As I sat by my little fire later that evening, relishing its warmth and relaxing my weary body, I felt inspired to break into song. The fish I’d supplemented my dinner with had been especially tasty, I’d had two whole days without a drop of rain falling from the sky, and I was still “lost” in my beloved Sierra. That may not seem like much, but it was all I needed to be happy. A happy me leads to singing. You might think that’s weird but I bet I’m not alone in that particular correlation.
I should probably point out that I wasn’t in fact lost in the mountains. I just like to use that word to describe my long haul treks when I only have a vague idea of where I’m going to hike to next and a general outline of when I’ll be heading out and back into civilization. It’s my own little version of wanderlust or walkabout.
Generally, when singing around the campfire I start with Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It goes first because it’s not that challenging of a song, other than trying to remember all the lyrics, and I enjoy recalling the stories that go with each section of the song. It’s a good one to warm up too and make me want to keep going. Besides, though I may not have a coat borrowed from James Dean, and I’ve certainly never sung for a King or a Queen, I definitely have a voice that came from you and me, and though I wouldn’t say I could sing as well as Dylan, the Jester, I like to think I do have a voice of the people.
Afterwards, I generally just let my mood guide the music. But it’s a good bet to say I’ll sing Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and Bob Dylan’s “Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” at some point before the fire sputters out. I’m a sucker for songs that tell a story.
Leaning back in my butterfly chair I gazed into the starry expanse above and started, “Long, long time ago. I can still remember how that music used to make me feel. And I knew if I had my chance, I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for awhile…”
God, but I loved being lost in the mountains. All the responsibilities and stress of normal life fade into the background. Everything around you oozes peace and tranquility, which isn’t to say that backpacking is easy, because it isn’t. It’s hard, dirty, tiring work and your body and mind let you know that almost every step of the way.
It takes a lot of endurance and perseverance to complete a journey of that nature, to keep putting one foot in front of the other even when every single step is like driving a spike into your feet, or synching a vise around your waist tighter and tighter. Most of the time I return home after such adventures a bruised and battered man complete with blisters and scrapes. But, with every successful trip I learn more and more about myself and about the world. I learn more about what I am capable of and I learn more about what the world is capable of.
You might think that after a certain number of trips into the backcountry I I couldn’t possibly be learning anything new. Haven’t I already seen it all? Haven’t I already done it all?
Before two days ago I didn’t know that I could hike for three days in a row in a monsoonal storm. I didn’t know that I had the courage and fortitude to keep going despite the conditions. I didn’t know that if I came across a frozen over lake I’d think of an easy way to break out a circular section large enough for me to pump water out of. These may have been things I assumed I would be able to accomplish, but before two days ago I wouldn’t have known for sure.
Sure, none of this information would be specifically useful back in the board rooms and cubicles of the corporate world where I earned my living, but if I can survive in the Sierra on my own for weeks at a time while the mountains throw obstacle after obstacle in my path then there is nothing in the rest of my life I can’t also accomplish. Surviving a few weeks in the backcountry is very empowering. Reaching the top of a particularly strenuous pass, catching the food you need for dinner so you don’t go hungry, and returning to your vehicle alive and well are feelings that cannot be adequately described. Each of those triumphs leaves you stronger, better, tougher. They make you a more resilient person. They make you a survivor in all avenues of your life.
Plus, there is all the wonderful scenery I get to enjoy along the way: deep canyons, rigid cliffs, tall green trees, pristine lakes and tarns, and rushing whitewater cascading over boulder and pebble alike. I don’t mean to preach about it. I just really enjoy it all and it’s hard for me to keep that exuberance out when I think about it and talk about it.
These life affirming experiences aren’t for the faint of heart though.
I had wrapped up “American Pie” and moved on to The Kingston Trio’s “They Call the Wind Mariah.” It is a soulful song that reflected my musings about backpacking and the Sierra in general. I was about halfway through when a twig snapped off to my left. I swiveled my head in that direction and waited for my eyes to make out the source of the sound.
A doe (a deer, a female deer) stepped out of the trees and into my little clearing of a camp site. Her head was to the ground, nose sniffing out for food. She didn’t pay me any mind and I let her go about her quest. She shuffled forward, led by her nose, and meandered through my camp before disappearing back into the trees directly across from me.
