Monday, January 8, 2018

Getaway by Bill Vernon

An Ohio couple travel to a country retreat, but Marcie does not feel at ease - and for good reason. By Bill Vernon.

Frank said, "Marcie, let's take a little hike and look the place over," and I let him lead me through the large parking lot onto a trail that began just beyond the cars. It went a hundred yards, then started up a mountain and narrowed so much I had to walk behind him.

Climbing, we made three U-turns, and I already felt as if we were deep inside a mysterious forest. Skinny, whitish trees shrouded us with tons of little spade-shaped leaves.

"Can't see much," I said, looking downhill. The lodge and its lake, in which we'd watched a moose feeding, like a big horse with oddly humped shoulders, lay hidden behind foliage.

I was breathing hard, but stretching the muscles felt good after driving here from Missoula.

Twenty minutes later I was panting when Frank said, "This is great!"

I coughed and bumped into him.

He had stopped for the view. We'd reached a house-size boulder sticking out in the open. Far below us, our rustic 19th century home-away-from-home looked like a large doll house beside a blue wading pool. Everything was dwarfed by the mountains. Their bottoms were clothed with different shades of green, but the vegetation sheered off higher up, baring hundreds, maybe a thousand feet of stone whose eroded peaks looked like rotting teeth.

Really, the only other things to see were the sky and some snow still preserved by shadows even though this was July. The wide, paved National Park Service road we'd come in on had been swallowed up as if it didn't exist.

"We ain't in Ohio no more," Frank said with a humor that I couldn't share.

Directly before us was a football-field-long drop, straight down onto pine tree tops.

Vertigo forced my eyes away from the edge. "Let's go back."

Frank looked at me. "You can't be tired. You jog all the time."

"Two miles a few times a week on flat ground did not prepare me for this."

"Just a little farther, okay? I don't think we've come much more than a mile. It's gonna get easier. The map shows the trail straightens out through a long meadow. Returning will be a snap, all downhill."

He grabbed an arm and tugged.

"Slow down then," I said, shaking off his grip but stumbling after him back onto the trail where the trees closed in again. All that gaping area to my right was so unsettling, I didn't like to think about it. As we went, trees hid the drop-off, and that helped my equilibrium.

The trail did quit zigzagging upward. It veered away from the drop-off, and I felt better at once. The top of our mountain loomed clearly above us now, and a relatively flat expanse opened up so our walk became a nice stroll that returned me to normal breathing.

Without turning around to look at me, Frank said, "We ought to be talking. They said talking alerts bears so they won't be startled. We'll have to buy some of those bells in the gift shop and wear them to make noise. Look. Isn't that what the ranger meant by scat?"

His meaning shocked me. "Bears are here, so close to the lodge?"

Grizzlies are omnivores, a woman ranger had told us at the gate. They eat anything, but usually have a vegetarian diet. She said ripe huckleberries were attracting them now. The ranger, a muscular but pretty blonde beneath a wide-brimmed, brown male hat, pointed at a large wall map and said the red dots marked recent grizzly bear sightings. Yellow dots marked black bear sightings.

She'd indicated a cluster of red dots on the map and handed Frank a pamphlet. "Along the trail described there, we've had ten sightings of grizzlies in the last three days."

I hadn't paid much attention to her then.

"Wait a minute." I stopped walking. "Is this the trail the ranger told us about?"

Frank spun around and stared at me. "Yeah! I told you that before."

"You certainly did not."

Our surroundings took on new interest. There were no big trees here, but the bushes were over head-high and pressed in on the trail as if reaching for us. A bear could get lost in the brush. We were intruding in NATURE, and about NATURE I understood little. Furthermore, I didn't think Frank understood it either.

"I'm not comfortable here," I said. "I want to go back."

Frank laughed. "The ranger told you that bear attacks are virtually non-existent."

"She said a man was mauled last year."

"Bitten on a leg, and not the bear's fault either, remember? She said some photographer tried for close-ups and got between a sow and her cubs."

"In this stuff, you could get between a mother bear and babies and not even know it."

He smiled. "Let's not be chicken. We came to see bears so let's try to do it."

"Maybe YOU came to see bears." I looked around, trying to push my vision through the brush. "I came to get away and relax."

He grabbed my right arm and jerked me forward two steps.

I sat straight down and didn't care if I was sitting in mud - or scat. "Release me, please. This is more stress than I ever have at work."

Using a telephone to solicit charitable contributions - including for the Sierra Club - was a piece of cake compared to this. People got rude and insulting, but never threatened to attack me.

