I backtracked down the trail, back into the swamp and marsh, and sat on a large rock off to the side. I removed my pack and let it rest on the ground next to me. When Frank and Jordan caught up to where I was I briefly tried to explain what I had learned but it was so unbelievable I knew they would have to come face to face with the reality of our situation on their own so I sent them up the trail. George, close on their heels, stopped to make sure I was okay and I just nodded and told him I’d catch up.
The three men came back down the trail together. Their shoulders were slumped and their steps were slow, deliberate, with their heels dragging along in the dusty trail and kicking up little clouds as each boot made contact with the earth. Their faces were ashen and grave, running the full gambit of emotions as they tried to wrap their heads around the truth. We were dead.
One by one they dropped their packs and found a seat off the trail next to me. Silence reigned for a very long time before I finally was able to get some words to come out. It seemed the best thing to do was to admit it happened, to bring the truth of it out and share it because we needed to get passed that before we could move on to… well, to whatever we decided to do next.
“I was crossing a wet log, slipped, lost my balance and when my hands should have been bracing myself for the fall they were instead trying to grab the log I was falling off of and failing completely.”
“We,” stated Frank, his eyes staring across the trail into nothing, “were in our tent for the night, hiding from the rain and hail. Lightning struck the tree next to our tent, shearing it nearly in half and sending an avalanche of giant limbs crushing down on top of us.” His voice was detached. He said the words but they were lacking any emotion. “Wowee…”
George kept his gaze focused on his feet. His hands were intertwined across his lap. His shoulders were slumped forwards and his long beard was pinned between his chin and chest. His whole appearance was dejected but his voice was solid, unwavering. “I slipped on some ice, hail that had pooled together, while rounding a switchback and overcorrected while trying to regain my balance. Instead of falling backwards onto my pack, I pitched forward and the weight of my pack pulled me sideways off the trail and down a chasm. I’m not sure how far I fell, but it was far enough.”
We let the truth settle in. It surrounded us. It wrapped us in pain and comfort as only it can do. And, eventually, we accepted it for what it was.
I slid off my rock, shouldered my pack, and waited for the others to join me. The light was fading and we had miles to go before night fell. Though the normal camping restrictions no longer applied to us, we at least needed to get to a spot that would be suitable. Bubbs would serve for the night and the following day we would decide what to do next.
We retraced our steps back up the trail, and turned off at the Bridge to cross over the Kings River. From there we followed the new trail, crossing a few smaller wooden bridges that spanned over the tendrils of Bubbs Creek. When we found a spot suitable to set up our tents, we shrugged out of our packs again and went through the motions of setting up our camp.
It was Frank who noticed something we all should have noticed days before while pulling out what he and Jordan were going to have for dinner, “That’s weird…”
“What’s weird,” George and I both said in near unison. We turned towards the father and son duo where they were rummaging through one of their bear canisters. Frank had pulled a couple packets out of the black canister but his gaze was fully intent on what remained inside.
“We’ve got way too much food in here. It’s like we haven’t been eating anything the last couple of days.”
Without further comment, George and I went to our own canisters to inspect them, and we too found that we hadn’t used any of our supplies recently. I scratched the stubble under my chin as I looked at all of the food I was certain I had eaten over the last couple days. It would dawn on me the next day that the stubble on my chin also hadn’t gotten any thicker or longer over that same period of time.
I thought back to the morning and the breakfast drink and granola bar and realized that I still had the granola bar in my pocket, uneaten, and though I had taken the drink packets out of the canister to mix them up, I’d never actually gotten around to doing it. I thought back further to the previous night and remembered setting up the stove, place the pot on the stove to boil the water and pulling the food packet out of the canister, but once again, I never opened the packets or even fired up the stove.
“We’ve been going through the motions because we thought we needed to, but …”
“We haven’t actually been eating anything,” George finished my sentence.
I closed my bear canisters back up, moved them underneath a nearby tree and left them there. George, Frank and Jordan followed suit with their own bear resistant storage devices. When we packed up the following morning we didn’t return them to our packs. There was no need.
We also discovered that we didn’t need to worry about pumping water anymore and the elements hadn’t been affecting us as we thought they had been. Technically, we could have abandoned our backpacks entirely, but there was something comforting about keeping them with us. Plus, we were still experiencing days and nights and while the clothes we chose to wear each day didn’t show any of the miles we covered, we still liked the option of changing up outfits each morning.
However, the outfits we had been wearing the day we all passed away we did pull out of the rotation. Mine had been a red shirt, brown shorts, and a blue bandana wrapped around my neck. George had worn a yellow shirt. Frank’s had been blue and Jordan’s had been white. They corresponded to the guardians, as we eventually grew to call them.
They brought us together so we wouldn’t be alone as we wandered through the Sierra. They kept us from straying places we weren’t meant to go. They were a reminder that there was something more going on, and while we didn’t fully understand what that was, it was still comforting to know.
Some of our unanswered questions we were able to come up with best guesses as time went on and some were never resolved. We didn’t know how long we would wander through the mountains. We didn’t know why we were restricted to the Sierra and couldn’t wander the entire world. We didn’t know who the guardians were, why they had been sent to us, or what the significance was of our lack of ability to perceive them as anything other than shadows of our former selves. But, those questions lost importance and power as the days passed and we grew more and more comfortable with our new situation.