I stared into the spot she had disappeared but couldn’t make out any further progress and no additional sounds of movement reached my ears over the constant crackling of the fire. “She was like a ghost to me, one minute there, then she was gone.” And just like that I switched from The Kingston Trio song into a song from the musical Les Miserables where Marius is describing his first encounter with Cosette.
I didn’t know all of the words though so I just let the tune play out in my mind while reveling in the glory and emotion of it when a whole crescendo of twigs snapping jerked my head back to the left. I felt my heart rate spike and then immediately return to normal as a yearling deer bounded out of the trees chasing after its mother.
I shook my head at myself and smiled sardonically for getting a bit jumpy there for a moment. I know my response was something out of control, part of the autonomic nervous system, but that didn’t mean I was going to accept it without derision when I was concerned about something that turned out to be completely harmless.
The stars seemed to wink at me above, laughing at me, and with me over the humorousness of it all; silly human getting worked up over something harmless. Such is the way of life. We make fools of ourselves and the stars are our witnesses.
“Then again, I’d rather have the stars be witnesses to my follies than anyone else.” True. Very true.
I cast about for a new song to start up but the momentum and motivation had been lost. My eyes were drawn back into the fire and I partially zoned out; only semi-aware of my surroundings and not really thinking about anything in particular. When mother and daughter deer made their way back through my camp, disappearing back into the forest at the spot in the trees where I had first seen them, I knew they were there but didn’t raise my gaze from the fire to track their progress.
When, a few minutes later, a flash of red streaked across my field of vision across the fire from me at the edge of the clearing I ignored it as well. Once again, I was aware of it, aware of the color, the shape hinting at substance (it had weight and depth, it wasn’t just a flash of light), and the new twist in the mystery in that it appeared directly in front of me rather than at the corners of my sight. However, unlike the previous incarnations of the mysterious movement, I had finally learned that going in search of the source wouldn’t bear any results. So, I stayed seated, warm and relaxed, by my fire.
The mystery would unravel itself at its own pace. Or, perhaps, it would remain a mystery forever but I decided that I wasn’t going to let it make me feel uncomfortable any more. It was odd. It was different from anything I had experienced in the mountains before. But, it didn’t seem like it should be something I worried about.
“Right? I mean, if it were a threat, wouldn’t it have done something by now more than just streaking passed me? And, how can it be a threat anyway? It’s probably just some bird I’ve never seen before and or just never paid attention to before.”
In the back of my mind, however, it occurred to me that the shape I had seen across the fire was much larger than a bird, and without feathers, or wings for that matter. I didn’t let those realizations surface though. I liked my bird theory and I was determined to hang onto that for as long as possible.
The night continued on and eventually I found my voice again, sang to the mountains, and sang to myself. My pile of fire wood dwindled away to nothing and the fire followed suit. The stars kept on winking at me, letting me know they were in on the great cosmic joke that is human life. Oh sure, we may think we are intelligent beings, but how smart are we really? That’s what I thought.
The fire puffed out, leaving only the glowing bed of coals, and I made my way to my tent to get the rest I would need to do it all again the next day. There would be more elevation to gain and lose, there would be many more miles to traverse, there would be more aches and pains, and fishing, and fire time, and cooking, and water to be pumped, and based on the last two days there would probably be more instances of a mysterious flash of red crossing my vision.
I zipped myself into my sleeping bag and wondered for a moment if I’d miss that mystery if it didn’t show up the following day. Would I wonder where it had gone? Would I wonder if I had just been making it up? Or would it be out of sight and out of mind and I wouldn’t even waste a second thought on it.
Through the mesh top of my tent I saw the stars wink at me again.
Word Count: 1,900
Total Word Count: 12,155
Story progress: Filler chapter? Possibly. It’s hard to tell, but I did have to take a step back and realize that I was only a 1/5 of the way through the 50,000 words and was developing the plot a little too quickly. So… I slowed things down. Now I need to figure out something to throw into the story that can add a new element and therefore add some additional words. Maybe a second character? We’ll have to see what happens next.