Frank crossed his arms on his chest. "This trip is costing me a fortune, and you won't take advantage of its best attraction."

"I'll go sightseeing or shop or do anything else. Let's go back to the lodge and play tennis."

"There are no tennis courts. This is a wilderness park."

"I refuse to take unnecessary chances."

"I thought you were outdoorsy!"

I gaped at the man. Was he thinking of when we'd met? Jogging on the bike path along the river in downtown Dayton near where we worked, we'd both stopped beneath a bridge for shelter from a cloudburst, introduced ourselves, talked, then jogged on, laughing, enjoying the warm April downpour together. We'd gone out a dozen times, for drinks at cafes, for movies, a party, twice as a team in sand-volleyball tournaments. When he'd asked me to accompany him on this trip, I'd thought he saw me as special, but he didn't understand me very well.

I said, "Frank, what I want is some fun and some pampering."

"Then you're in the wrong place, honey."

Ticked me off. "Apparently I'm with the wrong man too!"

"I thought you'd like some adventure." He shook his head, turned, stomped off continuing on the trail. Within five steps, he disappeared around a bend.

And I was alone, among massive weeds that slapped my face every time I moved.

What kind of person was Frank? We'd always gotten along fine before. We'd had fun together, and Frank had never acted selfish. I was surprised, that's all. Frank was a nurse, and nurses specialize in tender, loving care, don't they?

Now we'd be together for a whole week, and I felt trapped. I'd realized before leaving home that there'd be no cities around, but the isolation had seemed romantic. If we were arguing all the time, however, it would just be confining.

Vegetation rustled loudly somewhere nearby. My first thought: Was there a breeze I couldn't feel stirring the leaves? My second: Was some big hairy thing heading toward me?

Adrenaline shot into my bloodstream, and I went hyper-alert.

From up where Frank had gone rose a high-pitched human scream. It was so terrifying, it hurt - the way chalk or fingernails scraped across a blackboard can squeal so your teeth ache. My muscles tightened, my senses strained, and I distinctly heard leaves and weeds being brushed aside, and feet - or paws - thudding toward me.

I was only half way up when Frank ran into sight.

He raced toward me, shouting, "Go back! Look out!"

I shifted to give him room, but a passing hip knocked me over.

My palms landed in gooey leaves and dirt. I pushed my shoulders up, glanced up-trail where he'd come from, and saw a large reddish brown mass of fur rushing toward me. It arrived before I could move another inch.

Not that I could actually move. All of my body went rigid except for my arms, which collapsed, dropping my forehead to the ground. I probably looked like a Muslim in prayer, and maybe sounded like one, chanting, "Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God."

Something slammed my shoulder blades, flattened me, then pressed and pinned me down. A stinking odor gagged me. There were loud grunts and snorts, followed by breathing so hot it burned my neck. My lungs quit working, my mind went blank, and I fainted.

I don't know how long it was before my eyes opened. I made them roll around so I could search side to side without moving my head, scanning a minuscule arc of ground and weeds. I shut them again, held my breath and listened.

Utter silence.

I raised my head a few inches and checked the trail. Clear on either side, but was the bear behind me? There were no snarls, no stinking breaths. I twisted my head around.

Nothing.

However, my imagination pictured a bear among the foliage like an op-art painting in which hidden elements appear only after minutes of study from odd angles. This imagined bear, watching me, preparing to pounce, produced such terror, I began shaking uncontrollably. It took a while before that stopped.

I looked around again, jumped up onto my feet, took one giant step down the trail toward the lodge, and froze. The bear might have gone in that direction.

Or was he behind me? Or uphill? Or downhill?

I spun around three times, peering into dark tangles that revealed nothing. My eyes closed again and sobs tore loose from deep inside me. They went on for so long, my chest hurt. My legs hurt too, tensed in that incomplete step. I dragged my feet together, crossed my arms, and hugged myself.

No one was coming to my rescue. I'd been deserted by Frank.

Despair filled me. It was the worst moment of my life. I began shaking again, thinking the bear could wander back from any direction and get me if I stayed here. I had to leave, and the trail was my only way out.

I quit thinking and my feet and legs took over. The image of a huge mouth with bared, oversized teeth right behind me stimulated full, headlong flight. I ran faster, I think, than I'd ever run before, occasionally tripping and falling flat one time. Even then my feet kept churning while I scrambled back up, concentrating on my desire for safety and civilization, which had to be somewhere ahead.

