I had to get out of town. My stomach felt like someone had set off a pack of firecrackers and closed the lid on it. My head throbbed like it had been shut in the car door. My vision was blurred from crying. I was fucked up.
I rushed home to grab my gear while the house was still empty—a spur of the moment decision. I went to the basement, got my pack and filled it with the things that go with me to the woods. A few minutes later, I closed the hatch on the rat’s nest of clothes and boots and gear and hurried to get on the road. I thought I might feel some relief as I pulled away, but the phone ruined any hope for peace. She’d left six texts while I was inside the house.
You’ve destroyed me
So. No response?
Talk to me!
My hands shook as I thumbed through the messages. There were two voicemails, and before I could decide whether or not to listen to them, another text arrived.
Where are you?
I couldn’t answer that question, so I switched the phone to silent and put it on the passenger seat, face down. I turned on some music and played it loud. It helped, even though I kept looking over at the phone like it might get up and smack me across the face like she had.
Aside from stopping for gas and a Diet Coke, I drove straight through and pulled into the trailhead parking lot just after ten. I love the way driving puts me in a trance, where the miles fly by and I can’t remember how I got to where I was going—just that I made it. I was never so grateful for being numb as I was that night. I needed those hours.
I got out of the car and stretched. Hiked up the trail a bit so I could pee. I looked up, through the canopy of trees, and saw clouds that were almost close enough to touch. I wondered if I’d packed rain gear. I got my sleeping bag and went around to the passenger side of the car and got in. I picked up the phone to see that she’d left fourteen texts and six voicemails. My hand went back to trembling as I scrolled through each of her messages, which read like a map of the first four stages of grief.
If I slept at all that night, it was in short stretches, interrupted by bursts of fear and doubt.
I told her on the way to the airport, hoping she would go on to San Francisco while I stayed behind and figured out what was next. She could tell something was up the moment she got in the car, but didn’t push it. When I missed the exit to long-term parking, she turned to me and demanded to know what was going on.
It was supposed to be our big day. I’d been so sure, but I couldn’t do it. I drove up the ramp to where people were dropping off loved ones, hugging and smiling and saying their goodbyes. She asked again and again what was going on until I stopped at the Southwest drop-off point and told her I wasn’t going with her. It was over.
What’s the best way to break a heart? This question rose up from my subconscious one night as I watched her sleep. Once loosed, it grew, malignant and swift, until it pushed aside all other questions and forced an answer in the car at the airport on a sunny day in September.
“No,” she said, falling back against the door. “You can’t do this.”
She shivered at the sound of the words. Her right arm swiveled at the elbow and smacked me across the face like a sprung trap.
“How dare you.”
She hit me again, and then again. The fourth time, I caught her by the wrist and told her to stop. Tears rolled down each side of her face as she jerked her hand away from me.
I said nothing. How can you, when you don’t even know if you believe what you’ve said?
“Talk to me,” she said, leaning in and wiping away the tears.
“I can’t,” I said.
Before she could say anything else, a cop tapped the window. I hit the button to roll it down, and he looked at her, then me.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
We nodded. She reached over and took my hand in hers.
He looked at me. “You dropping her off?”
“Well, you need to do it and move on. You’ve been here a while.”
“Okay. I will.”
He looked at her again, then turned and walked ahead to the next car.
She let go of my hand and stared out her window.
“Look,” I said, but before I could say another word, she got out of the car, slammed the door, walked around to the back and opened the hatch where her bags were. I got out, knowing this was only a bit of theatre designed to provoke some begging. A chase. I said nothing. My heart hammered away at the inside of my chest.
She shouldered her purse and pulled up the handle on her rolling bag and turned and walked away. I called out, knowing she would ignore me. I called again. Nothing. When the cop whistled and motioned for me to move along, I got in the car and drove off, relieved.
I hadn’t driven fifty feet when she called my phone, screaming obscenities and threats at me. I hung up. She called back and screamed louder. I hung up again. The third time, she begged me to pick her up, so we could talk. I refused. The obscenities and threats returned, and I hung up again.
I awoke from a bit of sleep to see the clouds above me smeared with the first gray swatches of daylight. It had rained. I powered-up my phone and saw that she’d left two more voicemail messages during the night—the first was to tell me she’d taken a cab home and the second was to tell me everything would be all right.
