Part 33: The Hike
It was the early afternoon before we sat down to decide what to do with the rest of our day. “Why don’t we go hiking?” Summer suggested. “We can make our way up to the summit there just as the sun is setting.” She was pointing to a mountain peak that loomed high in front of us. I didn’t know the name of it, but it dominated the ridge line and rising mountains of the Blue Ridge in this area. It could be seen from anywhere in the yard or orchard, and even along the stretch of road that ran in front of the farm. Rising from the valley floor, it turned from trees and shrub, to jagged rocks as it reached its sharp peak.
“Yeah, that would be awesome,” I replied, though the only hiking I had done in recent years was the hike from my apartment to the parking garage.
“You sure the city boy is up for such a grueling hike?”
I grinned. “Yeah, I think I can manage. And if not, the big strong country girl can carry me.”
“Oh, ha-ha. Keep dreaming. I’ll just roll you back down the hill…hey, oh wait, did you just call me big?”
I laughed out loud. She knew I wasn’t calling her any such thing, but oh my, how I loved her playful manner and sense of humor. It was so much different than…oh, what’s her name.
We both changed into clothes we didn’t mind getting dirty, and then I called the number posted beside the telephone; the one they told us to dial if we ever needed anything. Well, we needed something alright. Directions. Once I explained what we had planned, you could hear the smile in Helen’s voice.
“Oh yeah, that’s the Peaks Of Otter there in front of the house. That rocky peak you see is called Sharp Top and it’s about a two hour hike, I reckon.” Then she proceeded to give me directions.
As I wrote everything down, I realized the directions she was giving me would take us right by the turn off to Earl’s place. Hopefully Summer wouldn’t mind getting so close to there. I thanked our hostess for the directions and hung up.
“You ready?” I asked, looking at my companion, who had changed into long jeans, good hiking shoes, and a black tank top. Over the tank top she wore an open, white short sleeve shirt, to keep her shoulders from burning in the afternoon sun. “You look nice,” I told her.
She smiled. “You look nice too.” I didn’t think I looked all that. I had on faded jeans and a black tank top myself, but I had forgone wearing anything over it. If I was going to get sunburned, then let it burn.
“I got the directions, but I hate to tell you, we get close to your dad’s on the way.”
She looked down for a second, and then said matter-of-factly, “As long as I don’t have to see him.”
“Nope. Here, I’ll give these to you.” I handed the directions I had written down to her. “You can tell me when to turn and stuff.”
“What’s the matter? Can’t chew bubblegum and talk at the same time?”
“Nope. But I can kiss you and drive at the same time.”
She gave me an expression of surprise, as if she couldn’t believe I had been brave enough to suggest such a thing. “Well, well. We are loosening up a little, aren’t we? That’s nice, but we’ll see what happens when I make you kiss and drive.” She gave me a wink and planted a quick peck on my cheek. “I’m ready,“ she said. “Let’s roll.”
The drive was pleasant, down country roads back out to the main highway, and then winding up the mountainside through a narrow gap that I imagined at one time was the only way to get by the mountains to the other side of the valley. We did drive by the turn off to Earl’s, and though I know she was trying to play it off by looking straight ahead, I could see her eyes glance over as if she wanted to drive back down that road and confront him once more.
In about half an hour’s time we reached the top of the gap. Two peaks loomed high to each side of us: Sharp Top on the left, and then a smaller, less spectacular peak to the right. Straight ahead was a forest ranger’s station with an American flag flying high over it. Cars were parked out front. Visitors and tourists milled about, some just seeking a rest, others directions. Off to one side, a smaller building bore a sign that announced it was a gift shop, and some of these folks were heading there.
“Want to hike right up?” I asked, casting my glance back at the mountain. “Or do you want to go in the ranger station or gift shop first?”
She gave me a look, and then stared up at the peak. The sun had risen high and threatened to block our view of the mountaintop with its blinding glare. She nodded her head and flashed a determined grin. “Let’s hike up. Gift shops are for tourists.”
The hike was longer, and steeper, than I had imagined. The two hour hike time Helen had said must have been based on people who hiked it on a regular basis. For Summer and I, it took the better part of three hours and let me know I was out of shape. I’ve always considered myself as fit for my age, no fat hanging over my belly, and yet still a far cry from my teenage years when you could count every rib on my thin frame. But I hadn’t done much hiking. City life had ruined that for me. Half a lifetime of buses, taxis, and subway trains had not done much for my legs and ankles. And that’s where I felt it the worst. Summer fared better. Being an original country girl had its advantages. I guess you can’t take the country out of someone who grew up that way. Perhaps the same could be said for a city boy, but even as the pain played hell with my ankles I thought that I could get used to this and not miss a single high rise building or jackhammer tearing up the street.
