The ascent turned out to be child’s play, really, especially when compared to some of my other off trail adventures earlier on the trip. Dragon Lake was only a couple hundred feet above Rae Lakes and the slow steady incline up to it made the trek much easier than I was anticipating. Once I reached it I pulled out my map just to verify that I had in fact found the lake I had thought I was heading to. It was. It wasn’t anything all that special.
I think the word “dragon” had just conjured up images and expectations in my mind of something extraordinary and even if the lake had been breathtakingly beautiful it still wouldn’t have met my pre-conceived notion of what I thought it should be. As long as I could remember I had always been fascinated by books, stories, images, history, legends, and everything else related to dragons. There was pretty much no way that any lake named after the beasts could have lived up to my expectations unless one rose from the depths, breathing fire, and flapping its weather wings to soar into the horizon across the unblemished sky.
Though the lake wasn’t anything exceptional, it was nestled up against the base of Black Mountain and Dragon Peak. The mountain walls thrust out of the ground on the eastern, from northeast to southeast, edge of the water and quickly gained elevation with dizzying effect. I tried to see if the lake had been named for the shape in the ridgeline or any of the larger rocks that happened to look like a dragon but nothing stood out at me. Perhaps it had just been named for the ferociousness with which the canyon walls Looking up the canyon walls it was easy to determine that I would not have been able to find a path down them, especially with my pack on, had I chosen to try the cross country route over from Baxter Pass. That definitely would have been a disaster.
So, had the creature been standing there to make sure I did turn around? “I need to think of a better name for it than, ‘the creature.’” I said it hoping to jump start a brain storming inspiration, but nothing brilliant came to mind. I scanned the vast stretches of sheer, smooth, rock faces, punctuated by the odd jagged edge and long broken sections where chunks had come free and tumbled down. I was looking for the odd splash of red hidden amongst the boulders, and yellow too, but didn’t truly expect to see it, and therefore wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t.
I turned my gaze north and looked down the valley I had climbed the previous day. The name of the lake must have something to do with the view, which was quite good, because that was the only thing that made any sense. It wasn’t the best view, the best panorama, or the most worthwhile of cross-country ventures, but it was enjoyable all the same. I could understand why I had never realized that Dragon Lake was so close to Rae Lakes before and why none of the people I had hiked with before, who were more of authorities on everything Sierra related than I could ever hope to be, had mentioned that it was a good side hike off the lakes. However, I was still glad I had done it.
I turned to look back at Dragon Lake once more and then wondered if I had just climbed up to it at the wrong time of day. “Perhaps, in the afternoon, when the sun is moving into the west it hits the lake at just the right angle to turn it into a cauldron of burning yellow fire?” I studied the lake and studied the path the sun would most likely take on its journey and came to the conclusion that it was definitely a possibility. However, I wasn’t going to stick around and see if it happened or not and it was unlikely I would hike back up later that afternoon. It would just have to get tagged back on my to-do list for a future trip.
I liked having things like that sitting in the back of my mind. They worked as catalyses and drove me back into the Sierra year after year. If I left things I wanted to come back to I made sure I found a way back to them eventually.
The first hint of lunch time rumblings in my stomach got me moving in the direction of camp. I took my time coming down from the lake, not because the terrain dictated it, but because I was enjoying the view, enjoying the activity of wandering through the mountain terrain, and because I was trying to postpone the conversations that George and I were bound to have upon my return. Somehow, dealing with the weighty topics of the “what” and “why” of our creatures, our stalkers, our guides, didn’t seem quite as enjoyable as getting to bask in the glory of the Sierra.
Successfully back in camp, I searched through my bear canister to find my lunch fixings and then sat back in my butterfly chair to imbibe the nourishment my body needed while also imbibing the nourishment my soul and mind needed through the enjoyment of taking stock in where I was. The Sierra is my recharging station, the fill up I needed to make it through another year of work and stress and life. I had only gone a couple summers without visiting the mountains for a camping or backpacking trip in one form or another my entire life. Those missed summers had ended up being the worst years for me. Coincidence? There’s no such thing.
I had finished my lunch a few minutes before, and was just continuing to relax in my chair, when George walked up from the lake and took a seat on the rock he had sat in earlier that morning. As he was getting settled, he asked, “How was the lake?”
“Not bad,” I replied, “but not great either. It wasn’t too difficult to get up to, the towering canyon walls are impressive, and the view down the valley was pretty, but it seemed like it was lacking something to be deserving of its name. There was nothing that screamed “dragon” about it. Though, I do think that it may just need to be seen at the right time of day to catch the light of the sun reflecting off its surface. That’s a theory I’m toying with anyway. How was your morning?”
“Uneventful. I thought about packing up and heading over Glen but just never seemed to get around to and as the time passed my opportunity to make it up and over and to a good camp site on the other side passed too.” George shrugged. “I just couldn’t get myself motivated to leave, so instead I went on a walk over to the Ranger Station to see if they had heard anything about strange creatures in the area but there was no one there.”
“Of all the times I’ve camped here,” I chimed in, “I’ve never seen a ranger at that post.”
“Neither have I, but thought I’d give it the old college try anyway. It would have been interesting to see if there had been any reports that matched up to what we’ve experienced.” I nodded my head in agreement.
