by Dan Williams
Rods of light fan out through the clouds and illuminate a triangular swath of blue predawn. The Mustang convertible, top up, hums as it rushes alongside sparse shrubbery and cacti dotting the Wyoming flatlands, not yet visible on the right, hidden but there, and ghostly granite hills, their purple naked outlines gloomy in the distance.
“Let’s do that hike, out in Wyoming,” I had proposed to my daughter. “Let’s do that mountain we used to talk about. That one we saw when you were a kid.”
“Once your finals are over.”
Out there, beyond the interior of the car—it all seems ancient. The physical vastness and the depth of time’s passing convey the indifference that lies at the heart of our existence. And yet I don’t feel sadness over it. Perhaps sadness has exhausted itself, which would be a welcome outcome, given the divorce, the loss of my career, my financial collapse—with the hell I went through: yes, maybe all the sadness has drained out of me. Maybe that’s why the indifference I sense from the ancient out there is perfectly fine.
But in the car on our way to the trailhead I have marked on my Michelin map, we are on the other side of the spectrum from indifference. It’s been a long while since my daughter and I have hiked together.
Her eyes are closed, head leaning against the passenger-side window, her breathing steady, rhythmic, a quiet force pitted against the rushing air jetting through the window-cracks. The cool gusts keep me alert. Like magic and yet without fanfare a sliver of the golden-orange rim of the rising sun peeks over the horizon, and the hills and tumbleweeds and clusters of pines emerge as if they are revelations of another realm recognized deep within the genetic coding of my humanity. Three antelope hop and gallop away from the car towards crimson granite hills; across the road a jackrabbit shoots by, momentarily speared by headlights; an armada of deer with their heads craned to the ground take shape in the firing light of another day among millions and billions, god knows how many.
I peer over at her. She’s twenty but I see a little child. “Hey, Hannah, you’re going to miss the sunrise.” I poke her ribs. “Come on now, sweetheart.”
She slowly pushes herself upright, rams her lower back against the seat and rubs her face. “Almost there, Dad?”
“The whole thing got wrecked,” Hannah had said one Sunday afternoon, four years ago.
She was lying on the couch, Tolstoy’s novel of catastrophic infidelity, Anna Karenina, resting on her chest. It was assigned reading from her high-school literature course, entitled “Families in Literature.” Was she talking about the book, about the consequences of Anna’s passions, her recklessness, her violation of the Moral Order, or was she talking about us, our family? Was she indicting me?
“A lot of wreckage,” I said with deliberate vagueness.
We park three miles off the main road, in a desolate area with shrubs and rough greenery that fought their way out of the ancient ground, triumphing in the morning summer sun. We get out of the car and stretch.
“I want you to find the old buffalo trail, Hannah,” I say, as she reaches down to hoist up her backpack. “Runs along this creek.”
It isn’t hard to find because horses made their way along the mud-cracked trail, cutting a narrow snake-like crater into the earth, extending up from a scree into the naked hills. They hide their mysteries and give refuge to wild spirits. The trail is dotted with deer and antelope and coyote droppings. We climb without words, switchback upon switchback, two miles of steep switchbacks until we reach a plateau. I throw off my backpack and bend over, hands on my knees, head uplifted, the notches of my spine pushing against my wet shirt.
“Your dad’s getting old, Hannah.”
We push on, following the trail as it becomes narrower and steeper. It begins to wind around through thicker shrubbery as we head into a thicket of pines, spruce, birch, elms, a congregation of trees living timeless along the sides of the mountain. Deeper into the congregation. The angled rays of the sun are fragmented and disbursed by the interlocking limbs of the trees. The trail diminishes, giving way to the wilderness, until all we have to guide us are game trails, narrow paths, sometimes barely discernible, trampled ground sufficient for elk, deer, mountain goats, and other game.
Hannah gains distance on me but at every clearing, she cranes her neck to check on me. The path is narrow and dangerous, and I pretend I’m not afraid. The mountain hugs us on one side and on the other, a steep drop. My chest is tight, my breathing is high up in my throat, my legs feel heavy, my arms stiff at the shoulder joints. I worry my unreliable back will give out. I take each step with the intention of not falling, and that only increases the chances that I will slip, will lose my balance—and what then? If I allow myself to do what I have been doing since I was a toddler—which is to say, walk without being preoccupied by thoughts of saving myself from calamity—I’ll be fine. The trail is narrow, but not so narrow as to prevent normal walking. But I see the steep drop to my right and my mind veers towards death.
I wave to Hannah to signal my wellbeing and then hunker my shoulders and march on, breathing as best I can through my nose, the way I had taught Hannah to do when she was much younger. There was a time when she didn’t like hiking along game trails, didn’t like the rupture from civilization, didn’t like being immersed utterly into the wild. My heart gladdens as I ponder how that’s changed. She recently told me she is considering West Africa as her site for a study-abroad semester. “I want to be shocked,” she had said by way of explanation.
