Peaceful. Serene. I feel calm yet challenged, looking at the towering mountain before me.
The overstretching arc of condensed hills looms before me and my cousin as we shuffle lightly across the dry, dusty asphalt of the freeway. The path leads us through a narrow, grassy hill that stretches along logger pathways. Above us, the sky permeates a dense blue, pure blue, free of clouds. We may have chosen the perfect day, but the sun penetrates my skin, sending a burning sensation along the back of my neck.
“Do you think we have enough water?”, I ask indecisively. His sunglasses reflect my uncertain composure with my backpack nestled firmly on my shoulders.
“We should be fine…,”, he trails off, looking briefly back at me. “How much did you bring…?” he continues.
“Two bottles, including the one you gave me… that should be enough, right?”, I muse. Calmly, he nods, as if we don’t have too much ahead of us.
We continue up the narrow path, surrounded by trees, as the path thins out to a dead end. I look at my cousin, then back at my phone: the map clearly indicates we must continue forward, but in front of us a steep hill blocks us. Do we really have to climb that?
“I think… this is the way forward. The map indicates that, anyway.” I pause for a moment, remembering the reviews for our trail Doorjamb Mountain and Loder Peak, recalling a steep ascent in the counter-clockwise direction. “Hope you’re ready to work those knees,” I state emphatically. I begin up the steep mountain. How bad could it get, really?, I reason. It doesn’t take long for me to find my answer — in the form of a steep, rocky incline towards an emerging hill of shale.
I murmur to myself, in a disgusted, hushed voice. The trim shale presses against my sweaty palms, as I slowly edge my boots across the small ledge of shale separating my body from a steep fall to my death. I dare not look behind, to the steep decline.
I look either way, to the bushy, narrow spruce tree lined up at a near 90 degree angle to my left, then to the open expanse of hills, green, and a hazy, overcast horizon to a home I may never reach. The dry stone shards line up around the narrow edge, inviting me ever so mockingly. In an effort to reconcile myself for my over-eagerness, I spin a story in my head that just around this corner, I may find refuge — that I may find the much-anticipated continuation to the alleged “trail” at a more presentable incline. I scoff at myself, wondering just how I even got myself in to this situation to begin with.
I could very well die.
I consider my options, realizing that should something happen, no one would likely ever know the nature of my demise 😜. Trembling, I reach for my massive phone, dialing up the brightness to maximum. The reception bar reads 1. Good, I can make a call, I think to myself; I have limited minutes, but I decide to at least reach my cousin to let him know my dire state.
“Heyyy,” I trail off. I adjust my voice to try to hide my state of emergency. “Well, I think I’m stuck. And… it’s not good,” I continue to caress the massive screen on my phone, as if I might not have much more time with it.
My cousin courtly informs me that he went ahead on the trail, assuming I would eventually catch up. “I assumed you went around the large rocks and that you continued along the path…”, he trails off, indecisively. A silence fills the call, and I feel a throbbing sensation of exhilaration followed by a feeling of anger for my cousin who decided to abandon me this early in the hike.
“Frankly, I don’t know what to do…” I state bluntly. Somehow I still have my composure despite the giant “death trap” looming before my hunched two limbs.
The call continues rather casually despite the life-or-death situation. How I will make it out of this doorjamb bewilders me, but I know I have to find a way. I consider just what I even expected my cousin to do; how would he even get me out of this mess? I conclude that I have to get out of this myself.
Reluctantly, I shimmy along the side of the mountain towards my destined refuge, grabbing on to the narrow tree at my knees for support. Wouldn’t want to fall to my death, now, I jokingly console myself, shyly humming the refrain of an indistinct song I heard earlier that innocent morning. The edges of the tree’s pines don’t even seem to phase me as I move slowly but carefully.
I take in a breath, looking down once again to remind myself of the fleeting nature of life. Just rinse and repeat.
A line of shale brushes swiftly off the mountain’s side. My hand swings down, propelling my body downward, causing a scatter of rocks to rain down the cliff.
