LEAVE NO TRACE
by Geri Ulrey
Sam and Viet stand in his small blue kitchen. Viet has stopped stirring his chard lentil soup while Sam tries to figure out what to do: Three nights a week on the mountain, leading small groups up Whitney, or sleeping out in Alabama Hills, climbing.
I’m doing ok, she says. It’s just I think I should find a room or something, short term.
Viet says, I see what you mean.
Renewing my one-year lease, don’t you agree it’s financially a waste?
Viet says, Yes. It seems that way.
Unless I can be sure I can find a subletter.
Viet says, Move in here.
He keeps stirring, watching the chard shrink. He adds cayenne.
Sam can hear it before he says it: You have practically been living here for two years anyway. We spend nearly every hour together, when you aren’t guiding. Or when I’m not out there searching with my team.
But Viet just stirs the dark green leaves, making sure they get smothered by the hot liquid.
Viet, let’s not—
He smiles at her, charmed with his own logic and that he got her this time.
He says, Wasn’t that your New Year’s resolution?
Viet, I’m not moving in here.
She says it like it would be succumbing to disease.
Sam moves in close trying to smooth over the hurt and wraps her arms around his middle. She wishes she could take it back.
Sam, what are we doing here?
She nuzzles the back of his neck.
Five years of fun?
Viet, let’s not do this.
She steps forward. If they hug tight enough, they won’t have to talk about this again.
He pushes her away. Then snaps.
Fuck you, Samantha!
Viet picks up the heavy blue pot and moves to the kitchen table where his industrial sized dehydrator sits. He begins to scoop the soup onto the plastic liner of the top tray. He smooths the lumpy soup like he’s spreading pancake dough on a griddle.
Deep on the trail, Sam thinks about that moment. Replays it. Sees it. Hears it.
Fuck you, Samantha.
It’s been four days, and the words still roll around in Sam’s head. With each step up the mountain, her ears still hurt. It’s 9,000 feet up ridges and another 6,000 feet descending down trails. Long feathery pine needles underfoot the entire way.
Firmly, decisively, a warning of sorts, the way a parent tells a child not to do something that might hurt. Don’t go near the edge. Stop right there. Put that down.
Sam breathes out, Fuck you, Viet Tran. Fuck you. She says it out loud. Her words, even the ones in her head, are more sinister than Viet’s words ever could be. In her mind, she hisses, trying to hurt him.
She likes her nomad life.
But what she really wants is to erase Viet’s words from her mind.
Scattered needles crisp and crack under the tread of Sam’s boots. She finds a spot that is neither hidden nor exposed. Perfect. Sam always laughs whenever Viet calls digging a six inch hole into the ground, a cat hole, “the facilities.”
Sam squats all the way to the ground and digs. The underlayer pushes back against her bright orange trowel. Stumps get in the way. She knows the hole must be six inches deep, so she muscles each scoop of pine and gently places the under layer a few inches away from her. The deeper she gets the more hard earth she finds. Pebbles. Tree branches. Twigs. It’s all hard and clumpy.
When Sam pulls her pants down to her ankles, she can hear and then see a shape of a person in the shadows, between the rocks and trees. There’s a bend and a dip before the mound of rock, some fifty feet away on the ridge. Her eyes flutter up it, like a pilot tracing a line of attack, a path in the sky. Then she catches a flash of movement; she knows he or she probably can’t see her; she or he is probably just a weekend backpacker trying to find a spot of privacy.
That’s all Sam wants to find out here too. Privacy.
As soon as a client confirms their trip by making a payment in full, Sam sends an email with a two-page list of needed gear. Nothing is extra. She also sends all her clients one-sheets of the most important technical aspects of using or buying gear. Each sheet describes one important component: how to layer your clothes, how to pack your backpack, how to set up a tent, how to filter water, how to dig a cat hole, pack out your trash, use a wag bag, and the luxury and usefulness of a courtesy bag. When she meets up with the client, she goes through their gear and throws out everything that is unneeded as they bargain with her. All seasoned backpackers know that items worth carrying on the trail, anything worth the weight on your back, cutting into your skin, must have more than one use. You are allowed one luxury item.
