
I sat up straighter, refused to give him the satisfaction of tears.
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” He sat on the bed, ran his fingers through my long hair. “I just need to do something different for a while.”
I couldn’t do anything but stare.
“You can come, if you want.”
It’s hard to be articulate so early in the morning; hard for the brain to collect thoughts. I had a job, a home, a life. I said this, out loud.
“Okay,” he said, “I love you. I’ll write when I get to Yellowstone.”
“Open and wild and free,” he said. “Teaching kids—I can change a life, with kids.”
I shook my head. “You can’t just go,” I said.
He smiled, kissed me. “I love you,” he said again. “I’ll write.” He talked as he reached for the bag waiting by the door. Don’t look so lonely, don’t look hurt, it’s me it’s not you you did nothing wrong sometimes I need a change of place of people of pace of life of…his words spun unintelligibly. He was gone. I watched his car pull away. He can fit everything he owns in that car. When my head cleared I realized that I wasn’t even out of bed, it wasn’t even seven a.m., and I’d lost everything that had meaning for me in the world.
That’s what makes me angriest. Whoever he is or might be or had been, he could have had the courtesy to give me more than five minutes’ notice that he was about to vanish from my life.
The trail has become steep, and I look for the waterfall as the herd path fades into underbrush and the trees slant eastward and the sounds of small animals and birds are fewer. In the stillness I remember last summer, our annual trip to these mountains, one day in August and John woke me and told me, “I found God.” He’d been up for hours—always, everything happened in the early morning—even though we’d made love most of the night. It was past lunchtime, he’d decided to let me sleep, to take this day off from vigorous hiking. He’d already climbed a mountain, he said, ran most of the way up, and he saw a world he’d never seen before at a small waterfall near the summit. I was groggy and nodded and said “That’s wonderful” before asking him if there was anything to eat that didn’t need to be cooked.
He gave me cereal with powdered milk. Now all of a sudden when this memory comes back I wonder if that’s when I lost him, when I asked for breakfast instead of asking about God.
I put one foot in front of the other, pulling myself up the steep incline, bracing myself on a sapling. My weight on the slender tree has to hurt it somehow; it will show up later if not now. Am I doing the same to this baby by involving John, only for him to disappear later, leaving hurt and pain and no explanation? I lean forward, and feel the pull of my lower back. All my weight is on my left knee, my left foot on top of the rock that marks the beginning of the rock face that at the apex is the summit of the mountain; with my weight on my left knee and my left hand on the sapling I pull myself forward onto the rock. Off to the right the corner of my eye catches a splinter of silver, reflected light, and I walk toward it. The trickle turns into a stream, and below, fifty feet, thirty feet maybe, is John’s waterfall. It’s small but it’s beautiful, a cascade of clear water turned silver by the sunlight that’s unfiltered this high up, where the trees are small and they don’t block the sun. I keep climbing, balancing slowly and deliberately on the rock face, trying to find where the fall starts, but when I get there, there is only a muddy pool, collecting from a narrow stream in the rock and soil beds. I follow it to find the head of the trickle that must be on the top of the mountain, and all I find is a pool of rainwater. I wonder how much of the year this waterfall runs, because after the snow is melted and has run off the rocks, it must stay dry unless a big storm starts it up again. I think that it’s a strange sort of chance that it flowed two separate August days, a year apart.
I squat on the rock, laying my pack beside me. It’s going on midday and on the rock face the high sun makes me sweat and soaks my bandana. I look at John’s waterfall closely. I stand and move up the mountain, closer to the summit, and watch it from a distance, squatting on the rock, feeling the sun. I wonder what the coyotes do all day, as I look out over the peaks around me, and the trees below. It is very quiet on the top of the mountain, a little peaceful, a little eerie. Like last night.
I sit on the rock and after a two and a half hour climb realize that however much I can appreciate the beauty of this place I won’t see John’s god here. Instead I sit and coo and prattle to the baby who isn’t born and never met John and maybe never will.
I eat a sandwich as I start down the mountain. In the background I hear a howling noise and at first I think it’s a coyote, the same howl as last night, but it’s not. It’s the pet dog of a man coming up the trailside of the mountain. I lean and pat it as it jogs by. I pull the bandana off and tie it around one of the straps of my pack. My sweaty hair falls onto my face and I feel beads of sweat streaming like six months’ of spent tears, but unlike tears, sweat comes from strength.