We had hiked for about a mile and a half before the rain hit, and when it rains it pours. Unfortunately, we were above the tree line, feeling utterly exposed. We even saw a few strokes of lightening, but there was no turning back. We couldn’t possibly catch up to Riley with the head start he had on us. We just threw on our tattered garbage bag ponchos and pressed on.
After just fifteen minutes of walking in the rain, we rounded a corner to find an inexplicable pine tree that offered a dry haven. Beneath the shelter of the miracle tree, we shared thoughts about Riley’s departure and how awful of people we were. Feeling pretty down on life, we decided to play some music. To this day, I can’t listen to Justin Timberlake without reliving the experience of that day. Surprisingly, the music lifted out spirits and seemed to bring an end to the rain.
We had been sitting under the tree for just over twenty minutes when the rain completely stopped. As we climbed out from our shelter, a splendid rainbow stretched across the sky, soaring from peak to peak. The sight brought us a covenant of hope, and renewed our spirits of success for both Riley and ourselves.
When we came around the edge of the mountain we had been alongside, bringing our next pass into view, it was clear that Riley would not have made this one. From where we stood, this pass stood higher and steeper than the one before it.
“Onward and upward” I moved on, hiding my despair from Matt. The rest of the ascent was pretty standard as far as mountain hikes go. When we got tired, we rested. When we needed water, we drank. Eventually, we made it to the top, emerging victorious.
“Well hey!” he returns in an friendly tone. We introduced ourselves and I l we told him about the third member of our party and our plan to meet up with him.
“Uh oh.”, the man interrupted, “That parking lot is much further than four miles away.” He led us back to the side of the pass that we had ascended, Matt and I internally freaking out. The man pointed out the pass we had come from and with his finger drew the route Riley would have to take to make it to the parking lot. “That goes all the way into my town, around the mountain there. Probably closer to eight miles or so.”
He might as well have just told us that the world just ended. It also became clear then why it is called frigid air pass. A bone-gripping wind came from the north side, a wind tunnel being created by the peaks to the east and west.
“I better get going.” Said the bearer of our bad news. “Feels like a storm.”
“You think our friend will be okay?” Matt questioned.
“Oh yes.” He said confidently, “Just stick to your plan. He’ll make it to your car and everything will be fine.” Those were the last words I heard from that stranger, but they offered enough hope to keep Matt and I at peace for the time being. The chill was beginning to bring a clatter to my teeth, it was time to get off of the ridge. Switchbacking multiple times down the rocky slope, the path eventually leveled out into a dense forest.
Amidst the cover of the woods, the landscape was completely different, offering a whole new set of obstacles. The challenge of the step slope was replaced by streams, fallen logs, and serene wildlife. Matt was leading the way by a few paces when we encountered another hiker coming our way. It was the first person we came across that carried a pack rivaling the size of ours. It was a man in his twenties, trailed by a dog at his feet. The sight of another traveler seemed to please him as much, if not more than us.
“Hey guys!” he made the first remark. “You guys doing the big loop?”
“That’s the plan.” Matt replied. “Looks like you are too?”
“Damn straight, me and Max here came over trail rider pass this morning. How far is it to frigid air?”
“You’ve still got about four miles or so. After this wooded area it goes straight up to the pass. Are there any good camp sites coming up?”
“Hell yeah man, there’s a rad waterfall down a mile or so from here. I saw a few flat spots up on top that I considered setting up for the night, but we wanted to push a little further.”
“Awesome.” I said, “We’ve been hiking for over eight hours today, could use a good night. What was trail rider like?”
“Well, the side I came up wasn’t bad at all, but the descent, the side that you guys will be going up, just slopes forever. It was a rough climb down. Be careful going up it.”
“Great.” Said Matt, rolling his eyes. We exchanged with the man our names, and where we were from. He raised an eyebrow when he learned we were teenagers from Iowa, coming out here on a whim.
“That’s impressive, guys. My mom would never approve of me doing that. I moved here nine months ago and she still freaks out when I do stuff like this.” We decided to set our bags down and rest for a little bit, knowing that our day was almost there. Matt pulled out a bag of trail mix and offered me some. Our new friends rested there with us, telling us stories from his last few days on the trail. We listened in wonder of the days that would soon be ours, asking questions here and there about the terrain and distances between point A and B. After that the conversation took a spiritual tone, discussing at length the splendor of God’s creation.
Matt and I didn’t usually talk as we hiked, but the prior conversation carried itself through the next mile to the waterfall.
“Hey Hank, so you really believe all that about God creating this for us?”
“Yeah, I think so. I can’t think of another reason why the earth could possibly be this majestic.”
“Yeah I guess so. You remember that rainbow we saw back at frigid air?” Matt asked, but didn’t wait for a response. “I feel like that was the first time I saw God. I mean felt him… I don’t know, it was just…”
“I know, man. I know exactly what you mean. That’s why I think this is all going to be okay. God cares about us. He cares about Riley, and I don’t think he wants us to die yet.”
Right about then, Matt and I started to hear the roar of water tumbling off of a cliff. We couldn’t yet see the waterfall, but it was close. So, we began to keep our eyes peeled for a spot to set up tent. After rounding another corner, the scene opened up and it came into view. Right in front of us was a magnificent 100-foot drop waterfall. With my eyes I followed the river from the crest of the waterfall all the way up a peak adjacent to the one we had climbed.
