Such Great Heights

By Sarah Foil


We arrived at our campsite shortly before the park closed their gates at 10 pm. After an afternoon by the river, drinking beer, eating pizza and enjoying the sun, we were warm and dazed. Daniel helped me set up the tent and air mattress at the campsite, right next to our friends. Once finished, I had assumed we’d spend the evening the way I spent most nights when I camped: drinking wine, roasting marshmallows, and chatting about nothing in particular. Instead, my campmates were packing their backpacks and lacing their boots.

     “You guys ready?” Eric asked. He strapped a headlamp to his forehead. He was a more prepared camper than Daniel and me. He had the gas lamp, multiple flashlights, an overhead tarp for the picnic table, and an air mattress that apparently could inflate on its own in less than a minute. We had brought bathing suits and a cooler filled with boxed wine and Blue Moon.

     “For what?” I asked.

     “Our midnight hike,” Sam said. She’d just taken a shower in the communal bathrooms and smelled like flowers; I’d taken a shower before we’d left home that afternoon and smelled like bug spray.

     “Are we allowed to hike after the park closes?” I asked.

     “Probably not,” Daniel said. “But it sounds like fun."

     “We do this every year,” Eric said. “We’ll hike up to the top the mountain. We’re already halfway up.”

     “But it’s pitch black outside,” I said.

     “It’s totally worth it,” Sam said. “Trust me.”

     Anxiety twisted in my stomach but Daniel was already padding his pockets with water bottles and snacks. Eric tossed me a headlamp, and we followed him and Sam up to the trail.

     I moseyed in back of the group, focusing on my feet shambling up the uneven rocks, mindful of the long crooked twigs poking up from the bed of leaves. Ahead of me the trail wound, switchback after switchback, as we climbed higher. The moon hid behind the clouds and the towering tree canopy blocked residual light from reaching our trail. Anything past the light of our flashlights was lost in abysmal blackness.

     I’d hiked this trail many times before, but it looked sinister without the sunlight, the crowd of hikers and bird songs.

"It wasn’t gone. I knew that. It was lurking somewhere behind, along with hundreds of his little friends, just waiting to bite."

The first portion of the hike went quickly. We talked and laughed. Soon I forget about the looming nothingness on all sides of me and the scurrying insects and arachnids that would, no doubt, climb up my leg if I slowed my pace.

     Eric was in the middle of telling a story about his parents when an unfamiliar noise interrupted us, almost like a vibration or cicada hum.  Every beam from our headlamps and flashlights swung down to the forest floor. What looked like a shabby piece of dark brown cord slithered around the rocks beneath us.

     Eric yelled, “Rattlesnake!”

     I shrieked and leaped nearly a foot back, then cowered behind Daniel. I could hear my heart thudding in my head. My legs shook.

     The snake jostled its tail a final time before it slid off the trail and out of sight.

     “Can we go? I want to go.” I said to no one in particular.

     “You can go if you want,” Sam said. She looked calm in the flashlight’s glow, but her voice quivered. “I won’t blame you.”

     “That’s never happened before,” Eric said. He gave a dry laugh. “That was crazy.”

     “Do you really want to leave?” Daniel asked me, quietly. “We’re almost there.”

     Sam made a face, which said that that wasn’t completely true.

     “I want to go back,” I said.

     “I’ll go with you if you want, but I really want to get to the top,” Daniel said. “The snake’s gone now, anyway. It’s okay.”

     It wasn’t gone. I knew that. It was lurking somewhere behind, along with hundreds of his little friends, just waiting to bite. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen a live snake but this was the first time I’d seen one outside of a zoo.

     “You should stay,” Sam said. “I’ve never seen a snake on this trail before. It’s just a freak accident.”

     “Really?” I asked.

     “First time,” Eric reassured me.

     “Let’s go,” Daniel said. He rested a hand on my back. “I’ll stay back here with you and hold the light at your feet.”

     I hesitated because I was trying to decide if it would be better to continue up the trail or head back to the camp and sit there all alone. Also, I still couldn’t feel my legs. However, I didn’t want to ruin the fun for everyone else and risk missing out on the rest of the trip, so I’d go on, but it would be slowly. Carefully.

     “If we see another snake, I’m leaving."

     We continued. Step by step. Daniel kept his flashlight trained on my feet, while Sam and Eric attempted to keep the conversation distracting and snake-anecdote free, but I remained on edge. Each twig and stick was now a potential enemy. The spiders and centipedes crawling over my feet weren’t the only concerns anymore.