Most of Sam’s clients are women, and she resents this. More women request Sam than her fellow senior guides, the male guides. Women like sharing the trail and the summit with other women. They are more comfortable. But they are also more inspired; they like seeing Sam’s superman strength. Sam is a tiny woman and she suspects men don’t like sharing the trail with her because they know she’s stronger than them. She can out-carry, out-climb, out-summit most everyone on the trail. And men, even the novices, the guys from places like San Diego and Burbank and San Jose, who fly in for their Mount Whitney excursions, these men who took days off for their adventure vacation don’t want to be surpassed, helped, encouraged by a woman. Viet likes this part of Sam. Why won’t he accept the rest?
At the bottom of last page of the gear list, marked with asterisks, Sam writes, Nothing on the trail should have only one function.
Sam fills the cat hole with pine needles, pats the ground with her trowel then places a slab of rock on top. She packs out her trash, the toilet paper, wrapping it onto itself and carefully dropping the bundle into a Ziploc, then uses a stick to push it down, making sure to not brush finger to paper. Then she drops the Ziploc into her odor proof NyloPro bag, just a fancy version of a turkey roasting bag, twisting its end, tying it. Even though the cold temperature makes this last step unnecessary, she double bags it. Then she buries the NyloPro deep inside a dark plastic shopping bag with handles, a bag she got from the liquor store in Lone Pine when she bought vodka to drink back home, alone.
Sam stops and listens, watching the sky go dark. She thinks maybe she can see some clouds forming wide sheets. She thinks maybe that storm is coming a little early.
Sam is pulled back and remembers she isn’t alone. Scanning the ridge above she sees the shadows move again and wraps her fingers tight around her black plastic bag. It crinkles loud. She hears needles breaking under her feet.
At camp Sam heats water to a boil and pours it into a Ziploc pouch that holds dinner, dehydrated chard and lemon lentil soup, Viet’s famous recipe. Fresh chard and garlic from Viet’s garden, lemons picked from a friend’s tree in Los Angeles, and organic brown lentils from the Lone Pine market. She remembers the night Viet made this particular batch. They laid in bed for hours, tangled, as a storm came through town.
She scans the sky for more clouds forming.
Sam makes a cup of green decaf tea then heads to bed. She bivvies it tonight, as she does most nights on the trail. She doesn’t like to carry the extra weight of a tent and brings the ultralight shapeless bag instead. She crawls into her cocoon like some animal burrowing into the ground, making a perfect depression into the hard earth. The sack presses onto her, not even six inches from her face. She can smell the nutty green tea aroma on her breath; it reminds her of straw. She falls quickly asleep imagining she is buried deep in blankets, like she did as a kid, under the forts she constructed in her living room.
The sounds of the night swallow her up; tree limbs cracking from marmots or birds or maybe squirrels and of course, the occasional backpacker looking for a spot to pee. She unzips the bivvy hood, keeping it slit open, pulling cold air in. Then she tucks the hood close, wrapping it around her head, snuggling tight, so only her mouth and nose and the very bottom of her cheek bones are exposed. She can feel the waterproof shell against her closed eyelids, scratching her cheeks, burying her chin.
She wakes to what she thinks is someone shining a flashlight on her. What are they doing? Then she thinks, Have the lights been turned on?
No, she opens her eyes and sees through the slit in the bivvy. Millions of stars have come out to brighten the Sierra sky. It’s brilliant. She squints. Then she hears the deep groans of a man snoring. Guttural gasps and grunts that start baritone and rhythmically escalate into a high wheeze, only to start over again in the lower register of grunts, a grumpy old man turning in his bed. Sam knows that sounds near a ridge can play tricks on you. What feels like someone, something, twenty feet away, can very well be over a hundred. She closes her eyes tight and just listens. The grunts are moving. It must be a bear. Snorting. Puffing. It sounds like a zombie making its way through and near her kitchen, the spot where she left her stove and bear canister. Most backpackers know this should be fifty feet away from your tent, so when a bear, like this one, traipses through your camp, it isn’t right where you sleep.
