Since I wasn’t sleeping, and my ears were overly attentive due to what they hadn’t heard earlier, I picked up on the sound of boots scraping and sliding across the rocks coming up the trail with plenty of time to get myself out of my sleeping bag and get some clothes on before the nighttime travelers entered my camp. It wasn’t super late and it wasn’t unheard of for people to be hiking in the dark, especially on days where a good portion of the light filled hours had been marginalized by a ferocious mountain storm, but I was in such a random location I couldn’t but wonder what kind of packers I was going to find on my hands.
To get to my location, from the direction they were coming from, they either had a very short day, completely bypassed the better sites they were probably supposed to have stopped at, or had a really long day in preparation for tackling the pass the following day. For some reason I highly doubted it was the latter and figured these hikers, plural because I could distinctly hear at least two different sets of feet slipping across the rocky trail, were novices.
Well, it’s not like I was sleeping anyway.
I had just switched on my flashlight to go through the process of unzipping the tent and putting back on my muddy hiking boots when the call of a man’s voice rang out above the roar of the nearby Kings River.
“Good evening,” I called back while simultaneously unzipping the tent flap and reaching out to do the same to the rain fly. When they were both open I shown the light from the flashlight out towards the ground a few feet in front of my tent to provide some light on the situation without running the risk of flashing the light in their eyes. I couldn’t see them yet as they hadn’t come around to my side of the tent.
“Any objection if we set up camp next to you?”
Ah, backpacker etiquette. With the nagging feeling that these were not seasoned packer still nagging at me I was shocked that they asked. “No objection at all. If you can find the space you need you are more than welcome to it.” With that, I set the flashlight on the floor of the tent next to me and started to untwist the top of the trash bag that held my boots.
The man’s response was followed immediately by almost two simultaneous sighs of relief and the distinct sound of two backpacks being dropped to the ground. A couple grunts followed that as the men joined their packs on the ground to take a well earned, in their minds, moment of respite before setting up their camp. Mind you, I wasn’t judging, we were all beginners at some point and, if it turned out they weren’t novices, we’ve all had days we miscalculated how far we had to go or had to change our plans as circumstances dictated.
Even the most veteran of backpackers has no control over the weather, injuries, sickness, and blisters. I included blisters on that list because even when you do everything right to protect your feet sometimes those little bas$%@&s pop up anyway. But each thing on that list has contributed to me calling short a hike or having to change plans at least once. It happens.
So, no, I wasn’t judging. However, I was surprised to have to be sharing my campsite for the second night in a row. I was also a little annoyed that I was going to have to put my muddy boots back on. I understood that was completely my choice and I could have just left them to get situated on their own but I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep without at least some sort of cursory introduction to the newcomers. Backpackers are generally good people but you never really know for sure…
I wrinkled my nose at my boots as I laced them up. They didn’t smell bad. I just wasn’t happy with them. Then, with a groan, I pushed myself out of my small tent, grabbed my flashlight off the floor, and closed the rain fly in case it started raining again while I was getting acquainted with my new camp buddies. A quick glance skyward, and the lack of any stars, indicated that it was smart of me to be wary. It could start raining again at any time.
The wrinkled nose turned into a slight frown as I thought that perhaps walking around for a bit more might knock some of the mud off. I know that seems contradictory, frowning at something that should be a good thing, but if the shoes got cleaner I wouldn’t want to put them back in the trash bag but they still wouldn’t be clean enough to join me unshielded in the tent. It would be another dilemma.
Mysteries and dilemmas were really starting to piss me off.
I stamped my feet a few time and watched as the mud flew off to disappear into the murkiness of the ground. Then angled the beam of my flashlight a few feet in front of me and walked around me tent to go and say a proper “hello.”
They were still on the ground, their backs leaned against their packs, and their packs leaned against some oversized boulders, when I got close enough to them for my light to illuminate their faces. They looked absolutely exhausted. “Rough day?”
“You can say that again,” the older of the two replied. “The rain didn’t do us any favors.”
The speaker shoved himself off the ground, wobbled on his feet briefly as he struggled for balance and compsure and then took a step towards me and extended his hand.
“I’m Frank, and that’s my son Jordan.” He indicated who he was referencing with a nod of his head in his son’s direction. Not that there was anyone else there he could have been talking about. Still, it was good to have clarification because he might have been talking about an invisible, 6-foot tall, rabbit who has occasionally gone by the name Harvey.
I took the offered hand and shook it. “It’s good to meet you, Frank and Jordan.” With the shake completed I waived in greeting to his son. “I’m Anton. The rain messed with my plans for the day too. In truth, the rain has messed up a bunch of my plans in the last week.”
Frank shook his head in agreement, as if he knew exactly what I was talking about. I doubted he did. Jordan didn’t return my wave and, though his eyes were open, looked like he was already asleep. Poor kid.
Frank appeared to be in his forties or so, maybe early fifties, though part of that could have just been from the state of exhaustion he was in. He was a little bit on the heavier side, and shorter, but not quite stocky. Jordan looked like he was a teenager but on the upper end of that spectrum and, while his current station didn’t support it, he seemed to be in better shape than his father.
Frank didn’t immediately move off to start unpacking so I figured he wasn’t quite ready and was hoping for a distraction to keep him away from that chore for a bit longer. Internally I marveled at his ability to be calm despite the hour and not be in a rush to get his tent set up while it wasn’t raining. No matter how tired I was I would find the energy to set up my tent, if the roles were reversed, before I took the time to do anything else.