Instinctively, I grab on to a tree poking out. Its sharp pines pierce my skin. Somehow, I firmly grasp on to its needles, my other two legs now dangling in the air. Whoa, I repeat out loud, as if to reinforce the dire situation to the empty audience. Using all the force in my two arms, I hoist myself back up on the jagged rock surface, ignoring the pain I will surely face. The scattering of thin rocks echoes down the valley, and I once again find solid ground. I feel my heart throbbing as I clutch on to the tree from different angle. With some footing, I slowly release from the now-unrooted tree; my red hands flash before my eyes and a wave of acute pain washes over me as my two hands regain sensation. Reality sets in on me as I once again as I lean into the hill:
I have a second chance.
I could have died.
The odds of making it out again unscathed perturbs me. Playing with fire never saves lives, but acknowledging that my cousin won’t come to my rescue affirms a new mindset . One part of me sees the second chance as an omen that I should reach out immediately for my rescue, but another part of me doesn’t want to overblow the situation. Reluctantly, I reason that I need to find some reason to continue on, but I dare not test my luck again… so I settle for a compromise.
Slowly, my hands shaking, I reach for my pocket for my phone, this time reaffirming the sturdiness of the loose rock; its firmness eases my running mind. For a brief moment, I picture the phone falling from my grip, falling to its death. I shudder at the thought, just as the bright display lights up.
Good, I announce out loud. Reception.
Again, I dial for my cousin, this time acknowledging that I need to really make a plea for rescue. I don’t want to play with death again…
But something isn’t right. The call seems to go through, but I don’t hear anything from the other end. How could my cousin have answered so quickly? I place my ear more firmly against the phone, cranking up the volume from the protruding side buttons. A woman’s voice on the other end confirms my fear:
“Sorry. You cannot place this call because you have used all remaining minutes on your phone plan…”, a woman’s expressionless voice announces.
Crap, I shout to myself, almost fumbling the phone that would moments ago save my life.
Again, I have to come to terms with my frugal lifestyle; of course my reluctance against supporting Canadian telecom companies charging outrageous prices for phone plans has to take its toll on me now (pun intended 😛)…
I put away my phone, now coming to terms with my solidarity; I have to get out of this mess alone, and I might die from it. But I must carry on, I joke to myself, hoisting my backpack on my shoulders.
Steadily, I reach my hand for yet another prickly tree, extending my arm as far as I can to reach it. The attempt fails, and I almost fall over again. How will I get out of this? I ask myself in frustration. Just moments ago, I almost fell to my death, and now I play with fire yet again. Nonetheless, I reason that just as I got myself into this situation, I must now get myself out. As if on cue, the song by Radiohead from my childhood plays:
You do it to yourself
You and no one elseRadiohead
Time to rethink the situation, I conclude. Hunched over, now shielded by the sun, I recollect myself, assessing my surroundings. On either side, wide scatterings of shale litter the ground, but nothing appears strong enough to shimmy along. The loose pieces will easily send me sliding down the cliff, only to fall to my death. I look down, along the steep decline, reconsidering what risk the descent poses: the decline becomes more steep but levels out in about a metre’s distance. I consider a skid technique I learned from skiing and envision myself sliding down the mountain.
Without giving myself a chance to reconsider, I release my hands from the rough ground, keeping my weight anchored towards the ground. Rocks scatter into disarray, as I gain momentum. My boots skid along the incline, dislodging rock shavings. As if in slow motion, I throw all my weight against the hill, finally coming to a stop.
“Wow,” I pause, looking towards the now-exposed path to my sanctity. “I did it,” I rejoice out loud slowly. Ahead of me, beyond a group of trees, I spot the path I came from. Eagerly, I manoeuvre along the clump of trees, finding my way back to the open expanse of loose shale. A wave of relief sets in, and I recommence my ascent — this time with extra caution.