Sam sits up. If someone turned the lights on, for real this time, it would be a comical scene. A grown woman in her bivvy, strapped inside a bag. Helpless, peeking into the darkness, looking for a bear.
There it is. Batting her bear canister with its paws like it’s a soccer ball.
She calls out, politely at first. She doesn’t want to wake any sleeping backpackers that might be nearby.
Shoo. Get. Shoo.
The bear turns and looks at her. Its eyes pick up the light from the stars and sparkle. Two little lights shine back at her.
She yells. Go away Bear. Shoo. Shoo.
The bear makes a low grunt, deep like he’s clearing his lungs from smoking two packs a day. Then he rolls a bit on the sides of his paws, back and forth. He leans forward. Getting the momentum he needs. He finally moves.
Sam remembers the first bear she saw on the trail and how she felt so afraid. That seems so silly now.
Get out of here.
She’s firm. Like a parent to a child.
He takes two slow steps, defiantly. Then jaunts into the dark, forgetting himself. He’s graceful but clearly annoyed. The bear canister was a bust.
Sam sits listening to the cracking earth and tree branches, the far scrapes and grunts, until she imagines the bear settling into some other spot that is more hopeful. So she thinks.
Then there is the rustling of earth behind her, back up the ridge, just ten feet or so away. Her ears are hyper alert. Human steps. Sam twists around, still bundled, and sees two sparkles further from the ground than the bear’s eyes.
What the fuck does this guy want?
Sam is still. Her breathing has stopped and she sits for what feels like ten minutes, watching the eyes. Counting the steps she would need to take to get to her backpack. She imagines where her knife is, in the outer pocket at the top. Then the shiny spots disappear and Sam can see the back of a head moving away from her. She makes out a blue beanie. A green puffy jacket. Sam thinks, Just using the toilet.
Sam waits until she can’t see any more movement or hear any more steps, struggles to unzip the sack at the top, pulls her legs to her and scoots out. She stands, barefoot, wobbling, and takes the five steps to her backpack. She unzips, finds her Swiss Army knife, tucks it into the pocket of her sweater, and bundles back into her cocoon.
Fuck you, Samantha.
At 5:30 a.m., the sun shoots through the thin blue Gortex of her bivvy. Sam stirs for a few minutes. Once she is awake, she quickly pulls her legs out of her cocoon and automatically starts to pack. Everything has its place, and she is nothing if not efﬁcient. She’s packed her bag a thousand times, practicing as if it was a sport, in the dark, half asleep, with altitude sickness, with thick gloves.
She almost forgets about the bear until she gets to the center of her pack, the place for her canister. Sam scans the woods. The backpacker from last night is gone.
She starts thinking she will have to head back earlier than she had planned. She had hoped to spend ﬁve nights on the trail; that’s how long it takes for a fight with Viet to rub off.
She can picture her oatmeal at the bottom of the canister, the pita and dried fish Viet made for her last week. It will be a long day back to town without any breakfast or lunch or dinner.
She gives up looking and cinches up her pack, and heads down from where she came. Then, a hundred feet down the ridge, she sees blue tucked inside a brush like a sprouting ﬂower. She feels lucky she spotted it and annoyed with the bear for getting her off track with her day. Today was going to be twenty-five miles with 5,000 feet of gain. She climbs down the hill.
When she gets to the canister it’s slimy as if some alien swallowed it whole and spit it back out. It’s foul but there is food inside.
The mouth of a bear is like a garbage truck, with slime and rot inside his muzzle. It helps Sam that there are animals on the trail more wild than she ever could be. It’s good for her to remember that she’s more than a beast. Sam uses her bandanna and some water, to try to clean the smell away. Her hands are strong, calloused and weathered, and not easily distracted by pain or cold. She rubs harder, rinsing her bandanna between the scourings. She can see bits and pieces of evergreen and dark brown and grey on the transparent blue plastic. Bears put their snouts on everything.