There was also a third message from my wife and son. They told me they loved me and were praying for me. Hearing their singsong voices caused the muscles in my chest to constrict, as though someone had inserted a key into my sternum and wound it too tight. I’d gotten good at keeping them far from my thoughts, but now I had to consider them.
I stepped out of the womb-like warmth of the car to find that it had grown cold in the night. Fifteen minutes later, I was packed and changed and headed up a trail I’d hiked many times before.
I’d parked at the base of a mountain where the trail cut through old growth hemlock, rhododendron, mountain laurel and big, thick ferns. When I was a kid I thought this is what it must have looked like at the beginning of time, with Adam and Eve, before everything went to hell. A bridge got me over a swollen creek, and just as the trail rose steeply into its climb, I stopped to pull off my jacket.
I found a comfortable rhythm and fell into a kind of autopilot as I watched my feet negotiate the roots and rocks of the trail. The trance jogged a memory of the coldest I’d ever been in my life, at the top of this mountain. I was thirteen. Dad and I came down during spring break, and did a series of overnighters throughout the park. The last one was this hike—up to LeConte and back.
As we pulled our packs from the back of Dad’s Civic, he told me to lighten my load and make the climb easier on myself. I did as I was told and left everything but my food and water and sleeping bag and pad in the back of his car.
On the way up, it started to rain. As we climbed higher, the rain turned to sleet, and then snow. This was 1980, and we wore denim and cotton. We were soaked to the bone. By the time we got to the shelter at the top, a few inches of snow covered the ground. The temperature had fallen into the teens.
Usually, the first thing you’d do in a situation like this is get out of your wet clothes as soon as possible, but I wore the only clothes I had. A guy not much older than me watched as I stared into my empty pack.
“You’ll get hypothermia if you don’t get out of those wet clothes.”
No shit, I thought. But I looked at him and said, “Yeah.”
I was shocked to see Dad pulling dry clothes out of his pack.
“You brought extra clothes?” I asked.
He gave me that look of his that made me feel stupid.
“It rains one out of every three days in the Smokies,” he said. “Yeah I brought extra clothes.”
The other guy laughed. I hated them both.
Dad told me to get out of my clothes and into my sleeping bag, which I did. He laid out my things near the creek rock fireplace, but couldn’t get a fire going. I sulked the rest of the night, silently hashing out revenge fantasies against Dad and the anonymous smartass who snored at the other end of the shelter.
In the morning, my flannel shirt and jeans were like corrugated cardboard. I had to beat them against the side of the shelter to make them flexible enough to put on. I’d slept with my socks in the bottom of my sleeping bag, and they were cold and wet. My boots, curled and frozen like elf shoes, hurt to put on. It was pure misery, but I pretended not to be bothered. We packed in record time and raced down the mountain, where it was sunny and in the 60’s.
I wondered if I’d make this trip with my son in another ten years when he’ll be thirteen. I wondered if he’ll seek my advice about his problems, or if he will be like me and bury them beneath a façade of cocksuredness. Life, which had always seemed so fixed and predictable, now felt as fragile and unlikely as the spider webs that stretched across the trail before me.
I pulled off the trail to let an elderly couple approach and pass. They stopped, and we spoke a bit. Unprompted, the husband proudly announced they were seventy-three and celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They’d spent the night at the lodge at the top of the mountain.
I asked about the weather up top, and the old man told me it had rained all night and was likely still raining.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just up and back, I guess.”
He looked me over and nodded. “You’ve done this trail before?”
“Many times. You?”
He looked at his wife, and they shared a laugh. He told me this was an annual pilgrimage for the two of them that stretched back to their college days. They’d done this trip every year of their marriage, except for last year.
“Cancer kept us off the trail,” he said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Me too. It was a bitch,” he said, nodding. “We had a good streak going, didn’t we?” He looked to his wife, whose laughter had disappeared at the memory of his illness, and took her hand. “I figure we’ll just start a new streak and see how far we can take it.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” I said. “I hope you make it to fifty.”