“From the Ranger Station I just meandered my way along the shoreline of the lake, stretching out my legs, and keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. I came back for some food a little while ago and when I had eaten I went back down to the water just to dip my feet in and wash away some of the miles.”
“That sound really good.” I scratched a spot just under the trim of my right sock, where the mud and dust of the trail had caked over a scratch I’d picked up early on the trip. I grimaced at the sight of my legs and decided that I would definitely take a sponge bath of sorts that afternoon if I couldn’t convince myself to completely jump in. High elevation lakes are very cold and it takes some very persuasive arguing to be convinced that completely submerging in one is worthwhile.
“I sat there for a bit,” George continued, “and then headed back here when I thought I heard you return. So, yeah, not all that eventful of a morning.” The veteran packer scratched his chin through his beard. He had a far off look and a slight turn down of the right side of his lips that created the faintest of frowns. It was easy to guess that the unknowns of our current situation were weighing heavily upon his thoughts. I considered myself an experienced packer but there were still many things I had never seen or done before. For something unknown and elusive to come across the path of a hiker like George, who has done it all and seen it all, could be quite troubling indeed. However, that wasn’t what was truly troubling him at all.
“It bothers me that I didn’t hit the trail this morning. I don’t like that I didn’t have any desire to leave. That’s not like me… I’ve never experienced that before up here.”
I frowned in response, there was nothing I could add to that or say, there was no bit of insight or explanation I could offer which would shed some light on what might have happened. It was troubling enough to feel like we had somehow been herded to that spot. If we needed to start wondering if our normal behaviors were going to start changing too that would take feeling uncomfortable to a whole new level. Finally, after a few minutes of silence, I said, “Maybe your legs just needed a rest.”
We both knew that wasn’t the truth.
After another minute where neither of us said anything, he returned to the question he had asked in the middle of the night, “So what do we do now?”
That same question had been running through my mind all night, even as I had been trying to get lost in the book I’d read, and I hadn’t yet come up with any sort of good answer to it. And, maybe, that was because there just wasn’t going to be a good answer. “Maybe we aren’t supposed to do anything at all?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t really know. It just seems like if we were guided down this path for some reason then we just need to hang on for the ride. What we are supposed to do will reveal itself in good time, right? I just don’t see us needing to waste a lot of effort on worrying about the “why” of it all.”
“We are on a path and we will follow it wherever it leads?”
“In a sense, yes.”
George was not happy about that. He pursed his lips and turned away. His jaw was clenched and I could see the gears turning in his head as he worked through the situation. When he spoke his voice dropped an octave and there was more than a hint of steel in his words, “I don’t like that idea at all.”
Neither did I. Part of why I loved the mountains, as we’ve already covered, is the freedom that they exemplified. The thought that we were just like pieces on a game board being moved about at the whim of something else didn’t sit well with me. But, how many moves had we both made on that board thinking we were making our own decisions already? How could we possibly know that any future decisions we made weren’t also based on some guiding force we weren’t aware of?
“I’m with you,” I replied, “but even if we set out to specifically remove ourselves from the path that has been set for us, we have no way of knowing that we weren’t supposed to do exactly that anyway. We don’t know what is behind this, the motives, the end game. We don’t have enough information. But, the creatures we’ve both seen are playing a part in it, right? So, perhaps they are the clue. If we can figure out what they are then maybe we’ll know what we’ve stumbled into here.”
George perked up. Being active, doing something, trying to understand what was going on were all things that he could get behind. “Do you have a plan on how we are going to figure out what they are?”
I shook my head in the negative, “Not yet. I’m mostly just making this all up as I go along.”
We sat in silence for awhile then, each lost in our own thoughts, and the world moved on around us. A few white, puffy, tendril shaped clouds floated across the sky and we flicked our eyes up to watch their progress while also scanning the horizons to see if they had any larger, less friendly, companions but the sky remained otherwise cloudless. The sun was just beginning to disappear behind the Painted Lady when the sound of boots coming stomping through the underbrush caused both of us to turn in our seats and try and pinpoint the sound.
My jaw dropped.
“Wowee, fancy running into you again. Anton, right?”
Frank and Jordan came around the little stand of trees and climbed up onto the plateau of our camp. I couldn’t believe it. They must have gotten really lost to end up at Rae Lakes. Then something in the back of my mind clicked. The only people I had seen since the morning after coming down Muir Pass, who had all been on separate trajectories, were gathered together in one spot. There is no such thing as coincidence.
Frank and Jordan dropped their packs unceremoniously at the far edge of the camp and Jordan slumped down onto the ground to lean against his. Frank crossed the camp to come and join George and me. We rose to greet him and as he stuck out his hand to shake mine, he said, “You are not going to believe what happened to us.”
Word Count: 2,393
Total Word Count: 43,340
Story progress: Nothing really to add at this point. The story seems to be moving along fairly quicly at the moment. I bet some of you were surprised to see Frank and Jordan show up again. When I realized that’s where this was headed I know I was a little surprised, but having George suddenly show up completely changed things around for me. Less than 7K words left to hit the 50K mark. I think it will probably take a little bit more than that to wrap up the story with a nice little bow on top.