Sam makes quick time to her first break. It’s one of her favorite spots; she calls it the Lazy Boy Junction. She’s a fast, strong hiker, and happily, today, she’s carrying only twenty-five pounds. When she guides she often carries three times this weight. Arriving at an open area overlooking Golden Bear Lake, she takes a seat on one large boulder and puts her feet up on another. She pulls out her stove and pours water into the pot; this time she brought her Jetboil, an all-in-one stove and pot. The sound of the flame is startling in the cold air, a scream in contrast to the silence, the lack of voices except for the one inside. Just as Sam starts to pour the water over the maté she got in Argentina, a head appears from below. It’s a young man, not more than twenty years old, smiling at her. Then another face, not smiling but looking hard.
They stand taking her in. Sam doesn’t move; instead she looks down at her frothy maté then sips long and full, through the silver straw. The young men don’t say anything.
Then the smiling one says, Hey there!
Sam sips once again, still not looking up. Then, deliberately, she meets the friendly man’s eyes and smiles. His face makes her feel more open than she’s felt in days.
Sam says, Hi.
She holds her smile, listens to the wind blow out of her lungs and waits.
The friendly one, he smiles big at her. She notices him look up and down her legs. She can’t tell if he’s checking her out or counting the bruises that pepper her browned skin. Either way, she can tell he’s impressed. When he realizes he’s staring, he politely looks away. She decides he probably assumed, correctly, she’s a climber. He seems to decide this will be a short break with packs. His buddy looks like he will lose steam if they settle in for too long of a break. The friendly one leans against one of the boulders.
The friendly one asks, Where you headed?
I’m not sure. What about you two?
Back over Kearsarge Pass. We’re from the Bay Area, at the end of a two-week trip.
Sam is just as enthusiastic as if he told her he climbed Everest. There is nothing Sam admires more than anyone doing anything in the wilderness.
He adds, You’re the first face we’ve seen in over a week. It’s been awesome.
Oh, no. I think we are both ready for some company. Right?
He gestures to his friend. His friend barely nods.
He asks, You out here alone?
Cool. I love solo trips.
Sam watches the less friendly one struggle to pull out a snack from a pocket on his hip strap. He pokes his fingers into the compartment, searching. He finds it, a Cliff Bar, then struggles to tear open the packaging. It’s cold and she can tell that his fingers are unresponsive.
The friendly one looks at his friend with irritation; Sam senses that they’ve been on the trail together longer than even the friendly one can tolerate.
Are you thinking of summiting Mount Keith?
She says, I don’t have a plan yet.
You might see our friend Muir up there.
Yeah, John Muir. He’s a bonafide Mountain Man. We met a few days ago. He’s an odd one. From LA.
She smiles at him, charmed.
Well, stay safe out there.
The less friendly one barely nods goodbye.
Sam listens to the crunching earth of their big boots ripping up the trail.
Then she hears the friendly one shout in her direction.
If you spot Muir, tell him Mike says hello and that he owes me a beer.
Sam says, How will I know it’s him?
The guy with a beard down to his ankles.
Sam watches as Mike and the less friendly one bop away, their heads becoming no more than dots on the horizon.
Sam gets to the summit before dark. Whitney feels like she can touch it. It’s a particularly windy afternoon, and colder than she had anticipated. The clouds are forming broad sheets in all directions. She wonders if it will snow tonight. She pulls out her puffy jacket, feeling glad she brought it, even though it was extra weight. Everything on this trip has been extra. The weight is all luxury items. The silver trimmed maté gourd cup and silver straw, the puffy jacket, the extra two meals, the sea salt chocolate, the red wine. She wants to eat her way up the mountains and feel good, comfortable. She feels desire for something more than what she needs.
She sits on the ground, pulls her legs in tight, wrapping her arms around herself like she’s a little kid, and watches the sunset this way, without moving a muscle. She contemplates staying here tonight. Otherwise she’ll have to scramble back in the dark, but she doesn’t mind. This sunset will make it worth it. She promises herself to make camp the minute it gets too tiring.
