I am a retired attorney, and live with my wife, Judith, in Newton, Massachusetts. Having published numerous professional articles when I practiced law, I am relatively new to fiction. My stories have appeared in Evening Street Review, Short Fiction Break, and Twenty-Two Twenty-Eight, among others. My two most recent stories have been accepted by, and will be published in upcoming editions of The Literary Hatchet and Short Edition. Poetry has been published in Shot Glass Journal.
A Modest Adventure
On a cloudy fall day, Gus left behind his comfortable home and sleeping wife, Gail, to begin a five day solitary backpack in the Pemigawasset Wilderness of New Hampshire. He hadn’t hiked since he was a teenager, but at thirty-five, figured he was fit enough. He had planned the hike after Gail hurt his pride.
“You worry all the time,” she told him. “What you fear never comes to pass, so why not live more carefree? When you fret, I find you unattractive.”
Gus hated himself at that moment, because he knew she was right. Life frightened him pretty much all the time. He had managed to become a marketing vice president, a husband, and a generally well-functioning human being. The effort exhausted him. He got the idea of the backpack after reading an article by a woman who at age forty, transformed her stressed out professional life, when she completed the Appalachian Trail.
The night before, in bed with Gail, Gus had tried to imagine the beauty of deep woods and sere mountain summits, until his fleeting images of nature’s grandeur were overwhelmed by a darker vision so vivid that his stomach clenched, him lost and alone in the all-enveloping woods, his cries heard by no one. Gail had draped her arm over his chest, her warmth calming him as his night terrors dissipated.
“This will be good for you,” she said, as Gus drifted finally to sleep.
Gus was an inside kind of person. A suburban ramble or a dash in the rain to retrieve the newspaper from the walk, had always struck him as more than enough of the great outdoors. When he reached the highway, he cracked the windows open to feel a touch of the outdoors. As he continued north, the countryside changed even though the road itself was the same two-lane he had been on for three hours. The woods felt denser, wilder. His left leg jittered up and down. He closed the windows and immediately felt better. As the early morning sky brightened, his restless leg movement stopped.
When life pressed in on Gus, he was prone to silent pep talks to remind himself that he could take care of business. You’ve planned this backpack well, he thought. It was mid-October, after the biting insects were gone, still within daylight savings time. He would need to hike only five to seven miles each day to complete the loop in the five days he planned. A strong hiker could complete the same hike in three days, a maniacally fit hiker, in two. No unusual cold was forecast for the next five days, and his sleeping bag was more than warm enough for the nights, which would remain above freezing. The strong ocean storm to the south was forecast to give New England a wide berth as it sailed out to sea. He had packed enough clothes, food and water, and there were sources of pristine water along the way. He would be tired, sure, maybe have to tend to blisters on his feet, but only his own fevered imagination could prevent him from enjoying this modest adventure.
At eight thirty a.m., Gus arrived at the small trailhead parking lot. Very civilized, he thought. Room for a few cars, a kiosk with a topographic map and warnings not to venture onto the trail unfit or unprepared, a wide path leading into the woods. No other cars were in the lot, and Gus wondered if he would spend the entire five days without meeting anyone else. After a final glance back at his car, he ventured onto the trail. The first half mile was level and felt more like a suburban woods walk than a path into a wilderness. He walked with an easy rythm, his physical effort warming him in the cool autumn morning air. A painted arrow on a tree up ahead pointed left, where the trail narrowed and started uphill.
Gus planned his hike so that he would not climb the first mountain summit until his second day, to give himself a chance to get accustomed to the heavy pack. Still, he would gain two thousand feet in altitude today on an undulating trail. Within fifteen minutes of heading uphill, he labored, and sweated profusely. He felt something squishy under his boot, and saw that he had stepped on the half-eaten carcus of a recently dead rodent. He shook his boot violently as if to erase the image. Gus recalled an article about a brilliant medical researcher who hiked the Colorado mountains in her spare time. She said that her exploration of the intricacies of human cell growth was inspired by the patterns in nature. He paused to find the patterns in nature. Red ants swarmed toward the dead rodent. A grotesque tumor the size of a watermelon grew from a tree trunk at the edge of the trail. Fungi, whitish, yellow, and rotting grey, thrust from the ground. Branches of evergreen and deciduous trees tangled into one another, each trying to choke the other out of its space.
For five hours, Gus slogged up the trail. Every few steps he stumbled over a root or smashed the toe of his boot on a rock. Fatigue forced him to take frequent breaks. He was nowhere near the area where he planned to spend the night, the site of a leanto that had been removed when the Pemigawasset had been declared a wilderness area, the patch of terrain described in his hiking guide as level and still clear enough to pitch a tent. Gus’s chest hurt from labored breathing, his head pounded and ached, and his right calf muscle cramped, spasms shooting pain up and down his leg. Five days was not going to happen. He would spend one night in the woods, head down tomorrow, and decide then whether to drive straight home or stay at a motel for four days, from which he could watch movies and eat greasy meals at local country diners, then lie to Gail about the hike.
