“Seeing Trails” by David Bassano

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“We got any apples?” Logan called over the shelf.

“Up here,” said Leff, owner of the general store for the past forty years.

Logan brought his heavy basket to the counter, where Leff was nearly hidden by cans and boxes stacked high by the register. Logan emptied the crackers, cheese, and soup cans onto the counter and selected a few apples from the wooden crate.

“And the small bottle of Black Label,” he said. Leff slowly found it on the shelf behind him.

“Ready for the storm?” asked Leff.

“Hell yeah. I’m hikin’ up to the cabin.”

Leff’s face darkened.

“You’re goin’ out in this?”

“Yeah. I hate that road to the cabin.” The gravel drive to his uncle’s hunting cabin was narrow, steep, and rutted, dug into the side of a considerable notch. Logan disliked driving it even in good weather. “I’m gonna park at the state forest and hike in. I cut a trail to the cabin from the park. I’ll make it before there’s too much snow. Stay there a week and get some good photos. Then hike out when the snow’s melted.” It was late March.

“How far?” asked Leff.

“Three hours in, I guess.”

“Why not park at the bottom of the driveway?”

“There’s no place to park,” said Logan. “No shoulder.”

“You might end up coming back down that way. It’s gonna be at least twenty-seven inches.”

“It’ll melt soon. It’s gonna be forty-five, fifty next week.”

“Okay, well. . . be careful. It’s gonna get dark early.”

Logan took the groceries out to his car and it was already snowing.

When he arrived at the trailhead just after noon he already knew he was in for an unpleasant day. The snow had been falling for an hour in small flakes. The wind was strong and variable, whipping the snow in furious circles. It wasn’t a whiteout yet, but Logan knew it would be when the larger flakes started. He’d be far down the trail by then. The trails were well-maintained on state land and marked with paint blazes. He’d done this hike dozens of times. Still, he was very tired, because he’d been out all night drinking at Rudigan’s with Paul and had only gotten three hours of sleep. He hadn’t eaten very much that morning either, just coffee, bread, and cheese, because he’d been so busy packing. Now he was hungry and his pack, as always, was too heavy. He carried a lot of food; the cabin was already stocked, but he was always careful to replace what he ate. Besides the food and warm clothing, he also carried his camera and snowshoes. As he parked the car at the trailhead, he made up his mind to just get the hike done, uncomfortable though he’d be, and it would be worth it. He’d get to the cabin well before nightfall, have a good dinner by lantern light, drink some Black Label with cold water from the creek in an enameled tin cup, and be asleep by nine. Then he’d get plenty of sleep and be up by six to shoot the snow-covered forest at sunrise, snowshoeing around the cabin with crackers, cheese, and a thermos of coffee in his pack. He’d have a whole week with the camera in the woods and the books he kept in the cabin and a little whiskey. A few hours of hard hiking wasn’t much to pay. Anyway, he thought, it’s your own fault that you’re tired and hungry before you’ve even started.

He lifted his gear from the hatchback and locked the car. There were already two inches of snow on the ground, but he decided to lash the snowshoes to the pack and hike in his boots until the snow was deeper. He was wearing UnderArmor leggings under his North Face hiking pants, a long-sleeve breathable running shirt with a fleece jacket over it, a lined Hely Hanson windbreaker, and fleece hat and gloves. He wore two pairs of socks, one thin and one thick, inside his Gortex boots.

He struggled the pack onto his back, noticed its weight, and started at a brisk pace up the red-blazed trail into the woods. The trail ran flat here, exiting a wide valley before climbing alongside a stream into a notch between low mountains. Soon it was snowing hard, windy, and well below freezing. The exercise kept Logan warm.

Only forty minutes later, the whiteout almost entirely obscured the trail, which began to climb between the mountains. He knew approximately where he was, but had not seen a blaze in a long time because the wet snow stuck to the sides of the trees and covered the paint when he could see the trees at all. I’ll have to watch carefully for the turns, he thought. I have to make two turns before I reach the path to the cabin.

The snow crusted over his boots and the cuffs of this pants, and he was slipping in the snow on the uphill grade. I’ll get to the top of the rise and put the snowshoes on, he thought. Goddamn but I wish I’d slept last night. This is gonna hurt. I’m usually way past this point by now, usually up to the first turn if not past it. As he slowly pulled himself uphill, he heard a quick cracking underfoot, and suddenly felt his right foot drop and a burst of cold around his ankle.

A stream that crossed the trail had iced over, and the snow drifted over the ice so that it was completely invisible. He knew about the stream but hadn’t remembered exactly where it was. He lifted himself out with some difficulty, the heavy pack pulling him over one way and the other.

