"Sketchbook"

It's not that hiking is difficult. It's more that my thirty year old body doesn't like it, which is strange considering the variety of trees intermingled and standing tall amidst the garden of rocks that litter the hills and paths and the sweat that starts on the forehead and gets wiped onto my shirt from the physical exertion. Beautiful and painful. I never had been a fan of pain.

I've never been married, although it knocked on my door once and I didn't answer. I couldn't. It wasn't my time yet, still too young, but Ted, my good friend and hiking fanatic, has been with his wife for five years now I think, maybe six. After that long, it is just another year.

Mirror Lake in Yosemite deserves the nomination for most pristine body of water. We hiked there yesterday, stopping to eat lunch on a boulder, flat enough on top to table a dozen people. Not a single ripple disturbed the surface of the water, allowing it, by some code of law, to reflect the view above into the world below, identical white firs with layered branches of needles, clouds with bright white edges hiding the sun, and peaks with white shawls covering their shoulders. Someday technology will be such that I might print this scene from my mind onto postcards to sell in the local gift shop.

We had pushed off lunch in order to climb to Vernal Falls and, if time permitted, Nevada Falls. I was still enjoying myself. Ted was an avid climber whose recklessness would someday lead him to attempt El Capitan, a truly impressive slab like the front of an hourglass looming over the valley and jeering at even the most resolute evolution believer.

A trail sign said .3 miles to Vernal and 1.3 to Nevada at a public rest area where we stopped for water and utilities. Nestled next to a solid wooden bridge that spanned a stretch of the river, it allowed resting hikers to gape at the water thundering over large rocks below in successive waterfalls. Children resting with their parents were feeding the squirrels, some of which had been fed too much for far too long. We wondered where all the predators might have been and how long it took the squirrels to feel safe enough to eat out of a human hand, to approach without fear and make themselves available.

The last leg before Vernal ended with at least a quarter mile of stairs, winding along the canyon wall and always offering a view of the falls. To this point, I had only stopped once to rest, but these stairs were more than I could do. Ted, carrying all the gear and water, had blazed far ahead and was either waiting or increasing his lead. I stopped again, leaning against the rock wall. I thought about sitting on a step but decided that would block the trail. A female voice sounded above me, and I looked up.

"These steps are a bear," she said, smiling.

"Yeah, I might be getting too old for this," I replied, pausing a second at first stunned that she talked to me.

She was adventurous I could tell. Her hiking boots, camel pak, khaki shorts, sports bra, and straight brown hair hanging in a pony tail all indicated an athletic demeanor. She kept moving up the trail followed closely by her less athletic but still attractive blond friend.

I forced myself to continue, not to prove I was in prime shape, not to get the view of following behind them, but because Ted was waiting for me. I caught up with him and found him sitting against the wall in the shade. He took another swig from the water jug and extended it to me.

"Did you see those two girls?" I asked, too excited for my own good.

He squirmed a bit and stood up. "Yeah, they stopped to talk to me. That's the first time since I've been with Lauren that I haven't known what to say."

I found myself oddly thankful that Ted was a good-looking man. My gratitude increased when we finished the steep section with the cable railing and walked across the stone plateau where we saw the girls again. I suggested that Ted keep walking past them down to the rail closest to the waterfall. It would be ridiculous to come this far and not look down. Over the edge, it pounded on a carved-out portion of rock and sprayed onto a lone spruce that stood powerfully on an island below. A lady asked me to take a picture of her and her kids, so I took it for them, to appear sensitive.

I glanced their way and caught their eyes before they looked away.

"Wait here or something, at least for a while." I approached them, drawing smiles when I asked if it was alright for me to sit with them.

Ted went to one of the streams that fed the waterfall and joined us a few minutes later, his shirt slung around his neck and hair dripping. He sat next to me, furthest from the ladies, and I introduced everyone, "Ted, this is Cami and Jen. Ladies, my friend, Ted."

Cami told us about her art studies at a school in the hills of Tennessee. Artists have a certain way about them, Cami included, that pull a man in like Ulysses' sirens. Add to the alluring quality of that profession the grace of her brown eyes and subtlety of her sun-colored thighs, and I had a woman I could not believe was single. Jen's studies in entertainment law did not compare with Cami's, although her modest, flowered tank top and long cargo shorts were almost enough to draw a man to her in spite of her friend.

The tent cabin Jen's aunt had fixed them up with wasn't far from our campground. Jen had convinced Cami not to pack much, counting on her aunt who offered them only four lunch packs of tuna that they stored in the bear box on their porch. Ted cracked a joke about the leftover space, and we laughed for a while at the image of a bear box with a small stack of tuna cans in the center taking up almost no space at all.

Jen wanted to swim in the lake, no doubt formed by the forest service by a well-placed rock dam. She took her bag with her and changed into her suit, daring, considering all the people around, none of whom seemed to notice, but should have.

