Checking the driveway for Mike’s pickup. Empty. The February sky is overcast and dark, the sun too weak to lighten the gray clouds.
I pull on my red down jumpsuit, the red plaid hat with lined earflaps, and my Bear Claw boots, lacing them up over heavy wool socks.
“Mike should be here pretty soon,” I say. “I hate to think of Joe being up there alone for even an hour. I want to be ready to go.”
I leaned over to heft my backpack.
“You’ll have to help me get this on my back. I’m not sure I can even bend over.”
Giff looks at me, laughs. “I’d have to agree.”
He sobers. “You won’t need to get your backpack on until you get to the trail head. Mike will help you. Oh, and he called. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Yes. You are.” His eyes are glossy, shiny, liquid.
He pulls off my hat and wraps his arms around me. His warm enveloping hug shores up my resolve, infuses me with warm energy and confidence. I suck it up, use it to breathe, Mom’s yoga breath. Slow, Expanded, Long, Full. My spine elongates and straightens.
“It’s what you always do,” he says. “Suit up. And show up.”
Mike’s pickup pulls into the driveway around 9 a.m. He must have been hiking out while it was still dark, I think.
I meet him at the door, comforted by his husky blonde sturdiness. Hug him, stretching my arms around his big tan parka.
“You’re a loyal and good friend. Joe knows whom to call, doesn’t he! Come in, get warm.”
Mike is brusque, clearly in a hurry. “Don’t want to leave him alone up there too long. Maybe a quick cup of coffee, if you’ve got some made.” He takes off his heavy gloves, but not his parka or his thick knit hat.
Giff is already bringing him a mug of steaming coffee, which he gratefully accepts, blowing on it then taking a big swallow.
“Addie, did you pack food?” he asks. “I left some things up there, bacon, eggs, Cream of Wheat, bread, some jerky and trail mix and stuff, some canned and freeze-dried food, but that might not be enough. I mean…it’s mostly for you. You know Joe eats mostly gruel these days.”
“Gruel. Yes. Cream of Wheat, with warmed canned milk stirred in.”
“But he says he likes your rice pudding, the way you make it, too.”
I went to the fridge and pulled out a carton of whole milk and a pink of half-and-half. Filled a plastic bag with rice, and found places to tuck it all in my backpack.”
“I’ll have plenty of food. It depends on how long he makes it,” I said. What if he’s doing well after two or three days?”
“I’ll be back up there in any case, in three days, just to check on you, and maybe bring the two of you out.”
Dead or alive, I think. “Will you bring him back out if…”
“I’ll bring him back out, if that’s what’s called for. Do you have cross country skis? Or snowshoes?”
“I do. Should I bring my skis?”
“Might be quicker if we just piled the gear on the sled, and you skied in behind it.”
Giff brings my cross-country skies and poles from the garage and leans them against the door. He sets my showshoes next to them.
Mike finishes his coffee, sets his cup on the dining table, and looks at my gear. “That all you’re bringing?”
Giff laughed. “That pack weighs about 50 pounds. Should hold her for three days. You can always bring in more supplies later.”
Mike lifts my backpack in one hands, the skis and poles in the other, gets the door open, and heads out to the pickup.
Giff turns me around, fastens my earflap hat, and kisses me goodbye.
“It will be the adventure of a lifetime,” he says.
I shiver. “Don’t forget, we’ll have guardian angels.”
He grins. “Keep them close. Very close.”
“I will. Angels aren’t pushy, you know. They wait to be invited.”
“Invite them. Starting now.”
In the parking area Mike unloads his rescue sled and my gear, helps me get my skis on, and loads everything else onto the sled. The trail to the bowl is about half a mile of groomed snow, the skiing easy, uphill but pushing my poles into the packed snow behind the sled. The trees are weighted down with snow, and the low branches dump their load on us if we brush against them. There’s a nightlike stillness in the alpine forest, the snow reflecting light.
When we reach the treeless bowl, we stop to sit on the sled and rest. Mike hands me a bottle of water. “Gotta stay hydrated, even when it’s this cold.”
I twist the cap off and stop.
“So, how is Joe?” I ask. “Why did he want to go to the cabin, really? What’s your take on what’s going on with him?
Mike is silent for a long time. Then, “You know why. He’s ready to die. I told Nellie this, how he didn’t want her or the kids to see it. She protested, but I think he may be right about that—he wants to know the kids are safe with her. They both feel the girls are too young to witness their father’s last breath. He says they’ve said everything they need to say to each other. He’s at peace with that.”
He sighs and takes a long swig of water from his bottle.
“But I don’t think Nell is at peace with that. She’s torn between protecting her babies and being with Joe.”
“Does he have his meds, his morphine?”
“Yes, plenty of that, but he doesn’t seem to need as much, now. Says his pain has softened down some.”
Softened down, I think. Is that what happens when death is near? Some kind of gentle mercy at the end?