How things change.
The sun has risen powerfully in the wind-cleansed sky. It will get hotter, the hike tougher. Persevere now, I say to myself, put one foot in front of the other—continue under all circumstances, I was once advised—step gingerly, don’t slip. A misstep, a lapse in concentration, and the fall would be severe. I could die; she could die. To end it all on a slip, a loose rock— it seems arbitrary. Cruel, even. Cruel that God would allow that. Cruel that nowhere is it ordained that death ought not to happen in this fashion, a slip on a mountain trail. Cruel that the story could just as well end in that instant. And yet there is this persistent insistence on continuity, the insistence that one’s existence unfolds in some prefabricated way as if certain forms of death are acceptable and others are betrayals by a loving God.
I had become increasingly preoccupied with the notion of death since leaving the psychiatric ward, after having lost my career, my marriage, my condo, my furniture, my stuff.
And with that, my world shrinks within this vast Wyoming wilderness.
Hannah yells down to me again. “How’s it going, Dad?”
“Taking it slow, Hannah.”
“Perfect. It’s perfect.”
“Her husband’s taking it real hard,” she had said. “It’s killing him.”
Not exactly. Anna’s husband was a walking-dead person, and so was Anna, before she met the dashing Vronsky. Oh, sure, looked upon from a distance, the two were very much alive; but up close, where their inner lives could be discerned, they were dead. Tolstoy, at one affecting moment in the story, describes how the husband sees himself on a collapsing footbridge suspended above a chasm. Life is that chasm, Tolstoy suggests. So long as the footbridge is stable, we ignore the chasm and live within a dream that feels all-too-real, as all dreams do. But once the footbridge begins to give way—and it does for all of us, eventually—we wake up from our dream-life and peer into the chasm.
I will withhold my take on what’s happening between Anna and her husband. I will wait for this daughter of mine to finish the thought. Wait for her to say what needs to be said. I will imagine it’s something like, It hurt, what you did. It really hurt, Dad.
Eventually, we move onto flatter terrain. For a while, it is naked and parched, but then it transforms into another wooded region. There is a hushing whoosh of the trees. I watch her, some fifty yards ahead, walking towards the thickening trees, bewitched by how the forest absorbs her. I trot towards her and when it is my turn to be absorbed into the forest, I feel it as an embrace. Such a strange absorption, the forest sealing itself shut behind me.
We eat light at the summit, kale salad for Hannah, tuna wrap for me. It’s mid-afternoon, seven hours of hiking, much of it steep climbing, behind us, and if all goes well we’ll be back at the car by around 5:00 p.m. But that’s the future. Right now, we are up high and the expanse is ennobling in its awesomeness. Wisps of clouds can be seen in the distance but above us is a sun-blazing blue sky. It’s hot. Since we’re above the tree line, there’s no shade, and thus no incentive to linger up here and celebrate ourselves for making the climb. Besides, to celebrate ourselves would only shrink the experience; it would only bring us back into the smallness of our egoic existence and thus preclude that precious feeling of spaciousness that comes around far too infrequently.
Two hawks are at eye level to us, about twenty yards away; they glide in an oval pattern, circling over the land below from whence we came, with outstretched wings that paint invisible strokes on the canvas of the sky. I point and Hannah gives the thumbs-up.
A few minutes later I swivel around and pull the map out of my backpack. I glance at it to confirm our path down: our hike forms a loop and, thankfully, we’ve done the majority of it already. I’m banking on the fact that we’ll reach the car in a few hours.
Another hiker is here with us. A serious photographer, armed with a tripod. His camera is set to a timer so that he can produce a panoramic time-lapse video. This moment digitalized, and thus owned—so it is believed. Once the urge to take photos to document the experience dominates the mind, or once a fantasy of having a home with large windows built on a summit like this free-floats in the imagination, the contact with the universe is severed. You are thrown back into the smallness of egoic existence, no matter how grand the fantasy or how many “Likes” one’s photos garner on Facebook. You have, as it were, thrown a blanket over the divinity within.
For Hannah and me, the view of it all is right here, right now. We’ll take our photos, for sure. We’ll even post them on Facebook and notice the “Likes.” But no set of photos or videos can divest this moment of a certain harsh reality—that it will vanish and the whole of it, at best, will take on a dream-like quality. Hannah and I will take the vanishing moment over the digitalized “permanence” of the video panorama. We’ll settle on the memory, even though there’s no telling what the quality of it will be years from now.
Hmm. What will she remember, when I’m gone?
She turned to look at me.
“I saw it,” she said.
“In Mommy’s computer. I know everything.”