We swam the afternoon away and lay out on the sloped, flat stone on the far side, staring at the clouds and discussing things ranging from the types of pine cones that littered the tops of the trees to our worst college professors to our first experiences around drunken people. Only deep blue painted the middle of the sky and faded to light blue at the horizons after the sky wiped the clouds toward the west. We thought about the night skies and talked about the star walk that began at nine down at the Yosemite Lodge. We decided we would meet there and began packing up our belongings. They were headed on to Nevada Falls, so we parted ways, Ted and I heading down the stairs toward camp.

 

W H E N we arrived at the lodge and walked inside, Ted found it was time to let me know that he was not comfortable with this whole plan. He had been thinking about Lauren and how she would feel about him being on what amounted to a double date, walking under the stars.

"Do it for me," I coaxed him. "Think of it as you're the bait for me to go out with two girls."

"But I."

I cut him off. "Nothing's going to happen. Just stay with me. There are two of them. It won't work with just one of me."

He conceded but still mentioned feeling guilty about not having referenced Lauren at all during our first encounter, wondering if women still checked men's hands for wedding rings. I asked where we were to meet for the star walk, and the man spoke slowly, slurred speech and a bit of a lisp, and told us we were not going to be able to go, that they were advance-sale tickets and booked full.

At the car I vented my frustration. "What now?" The answer wasn't simple. The clock on the dashboard glowed a yellow 7:08. Assuming they start on time, we were eight minutes late. Without saying a word to Ted, I scrambled out the door and up the ramp. "Is there a place where they meet before they go on the star walk?" I asked the same man.

"Where the road hits the highway and forms a T," he said.

I was already on my way out the door once I understood what he was saying. I vaulted over the railing down to the car and said, "That way," pointing back towards where we had come from. The last thing I wanted to do was stand her, I mean them, up.

Beads of sweat were forming on my forehead, and I shook my sweatshirt away from my body to let some air in. I rolled down the window, letting the mountain air whip under my arm and thrash the seatbelt around as Ted sped through the lodge parking lot with an urgency that couldn't be healthy. I assumed his haste stemmed from his desire for me to find a girl, something he had expressed on many occasions.

Back at the entrance to the lot, Ted waited for cars to pass and crossed the road, parking by a red metal gate at what appeared to be a bus stop. Darkness held sway over everything past the gate, like the niches under freeway overpasses after nightfall that you suspect are hiding something. We didn't know what to do. They were supposed to leave from here and return to here, if they even went on the tour. We both had books to read if we needed to sit and wait, but I didn't want it to come down to that.

This had all the makings of a good night turned bad, when two figures paused at the other side of the highway to look for traffic. They eyed our car as they crossed the road with no lights coming in either direction. I craned my neck out the window.

"Good evening ladies. Are you here for your personal stargazing tour?" They approached the car and stooped to talk, Cami gripping the door where the window peeked its edge and Jen fiddling with the side view mirror. Sweaters tied around their waists, they explained that they had bought tickets ahead of time but showed up after the bus had left.

"Where to?" I asked, reaching behind me to unlock the door.

At a stretch of the highway up on the ridge, Ted pulled the car over and parked. We stepped out onto a wide, paved shoulder bordered by a knee-high brick wall. The light inside the car blinked off when the last door shut, and all we could see was the sky. We were on a ridge of sorts, one of the many rises before the falls on the windy asphalt through the valley. We lay on our backs, Cami a foot or so from me and Ted and Jen on the other side of her.

None of us knew any constellations besides the Big and Little Dipper and Orion's Belt, which we figured wasn't even in the sky because of the time of year. We started making our own, the gazelle on the east horizon running from the rifle hunter and his dog and the bow hunter up on the hill trying to steal the kill. A rock dug into my back, so I shifted over toward Cami. The thought hadn't come into my mind since earlier that afternoon, but now that it had taken root, it dug deeper into the caverns of reason, echoing 'closer' off the walls of my head. Our shoulders touched, or perhaps just our shirt sleeves, but it was enough to rouse me.

I pulled my eyes from the sky and turned toward Cami, who was already looking at me. "Hi," I whispered, letting her know that I was there. I didn't know what Ted was doing and didn't care much at the time. We lifted our bodies off the ground toward each other. With my hand, I played with the wisps of hair at the back of her neck. A small glint of light reflected somewhere in her dark eyes, and my lips touched hers in ways that made falling stars redden during their flash across the sky. Ted and Jen continued their mumbling a few feet away. We ignored them.

 

A T noon the next day, we met the girls on the shoulder of the road in front of El Capitan. Carrying backpacks and blankets, we followed a lesser trail into the meadow that filled the open spaces on the floor of the valley. Craggy trees stood solemnly in various places across the meadow. The blue-flowered and yellow grasses grew to the cusp of the forest, covering the fallen trees of years past until you were near enough to see them. The path led to the far side of the meadow where we lay the blankets down and sat for awhile, putting off making lunch.

