by Michael Barron
They have been driving north from the city since dawn. The car is an ancient 1980s maroon Subaru hatchback with a half-broken tape deck that only plays cassettes in reverse. The radio is tuned into the local weather station; the forecast predicts rain.
Not far from the Vermont/Massachusetts border, they stop at an outdoor fitting store. One of them, the taller one, buys a hatchet. The shorter one purchases a headlamp. The owner gives them a discount card to the grocery store where they purchase an abundance of food but receive no discount. Bullshit. They return the card to the owner. It didn’t work, they say. I didn’t say it would, replies the owner.
Issue #50 soundtrack: Triad God "Pok"
Outside the store, two hikers are sitting idly eating apples. One of them says, If you guys can give us a lift back to the trail, we’ll show you a place where you can safely park your car. Hop in, says the taller one. The inside of the car begins to smell heavily of locker room and campfire wood. One hiker directs them to a service road that takes them deep into a forest. This is it, says the hiker. He points to a patch of bare land under a power line. The hikers exit the car and set off without a word of thanks. Those assholes; I don’t see how this is safe, says the shorter one. It’s too late to turn around now, says the taller one.
A half-hour later the two are on the trail. It is wide enough to fit a tank, but the only army on the trail is the mosquitoes bombshelling their skin. Up a ways, a tall birch tree hangs over the trail like a gated entrance. No one else is around and aside from the buzzing of insects and the constant swatting of hands upon skin, all is quiet.
They come to an intersection. In one direction runs the Long Trail; and in the other, the tank trail. There is a crop of rocks where they can see everything: the town, the highway, the sun, the shopping center. Something moves within a nearby bush. The taller one climbs up and spreads his arms out like the Vitruvian Man. The shorter one turns on his cellphone to take a picture and receives a message from his sister: dad is in the hospital.
I have to make a phone call, says the shorter one. Do what you need, says the taller one. His arms are still raised to the landscape. The shorter one dials his sister. Our father is getting old, she says. He is having old man problems, that’s all. Enjoy your hike. She hangs up. He looks at his blank cellphone, which looks silly in the forest. We can keep going, says the shorter one. My dad will be okay. The taller one is now lying in a bed of moss bathed in sunlight. That’s good, he says. Nothing moves for a moment. Then he slowly rises and shakes off little twigs that cling to his back.
They come to a county road that breaks the forest in two. On the other side is a parking lot with a single occupant: a tiger-striped Chevy Camaro that has the vanity plate “Heavy Boss.” They stop and watch as the driver rummages through the backseat, pulls out a bag of laundry, and heads to the creek. He catches a glimpse of them staring at him. What the fuck are you looking at? he asks. They raise their hands in apology and continue down the path.
The day is getting late. They have to race the setting sun to camp. Camp is an open-faced cabin filled with boisterous hikers. A short distance away, they find a bunch of level wooden platforms. We’re really roughing it now, aren’t we? says the taller one. Dinner is mac & cheese and whiskey. After the meal, the taller one packs the dishes into a rubber bag where the rest of the food is kept. The shorter one clips the bag shut with a rope and tosses the other end over a high tree branch. He pulls the bag up until it is far above the ground. Bearproof.
They decide to introduce themselves to the cabin hikers who have started a fire nearby. One of them asks for their trail names. Chevy Camaro, says the taller one. Heavy Boss, says the other. I’m the Colonel, says one of the other hikers. See my hat? See the insignia on it? He taps on a silver bird pinned to an army cap. Not just any colonel, I’m The Colonel, he says proudly. He points to an Asian-looking hiker. That’s Dragonfly, and that’s Gladiator. He moves his pointed finger to a beefed-up female. You all sound like a bunch of superheroes, says Heavy Boss. I hiked with someone who called himself Super Fucking Hero in North Carolina, says Dragonfly. Laughter then silence. North Ca-ro-li-na! shouts the Colonel. Hey, shut up! says a voice from the cabin. More silence. Chevy Camaro and Heavy Boss get up and wave goodbye. Night, says Gladiator. Super fucking night! says the Colonel. Dude, chill, says Dragonfly.
In the morning––sun salutations and oatmeal. Then up another mountain for a mile or so until the two of them come to a clearing. A large grass-mowed corridor cuts across the mountain like a bad haircut. The path follows it up to the summit, where they find a strange spaceship-like building. A ski-lift is still operative despite it being the month of August. There is a fire tower on the other side of the summit that offers 360 degree views. The town is much farther away now. Countless peaks dot the landscape. Countless names with hearts are written on the banister. Some chiseled, others with a sharpie marker. Many people have fallen in love here.
