By George Alger
It’s cold. Very cold.
Mike Barody took in the view of the snow-covered trail from the small parking lot in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. White lace adorned the naked Birch, Oak and Maple trees standing confidently amidst the not-so-naked and white-laced evergreens that beckon entry to any that may heed the voice of the woods.
He closed the door of his 6-year-old Jeep Cherokee and took a deep breath as he started to walk. The winter air snapped every cell in his lungs to attention. Cold, clean and invigorating—there was a certain quality of “aliveness” that no other season’s air could replicate. He’d been hiking through New England much of his 33 years, and the White Mountains had always been sacred to his soul.
Winter hiking is the elixir for whatever life ailments one may be contending.
This was only a five-mile trail, and a relatively easy one at that. It followed a meandering creek through a ravine into the woods, up into the hills and back down near the parking area, making an oval loop. This was a popular trail for weekend hikers in the summer, and barely thought about in the winter, especially on a Wednesday afternoon when most of the world moved forward the work-for-a-living mentality that pays mortgages, pays for things and pays a price for mostly missing the importance of living.
This was a day of personal acknowledgement, or contemplation: 10 years working at one job, or more specifically, working ten years in a row with no breaks between employment. Previously, at least for a few years, Mike avoided jobs, and instead, tried to eke out a living as an oil painter, specializing in New England landscapes. The advent of marriage and family a decade earlier had affected his viewpoint on income and art. Now he usually painted on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s, his days off from managing the Pizza Slope, which primarily catered to the tourist trade—hikers, sightseers and campers in the warm weather, and skiers in the winter. Mike usually took care of their 8-year-old daughter, Celeste, on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s when she came home from school. Today, Jenny was home from her work as an office manager at her father’s real estate company. She worked a few days a month at home, and when those days coincided with a Tuesday or Wednesday, Mike usually hit the woods for a few hours. He had known Jenny since they attended the same High School together in Lacona, NH. They seemed an unlikely pair; he a dreamer and painter; she wanting to do “something” in NY, DC, or “anything anywhere,” as long as it was far away from the country-side.
His boots easily fended the six inches of feather-light snow aside with each footstep. Underneath, he felt a frozen base, a bit slippery at times, and uneven from prior snow falls that had conformed closer to the terrain and underlying rocks, branches and animal tracks. Last night’s snowfall had dressed up the prior covering and painted the woods a visual delight of brilliant blue-white. The sun refracted from the ground and trees an infinity of itself in shimmering snowflake sparkles. The clear sky reflected in the trees’ shadows a calm, quiescent blue.
The enchantments of the snow took away the rough edges of the world of the winter woods, and the rough edges of the world of Mike. Economic duress, stresses of family life, work and general living melted away into the frozen reflections of tranquility.
Mike sighted two deer at 50 yards. They turned and locked him into their view for several seconds before bounding along the ravine with their white tails raised high.
Jenny and Mike had an on-again-off-again relationship through high school: Jenny in pursuit of an elusive excitement of someone or something new, and perhaps in the hopes that someone might take her away from the White Mountains. Mike was more content to paint and go for walks. Jenny took a keener interest in Mike when he won a Regional Art contest for an oil painting he titled, “Temptress,” which depicted a bobcat with pervasive eyes seemingly inviting the viewer to race with her into the woods and towards the sunrise. Jenny and Mike had been together one and half years after that when they got married.
Mike was hiking quicker now. He moved with an assurance of someone who knew his destiny, of someone who felt right in the world. But after ten years of marriage, Mike wasn’t sure that he was making anything go right outside of his walks.
The hopes and dreams of Jenny and Mike were bright and enlivening a decade ago. Somewhere, the realities of life had jaded their view of the future and each other. If it weren’t for their daughter, Celeste, whose untamed enthusiasm and optimism was contagious even through any of Jenny and Mike’s periodic “discussions,” it would have been easier not to continue. Somehow Jenny and Mike’s appreciation of each other had deteriorated over the years to a tacit, mutual forbearance, with an underlying desire for peace and social congeniality.
Mike took a deep breath—the cold air suffused an invigorating energy and “oneness” with the woods that emanated from the marrow of his bones to the tips of his hair and seemingly further—as if he could perceive that the space he occupied as a soul was much bigger than his actual body. It seemed he could feel the tops of the trees he was walking under and the stilled sap within their trunks, sort of as if each of these were really somehow a part of him, or he a part of them. Mike felt good.