Well, I shouldn’t hike with a wet foot, he thought. My feet were getting cold anyway, covered in snow. He swore at the delay and slipped off the pack. He took off his wet boot and socks, dug out a hand towel and dry socks from the pack, dried his foot, and put on a dry sock. Then, to keep his foot dry in the wet boot, he took the plastic bag that had held the dry socks and put it over his foot before beating the snow from the boot and putting it back on. He also took a Grab the Gold energy bar from his pack and slipped it into his pocket. He put on the snowshoes and grunted as he lifted the pack to his shoulders and carefully picked his way over the stream. At least I know where I am now, he thought with a grin. And where I am isn’t as far as I should be. I need to cross the blue trail and then turn right with the red. Those are both well past this point and uphill of me.

He went up the hill slowly in the snowshoes, although it was more stable than in the boots alone. He opened and ate the Gold bar quickly, now realizing just how hungry he was. He also noticed how thick the wet snow was on the branches of the trees and how deeply he was sinking into the snow in the heavy pack.

The trees changed from oak and maple to various evergreens as he climbed, and the snow on the forest was very pretty and it was very quiet; when he stood still, he could hear the thin patter of the thick flakes and the wind in the branches. The fatigue and pain in his legs were ruining his enjoyment. It’ll be better tomorrow, he thought. I’ll get plenty of rest and hot food tonight and tomorrow will be beautiful, leisurely wandering around and photographing the forest.

He came to the top of the hill and pushed himself downhill without pause. He thought to eat another Gold bar but didn’t want to pause to dig it out of the pack. I just have to keep going and not miss the turn, he reminded himself.

Finally, on his right he noticed a gap in the trees, indicating an intersection. He could see neither the trail nor the blazes, both having been erased by the snow. It was clearly a trail since there were no fire cuts out here. This was the first turn; now he’d hike to the second and turn right. It should be thirty minutes to the next turn, he thought, but he knew that in the deep snow it would be much longer. He stopped and rested, leaning over with his hands on his knees. It felt good to stretch his back that way, though the pack wanted to pull him over in this position.

He continued on flat ground for a while, and here the sun did not reach above the shoulder of the steep hill to his left, and it was darker and much colder. When he rested, his body quickly chilled and he forced himself onward. In the dim light, with snow covering all the rocks and undergrowth, the path ahead of him was just a blue-gray gap between the trees. He had no sense of how far the ground was from him, since there were no shadows or other features, just the uniform surface; he put one foot in front of the other automatically, and it seemed like he was walking in a void. It was not an unpleasant experience, but he was very tired and his legs ached. The deep snow is taking a lot out of me, he thought. It’s difficult with the snowshoes, but post holing would be much worse. No, don’t stop again, just keep going. Bed is going to feel damn good tonight.

He checked his watch at increments and noticed the diminishing sky glow. This is taking too long. Well, you’re going very slowly in the snow. Yeah, but even so, I shoulda hit the turn by now. Did I miss it? Maybe I should turn back. But if I didn’t miss it, and I turn back, I’ll be even farther from the cabin. I don’t wanna hike any more than I have to. But what if I did miss it? I don’t have my tent with me. The stove’s in the cabin and it’s probably too windy to keep a fire going out here. Well, just keep going. If you hit the green trail, then you know you went too far. Yeah, but that’s a long way off. Would you see that, either? Suppose you hit that and then come back; would you see the right turn the next time, or go past it again?

No sense in worrying, he thought, since there’s nothing I can do about it. He drank a little water, which was very cold in the bottle, and continued. I should keep that bottle under my windbreaker, he thought.

The ache in his legs intensified. He had been hiking hard for hours and was doubtful about how much he had left in him. A strange anger descended on him – he was angry at the trail for taking so long to get to the turn, angry at the snow for slowing him down. He plodded with his head lowered, staring at the blank gray space ahead of him. At least I’m going downhill now, he thought. After several minutes he realized that there was no downhill grade before the turn. He knew that he must have overshot.

He stopped and looked around. The sun was so low now that he would no longer climb high enough to be in direct sunlight. It was only going to get darker and colder. He was shivering when standing still. It occurred to him that he now had a problem.

Just be cool, he thought. Yeah, that shouldn’t be a problem. I need to go back, but how far? What if I miss the turn from this direction too? You’ll have to take your chances, he thought. You can’t stay here. He turned and went back uphill at a quicker pace than he could maintain for long. He could no longer feel the emptiness in his stomach but his legs felt weak. By the time he got to the top of the climb his legs were shaking and unsteady under him. He kept going with his head down.

He looked up to check for the turn and thought he saw something moving among the trees. When he looked around, the trees tracked smears across his eyes, like in an old TV image. He blinked hard and looked again. He still saw the trails when he turned his head, so he knew it was in his brain and not his eyes. Shit, is this hypothermia? No, it’s exhaustion, he thought. People see things when they’re overtired.