“Mark!” I shout, sweat dripping down my bearded chin. Nothing. I squint in the sunlight, trying again to make out the figure at the top of the craggy hill. It has to be my cousin, I reason; not many other people have the audacity to hike up the likes of Doorjamb Mountain, I muse.
I continue my ascent, carefully stabilizing my dusty hiking boots with each step. “Mark?”, I hear my unstable voice croak under the growing cardiovascular strain. This time, the shout seems to reach the white figure at the top of the hill. At once, I hear his voice:
“Oh! That’s you!”, I hear a voice call out. I hasten my pace to reunite with my cousin. This time, I vow to not lose him again. The loose fragments of rock cast clouds of dust, and his figure emerges around the corner of the peak, revealing an open resting area with steady ground. I approach, breathing heavily.
“Wow, you wouldn’t believe what I went through”, I remark, somehow smiling coyly. He casts a concerned look back at me, eyeing my dusty boots, as if to say he knows otherwise based on the small cuts on my red hands.
“Glad you made it. You really had me worried,” he states begrudgingly.
I nod back in understandingly, realizing I probably don’t know the half of it. I gather myself, hunched down, panting. I made it, but ahead of me lies an even greater challenge. Part of me wants to turn back, but my severe case of FOMO convinces me that I must not let my trials with death go in vein. As my cousin looks at my dishevelled, dusty clothing, a smile almost comes across his face. I ease his concern and assure him it won’t happen again, picking myself up. I don’t have time to look back.
Or maybe I do 😝.
“Wow!” I exclaim, panting in the open sunlight. “This really is advanced,” I chuckle innocently to my cousin’s back. My legs now weigh heavily on me, each step billowing clouds of dust behind. The bright sun now penetrates my exposed limbs and face; it has already caused two short water breaks, cutting down my water supply by half. Though I carefully calculate each step, I now feel the lactic acid accumulating. Perhaps my body doesn’t have what it takes to conquer this mountain, I wonder. Then again, I assure myself that through the lyrics of the all-to-famous song:
Ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no river long enough
To keep me away from you
Just a little further, I repeat to myself. Some form of a resting point must lie ahead, I reassure myself. My cousin seems to easily ascend with his new hiking shoes. Though I have no such luck, I find some solace in our reuniting. I power on, despite the soreness of my lower body and convince myself that the view up top will surely make my escapades with death worthwhile.
We briefly discuss in our huffed breaths how much longer we need to climb. “I can’t imagine we have too much more…” my cousin nonchalantly states. “The reviews I read online said once we get through this steep incline, we’re through the hardest part,” he continues.
“There!”, Mark emphatically states, pointing to the ridge now towering above us. “We just have a little more to climb,” he assures me. I stop for a moment to look down, appreciating the view. Behind us, bathed in the clear blue sky, lies the Elbow Valley, surrounded by the trees that just saved my life –now a juxtaposition of beauty and danger to me.
“Wow…”, I trail off, gaping at the expansive valley surrounded by mountains below me. The wind gusts against my chest as the perspiration evaporates.
I marvel at the openness of the canyon. The mountains permeate through the interspersed patches of green shrubbery.
“Yeah,” Mark affirms, taking in our surroundings. “They weren’t lying about the view,” he croaks under his breath, taking a sip of water from his silver water bottle. The wind gusts in bursts, cooling us down. I make sure to take my time with the view, the perfect weather, and the safety of stable ground.
I survey the peak, capturing photos with my camera. As I make my way around the solid ground, my eyes focus on a second of the mountain where I almost died. But something about the clump of trees makes me laugh, something I can’t pinpoint — something even beautiful. Only moments ago, my death seemed so imminent, yet the exhilaration of hastily grabbing onto the nearest tree stub invigorates me. I cast one last glance at my former nemesis, then casually take out my bag of potato chips. Mark throws me a conspicuous glance as I ruffle the bag. I debate, for a moment, not eating the chips to save my water, but I can’t help myself.
Besides, I reason; I deserve a treat.
“Slow down!” I hear myself shout in haste as loose rock fragments cascade down the increasing decline.
