Wood: “Seriously what were you thinking?”
Me (breathing better now): “Trying to meet you…see the top.”
Right then my stomach, feeling an ally near, decided to let loose a loud protest of its own. The traitor.
Wood: “Have you eaten?”
Me (trying not to look shifty): “Breakfast.”
Wood stalked over to my pack, flipped it open and retrieved my lunch which he then proceeded to thrust in my direction with a curt, “Eat.”
Feeling it better to follow orders than argue I started eating. While doing so, I tried to figure out how I could shake off Wood and the others and check out the last two sites on the mountain. Bookies would give better odds to Stockard Channing reprising her role of Rizzo than to me shaking Wood off and climbing the rest of Pumpkin Mountain alone.
Beatrice, trying to break the mood (or divert focus, I shot her a grateful smile) started debating the merits of different spots with Sarah for her geocache. For one bright moment, I thought Beatrice decided on one of the camping sites I hadn’t reached, but they deemed even the unofficial spots entirely too dull. So they (plus Laney who’d they sucked into the debate) huddled around Beatrice’s camera reviewing pictures of potential hiding places (Wood still stood over me glowering).
In the end, they ruled the perfect place was a pool of water just a hair off the trail, next to a brief but vigorous waterfall. With that decision made (and my lunch demolished) we set off down the mountain with Beatrice leading the way this time. Sarah and Laney following closely behind while still debating different cache spots Beatrice rejected. Wood followed a pace behind slowly warming up to their conversation. Once again I brought up the rear. Only this time I wasn’t alone, Bert and Ernie sensed my habitation of Wood’s doghouse, decided to keep me company. Both had more than a passing familiarity with the institution.
Feeling much better after being watered and fed (and no longer feeling a sharp stabby sensation in my side, lungs, and back) my mind turned back to the cairn conundrum.
Me (interjecting in a lull): “Beatrice did you take pictures of the last two campsites?”
Sarah (laughing answered first): “Nope we didn’t. They practically shouted ‘here’s the cache’ to anyone passing by. They’d get muggled in a pair of seconds.”
Beatrice (rolling her eyes, pitching in): “She just enjoys using the word muggled instead of tampered. But really, they weren’t proper sites anyways. Strictly bivvies.”
My utterly blank look expressed my ignorance to her.
Beatrice: “Bivvie short for bivouac. An improv campsite directly under the stars. The last two spots were barely creases in the rock. They’d keep you from sleeping on the trail, but not much else.”
Me (nodding): “How about the summit?”
Sarah (handing back Beatrice’s camera to me): “More than enough room for a tiny folk festival, if you don’t mind bruised shins.”
Me (scanning through the photos): “Doesn’t look practical for digging…out a fire pit, too many rocks.”
Sarah: “You’d need to be careful. I don’t think you can dig more than an inch or two down. There’s enough dirt for wildflowers to grow, but not enough for trees.”
Somehow this started a new debate (I missed the transition) between the three ladies on the weight to comfort ratio one needed to assess when packing for a hike. I fell back processing their intelligence when Wood paused unexpectedly in front of me. I nearly plowed right into his back.
Wood (a wicked look in his eye): “Morticia, what happened to your pack?”
Me (starting to shrug it off): “What? Did it tear?”
Wood (resuming his forward locomotion): “No, it weighed a ton this morning – now it doesn’t.”
Me (tap dancing): “I ditched the weight so I could catch up to you guys faster.”
Wood (eyes narrowing): “Really? Then we can pick up the ten pounds of salt when we pass by it again since the shovel’s still in your pack.”
Me (mentally wishing Wood was less observant): “I was pulling your leg this morning, I used water jugs for weight, I just poured it out. Voila! Instant featherweight.”
Wood (slowly nodding his head): “Sure, you poured the weight out. On what?”
Me (sweating): “What do you mean?”
Wood (grinning): “Never mind. Do you want to hear my idea about how to dissuade Little Ben from building the pet cemetery in the wrong spot? I Guarantee it will be Fun!”
