So it’s been a while since I last posted anything because I’ve been really grinding through my second novel. It’s going to be a lot longer than my first since my first novel was more of a learning experience for me. I had never written a full novel before so I set out to teach myself how to write a novel by just doing it. So I kept my first novel pretty short and simple. Really it could be categorized as a novella, even though I hate that distinction. But this second one is going to be about three times longer than my first, maybe more. I’m putting a lot more into it in terms of themes and symbolism as well as characters and plot. I wanted to write something that would speak for and to the people of my generation known as Millennials. I wanted to write something like the Millennial The Sun Also Rises. Something that would come to define our generation but from someone actually of our generation. And I wanted to write about the real life of Millennials, not smart phones or social media, but about our existential dread and our stolen future and all our complexities. I want Millennials to read it and feel something familiar and I want older generations to read it and realize we aren’t all a bunch technology obsessed narcissistic adult children. We have real stress and fears and horrors that are unique to our own generation that a lot of other people don’t understand. Anyway, I’ve taken a short break on that and wrote this short story based on a recent backpacking trip I took. I hope you like it.
Sleeping bag. Food and cookset. Toiletries, rain gear, and water filter. I was shoving things into my pack so quickly I didn’t have any time to properly organize or position them inside. I just stuffed gear in as fast as I could. I couldn’t smell the creek anymore. You know when you are near a creek and you can smell it? Like an oncoming rain through the trees? It was masked by the smoke and I couldn’t hear it either. I was starting to get worried.
Cameron was still packing up his tent as fast as he could. It was bigger than mine so it took him a little longer. I dropped my bag and ran over and grabbed the rain fly and helped him fold it up and shove it in the stuff sack. Tim had his pack on and helped me with mine. Cameron loaded up and we checked to make sure we had everything when we all heard a long snap and crash in the distance behind us.
“The bridge,” I said, looking up the trail, “We should go. Now.”
One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. Left right left right left right left right. We hiked as fast as we could up the trail and away from the river valley, stepping on crunchy leaves along the rutted path. The fire had managed to cross over the trickling river from dead brush passing along dry paths that reached from shore to shore. It was a small river to begin with but the lack of rains had turned it into little more than runoff. After a mile we came upon a crossroad in the trail. Smoke poured along the ground around our ankles.
“Which way?” asked Cameron.
“We go right. Going left would take us deeper in and away from the trailhead.”
“Is there any kind of shortcut?” Tim was looking down the path behind us. It was getting hotter.
“Yeah,” I pulled the map from my pocket, tracing my finger along the trails leading to our car, “we can take this trail that cuts along this ridge. It shortens the distance but it’s all uphill. Pretty rough uphill too.”
“Do you think it will slow us down enough to make it worth it to take the longer path?” asked Cameron.
“No, I don’t think so. It’s a lot shorter and as long as the path is clear we should get out in a couple hours. No more than four. The longer path around could take twice as long.”
“We should go. Look.” Tim pointed back the way we came at a rolling cloud of thick black smoke. The fire had reached the trail from our campsite.
“Go,” I managed to get out between coughs.
As we crossed over the first little streambed that fed the river I dunked a bandana in what little water I could find and wrapped it around my mouth and nose. I cupped some water over the back of my neck and onto my face as Tim and Cameron did the same with spare T-shirts. Smoke was carrying up the mountain along the trails and creek beds so that even away from the fire we were in trouble. We hiked on.
After an hour of labored hiking we reached another crossroad. Here was the cutoff that took us up the ridge on the shortcut to our car. We all stopped and leaned over, resting our packs on our backs like tables and tried to take a quick break. Normally we would take our packs off and sit and rest a bit but this wasn’t normal. We knew it was dry and we knew it was hot but we couldn’t have guessed there would be a forest fire that would cut us off from the only other way out of the forest. We didn’t know where it started but we knew it crossed the river as we were packing up camp. The smoke and the cracking wood had woken us up in the morning. I worried it was our fire that had restarted in the night but when I opened my tent and saw our fire-pit dark and empty I noticed the light coming from across the river. Maybe some teenagers had left a fire going near the parking lot. Maybe someone dropped a cigarette butt near a pile of leaves. Maybe god opened up those hills and released the fire from hell itself. Though I doubt it was that last one. But it felt like hell with the wind rolling the black smoke up the mountain and the fire cracking and whipping the air like lightning on a dry night. We heard a tree crack and fall behind us and we looked up the trail rising towards the top of the ridge. Pine trees covered the hill and smaller saplings lined the trail going up. The pine needles on the forest floor around us were brown and dry. We hiked on.
