billets-doux

“The Fabled Hinterlands”*

(*inspired by real events)

The hikers paused on the side of the trail, unscrewing their canteens and drinking greedily. The miles of pitched terrain and stagnant heat wore on them, and the boughs of the stunted alpine trees provided scant shade, but the trail’s summit was near. Looming before them was the rim of a massive cirque, the inverted peak of a long-quiescent stratovolcano. From there they could walk the rim’s level perimeter and descend into the cirque’s sloping concavity, where, according to their guidebook, a pristine spring-fed caldera awaited them.

They sat on lichen-covered rocks, resting before the last push to the rim. “Hey, look at this!” The taller hiker pointed to a hollowed-out log at his feet. A ground squirrel tentatively poked its head out, bearing a reddish mushroom in its mouth. It moved closer and dropped the mushroom near his knee, then retreated back to the log. The hiker picked up the fungus. “Wow, thanks, squirrel!” He popped it in his mouth.

“What are you doing?!” exclaimed the other hiker, with rising alarm, “Are you sure that’s not poisonous?” She stared at him, wide-eyed with disbelief.

“Nah, relax, it’s fine! It was a rosy gomphidius, perfectly harmless! And delicious, too! Wait, wait—look, he’s back.” The squirrel had returned, bringing another mushroom from the dark recesses of the log. It dropped this one directly into the other hiker’s lap. She picked it up and eyed it dubiously. “You’re absolutely, totally sure this is an edible mushroom? And it’s not going to kill me?” He nodded solemnly. “Eat it,” he urged. “It’s really quite good. And besides, it would be rude to refuse such a gracious gift from out host.” She nibbled at the mushroom, staring at him. “Okay, I’m gonna believe you.” She put the rest in her mouth and slowly chewed. “It’s pretty tasty, you’re right!” They drank more water and shouldered their packs for the last two miles to the top.

As they neared the rim a tantalizing aroma wafted up from the cirque, filling their nostrils with earthy ambrosia. “Whoa, what is that?” They crossed the ridge and peered into the cirque. Both of them gasped. The entire caldera was overgrown with mountain huckleberries, cobalt blue and big as gumballs. “Oh my goodness, this is amazing!” They walked along the ridge, picking saccharine-sweet berries that dyed their fingers and lips a purplish-red. The late afternoon sun filtered through gossamer clouds and bathed everything in a dreamlike softness. At one point the taller hiker pointed a berry-stained finger toward the glimmering pool at the caldera’s center. “Look at that!” There was a herd of elk wading into the shallows, and near the middle of the pool a moose cow and her calf were submerged to the neck, their antlers festooned with water plants. “And look at that!” the other hiker blurted out, gesturing toward the far side of the pool. “It’s a marmot and a skunk fighting!” On a stony outcropping the two creatures faced off, their little arms and paws working at a furious pace. The taller hiker took off his pack and put binoculars to his eyes. “Hey…they’re not fighting…they’re playing patty-cake!” He gave the binoculars to her. She peered through them, and a smile spread wide across her face. “Whoa, no way! Amazing!” As she lowered the binoculars a pair of gray jays alighted on her shoulders. “Don’t move,” the other hiker said. He reached down to grab his camera and found a raccoon at his feet, arms aloft, proffering the camera that it had pulled from his pack. It had even taken the lens cap off for him. “I don’t believe this,” he said, taking the camera from the raccoon. “Thanks. Man, this is the best day of my life, I think.” Somewhere in the distance, a mountain bluebird whistled the melody to “Danny Boy”. The hikers slowly traced the caldera’s perimeter, taking pictures, giggling at one another and smiling uncontrollably.

They stopped frequently, gorging on huckleberries and rubbing various plant parts between their fingers and against their faces. Eventually they grew sleepy in the hazy sunshine and fell asleep alongside the trail. After a while a loud snuffling reached their ears. The taller hiker stirred first, squinting at the sky and craning his neck to look around. Not four feet away stood a black bear, reared up on its hind legs, bending huckleberry branches toward its mouth. “Psst,” the hiker whispered, nudging the other. She was out cold. The bear looked at them, huffed, and resumed eating. Feeling strangely emboldened, the hiker stood up and crept toward the bear, hand outstretched. “I just want to pet you,” he cooed, edging closer. The bear turned toward him. Their eyes locked: his were muddy brown and bloodshot, the bear’s inky, furtive, unfathomable. It slowly put up a paw and at the instant their palms touched, the bear’s bowels voided noisily, and it turned and ran into the underbrush. The hiker listened to the bear’s crashing retreat and sighed, deciding that yes, indeed, this was the best day of his life.

