Chapter 7: Boots, Men, Mountains

Descending the ridge proved faster than expected considering the counselors let Hank — one of the flintier guides in training — break trail. At 14, I’m joining the G.I.T.s – a group of 15-16 year olds vying for jobs as wilderness guides – today to get a mountain I need. Their game is bagging peaks and Hank’s play is to see who can keep up with his pace, a move to impress Devon and Wes I suppose. Fortunately for me this section of the “trail,” which shouldn’t even be described as that at all, consists of us bounding from boulder top to boulder top, taking our time in an effort not to fall, and slowing our pace down as we descend Whisky Lune Mountain. We’ll continue down the mountain pass to the junction, but instead of ascending up again to the next peak we are turning left at two boulders and bushwhacking back to our campsite. Laid out before me is the serpentine of our band picking their way down the treacherous descent and a 270° view of the low, lush valleys that extend for miles into obscurity. A light breeze keeps us cool despite the high temp.

“Hold up!” Devon yells from behind me.

I hated Devon then. I’d fallen behind the group, but I wasn’t nearly far enough away for everyone to stop, turn, and fix their eyes on me. Seven sets of eyes follow my progress down to where the GITs stand together. They turn and we resume the trek.

Keep up” Hank hisses. He shoots the words over his shoulder with a venom stare, both are undetected by Devon.

I try to smirk it off as my anxiety rises. The E.X.P.s knock the Gits in our private circle; we do so with the knowledge that they are stronger, tougher, and willing to take challenges farther than any of us and that goes for all things. Next year I enter the guide in training program and earning some respect now would be to my benefit. As one of the only outdoorsy E.X.P.s I enjoy some perks (respect from the counselors, crucial time in the woods with members of the girl’s camp), but also a few drawbacks; most of my hikes are with the G.I.T.s meaning (A) any hike I go on lasts all day, spanning long distances and varying elevations and (B) we move at a fast pace and we don’t rest much. When we do, it’s for five minutes or less. I keep up, most of the time, but “keeping up” doesn’t get respect and I feel unwelcomed on every Git hike I end up joining.

As our group reaches the tree line the lead counselor, Wes, allows the boys to pass. Hank, Everett, Tanner, Bryan, George, Jasper, and Allen disappear past Wes into the woods to look for the boulders while I hang back. This is their show now, if I were to spot the boulders, bullets again. Not that I mind, Wes and Devon are usually pretty cool about letting me listen in on their conversation.

“What’s wit Hank?” Devon let’s out. His voice is garbled by a mouthful of sunflower seeds.

“I spoke to him,” Wes adds.

He appears more stoic than usual today behind his black Smith sunglasses.

“When’s the last time you were through here?” I ask no one in particular.

“Oh, maybe three or four years…” Wes trails off. His nose is pointed to the group ahead, eyes keen on their actions. I look forward to see the backs of the boys bound forward down the trail.

“God Dammit,” Wes mutters.

“Double time!” Devon howls.

And we stride off to catch them.

***

Wes and Devon stand nearby speaking in low voices as the Gits scramble up and down the trail, crashing through the woods to find the boulders while I pretend to look.

“What about this?” Hank yells out. He points to an outcrop of rocks maybe waist high.

The counselors raise their heads to look at the rocks and then resume their conversation, causing Hank to spasm into a conniption of cuss words and flying leaves. We’ve been wasting daylight for at least 10 minutes. Everett, probably the only G.I.T. I would describe as a friend, asks the counselors for the map. They oblige and a couple of them begin pouring over the contents. Everett, compass in one hand, pencil in the other, locates the bearing and begins walking into the woods, holding the compass close to his chest in order to keep it steady. I follow and the rest join in behind as we break from the trail. The woods aren’t dense at this elevation (the junction sign reads 3,220 feet) and within minutes we’re at the foot of the boulders. Everett hands the compass and map back to Wes.

“You’re going to need that,” Wes retorts. And we turn our heels away from the trail.

Minutes later we’re gliding through a glade of dense fern peppered with white birch. This is what we live for. Bushwhacking can leave your leg skin mangled, but the ferns delicately brush our legs, providing welcomed sensation. From the looks of it, we’re the first hiking company to ‘shwhack through here and I feel as though I’m party to a secret only known by the forest. I giggle at the thought.

