Election Day Death Hike
Gravel crunches beneath your boots as you climb higher and higher into the mountains, acutely aware of the thinness of the air and the sound of distant thunder that rolls in the distance.
Here you stand at the mountain pass in view of the next valley and the valley behind you, braced against the bitter breeze. Take off this heavy backpack and feel light as a feather, and in danger of blowing away. Take shelter behind this boulder. Sheltered from the elements, you can see the way you’ve come and the way you’re going. Both look steep and treacherous.
A cat-sized marmot watches from a granite ledge, soft and furry and plumped for the winter but watching nonetheless. People have fed him so his behavior is unnatural.
You unbuckle your belt and piss on a nearby rock. The rock is flat with a slight depression that gathers your piss into a bright yellow puddle.
Drink some water and eat some snacks. As you chew your food you notice the marmot approach the rock where you recently pissed, sniffing. It goes straight to your piss and slurps up each and every drop. You’re not entirely sure how you feel about this.
You’re not entirely sure how you feel about anything, really. The older you get the deeper your ambivalence. But when the marmot scurries away and approaching footsteps crunch loudly up the trail you can at least feel something: annoyed at the approach of unwelcome company.
The intruder comes from the opposite direction. He looks about your age but in better shape, lean and wiry and noticeably taller. He’s the first human being you’ve seen in over 24 hours, the nearest road is twenty miles distant. “Howdy,” says the stranger.
He has paused at the same highpoint to enjoy the view and to shiver in the freezing wind. You think to yourself, please keep going, when of course he does exactly the opposite. “Mind if I join you?” he asks in a nasally voice which is instantly grating.
“Free country,” you say and drink the last of your water. Something tells you you won’t be staying long.
The hiker takes off his backpack (which is surprisingly small considering the remoteness of the location) and hunkers down out of the wind. His hands are leathery and scabbed at the knuckles. He rubs them together.
“So,” he says. “Which way you hiking?”
“South,” you admit, trying to be polite.
He opens his canteen and takes a swig, wipes his mouth and takes another. “You start from Devil’s Postpile?” he asks, as though it made a difference.
“Bloody Canyon,” you admit, then wonder to yourself if it’s really any of his business. Yet the first rule of society is to maintain politeness. “And yourself?”
“Just dicking around,” says the hiker, as if the High Sierra wilderness is a place to dick around in early November when the air is freezing and snow is forecast. “You up here all by yourself?”
“No,” you lie, “I’ve got a couple friends. I’m sure they’ll catch up sooner or later.”
“That’s good.” He looks up and down the trail. “Accidents happen, especially up here.”
Something in his tone prompts you to add, “Forecast said there’s snow on the way.”
“Oh?” he says, strangely unperturbed. His cotton jeans are patched at the knees, you notice. His little backpack, which looks so very inadequate, also looks very well used.
You explain, “We’ve basically got a three day window before the trail gets buried. Just enough time to spend Election Day off grid.”
“Election day,” he says the words with a dreamy nod, as if it were a quaint holiday from some pagan religion. “When is that exactly, election day?”
“Tomorrow, as I recall.” You put away your empty bottle, preparing to depart.
He looks sidelong with a blank expression. “Who’d you vote for?”
“I didn’t vote for anybody,” you lie. In truth you voted absentee last week for the lesser of two evils, but that is not his concern.
He nods to himself. “Aren’t you going to ask me who I voted for?”
You instinctively smile, showing teeth. “Okay. Who did you vote for?”
He looks at you earnestly, too earnestly. “I voted for the human.”
“You think I’m joking?”
“I don’t think much of anything.”
“Oh yeah?” He looks at you from under his eyelids. “So you don’t think much of me?”
“I did not say that.” You rise from where you’ve been crouching. “You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“I could put other things in your mouth too.”
You look at him, aghast. Did he really just say that?
“Just dicking around,” he giggles. “What I meant is I got me a canteen full of moonshine. Wanna swig?”
“I don’t drink but thanks anyway.”
He smirks. “You know I saw the marmot drink your piss. It’s actually pretty common behavior, once they get spoiled by humans.”
Grimace at the thought, reaching for your backpack. Time to go now.
He explains, “The reason they do it, drinking the pee, is because of the salt. Salt is very hard to come by up here.”