     Occasionally, Daniel lifted his flashlight to scan the surrounding trees. Each time he did, I panicked and insisted he keep the flashlight pointed at the ground. That’s where the danger slithered from. He huffed in frustration but kept the light low. I’m sure he was looking for coyotes or bears or something more terrifying than a snake, but that didn’t matter to me at the moment.

     We inched up the path, which got steeper and ever more treacherous as we climbed. Time passed and my breathing grew heavy from climbing the cut rock that made up the man-made stairs while I suspiciously eyed any and everything that moved. Eventually, the trees gave way to open air and cold wind. The sky appeared above us from the canopy, although it was still too cloudy to see the stars or moon.

     The old fire watch tower grew up out of the center of the landing, chipping brick and rusting metal. It was a short climb to the top of the tower, but once we conquered the stairs, it felt like we were in another world.

     The mountain pass spread out wide before us. We could follow the lights down roads that led back to our homes almost an hour away. We found the powerplant, the city I worked in, the warehouse by my in-law’s home. In the distance we saw bolts of lightning, which looked more like sparkling splinters than formidable forces of nature.

     In fact, everything was small here. The trees were small. The snakes were small. I was small.

     And just at that moment, standing there amongst friends high atop the mountain, while taking in the view of the sleeping, miniature world below,  I was unafraid.

Sarah Foil is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. You can follow her at A Blog for Writers, for Readers, for Dog Lovers, for Coffee Drinkers.

One Rock at a Time

by Heather Lynn Horvat


When my husband and I moved to Arizona several years ago, he suggested we hike the Grand Canyon. I laughed. "Experience that without me," I said. I wasn't an outdoors person.

As a teen living in central Pennsylvania, I had dabbled in the outdoors, mostly as a means to escape adult eyes. Once, I hiked near a dam in the woods and black snakes slithered across the trail so the ground itself looked like black ocean waves. My boyfriend carried me on his back. I heard the squeak of a tree branch bending and opened my eyes to see a snake dangling above me. There were so many snakes that day that I still question if it was a bad dream. Nightmare or reality, the memory lingered and I stopped seeking nature.

About a year ago, the panic attacks started. Somehow I had become fearful of more than just nature. I now feared crowds, but also feared being alone. I feared my own Self, and the fear paralyzed me. I refused to admit to anyone that I needed help. The attacks worsened in severity and intensity. I stopped writing. Or, the words stopped coming.

"You need to get out of your head," my husband said. "Make new friends. Find a new hobby."

2018 began the year of new: new friends, new freelance work, new hairdresser, new workout routines. I went on a girls' weekend to Vegas barely knowing the girls but embracing the opportunity that presented itself. The freelance work I submitted earned praise and a check. My body boasted muscle definition in places I didn't know could be toned. On the outside, I looked like I had my shit together.

Since my husband is an outdoors person, I agreed to go on a short hike with him to Wave Cave. Like the name implies, there is a cave with a jutting rock in the shape of a large surf wave. A touristy destination per Google and rated at moderate difficulty, I figured it wouldn't be as bad as Camelback, the mountain that left me with three scarred gashes on my left knee two years ago.

Arizona hiking is much different than Pennsylvania hiking. Here, the desert mountains are rocky at best, boulderous with little shade and breathtaking views at high elevations. Wave Cave possessed all the qualities of desert: gravelly, gradual incline to lull you into mental safety until the final elevation gain that's steep enough to make you wonder why you agreed to this.

Finding my footing in the rocks, my thighs screamed while I thought, What the hell I am doing? My husband didn't ask if we should turn around; I'm sure he knew that I might have said yes.

Once we reached the cave and I heaved, trying to catch my breath, I looked back from where we came. The trail was obscure between the jutting rocks and boulders. The desert beyond was serene. Houses and cityscape were further away and didn't seem as claustrophobic as it sometimes feels when you live in a cookie-cutter neighborhood. For the first time in a long time I could breathe.

Ten people shared the cave space with us. I kept to myself huddled against the back wall and ate a snack. A woman about my age, but more fit, more hiker ready, posed on the wave while her partner snapped pictures with his phone. Her laugh made me want to laugh.

When it was my turn to pose on the wave, she offered to take our picture. No judgment in her eyes that I didn't belong, because at this moment, on top of this section of mountain, everyone belonged.

