on Hogback Mountain
The back country beckons us. It smirks and laughs at us—at our hubris; at our belief that we conquer it and all within it. The forest, for all of our technologies and capabilities, remains a mystery to us, an enigma of our own making.
This story isn’t told to or shared with many, and won’t be again , he swears. It seemed real enough, but it challenges any apparent conclusion.
The Green Tunnel
1990 is a long while back, even if it doesn’t seem so. It was July and he was on vacation, backpacking north through the Park from Rockfish Gap. One hundred and five miles to go, eighteen miles between huts, before he’d arrive at Chester Gap to be picked up. All in a week. No sweat. Actually, there was plenty of sweat. It was July, and he carried his own 230-pound frame plus the 45 pounds in his backpack.
The miles hadn’t flown by, but he wasn’t after speed; he was on vacation. He deliberately tempered his pace to soak in views from Little Calf Mountain, Black Rock, Hightop Mountain, and Stoney Man Point. He sat and gabbed with others at Blackrock, Hightop, and Pass Mountain huts, chowed down at park Waysides, and kept ambling.
By mid-week, the grade up past Elkwallow Wayside was easier than expected, despite the blackberry milk shake he’d inhaled. The trail leveled off as he walked below and around the Ranger station and past the short trail down to Range View cabin. No time to stop there—the view, while okay, wasn’t remarkable enough to cause a detour. The humidity was very much up there, along with the temperature; captured and held by the forest: it was like walking in a sauna. He emerged from the forest below Rattlesnake Point overlook.
Why not? he wondered. So, he strode to the overlook, set down his pack, and looked out over the western range. It was another break, another chance for the sweat dry off, and to smoke another cigarette. Another chance to answer, Yes, to a tourist who stopped on the Drive to ask him if he was backpacking. Other tourists didn’t ask anything. They returned to their cars—if they had gotten out of them—and drove off, one after another. I guess I need a shower, he thought.
Right about then, the sky darkened. A storm blew in from the west. You ask, God answers. He laughed, threw his pack on his shoulders, and hurried across the Drive for the trail and into the Forest’s embrace.
The trail debauches off of the ridge by Piney River onto Hogback Mountain, just below the Fourth Peak of the mountain. It’s no climb at all to gain that summit, but he didn’t make it before the storm opened. He had some seconds to stop, drop the pack, throw the rain cover over it, and don his rain jacket and gaiters. The trail became a river, so he set his pack upright (it stood on its own “legs”) and stood there, under the waterfall and the trees, smoking and waiting it out.
He was 38 years old, was alone on his trek, and was single. So, it wasn’t surprising that, in those moments when he had nothing else to do, his thoughts wandered to…women. Or, at that moment, A Woman.
In his mind, he had a vision of a woman—one whom he had never, ever met. In his vision, she was about 5'9" tall, slim, with short-cut dark blond or light brown hair. The vision wore black Lycra biking pants to her knees and a white t-shirt. She was reasonably proportioned, neither overly- or under-proportioned. Most striking of all was her face.
He pulled a cigarette from inside his rain jacket and lit it carefully, using the rain hood to keep the rain away. I’m dreaming, he thought. He had never, ever had such a vivid, intensely personal dream, and he had never dreamed while fully awake. He could not shake the Vision, though. It was so strong, he almost didn’t notice that the storm had passed. He shook off his rain jacket and attached it to the outside of his pack before swinging out again on the trail. In less than a half mile, he came to the junction with the trail leading down to Overall Run. He did not stop, he just noted the marker. Just beyond, however, he looked to his right.
Off the trail to his right, by some outcropped rocks, stood his Vision, wearing a white t-shirt and black Lycra biking pants that came to the top of her knees. He turned and walked toward her. She looked over and said “Hi!”
She was backpacking, all right; he saw her pack. She brushed her short-cut, dirty-blond hair away from her eyebrows as she bent her five-foot, nine-inch frame from her waist to pick it up. “That was some storm, wasn’t it,” she said. (He didn’t notice—until later—the absence of rain gear or the fact that she, and her pack, were dry.)