I didn't notice passing the crag and the drop-off. I just ran as fast as I could down the steep part. Suddenly there was Frank with two other men.

I collapsed into the netting of their arms and cried, gushing uncontrollably.

Eventually, I heard Frank talking. He seemed to be babbling, but finally something made sense: he'd thought I was a goner and he was so glad I'd made it.

That was just too much. All of my emotions channeled into anger. I broke free of the hands supporting me and punched him as hard as I could. Bruised my right index finger doing it, and Frank's nose erupted with blood.

But that was his problem to deal with. I hurried straight on into the lodge, and at the front desk arranged to take a limousine to the airport. I would go home at my own expense.

Forty-five minutes later, with a silvery splint and white tape on his nose, Frank returned to our room. My bags were all packed again and I'd taken a good, hot shower. I put on my jacket, lifted my luggage and headed past him for the door.

Frank whined in a funny nasal voice, "Marcie, wait a minute. I'm sorry. Okay?"

"That's all you can say after nearly getting me killed?"

"I panicked."

"You left me."

"There was nothing I could do."

"You lured me into a trap. I felt death breathing down my neck."

"I got help as soon as I could. Three of us were coming back for you, and I called the forest rangers. They were on their way too."

"Yeah, with the bear long gone and you thinking I was dead. Let's be honest. You did nothing more than get help to carry my corpse back."

I sat on the bed and cried. Frank sat too, wrapped an arm around me, rocked me from side to side, repeated over and over how sorry he was, and begged me to stay.

Maybe I should have left, but my sobbing and anger gave way to understanding. Frank's ignorance in traipsing off like that to where the bears were, and his subsequent fear, were mine too. I had done the same things, felt the same things, and been just as guilty. He wasn't any worse than I was, and we were both darn lucky. Our job now, if we had any brains at all, was to learn from our mistakes.

After a French dinner in the dining hall, and two bottles of Beaujolais - costing Frank another wad of money, I'm sure - I felt so much better, the bad experience seemed not to have happened. We went to our room talking quietly, but as I bent down to take my shoes off, Frank's shadow reared up on the wall with an enlarged snout like a bear's and scared me so badly I broke down again.

We mutually agreed on our agenda after that. Day trips in our rental car to lookout points where other people were. Breakfasts in the lodge. Lunches and dinners at restaurants on the Blackfeet and Flathead Indian reservations. Visits to museums and trading posts and souvenir shops. We enjoyed the scenery from a distance, not on any more hikes in the woods.

I resolved to make the best of our remaining time together, and the good mood I slipped into worked. There was nothing much to do besides talk, and Frank opened up. He told me about how he and his sister had been caring for their mother, who had Alzheimer's, which they were afraid would force them to institutionalize her soon. He told me about his high school and college days, his work in the Emergency Room at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, his desire to go to medical school and upgrade his knowledge in the field. Frank convinced me that he was an admirable human being in many ways. I did enjoy myself, and I think he did too.

On our last day in the mountains, at Logan Pass on Going-To-The-Sun Road, watching some Rocky Mountain goats feed, including a cute baby goat with little horns sprouting, Frank asked me to move in with him when we returned home, and he seemed about to go even further, maybe to propose.

I thanked him, saying with a laugh I'd have to think about that. Although Frank was nice and all, a bad memory stood between us now, eroding my respect for him. Yes, I'd been naive and even stupid myself. I forgave Frank for leaving me out on that trail, but I could never forget it.

6 comments:

  1. A well observed story about an emerging relationship in a dramatic location. Excellent descriptions e.g. 'a thousand feet of stone whose eroded peaks looked like rotting teeth' that set the physical and emotional landscapes. I am so pleased that Marcie retained her independence in the end. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. yes, a fine story. I also liked the descriptions especially as Ceinwen said,...like rotting teeth. I was surprised when it looked as though Marcie was staying with Frank, but this was , for me, credible and glad she saw sense.
    Mike McC

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  3. Excellent story of action and relationship. I’m glad Marcie sees Frank for what he is and hope she drops him. It’s a mark of good writing to make the reader care about the characters like this.

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  4. Good story - solid emotional tone throughout. The reader ends up liking Marcie without disliking Frank. Perfect ending - satisfying for the reader. Thank you.

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  5. A well-paced and believable story covering a wide range of emotions. Marcie would never have been able to trust Frank fully again and as Nancy said, your ending was just right!
    Beryl.

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  6. Totally agree with Nancy Lane: the reader ends up liking Marcie without disliking Frank. Deft writing!

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