“You okay?” Summer asked.
“Yeah. Just not used to hiking. This is a little different than walking up the steps to my building.”
She laughed. “I bet it is. Here, let’s stop a minute.” She sat down on a huge rock to the side of the trail and I sat down beside her, taking a breath. “The first hike of the season is always the hardest,” she said. “It gets easier.”
I nodded with a little grin. “I hope so.”
“We can go back if you want.”
“No way. I’m in this for the long haul.”
She winked. “That’s the spirit. Tell you what, wait right here. I’ll go find us some good hiking sticks.”
“Okay,” I agreed, still a bit winded, and watched her disappear into the woods in search of the hiker’s friend. Within a few minutes she returned with two sturdy lengths of wood, tree branches that had fallen off over time.
“These will do us good.” She tapped them both on the ground to show they were stout and wouldn’t break under our weight. She handed me the fatter one. “Here ya go. Ready?”
She leaned on her new staff and waited for me to rise from my rock seat, which had just begun to feel halfway comfortable. “I miss my desk job,” I muttered.
As she moved off to lead the way, I saw Summer smile and it made me smile, too. You didn’t get many moments like this in the city. Not just the hiking part, but the quiet simple moments. In the city, I would have felt I was wasting precious time doing this, but out here on the mountain trail with her, it felt liberating and free. Like I didn’t have a care in the world. Tomorrow and all its demands didn’t exist; just this moment and all its carefree possibilities.
“Wait,” I said, as I was just beginning to get into my hiker’s stride.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, a worried look on her face. She looked first at my ankles to see if I was hurting too bad, then at my face to try and detect the problem. The problem was she was too far away. So I covered the short ground between us and swooped her up in my arms. I spun her around full circle and then placed a gentle, yet full kiss upon her beautiful lips. She allowed me the moment, the kiss, and wrapped her arms about me, too. I don’t know how long I kissed her there on the steady slope of the trail, but when we parted, she looked at me with a curious smile. “And what was that for?”
I grinned. “Because.”
“Because why?” she teased.
“Because I felt like it.”
She giggled. “Well, how about you feel like it more often?”
“Will do,” I replied, and together hand in hand we hiked up the trail, the real reason I had kissed her going unspoken. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak it; I just didn’t know how or if she could even relate to how I felt when I was with her. I was nothing like the person I thought I was. I was irrevocably changed in her presence. The reserved, formal manner I previously had as a city dweller was gone, and replaced with a free spirit. Out here, I wasn’t confined to an office or apartment, no longer weighed down by the demands of others, or the hustle and bustle of getting from one place to another in the shortest amount of time. Here on the side of the mountain, Summer and I could take our time getting to where we wanted to be, not only on this physical hike, but emotionally as individuals. Here there were no demands, no expectations, no worries – just this exhilarating moment of true freedom and honest companionship.
After an hour had passed on the trail, it began to level off a little bit as we came into a small clearing where we could rest. We sat down in the dirt, and thanks to Summer’s clear thinking, she had thought to bring a bottle of water along. We both shared sip or two, and she sealed it back up, both of us wanting to conserve as much as possible.
“Well, here’s hoping we are halfway,” she said. “The bad news is when you have a spot like this where it levels off, it means the worse is getting ready to come. You still want to do it?”
“I’m a machine. Let’s do it.”
She laughed. “Okay, but you are going to be sore tonight when we get back to the house. I’m just warning you.”
“As long as I can still crawl up the porch steps I’ll be okay.”
“We could always sleep out in the orchard.”
For a moment the memory of us dancing among the trees to “Still Got The Blues” filled my head. The sweet recollection of how she felt in my arms as we spun into each other’s kiss threatened to make me grab her hand and rush us back down the mountain to Orchard House.
When I looked at her, I noticed she was smiling, her gaze fixed upon my face. “You are thinking of blues and making out too, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Yes I am.”
She got up from her place in the dirt and sat down on my lap. She wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear, “Someone please strike up the band.” And though no band struck up a tune, a song was steadily playing in my heart for this amazing, beautiful woman. Nothing or no one could stop me from being putty in her hands, ready to be shaped in whatever she wanted me to be. Of course, what she wanted me to be was myself, nothing no one else I had ever known had encouraged me to be. And for this reason I kissed her once more, and we melted away into the day, she sitting on my lap, with my arms enveloping her as if she were a butterfly and I the cocoon. Somehow the hike now seemed so unimportant.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.