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 www.sarahfoil.com: A Blog for Writers, for Readers, for Dog Lovers, for Coffee Drinkers.