The trail paralleled a ravine that channeled a stream between its precipices. The water was mostly frozen in a meandering ice and snow chasm, as if forever stuck in time. Protruding boulders and chunks of disconnected ice populated the gorge, cut away from the status quo by the forces of unseen motions and passions of a whimsical Mother Nature. Much in the same way that Celeste had been born disconnected from the passions and motions of Jenny and Mike trying to connect into a society that revealed little connection to their original hopes and dreams. And oddly enough, it was fitting that Celeste, who had the least concern of anyone about trying to make sense of the world, seemed the most connected to an essential element of it. Her simple joy in creating many a moment with a light-hearted caprice established a world that was continually new and uniquely hers. It was as if Celeste’s world was a world for everyone, and the world for everyone, was rarely right for anyone.
Mike paused to admire the ravine. About 60 feet down was the base of a frozen waterfall, with its top about half way up the precipice just under his toes.
Mike screamed. He screamed louder, harder, and more intensely than he had ever screamed before.
Mike screamed as he fell, banged, bounced and slid into the ravine until he came to an upside-down stop against a cluster of snow-encrusted boulders near the base of the frozen waterfall.
And then all was quiet.
An absolute vacuum of corporeal sentience.
The sound of infinite nothing, when there is apparently nothing aware to perceive with, is a tremendously large space of silent resonance.
After a while Mike Barody groaned.
It was as if he was awakening from a particularly bad sleep, with a vague idea that somewhere in the night he must have fallen out of bed with some nightmare—and/or hangover.
Mike established a detached perception that the left side of his face was pressed into a few inches of snow. Yet, the significance of that failed to connect as a reality. He vaguely attempted a slow inventory of his limbs. With a certain amount of concentration, he felt his stomach against his left arm and left knee, both twisted and lodged underneath. His right arm splayed alongside his body and his right leg extended beyond his skyward buttocks. Still thinking, or hoping, that he was awakening from a nightmare and/or hangover, he wondered how much he must have drank last night. He became a bit more aware of the thin layer of melting snow smeared against his cheek and close to brushing his lips: This was not the floor next to his bed.
Gradually, he placed attention on to his situation. The reality of lying 60 feet at the bottom of a ravine in the White Mountains National Forest on a very cold winter afternoon slowly worked into his mind.
Mike thought about moving. But his head seemed too heavy. Instead, he barely wiggled his left hand inside his mitten—it did seem operational. His right fingers moved next. His left foot moved so slightly. He couldn’t seem to locate his right foot mentally. He had a sense of where it was, but he seemed disconnected from it.
Beneath the ice, he could hear the murmur of the stream making its way south, as a steadfast metronome, marking losing time, further confirmation that all was not well for Mike this afternoon. Any nightmare would be a welcome diversion from the problems he had right now.
It occurred to him that if he didn’t get back to his truck before dark, he wouldn’t be getting back at all. In no way was he equipped to spend a winter night in the woods.
“Get up.” The mental command decreed from the core of his beingness. But his body seemed disassociated from his will. He focused his energy towards his left arm to push himself over on his back. He secured some more awareness of his left hand’s position, envisioned the simple exercise of rolling over, and then by pushing his upper body with his arm using what seemed liked all of his available mental and physical resources, he thrust himself over.
“Arrrgghhhh!” Pain ripped through his body like a series of synchronized, steel, bear traps snapping shut in a chain reaction convulsion of sustained intensity. It started from his right leg and fired throughout his body and head.
Mike collapsed on his back, moaning, breathing heavily, coughing and with his eyes closed tight.
It took way too long before the pain subsided to a dull wash of throbbing, mostly from his right leg. He was certainly aware of that leg now!
He opened his eyes and the blue sky came into view overhead, outlined with white-laced, naked tree branches at the top of both sides of the ravine. The perimeter of his vision was blurred, like he was looking through some kind of a shimmering liquid ring. He shifted his head slightly. The blurred ring moved as well.
His face edged around enough where he could view the precipice and broken ledge from which he fell. Sunshine glanced off the tree branches at the top with an angle steep enough to show that the sun had other places to go. A downward path in the snow marked his descent: through some broken brush, off a protruding tree stump, right down to where he lie, next to the frozen stream and settled against some boulders. A large slab of snow-covered, frozen dirt, settled half-way down the same path that he had fallen—a hard, visible lesson on what he already knew—don’t stand too close to the edge.
The throbbing, steel, bear traps undulated on his leg at a fraction of their prior velocity.
He considered his leg might be broken and something else seemed wrong internally—he was in a lot of pain. He wondered how he would climb out of the ravine, back up to the trail, and then back to the Cherokee. At least, out by the road, there existed a possibility of a periodic passing vehicle to summons help from—no one would be venturing a late afternoon walk along this trail, on a cold winter White Mountains Wednesday.
