Fourteen hours can stream by like an unending stiff breeze. It grows and grows, and you have to continually push down what’s inside of you to keep it from becoming a hurricane.
Because the hurricane is already over. And it wasn’t for you anyway. The hurricane swept up around the family of three as their minivan slid off the mountain pass and down into deepening snow drifts. Or the hikers in death valley as they looked out over the hill they crested and saw nothing for miles.
I used to wonder if the hurricane would come for me. It doesn’t work if you find someone already caught in it. Their hurricane is only for them. You can’t share it. For you it’s more of the steady beating wind, the gnaw of dread. What if I’m too late?
But everyone has their own hurricanes, and maybe mine would sweep me up if I found the right person at the right time. If their pulse fluttered lightly under my fingers and I knew they only had limited time. That she had limited time. In my mind it was always she.
But their hurricane was already past at that point, already dwindling to the weak wind of defeat and acceptance. And for me it is always a stiff breeze, peaking when they are found, dwindling away if they aren’t. No matter how close they sit to death, it isn’t me death is coming for.
I’ve given up on it really. You can’t find a hurricane, it has to come to you. It has to sneak up on you and pounce in the moment you realize how truly fucked you are. And I’m never truly fucked. I’ve been volunteer search and rescue for more years than my kids have been alive. And they’re all through college if you’re wondering.
No, these days when I’m out on the trail, my boots crunching in the hard snow, I hardly feel the breeze at all. The breeze is for younger, hungrier men. Men who still think they can change the world. Besides, it’s been three days, with two new feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures for the last two nights. The breeze is just the soft mourne of the inevitable dirge.
I’m 100 yards west of my partner, working our way through the thick underbrush of a ravine. Here the snow is packed and frozen, some cascaded down from the ridge above. The ridge the trail runs on. The car of the couple we’re looking for is still down at the small turnoff where they left it. Who knows why they parked there instead of at the base of the trail. Wanted to get a head start maybe. Or not have to pay for a pass. Also less likely that the ranger would see their car and wonder if they needed help.
But none of that matters. It’s just the first of what is bound to be many small errors. No one makes just one collosal mistake that sends us out looking for them. It’s the small accumulation of errors that kills you in the end.
Branches scratch against my clothes and try to steal my hat as I push through a thicket. It’s the small accumulation of errors that kills everything in the end. Margaret was always beautiful, right until the day she left. She was most beautiful that day.
My watch beeps and I shout out to my partner on the other side of the ridge, hear his echoing shout back. I stop and lift my goggles to peer farther out. The clear sky is blindingly bright, and my eyes water immediately before I quickly pull the goggles back down. Beauty is blinding in that way I suppose. I’m glad I’ve got eye protection. Like hurricanes, manliness is only for young men.
My partner emerges from the trees and I have to smile. He squints at the ravine, still young enough to refuse the extra pair of goggles I offered him. His face is covered by a thick black beard and he bounds through the snow as if he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s infectious and I laugh out loud, forgetting the somber nature of our mission. Then he’s at the top of the ravine and waves down at me that he’s going to the other side. I wave him on and head up that way myself. It’s getting a little late, but we might as well have a look. There’s nothing here anyway.
The path follows a ridge that on this side forms the narrow ravines that we are exploring. On the other side, the ridge falls away in a great bowl. Other teams have already been through there, but a quick look won’t hurt anything.
I hike up to the ridge and stop to enjoy the view and eat a few handfuls of gorp. I don’t go for energy bars. Simplest is still best in most cases. The ridge continues up for another two miles before reaching the peak, but it levels out here for a ways before turning verticle again. Every peak is imposing. Every mountain a challenge. And one thing about humans is that they can’t resist a challenge. People do crazy challenges. Drink a gallon of milk in an hour. Eat a tablespoon of cinnamon. They record themselves doing it and then put it on the internet.
We’re a funny species.
I wash the gorp down with some water. Crystal cold water is unrivaled, even here in the bitter cold wind of the ridge. It sure is beautiful.
That’s when I see it. The little spot of pink in the wide wash of blue sky and white snow. It’s down in the ravine at the edge of the treeline. Somehow I missed it on the way up.
I give a shout to Dillon, pointing back down the ridge and see him pause before nodding and heading back my way.
My steps back down are heavier. We all knew they were dead, but it’s another thing to find them. Hope never really dies I suppose.
The pink is the arm of a jacket. She’s not really buried, just covered with enough of a snowbank to hide her. I uncover her quickly, and then her husband. She lays at an angle, her legs drawn in close against her, arms around her knees. And next to her, partly underneath her now, is her husband. His arms in their black coat are wrapped around her, one hand gloveless and clasped in hers.