My cousin briefly looks back, then begrudgingly slows his steps. The sun beats down on us, but now with less intensity. I consider requesting a break, but a look at my watch makes me think otherwise: 1:45 already, I state to myself. We haven’t even made it halfway.
The path now consists largely of open shale; the open side of the mountain, presumably less exposed to sun, rounds itself out, only to have patches of trees on its edges. The gravel path “Just slow down so we don’t lose each other again…” I shout to the man a good two minutes ahead of me.
I nearly catch up to my cousin, but just as I do, he takes off again. Whatever, I reason, thinking I have already seen the worst. I continue down the open decline, keeping my cousin in eyesight at the very least. At least if I fall, he will see it, I reason.
The sound rips through the canyon, my body launched downwards. At once, I find myself skidding down. The world spins around, and I don’t even know how to make sense of the whirling.
My bag hits the ground, and my hands stabilize my fall. A piercing rush of pain coarses through my bleeding hand. I look up to them, then my flustered cousin, standing 25 metres away from me. As the world stabilizes, I see him shaking his head.
“Are you OK?” he gestures. A moment passes for me to regain my ground; I slowly rise, angling myself inwards to the incline, lest I fall again.
“Yeah… had a fall, but I think I’m good.” I announce as if without even thinking about yet another near-death experience. I almost laugh at my luck, and yet I continue to forge onwards — towards this death trap. I wonder for a moment why I even opted to undertake such a dangerous hike.
FOMO, I reason at once.
I continue on the discreet path of flat, scattered platforms waiting to send me flying backward and tumbling down the mountain. I ensure to take each step with care and deliberation. The endless piles of loose shale continue in all directions causing me to question my senses; why did I opt to descend such a dicey mountain? At last, I spot a potential safe haven: along the edge of the mountain, a shaded line of small pine trees. I instinctively make my way towards the shaded area, hoping to preserve what little water I have left.
“Sean…” I hear my cousin shout from behind. What could he possibly want? I had continued at a reasonably fast pace…
As I turn around, I notice the problem: a narrowing crevasse now separates my path from my cousin’s. The gap, before easily jumpable, now features a steep fall to the very bottom of the mountain. As if to add insult to injury, I watch as a loose piece of shale briskly falls to the bottom of the blackness, aided by the gravity that only recently nearly killed me.
“Wow…” I huff in exhaustion, having almost made it to my presumed safe refuge. I increase my voice: “Well, this doesn’t look good,” I call out from across the divider.
My cousin looks at me, again shaking his head. A feint smile appears, but he thinks better of it.
“Can you come around the other side?” he asks, gesturing his head towards the incline I only recently descended. A feeling of anger comes over me, as I imagine having to backtrack, expending even more energy. I size up the ascent, then slowly make my way to my refuge; I reason that outside the sun, I might make a more calculated decision.
I finally enter the shaded area of small trees and scope out the ascent. The open quarry of loose shale stretches the whole length of the path; the V-shaped incision would take at least another 15 minutes to go around. Downwards, the crevasse seems to continue at the same size, allowing me to communicate with my cousin while still descending. The choice comes to me at once: it seems counter-productive to backtrack, and with my remaining supply of water, a descent from this side seems like a no-brainer.
“It’s OK…” I shout from across the crevasse. I hope he can hear me. “I’ll just meet you down at the bottom”. Did I just ask to separate again? I wonder, again, chastising myself. I phase out my indecision and descend with trepidation.
What feels like only minutes pass, as I try to recoup my composure and rhythm with my steps. I try to imagine a song in common time, pacing my steps to the beat.
The distance between my cousin and I narrows, but the amount of loose, flat rocks lessens, the slope gradually increasing; the slope edges off to my right side, widening to the open crevasse. I prudently take note, keeping a straight line, veering towards the small line of trees on the edge of the mountain side.
