You’ve Got This Whole Place to Yourself Tonight
The following is a guest post by Michael Seymour Blake
I belt out some Bowie on the two and a half hour car ride to the Slide Mountain Wilderness.
When Janet Jackson’s “If” comes on, I sing/yell, “If I was your girl, the things I’d do to you. I’d make you call out my name, I’d ask who it belongs to,” and then mumble the verses until the chorus hits again. In between songs my guts get sour with the thought of sleeping alone in the mountains. Then “Born to Run” starts and I’m moving my ass and drumming the steering wheel.
I arrive at the trailhead around 9am, pack stuffed full with a three-person tent. My hiking partner backed out last minute and I didn’t have time to get a one-person. Extra bulk, extra weight, extra stress. It’s my first solo backpacking trip. There are 15-plus miles and 4,829 feet of elevation gain waiting for me.
After a quick stretch, I set off into the woods.
I find myself flanked by towering walls of bright green leaves, and bang my trekking poles together to let nearby bears know I’m coming and they need to get the fuck out of the area.
I’m convinced a bear/big cat is stalking me.
After a few rock scrambles and steep ascents, I realize I’ve underestimated this trail. I fantasize about walking on flat ground again, grunting with even minimal physical effort. I summit Mt. Wittenberg and sit on the open rock shelf overlooking miles of Catskills wilderness. Distant mountains and lakes beam at me. The sun feels good. A squirrel tries to steal food from my pack, which I’ve placed on the ground a few feet away. I yell, “Nope.” It assesses the situation, decides it’s too risky, and runs off.
And then back into the woods. The trail evens out some and I’m grateful for that because those steep ascents have sucked the life out of me. I amble along the path, dirt and pebbles crunching under my trail runners. Another summit (overgrown with no real views), and then I’m nearing the campsite. I haven’t seen anyone for hours.
A part-time ranger passes by.
“You’ve got this whole place to yourself tonight,” he says with a smile.
He assumes I’m happy about it, but all I can think is, “Damn, no one around to document my gory death.”
After setting up the tent and checking for ticks, I boil some water and have a dinner of ramen, dehydrated vegetables, and mashed potato powder. I clean up. Time to hang the bear bag. My shoulders are sore and I’m exhausted, so I try to put some oomph in the rock sack toss because I only have one good one in me. The rock sack whips through the air and winds around a branch a trillion and five times.
Too much oomph. Way too much oomph.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, mother fuck!” Let it out, no one can hear you.
Should I cut the line, tie a rock to one end and start over, leaving the sack up in the tree? Should I sleep with my food under me? I don’t like those options. I contemplate climbing the tree. Not possible, it’s twenty feet straight up. I squint at the branch. Looks kinda dead. I give the line a tug. The branch is dead, but it’s still got some oomph of its own. I wrap the line around both my arms, take a few steps towards the tree, turn, break into a sprint. The line digs into my body, I keep pulling with whatever shitty energy I have. The branch starts to give. I renew my efforts with a caveman grunt. The branch snaps off, lands in the patchy grass behind me.
My second bear hang is picture perfect. I hop in the tent.
The forest is not a quiet place. As darkness slides in, I spend an hour and a half convinced tonight is the night I make the papers. There’s no one to nudge awake and ask, “Did you hear that?” There’s only me, and yes, I did hear that.
Why am I doing this? What am I running from? How close is the nearest exit to civilization? I check the map. Is it insane to bail out now? I picture breaking camp in the fractured moonlight, navigating the trails with my headlamp until I reach the road, then successfully hitchhiking in an area I’m not familiar with back to the parking lot. I don’t budge. Every creak and rustle sends fresh adrenaline coursing into my brain. My temples throb. Also, I need to pee.
I force myself to go outside into the bloodthirsty wilderness. “It’s amazing that we can just use the toilet whenever we feel like it, and it’s fine. No danger. We’re so lucky,” I think as I urinate, sure that something is about to pounce.
Back in the tent I make a promise to myself while gripping my small knife to my chest that if I go down, I’ll go down fighting and I’ll hit record on my phone so that someone will post the footage and I’ll finally get the attention I’ve desired my whole life. Go out a YouTube star, mother fucker.
The wind blows and the leaves giggle. The whole forest is laughing at me. Fuck you, forest. But the forest isn’t laughing, it’s just making noises because that’s what forests do. Unfuck you, forest. We’re cool. The panic dulls. I don’t sleep for hours, mostly due to physical discomfort. Then I drift off.
Morning, I eat, pack up, and tweak something in my back. I sit down for ten minutes and pop a few painkillers. Little over seven miles until the parking lot. I fill my water bottles and take it slow.
Spider webs shimmer in the rising sunlight. They trail off my clothes and hat. I feel them across my face. Gnats swarm around. I pull up my buff and keep moving. After all the ups and downs, I’m faced with a set of crude stone steps long as Godzilla’s tail. I take four breaks on the ascent. My back whines and yelps. I sweat so much I half-expect to see a slug-like trail in my wake.
Then, after a rocky descent, I see the glint of the car between some trees. When I reach it, I stretch a bit and take a breath. This was not a massive accomplishment. People go months solo. But this is my first time, and it feels like something.
I get in the car and fire up some Pink because why the fuck not, let’s have some fun.
I pull out of the lot, singing.
Michael Seymour Blake’s work has appeared at Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Barrelhouse, Fanzine, Flapperhouse, Entropy, People Holding, and Heavy Feather Review. He writes/doodles in Queens, and hikes as often as he can. You can follow him on Instagram, or visit his highly neglected website
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