“Taking Our Time”

It was August 11, a beautifully sunny Saturday, late afternoon going on evening. I was on a bus with my bicycle, headed to Ballard—I had definitely taken the wrong bus, once again—on my way to meet you at the park. I was already late, which was not unusual for me. Magnuson Park was ten miles away, and I calculated that if I rode at a steady fourteen miles per hour, I could reach you in just under forty-five minutes, hopefully in time for a quick swim in the lake. I rode fast, because I didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer, and also because I most eagerly wanted to see you.

I found you reading on the grass—probably at a leisurely 250 words per minute, because of all the potentially distracting beachside stimuli—and I apologized for my lateness. You offered plums; I brought blueberries and peaches I had hastily picked up at the Metropolitan Market on the way. We swam in the just-warm-enough water and I breaststroked at a languid quarter-mile per hour, which is about as fast as I can manage under any circumstances. We lay in the sun, talking about things I do not recall in sufficient detail—only that the conversation flowed with a patient insouciance, like the rivulets of lakewater that ran slowly down from our heads and pooled in the reservoirs of our bodies: ears, collarbones, below the ribs, the small of the back.

We agreed to camp up at the pass, to get an unobstructed view of the meteor shower that was to peak later that night. You pushed the old Volvo to its limit, sixty miles an hour up the steepening grade. I had written the directions on an envelope and I tried not to lead us astray. We parked at the darkened trailhead and walked—at no more than two and a half miles per hour—to the campground, where we threw down our gear and trekked back to a spot under a galaxy-wide expanse of sky. (A spot that you had discovered, by the way.) Looking up, we saw the light from aging stars racing at 670,616,629 miles per hour toward the earth, the photons dimly captured in the rod-shaped photoreceptors of our retinas. We perceived a great stillness about us, an almost arresting quietude—this despite the earth’s ceaseless hurtling through space, at speeds in excess of 66,000 miles per hour, along its orbit of the sun. I asked if I could kiss you, and my heart beat faster still.

The Perseids tore through the exosphere at blistering speed: almost 130,000 miles per hour, each chunk of cosmic flotsam streaking white, red, green, or purple across the sky. They were too numerous to count; also, there were other, more pressing matters at hand. We fell asleep under a star-spangled scene, a tableau of astronomical proportions—a stellar cast of trillions, a timeline bordering on infinity. I remember thinking—not for the first time, mind you—that my love for you knows no bounds; that, of all the “wheres” and “whens” in the ever-expanding Universe(s), none could match the sublimity of the “now” I share with you.

“Ode to Leah (A Lovely Appellation)”

In Pennsylvania, the clouds did part
that humid morn’
I made my start
on a cobbled footpath
legs athwart
the spine
of South Mountain

My family stood to watch me go
They shook their heads—
they didn’t know
what would possess a young man
to leave a home
and go wanderin’
through the wood

I schlepped my pack and stepped with care
‘cross lichened rocks
and mossy stairs,
into a wood so sparse
and spare,
the forest floor
grew thick with ferns & ivy

Appalachia, I am awed by your many wonders:
flagstone trails, stately oaks, and mid-day thunder
If I had the mind to stay,
I’d walk these woods near every day
but the setting sun does
rightly beckon me
on home

Oh, how the west has won
my heart and my soul
and dearest Leah, it is thee
I’m pining for

Yes, Appalachia has its charms
but by and by, I’ll miss the farm
that brought the two of us
to toil, side by side

So it was nigh
ol’ Pennsylvania
said goodbye

Into Mair’land I strode on high
through maple, ash,
and Virginia pine,
my boots crunching acorns—
a dozen at a time—
as the clouds rolled in
and set the forest
a’ drippin’

Appalachia, I am struck by your varied splendor:
the cardinal’s red, the young stag’s white, the turtle’s umber
If I had the mind to stay,
I’d walk these woods near every day
but the setting sun does
rightly beckon me
on home

Oh, how the west has won
my heart and my soul
and Leah, darling, it is thee
I’m pining for

Yes, Appalachia has its charms
but heaven knows, I miss the farm
that brought the two of us
to toil, side by side

So it came time
to leave fair Mair’land
behind

I cross’t the Potomac on leaden legs
my food stores low,
my shoulders dead
At Harper’s Ferry I did
clear my head
of the dewy cobwebs
clung about me

Appalachia, I am warmed by your southern comforts:
campstove joe, hand-rolled smokes, and fruit to pilfer
If I had the mind to stay,
I’d walk these woods near every day
but the setting sun does
rightly beckon me
on home

Oh, how the west has won
my heart and my soul
and lovely Leah, it is thee
I’m pining for

Yes, Appalachia has its charms
but Lord above, I miss the farm
that brought the two of us
to toil, side by side

So it came time
to bid Virginia
goodnight

 

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