I’ve had to set up my tent in torrential downpours before. Trust me when I say that it isn’t fun. Everything gets wet and then you lose your dry and warm sanctuary to retreat to get out of the rain. It is miserable. But, I did my best to hide those feelings from Frank. Not that it mattered. I doubted he could really see my face in the small amount of light cast by my flashlight.
“Where did you guys come up from today?” He was looking for a distraction. Asking that staple question was the easiest way to provide one.
“Well, we were camped at Lake Marjorie last night and we were hoping to make it over Mather today but we got a really slow start this morning. I let Jordan get some extra sleep to recover from the strain of going over Pinchot Pass the day before. Plus,” he said with a knowing smile and a wink, “we were hoping the rain would let up before we had to hit the trail.”
I nodded as if I agreed with and thought he had made the decision anybody would have made. I felt bad for encouraging that sort of behavior but I also felt it was one of those mistakes people needed to learn from on their own. I could tell him that he should have gotten an early start regardless of the conditions because inclement weather always slowed things down and because he would what extra time built into his day so he could summit the pass when it was safest, but, hopefully, he had just learned that lesson. Instead I just said, “Wow, you had a really long day planned for yourselves today.”
“Where did you start your day, Anton?”
“I spent last night at the Palisade Lakes.”
He cut me off before I could elaborate, “You went over Mather today?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I waited until the electrical storm moved down the canyon and then hoofed it up to the pass when I felt it was safe.”
“Woooeeee,” he exclaimed, slapping his thigh in the process. “I knew we had a long day planned today but once I saw that lightning this morning I decided we wouldn’t be doing Mather today. We have an extra day built in to our trip so if we don’t make up the miles we missed today on a different day, we can just give up the rest day to cover the extra ground. But I couldn’t have imagined going up there with all that lightning popping about. Dang. My hat’s off to you, sir.”
Thankfully, he didn’t actually have a hat to take off. That would have just been weird.
“No, no, I didn’t do anything worthy of praise or out of the ordinary really. I know there’s no way to really know what these mountains are going to brew up and throw at you next, but I’ve spent enough time out here that I like to think I can figure it out on occasion. You’ll get there too.”
He shook his head, overly exaggerated, in the negative. “I very much doubt that. I thought this trip would be a good chance to connect with my son, man to man sort of, but it’s taken a real toll on both of us. I don’t think we are cut out for this hobby. We are probably calling it quits after we get safely back home.”
“You might surprise yourself,” I interjected. “These mountains can really grow on you. You may hate every step of the way but when you get home you’ll end up missing them. You’ll know it’s crazy, and you can’t believe you are doing it, but you’ll find yourself coming back year after year.”
Half mumbled, barely audible, Jordan scoffed, “I doubt that.”
Neither of us paid him any mind.
“We shall see, we shall see. I can see that you are serious, and I believe that has happened to others, but I just can’t see it happening to me.”
Then Frank looked up, seemingly noticing that the clouds were still hanging above us, dark and foreboding, and said, “I guess I should see about getting set up for the night. Come on Jordan we’ve got some work to do.”
“Do you need any help?” Please say no, please say no, please say no…
“Thank you, Anton, but we’ve got this part covered.”
“Okay. I’ll be over here if you need anything. Good night.”
“Thankee, sir, and a good night to you as well.” Then Frank turned his attention square on his son, “Get up and let’s get this done.”
At that point, I retreated back to a rocky section over by my tent so I would be out of their way. I found a flat rock to use as a temporary seat, sat down, switched off my flashlight and attempted to enjoy the evening. I thought about climbing back into my tent, but if they did end up wanting my help with something I didn’t want to have to drag myself back out again.
After a full minute, much longer that I thought it would have been, Frank switched on his own flashlight and began unbuckling and unstrapping his backpack to get their tent out. A moment later a second light switched on as Jordan showed up at his side to help out. I found myself wondering how they had managed to make it as far as they had without their flashlights more accessible. No wonder it took them as long as it did to make it up only this far.
Not that they had an easy day, because they didn’t, but they also didn’t make it anywhere near as far as they had planned on making it. Once again, not judging, just making an observation.
Just like the observations I was making as the two of them attempted to set up their tent and then get their stove lit to cook dinner. Snippets of their conversations carried across the camp to wear I was sitting without being drowned out by the crushing sound of the river.
“That doesn’t go there.”
“I don’t think you are doing that right.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What a disaster.”
I wondered if they had noticed that I didn’t get back into my tent. I figured the answer was no.
Eventually they got the tent set up, cooked something and polished it off, and then finally disappeared into their tent. Their lights bounded around for awhile after that as they continued to get things situated on the inside but I could no longer hear anything they said, if they spoke at all.
After their lights winked out I stepped over to my tent and got it. I decided the only real option was to throw the shoes back into the trash bag and so that is what I did. Then I took off the extra layers I’d thrown on to combat the cool night air and climbed back into my sleeping bag. I closed my eyes and waited for sleep to reach out for me, and while I waited, I smiled and said under my breath, “People are silly, silly creatures.”
Word Count: 2,505
Total Word Count: 25,186
Story progress: Hooray for some comedic relief. I’m not entirely happy with how the interactions with Frank and Jordan went. I was hoping add a bit more humor to the whole situation but that didn’t seem to come out while I was typing it up… not to worry, the intent is there, and I can always add some extra funny to it during editing. Crossed the halfway point, 25K words. Hooray for that as well.