This continues our adventures along the John Muir Trail. For the previous two stories leading up to this, check out We Were the Last Two People on Earth and Smoke Above Tuolumne Meadows. Enjoy! Thanks for reading and sharing.
DAY SEVEN – 7/7 – JOURNAL ENTRY
“I think I can talk with animals.”
Thalia said that to me just now before she went to sleep. It’s possible she might be quite mad. Possible that everything is not going so well after all.
I’m on first watch. I’m to wake her in a few hours after which I’ll try and sleep and she’ll keep watch. The snow is boot high, it’s cold but not frigid, and I’m tucked in my tent alone listening to her snore. There’s a man stumbling around in the dark about a hundred yards away. We’re the only three on the mountain.
I woke up this morning to the sound of John – the older man who had camped beside me last night – cooking up a some oatmeal and treating his water. I’m always impressed how fast some people get ready. This is his second attempt at the John Muir Trail. The first was three years ago. He turned back midway when the elevation gained and he started feeling light headed and dehydrated. To remedy that he now drinks an almost obscene amount of water. One liter an hour, on the hour, at least eight times a day, not including whatever he uses for breakfast and dinner.
We met at the top of Donahue Pass and he gave me some leftover electrolytes. Told him I was going to make for the summit of Donahue Peak. He pointed to the clouds and told me to be careful. It rained yesterday and the clouds so far didn’t look too kind. Told him my guide book said from here to the summit and back is three hours. We shook hands and he said he was sure we would meet because I’m younger and a faster hiker and we’ve generally outlined the same length for our trip. Hope I see him again. He seems like someone who’s lived a life.
The route to the summit follows the spine of a wide ridge littered with granite boulders half the size of a small automobile. I didn’t see anyone for an hour until I stopped to take a break and catch my breath. I relieved myself behind a boulder and it was first time all week I felt completely at ease while pooping.
When I returned to my pack it hit me that I had entered the high country. The land east opened into a great expanse. These spiny rotten looking peaks – the Minarets – dotted the horizon. That was my goal this day.
A dozen yards from where I stopped I stumbled upon a camp. There was no tent. A tarp was laid upon the ground with a foam pad and a heavy down sleeping bag atop that. Someone had made a fire ring and the wood within was still smoldering. I looked around but didn’t see or hear anyone and assumed that someone else was summiting Mt. Donahue.
I thought of the couple who had come up the night before and the guy who was coughing and looked ill. Had they missed a turn and gone up this way? There was that drifter guy with the odd eyes who I had seen that second day at Little Yosemite. And the rumors I had heard along the trail of an odd chap with animal skins. The camp didn’t look like a traditional hiker’s camp, nor the camp from anyone trying to rock climb. Looked like something you might find in olden days, when men walked the west with horses and enough supplies to last as long as their bodies would continue.
I continued on up toward the summit. Anytime a duck alerted me to the route I would skip over 20 or 30 yards and make my own route, careful to keep myself just out of view should I run across someone else. The main trail is so populated that you don’t go more than an hour without seeing four or five people. There’s not much risk of anything nefarious. But go off trail a mile or two and you realize that you really are in the thick of it. Alone. Isolated. Not just from the trail, but from the rest of the world as well.
I took a selfie at the summit as the clouds rolled in. It was 11 and I could feel the high elevation. It felt like someone had pinched my nose and was pressing their fingers beneath my eyes. That was as good a sign as any that I should get off the mountain.
Lightning struck a quarter mile down the route, the thunder came soon after. My head hurt and I began to cough and I could feel my stomach churn even though I had relieved myself an hour earlier. I stopped and hid behind a boulder and did it again and it felt like anything that had ever been inside me the last 30 years of my life came out all at once. I sipped my water after that and stopped again but this time retched atop a three high pillar of ducks.
Flu or altitude sickness, the remedy was lower elevation. I was moving so fast I didn’t realize the laces of my boots had come undone until I rolled my ankle and fell flat into a heap of granite. The granite felt cool against my cheek, the way a pillow feels cool and good when you stay home from school.
The rain came first. So light you wouldn’t notice it if you stuck your tongue out. A cold wind came over the ridge and the rain became snow and as it fell harder the light left and the clouds coalesced into a dark sheet beneath the sky. Lightning struck. And that’s when I saw it.
Smoke rose above a cluster of boulders a couple hundred yards off. Beneath the smoke I could see flashes from the fire and I wondered just how good a fire might feel beneath the fall of snow. I stumbled toward the fire until I remembered – even as I thought my body might turn in on itself – my suspicions a couple hours before.
I followed the edge of the eastern ridge with my back to the thousand yard drop behind me, and crept onward until I was so close I could hear the crackle of the yellow flame. The fire was bigger than the ring I had seen earlier. The flames rose as high as a man and from where I hid I spotted three shadowy figures moving about the flames.
The first two I could see. They were hopping passed each other over the fire. The third was wrapped in a shawl against the flame, as still as scarecrow in the wind. I supposed the two slow dancing figures to be the same two people who had come up from Tuolumne Meadows with their friend last night. Who the third figure was I didn’t yet know.
I was a mile from the trail and a couple dozen yards from a manageable route back down. Between me and the route was an open flank. Even in the snow they’d spot me if I moved. I pressed against the rock, secure that I was hidden, and waited.