He laughed. “I’ve learned that plans will only take you so far. You’ll see. You have to learn how to improvise. To live on the fly and be okay with uncertainty. That’s the trick.”
I studied them and sensed a deep and abiding love that had been protected and rehearsed daily. They seemed completely at peace, and I was insanely jealous of it.
“Well,” the old man said. “If we stand around here too long, I’ll stiffen up, and one of you will have to carry me down this mountain.”
“Well. You all take care,” I said. “Congratulations on your anniversary.”
“Look for us next year. If the cancer doesn’t come back, maybe we’ll find you out wandering around these hills.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
We shook hands, and I watched them until they disappeared into the woods below. Even then, I could hear their happy talking rising through the trees—spectral and temporary.
With every step, visibility shrank as I rose higher into the clouds. A jumble of images, words, and accusations swirled around my head as I made my way. The questions piled up like the mountains around me, but the answers were lost in the fog. The rain fell harder.
I stopped and pulled my rain suit out of my pack. I pulled on the pants, hopping around first on one foot and then the other as I shucked off a boot and jabbed a foot through the leg hole. I got the right leg on fine, but as I was putting my left foot in, it got caught up in the crotch of the pants, and I fell into some rhododendron, cursing and yelling like a madman.
When I finally got back on my feet and put the jacket on, I remembered that the zipper was broken, which led to more cursing. I dug around my pack and grabbed the rain cover and a Ziploc bag filled with Band-Aids, moleskin and duct tape. I took the duct tape and did a few loops around my torso, making sure the jacket was bound shut. It wasn’t pretty, but it kept me dry. Jerry-rigging that jacket felt like the first right thing I’d done in months.
Even though I’d cut things off with her, I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do. Despite what she’d said to me, I wasn’t mad. I could see her before me, as though she were there, and I desperately wished I could comfort her somehow. Wished I could split myself in two and let one half of me run off with her, while the other half stayed with my family. Two happy halves.
I thought of the first weeks we spent together, getting to know one another. Exploring. Probing. The happy obsession of discovery. I thought of the excuses I made, just so I could pay her a visit, and how she called me on it one day. How she said she liked it.
Things weren’t bad at home. Only stale. We’d gotten into a rut that I hadn’t even recognized until I was shown another way. My life was like the black and white part of “The Wizard of Oz” until I met her and got to see the world in Technicolor.
We believed we were special, and that somehow, the Red Sea would part and we would walk blithely into a new life together, without any negative fallout. It was a beautiful fantasy, but over time that’s exactly what I came to see it as. I knew it couldn’t possibly work, even though I prayed that it could.
I stepped out of the trees to find myself at the base of the giant cave, which was actually a rock house. With one step, I went from pouring rain to dry as a bone, and I had it all to myself. I walked up to the top, where some rocks were, and dropped my pack and took a seat. Sitting there was like being in a great amphitheater. A gauzy curtain of mist hung between me and the mountains just across the valley below.
I ate a Cliff Bar and tried to see the Peregrine Falcon that sounded like a banshee flying around in the fog, screeching and raising hell. I wondered by what act of grace it was kept from crashing and dying when it moved so fast in such a sightless and dangerous space. I never saw the thing, but enjoyed knowing that it was there, like it always was, doing its thing.
After a while, two women popped out of the woods and into the sanctuary of the cave. As they pulled the hoods of their jackets off and looked around, they waved to me and started up.
Sisters. The younger one was a grad student at UT, and the other was visiting from Colorado. They were thin and pretty in a plain, bookish way that I liked. I immediately preferred the one from Colorado, with her blue eyes and high, chiseled cheekbones.
We talked about the weather and the falcons and my duct taped jacket, which tickled them to no end. They were spending the night at the shelter up top, then heading on to the AT and Davenport Gap, where the UT sister’s boyfriend would pick them up in three days. I’m embarrassed to admit that I wished I were going with them.
I watched them disappear into the rocks above me and waited a good long while before rising to follow. As pretty as they were, I wanted to make sure I’d be alone. I stepped out of the dusty cave and back into the rain, where I had to climb up some rocks before getting back onto the trail. The rain sounded like popcorn on my hood, and before I could’ve gotten a bag of it microwaved back home, I fell into deep thought.