It could've been hunger and thirst or aching muscles, but I felt a euphoric rush.

"Will you hike again?" My husband asked.

I've completed eight hikes since Wave Cave, some of them without my husband. As soon as I finish one, whether three miles or seven miles, rocky or boulder hopping, I begin planning the next. The panic attacks haven't stopped completely, but words are coming back to me.

Heather Lynn Horvat is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently freelances while writing her next novel. 

The Zen Curmudgeon

by Zak Podmore

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All day he walks ahead of me, his body lithe and his feet sure as he skirts the canyon’s edge. At times juniper branches grab onto my pack, but they never seem to touch his. After five decades in the desert, his bag is as much a part of him as the top of his head or the width of his shoulders.

Anywhere that can be hiked in a day is merely training, he tells me; anywhere that can be reached by a trail is for the tourists. The goal is to find a place where you can ask this question: How many centuries have passed since someone else stood here?

This landscape is alive with ancient traces--pictographs, cliff dwellings, arrowheads. He points to a crack running down a boulder like a lightning bolt and says, there’s a painted pot in there.

I believe him. He is seventy-one. Together we’ve lived exactly one hundred years.

The first day we hike for nine hours straight and in that time he never stops talking. Wild, ranging conversations and soliloquies and rants. He speaks of his past, local politics, the battles for Utah wilderness. He reads the fortune of our doomed town and our doomed state and our doomed planet, and explains that nothing is ever truly doomed. Tales flow from the years he has spent camping and hiking alone. Snooping, he calls it.

Again and again he takes a stand--controversial, untenable--and holds it against all my objections until I relent and he is free to walk out the line of his own reasoning. He then lets his argument guide him in a great arcing loop until everything he’d first claimed is knocked on its side. When he finally returns to where he started, he is holding some new view with as much conviction as the first. In the morning I pointed this out, but I soon realized to talk oneself in circles was exercise. Koans stretched across miles of slickrock. The point of a walk is to return to your door transformed, not hardened in your habits.

In nine hours, we pause only to down a fistful of peanuts and to refill our water jugs in a hidden spring.

He was once a poet and he recites lines to the moment. Upon crossing an ATV track and seeing the melted hunks of bottles and cans in an old campfire it is Richard Shelton:

This is the desert

It is all we have left to destroy

Years ago, he walked away from career after career to come here and walk. And eventually he left a marriage in the city to live closer to the canyons. The daughters he helped raise will hardly talk to him anymore. Now it’s feet to the ground every day.

What can the old hope for? he asks, quoting a question once posed to an Australian aboriginal elder. Strong legs, the man had answered.

Then he recites a few lines he wrote thirty years before:

I am learning to be an old man

It is slow work

I am taking my time

Every winter, he goes south to spend months among the saguaros, and he hikes both sides of the border fence. Once he came across two bales of marijuana laying in the American cactus--packed into tight green blocks and dropped on the run. He buried them for later.

This year he found a skull, a human skull, clean and white as paper in the moonlight. Two dark caverns of eye sockets guarded a little shade where a man’s memories once rode. Teeth lined the jaw. There were no ribs or femurs or vertebrae, just the skull. The ranger he notified told him this was not the thirst-driven death of a migrant; this was a message, a marking of territory. Like a dog pissing on a telephone pole. He shows me a picture on his phone.

In nine hours, his pace never slows, but as the winter light sinks into the afternoon rock, I notice how his boots began to scrape across ledges as we move uphill. It is as if he has to pause for them to catch up as one might pause for an old hound scrambling up a steep slope behind.

We walk through the sunset while he searches for the perfect campsite. He wants it to face east toward the rising sun. He insists it have a sandstone wall so he can wake up in his sleeping bag and lean against the wall while he drinks coffee in the first warm light. We never find the right spot. He worries we’ll run out of water tomorrow.

There are more days like this, but a week later, I’m in the canyons alone. I return and find the painted pot tucked in its hiding place. It is a seed jar, orange with red paint, and it’s at least eight hundred years old. I think of the thousands of artifacts that have already disappeared from this mesa. I sense the destruction creeping across the land even as I crouch in the quiet sunlight before the patient pot.

Leaving the jar where it belongs, I sit with a notebook. Koans, desert, doomed. Pen touches page and twenty words pour out for my friend with the strong legs:

Still walking ahead

The zen curmudgeon

Offers slickrock syllogisms

To the fading light--

We're fucked, he says,

Isn't it beautiful?