I hear my voice announce. Scratching muffles my ears, as my body tumbles down the steep decline toward the crevasse. Instinctively, my hands try to grasp on to whatever loose shale they can, but to little effect. Looking in front of me, as I gain speed, I notice I’ve cleared half the distance to the open pit of darkness. My view widens, and the world begins to pulse before me.
“This doesn’t look gooOoooD,” I mumble, watching as my chance of survival lessens. The loose shale once surrounding me now takes the form of small pebbles. I try to grab on, sliding, to no avail; the stones merely dislodge. I have to do something.
I look up to my cousin, now only a mere metres away, his concerned face now replaced with wide eyes and a dropped jaw. “Hey!” he shouts, not knowing what to say next. He points down, as if to point out the obvious: my assured demise. “Slow yourself down!” he shouts out of desperation. I turn my head to look at the distance I cleared. My hands now drag in front of me, each bump sending a jagged pain through my upper body.
Time seems to slow a crawl. I feel the world around me start to blur, but I know I must do something. I angle my body to my side and press down with my boots. The crackling sound of rocks against my body seems to quicken, and I brace for my death….
But suddenly, I stop.
A plume of dust erupts from underneath my boots. Silence fills my ears, replaced with a ringing on overdrive. I remain, clinging to the side of the flat, steep wall of rock. I can’t even make sense of it — how I don’t continue to slide down, yet somehow…
“Holy shit,” I shout out, not looking towards the small metres’ distance left to my death. I don’t know how I remain in this position, so I remain as still as possible.
“Wow,” I hear a voice from over my shoulder crudely announce. “Sean,” he pauses momentarily. “Don’t move.”
I look around to either of my sides as my cousin assesses the situation: only flat surface surrounds me. Not even a small divot in the formation offers any semblance of hope…
“Yeah…” I trail off, involuntarily shaking my head slowly and catching a glimpse of my two bent knees. My two boots seem to have only kept me from falling to my death, their edges clearly wedged into what small divot saved my life only seconds ago. “I don’t think I can get out of this…”
I can hear my cousin thinking, trying to come up with some way to save me. I picture him shuffling around, climbing as high as he can to assess my chances of survival. But I don’t dare turn around and jeopardize my life yet again. I hear him murmur something under baited breath.
“Sorry, but this doesn’t look good,” he remarks bluntly. “There’s no way I can get over too you,” he states. “It’s too long.”
Well, of course, I think, patronizing myself. Of course I made a terrible decision, opting to take the “road less travelled”, only to have it result in my demise. My position begins to numb my two legs, and I feel my knees giving in to the stress. I know I can die, but I can’t stay like this forever — especially if my cousin can’t help me.
Rocks tumble down the mountainside as I reposition my legs. I begin skidding and almost begin falling again, but I manage to stabilize my body by shifting my weight to my feet, digging their grooves into the limited divots in the stone. I almost shout out again, but I know such an act has no utility; instead, I focus on manoeuvring my body.
A sense of calm comes over me. The world feels insignificant to me, and dying somehow no longer troubles me. An invigorating clarity, instead, fills my perception. I can feel my body relax. It doesn’t make any sense, but I accept the calmness with open (legs). Before I know it, I roll my body to the other side, levelling out my torso with the incline. As if involuntarily, I feel my body climb up the flat incline like a bear. The act feels natural — almost easy; each step props me up higher along the incline. As I finally make it back up to the patches of loose shale, I get back up to my feet, taking a moment to assess my bleeding hands: ashen blood inks my hands, outlining patches of darkened incisions. I look back over to my cousin in awe, sizing me up for what just happened.
“Are you… OK?” he asks gently, his voice booming from across the crevasse. I look at my hands, then back at him, nodding slowly.
“Well, I honestly don’t know how I got out of that,” I retort matter-of-factly, maybe even a bit proud of myself. “I really almost died there,” I continue, assessing my battered legs, each of them covered in cuts and bruises.
“Yeah,” my cousin agrees. “But whatever you did worked,” he comments, nodding his head to my newfound position near the trees.
“So…” I ask. “What now?”