Ah hell. How the hell did they end up down here? Why would they leave the trail in the middle of a snowstorm? Some misplaced foot that slipped? I can’t tell from the boots if any ankles were twisted. I can see her falling and her husband coming down after her. Or maybe he fell and she came for him. It’s not always the man who rescues I suppose. Were they lost and trying to take a shortcut back to the car?
I shook my head. The questions can eat you alive. They leave, muttering that they’ll be back later tonight when I’m laying alone in my bed.
There was no big slip in my marriage. No affairs. Just the daily grind. The moments of almost opening and then choosing not too. When the kids came, for a while life was just so busy and we forgot to make room for opening. It’s easier to clam up than take the time and energy to share.
By the time things slowed down again we’d forgotten how to do it. And the thing about opening your heart is that it’s a lot easier to do with someone new. A thousand small decisions every day. A thousand chances to turn away.
I guess that’s what happened. I can’t figure it out myself.
A shout from Dillon and he begins to make his way toward me. The smile on his face is gone, but not the intense energy of making things happen.
“Well shit.” He says.
“I’ll get the sled.” I say, turning to toward the trees where we left it.
Dillon kicks the snow and pulls small dead branches from a tree. “Dammit!”
We knew the outcome, but seeing it is something else altogether.
He thrusts his ice axe into the snow and undoes the lanyard. We’ll have to dig them out and knock them loose in order to load them. I eye the axe, but he’s a big man with a lot of experience. He knows what he’s doing. I’ve never used one myself. Always just used ski poles, and spikes. Spikes are dangerous enough without an axe waving around.
When I get back with the sled he’s already dug them out. We slide them onto the sled and tie them down, and Dillon stomps to the front to take the reins. He’s angry now. Lost in the questions. We both are. Stupid kids.
The temperature drops as we make our way down. It’s getting dark fast. Stupid to stay out late. But then again we wouldn’t have found them if we’d left.
After a while I stop. We should have passed the Widow’s Peak trail by now. Surely we didn’t miss the turnoff? Dillon keeps on going ahead of me, his feet trudging over the snow. He’s working his anger through the ropes, grinding it underneath the weight of the sled and the cold frozen snow. At this temperature snow really is a solid. It takes a bit to melt even if you hold it in your hand, and it rasps on the sled like gritty sand.
Let him work it then. We’re probably almost to the trail. The gathering darkness is just making me jumpy.
Margaret always hated that about me. “Don’t second guess me.”
“But honey you left the burner on.”
“No I didn’t. And that’s not the point anyway.”
And maye it wasn’t. But the burner had been on. The house was filled with smoke when they got home, the pan on the burner seared to a crisp. Still, it was nothing permanent.
Twenty minutes later the darkness is complete and I stop again.
“Dillon, shouldn’t we have met up with the widow’s peak trail by now?”
He pauses to look around.
“Doesn’t Widow’s Peak meet up with us and continue down this way?”
“No, it doesn’t. I think Tuckerman’s meets Widow’s Peak and we have to veer off on it for a bit until we begin to work our way down to the base. If we just follow Tuckerman’s like this it veers off the face and continues down slowly into a big bowl.
Which, I realize, is exactly what we’ve done.
I’m a big fool. Ruminating about my ex wife instead of paying attention to where we are.
Dillon groans out load and takes a map in a zip lock bag from his pocket. We examine it together, and it’s clear that we’ve passed the turn off by at least a mile. There’s nothing for it but to head back up.
We switch off and I take the reins, hauling the sled behind me. It has to be below zero now. My lips are cold and my nose numb even beneath the balaclava. I have icecicles on my eyelashes. There’s a hum now, but I barely notice it. The stiff breeze has returned, more urgent now, but still nothing like a hurricane.
The turn off is hard to miss on the way up. We get on the right trail and the breeze subsides. Home stretch. It’s steep trail here, but only three miles to the parking lot. I’d whistle if it wouldn’t hurt my teeth.
Dillon is a few feet behind the sled, coming up a rise while I’m guiding the sled down the other side, walking backwards with my toe spikes dug into the icy snow. I take a step and my foot slips and my knee goes down hard into the ice. Then my other foot is loose too and I’m sliding down, the sled coming down after me. And at the bottomI stop and turn to see their two frozen faces in the dark and they rush at me as the sled grinds over my face, ripping off my goggles and headlamp. I feel nothing but the cold burn of the sled across my face.
And far far louder than the dim far away shouts from Dillon, the hurricane rushes up and howls. I’d smile in greeting if I wasn’t so scared.