We spent the days climbing elusive peaks and exploring the darkest parts of the forest. We spent weeks backtracking rivers to find their sources. We spent months exploring the boundaries of our new realm: north, east, south, west. Each time we got too close the guardians reappeared and when we reached the edges they turned us around. They few times we tried to test those edges, they continually stepped in front of us thwarting our forward progress. When we tried to step through them it was like running into a wall and resulted in the only pain any of us felt ever again.
When the seasons turned we thought about trying to find suitable shelters to wait out the winter months but came to realize that we didn’t need to do that either. We could feel the cold, but not as we had in life, and it wasn’t something that could harm us anymore. We ended up plowing through snow drifts over our heads to experience getting lost in the sea of white. We watched in awe as water froze within the giant trees, the added pressure of the expanded water and the sheer weight of the ice felled tree after tree more efficiently than any lumberjack could ever hope to duplicate. All manner of wildlife, bird and beast, disappeared with the first snow and reappeared with the first thaw. We witnessed bears rising after their long sleeps, birds tentatively testing out their voices in the cool spring air and fluttering from branch to branch chasing each other in the dance of life, we saw does chauffeuring around their yearlings, and bucks standing majestically nearby surveying their domain.
Sometimes we found these scenes difficult to watch. They reminded us of the life we no longer had and the loved ones we had left behind. We wondered what they were doing, where their lives had taken them, and how they were fairing without us. We longed to spare them any of the grief and pain our passing had caused. We longed just to see them one last time and know that they were okay. Those longings led to the first attempts we made at getting passed the guardians. They were, of course, unsuccessful.
We travelled and trekked, ranged and ridge walked, climbed the highest peaks and spelunked into the lowest caves, walked, hiked, ran, wandered, crossed, journeyed, explored. When we wanted solitude we went our own way with plans on where and when to meet up again. When we wanted to stop and enjoy a particular spot for a few days we did, and when we wanted to move on we did that too.
The mountains were our domain. The trees and animals were our companions. We were family, brothers in a way, who could finish each other’s stories as if we had lived them ourselves because we knew them so well. Trails were our freeways and highways. It rained, it snowed, it was windy, it was hot, it was perfect.
As the seasons turned again and again we realized that we would never add anyone else to our family. However our situation worked, it wouldn’t ever be more than the four of us. Though, sometimes we thought we heard whispers on the wind, bits and pieces of conversations where we couldn’t quite make out the words, and we wondered if we had stumbled across some of the living, just a step away from our world.
Off and on we tried to follow those unheard voices in the hopes that we could pick up what they were talking about, hear something about the world we had left behind, but no matter how we tried to hear more or how many days we followed the sounds we never understood anything that reached our ears. But, we knew we weren’t alone, whether we could make out the words or not.
And, if we could almost hear them, perhaps they could almost hear us too. So, we took up the habit of following voices around and while we tried to make sense of what they said, we tried to talk back to them. To let them know we were there with them. For the most part, we gave up on that too because we had no way of knowing if our voices were carrying through like theirs were.
From time to time, though, when I hear voices passing me on a trail, or sharing my camp with me, I’ll bid those voices hello and welcome. Maybe one day I will get through. Maybe one day we’ll uncover all the truths about our situation. Maybe one day we’ll be allowed to move on to something else.
Until then, if you find yourself hiking in the Sierra and you hear a voice carrying in the wind just beyond grasping what was said, take a moment to stop and listen. It might just be me saying, “Have a good hike,” or “Welcome to my camp,” or “I hope you enjoy these mountains as much as I do.” If you happen to hear me and feel like answering back I would truly appreciate it.
Don’t worry, though, I won’t be with you long. There are still mountains to scale, river bottoms to explore, animals to observe, and life… There is life everywhere to be witnessed and enjoyed. So, I won’t single you out and haunt you. I’ll just say hello and share my trail or camp and then be on my way. Frank, Jordan, George and I wouldn’t want to scare you, we just hope you enjoy your time in the backcountry.
Then again, after always feeling like the mountains were haunted, it is kind of fun knowing you may be part of the reason future packers get that same feeling. Is that the wind you hear whistling through the trees or is that me singing? Is that tingling on the back of your neck just the breeze running across your sweat, or is that George passing through you as he speeds on by? Is that feeling you are being watched just the result of the vast emptiness of the Sierra surrounding you or is it Frank and Jordan sitting off the side of the trail watching the beautiful day unfold?
And they are all beautiful days, for us and for all the others.
Word Count: 2,331
Total Word Count: 52,814
Story progress: Done. So, what did you think? I’d love any feedback you feel up to sharing. Did I draw you into the mountains? Could you see what they could see? Did I develop the characters enough, or should I have spent more time on them and their backstories? Were you okay with the unanswered questions or would you have liked to unravel the mystery a little bit more than I did?
I hope you enjoyed the read. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. I’ve got a lot of editing to do on it now, of course, with all the verb tense confusion I’ve mentioned before, plus my resident Sierra expert (my dad) has informed me that some of the descriptions of places I haven’t been yet aren’t quite right and need a bit of tweaking, and I’m sure that in the next couple reviews and partial rewrites I’ll think of scenes to add/delete/improve upon.
Thanks for reading!