He motions back to the open quarry of rocks in front of him, then back to me. “Well, I can’t come over to your side, so you’ll have to either come back up and then back down to me…” he explains. I look back up to my path, imagining myself falling yet again. If I fell once there, I can surely do it again, I imagine.
Reluctantly, I decide to separate from my cousin, noting that yet another accident awaits. As if testing my luck, I once again take out my bulky phone and look at the maps: the GPS indicates that we have only made it 45% of the route. The sun beams down onto my open face. I check my bag for water and drink the last remaining reserve, fixating on the increasing number of trees on my left-hand side (the opposite side of my cousin); if I want to have any chance of making it out of this escapade alive, I reason, I’ll have to depend on those trees for shade.
What have I done? I wonder, chastising myself. My ongoing internal monologue reprimands me for my audacity: why did I opt to undertake such a challenging hike? Did I make the poor choice to separate from my cousin out of desperation?
Before me, open patches of shrub patch the steep decline, and I find myself holding on to a tree jutting out of the mountain, holding myself from falling yet again.
Baby steps, I murmur to myself. Baby steps.
I step down, releasing my grip from the sharp thorns on the tree. Immediately, I feel my body twist and fall to the ground, sliding along the protruding rocks. Tendrils of pain rip through my back side as I try to grab on to whatever surface I can.
“Aaaah!” I hear myself exclaim. My left foot’s boot grazes the side of a tree, sending my body toppling down the other direction. Just one more fall like that and I can get a concussion, I soundly reason. At once, I grab onto an oncoming tree root and pull towards me with all my strength. My body now hangs from the root, blood running down my arm. As if without even thinking about it, I lift myself back up, planting my feet back on the mountain like a mountain climber. Step-by-step, I edge towards an even patch of ground in a group of trees. Like a mountain climber rappelling up a peak, I shimmy along the side of the mountain, grabbing each small tree trunk to keep my feet anchored to the peak.
“Wow,” I hear myself mutter under my breath. Sweat trickles down my head as the sun beats down on me. Just a few more steps, and I make it to the shaded area of trees.
“Phew,” I wheeze. At once, a wave of nausea hits me; my lips feel chapped, and my body limps in soreness. An aching sensation surges from my body, and I know at once what has come over me:
I look in my bag, hoping to find some semblance of an antidote to my ailment: a liquid, a magical extra water reserve… or even an oasis, for that mater…
The thought hits me at once, and I take out my phone to confirm my plan. I remember seeing an intersection of the trail with a river. Tracing my dirty finger along the map reveals, indeed, an intersection with a river.
But who knows if it will even have water, I muse…
I take a few minutes to rest, gathering myself. I look down at my challenge in front of me and take a picture, still able to somehow appreciate my tenacity and ability to survive against all odds. Call it humanity, evolution, or just my own luck, the steep descent no longer scares me, but instead, gives me a sense of pride.
What has gotten into me, I wonder? No matter, I reason; I don’t want to leave my cousin wondering where I went.
“Mark!?”, my voice booms across the empty canyon of trees and stones.
I look at my watch, feeling my dried lips and hunched composure. I don’t know how much longer I will last; the idea of some kind of oasis clouds my judgment, meanwhile any form of a cloud seems lacking in the sky above.
The sound of my hardened voice crackles through the green patches, but I don’t hear anything back. I reprimand myself again for purchasing the cheapest phone plan, but soon stop myself as I notice a more pertinent problem in front of me: a dense array of trees with intertwining, thick branches looms ahead of me. To either side, the canyon narrows, feeding into the cluster of dense branches, making it the only way down.
Well, shit, I murmur to myself under baited breath. I laugh at the situation, noting how similar this feels to a video game: the character thrown in to more challenges, increasing with each level. In this case, I had advanced to level 3, and the going would only get tougher…
Reluctantly, I begin the level, rappelling down the jagged, rocky surface of the mountain, embracing the “downward bear crawl” technique I discovered recently. Each lunge sends me skidding down the mountain, but it feels ordinary by now; normalcy has become this mindless, primal act of descent. Each scuff mark only feels normal to me. I unwillingly congratulate myself for developing resilience for my worsening conditions.