I’m not gonna make it carrying this pack, he thought. I’ll leave it here and come back for it in a couple days, when the snow melts. There’s plenty of food in the cabin. Shame, all this food in my pack, but I need to warm it up, and I don’t think I could make a fire out here in this wind. Maybe I could, but I only have a little daylight left. If I’m missing turns by daylight, I’ll definitely miss them in the dark. I’ll just drop the pack and take the flashlight with me.

He slipped off the pack and leaned it against a tree so that he’d see it later, and was very happy to have the weight off his body. He took the flashlight from the side pocket of the pack and started down the trail again. Although the hiking was much easier without the pack, he still saw the trails in his eyes. I’ve never been this tired before, he thought. I can’t freeze out here, though. No one dies hiking in New Hampshire; they all die out West. People would shake their heads and laugh if they heard I died out here. Uncle Harry and old Leff would wonder how I could be so stupid. So I can’t die out here. Just keep going.

He saw that his footprints, which he was now retracing, were quickly disappearing under the new snow. Twenty minutes later they were gone entirely and he had no idea of his direction. You’re going the way you came, he told himself, where else could you be going? But he suddenly stopped and looked around. Nothing looked familiar. You’ve never been out here in snow. Of course you don’t recognize it. Keep walking.

On his left he noticed a gap in the trees. Okay, that’s the trail, he thought. But he didn’t see any blazes because the trees, which were still smearing in his vision, were covered in windblown snow. That’s got to be it, he thought. He considered brushing the snow off the trees to find the blazes, but he was too exhausted. This must be it. It better be.

He turned down the trail and saw, in the failing light, that it went uphill. Is it supposed to go uphill? I don’t wanna go uphill. Fucking uphill trail. He thought to check the topo map, and remembered that the map and compass were both in the pack. So were the warm clothes he meant to wear this week. I could have layered them to keep warm, he thought. I left it all in the pack. He was shivering now. There’s no way I can hike back to the pack and then come back. Now I have to look for the right turn marked with pink ribbon. That was the marker he had left to indicate the narrow path he’d cut to the cabin.

He walked as if underwater. Each step hurt, even without the pack. He looked up at a landscape of pain, trees and snow of pain and exhaustion. The uphill grade rolled towards him unceasingly, like a treadmill he couldn’t afford to switch off. Soon it was too dim to see clearly, so he switched on the flashlight and scanned the trees to his right for the loop of ribbon he needed to see. The light trailed like a comet in his brain. Is it on the right or left? It’s the left. No, it’s the right, you idiot. You cut that trail yourself. Get your shit together.

He stopped and leaned against a tree. Just rest a second. Just a minute. You can spare a minute. His body quickly cooled. He couldn’t feel his toes nor, soon, his fingertips. What if I just laid here and slept for two hours? It’s not so cold here, in the lee of the wind. I laid in the snow a lot when I was a kid and never got frostbite. Why not do it now? I’ll just get a couple of hours of sleep and then I’ll be good to go. Just sleep a while.

He looked for a spot under an evergreen to stretch out, then stopped. His mind was suddenly very quiet and sober. You can’t sleep here. You’re not dressed heavily enough. You don’t feel cold because you’re going numb. If you sleep out here, you won’t wake up. Start walking again and don’t stop. He started walking again, the pain a familiar companion which kept him awake. He was very serious now. His mind did not wander and the forest was no longer beautiful at all.

Now the treadmill had no sense of distance or duration. His only thought was to put one foot in front of the other and lift his head every few steps to shine the flashlight on the trees to his right, looking for the turn. The pink ribbon, look for the ribbon. He tried to remember how far it was to the turn but his mind kept sliding off the thought as if he was drunk. I can’t make it. I’m too tired and I can’t think straight anymore. I have to stop. No, you’ll die if you stop. Keep walking. He paused to rest every hundred feet, leaning on the trees.

He couldn’t tell how long it was until he saw the ribbon around the tree, partially covered in snow. He had tied it in a big bow when he cut the trail, high up the tree so that kids could not pull it down. The sight woke him up somewhat. It’s only half a mile to the cabin now, he thought. You can make it.

The trail was narrow and now invisible under the drifts; he only noted a small gap in the snow-covered underbrush. He had marked the trail so that each ribbon was visible from the last one, but he could no longer see them. He was constantly stumbling. He reached out to each tree, lurching from one to the next, almost crashing into them, leaning on them for support. He found the next ribbon in the flashlight but could not see the one after that. He knew the trail was practically a straight line, but without his compass he couldn’t stay on the line. If I had the compass I could make it, he thought. You have to keep moving anyway. Just find the next ribbon. You’re right on top of the cabin. He noticed that he was no longer shivering. He dimly realized that this was hypothermia and that, if he didn’t warm up soon, he would die. You could try to make a fire, he thought. No, the matches are in the pack. There was nothing to do but walk, the last thing he wanted to do.