Thrilled at the new conversational direction, I listened to The Plan. With elements of the absurd, possibility of arrest, precise timing and rubber ducks – The Brace Affair held up the high standard that the Promise of Fun required. It caused Laney to roll her eyes, Sarah pretended to plug her ears with her fingers and Beatrice to hint she looked great in black – Fun indeed.
The Plan (and its refinement) dominated the rest of the conversation down the mountain. Pausing only once when Beatrice hid her cache and noted the GPS coordinates in a small book, we still cut it a bit fine returning to the hotel.
Fortunately, ‘Not Sam’ hadn’t loosened the hounds on our trail just yet.
…real life cousin!
(My view while I ran up the trail.)
The steady thrumming in my toes settled back into the familiar pins and needles sensation the farther from the glen I walked. No longer distracted by my digits and not hearing anyone calling my name (calling is such a tame word – hollering, bellowing or cursing it might be more accurate if they couldn’t find me) allowed my mind to mull over today’s work.
Time coupled with several good soakings would leech the salt into the soil, rendering the contents of the cairn inert (or at least transforming a tiger into a tabby). One canteen of water, while a start, would not suffice to produce instant results, so the continued pricking along my toes didn’t worry me.
The overall level of energy (or vita as it was technically known) still emanating – did.
Reentering the picnic area, I sat in the spot Wood vacated earlier, trying to reason my way through this riddle. I’d started to pull out my brown bag lunch when a thought struck me with such force it launched me out of the clearing and onto the main trail, my lunch uneaten. The rise in elevation (and my fitness level) wouldn’t allow a flat out run, but I pushed myself hard, ignoring the protests my legs and lungs lodged against me.
What if I salted the wrong bones?
The Pumpkin Mountain Trail didn’t connect with any other trail systems in the park, which meant mountaineers rarely trafficked it, enthusiasts found the trail too easy and novices avoided it due to the inconvenient trailhead (if you didn’t talk to the locals). Taken together these conditions created an underutilized remote location, which fit the select set of criteria needed for the unsuspecting to vanish in. The odds of two illicit graves along one trail – astronomical – but not outside the realm of possibility.
Four more unofficial spots lay beyond the one I’d found the cairn by and I needed to appraise them. So onward and upward I pushed myself, pitting myself against my companions in a contest they didn’t know they raced, waiting for a whisper of vita to prick me. Ignoring my whistling lungs and the lead settling into my legs, my eyes only saw the dirt of the trail while I strained to feel the faintest ripple of energy. I needed to reach the top.
I’d past two camps without so much as a twinge with just two to go – when Bert and Ernie ran into me (literally, they just about knocked me on my ass).
Wood (breathless called): “Phoebe?”
Me (unable to do more than pant): ….
Wood bounded over, removed my pack and tossed it aside, then pushed me to sit down on the trail. Bert and Ernie thrilled to have someone at tongue level started converging when Wood ordered them to “Sit and stay.” Without changing his tone, he started ordering me around, “Slow down. Take a deep breath, now another. Keep taking them.” He kneeled down in the dirt next to me felt for my pulse while pantomiming in and out trying to help me regain control of my breath. It took five minutes for the rest of the crew to catch up with us. When they did, concern filled their faces.
Wood (looked me dead in the eye): “Phoebe what were you thinking, running up a mountain?”
Laney: “Wood, give her minute.”
He’d spied my dubious attack of the switchbacks, which caused him to mount his own swift descent to meet me – seems a beet red face while whistling like a tea kettle worries a physician. Who knew? Since he used my actual first name (which is the equivalent of a parent middle naming you), I knew I was in trouble. History told me he would require an explanation for what he deemed reckless behavior and he could sniff out BS better than the boys.
All I could think of? I’d fallen short.
(My very sophisticated tools and a random heart I found carved near the glade!)
My friend’s voices evaporated away into silence quicker than I expected while following the invisible line thru the old growth. Fortunately, I didn’t need to venture very far outside of my comfort zone, the pricking in my toes turned into a steady thrumming sensation when I stepped into the narrow glade.