“What’s funny?” Hank shoots back.

He’s been silent in his dejection ever since Everett found the boulders.

“Nothing,” I retort.

Not even a Git can spoil this romp through the glade.

“We should be coming to a river soon,” Everett shouts back.

We forge ahead.

***

“How did they catch him?” Devon asks.

“Late night rounds,” answers Wes. He scoops up a hat full of water and dumps it over his head. “It was only a matter of time, the idiot.”

“How many nights in?” Devon asks.

“Five, and when he goes out again, they’ll be watching,” Wes adds. Devon takes notice of me lingering. “Catch up with the group Owen,” he demands and both counselors stop to make sure I can’t listen.

Up ahead the Gits plod through the water in an amusing display of bad coordination. Their quick pace does little for them in the river as they stumble over loose rocks and careen over sideways into pools of rock-sliding splashes. Most of them are whooping with laughter as they climb up six foot boulders and slide down feet first, soaking themselves and anyone around. After a while of river travel the laughter stops. Using the river as the trail requires technical movements, lots of lifting and lowering while trying to locate solid stepping-stones. At one point I slip and hit my elbow, a fall that brought some smirks and a hand up from Everett. No one smiled when Hank did the same, the vein pulsing in his neck and blood streaming from a ripped scab. After an hour of slow navigating in sopping boots the riverbed gets old, quick.

A Git crashes into the water ahead of me. It’s Jasper. George stalls to make sure he gets up. When Jasper doesn’t he goes back to help him. I catch up and crouch down next to Jasper in the water. His eyes are shut, face tight in a grimace of effort.

“What’s wrong?” says George.

“My fucking ankle,” escapes Jasper.

“Let’s get you up,” says George.

George and I work his arms over our shoulders and it’s everything we can do to lean him against a rock. Jasper is not a small dude. He turns towards the counselors, looking frightened and helpless. From the looks on all three of our faces, they can tell the situation is not good before they even reach us. Wes looks pissed. They lower him into a sitting position.

“What happened?” Wes asks.

“My ankle got caught in the rocks and turned,” answers Jasper.

“Did you hear a pop? Devon aks.

“No, well, err, maybe a small one,” Jasper admits.

“How much weight can you put on it?” Wes again.

Jasper stands as tall as he can, attempting to distribute his weight over both feet.

“Try and walk,” Wes insists.

Jasper, in obvious pain, makes his way down the creek bed as best he can with a noticeable limp. I catch George glaring at Wes, but he keeps his mouth shut.

“Ok, we’re going to have to tape you up as best we can. Devon, make sure he gets some ibuprofen, I’m going to brief the rest of the group. George, you stay with him at first, we’re all going to take turns,” Wes dictates.

Jasper covers his face with his hand as Devon applies tape and an ankle brace. He knows what the mileage back to camp will be like. To boot, the sun now peaks through the trees instead of overhead as the river continues cold down through the deep forest. Devon whispers something in Jasper’s ear.

“What was that?” I ask.

“Five more miles,” Jasper says.

***

Managing the final section of the stream was tricky, but we did it without further injury. At one point Allen and Hank got impatient and tried to carry Jasper, but they went about it too hastily and ended up falling into a pool. From then on (after a healthy verbal stinging by Wes) we took our time until the stream let out into a wooded swamp.

“How we doing back there?” Wes asks from the front.

I look back to examine Jasper, who is receiving help from Everett.

“Not so hot,” I call ahead.

But no one stops or so much as slows down as we skirt around the outside of the muck. The felled trees show signs of beavers and everyone takes their time in examining the odd carpentry. I assume that, like me, this is the first time they’ve seen trees bitten clean in half. We keep our eyes peeled for moving fur, but no beaver shows. The swamp feels forsaken, almost cursed by the abundance of dead trees riddling the ground and spiking toward the sky. I feel like I’m the first human to see it, though I know that’s not true. We’re glad to leave the swamp and the stream in our boot tracks.

“Hey Owen,” Everett calls out.

“Yep.”

“It’s your turn.”

And I double back to help Jasper.