Just as she starts to fixate on the light turning pink, a head with a long greying beard comes up over the ridge.
The man’s in his late forties, tall, thin, sunken cheeks, carrying only a clean just-bought lumbar pack, clasped high on his hips. She is stunned; he looks just like John Muir but bright and brand new. His boots are lightweight trekkers. His jacket, shorts, all tell her that he recently got outfitted for this trip. He stands like a metal coat hanger, his gear and layers of clothing draped and hanging on his bones.
He stops, full frame. Center. He’s the first to smile.
She waits for the view to clear, sitting, still. But the man won’t move, he just blocks her view. She can’t tell if he’s catching his breath or waiting for her to be happy to meet him. She makes an effort to smile but wants to be alone.
Once he gets a smile from her he moves out of the way and takes a seat on another pile of rocks. They’ll share the summit and the sunset.
Finally he says quietly, You don’t get this for nothing; you have to work for it.
You sure do.
The spot of gold is getting lower, almost falling behind the highest peak.
You made fast time, didn’t you?
Well, I saw you back down, packing up this morning. I was probably no less than a hundred feet behind you. Yet, here I am, coming in what? From the look of your feast an hour or so after you? You, such a small thing.
He pulls out some snacks of his own.
He sees she’s got her bivvy out and her sleeping bag an arm’s length away.
You gonna crash here?
Um, I don’t know.
It’s a beautiful spot. If you don’t mind, I’ll join you.
Sam watches him pull out his store-bought dehydrated meal. Some remote form of a bean enchilada. He pours water from a Nalgene into his Jetboil. Turns the igniter. The flame roars into the cold air.
You’ve got a Jetboil too, huh? Thought someone like you would hunt along the way.
Sam doesn’t like all the talk.
He asks, Any chance you’ve got a bow and arrow in that tiny pack?
Sam smiles politely.
Then she closes her eyes, getting lost in the last rays of warmth that hit the skin of her cheeks. It’s going to be a cold night and this is the last bit of heat she’ll feel for ten hours. The best part of being on the trail is knowing that weather will always change. That you can count on.
When she opens her eyes the sun is at its most pink-blue-purple display. That’s why she is here. The sky is always more spectacular after the little gold blob of light passes through the mountains. Once gold is gone, she quickly starts to pack up. There is nothing more for her to see or feel. She wants to be alone.
Yeah, I don’t want to hike out in the dark.
I thought you wanted to camp at the summit. Why else would you arrive so late? Great minds—
I’m taking off.
With the sun gone, Muir bundles up in his fleece sweater, pulling it tighter to his chest.
Then he pulls out his beanie from his pocket.
As Sam throws her pack over her shoulder she says, Well, enjoy your night.
He says, Who knows, if the wind picks up, maybe I’ll see you later tonight, back down on the trail.
She just nods.
He says, I didn’t catch your name?
They call me Muir.
The light is dimming fast. She doesn’t look back at the grey figure of the man they call Muir. He’s still sitting on the rocks, where she left him, his legs crossed like a child sitting on the ground at school, watching a movie, the movie of the sunset. He uses an orange lightweight spork to shovel store bought, prepackaged dehydrated food into his mouth.
He calls out, Be careful of the bears out there; you’re headed to Bear Alley.
Then he adds, You know how curious they can be.
Sam is usually unafraid of darkness on the trail, but tonight, even as she leaves Muir further and further behind, Sam feels a little skittish. In her ten years of serious backpacking and mountaineering, she’s met some characters, but this Muir stands out. She can’t get the image of him standing on the summit, blocking the sun, out of her mind. She wishes Viet was here. They’d have a laugh. Make jokes about pre-fab food. Viet would know just what to say to take her mind off of today’s creepy John, John Muir.
Sam misses Viet with an ache so strong she thinks, Viet I love you. First she says it quietly in her head, then out loud. Then a yell. Who yells I Love You into the dark?