Around three o’clock, Gus spied a patch of ground just off the trail where he could set up camp. It was not entirely level, but he knew he would not reach the old leanto site before dark, and was unsure when he might find another suitable spot. It was a mini-clearing where somone must have camped before, surrounded by dense underbrush and tall trees. He resigned himself to a long and miserable night. Gus pitched his tent and rolled out his sleeping bag. He lay down, tried to work the knots out of his calf, and fell into a hard sleep. He awoke to the last moments of twilight. Startled by blackness that seemed to pour from the outside into his small shelter, he dumped the contents of the backpack onto the tent floor in his haste to find his lantern, which he flicked on, grateful for the light, his protector. Exhaustion diminished his hunger, and he could no longer ignore the loose stomach that had plagued him for the last couple of hours. Damn beef jerky, he thought. He strapped on his headlamp, put a flashlight into his pants pocket and grabbed toilet paper, a small cathole shovel and the extra large spool of flourescent orange parachute cord that he bought online. The cord had added pounds to Gus’s hiking burden, one of several odd items he stuffed into his pack, to be ready for every contingency.
He would not foul the ground near his sleeping place, so Gus headed into the woods. He didn’t bother putting on his windbreaker. It was chilly, not cold. He tied an end of the parachute cord around the trunk of a tree at the edge of his campsite, triple-checked it to make sure that the cord would not come loose, then walked away from the tent. Every few yards, he coiled the orange cord around another tree at eye level so that his headlamp would reflect off it when he returned. After several minutes of walking and looping the parachute cord around tree trunks, Gus relieved himself, covered over the cathole and started back. The orange cord reflected reassuringly bright in the beam of his headlamp.
The night was moonless. Gus stopped and turned his headlamp off to experience night in the wilds. The instant the last vestige of light cleared his vision, darkness felt like a presence that had a will to extinguish him along with his sight. Living things crunched along the ground, the sound of their movement giving no hint of their size or intentions. Gus thought he felt something brush against his leg. He yanked the flashlight from his pants pocket and swung it in a circle. He saw nothing but the trees, which seemed to dance menacingly at the end point of where his flashlight penetrated the dark. He turned his headlamp back on, held the lit flashlight out in front of him, and carefully, quickly, followed the orange parachute cord back toward his tent.
Gus smelled the creature before he saw it, a dank, musky odor. He advanced a few more yards, and saw a massive black bear that he guessed weighed over three hundred pounds standing atop the ruins of his tent. The ruins of his tent. It took a moment for his brain to register that reality. The bear had shredded his tent, and once inside shredded his sleeping bag and all the clothing that he had dumped out of his pack when he sought the lantern. He understood immediately what had happened. In his zeal to be prepared at all times, Gus had shoved candy and energy bars into the pockets of all his clothing. He even put a couple of energy bars inside his sleeping bag so that if he wanted to snack in the middle of the night, they would be handy. The bear had been thorough. Nothing remained that could provide Gus with any shelter or warmth. The bear glowered at him. Gus knew that black bears can run for short distances at thirty miles per hour. If the beast charged, Gus would smash its snout with the flashlight and fight for his life with all his strength. The bear sniffed through the ruins, huffed and grunted, then ambled off into the woods. Gus did not move until all sounds of the bear were gone, and for five minutes after.
He tried without success to tie the ruins of his windbreaker, polypropylene shirt, sleeping bag, and fleece jacket together to create a makeshift insulating cover he could wear. Everything was in tatters. Gus had not thought his misery could get any worse. His uncomfortable night would now be downright cold. He felt no danger. The shirt he wore, though light, was long-sleeved. The weather was dry and the air, calm. He would lie on his wrecked tent and grab a little sleep here and there until he had to pace around to warm up. If he became truly chilled, he would ignore his fear of torching the woods, and as a last resort, build a fire. At dawn, he would head down to blessed civilization.
The first raindrop was so fat and warm that Gus thought a nightbird had shat on him.
A deluge of globs of rain followed, instantly soaking the ground and Gus. He held his hand out, palm up, confused. No rain had been forecast. The storm off the coast was to wet only the ocean.
“I relied on you,” he screamed, his voice high-pitched, righteously angry.
Gus was concerned, yet still did not believe he was in danger. The air seemed to have warmed slightly with the rain. It’s only one night, he reminded himself, then you will never go into the woods again.
As Gus consoled himself, he heard a roaring sound like the din from a heavily traveled highway that one can hear but not see. He could not place the sound until he looked up. The tops of the trees swayed crazily in what must have been a whole gale. As he watched the spectacle, he felt a puff of wind. The roaring descended, the tone of the atmosphere’s frenzy deeper, the sound closer. A blast of wind hit Gus and drove raindrops that immediately became finer, needle-like, into his chest. At the same time, the air chilled, losing ten degrees as the rain pelted him. The woods gave little protection from the wind or the rain, the rain so intense that it made the dark appear more opaque.