The two fire dancers continued to dance and the third figure, wrapped in its cloak, remained still. I tempered my cough and breathed deep to ease the pain my head. A half hour passed, maybe, before one of the fire dancers stopped dancing and began to hack. I recognized the cough from Tuolumne. I recognized it from the hikers the night before. The sound you make when you’re spitting out blood. The figure dropped to the ground beside the fire. The second figure continued to hop. The cloaked figure arose.
It sidestepped the fire and knelt beside the coughing man. I could have run off then but something held me back. You watch a fire in a campground and you wonder who these people are. What lives might they return to when the camping is done. The view fits an expectation: they are here for a moment, they’re merely peeking through the rabbit hole, not stepping into it altogether.
And so I sat there with my face against the granite and I knew that whatever I was about to see I would never unsee. That to see it would set me off on some path away from the main trail, away from any and all normal operations of life. I would be in the thick of it. In the wild.
The cloaked one knelt before the cougher and it reached out a hand and cupped it’s face and the moment, even from my distance, was almost tender. This lasted a spell. As long as it would take to brush some crumbs out of your beard. The cloaked one reached beneath its shawl for a blade that hung from it’s belt. It took the blade and with one movement, slipped the blade into the dancer’s belly and yanked up.
I heard a yelp and a sort of cackle. His belly spurted darkness into the fire and the fire flung sparks into the falling snow. The other dancer cackled and jumped over the fire and the fire nipped at her clothes and climbed upwards.
“Hush. Quiet. He’s got a knife. I’ve got a gun. Nobody is going to hurt you. Sit down. Nobody is going to hurt you. Sit down.”
I sat down and I could feel the wet snow on the ground soak through my three week old nylon Columbia zip-pants which had been advertised as waterproof. I could smell her breath against my neck and smell the dankness from her clothes that signaled, if nothing else, that she had been out here just long enough.
“I followed him north from Thousand Island. He’s been out here a while but not a while enough to know how to hide his tracks. I didn’t like him when I saw him. Camped on the far end of the lake beneath Clyde Minaret, the spot where the climbers go. But he weren’t no hiker. Had this smell, too, you know the smell. Not homeless, not filth, not whatever it is you smell like when you’ve been in the woods this long. I don’t have the words for it. He come up over a western ridge where there was no trail. Iceberg Lake or Shadow Lake. One of those small ones beneath the high passes where the glacier water come in.”
“The guy over there was sick,” I told her. “He was coughing.”
“I saw it,” she said to me. “Lot of people sick. I came over the pass and got service once I saw Thousand Island but couldn’t connect to nothing. I came out here once a couple years back with family and some ass I had been with and when we came out here then the lake was rimmed on the northern end with backpackers and day hikers. But I was there this morning and there weren’t more than one or two tents on the whole damn side. Quiet now. Quiet. We shouldn’t be talking.”
She pressed herself against me and I could feel the cold pistol she carried in her hand. When I asked her what she was going to do she said, “Quiet now quiet now quiet.”
The two figures laid the body on the ground. The cloaked one lighted a branch of woven herbs and waved the smoke over the body. The other took out a book and ran her fingers over the text. If she was reading aloud I couldn’t hear it.
“I heard this story once from a lady I worked with. She lived alone in the city and there’d been a grip of break-ins in her neighborhood. She’d even gotten one of those messages you hear about, where the person just breaths and doesn’t say nothing. She was scared to get a gun but she wanted to do something. So she finds this recording on youtube of someone cocking a Remington. You know that sound? So she gets that sound. Not the shotgun blast, you know. But the cock. And every night before she sleeps she queues it up and blasts the volume on her laptop. And she does that for a month and nothing happens until this one night when she wakes up to the sound of the knob on her front door turning. Sees the front door open right from her bed. She don’t waste a second. Leans over and presses the spacebar on her computer. And there’s that sound. ‘CHK CHK!’. Well that door shut like you’d walked in on your parents doing it.”
“What you getting at?”
She smiled at me but didn’t say anything. All she did is raise that ‘32 revolver she had in her hand and point it to the sky and fire three times. I didn’t even hear the second shot. Just ringing in my ears.
Those two figures near the fire, they bolted. The first, the girl I think, she ran down the ridge back toward the main trial. Didn’t look at us at all. The second figure? The one all cloaked and shadowy. He didn’t much run. Looked in our direction before he then turned east and fell right off the thousand foot ridge into the clouds below.
Thalia smiled at me but I didn’t see anything worth smiling at.
I’d never seen lightning in a snowstorm but that’s what this was. She looked at me and said I didn’t look great but that I didn’t have no fever.
“Storm is coming down pretty good. Best stay off the trail for now. Could make camp up between those boulders, leave in the morning when you’re acclimated and feel better.”
I didn’t know what to say so I told her that sounded fine. I made camp and cooked us some dehydrated pasta beneath the overhang of my tent. She rummaged through the camp with the body and came back with a pile of maps.
“That guy dead?” I asked her.
“That guy dead. We might do better to stay up tonight. I wake early. You take first watch and make sure nothing happens and when I wake up you can sleep as long as you need to feel better. Give me a stir you see those two come back.”
“You know what’s going on?” I asked her. She was tracing a red line someone had drawn on one of the maps she had found.
“No,” she said. “I don’t know. But I woke up this morning pretty confused.”
“Pretty confused by what?”
“Pretty confused why all of a sudden I could hear the animals talking.”
She didn’t say anything after that. Hasn’t said anything yet or stirred once since she fell asleep. It’s been three hours now. But only two hours since the guy beside the fire got up and started walking around.
© 2016 Christopher Dart