Studying the clearing, I appreciated the cleverness of the hiding spot. Now I understood why no one ever accidentally stumbled upon my unintended traveler.
The glade owed its existence to dozens of rockfalls deposited by the cliff which heaved itself up in front of me (who knew boulders could bounce?). The rockfalls kept the area clear of anything more than the scraggliest flora the forest had to offer. Immediately inside the cliff’s hurling radius lay my destination, a modest mound (by comparison) of discarded stones. Due to the layers of moss, long grass, sword ferns and one scrappy cedar, it appeared to one of the oldest of the cliff’s deposits.
I looked at my watch. Time’s up I murmured to myself. The possibility of seeing my posterior au natural would only keep my compatriots at bay for so long. Soon, they’d come looking for me.
When I emerged back at our picnic site, Bert and Ernie greeted me like a long-lost friend.
Wood (balling up the brown bag his lunch came in): “Everything ok? We’re almost done eating.”
Me: “I’m fine, I don’t think my stomach is accustomed to processing an entirely organic dinner.”
Beatrice (concern & reluctance coloring her tone): “We could turn around and head back…”
Me: “Don’t do that. The summit is only a half hour-ish away, I can wait here while my stomach calms down. You can pick me up on your way back.”
This plan met with varying levels of reluctance, but in the end, my vote broke the deadlock. The group would continue without me. Wood placed me under strict orders that I would stay put until they got back (I crossed my fingers). Waiting until their voices faded into the distance, I dashed back into the trees.
The second time I entered the glade I stopped to observe the area with jaded eyes, the dozens of natural phenomenon camouflaged the one false feature well. Knowledge or happenstance? Which did he rely on I wonder to conceal her genesis point?
Leaning my pack against a nearby stone, I pulled my recently acquired map and trusty GPS device out then recorded the coordinates next to the ‘x’ I’d written on my approximate location. With that done I set to work with my handy collapsable metal shovel and work gloves. Pulling the blanket of fauna away from the false rockfall proved easier than I expected, the large stones concealed underneath aided my progress.
Two scrapes, one smooshed toe and forty-five very sweaty minutes later – my efforts and elbow grease uncovered two-thirds of a rough stone cairn (the cedar proved too tenacious to remove).
Pulling off a work glove I placed my bare hand on an exposed stone – an electric current raced up my arm – startled I snatched my hand away. I rocked back on my heels while rubbing the spasming muscles in my arm. Trying to calm down I closed my eyes and enjoyed the brisk air playing across my sweaty face, but my mind wouldn’t settle. Instead, it flew away trying to merge and manipulate this new wrinkle into something which fit into the whole I’d pieced together. Shaking myself, I stood up stiffly and put my glove on again. I could borrow trouble later.
Making an ungodly racket (and risking pinched fingers) I levered a rough line of rocks off the spine of the cairn. I couldn’t help the noise. I needed to finish before my friends swung back to collect me and time was running out. When I finally shoved the last rock aside, I collapsed my spade and traded it for a five-pound bag of salt from my pack.
Taking a deep breath, reigning myself in – I poured a steady, unbroken line of unrefined sea salt within the fissure I’d just created. To help infuse the salt into the cairn quicker, I poured a canteen of purified water roughly along the same dusty off-white line. Then I exchanged the empty container for the other five-pound sack of flakey sea salt. Then proceeded to methodically cover the entirety of the mound and surrounding ground with a fine dusting. When the bag was exhausted, I stowed it away and surveyed the area making sure I left nothing (other than the sea salt) behind.
With the job done I grabbed my pack and walked away.
We got yelled at by this little guy when we docked at the base of the trail! So much noise from something so little!
(Bert after his impromptu swim, the wake from our boat setting off and the hidden dangers in the lake we noticed only after tying up the boat!)
At seven am the five of us, and two hounds (Laney & Wood’s boys) assembled on the dock to receive last minute instructions and nibbles from the hotel staff.
Which honestly sound far grander than the departure actually was.
