on Hogback Mountain
The backcountry—the forest—beckons us. It smirks and it laughs at us. At our hubris; at our belief that we have conquered it and all that lives within it.
The forest, for all of our technologies and capabilities, remains a mystery to us, wrapped within an enigma of our own making.
“That’s insane,” she said. “Strange, but you’re crazy if you think that.”
Okay, he sighed. Maybe.
“You want me to believe you met a ghost hiking in the Park?” She shook her head. “Nope. You’re good at making stories.”
You explain it, then, he said.
“What? You stumble along and see a woman on the trail, sleep with her, say good-bye, and then say she’s a ghost?” She snorted and stood. “Thanks for the coffee. Take care,” she said as she left.
He didn’t tell that story to many, and wouldn’t again (he swore). The thing had seemed real enough, but strange enough, too, to challenge the apparent conclusion. Who could tell? He put on his glasses, stood, and left for his car.
The Green Tunnel
1990 was a long while back, even if it didn’t seem so. It was July and he was on vacation, backpacking through the Park after friends dropped him off near Waynesboro at Rockfish Gap. One hundred and five miles to go, eighteen miles between huts, before he had to be 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 did not intend them to. He wasn’t after speed, he was on vacation. He sat for hours 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 strolling.
At mid-week, he took the grade up past Elkwallow Wayside a bit easier than normal, keeping in mind the very recent blackberry milk shake. 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, and the view, while okay, wasn’t remarkable enough to influence a detour. The humidity was very much up there, along with the temperature; both captured and held by the forest so that it was like walking in a sauna. He emerged from the forest at the Drive below Rattlesnake Point overlook.
Why not? he wondered. So, he strode up to the overlook to set down his pack and look over the range. Another break, another chance to let the sweat dry off while smoking another cigarette. Another chance to answer, Yes, to a tourist who asked him if he was backpacking. Other tourists heard, and they 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 with a storm blowing in from the west. You ask, God answers, he laughed and threw his pack back on his shoulders.
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 after you cross the Drive, but he didn’t make it before the storm opened. He was in the forest, again, so he had some seconds before the torrent soaked him and, worse, his pack. He stopped, dropped the pack, and pushed the rain cover over his pack before donning his own 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, and he had more than a few hormones still kicking about. He was alone on his trek, and he 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 saw a particular woman; one whom he had never, ever met. He “saw” her: 5'9" tall, slim (but not ridiculously so), with short-cut dark blond or light brown hair. This vision wore black Lycra biking pants to her knees and a white t-shirt. She was nicely proportioned, neither overly- or under-proportioned. Most striking of all was that he “saw” her face.
He reached inside his rain jacket and lit another cigarette carefully, using the 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.
It’s worth noting that his vision did not include anything sexual, sad to say. It was not the stuff of wet dreams…
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 the pack before swinging out again on the trail.
In less than a half mile, he came to the junction with the side trail leading down to Overall Run and on to Great North Mountain and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He did not stop, he just noted the marker. Just beyond, however, he looked to his right. He saw, off the trail, by some outcropped rocks, another hiker. So, he turned and walked over. 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 did not note—then—the absence of a poncho or rain jacket or the fact that she, and her pack, were dry…
Yeah, he replied as he set his pack down, noting her white t-shirt and black Lycra biking pants that came down to her knees. 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.
He did shut up, but she stayed. She talked a little about her kit, and she said she was out just for a couple of days to get away before she had to go to Connecticut to be with her mother. Her parents were, she explained unnecessarily, divorced. Her father, who worked for a contractor or the government, lived in Reston. She had lived on her own, but…
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. Together.
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. 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 doing the same with him. It was a wonder that, although they had never met, they had arrived at this point of trust and acceptance without any of the usual social games that people, or couples, play.
The only question he remembers was worded like: 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! And, he has never forgotten her.
However, he forgot her first name.
He thinks she is a Susan, and he remembers her last name—Clarke.
And, 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’d told him was at an overlook or parking area somewhere to the south on the Drive. She said 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 access 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, there are questions.
Why was she—and her gear—dry immediately after the storm?
Why had she turned the wrong way, away from her destination?
Why was she so guileless that she accepted him so completely on first meeting him?
More challenging is the question that has haunted him from the moment he met her:
How could she be so completely true to the vision he had during that storm?
They say mountains hold their secrets dear. So, maybe this is one Hogback mountain will keep to 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 afternoon so long ago.
He still hopes to meet her — someday.