It wasn’t lost on me that my cosmopolitan high-school daughter, with all her panache, was referring to her mother as Mommy. She wanted to rewind her life. “You mean the . . . .”
“You wanted to kill yourself. I know that.”
“Go ahead, Hannah, go ahead and tell me what you need to tell me.”
“I don’t want to tell you. I just know everything.”
“No, I don’t mean tell me what you learned from Mommy’s computer or from anywhere else. What I mean is, tell me what you need to tell me.”
She knows what I mean but she plays dumb. “You must have had a lot of feelings about what I did and what I went through when you read all that stuff.”
“I hate you,” she says flatly as if she’s telling me nothing more significant than she’s hungry and asking me when dinner is going to be ready. “I hate what you did.”
“Yes.” That’s all I say.
It comes out as an explosion. “I hate you!”
She curled up and I reached over for my guitar. Not because I intended to play something, but because I needed something to lean against, something to buffer me against the spewing pain. I peaked at a wooden statuette of a meditator resting on a table on the far side of the room. It had brought me peace many times.
“It’s pretty awful to hate someone you love,” I whispered. Especially someone you’re supposed to love.”
She stayed curled up. She twitched slightly. “I don’t really hate you, but you know what I mean.”
She was backtracking and I really didn’t want her to. That’s no solution—having a feeling and then trying to sequester it because the feeling isn’t supposed to happen.
“No, Hannah, you do feel hate. Well, anger, let’s put it that way. I’d felt that way, too, towards myself. For a long time. And if my dad had done what I did, I’d be feeling a lot of anger and I’d hate him for it. Thing is, I didn’t let the anger and hatred I felt towards myself to come out, which is partly what got me into that psych ward.”
“But I love you, Dad.”
“That’s what I mean. You think you’re not allowed to hate me because you also love me. I just want you to know that you’re allowed to be angry. You can have both feelings at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with you having both feelings at the same time.”
I wasn’t sure she was getting what I was saying. But maybe she did, because she unfurled herself and nodded. She said she’s feeling better. She sniffled and pulled her collar over her chin and wiped her nose.
“Anna didn’t like what she was feeling,” she said.
I smiled, moved towards her and squeezed her knee.
“We don’t need to talk about the book right now.”
“I was mad at her, but the other kids in my class weren’t at all.”
“You know what,” I said back, in an upbeat tone, “there was a time when I was mad at her, too.”
We reach the end, or what we think is the end, with wobbly legs. We stopped only once on our way down, at a spot we couldn’t resist: mini-waterfall feeding a happy stream that cuts deeper and deeper into the craggy gorge, with chaotic growth covering a cool forest floor. We breathed in the mist from the waterfall and with our fingertips and palms felt the furry moss that carpeted the ground. Then we hoisted our packs onto our backs and forged ahead, confident we’d soon be showering and then eating dinner at the cowboy town we’re staying in.
As we emerge from the forest with the trail spilling out onto a gravel road, confusion hit. Gravel road? Hmmm. I didn’t recall a gravel road. The trail loop, from what I recalled the map indicating, opened up into a wild-flower meadow, with the car parked at its outer edge. The meadow is familiar to us because we had glimpsed it some ten-plus hours earlier when we started off on this hike.
“Where’s the car, Dad?” Hannah says. “This isn’t where we were this morning.” I tell her that’s true. I figure we must have broken off of the trail that formed the loop we intended to hike. Hannah frees herself from her pack. “Dad, we made a mistake.”
“Mistake?” I look at her and smile. “No. We hiked down a trail we didn’t intend on hiking.”
“So, it was a mistake. We screwed up coming down from the summit.”
I pull out the map and find our so-called mistake. We had branched off the intended trail and descended an entirely different face of the mountain.
“All right, so we took the path on the right and here we are. Says here on the map we go that way on this road.” I gesture towards the left, the direction we’d be walking. I look again at the map to assess the distance, and the news is dispiriting. I don’t relish the prospect of walking several miles on a gravel road, just to get to the main road, where we’d still be about a dozen miles from the car, by my rough approximation. I am reluctant to tell Hannah this, but she asks and so I tell her.
“This sucks,” she says.
It’s a blessed sound—the rumbling sound of a motor and wheels crunching gravel. We both turn and scoot over to the side of the gravel road. We stare at the approaching vehicle with solemn faces, with beggar faces. I put out my thumb. The good news: it stops when it reaches us. It is a large Ford SUV, blue-black with a patina of silvery dust. The driver and the passenger behind him lower their windows. The bad news: it is fully occupied, with five people and a large dog, a sad-faced Labrador. There wouldn’t be room for either me or Hannah, let alone both of us. I want to drop to my knees.
“You guys look beat,” the driver says.