Everyone but Wood was trying with varying success to stifle yawns (the previous night’s nightcaps slowing the infusion of caffeine into our brains). The staff (suppressing their own yawns) passed out bulging brown paper sacks while warning us to get our butts back before sunset. Otherwise, the National Park Service and said staffers would send out very cross search parties to fetch us.
Unaware of the thinly veiled threats being issued to their people, Laney’s boys, Bert and Ernie, were doing their level best to liven things up. Dashing amongst us in their bright orange life vests, wagging their tails, and yipping excitedly at everyone & everything.
One of the staff (I called him Not Sam in my head) held the boat steady while Wood stowed our hiking equipment onboard.
Wood: “Bee what on earth did you put in your pack?”
Beatrice (that competitive gleam glinting again): “My geocaching supplies. My pack will be light as a feather on the hike back down.”
Wood (lifting up my pack and shaking it slightly): “Morticia are you in competition with Bee? Did you put actual rocks in yours?”
Me (straight-faced): “Don’t be silly, I’d never use anything as generic as rocks! I’m a mineral girl! Ten pounds of unrefined sea salt, a shovel for balance and a bottle of water for good measure! It’ll help push my cardio numbers up on my Fitbit.”
Wood (rolling his eyes): “Fine be funny. Just don’t ask me to carry your bag later, I will demand to see inside!”
On that note, and with much good humor, we all climbed aboard, and Laney took the wheel. Ross Lake is twenty-six miles long, but fortunately, we only needed to go about eight. The brisk wind whipped by us at breakneck speeds and wiped away all vestiges of sleepiness from our eyes.
With pictures, a map and Beatrice’s GPS unit in hand we glided into the unofficial Pumpkin Mountain landing in no time at all. Carefully piling out of the boat we started up the winding trail, taking photos, singing (when we found the breath) and generally making enough noise to scare away anything with four legs (other than Bert and Ernie). Wood and the boys lead the way pointing out features of interest to Laney & Sarah, followed by Beatrice, who split her focus between the map in her hand & the path under her feet, and I brought up the rear with a growing sense of trepidation.
About a mile into the hike we’d reached the park service approved tenting area. Beatrice labeled it too easily achieved and marched resolutely past. With the official waypoint behind us, Beatrice started scoping out each hollow, recess and rockfalls along the trail, judging which would serve her cache purposes best. She quickly rejected the rockfalls, musing any subsequent slides could displace her cache or a loose stone might pelt another player. Either eventuality would render her cache invalid which was intolerable (the specter of her nemesis Horus looming in the back of her mind).
Discovering the front desk sold augmented maps (not sure why Beatrice copied hers by hand) I’d purchased one last night, for a bit of independent study. But with Beatrice ticking off each crevice, thicket, and encampment my copy went unfolded. What did not manage to stay tightly folded? The aforementioned trepidation which started to grow in orders of magnitude the closer we walked to the summit without the telltale spark arching across my toes.
When three-quarters of the path lay behind us, I started to seriously waiver on the veracity of my tag-along passenger’s claims and idly wondering if my skin had shrunk two sizes under the unbearable wait…
Then the familiar pricking skittered across my toes.
Time to work.
Me: “Wood, would you mind stopping up ahead?”
Beatrice: “Can you hold on? We’re close to the top.”
Me: “I have to use a little girl’s tree, and I need a snack. The growl you heard earlier was my stomach, not a bear.”
With the mention of food, the others agreed they couldn’t wait to eat either. Beatrice tried to convince us we’d enjoy lunch more with a spectacular view, but even The Boys needed a rest, so she gave in to peer pressure (I think the whining from Bert and Ernie is what convinced her).
Just as I recalled from last night’s studies, an informal campsite laid a few steps ahead of us. Unlike the others we’d scoped out, this one featured an old fire pit and several large low stones for sitting – an ideal picnic spot. For those with a more devious disposition? This was the only campsite we’d seen so far that was set a significant distance off the trail.
While the other looked around and started setting down their packs, I made my excuses and plunged deeper into the trees following the ever-increasing uncomfortable electricity in my toes.