“Salt. Okay.” Heft up your backpack and buckle it tight, glance around to ensure you haven’t left anything.
“Going already?” he asks with mawkish concern.
“But what about your friends?”
“They’ll catch up.”
“Are you sure about that?”
You glance at him and wish you hadn’t. His eyes aren’t quite right, something is askew. You bite your tongue and force yourself to simply walk away.
“You don’t seem so sure!” he calls after you. He says some more things you can’t fully hear, and then he is gone and you are walking and walking. Breathe. Breathe. Remember to breathe. You came up here to get away from people but wherever you go there they are. At least he seemed to be going in the opposite direction.
After a couple miles you begin to feel better, wondering if you possibly misjudged the situation, assuming the worst instead of the best. Let’s be honest: you could have been friendlier when the hiker first arrived. People are sensitive about these things. If there’s a moral to the story, avoid talking politics with strangers—or anybody.
Never talk politics. Never, never, never. The most stressful time in America is the seemingly endless run-up to the presidential election, which typically splits the country into angry factions and offers them only two possible choices, virtually the same and both corrupt. Everybody feels angry and hopeless, like overcrowded rats in a giant cage, and who can blame them?
That’s why you had to go camping by yourself, to get away from it all. Who needs society? Your boss gave you the week off and your partner doesn’t mind, really they don’t. You’ve gotta clear your head. The mountains are the perfect place to clear your head. They don’t exist on human time, they exist on glacial time.
Here is the stream predicted by your map. Take off your backpack and filter some water. The rhythm of the filter pump synchs with the stream, producing the tune that plays in your head. If only you had a way of recording the music that plays in your head. If only!
Shake the water out of the pump and place the bottles where they go and hoist the heavy pack upon your back and climb the rocky ridge alongside the blue alpine lake, look down into the lake and see little mountain trout swim through the cold blue water through shade and dappled sunlight—and now see him at the far side of the lake, a half-mile distant, retracing the trail he took up to the pass, following behind you.
Walk, walk, walk—don’t stop, keep on walking, all the while keeping a constant eye for places to hide and let him pass by. Ask yourself: why the anxiety? He’s just a normal guy, probably, hopefully. But when you think about the weird way he said human and those creepy comments about the marmot you’re really not so sure. You notice several groves of juniper where one could hide in the shade. One in particular catches your interest because of its inaccessibility, and you scramble off-trail to reach it before he comes.
Throw off your backpack and duck amongst the junipers. Crouched down in the gravel and duff, you watch the trail, waiting and watching. He finally appears walking fast but purposefully like a man on a mission, but what could be that mission? Just as he rounds the bend he stops and looks back, scanning the rocks and the trees. Down, down, down. Bury your face in the crook of your arm, feeling almost invisible. But when you peek up again he is standing there still. What could he be staring at? Then to your horror he raises up a pair of binoculars.
Melt into the ground and feel yourself simultaneously at one with everything, yet completely apart. Is this what it feels like to be hunted? He stands there and stands there. Finally you raise your eyes and he is nowhere to be seen. You creep back to your backpack and realize that in your haste you dumped the backpack where he could see it. Per usual, you’re not sure how to feel about this.
You decide to wait a little while to give him a chance to make some distance, so you study your map for alternate routes—but with snow on the way your options are few. Best to simply continue. You continue hiking, at first expecting a confrontation at every bend and corner, but after a while your confidence returns and you tell yourself that it’s really not a big deal. If the guy seemed weird he might simply have been drunk or tripping on mushrooms, in which case it’s not really your concern—unless he makes it your concern. You imagine various scenarios of self-defense, but let’s face it: this far out in the wilderness anything can happen. You haven’t had cellphone reception since yesterday morning.
Hours pass and gradually you forget his presence, trailed by a sense of lingering angst. Slowly the angst is replaced by a feeling of familiarity which makes everything you encounter seem significant and strangely inevitable. After all, you did hike this route once in the long ago.
Remember that old tree? It looks exactly the same as it would have looked all those years ago. Funny to realize how little humans matter in the bigger picture, as compared to how much they think they matter. With sunset glinting on the mountaintops you pitch your camp slightly off trail, on a sheltered outcrop overlooking a bottomless chasm.