Talking to the two sisters triggered an odd chain of thought where I imagined the two women in my life standing before me, the three of us engaged in the same kind of placeholder conversation I’d just had. I was able to see them as real as if it had actually occurred and I was remembering it. It’s weird what the mind can do.
Gradually, I thought only of my wife and the weekend we spent at the lodge a few years ago. It was our first weekend away from our son, and she worried about him the whole time. Despite that, it was a beautiful respite from our normal routine. We’d planned to explore every trail leading to the top of the mountain, but once we got inside the cabin and got undressed, our plans changed. We only left the cabin to see the stars late Saturday night and eat breakfast Sunday morning, and we only dressed for the breakfast.
Remembering the two of us sneaking around the outside of the lodge naked, except for our shoes and the bed sheets wrapped around us, lifted my mood for a while. It was a warm, windless night, and I wanted to make love beneath the stars. We’d drank nearly two bottles of wine, and she was up for anything. It was a miracle we didn’t walk off the side of the mountain. Instead, we made it up to the point, and as we were getting comfortable, another couple, with flashlights, had the same idea. We rolled up in our sheets and sheepishly ceded the point to them, despite their apologies and repeated invitations to stay.
We laughed all the way back to the cabin. Happy, horny ghosts.
I realized I was crying and wiped the tears from my eyes as I walked along, wondering what was wrong with me. I thought of my wife and my son and the happy life we’d had together and wondered how it was possible that I could convince myself that it was not so. How could I have mistaken a good life for a bad one?
How had it happened? How could my mind suspend disbelief long enough for the kind of pretzel logic that made that affair possible? Was it possible that I wanted out, or was it a mid-life crisis? The thought of being so mundane and clichéd made me shiver, but was I just a garden-variety husband having a garden-variety mid-life crisis? Or was this something else? More proof of my normalness? Proof that I wasn’t a snowflake, but a number. A predictable chain reaction of chemistry and impulses that has been going on since the dawn of man. The thoughts hurt as they burst out of my subconscious, like little grenades going off in my head and heart and soul. It hurt to know that my wife, who thought I was perfect, would soon learn that I was just like every other guy. It hurt to know that with this knowledge, my son might grow up with a full-time stepdad and a part-time me. It hurt to think of the look my father would give me, like that look he gave me all those years ago when I wasn’t smart enough to pack extra clothing in a place where it rains one out of every three days.
The trail leveled, and I entered that section of dead pine trees just before the top, that stand like tombstones of the beauty that had once been this copse, but was now only a ragged tinderbox, waiting a spark to set it off.
Improvise? How do you improvise a disaster? No uncertainty there. I’m certainly fucked.
I wished the old man was with me so I could ask him the questions. What would he have said? Had he ever cheated on his wife? Never. I used to judge guys who cheated on their wives. Why was that? Was I seeing me in them? Was I afraid of what I must have known was inside me? Dormant as the pines, waiting for that spark that would set things in motion? Or was it just a random thing that everyone is capable of, given the right alignment of circumstances? No. I don’t believe in randomness; that life is just one spin of the carnival wheel after another. That’s bullshit.
A little further, and I looked up to see a doe step into the trail from the right, followed closely by a spotted fawn. I froze as she looked my way. We made eye contact and I slowly reached for my phone, which was in a Ziploc bag in a pocket of my pack. It was an old habit. Normally, I’d have already shot a couple hundred frames by this point in a hike. As my hand felt the shape of my phone, I changed my mind about the photo. I don’t know why, except that maybe I wanted to be in the moment for once in my life. I simply watched, as the doe bent her head down to drink from a puddle in the trail, the fawn imitating its mother.
I don’t know how long I stood there. It seemed like forever. I didn’t care—I was determined to live in that moment, as long as it lasted. The doe eased on to the other side of the trail, without a bit of hurry, the fawn following playfully behind. I watched them both until they disappeared down the flank of the mountain. As time resumed and the moment passed, I looked ahead to where the lodge sat off to the side of the trail. Just beyond it was the shelter where I was supposed to sleep. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I wept like never before. After a while, I wiped my eyes and pulled the hood from my head. I turned and started back down the trail I’d walked, knowing that my only hope for forgiveness would come from a broken heart.