Yeah, he replied as he set his pack down. She complimented him on his pack; he explained how and when he got it, that it was an Alpenlite, and had no drawstrings, only zippered compartments. He kept talking because he thought, If I shut up, she’ll disappear. But, when he did shut up, she was still there. She talked a little about her kit, and explained she was out just for a couple of days to get away before leaving for Connecticut to visit her mother. Her parents were, she pointed out, unnecessarily, divorced. Her father, who worked for a contractor or the government, was in Reston. She mostly lived on her own…
Where you headed? he asked. “Gravel Spring hut,” she answered. He nodded, and told her that hut was his destination, too. “Well, let’s get to it,” she said. He pulled his pack back on and they started out. At the trail, though, she turned south. Thought you’re headed to Gravel Spring, he said. “Sorry, oh. Guess I got turned around,” she said. And, off they went. Together.
They crossed the Drive two times as they went over or by the remaining three peaks of Hogback mountain. They talked and pointed out things to each other as they walked under a clear blue sky in the forest tunnel. Then they hit the stretch of stinging nettle past Little Hogback and another road crossing before they came to the trail to the hut at Gravel Spring Gap. They were lucky, for the spring was flowing strongly and no other hikers were there.
After they ate, they sat and watched dusk turn to night. Their luck continued: the gnats weren’t bad that night. In fact, he cannot recall being bothered by gnats, although he does remember the bear that shook the bear pole by the hut later that night.
They lit candles while sitting at the table in front of the hut. She asked if he’d read The Book of Questions? No, he replied. Aren’t there enough questions as things are? She shook her head as she went to her pack and retrieved a very used, dog-eared copy of the book. “The point,” she explained as she sat down, “is to answer a question with whatever comes to your mind when you hear it.” Without regard for the other person? he asked. “Exactly,” she said. “You have to accept what each other say. You talk about it, but you can’t get angry or anything like that.”
She asked, and he agreed. She opened the book at some random page and read a question to him. He could have answered that question with a simple Yes or No, but he went further; he does not remember either the question or his answer.
She asked him about his answer and they talked for a while before he picked up the book and just opened it somewhere. He asked the first question he saw, and she sat back, thinking, before she responded.
That was the most intensely intimate, emotionally exhilarating and exhausting experience he’d had. Emotional? Emotionally, he felt naked, laid out before her without hesitation or regret; vulnerable. And, he felt she was as deliberately vulnerable to him. It was exhilaratingly wonderful to him that, having never met, they achieved such trust and acceptance.
The only question he remembers her asking was: Do you want to be touched? He looked into her wide eyes and said, Yes. She set the book down, and…they took turns gently massaging each other’s shoulders and neck. After these years, he remembers the feel of her fingers on his skin, lightly tracing his clavicle.
After they broke their fast in the morning and were ready to go their separate paths, they looked into each other and hugged. “I won’t forget you,” she whispered. He turned his mouth to her ear and breathed, I can’t forget you! He has never forgotten Her.
However, he forgot her first name.
He thinks she is a Susan, and he remembers her last name—Clarke.
He forgot to ask her phone number or mailing address; She did not ask for his.
She shouldered her pack and headed back on the hut trail, to go to her car, the car she said was at an overlook or parking area somewhere to the south on the Drive. She had to go back to Reston to pack for the train trip to Connecticut.
He looked at her going up until she disappeared beyond a bend in that trail before he started off up the old Harris Hollow roadbed to pick up the trail heading north. But, he already ached from missing her. He pushed his pace so that he passed over South Marshall in, for him, record time. There, at the trail crossing below North Marshall on the Drive, he set down his pack and sat on a boulder, watching cars passing, particularly those heading north. He knew she could drive south and leave the Park at Route 211, but it made more sense, he thought, that she'd go north and pick up the Interstate heading back to Reston. So, as fog descended on the ridge, he sat and waited. And waited.
He never saw her again. He knows she was real; he remembers her touch on his skin and her words. And, yet, she also seems unreal.
They say mountains hold their secrets dear. So, maybe Hogback mountain will keep this itself, forever. He knows, though, that if he ever meets her again, no matter the circumstances, he’ll accept her just as eagerly and easily as on that July evening so long ago.
He still hopes and prays to meet her — someday.