Gus searched frantically through his shredded shelter as if he might find an article of clothing that the bear had missed. For the first time that night, he shivered, a violent spasm that began in the back of his shoulders and tensed his chest. He shivered again, this time from a burgeoning fear that threatened to overwhelm him. To be caught in a storm on the walk back from the commuter rail to his condo was fun, a story to be told while stripping off wet clothes in the warmth of home. In these dark woods, Gus understood at some primal level, his situation was far more serious. He cursed himself for forgetting his cell phone, left on the front passenger seat of his car. He must find shelter. Gus took the orange parachute cord and ventured away from the campsite, not knowing what he hoped to discover. Ahead, he saw a large ancient tree trunk hollowed out by rot from its base to six feet high. Gus squeezed into the space, hoping to find respite. Cold liquid dripped onto his head, the wind continued to drive the rain into him, and the cold mushy wood chilled him further.
The tree trunk gave him an idea. He found a large tree and with his jackknife, hacked at the bark to gouge out a crude shelter. He continued wildly for several minutes until the knife bounced out of his hands and just missed stabbing him in the face. He gave out a caustic laugh at his folly, as he remembered the woodpecker, evolved over millions of years for the single task of hammering holes in trees. After pecking day and night, the bird might create a hole the size of a fist.
Neither the wind nor rain had abated, and Gus shivered almost nonstop, his back threatening to seize up. He tried jumping jacks and wondered if he could do them off and on all night and generate precious body heat. The effort warmed him momentarily until he tired. When he stopped, he was more fatigued and chilled than before. He recalled the chechaquo, the newcomer to the Yukon in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” who ran around like a madman to stay warm, and spectacularly failed. The temperature in London’s frozen north was seventy-five degrees below zero. In Gus’s woods, it was at least one hundred fifteen degrees warmer, yet his body temperature continued to drop.
A feeling came over Gus that he had never before experienced. The possibility that he might die became real, no longer the abstract truth that we all ignore for most of our lives. He felt his chest beneath his soaked shirt, and it was so cold that he cried out. He would not survive the night in this spot. His only hope was to follow the trail in the storm and the dark to his car and its life-saving heater. With his headlamp and two flashlights and the lantern he had brought, he would be in no danger of running out of light. He put his car key in the zippered rear pocket of his pants so that it could not fall out. He had only to stay on the trail. Were it daylight and Gus not fighting hypothermia, he estimated he could reach the car in three hours. Under the current conditions, he had no idea. Gus made sure that he had the trail, and followed his headlamp beam forward.
He lurched over the up and down terrain in a semi-coherent state. He wimpered when a rush of wind stabbed the cold rain into him. He cried “help” into the gale several times as if someone might have set up a heated tent nearby with leftover beef stew to share with a hapless wanderer. Once he yelled, “Gail,” “Gail,” until the thought of his wife’s warm arms around him set him sobbing, expending energy when he had none to spare. He had lost all sense of time and did not know for how long he had been walking when he stumbled and fell and hit his nose on a rock, blood flowing freely. The nose was broken, yet his body was so compromised that he felt no pain. Somehow, he picked himself up and trudged on. He knew that he could not continue for much longer, and that if he fell again, he would not get up. The only thought that kept him going was not his wife or home or a good meal, but his car heater cranked up to eighty degrees, the fan on maximum.
Gus stumbled onward, the epic storm unabated, trees everywhere like invading aliens, roots and rocks underfoot threatening to catch his toe and hurl him to the ground. As he pictured his death alone in the dark, he dug his nails into his head, and blubbered like a condemned coward. At the very moment Gus prepared to give up, his headlamp caught the reflection of his salvation through the trees, the red taillight of his SUV. Get there upright, he told himself, open the door, start the engine, turn on the heat and you will live. A vicious gust of wind nearly knocked Gus over and sent the taillight spiralling toward the treetops. Gus’s headlamp had found his end, not his salvation, when it shone on a strip of his shredded red tent that had been lifted by the wind and plastered onto a tree trunk, and was now blown into the sky. He had walked in a circle half the night and was back at his campsite.
Gus lowered himself to the ground and sat against a tree. He was barely aware of his own body or even the storm that had so tormented him. His chin dropped to his chest and his breath took on a gurgling sound. He had one more task. Whoever found his corpse, a random hiker or a rescue team after Gail reported him missing in five days, would take a picture. Some fool would post it on the internet. Gus would not have his legacy be a look of dread. He willed his chin from his chest. With his fingers, he turned his mouth into a smile. That wouldn’t do, someone who had pissed his life away for no good reason, and thought so little of it that he died grinning like a clown. With his fingers again, he straightened his mouth. He set his face in his expression of maximum gravitas. Gus could picture his visage exactly, of a man who sought adventure and was overcome by misfortune and callous nature, as had so many bold explorers before him, who, when he knew he was undone, met his fate with dignity and calm acceptance. His final face. Perfect. He was not afraid.