Without a moonrise, Sam struggles to see her feet on the ground and her hands at her face. She worries she’ll trip on a small boulder protruding from the earth, so she slows her pace to a crawl. Tired of waiting for the moon to rise, Sam bivvies it, nearly a hundred feet from the trail. If Muir decides to come down tonight, he’ll have to work to find her in the dark wood. She figures he’ll get bored and carry on.
Sam falls asleep listening for crunches, snaps, and pops.
In the morning, she wakes when a cloud covers the warmth of the sun. Sam opens her eyes and sees it isn’t a cloud at all but a wall, a tall wall standing above. It’s Muir, the bearded man from Los Angeles who likes to section-hike on the weekends.
Really? she thinks.
But instead of screaming, Sam calmly says, Hello.
Muir smiles big. Hey there, good morning.
Sam rolls away from him and pulls her legs out of her bivvy. She’s wearing neon-blue long-johns. Her torso peeks out, exposed. She peers up at him and tilts her head.
He holds his Jetboil in the air. It looks like a hot air balloon blocking out the sun.
Want some hot water? I made extra.
Her brain clicks on. She scoots away from him.
No, thanks. I’m good.
You were so far off from the trail, I had to really look to find you.
She begins to quickly pack up. She opens the top pocket of her backpack and feels for her knife. It’s right where it should be.
Getting an early start?
Yeah, should head out. Meet my friend. He’s expecting me midday. You know how boyfriends can get worried.
He watches her as she tightly shoves her soft belongings in the bottom of her pack.
He says, Don’t want to set you off track or anything.
Then he says, Ok then. Have a great day.
He starts to walk off, away from her. She feels a sense of relief.
Just as her insides relax, she turns to see the man reach into his pocket and pull out his blue beanie. An alarm goes off inside Sam’s gut. She remembers the blue beanie in the dark, the first night on the trail.
She doesn’t even finish packing. She gathers what she can in her hands and just shoves the rest in her pack and the pockets of her pants. Back on the trail, she travels in the opposite direction of Muir. Once she gets several hundred feet between her and him, she picks up her pace.
Sam moves swiftly, sucking in thin air fast.
Sam arrives at a clearing where she can see Golden Bear Lake further down. She thinks, This is far enough. He’ll never catch up now.
Aquamarine blue water lies below. Closer, it’s even more beautiful. A crater on another planet with gold and yellow rings of mineral deposits. For the first time, she pulls out her camera and snaps a few photos. She thinks about how she’ll show them to Viet. Muir is a fading image. So is the blue fleece beanie on his head.
It’s so calm. Peaceful in the Sierras. A red streak of embarrassment shoots through her. She thinks, Sam, you overreacted.
She marches on towards the alpine lake. The trail gets looser and looser, until it’s just scree. She starts to foot plunge down the side of the mountain, off trail, like she’s skiing on rocks.
Once down the mountain, Sam heads to the edge of the lake and follows the use trail for half a mile. Then she takes a sharp turn off trail and meanders deeper into the wilderness, into the thickness of the trees. Viet will have to wait. She’ll head home tomorrow.
At dusk Sam decidedly heads into the densest patch of forest. No one is around. No crackles. No pops. She makes camp, crawls into her bivvy, pocket knife in hand, open, just in case. She lies awake thinking about Viet in his kitchen saying, Fuck you, Samantha.
Her Swiss Army knife presses against her thigh as she drifts asleep feeling Viet’s arms wrapped around her middle, wishing she hadn’t said what she said. Wishing Viet hadn’t said what he said.
Suddenly she feels something scratchy on her cheek. Hair? Fur? Fuzz? Maybe this is a marmot? Or a bear? Or a squirrel? A fox? Something she’s never felt before yet familiar.
She doesn’t move. Or open her eyes. Just scratch. She says a prayer deep inside her head, a prayer that this will go away. A dream. A fantasy. The space between waking and sleeping. Then she feels warmth under the fuzz, then skin. She hears the breathing. Every exhale is more warmth. She starts to scream, but a hand covers her mouth. Even if she could, no one would hear her. She focuses on the warmth. She only sees black. Two darts of white pass next to her, out of focus and surreal. Why?