He needed to get out of this ravine now! He would die here in the night, or sooner, if he didn’t get back to the truck.
“Arrrgghhhh!!” Once again, he collapsed with the pain of the reinvigorated, snapping bear traps, clamping his right leg with the chain reaction of sustained intensity.
Waves of shock caressed his wits, like a cleansing tide washing over searing sands of body fire.
Sleep. Sleep. Comfort. The unconsciousness seeping through what little awareness he had left seemed so soothing. It would be easy to go to sleep. But amidst the pain and confusions vying for domination of his crippled and dying body, he sensed that if he did sleep, he would not be waking. And trailing behind that consideration was the realization that there was something very incomplete about his current existence at 33.
Mike groped again towards the precipice—the allegory snapping claws of the bear-trap pains ripped deep into his flesh and thrashed the marrow of his bones. He collapsed newly, lying in the snow, tears freezing against his face.
The urge to vomit was stifled only by the sheer paralytic pain of momentarily not being able to move a muscle.
Blood and stomach acids churned through and out the side of his mouth.
Black masses of mental madness circled his dying awareness, like vultures closing in on a barely-alive road lizard.
The impending unconsciousness cozily offered release from the crystal, cold coffin and burning, black madness.
Sleep. Sleep. The invitation of completely letting go seemed more a foregone conclusion than a directed act of will. Mike closed his eyes to a sense of relief, or at least hope, that the pain could go away.
And a sense of release did begin to unfold, as he began to realize some kind of separation from the agony of a beaten and broken body. It was like he was still himself, at least aware of himself, without the turmoil and pulsating chaos of a traffic jam of anguished nerves.
He acquiesced to dying.
“Michael, don’t forget the milk.” His wife’s too familiar voice pervaded his transcending consciousness. Mike could see Jenny. It was earlier this afternoon, right before he had left for his hike. She always wanted him to grab something at the store whenever he was out. It annoyed him when she made such requests for errands that she could have handled if she were more organized with her weekly shopping.
He recognized that he had sometimes associated curtness with her requests, like there was an underlying harassment that she intended. In fact, although that may have been true a number of years ago, in listening, looking, understanding now, he realized it wasn’t really there anymore, but somehow he kept it there in his own mind.
She wasn’t trying to annoy him; she was attempting to create an avenue for cooperation.
The way he could see Jenny now, was how she really was, and that somehow what he had been seeing in recent years, was some kind of deranged threat that that didn’t exist. And all the time he wished he could bridge the barriers between them, she was actually trying and he was resisting
“Michael, don’t forget the milk.” Listening to her simple request newly, he realized a softness in her voice that he never heard before, or at least hadn’t recognized in a very long time.
Indeed, Jenny had softened over the years. In ways that he never noticed before, she was more beautiful. Not the same kind of physical beauty she possessed in their early days, but in a way, much more pervasive—if only he would take the time to look. She seemed more accepting, more understanding, more flexible, more giving. She had changed or evolved; or maybe it was just maturing.
Mike tried to grasp whether he, himself, had changed or evolved or matured. He wasn’t so sure. What he seemed to consider as “life improvement” was merely a greater “tolerance” of things he disapproved of. Although it was more like he had been losing interest in life and livingness overall, and therefore had less to disapprove of.
The vision of his wife, played against his departure from a dying body. He was saddened to be leaving Jenny. But he was glad to leave the pain of living.
“Michael, don’t forget the milk.”
He looked quizzically at his wife. Amidst the oddity of such an inane request at such a bizarre time, Mike considered that she was, and always had been, trying to reach him, and that he was, and always had been, relatively unreachable.
For years, Jenny had persisted in attempting to attain a level of closeness that would break through his preoccupied struggles with day-to-day surviving, and open him up to actual living.
Underlying the milk, the errands, the bills, the unending quest for peace in a harsh world, all Jenny really wanted was to love and be loved.
Mike wondered if he was leaving too soon.
Jenny had put their hopes, dreams and future there. Jenny had strived to break through to a man who couldn’t see clearly enough to recognize who he or she really was; and more importantly, who they could be.
Jenny’s years of attempting to reach the unreachable was at this moment, finally beheld as a matter of personal importance.
And there appeared Celeste. Just this morning. They were pouring their breakfast cereal and she handed him an almost-empty container. “Here dad, I saved you the last of the milk.” She gave him a quirky smile, “You know what?” Before he could say a word she laughed, “Today, I’m going to draw a picture of a bobcat in the snow!”
Michael made a decision.
He screamed. He screamed louder, harder and more intensely than he had ever heard anyone scream before as he started to move towards the trail.
But this was not the scream of a dying man.
This was the scream of man finally coming alive.