For my daughter Rachel.
“How much further?” She could feel her voice float out of her mouth, suspended briefly in the frost-laden mist, before disappearing into a white vapor. Surrounded by the dull sound of nothingness, snow drifts in shades of white damping her every word. Nothing but the biting crunch of crushed snow at her feet as they walked.
“I said, how much further?,” she repeated. She grew irritated at the silence. Hated it even. They had been at it now all morning. This interminable hike her companion had described as “a little winter jaunt.” Each step up the mountain now seemed a ferocious battle with gravity. It had seemed like a wonderful idea at the time. At the time.
“It’s worth it. I promise.”
These were the words he spoke before the trip. The promise of hot cocoa, and a view that would take your breath away. But his words now hung hollow in the air, empty in the mist of her mind. Promise? How can you promise such things? The path was strewn with icy patches and craggy rocks, upward and still again upward. Gravity had begun to take its toll on her, and she felt the heaviness in her legs. Every step now seemed an endeavor. She regretted now wanting to pack so much into her backpack. Like the promise, it too weighed heavily on her.
“Can’t we stop just a moment?,” she asked, knowing full well the answer. They dare not take too long a delay at any point, for the journey would take all day. To stop too long would make the journey more difficult, as the late afternoon would be retreating to their backs. Then it would be dusk, and the path would become more icy, more difficult to make out in the freshly-fallen snow.
She began to think to herself how cozy it would have been to simply have stayed home. There would be a warm cozy fire, a blanket on the sofa, maybe a hot cup of cocoa with three marshmallows, her favorite. She would sit and gaze at the warmth of the blaze, orange tongues flicking up from the fireplace and disappearing into the chute above. Why did she agree to go again? There was the promise of a view, one magnificent and grand, beyond description, she was told. Was it worth all this trudging? Was it worth the strain in her legs, the dry perspiration on her neck, the cold wind biting at her nose? She wondered now.
They passed a thicket of trees, all trunks and branches, their leaves all but a memory from the previous fall. Naked and cold, they seemed to shiver in the wintry breeze. She looked up at them for a moment, remembering to steady her boots on the icy patch beneath her. They were beautiful in their own way. It was as if each branch of each tree had chosen it’s own path to the sky. And as they made their way to catch the sun, they met in a little dance of thicket above. She spotted a nest and stopped suddenly. It was small and compact, made of twigs and covered in snowflakes. Maybe a robin or a lark, she wondered. They were cold too, she supposed.
Looking upward, she took a few steps back, and suddenly the snow gave way beneath her. She found herself tumbling down a slope, her backpack jostling, her arms flailing to protect herself from the fall. Try as she might, she could not stop the sliding. The snow dampened more than the sound. She felt herself falling in slow motion, like a cartoon character turning into a snowball. With an abrupt thud, she skid to a stop at the bottom.
Disoriented, she quickly realized that she wasn’t hurt. She picked herself up and began brushing herself off. Above her, she could see she had fallen maybe 30 or 40 feet into a slim ravine. Her blue backpack lay in front of her. She wore only one mitten. The other had deserted her.
“Hey!,” she called out loudly. “Hey there! I fell down! I’m okay, but I don’t know where you are! Do you hear me?” For a moment, she pictured herself in this frosty aloneness. A wave of panic went through her. “Hey!.” She repeated. “I’m here! Do you hear me? Where are you?”
She felt the heavy silence. Then she could hear only her heart. It beat like horse hoofs in a stampede.
“I see you!,” she heard faintly. “Don’t panic! It’s okay!”
“Where are you?,” she shouted. Though his voice was reassuring, she began to feel abandoned. “I can’t see you!”
“…See you!” the ravine replied in a faint echo. It startled her for a moment.
“Listen, I can see you and you’re fine!,” her companion bellowed faintly. “You just need to keep walking straight ahead!”
“What? What do you mean?!”
“The gorge you fell into meets up with the trail up ahead. Three, maybe four miles. Just keep walking!,” the voice encouraged.
His words froze her. Three or four miles. To call her a camping novice was generous. She didn’t know the area, didn’t know the first thing about being in a forest, much less in the dead of winter. But she didn’t want her voice to betray the panic she was beginning to feel. “Why can’t you come down here with me?!”
“There’s no way down! Except for falling, I guess!”
“But I can’t see where you are?!”
“Don’t worry! I can see you! Just stay in the clearing, and walk straight ahead.”
She stood there silently for a moment. She began to feel sorry for herself and angry at herself at the same time.
“I don’t want to be here!,” she blurted. “I want to go home! Do you hear me? I want to go home!”
“…Go home!,” the ravine reverberated quietly.
There was a momentary quiet as the ravine swallowed her words. Then the faint words from above: “Trust me!”
The words riled her at first. But there was nothing else to do. She brushed the snowflakes from her raven hair, and straightened the earmuffs on her head. She picked up her backpack and brushed it off as well, then took a drink from the bottle attached to its side. The icy water went through her body and gave her a shiver. She took a deep breath, and waited for the panic to subside within her.
