To celebrate my birthday this year, James, the baby, and I went for a 5-mile hike up Grizzly Peak at 7:00 a.m. while it was still cool outside.
The older kids didn’t want to come so we left them at home.
A better parent would have insisted they accompany us.
A better wife would have noticed sooner—four and a half years ago—when her husband was gone for five hours.
As we hiked up the trail my thoughts drifted back to when we first moved to Ashland…
“Did you call Search and Rescue yet?” James banged through the door, flushed and sweaty.
“Just a sec.” I was furiously revising an article. I barely looked up from my desk.
James peeled off his jacket, went to the fridge for a beer.
“Weren’t you worried?”
He was unusually animated.
“Do you know what time it is?”
I put down my pen.
I didn’t. As soon as I had put the kids to bed I had run back to work. James had gone to hike Grizzly Peak. He brought his shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute) and a sketchpad in a small backpack.
No water. No flashlight. No cell phone.
“Ten p.m.!” James cried. “I got lost. I hurried back because I was sure you’d have called Search and Rescue by now.”
I started listening for real then. When he pulled into the parking lot there were two other cars. The sun was almost on the horizon but he figured he’d have enough daylight left to make the climb. On his run up the mountain path, he passed the two couples coming down.
At the top of Grizzly Peak was a glorious sunset. He sat on a rock, looked out over the valley that had recently become our new home, and blew the shakuhachi—the eerie wails of the flute disappearing over the mountain.
The sun was down but James pulled out his sketchpad anyway. By the time he finished the last stroke of a watercolor of Mt. Shasta his fingers were stiff from cold. He started running briskly down the mountain.
The darkness deepened. James quickened his pace, leaping over roots and rocks.
Then he lost his footing and fell, scraping his hands and knees on the bramble on the ground.
It was so dark then, the night on the north side so unrelieved by any light, that his hands in front of him were barely visible.
Slowing his pace to a tentative walk, James suddenly found brush and trees blocking his way.
He didn’t remember bushwhacking up the mountain so he knew he made a wrong turn.
Upwind he smelled an animal smell—the warm musky scent of something mammalian, not human, and not far away.
At this point in the story James paused and took a long gulp of beer.
There was already frost at night in Ashland.
Four thousand feet higher on Grizzly Peak, it was much colder. James was clad in shorts and a lightweight T-shirt.
“I kept thinking about hugging the baby,’” he said. “I just wanted to see the kids again.”
On hands and knees he patted the ground, feeling his way back to the path by the texture of the earth. But he couldn’t feel where it turned, and crawled along the same stretch, back and forth.
Widening his search, he finally felt the sharp drop where the path takes an acute turn. It led him back to the parking lot, where he could barely pick the car out of the blackness of a moonless night.
Have you ever noticed how food tastes much better when you eat it outside? There’s something about being in nature that makes us more alive. And something about being threatened by a wild animal that makes us appreciate what’s most important in our lives. I snuggled Baby Leone a little closer to me as James and I reached the summit, pulling the hood over her head to protect her from the sun.