While Chevy Camaro stares out deep in contemplation, Heavy Boss goes in search of an outhouse. He finds one tucked away within some thorny brush not far from the ski-lift. When he opens the door, the smell that greets him almost causes him to vomit. Inside there is a bucket full of sawdust and a single cut hole within which a pile of sawdust and shit form a mountain. Flies buzz everywhere, with the majority congregating near his ass. He has never tried to shit so quickly.
The path now leads down the other side of the mountain. Leaves the size of small babies hang over the path. I haven’t heard a single animal, says Heavy Boss. Not a bird, a trample through the brush, nothing. The animals must smell us, replies Chevy Camaro. I’m sure trail hikers get the same reaction when they go to town for supplies. Like those stinky assholes yesterday.
They arrive at a gorge where people are filling their canteens with water using an antique well pump. A teenage kid asks to take their picture. I’m making a collection of everyone on the trail, he says. How old are you? asks Heavy Boss. The kid snaps his photo. That’s none of your business, the kid says and scampers off.
They are passing other hikers now––most are elderly with safari hats, hiking poles, and big wool socks up to their knees. At the next peak, they come across a lesbian couple resting in each other’s arms with identical packs and outfits. Heavy Boss checks his cellphone. There is a large crack in the glass. When he turns on the phone, the screen is a gooey mess of pixels. I’m cut off! says Heavy Boss. Chevy Camaro is enjoying a view from the peak. Yeah, that’s kind of the point of being out here, says Chevy Camaro. You’ll just have to relax. Follow my example. Come here and look at this landscape. Heavy Boss stands next to him. Look at these rolling mountains. Chevy Camaro glides his hand over the scenery. I feel like I’m staring at the waves of an ocean waiting for them to do something unexpected, says Heavy Boss. That’s just not the attitude to have, replies Chevy Camaro. I keep thinking about my dad, says Heavy Boss. I’m worried that he might really be sick and my sister won’t tell me so. You can’t think about that. What if this was your dad we were talking about, replies Heavy Boss. My dad’s been dead for years, says Chevy Camaro.
They arrive at a lake and break for lunch. The lake is pristine––perfect for a postcard. There isn’t a sign of anyone else around. Chevy Camaro strips down to his boxers and swims to a boulder on the opposite bank. Heavy Boss can see him waving his arms to join. He starts to swim across but midway through, stops. There isn’t another body in the lake aside from Chevy Camaro, but he is sitting on a boulder. For this brief moment, the lake belongs to Heavy Boss. And then it begins to rain.
When they get back to shore, they eat apples, cheese, and bread under the cover of trees. Chevy Camaro pulls out a map. Ten miles to the next camp, he says. He looks up at the sky and sniffs. The glow of the sun can be seen behind the pouring rain. Reminds me of that Alanis Morrisette song, “Ironic,” says Heavy Boss. This isn’t ironic, this is unfair, replies Chevy Camaro. Is anything she says in that song ironic, he asks. No, that’s the irony, says Chevy Camaro.
The path is now artificially lifted by wooden planks nailed on top of logs. Three golden retrievers trot by, though there is no sign of the owners. The wind has picked up; the path is more rocky. They cross a tributary on a bridge built with good wood and held taut by cables. Looks like someone’s Eagle scout project, says Heavy Boss. I was almost an Eagle scout, says Chevy Camaro, but I was raised in the city. You go from Webelo to Talent Scout. That’s a really bad joke, says Heavy Boss.
On the other side, they find Dragonfly and Gladiator from the night before. Dragonfly passes them a joint. They each take a hit. Where’s the Colonel? asks Heavy Boss. Gladiator takes the joint back. Do we look like his parents? replies Gladiator. The dude can take care of himself. We’re going to keep going, you want to join us? asks Heavy Boss. Gladiator replies with a blunt No. Dragonfly giggles.
Chevy Camaro starts talking about a novel he is working on. It’s going to be about the Brooklyn poetry scene circa 2010. Am I in it? asks Heavy Boss. Perhaps. If you find that you resemble a character, then it’s probably you. So I am in it. Not necessarily, maybe you won’t find anyone resembling yourself. Or maybe you won’t recognize yourself. I also don’t really write poetry, says Heavy Boss. Than you have nothing to worry about, replies Chevy Camaro.