“Long hike,” I reply.
I tell him our situation and he invites us to hop on.
“Hop on?” I ask. Did he mean sit on someone’s lap?
“Sure, if you’d like a ride.” the driver answers. “Y’all can walk if you want. Up to you.” He is a bearded late thirty-ish white guy, rugged looking with gray eyes and a friendly smile. “It won’t be comfortable, but the two of you can stand on the platform and hold onto the roof-rack.” He points downward, at a narrow strip that runs along the side of the SUV. He then points up towards the roof. “You can throw your backpacks up there. I’ll take it slow so you won’t fall off. Well, actually,” he adds with a smile, “I’ll take it slow so that if you do fall off, it won’t be so bad.”
“Hell yeah we’ll hop on,” Hannah says.
Hannah situates herself on the driver’s side and I stand on the narrow strip on the other. We can see each other over the roof. The front-seat passenger, a youthful white-haired woman in her sixties with dangling turquoise earrings, lowers the window and says hello. “The two of you look like supertramps,” she says.
“Hey, Hannah,” I yell across the roof of the SUV. “Lady here says we’re supertramps.”
“What’s that?” Hannah yells back.
“We’re vagabonds with panache—that’s what it means.”
We reach the main road and hop off and thank the driver for the lift. The SUV quickly disappears around a bend. A feeling of abandonment washes over me. A place so teeming with life now seems empty. I reach over and put my arm around Hannah. She kisses me on the cheek.
My arms and shoulders ache from holding on so tightly to the roof rack. The two-lane road, black and silent, dominate my attention. We cross over to the other side and sit cross-legged on the gravel road-shoulder, leaning against our backpacks. Nightfall is now a distinct threat to us.
“Now what?” Hannah says. “You said it’s like a dozen miles to the car from here.”
“Probably more, actually.” The gravel road veered away from our destination, I realized as we were hanging onto the roof-rack with tired arms. The car is probably twice as far as I had roughly calculated.
“We’re not walking all that way. That’s too far.”
“No, we’re not,” I assure her.
Hannah wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and wrinkles her brow. “Okay,” she says tentatively.
We sit in silence for several minutes, worry-eyed.
“We’ve hitchhiked before,” I say.
“Yeah, but not like this. Not in the dark.”
“It’s like we’re waiting for Godot,” I say.
“Becket, Hannah. Waiting For Godot. The play.”
“Heard of it. Never read it,” she says.
I scrape the gravel with the heel of my boot.
“You can’t help yourself, can you?” she says cheerily.
“What do you mean?”
“The literary references. You can’t help making them.”
That’s how I play the game,” I say sarcastically.
Hannah nods. She had told me recently that she appreciates those times when I preached about life being a game and not to be taken too seriously. She had said it helps to remember that when she’s stressed at school. But she had also said this: “It’s hard to see it as a game when you’re trying to decide on a major and on a career and when it’s all in front of you.” That’s true, I told her. Unless you’re fortunate to rise from the ashes of an egoic death, unless you’re then hit with Grace, it remains hard to see it as a game even when you’re in middle age or beyond.
“I’m still figuring out my game,” she says.
“Let it happen.” I figure she knows what I mean. I’d often talk about the futility of trying to force that sort of thing.
We go quiet again. Long minutes go by and not a single vehicle appeared. The black road begins to look menacing. I scrape more gravel with my boot and Hannah does the same. A little mound of gravel forms between our boots. We smile wanly at each other. Then Hannah asks me about a song that had played in the car this morning, all those hours ago. “There was a woman singing No Expectations. Who was that?”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“The one singing. She’s a singer from the Sixties. She was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend. She was active in antiwar activities. Come on, you don’t know Joan Baez?”
Hannah ignores the last remark. “Good version of the song,” she says. “Different feel than the Stones’ version, with the woman’s voice and all.”
“Sweeter and sadder, maybe. Less bite to it.”
“Bitterness,” Hannah adds. “The Stones’ version is more bitter. The one this morning didn’t have that.”
“Sadness without bitterness.” I scrape the gravel some more with my boot heel, adding more heft to the mound. “You’re right about that. I never much cared for Joan Baez’s version before, but I enjoyed it this morning.”
“Remember how you used to play that song on the guitar and sing it to me when I was little?”
“My favorite was Moonlight Mile. You liked to sing that when I couldn’t fall asleep.”
I begin to sing it and Hannah gently joins in.
“Oh I am sleeping under strange, strange skies / And I’m just about a moonlight mile / on down the road.”
Hannah suddenly stops singing. “Hey, dad,” she says as if the song had spooked her.
“What if no one stops? What if no one picks us up and it gets dark, like pitch-black dark?”
I nod to acknowledge that possibility.
“Faith. We’re going on faith. We got no choice.”