I thought that I would share one of my short stories in my book, The Knot at the End of the Rope and Other Short Stories. It’s the longest one I had written up to that point. For dramatic purposes, I’m going to split it up into three chapters to post each Sunday. I hope you enjoy.
The handwritten note on the dashboard read: Not Abandoned. This was a nice courtesy to others, but unnecessary since the car was parked in the parking lot at the head of a popular hiking trail called The Ridge. My curiosity piqued, I studied the vehicle—looking for what, I don’t know. It was a little dusty, probably a result of the dirt road, not the kind of dust that accumulates after several rains and drying winds, which we had experienced recently—two, three days ago? I wasn’t sure, but it had to be at least two. I had reluctantly put off my hike to avoid rain. I usually don’t mind hiking in inclement weather; it keeps the other hikers away. But The Ridge is notorious for looking like a muddy river on days like that.
There was no camping along the trail. Once you got past the easier first section, it was a difficult out and back, which according to the trail sign should be a half-day hike, about six hours. I once did it in three. I had come close to repeating that speed a few times, but that day was my crowning glory. Now, in my sixties, I usually finished it in four.
Since I wasn’t there as an investigator, I checked my backpack: water, jerky, M&Ms, half a baked potato, and my first-aid kit. And my knife. Never go without a knife, was what my father taught me. I saw only one other car in the lot. The couple it belonged to were starting out just as I pulled in, so that gave them a twenty-minute head start. Not that it was a race or anything; I just liked to know these things. I was sure to catch up with them. OK, it’s kinda a race, I thought.
After kneeling to tighten my laces, I did a few stretches—getting older sucks—and started up the path. The first section of the Ridge trail is wide and hard-packed. Most people go to the first lookout, take a few pictures, and head back. It is a stunning view. The trees stretch upward, providing a decent amount of shade, while letting in magnificent shafts of light that give the forest a surreal quality.
It took only half an hour to get there. I’d been expecting to see the couple making out on the bench and was pleased to have been wrong. Leaning on the rail, I took a drink of water and started to chew on the jerky. No matter how many times I’d come up here, I was always blown away by the view: the valley, the mountains rising along the river, and the sea of green forest as far as the eye can see.
After the lookout, the trail begins to rise steadily. A bit narrower, a few more rocks and roots to put you off balance. But I had grown to know where each and every one was. One rock, right in the middle of the path, is so smooth and black from all the shoes stepping on it that it is almost as reflective as a mirror. At about 11 a.m., depending on the time of year, it seems to glow. I had been on this trail a lot.
As the terrain on the left side of the trail begins to drop away, the incline on the right gets steeper. Most hikers hug the right side as they’re going up. I always kind of liked the feeling of being on the edge, so I was a lefty this day. It had surprised me to learn that no one had ever died on this trail. Lots of injuries, though. I have a scar to prove it.
The hikers in front of me must have been moving at a good pace. I should be able to hear their voices, I thought, since sound carries in this valley. Despite the heat, and breathing harder than usual, I picked up my speed a bit. I took another sip of water and a then few bites of potato for a little more energy.
I was lost in my thoughts. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had been hiking for an hour and a half, which meant I was getting close to the end. I felt I exceeded my normal pace. A little competition will do that. I decided to stop and listen for voices. Nothing.
After another twenty minutes, I finally heard voices. It sounded like they were getting closer. Rounding the corner, I saw a woman and a man coming toward me. Knowing the narrowness of the path and the steep bank, I called out, “What side do you want to pass on?”
“We’ll take the inside,” the woman replied. “Chickenshit here gets a little dizzy!”
He slapped her on the shoulder and said, “I tripped on that root and nearly fell over! Excuse me for being cautious.”
“Been there, done that, and I have the scar to prove it!” The three of us laughed. “Have a good one,” I said as they passed me.
“You, too,” he said back. In a few minutes, I was alone again. I completely forgot to ask them about the car, I thought. They probably would have mentioned it, wouldn’t they have, if they had seen something?
Finally, I arrived at the trail end, marked by a stone and concrete wall with a metal railing, which must have been quite the task to build. There were still old wooden posts sticking up through the ground, remnants of a wall that had to be replaced after the avalanche twenty-five years ago. I sat for a moment, had a drink, and looked around. From here, a person had three choices: go back, go down (straight down), or up (straight up). I got up and walked to the metal railing, then turned and looked up at the sheer rock face.
A free climber could probably scale it, but I have never seen any attempts. I brushed my hand along the rail, following it to where it met up with the mountain. That left my palm quite dusty, so I brushed my hands together and then wiped them on my shorts. Not wanting to leave the rest of the railing unwiped, I began to run my hand back along the top, then stopped. Looking closely, I confirmed there was a boot print in the dust on top of the rail. A jumper? Peering down, I had a moment of vertigo, which surprised me since I’d been here before. If someone had jumped or fallen, there was no possibility of survival—or discovery. I looked over the edge and could see there was a bit of a ridge protruding from the cliff, about two feet below the wall.
I backed up a bit to see if I could tell how far it went along the rock face. It seemed to curve around a vertical shaft of rock. There was a narrow crack above, paralleling the ridge. A brave soul could possibly inch along, with fingers twisted into the gap, but to where?
I looked at my watch: 3:43. Plenty of time to get back before dusk. My curiosity fought with my good sense. I’d done some climbing before, but always supported. I looked around and spotted a long branch lying by the path. Grabbing it, I returned to the wall. I poked down to the ridge to see how stable it was. It was about an inch wide to start, then narrowed as it approached the corner. I used the branch to flick some of the loose material away and watched the tiny rocks fall to the valley below.
Except for one.
(Tune in next Sunday!)
Leon Stevens is a composer, artist, and author of three books (so far): Lines by Leon: Poems, Prose, and Pictures, The Knot at the End of the Rope and Other Short Stories, and Journeys: Eight Original Pieces for Classical Guitar