They emerge from the path onto a road. White trail markers continue the trail on the opposite shoulder toward a parking lot. As they cross a car appears, swerves, honks, keeps going. They are getting tired and blistered. What’s the point of this? Chevy Camaro asks. Pain? Suffering? Heavy Boss doesn’t answer. Two hikers they haven’t seen before pass them on the trail.
Their progression has slowed ––by the time they reach the lakeside camp, dusk has begun to define itself. The camp is practically a city of tents. There are tents pitched on rocks, tents pitched over streams, tents pitched at odd angles on slopes. It’s a popular enough destination that it has its own on-site caretaker––a pudgy girl with a hemp necklace and dreads. She says that the lake shelter is full, but recommends a space another mile down the path, away from the lake, for a price. The girl takes a ten dollar fee from each of them, and then inquires what they each do. When she finds out they both work in publishing, she asks for advice on getting a book published. Self-publish, says Chevy Camaro.
The path skirts the lake for a short distance. In the dwindling light, Heavy Boss can make out the gathering of rain clouds. I’m going for another swim, says Chevy Camaro and nods to the lake. Now? In the dark? It’s now or never. Heavy Boss watches as his friend swims out into the water. There is barely enough light to spot him in the water. When Chevy Camaro is far from shore, it begins to drizzle. We should get going, yells Heavy Boss. Chevy Camaro gently makes his way back to shore. That was wonderful, he says. Don’t worry, I got my share of water, says Heavy Boss. The path leads them back in the forest. After a mile they come to a clearing with a sign hammered into its middle that says, “Campground.” Tents are pitched on soaked grass. Dinner is whiskey and cigarettes and oatmeal. They finish off the whiskey before bed. During the night, the rain becomes torrential. Heavy Boss’s tent soaks almost completely through, except for a small spot in the middle where he sleeps lying fetal.
The sound of a cat wakes them both. It’s like a meow but more guttural. The forest is dunked in fog. Steam rises from the ground. Trees look half-erased. Heavy Boss fetches water from a nearby stream and notices the abandoned remains of a car. Chevy Camaro leads the two of them through the rain. The forest sounds as though it is screeching. Then the forest changes. The deciduous trees and rain come to an abrupt end. They enter a pine forest. Everything is at once bright green and decaying brown. Dead pine needles cover the path like matted hair. They come across a shrine––numerous offerings of stacked rocks. There is an auxiliary path to a point with a promised view. They find only blankness.
It begins to rain again. A stream of day hikers passes them as they descend from the mountain. Beautiful day for a hike, an elderly hiker says. They refill their water bottles at a large waterfall that slips down several large boulders. The rain strengthens; it’s the only sound either of them can hear. At the bottom a road cuts the mountain in two. A man with glasses and buck teeth gawks at them from a passing car. On the way back into the mountains, the sun reemerges and burns away the fog. At the summit is a field of posies and a sign hammered into a nearby tree: No ATVs, If You Please.
They stop for lunch at a break in the forest that overlooks a small airport with a single landing strip. The sun, for once, is bright in the sky. Their clothes, damp with sweat and rain, bake dry. Lunch is apples, bread, and cheese––the last of it. They watch as a small private plane makes a successful landing. Good lunch entertainment, says Chevy Camaro. He takes his phone out of his bag. Wow, so many emails, says Chevy Camaro. I thought you were opposed to phones and emails while on this trip, replies Heavy Boss. I go by how I feel day by day, says Chevy Camaro. Do you want to check your email? No, I’m offline now, says Heavy Boss.
It’s the early afternoon. They still have fourteen miles to hike before they reach the next camp. Wet rocks make the path back down the mountain perilous. Heavy Boss slips and slides down an embankment. He’s dazed but unhurt. They reach a swimming hole at the bottom of a small cliff. A young teenage boy, with dyed black hair and a Frank Black shirt, sits with his arms wrapped around his knees on a large boulder. He is staring at a young girl in a bikini. Chevy Camaro yells to the girl. She tells them how to get to the swimming hole safely. The water has bored holes through and bowls into the rocks. A stream rushes through the boulders so quickly that one can swim in place against it. Heavy Boss notices the teenager glaring at them. He waves and the teenager flicks him off. Chevy Camaro checks the time. It is now late afternoon. Dusk is in a couple of hours. We need to keep moving, he says.