The trail up the ridge was steep and it was hard. We hiked it slow but tried to move as quickly as we could. We had to climb over rocks and crawl under fallen trees. Cameron’s pack got stuck under one log and we had to cut a loop off his pack with a knife. We didn’t have time to do it any better. Cameron has a nice pack too so I didn’t like cutting it but we had to keep moving. About halfway up the trail there was a large stone outcropping that cut across the trail. A few trees were growing on it and people have carved names and dates all over it. We stopped on this rock and rested a moment as the path behind us was hard and the path ahead of us looked harder. We were breathing heavily and the creekwater in my bandana had already dried up and was starting to get soaked in sweat. I took it off and poured a little fresh water from my bottle and drank a few gulps myself before replacing the bandana on my face. When we were ready to go on another group of three hikers emerged from the trees and hustled down the trail and across the rock.
“How is it down there?” one of them asked between breaths.
“The fire is back down that way. You should turn back,” I said.
“There’s no way. Our car is that way we have to go down that way.”
“You should find another way or turn around because it is bad that way.”
“Well it’s bad up behind us too. Smoke everywhere and the fire is moving along that valley.” He pointed out to our right to a valley cutting between the ridge we were on and the ridge across from it. We saw the light and black smoke moving forward towards the big ridge that the highway ran across. Towards the same place that we were headed. He was right; the fire had taken two paths. It had cut across the river towards our camp but also followed the river along its far bank, snaking up through the valley towards the highway. We had to make it to the parking lot on the big ridge before we were cut off.
“It looks like it hasn’t reached where we need to go yet,” I said, “You guys should follow us and we can drive you out.”
“I’m not leaving my car. It can’t be that bad. We can get through it. Come on guys.”
“Look man you do what you have to do but just know that the fire is rising up from that way and the suspension bridge over the river is probably out. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Thanks. Good luck to you guys too.”
They hiked on back the way we came from and we hiked on up the way they came from.
We kept hiking and the trail was hard and steep. Despite the many switchbacks we still felt we were going straight uphill. I leaned into my trekking poles as I pushed my self up the trail and Tim and Cameron pulled themselves up by grabbing the little saplings that grew alongside the trail. We had to take short breaks because our lungs were starting to wear from the hiking and the smoke and we were all starting to get short of breath. But after just a minute the smoke drove us on, giving little time to rest. And we still hadn’t reached the top of the ridge yet. It was getting dark so early in the day because the smoke was carrying over the ridge tops and blacking out the sun. When we finally reached the ridge top we saw a line of light and smoke ripping through the trees in the valley below us. It was moving far ahead on our right and heading towards the highway.
Just over the top of the ridge we heard someone coming up behind us. He was running and he didn’t have any gear on and he only wore a T-shirt and shorts and his hiking boots. His face was black and he was coughing as he approached us. At first I thought it was one of the guys who had passed us earlier coming back without his friends but I didn’t recognize him. He stopped in front of us and doubled over and coughed and breathed heavily. He stood up and looked at each of us in turn.
“You guys gotta get the hell out of here.”
“Yeah, we know,” said Tim “we just came from that way too.”
“Fire’s burning everything down there. I barely got out.”
“Are you ok man?” Cameron asked.
“I gotta get the hell out of here.” He sprinted on by us and up the trail, curving around and moving out of our sight and he was gone. We hiked on.
We finally reached the gravel road at the trailhead that lead out to the highway. We stopped to breath. It was clear and cool and we felt safe for a minute now that we were off the trail. A firetruck came down the gravel and we could hear another couple sirens from up the road. A pair of paramedics passing on foot turned into the gravel parking lot to check on someone who looked passed out on the ground. A group of people had gathered around him and talked as the paramedics went to work on the man. He wore a red shirt blackened by smoke and OD green pants torn at the knees and the cuffs. He wasn’t moving. A paramedic was leaning over him with her ear over his mouth trying to listen for breathing. She started doing chest compressions.
“Where is the fucking ambulance?” she shouted behind her as she started pumping his chest again.
“It’s blocked up the road,” said her partner.
“Go get us a stretcher. We have to get this guy out of here.”
He left her there, sprinting back out towards the road. The remaining paramedic kept up with chest compressions, mumbling something low under her breath. Getting closer I realized she was quietly singing the chorus to “Stayin’ Alive”. I looked down at the man and noticed his eyes were open, smooth and glazed like they had water between the lids. His face had a sick pallor to it. I expected him to be blue but he just looked colorless. I realized then I was staring at a dead man.
She stopped the chest compressions when her partner arrived. I think she knew he was dead. They slowly loaded him onto the stretcher and carried him together back towards their ambulance. We each sat on the edge of the trunk of my SUV, watching the little crowd of people disperse. A hot wind whipped across the lot and we smelled the smoke again like a summer campfire this time. I didn’t cough or cover my face this time. It was a sweet and sour wood smoke that stuck to your clothes and followed you home. I would smell it for days. It would be hard to forget as I lay in bed at night feeling the smell go up my nose and into my brain. I stared at the ceiling for a couple hours that night trying to forget the smell of wood-smoke.
Disclaimer: Wood-Smoke is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the author.
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