memory

I knew we were on the wrong trail. We should have been climbing slightly and we should have been heading into the heart of the burn instead of skirting the edge of it. I looked back at my friend and sped up, wanting to reach the trailhead I was sure we were going to arrive at shortly only so that we could inevitably backtrack to the junction we had mistaken for another. A truck came into view, parked in the trailhead lot shining and strangely modern in such a wild place. I walked all the way up to it; it seemed like a novel concept beside the liberation of being completely detached from civilization. Sighing, I turned and began jogging back to her, hoping to save her some steps. A quarter mile later we were heading back the way we had come, exasperated with ourselves for misreading the trail. As we trekked up to the small wooden sign that had been obscured by the thick tree trunk it rested on, I laughed. It was so obvious now. After checking and double checking our map, we set out again, confident that we were back on the right track. Our chosen path was confirmed as we immediately began to see evidence of the wildfire that had ripped through the area just four years before. On the outskirts of the blaze, you could only see signs of it if you looked. Fallen trees looked like pale bones jutting out of the earth. Many still standing were nothing but silver, shimmering trunks with twisted branches. Thick brush concealed most of the debris littering the ground, birds warbled, insects whirred, all signs of a forest regaining its ground. The miles came easy at first. The scorched earth was soft and sandy, the temperature was mild, and we were busy snapping photos of this alien forest, all blue bird sky with puffy cotton clouds, shades of brown, white, and obsidian alongside shocks of green. But as the miles wore on and we headed into the core of where the inferno had raged, the trees became sparser, the brush thinned until it was nothing but little meager tufts pressing out of the dusty soil. The trees looked like charred husks with elegantly warped branches stabbing the sky. Some leaned at odd angles refusing to fall; lanky silvery white trunks marred with deepest black. With each step the ground exhaled wisps of forlorn ash, the cremated remains of thousands of trees and life. The trail disappeared. It became nothing more than sooty rubble; indistinguishable from the rest of our surroundings. I pressed my eyes closed and opened them again searching for a trail, scanning for the telltale contours of a well-worn path, but finding nothing. We were forced to follow a group of footprints in the hillside; these were now our map. The trees were just ghostly white pillars, their branches curled like clawed fingers. Pausing to take in the large expanse of devastation before me, a flicker of violet drew my eye and I knelt to inspect a sprig of pale green leaves and the delicate purple blooms of a lupine, gently touching the pouch-like petals of the flowers. “What are you doing in a place like this?” I whispered to my old friend. I let the flower drop from my hand and it swayed tenaciously in the breeze. I stood, giving it one last long look as I resumed my steady gait, following the foot prints of an unknown hiker. Taking in the panorama, I realized that the purple of the lupines dotted the otherwise barren expanse, looking like gems against the porcelain tree trunks like fallen crosses on the hillside. Just as my eyes had adjusted to the world devoid of color, a shrub of crimson buds, a round bush of yellow blossoms, and wildflowers all around began rising hopefully out of the blackened terrain, reaching for the sunlight, brightening the landscape. Resting on a stump, I thought about the strength of these flowers to overcome these bleak and devastating surroundings, empty of life, stunningly silent. The former liveliness of the forest, filled with bird song and insects buzzing, had been snuffed out, as if the land was holding a breath just to play at life. The wildfire that claimed this place must have been a force to behold. The mountain was imposing in the distance. Blocking out the sky imperiously; steel gray stone dotted by snow, it was an omnipotent presence that made me shiver. Shadowy clouds had rolled in, heavy with rain and as I looked ahead I realized that if the heavens opened up and unleashed a downpour, we were going to have a problem. The powdery trail of footprints we were following would be washed away in minutes, leaving us stranded in this desolate landscape. I gazed up at the mountain, mocking in its resolute existence and felt a keen stab of mortality and insignificance. The last of the sun’s rays winked out and with that a rift began to open in my heart. A rift filled with fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness. Would we ever get out? Would we ever be found? Panic began to rise and my heart fluttered. I was thirsty. When had I gotten so thirsty? I stopped to drink some water we had taken from a stream that morning, gulping it desperately as if trying to quench the blooming flame of my fear, squash it to embers, and snuff it out. The water seemed pointless and I shoved it brusquely back into my pack, as if it were the cause of my suffering. I rose from my resting place, my eyes downcast with sudden and unexplained sorrow taking root beside the fear. I spotted another subtle lupine and smiled at its boldness. It wasn’t afraid of this dark forest marked by tragedy. Nothing this dark forest had would quell its thirst for life. I took a deep breath and pulling whatever strength I could up from the depths, I trudged on, wondering how the gripping terror I had felt moments before had taken root in me. I was not the sort to panic. As the clouds began to boil, looking murderous and threatening, a dull ache began to spread through my feet; the toll of thousands of footsteps in sand. The miles slowed and the clouds did not abate but gathered in dark hordes, continuing to menace as they stole all the remaining