They return to the trail that runs across a bridge overlooking the swimming hole. The bikini girl waves to them, but the teenage boy has disappeared. They emerge onto a large field with a stretch of road. There are stepladders in parts that climb over barbed wire fences laid over the path. It grows steeper as they hike until they have to rock climb to get up the next mountain. Heavy Boss puts his hand in one rock crag and hears the hiss of a snake. He jerks his hand back and causes a rock to tumble down, almost hitting Chevy Camaro. This is becoming a dangerous journey, he says. At the top is another view of the airport. A man stands shirtless at the precipice. That is one fine airport, he says. They pass a farm where cows look curiously at the two hikers. At another road, Heavy Boss spots a dead butterfly and puts it in between the pages of a book.
The path is now bordered by two rivers. It’s getting dark and camp is still a few miles away. Heavy Boss is eager to move faster, but Chevy Camaro doesn’t care to rush. Let me go at my own pace, he says. Fine, I’ll see you at camp, says Heavy Boss and dashes ahead. It becomes difficult to see the trail. Heavy Boss makes a wrong turn and ends up on a road with mountain shacks and cabins. He can hear people laughing and loud music playing. he heads in their direction. He discovers a birthday party. Everyone in attendance is a caricature of a hillbilly: big burly men with long birds sit on lawn chairs, bellies out. An elderly lady rocks back and forth on a rocking chair. Woman wearing much make-up shout at children running amok. I’m lost, says Heavy Boss to the party. Some of the attendees give him a look over. An obese woman in tight spandex offers him a plate of cake. A man with missing teeth offers him a Michelob. He declines them both and asks for directions to the shelter. The spandex woman fetches a a wizened, yellow-bearded man in blue overalls with no shirt underneath. He points out an old abandoned wagon path running next to the house. That will take you to the shelter, says the old man. Someone offers Heavy Boss another beer, a can of Budweiser. He takes it. Happy Birthday, says Heavy Boss.
It’s dark now. He has to use his headlamp to see the remnants of an overgrown path. The sounds of the forest are making Heavy Boss’s mind run wild. He think he hears the roar of a mountain cat. He is startled at what he imagines are the glassy eyes of a bear. He takes off into a sprint. He is running so fast that he almost misses the camp shelter. Rain and dark and camp converge into this one moment in time. He couldn’t be more grateful. Inside the shelter he finds Dragonfly, The Colonel, and Gladiator, all dry as a bone. Heavy Boss! Gladiator shouts. We didn’t think you two would make it. Where’s your friend? I don’t know, replies Heavy Boss, I left him behind. The three hikers give Heavy Boss a nod and leave him in peace. He sits and drinks the Budweiser as he waits for Chevy Camaro. Fifteen minutes pass, then forty-five. He gets anxious and lights a cigarette, and almost doesn’t notice the soft glow emerging from the forest. It’s Chevy Camaro. He arrives soaked and takes a drag from the lit cigarette without saying a word. They eat dried apples and then go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Heavy Boss wakes up to the sound of Chevy Camaro vomiting.
5 a.m. wake up call. The rain has stopped. A middle-aged man wearing a raincoat and galoshes emerges from a tent pitched outside the shelter. Quite the climb today, says the man looking up at the mountain. Tallest in the range. Breakfast is a canteen of water. For the first hour Chevy Camaro and Heavy Boss don’t speak. But the forest is cacophonous: Birds call to other birds. Neon salamanders dart across the path. A buck eyes them with suspicion. Several spider webs gate the trail and entangle the two hikers as they push their way forward. Chevy Camaro lags behind and looks as though he might collapse from exhaustion. Heavy Boss walks ahead until he notices that Chevy Camaro is no longer following him. Back down the trail Heavy Boss finds Chevy Camaro sitting on a boulder with his head drooped. I was sick the entire night, he says. Give me a moment. Then, as if waking up, Chevy Camaro rises and stretches his arms. When I get back, he says, I may take a vacation and go to the beach.
The climb is gentle; the miles pass by without notice. From further up the mountain they begin to hear the sounds of machinery, as if from a foundry. Near the summit, a woman points to the trail leading to the top. It’s brutal, she says. They leave their packs under the awning of nearby cabin. They have to climb on all fours to get to the summit. They are right above the fog line. A blanket of clouds is a mere few feet below them. If one fell, it would be into a void. Heavy Boss points to a break in the clouds that has opened like a window onto blue sky. People say that this is what the inside of the Bermuda Triangle is like, he says. Windows of clouds. This is probably be the closest you’ll get to being inside of the Bermuda triangle, replies Chevy Camaro. Enjoy it while you can.