I grab on to another tree and lunge into a shaded area. I feel like Tarzan by now, but that doesn’t even concern me. I look at my watch and notice only 2 hours remaining to sunset. That bothers me more. But the pain in my knees forces me to take another moment to rest. I don’t know if or how I’ll get out of this, but I know I will; I have to.
“Oohn”, a voice bellows, muffled through the trees.
“Mark?!”, I hear myself shout back instinctively.
Nothing. I hasten my pace, swinging along the steep incline, now a self-professed expert at the art of “skidding”. I angle my ears towards the direction of the call, trying to ascertain its origin.
“Mark?” I hear myself call again.
I only hear the rustle of tree branches conforming to my shape as I descend the dense area of branches. That has to be him, I reason.
I hang loose on the edge of the mountain, holding a loose tree root. My lips feel even more parched than before. Yet somehow, I continue down the path. Something inside me drives forward.
“Sean!” the voice now booms to my right. Of course it was Mark. I silently reprimand myself for thinking anyone else would have the audacity to undertake such a trail other than me and my cousin.
“Yeah,” I hear myself bellow back, my voice cracking in the act. “Over here!”
Finally, I think to myself, relieved. I had finally reunited with my hiking buddy.
At once, I gear up, putting in all my effort to rappel down the remaining fields of dense trees. Sweat continues to build, and I wonder if I’ll even make it without passing out. My senses seem to stagnate as I take in each breath; the world joins and separates with each step.
I’ll make it, I tell myself. I can do it, I reinforce the idea. I have to.
Moments pass in a blur, and my actions coalesce into one act of coordinated acrobatics. I no longer notice the backpack on my shoulders. None of that matters; I only need to get back to safety.
“Over here!” I hear my estranged cousin shout from beneath me. I shuffle down the grassy path, now easing in slope and recollect myself, taking out my phone. Almost there, I tell myself, noting a 100-metre proximity to the river. I continue my descent and hobble through the remaining trees, down one final hill. As I push through the final cluster of branches, a figure emerges from ahead.
“Hello, again,” I announce facetiously.
I made it.
Damn it, I hear myself mutter under baited breath.
I scan our new surroundings: a path of large, square rocks lines the path indefinitely, its snake-like pattern reminding me of my ineptitude in packing. So much for a river.
“Do you have any water?” I ask at once, no longer able to hold back my need for hydration.
My cousin walks alongside me, taking in my renewed composure: scuff marks line my frayed shorts; my red complexion and tattered clothes spell dehydration.
“If you had told me to bring extra water, I would,” he comments, looking away shyly. “But I used up the last of mine…” he states sheepishly, turning to showcase an insincere frown. At once, he notices my lack of composure.
“Well, I might have a little left”
My eyes light up like a little kid. “How much?” I quickly interrupt.
“Just a swish,” he replies, gesturing to his bag.
“OK”, I gesture. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got”
We station ourselves next to the dry river. I grab the metal water bottle and open it just as fast as I pick it up. Within moments, a world of colour returns before my eyes. I know I only have just a little, but it will have to do. The cleansing sensation comes over me, only to leave me wanting more.
“Wow, that’s it…” I trail off, frantically shaking the bottle to no avail.
Hesitantly, I hand the bottle back to my cousin, as if I may not ever do it again and attempt to regain my composure. I take out my phone and start walking again to look at the map. The map shows a continued path through the former river. Together, this time, we set out to find our only hope of making it out of this trail alive: water.
“Do you hear that?” I ask quietly, my ears perking up.
A light whisper, a whirling sound, hisses in my mind. “Don’t tell me I’m imagining it…” I trail off, thinking back to countless South African cartoons where the character discovers an oasis only to find a rock.