The wetness of the swamp doesn’t continue down slope, but it’s obvious that its moisture still affects the ground up ahead. As I take Jasper’s arm over my shoulder I see that the next section of woods is dark and thick, a bad sign. The group stands before the forest for a water break. Nobody speaks. Steep slopes and cliffs line the sides of the pass, funneling us into a valley home to what looks like a stinging nettle field and a mosquito cesspool. Wes gives us a hard sidelong look.

“No stopping. We make our way through this shit as quickly as possible, understood?”

No reply. Instead they follow Devon’s suit of putting on their rain jackets in order to cover the most skin. Wes charges into the fray so we put our heads down and follow.

The first nettle takes me like a hornet sting followed by the swarm. Nettles stick out of my leg, pain engulfs me and I try not to imagine how Jasper’s feeling as he whimpers to my right. The density of mosquitoes varies as I try to avoid the hatching spots; we can physically see the infested areas, the mosquitoes are so thick in places they are almost opaque. The rain jackets help keep them off my torso, but a few get in my eye. The nettles distract from any biting my leg, but it’s everything I can do to stop them from biting my face with only my left hand free, which is needed to keep my balance lest both Jasper and I go face first into the nettles.

“This is misery,” Jasper says, “take me to the side.”

“But Wes…”

“Fuck ‘im, take me to the side.”

I obey and we find a place free of stinging nettles to let Jasper rest.

“We need to keep going,” Wes says from behind us.

“But can’t we…” Jasper begs.

No.” Wes says firmly.

And I know he doesn’t care.

Jasper doesn’t even make an attempt to move, stalling. Wes stands above him for thirty seconds and when they make eye contact, Wes springs into action, physically lifting Jasper by his shoulders and standing him up aggressively. With one hand he yanks me underneath Jasper and orders us to “Move.”

I begin pulling Jasper with all my strength through the nettles, wanting to be rid of this FUBAR place, trying my best to ignore his cries of pain. Wes follows closely behind.

“I didn’t know we had a little girl on the hike with us today Devon!” Wes yells, “You’d think even a little girl would toughen up if she knew this was part of her evaluation!”

Devon, who I presume is disgusted at Wes’s cruelty, silently continues to plow through our hellish situation, but Wes doesn’t stop.

“Stop whining Jasper, you’re annoying Owen here. He’s a year younger than you, but I’d take him in our section over you any day. Keep moving, keep moving!” The rest of the Gits are practically running through the nettles now and I can’t blame them. They know relief comes quickly from nettle stings once they’re away from them. I on the other hand, can only move as fast as Jasper’s bum ankle will allow us to go and I, in turn, try to zone out. The pain is constant so I focus on the next tree, the next hill and try to count how many steps it takes me (us) to get there. From up ahead I hear cries of celebration.

“The trail!” Allen yells, “Come on guys!”

Wes strides past us at this point to confirm the sighting. When we reach the guys they are all smiles, except for Jasper to my right.

“Hey Owen let me go OK?” he asks.

Which is fine with me as I’m happy to shed his load and join the other boys as we run down to the familiar trail we took years ago this morning. The hike to camp takes another ten minutes and we stroll into camp, exhausted and satisfied without Jasper. He limps in another ten minutes later and goes straight into his tent to rest. The counselors, feeling generous — but most likely because Devon enjoys cooking — whip up a delicious dinner of canned pork mixed in with macaroni noodles. A big pot of boiling water works on the noodles and will also provide hot chocolate with the excess fluid. We eat to our heart’s content.

“What a day,” Everett lets out grinning, “It started awesome, continually got worse until it needed to end, and then it did.”

Around the warmth of the stove we all laugh about the mosquito nettle pit and for a brief moment I feel like a G.I.T., a welcomed change. Wes and Devon were in especially good spirits as they demonstrated how to cook cinnamon rolls on the stove, a surprise luxury Wes had decided to pack. It wasn’t until I unzipped the tent fly to punch in for the night that I noticed Jasper hadn’t eaten dinner. He had been forgotten in the haste of our feast. He lay turned to the side of the tent, asleep. I pitied him, but not too much, he is a Git after all. It wasn’t until our return to camp the next day that we learned he had hiked the final five miles with a micro fracture in his ankle.

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