Weight on her. Ground pressing up. She can’t breathe. She scoots deeper into her bivvy. She’s protected, for now, by three layers: Gortex shell, fleece and wool.
Wet tongue licks. More scratchy fuzz.
Then, Sam feels the hard metal of her knife, pressing against her thigh. She remembers that she went to sleep clutching the thing, worried about any unwanted visitors.
She starts to writhe, involuntarily, but focuses her mind on the hard metal next to her. She is trying not to squirm. She doesn’t want to give it away. Big hands grope at her breasts. She focuses her full attention. This moment has become the most important activity of her thirty-five years of life. Why didn’t she practice this before now? His breath smells like whisky. She tastes salt. It’s his skin. She’s repulsed and then surprises herself. She bites. Down. Hard. Feels warmth. Tastes metal. This last step, she has practiced before. Sparring. And in the first self-defense class she took, as a teen. He flings his face away from her. Just far enough. She finds leverage. Hits with her arms from underneath the bivvy. Hard. She gets a good blow in with her elbow. Her hand grips tight on the knife. Plunges. Stabbing past the shell. Softness. An arm? His side?
Muir cradles his middle. She doesn’t know what happens next, but the two of them are rolling, fumbling, scratching. Contorting. She pulls her legs out of the bivvy, somehow, and gives him a good judo kick. How dare he. Then another, until he’s crawling away from her, like an animal. He makes a deep sound like a beast in a trap, moaning, trying not to spill his pain. She keeps kicking him, conscious of the edge of the hill with the loose ground.
Muir twists and she’s not sure if he is retreating or losing his footing. Then he slips and falls, almost off the side of the hill, and trips a few feet downwards but manages to hold on.
The scene erupts into stillness. She watches him. Shadows and movement crawling on the rocky ground, just a few feet below the edge, a hurt animal, pulling itself to the curb of the freeway as the car drives away. He is crawling his way back up to her. On all fours. Clutching his arm.
Sounds pierce through the low hissing wind, scratches, like a rat scraping on the insides of a cave.
Sam still feels warmth and tastes metal in her mouth.
Muir struggles to stand. The cliff is just behind him.
Fuck You, Bitch!
And then he slowly teeters, like a tree swaying in the wind. Falling. The man rolls away. Over the ridge. She watches in disbelief. She rushes to the edge and watches as his form is swallowed by the shadows. She hears the rustling of rocks and body hits against dirt and boulders.
It’s an easy incline, but still definitely the side of a mountain, and Muir is lost from her view. She finally hears what sounds like a mass toppling down far, far below. Slowly. Surely. She squints her eyes and sees a round figure that looks like a bag of laundry, slowly tumbling. Big chunks of rock dislodge. Small boulders. Dirt. The hillside shifts and moves, follows him down, like trains of a coaster. Then quiet except for the sound of his gurgled breathing, but sound travels far in the quiet Sierra night. It’s as if he is breathing in her ear. Then there is nothing at all but the low hiss of wind in the trees.
For the first time, she hears her own breath. It is fast. Shallow. As if she sprinted a 100 and left it all on the course.
The mass below starts to move again. Then stops. Sam’s chest expands. Contracts. Muscles in her middle get away from her. She can’t slow it down. She sucks in thin air as if through a straw. Is she hyperventilating?
Then Muir is quiet. She waits. Listening. Nausea shoots through her stomach into her throat. She might throw up.
Instead she runs. For how long, she’ll never know, but when she stops the air is suddenly cold. It’s too dark to see. She only can smell musty browns and greens, damp dark earth, listens to the owl in the redwood above her, feels a bed of pine needles prick and cut into her naked toes.
Geri Ulrey’s creative nonfiction has been published in Gulf Coast and The Carolina Quarterly. Her essay “13th & B” was a Notable in Best American Essays 2016. Geri is a writer, filmmaker, and educator living in Los Angeles and is currently at work on her first novel. Author photo by Thouly Dosios.
Image credit: Ivana Cajina on Unsplash