He went from one tree to the next in what he thought was a straight line but did not see ribbons. He tried to walk very carefully to feel the underbrush under the deep snow, which would indicate that he had gone off-trail. He couldn’t tell the difference anymore. In the dying light of the flashlight he saw a ribbon on the back side of a tree and tried to align himself with it. It’s only a few hundred feet now, he thought. But the clearing isn’t very big. If I miss the clearing, I’ll overshoot the cabin.

And then it was completely dark, the clouds blotting out the moonlight, and the wind rose and it was dangerously cold. The flashlight was nearly dead and gave just enough tepid, yellow light to avoid trees. He turned it off and walked with his eyes closed, no longer able to keep them open, his hands in front of him in the dark. In the dark he stumbled and fell into deep snow. He lay in complete darkness, barely noticing the cold on his face. It was very quiet and all he wanted to do was just lie there and sleep. He started to doze.

A faraway voice said: Get up now.

He slowly rose, covered in snow, and stumbled along. He did not consider if it was in the right direction or how far it was or even where he was going. He just walked with his eyes closed, not certain if he was really awake or had even gotten up.

Suddenly he noticed that there were no trees to hold on to, and he dimly realized that he must be in the clearing. The cabin was at the edge of the clearing to the left of the trail. But was he on the trail? Should he go left or right? The clearing wasn’t very big. Just go left and eventually you’ll go all the way around and find it. This is the last thing you have to do.

He almost walked into the side of the dark green cabin on snow-encrusted concrete blocks with the wooden steps up to the door. He leaned against the wall. The steps were covered in snow and were too narrow for snowshoes. He took off the snowshoes and left them in the snow. He went up the steps and saw the padlock on the door.

Where’s the key? The what? The key, where did you put the key? The key to what? To the cabin. Is it in the pack? In his mind’s eye he saw his pack leaning against a tree.

You left the key in the pack.

Isn’t it on your keyring? Where? It’s on the keyring in your pocket. He felt in his pockets and took out the keys. Which key is it? He looked at all of them in the tiny light of the flashlight and slowly remembered which it was.

Unlock the door. I can’t. I need two hands to do that and I have a flashlight in one. Then put the flashlight in your pocket. He slowly pocketed the flashlight and put the key in the lock and turned it. The lock opened and he removed it and opened the heavy plywood door.

It was cold inside but he was out of the wind. He closed the door and beat the snow off himself. The flashlight barely showed him the kerosene lanterns in the dark. With deliberate movements he took the lanterns from the shelf and slowly, one by one, lit them after finding the lighter. He hung them from the hooks around the room. In the new light he saw the bunks, the iron stove next to them, the card table, the shelves of food, and a propane stove. The room smelled of kerosene and charred wood.

He thought to lie down and sleep, but decided to warm the room and eat first. He took the newspaper and kindling from the crates next to the stove, opened the flue, and got a fire going. While it burned he opened a can of soup, poured it into a pot, lit the propane stove and put the pot on it. Then he filled the teapot from the jug of water and put it on another burner.

The soup heated quickly and he ate it slowly from the pot. He added larger wood to the fire and left the stove door open so it would catch quickly. He noticed he was no longer seeing trails. The feeling had come back in his fingers, toes, and nose. In the lamplight he studied his fingertips as he pushed down on them until they were white, and saw the color flood back when he released them. He repeated the test on his toes with the same result. He knew he’d been lucky.

The teapot whistled and he poured the water into an enameled tin cup with a cheap tea bag. He could no longer see his breath in the lantern light. The haze was lifting and he could think clearly again, as if his brain was warming back up, and he realized that was actually the truth.

He unrolled a heavy sleeping bag onto the lower bunk and put large logs on the fire. He leaned too close to the open door of the stove and the hot, sulfurous air stung his eyes. He shut the door and closed the damper almost entirely so it would burn all night. Then with tearing eyes he put out the lanterns, undressed, and slipped into the sleeping bag.

He lay in the absolute silence and darkness but the tears wouldn’t stop. What’s the problem? he wondered. I made it alright. I can rest tomorrow and go back for the pack the next day. Then I can even get the photography done and sip the whisky at night. He wished he had it now. He was perfectly safe, but the tears didn’t stop. No one ever has to know what happened, he thought. And he never told anyone about getting lost during a winter hike, nor about the tears.

 

David Bassano gives history lectures for fun and rent money. He likes bike trails, Paris along the river, and Glenmorangie on the rocks. He wrote a novel called “Trevelyan’s Wager”. Any complaints should be addressed to https://www.facebook.com/davidbassanoauthor/

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