The summit is a network of small paths. One leads to a fire tower, another to a control station, and another still to the unseen machine that disrupts the quiet. The machine is much louder here, but try as they might to find its source, all paths lead back down the mountain. Almost by accident, they happen upon a plaque nailed into a rock: “In Dedication to my Son, Walter. May He Rest In Peace. (1980–2007).” Not the way I want to go out, says Chevy Camaro.
They descend with caution. The cabin is active with people now. Someone is frying onions, another is doing yoga. Heavy Boss fetches water while Chevy Camaro is given a history of the mountain and trail. The caretaker tells them that the shelter where they rested the night before is over one-hundred-years old. They begin their final descent down and make it off the mountain a couple hours later. A bus heading toward town picks them up for two dollars each. A woman sitting near the driver talks to him incessantly about the different Wal-Mart Supercenters she has visited; the superb hot dogs from Price Choppers; a house she is going to buy near Lake Placid that she found on Craigslist; and how Craigslist ads are often posted by serial killers. She never stops talking.
When they arrive in town, Chevy Camaro asks a local about food. Food...food.... The man squints his eyes. There is a diner. You like diners? Who doesn’t? replies Chevy Camaro. The diner is unoccupied. They are tended to immediately by a large waitress with dimples in her elbows. They order omelets that make them both nauseous after a few bites. Their jammed rye toast, however, is divine.
After their meal, they head to a park. Chevy Camaro removes his left boot to reveal a heavily bandaged foot. How long have you been walking like that? asks Heavy Boss. Since my last lake swim, replies Chevy Camaro. Heavy Boss offers to find flip-flops and leaves Chevy Camaro lying like a casualty of battle on the picnic table. He walks to the town’s historic district. There, Heavy Boss finds a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Inside he frightens one of the employees with a jerky “Excuse me.” The woman reprimands Heavy Boss by shaking a metal hook like a fist. In fact, the woman has no forearms, just metal hooks attached to wooden pegs. She retrieves two pairs of flip-flops with a swift swoop of her apparatuses. Two dollars a pair, she says. You want them, or not? The flip-flops swing back and forth from one of her hooks. Umm..yes, yes I’ll take them. He gingerly plucks them from her.
Chevy Camaro is still lying on the picnic bench when he returns. Put these on, says Heavy Boss. They arrive at the bus station just before the bus departs for the town that they started from, now sixty miles away. The driver makes many stops at small villages along the way, until they are the only two left on the bus. Hikers? asks the driver. Yeah. My ex-wife and I once crossed the entire country on horseback. Right coast to left coast. What was that like? asks Heavy Boss. Expensive! Do you know how many bags of oats it takes to feed a horse crossing the country? And this was the 70s when oats were cheaper. The driver talks about the inflation rate of oats vs. the quality of oats nowadays vs. the national demand for oats back in the 70s vs. now. When they reach town, the driver lets them off in a place of their choosing. They choose the outdoor fitting store. I never did use that hatchet, says Chevy Camaro.
A local gives them a lift to their car. He puts a plug of snuff into his lower lip as he inquires about the attractiveness of the trail caretakers. He spits plug out of his window. Who was the caretaker at the lake? I don’t know, says Chevy Camaro. Was it Tiffany? Did she have long blond hair, kind of big-boned, but not fat? Sure, replies Chevy Camaro. Ho boy, Tiffany, man that girl is trouble. The local lets them off right by their car. There is no sign of vandalism. On their way home, they stop at a pizza joint. As they wait for their pizza they read a local culture magazine. One article is a feature on the last cobbler in the county. There is also an interview with the owner of a new Italian restaurant. There is this quote: “I want this to be a family restaurant where you can bring your kids, but you don’t have to be afraid to bring your children.” I’ll never understand Vermont, says Heavy Boss. Chevy Camaro replies: you don’t have to.
Michael Barron is the Associate Editor at New Directions. He also plays in the band Megafortress and helps curate the performance series Diamond Mouth Surprise. This is his first published piece of fiction. Follow him on Twitter.
Liz Pavlovic lives in West Virginia with her husband and their two cats. Liz studied graphic design at West Virginia University and remains an avid photographer, print designer, and illustrator; she also collages regularly with her husband Dwight. In addition, the two run a small design business together called Fig + Fox, and help manage the alternative music website Decoder Magazine and a cassette label called Crash Symbols. View more of her art at indiecorn.tumblr.com.
Triad God has lived in Vietnam, China, London, and Hong Kong. He states his bio simply: "My future is made up from the experiences of my past." His new album NXB released April 27 from Triple You Tapes, and is available for download via Bandcamp.