We stand still for a moment, but nothing sounds out of the ordinary. Mark looks back at me inquisitively, clearly also dehydrated; his emaciated face now tinged with a blood red colour.
“Nah, I don’t hear anything… maybe just the wind,” he suggests, moving forward.
We continue down the path towards a gorge of rocks. The immense boulders tower over us on both sides. So I could have fallen into that, I think to myself. The path does seem to become more narrow, however. I wonder if, perhaps, we will find water eventually. I can only hope…
Sure enough, we round the corner of the gorge and something glistens in the horizon.
“Mark — Look!” I call out, gesturing ahead of us. “I’m almost certain that’s water…” I announce, excited.
We both visibly increase our pace, destined to find out if our oasis lies ahead. The shape forms an oval… then a widened hole. As we finally approach, we examine the small puddles of water in putrid yellow. I just as quickly imagine myself drinking urine and scoff at the idea, wiping my spit away from my rose-red face.
“No way I’m drinking that,” I hear Mark mutter, kneeling down to assess the murky, disgusting water. I approach to assess myself and can’t help but feel repulsed by the smell. I admit to myself that I would feel shortchanged if I found water only moments later.
Well, so much for nothing, I muse, moving on, wondering if I had left my only chance of survival. We continue on, hopping along the giant rocks shaped by the former river. The path seems to narrow as more brightly-coloured shrubs line the shore.
Then it hits me: berries.
I hastily shuffle to the red berries I had seen before and identify them. Their bright red colour resembles that of currants.
Without thinking twice, I grab the berries and stuff them into my mouth. The sensation comes over me at once: satiating bitterness and quenching liquid, followed by bitter sweetness, only to subside after each brief moment. I soon find myself feasting like a savage, each berry a brief moment of sanctity in my quest for water.
“Mark, you’ll want to try this!” I shout from the shore, mouth still gushing with flavours.
I see my cousin standing on the other side, nervously checking the time. How long have I taken? I wonder, brushing it off to indulge in another serving.
“I’m good. And we have to get going,” he instructs me from across the dry river. I look at my watch in response, noting we have less than an hour left.
I comply and reluctantly separate from the berries, this time with some sense of hope.
It only takes another fifteen minutes for us to reach a small indicator of human civilization: the esteemed, Canadian Inukshuk.
We marvel at the structure, appreciating that we may possibly make it back to civilization. Then, as if a good omen, we spot a glistening ahead of us.
“Do you hear that?” I ask again inquisitively.
We hastily rush over to the glistening, and the sound of water fills our ears. An innocent incision in the ground glistens: a natural source of water, a natural spring.
“Voila!” I announce, relishing in my findings. I look down at the clear water, a stark contrast from the previous putrid yellow water.
I look over to my cousin, again shuffling anxiously. He shudders for a moment, then looks away, shrugging. “I’m not going to drink that,” he states.
My mind wanders, and I catch myself in the act, just long enough to reconsider — but I don’t. Just like with the berries, I take out my water bottle and fill it to the brim, showering myself in my newfound glory.
The world erupts in colours once again, and the sensation of cold water rushes down my body. At once, sanity returns, and I regain my composure.
“Wow,” I mumble, wiping my dry lips. “You sure you don’t want to try this?” I ask. “It tastes fine…”
My cousin declines again, and we continue on. The path rounds again, around a cave. We notice the light subsiding, but that doesn’t phase me; I note that my phone still has 87% battery.
Once we climb the final hill to round the corner to the beginning of the hike, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment overcomes me.
“You know, Mark,” I begin nonchalantly. “Despite all these hardships, this was one hell of a hike…” I state, then add: “(no pun intended)”. We both laugh, chuckling about how I almost died three times. Just as we finish our laughs, we spot our car at the bottom of the hill.
However, for some reason, Mark now fumbles with his loose clothing, as if searching for something. He ruffles his jacket, then takes out a small bottle.
“Well, would you look at that…” he remarks sheepishly.
He twists open the extra water bottle, drinking it all in one fell swoop.