(Maple Ginger Bacon Carrots with Sesame Seeds! This was one of the great side dish from this evening! And the only one which featured a sauce!)
When I finally made the lobby, after a thrilling twilight boat ride, the front desk clerk informed me that the rest of my party had assembled in the dining room.
They saw me first.
All together they called: “Phoebe!”
I made my way over to the large round table under a rustic chandelier, made from antlers, where everyone sat.
Me (feeling corny): “Cheers everyone!”
This met with a round of laughter, clinking of plates, silverware, and glasses. With a slight sense of deja vu, I sat down to my second family-style meal in under a week. Which featured at least one entree covered in bacon sprinkles, one platter held jamón wrapped root vegetables, and we weren’t eating off paper plates.
The bacon almost made up for the shocking lack of sauce.
Wood (in-between bites): “According to the Rangers the best hiking weather is tomorrow. So I rented a boat. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have enough time to see Pumpkin Mountain. It’s a two and a half day hike if you’re focused.”
Beatrice (helping herself to a bowl of roasted vegetables): “Boat? My map didn’t show a landing anywhere on the trail.”
Laney (taking over for Wood, who’d just took an enormous bite of steak): “Not on the official maps, but the locals made their own version, augmented with all the tricks and trivia outsiders are unaware of. Sam told me there’s a natural landing just under the trailhead we can use.”
Beatrice (looking very interested): “Do they sell copies of these expanded maps?”
Laney: “I don’t know. They’re lending us one for tomorrow. You can take a picture of it if nothing else.”
Beatrice excused herself from the table for a moment.
Sarah (ever efficient): “How will we know what to look for?”
Wood: “They’ve spray-painted the landing bright orange or something. They’ll show me some pictures of what I’m looking for tomorrow, we’ll be fine.”
Talk shifted away from the trip onto more mundane matters, Laney wondered what I thought of FLYT, and Sarah asked Wood about the boys. It wasn’t until we’d practically licked the platters clean that we noticed Beatrice hadn’t returned to the table. Just about the time, we were going to mount an expedition to find her she reappeared in the dining room doorway, waving several folded sheets of paper above her head in victory.
Beatrice (her smile wide): “I got a copy of the map!”
We all started at her blankly.
Beatrice: “The augmented map! I got a copy!”
Me (speaking for the group – hesitantly): “M’kay…and this cause for celebration?”
Beatrice: “Yes! It means I can win!”
Wood: “Win at hiking?”
Beatrice (finally realizing we were confused): “No. Geocaching. My archenemy, Horus….”
Wood: “Wait, archenemy? Seriously?”
Beatrice: “Yes. An annoying player who says my caches are pedantic and pedestrian.”
Wood (trying and failing not to laugh): “He’s just needling you, Bee.”
Beatrice (haughtily): “I am not boring.”
Turns out Beatrice had bamboozled Sam into loaning her an augmented map, then fetched her unaugmented copy from her room. While we stacked the empty serving dished upon one end of the table, she snapped opened the two maps at the other. Then, using a wide array of colored pencils, she started transferring information from the former to the latter. We all watched her with varying amounts of humor.
Beatrice (concentrating on her task): “This isn’t funny, it’s serious.”
Laney: “Of course it is, but you can’t say you have an archenemy named Horus without us at least asking if you are driving on three wheels these days.”
Beatrice’s eyes didn’t waver from her task, but she did smile, Laney has that knack. When the waiter cleared the table, we ordered a round of drinks and continued watching Beatrice (from a distance she growled when we got too close, I mean she politely asked us to refrain from standing in her light). When she finished with a triumphant flourish, I warily approached her and studied her handiwork.
Me (tracing tomorrows trail with my finger): “That blue triangle is the authorized camping spot, but what are the blue circles just past it?”
Beatrice: “They’re the unofficial camping spots. Sam says the locals avoid them now, but they’re still on the map, I thought one might make an excellent place to hide a cache.”
Me: “I agree.”
Those unofficial dots would indeed make excellent hiding spots – for all kinds of things.