Up in the mountains the air is thinner. Cooking dinner on your camp stove takes forever. If you feel preternaturally calm consider it a blessing of altitude; the small supply of booze you brought (this fancy flask of artisanal rye) goes much farther at this height.
Listen to the wind blowing through the snowy pass and through the frosty trees. A sound so strange yet strangely familiar, the wind calls bullshit on human vanity because what happens in the workplace is vanity and what happens in the bedroom is vanity and what happens in dreamland is vanity and what happens on social media is vanity, all vanity, but once you recognize the vanity you can also recognize the reality of being here and now—up in the mountains.
It’s cold in these mountains at night, far below freezing. This warm goose down vest (the one you almost didn’t bring) has proven itself invaluable. Don a layer and then another and wonder if you brought enough. At least your sleeping bag is sufficient, quality down with a -20 rating. Without your sleeping bag your goose would be cooked.
Distant coyotes wake you up, howling at the moon. Awoooo, awooo, awooo. That is all.
Wake up an hour or two later, vaguely aware of a noise or the idea of a noise.
Behold a frozen world of silver moonlight, wondering if you are actually awake. Everything is frosty blue in the frigid glow, the rocks and trees and even the stars.
A manlike figure stands by the closest tree. He holds in his hands a pumpkin-sized stone. He sees you watching him. Silent as a ghost, he sets down the stone and slips away back through the shadows. He reappears on a small rise above your camp. Backlit by the half-lit moon, he waves at you ominously and dances provocatively. You want to believe it’s only a dream. Probably it is.
In the early morning light you inspect the tree where the phantasm stood and discover a large stone exactly where he left it, just the right size to crush a sleeping person’s head. A coincidence, perhaps? Similar stones are strewn here and there.
Mornings in the mountains are cold as frosty granite, but this time of year the sunlight brings warmth and by the time you eat your breakfast you are ready to lose a layer. Already your backpack feels less heavy, and you know from past experience that by the end of the hike you’ll feel like you’re floating ten feet above the ground.
Pause at this trail junction to check your map for the umpteenth time. Up in the mountains your dreams mean more and the sky means more, with the future writ large on the windward horizon. Look at those storm clouds coming this way, awesome in their darkness, clenched like colossal fists. This is awfully high country.
You’ve gone half a mile when a flurry of raindrops pelt your backpack and spatter the granite and make the burnished boulders slippery. It’s nothing you can’t handle (your outer shell is waterproof) but you hope it doesn’t last. The droplets escalate to hail and you pause beneath an overhang waiting for the downpour to pass, which it eventually does by slow degrees.
Sunlight cracks the gloom, a rainbow appears and disappears as thunder grumbles distantly, then finally the storm subsides. Onward and upward! The air is clear and crystalline and the trees point proudly skyward. Rounding a bend in the trail you notice an unnaturally white object propped on a nearby fallen tree. A half-used roll of paper and also a backpack—his backpack. Stop dead in your tracks, glancing all around. He is nowhere to be seen. Pumping water in the nearby gully, probably, or masturbating in the bushes.
You proceed as quietly as possible, continuing past the log where the backpack broods—and then you pause. What happens next happens almost without thinking. Only in retrospect can you invent a motive: retribution for all the angst and anxiety he caused you. Just dicking around. You reach for the toilet paper and that’s when you see it: a small gun, some type of pistol, protruding from a half-zipped pocket in his backpack.
You’ve walked a fair distance before you fully comprehend that you are carrying his toilet paper in one hand and his handgun in the other and that through the eyes of society you could justifiably be considered a thief. What the fuck are you doing? You are taking charge. The little handgun is surprisingly heavy. You come to a narrow bridge over a roaring mountain stream. Pitch the pistol into the water and the toilet paper too. That is what you do, you invent the reasons afterwards.
Now ask the question: Was that the proper thing to do? Convince yourself you were acting preemptively and that a solid majority of reasonable people would have done something similar. After all, no rational person wants a weapon in the hands of a potential enemy. But was he your enemy? He certainly is now. Glance behind you and glance again. The gun was one thing, but did you have to take his toilet paper?
You decide the wisest thing to do is to take a break far off trail and give him plenty of time to pass you by, but the terrain is extremely steep high country with no place to hide so you pick up the pace. For all you know he could be jogging up behind you unhindered by his backpack, probably with a hatchet in hand or a pumpkin-sized stone.