“Hey Look.” Matt pointed out, “There is a perfect spot on the other side of the river, pretty close to the waterfall.” Up the river a distance, there was a fallen log that we, and surely many others, used as a walk bridge to the other side. Matt and I were almost out of drinking water, and we weren’t going to be able to boil water that night because of the rain, so we decided to just drink straight from the stream. As much as our moms would protest against this, that was without a doubt the best tasting water I had ever had in my 18 years. After quenching our thirst and refreshing our selves with a mountain-man face wash, we headed over to the flat spot we had picked out to pitch tent.
It was already growing into the evening, and the sun was halfway set over the peaks when we had our tent up and sat down for dinner. Our feast that night consisted of beef jerky and peanuts, guy stuff. When I finished my serving and opened my bag to put the peanuts away, something awful dawned on me, bringing me to my knees. There in the top of my bag lied the car keys. We had forgotten to give them to Riley.
A million thoughts raced through my mind as I pulled the keys from my bag and held them up for Matt to see. I didn’t have to say anything for Matt to understand what I was thinking.
“Shit.” Was all he said. I walked back to where we had been sitting, keys still in hand, and plopped down across from Matt. With the simple act of forgetting the keys, our predicament had grown immensely.
“He’s a smart kid.” I said, trying to console myself and Matt. “He probably knows by now that he doesn’t have the kays, he’ll figure something out, right?”
“So here’s what happens. Best case, Riley gets to the parking lot, hitches a ride into town and gets a hotel until we are done.”
“He’s seventeen, man. How could he get a hotel?”
“Right.” Matt solemnly said.
“Worst case, He left his wallet in the car, can’t get a hotel, can’t get to the car, and dies in the parking lot without any money because his phone is dead.”
“Yep.” Matt said “That’s definitely worst case.”
The more I let it sink in, the more horrific the scenario played in my mind. My gut was churning at the thought of what Riley could be going through. Eventually, the pressure got to me. I rose to my feet, walked over to the creek and plunged my head in the water, screaming with all I had.
I don’t know if it was the icy water or the outburst of aggression, but I felt a sense of peace. It was as if in that moment, my mind dealt with the fact that my friend might be screwed. I walked over to the edge of the water, Matt now out of view, and sat on the bank overlooking the meadow 100 feet below. As I sat there I noticed again the magnificent mountains around me, but this time they seemed to be laughing, as if this was a fight, and they were winning. I suppose we were losing. We lost Riley, we lost half our food supply (I just then realized that he forgot to give us some of the food he was carrying), but we also lost timid personalities we used to hold onto. We were still fighting, and we were going to find Riley.
With that, I marched my way back to camp and looked at Matt. “We have to make it out of here as soon as possible. I’m freaking out about Riley.”
“I agree,” he said, “but we can’t really do anything tonight. Our best choice is to get rest so we can hit it hard tomorrow.”
“You’re right, I’m not really tired, though. I think I’m going to try and get a fire started. You can go to sleep if you want.” It hadn’t rained since early afternoon, and I felt that I could probably find some dry wood in the dense forest.
“I think I’ll stay up for a bit, help you get the fire started.” Matt said, rising to his feet to go look for tinder. It was a chilly night, and a fire was going to be nice, but I mostly just needed something to occupy my mind. I knew that If I tried to go to sleep right then it would be a lost cause. I told Matt about Riley taking half of the food with him, which was a double edged sword; Riley wasn’t going to starve, but we might.
Getting a fire started in the wild is nothing like you see on TV. When Bear Grylls does it, all he needs is a spark and then the video skips ahead to a raging flame. We had a lighter and it still took us an hour to get the fire started. The fire did somewhat put our minds at ease, or at least offer a distraction. We continued our conversation from earlier in the day, asking each other what we thought about the universe and God. Matt and I had a way of engaging in those kinds of intimate conversations, while still keeping it light and entertaining.
“I think it’s time for me to hit the sack.” Matt said, once the sun was completely gone and the sky was ruled by the Rocky Mountain stars. I told him I was going to sit out a bit longer before I called it a day. In reality, I probably should have gone to sleep right then, at least it would have kept my imagination from running wild. I couldn’t contain my thoughts from creeping into what Riley could be doing. I know it makes me sound like a mom, and there wasn’t really anything I could do at that point, but that’s why it was so bad, I was utterly helpless. All I could do was trust that Riley was capable of making it on his own.
When the warmth of the sun disappeared, and the fire grew dim, it was time for me to crawl into my sleeping bag and get some rest. When I climbed into the tent, Matt was still wide awake, trying to find a comfortable spot.
“Here’s the deal.” Matt mumbled, “I was thinking; Riley is either cozied up in a nice hotel bed, eating a warm meal, or he is dead.”
“For tonight at least, let’s assume the former.” With that Matt rolled over and slowly drifted off. I laid awake for hours that night. Matt was right there, but I felt completely alone, readily responsible for whatever the next days would bring us. Had it not been for the sound of the waterfall, I wouldn’t have slept at all that night. But once my mind had run its course, the pattering lullaby of powerful water drifting off into the shadows eventually caressed my ears and shut off my mind, leading into a melodic slumber.