A couple of people were more than half way up the face of the cliff. You could almost see the leader making headway if you focused on him. There were two at least, one paving the way and the other one sitting further down the rock with what appeared to be all the gear. He would follow in due time. It had to be secured first. There is a method to that type of thing, a compendium that must be followed to avoid unnecessary risk.

We removed our drinks from our bags and fixed the sandwiches. Unless I missed it, Ted still hadn't said anything about Lauren around the ladies. Whether he had forgotten by accident or on purpose was left to him to deal with. I wasn't going to get in his way if I didn't have to. He was his own man.

Cami opened a square black book and began sharing sketches she had done, a cigarette smoldering on the forest floor and the hand that flicked it, a boy and girl wading in the river while holding hands, a man taking a photo of a woman and children at the top of the waterfall. She invited me to go with her to see the portion of river where she drew the boy and girl. Seeing that sketch surprised me, making my heart beat fast in my chest at the thought that she had seen me taking the picture. Leaving Jen and Ted alone, we put on our sandals and made our way through the trees behind the meadow and down to the river. She said it was around the bend up ahead.

I stooped to remove my sandals as she kicked hers into the air one at a time and dashed down the shore. Dropping mine, I chased after her. I was faster and caught her quickly, not meaning to knock her down but doing so just the same, both of us losing our footing in the sand. Apologizing, I knelt closer to brush the sand from her hair. She lifted herself onto her elbows and smiled, pointing to the scene from her sketch. The span of river was as I remembered it from the sketchbook only without the boy and girl.

There wasn't a soul around to sketch any of the resulting scene we created, one which would have included strewn clothing and two figures on the sand along the river, the sparsely grown grasses quivering, shading strands of grey with nature's pen across the charcoal hues of sand and their leafless bodies. Cami rolled into the water first and splashed me, enticing me to pursue her. I jumped in after her, closing our encounter with a kiss. We swam for a while, rinsing and rubbing the sand from each other's bodies before exiting the water and shaking the sand from our clothes.

The childlike side of our characters emerged. We were in the moment. An understanding resided between us that this time would be permanent and temporary, that it would figure itself out as time advanced. Cami was the first to ball the wet sand up into a softball sized lump and set it on the riverbank. I stared at it with wonder. She formed a slightly smaller ball and a third and smaller one and set them on top forming a sort of sandman. I helped her. In no time at all we had seven sandmen facing each other as in battle array. I was engulfed completely in the child's mind of my past. Into the hands of two of the warriors I placed a small twig skewering the one directly across from them in the chest, causing the sand to crack around the wound, weakening it enough for it to crumble and fall.

Cami sounded a huff of disgust at my ruining of her artwork, the degrading of what was fun into a melee. Had she known what else had entered the childlike state of my mind she might have left immediately, swords lopping off heads and such. As it was, I was able to resolve the situation by reforming the man to his original design. I went further though, erecting a fence of protection around the sandmen. Few people, if any, had enjoyed the beauty of this river as we had. I wondered how long it would stay like that.

"We should get back," I suggested. The quick thought about Ted and how he might be doing with Jen made me hurry all the more. He hadn't entered my mind since we left him alone with her amid the grasses. He's married, I thought. I ran down both of Cami's sandals, one which had ended up in the river and entangled itself a short way down in some of the brightest green moss I had ever seen, a lowly element that had managed to enrich its colors, untouched for so long. After rinsing the sandal off, I helped her climb the ledge, a sand incline with a lip at the top where the meadow began.

At the lunch area, we found Jen asleep on the blanket. Ted was nowhere to be found. It had been a couple hours since we had left them. Cami shook Jen till she awoke, startled.

"Where's Ted?" I asked.

"I don't know," she replied, rubbing the nap from her eyes. "He was lying on the blanket watching the climbers, so I laid down next to him for a while. Is everything alright with him? After a few minutes he just got up and left. I didn't say anything to him." There wasn't anything to say. So much hadn't been said to get the situation to where it was that the tension in Jen's face was understandable.

After packing up the backpacks and blankets, we set out on the path back to the road. Jen carried on asking questions, trying to work out the details for herself. Ted had given her so little to work from, yet here she was, role-playing each and every possible thread of explanation.

The reality was that his mind was far from this valley, down Highway 40, over the Grapevine, and back in Los Angeles. I tried to understand the awkwardness of Ted's situation, perhaps like walking in on a friend's mother taking a shower, inadvertently uncovering her nakedness. He hadn't explained himself. I had never got the impression he was entirely happy with his marriage, but he was married.

That had to mean something, the difference between romantic love and choice love. Didn't she know one night stands only worked in Hollywood and Shakespeare? I couldn't say anything, but I thought, It's only been one day. There wasn't any way I could tell her what the problem was. It would ruin too much.

We were only halfway down the path, and what we couldn't see yet was Ted lying on the trunk of the car, his back against the window and feet hanging off the end, touching his ring softly with his fingers.

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