You arrive at a broad plateau strewn with car-sized boulders and start scrabbling cross-country, angling for a faraway pond near the base of a glacial cliff, but the going is slow because the granite is slippery from the rain. As you scramble across the slick slabs you pause now and then to look back at the trail and suddenly he appears like a sinister insect high on the ridge, running along like the bionic man. He hasn’t seen you yet. Turn to duck for cover and promptly lose your balance and slip sidelong off a boulder, dragged by your heavy pack, to plunge through
empty space, bounce off a ledge and down a long embankment, tumbling and sliding until you finally come to a STOP. There is PAIN and there is PAIN, interwoven with pulsations of shame and embarrassment—did that really happen? Yes it really happened. Strapped to your bulky backpack, you lie at the bottom of a steep embankment of tractor-sized boulders with a serious headache. Your left wrist is fractured, your right hand is crushed and your left ankle is badly sprained, possibly broken. Your injuries ache and throb and scream but your pride hurts most supremely.
Did your enemy see your fall? Should you scream for help? Two different fears compete for dominance inside your aching head: the possibility that he’ll find you and the possibility he won’t. Has it really come to this? Finally you scream for help and nobody comes and nobody comes. You might have been knocked out; he could already be miles away.
To free yourself you must first rid yourself of your backpack, but unbuckling the straps proves an exercise in agony. You can move some fingers, barely, but the slightest pressure makes you shriek. Finally you squirm loose and wriggle skyward on ragged knees up an embankment of rubble toward the direction of salvation.
After an hour of constant struggle you can finally see the trail and the trail is empty. The trail would be a stone’s throw away if you could throw a stone, but at this rate it’ll take another hour to get there. Looking at the sky you realize that it’s already late afternoon, which leaves you two possible choices: climb to the trail and hope for discovery, or climb back to your backpack and hunker down for the night. Weigh the pros and cons: on the trail you can either be rescued or die, whereas if you climb back to your backpack you will simply die more slowly. You opt for the trail. Soon your knees and elbows are rubbed bloody on the stone.
Finally you reach the trail and thank the whole universe for deliverance. Sprawled on the blessed trail, catch your breath and nurse your injuries and consider your predicament and your own personal hypocrisy: who needs society? You do, you idiot. Scream across the silence and hear nothing in reply, not even echoes.
Nobody comes and nobody comes and gnawing thirst is counterbalanced by a growing arctic chill. The sunlight recedes to the uppermost portions of the highest peaks and you begin to understand that nobody is coming.
In your backpack is a cellphone with zero reception. There is also food and water, a first aid kit, a nice warm sleeping bag and a handcrafted flask of artisanal whiskey, but in your present condition the hundred yards back to your backpack might as well be a hundred kilometers or a million light years. The best laid plans of mice and men, alas. Picture the warm and fuzzy marmot in his cozy little den and wish you could join him and snuggle in his fur. Wish for so many things. Just remember to save your biggest wish for the first star of the evening.
There is something about this situation you are trying to avoid, a truth beneath the surface without a name and with every name. Remember that far away in the land of humans this was supposed to be Election Day, and at this very moment somebody is winning and somebody is losing. But the names of the candidates mean nothing to these mountains and your name means nothing too. Welcome to glacial time.
Trembling uncontrollably, clench yourself tight til your injuries ache anew. The pain keeps you awake and let’s face it: the only way to survive is stay awake and stay awake. Overhead a star appears and then another and suddenly a multitude. Count them in futility. Name them after habits and hobbies, friends and family. Brrrrrr. They say outer space is even colder than this. Could that even be possible?
Something stirs in the darkness and cuddles up against you—the warm and fuzzy marmot has not forsaken you, it snuggles on your lap and licks away your salty tears. Other marmots emerge from their dens, joined by their little cousins the pika mice and chipmunks too, a benevolent society of gentle alpine rodents coming to your assistance like the modern day miracle you never expected to witness, never in a million years.
Their whiskers tickle—stop that, silly marmot!—and they are so warm and fuzzy but also very stinky, like neglected guinea pigs or hamsters. Could this be a dream? Either you’ll wake up or you won’t.
|Copyright © 1999 – 2020 Juked|