Mike stows his water bottle, removes his skis in favor of showshoes, and resumes his place at the front of the sled. “Better use your showshoes from here on. I’ve gotten rid of blowdowns and branches, mostly, but it’s still a rough trail.
He fastens the tow rope to his belt while I change to snowshoes and lay my skis and poles on the sled.
Another half a mile or more of trail, not so well groomed. Picking our way over small branches and tree roots. The snow is packed from repeated traverses with the rescue sled, having the effect of grooming. The surface is glazed and slick. Snowshoes crunch in, but don’t sink. At one point, Mike points to the sled, and I climb aboard. He’s pulling a sled loaded with me and my gear, trudging uphill on a rough trail, on snowshoes. How does he do it? He doesn’t even seem tired. He points out pawprints of small critters, hoof prints of elk or deer. Snow dumps off the low branches when we pass.
We arrive at a small frozen lake, covered with snow a couple of feet deep. Mike’s tiny Forest Service cabin is set back in the trees next to the lake. He parks the sled by the door and we unload. I am anxious to see Joe.
The cabin is one room with bare wood walls, two smudged windows, and an attached room for a toilet. In the center of the room, a scarred wooden table and three chairs. A wood stove against one wall, the fire down to embers. The wood box is filled with kindling and dry stove wood. One cupboard on the wall. Gallon jugs of water lined up under the window.
A monarch butterfly is pinned by its wings to the wall next to the single cupboard, gold and black gleam in the dimness.
No electricity, but propane lamps attached to the walls. Mike lights the propane lamps, one on each wall, and throws chunks of wood into the wood stove, pushes them around with a black poker.
Opposite the stove are two bunks.
Joe is huddled in his sleeping bag in the bottom bunk, too weak to sit up. I toss my sleeping bag on the upper bunk and crouch down to talk to him. An empty metal Sierra cup, the kind with sloped sides and a handle to hook on a belt, sits on the floor by his bunk. I fill the cup from a water jug and hold it to his parched, and cracked lips. He drinks in tiny sips, swallowing, careful. Coughs a weak cough.
Joe’s eyes slowly open, and he greets me in a hoarse but ordinary tone of voice. “Glad you’re here.”
Mike stands over us, his presence filling the room. “How ya doin’, old man?”
“Better, now that you’re here to protect me from the bears.”
“There were bears?”
“Coulda been. Something large, brushing around the cabin while you were gone.”
Guardian angels, I think.
Mike turns and opens the cupboard. Someone has painted it yellow at some point, but now the paint is rubbed and peeled to a patina of gray and yellow collage. The cupboard is almost filled with supplies, flour, cereal, corn meal, cans, boxes, sugar, salt and pepper, cooking oil, a tray with eating and cooking utensils. A stack of chipped plates. Empty jelly glasses, the kind that processed cheese used to come in. a few chipped ceramic mugs.
“You can put your food and stuff in here.”
The fire begins to crackle. I unpack my food and gear onto the table. Fill the blue enamel coffee pot from a jug of water on the floor, add a few spoonfuls of coffee, and set it on the single burner.
Mike opens the primitive door to the side room, and cold rushes into our warming space. He gestures. “Here’s the chemical toilet. There’s an outhouse, too, but this time of year no one wants to go out there.”
“You saw the woodpile, coming in,” he adds. “The wood is chopped stove-size. There’s a hatchet by the door—if you run out of kindling you can chop some more.”
Mike surveys my small frame, still bundled in red down. “You do know how to chop kindling, don’t you?”
From the bunk, Joe snickers.
“Of course I do,” I say, drawing myself up to full height. We grew up on a farm!”
From the bunk: “Dad chopped the kindling. Or me. But you’ll figure it out.”
Mike’s farewell to Joe hurts my heart, the way they call each other “Buddy” and “Old Man” and nudge each other. Mike sits on the side of the bunk and pushes Joe’s hair back, rubs his head a little too hard. “See you in the next act, Joe. Hope it’s a warm one.” He chokes up.
Joe grins, lopsided, his chin quivering. “Likely to be pretty warm, for us.”
One awkward, long hug, Joe’s claw hands hanging onto Mike’s back for dear life. Mike bolts for the door. I follow him out.
Hugging Mike goodbye in the snow and thanking him, I have one last request: “Will you call Giff and Nell and tell them I’m safe and warm, Joe’s awake, and all is shipshape.”
“Soon’s I get down.” He puts on his snowshoes and fastens the rope of the sled to his belt. “I’ll be back after three days. If you need anything, try to get a signal out, and leave a message. Those usually get through to voicemail, even if the reception isn’t good enough for a conversation.”
I am still waving goodbye as he fades into the trees.
No, not quite. I return to the cabin, where the coffeepot has begun to bubble. Joe has propped himself up halfway on a pillow and he watches me, his eyes hard to see in the shadow of the upper bunk.
“Finally here,” he says. “We need to get started.”