“Okay!,” she yelled. “Okay! I’m walking!” And with one final brush of her parka, she began again.
Step. Step. Step. The crunching of the snow below her boots kept her company. She looked up occasionally to get her bearings. As she had fallen so far, she realized that the slope of her path had now increased. he had to take smaller steps to compensate for the steep ascent. Her legs, and her pack, felt heavier now. She had taken her scarf and wrapped it around her face to conserve heat, and her breath now warmed her cheeks. Every few minutes, she would yell, “Can you still see me?!,” to reassure herself that she was still on the right path.
“Yeah! Keep going!” was the reply.
Step. Step. Step. She continued on, determined not to quit. She reminded herself that soon, this would be over. Soon, she would be at the top of the mountain. Soon, she would be inside and warm and toasty. Soon. But something didn’t feel right. The path had began sloping downward. She could feel it ease in her legs. And it had veered to the right, skewing away from where she had fallen. She was walking down and away from the mountain. Something was definitely wrong now. Did she stray from the path?
“Hey!,” she bellowed. “Hey! Something’s wrong! The path is sloping down now!” She stopped abruptly. The panic began to well inside her again, like a sudden wave on the beach that knocks you off your feet. She listened for her friend, for some assurance. But there was nothing but silence.
“Hey!,” she yelled again. “Where are you! Can you hear me?!” Her heart began to race. “Answer me!,” she stormed. “Answer me!”
In reply, a deafening stillness. She stood there for a moment, trying to scan the tops of the ravine for any sign of her friend. But there was none. “This isn’t fair,” she muttered quietly to herself. Then she said it again, loudly as if to the entire world, “This isn’t fair! Where are you! Answer me!”
“…Answer me!,” the ravine offered plaintively. Then a long silence. It was the silence that hurt the most. She sunk to her knees. And cried cold tears.
It was as if time had stopped. She discovered herself still on her knees many minutes later. It had begun to snow again, lightly, and specks of white floated like fireflies. Wiping her face, she looked behind her, her eyes tracing the footprints that fell into the distance. Then she turned back to the snowy haze in front of her. She pushed herself off the ground, and stood for a moment. And she began again.
She trudged for what seemed like hours in this silence. A white settling fog now cut her visibility significantly. She couldn’t see beyond the next bend, the next clump of trees, the immediate horizon. She felt so tired, so forsaken. Every step now was simply an act of the will. She didn’t know if she was going in the right direction. She only knew that the next step was away from where she had just been.
But the path had begun again to slope upward which encouraged her. And an old song surprisingly had began to play over and over in her head. Subconsciously, she began to sing to herself quietly. ‘Here comes the sun, do do do do. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.’ She smiled at the conspicuous irony.
Step. Step. Step. “Little darlin’, it’s been a cold and lonely winter,” she continued, louder now. It was as if she sang in defiance to the silence. “Little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been clear.”
Then came a familiar voice singing in the distance. “Here comes the sun!” It stopped her in her tracks. “Here comes the sun!,” the voice declared. Up ahead, above the ravine and atop a cliff, was her companion. Her heart seemed to leap out of her parka, and she reached her hands high to wave. He ran down to her now, laughing and singing and skipping down a thin path between trees. When he reached her, he slid to a stop, and gave her a big hug. “You okay?,” he asked urgently, still panting from the run. “That was quite an adventure, wasn’t it?”
“Where were you?,” she asserted accusingly. “I was yelling for you, but you weren’t there.”
“I was up above you the whole time, really,” he explained, pointing up the mountain. “You couldn’t hear me, cause I was so far away, but I was waving my arms like crazy. You sat there for a long time. Maybe a half hour. I wondered if you were hurt.”
“You could see me? When I was sitting there all alone?”
He smiled. “You weren’t alone. At least not in that moment. But I was too far away for you to hear me, I guess. Later, after you got up and started walking again, I hiked beyond where you were so I could double back and meet up with you here.” He put his arm around her now and they began walking slowly up the hill. “You sure you’re okay?”
She looked down at her feet. Her boots were scuffed from the rocks and her toes felt like ice. But she was still moving forward, taking one step after another. “Yeah,” she replied. I’m fine.”
Slowly, they made their way up the serpentine tree-lined path, and up to the top of the hill. Eventually, they came upon a log cabin sitting idyllically in a clearing. Icicle Christmas lights lined the eaves, an over-sized Christmas wreath hung from the big wooden front door, and smoke puffed cheerfully from the chimney. On the porch, she recognized a half dozen of her friends, all laughing and clutching mugs of cocoa. They yelled encouragement to her to join them.
Hugs poured from the porch, and a cup of cocoa with three marshmallows floating on top was thrust into her mittenless hand. The heat from the mug ran through her arm and into her entire body. She laughed out loud now, momentarily forgetting the long day she had endured. And then she stopped suddenly. The view from the porch caught her speechless. It was as promised—it was indeed a breathtaking panorama. Sensing the moment, her friends embraced the sudden silence.
And so did she.