snatches of promising blue from the sky. When the thunder rolled through the hills like an explosion, my eyes widened and the rift in my heart grew to a chasm. How did the Pole Creek wildfire start, I wondered? The fear began spreading through my body like icy tendrils, whispering of sullen despair. With a deep shuddering breath, I took in the rolling hills; a forest of phantoms as far as the eye could see. This was hopeless. We would never leave this place. The melancholy unease enveloped me like a shroud. Just as the feeling of bleakness threatened to overwhelm, a solitary purple lupine came into view, growing out of a pile of debris and something inside me pushed back against the sorrow and wrenched me from its grasp. This seemingly inconsequential flower persisted through total destruction. This haunting place had not stolen its joy or hope. I lurched into motion moving forward robotically, trying to force my mind to take control, to be logical, and unbound to emotion as it normally was. The miles stretched on. I lumbered arduously up hills, the weight of my pack digging into my shoulders. I reached the crest only to find miles of waste waiting for me every time. The pit in my heart darkened when the sky began to spit rain in spurts, as if toying with my imagination and forcing a sense of doom alongside a constant glimmer of hope. My mind whirled with melancholy, on a revolution of uncertainty and funereal thoughts. Every now and again, like an oasis in the desert, hope pushed back, keeping whatever madness threatened to take hold at bay long enough for just a few more steps. We reached an icy cold creek, something that had brought us joy each time it had happened but somehow seemed more like a pointless consolation this time. As if we were only staving off the inevitably terrible fate that was going to befall us. We barely spoke as we filtered water and soaked our throbbing feet in the freezing flow of effervescent silver. A clump of sunny yellow flowers grew on the bank next to a singed log and I sighed with a mixture of sadness and admiration at the hopefulness of their stoic stems stretching towards the rapidly darkening sky, its cheerfulness was a taunt to the storm, a jeer to the fire that had burned everything to ash, the haunting invisible ghosts that grasped at all life that had entered since. The sight of this resilient clump of willful buds slowly started filling the black hole of desperation that had been rent open inside me with unyielding light. Maybe we would make it out of the burn before night fell. As we set out once more, we shared a cautiously hopeful smile but it didn’t take long for the miles to catch up to us again. The path of footprints we followed became rockier, causing us to have to pick our way more carefully. At times it skirted the edge of the serenely untouched parts of the forest; the tall healthy trees were lush green. Here, the charred trees emanated resentment. I began to wonder if this place had felt this malevolent before the burn or if the abyss in my heart was the land’s manifestation of anger at the senseless loss of life caused by the blaze. A cluster of colorful wildflowers, red, yellow, purple, stood courageously beside the path. They reached for the beauty of the sky and the perfection of the unmarred forest and were somehow infinitely more beautiful in this stark landscape. Taking a deep breath and pulling on their strength, we pushed forward, somehow willing our feet to continue moving. We didn’t need to say it but we both knew that there was no way we could stay in this place over night. If this was what it was like in daylight, then I didn’t want to know what sort of nightmares it harbored in the dead of night. The wind had started howling up the wooded steep, the raspy croon of it sounded like dry bones, like a desperate scream, an otherworldly howl, and it made a foreboding dread crawl across my skin, standing all my hair on end, making me tingle. When at last we saw the lake and the clear line of verdant forest, marking the edge of the devastation of the burn, I didn’t trust it and even as we approached, I didn’t dare to hope that there may be a different existence than the one we had been living for the entire day. I approached the divide, senselessly mistrusting, as if the ghouls of the burn were trying to keep me there for just a little longer. I narrowed my eyes suspiciously at the wall of green barely visible through the dimming dusk light, approaching hesitantly. The scorched earth behind me seemed to whisper unnervingly in the wind, the alien dreamscape we had entered that morning had become a never-ending night terror that even as we cautiously approached the line of green, unmarred woods, I did not believe we would escape. But as we crossed over, the forest came alive with sound and life as if we had walked out of a church and into a crowded street. Relief flooded my body. I breathed in huge gulps of cool air and felt as if a menacing shroud was lifted from my heart, the icy cold coils of despair and fear releasing their hold and shrinking back into the black forest. The burn’s spell was lifting, cast by whatever dark forces dwelled there in their anguish. Had we ever been in danger or simply in the grips of the forest’s memory? Wisps of the wildflowers swirled through my head as if in farewell.

 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Rita says:

    Great descriptive essay. I could feel the wind, the fear, the sore feet and the relief of seeing verdant forests again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rrequa says:

    Loved it

    Sent from my iPad Rrequa@comcast.net

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Sudmeier says:

    Is there a “wrong trail?” I was struck by your description of life and beauty in an apparent wasteland…sounded to me like the trail was worth taking. You have a keen eye for the little things that define a landscape.

    Liked by 1 person

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