The Jackass Prize

Clayton may be in possession of the only Ivy League degree between us, but he arrived in New Mexico without either a sleeping bag or hiking boots—he’d lost the Vasque boots our sister and I had given him a year or two earlier—and suffered for his folly that variety of derision unique to close siblings, even siblings who are supposed to be adults already. Essentially, whatever fancy engineering job he had back in the city, in the high backcountry our baby brother was out of the running in this round of rivalry before we even set boot—or sneaker in his case—on a trail.

Stephanie, who had done two high school expeditions with Outward Bound and had been a member of her university’s winter camping club, didn’t lose hiking boots. Her virtually weightless mummy bag was good to 0˚ and then some, and she did not permit anyone she trekked with to carry toilet paper. Even though I held the irrevocable advantage of being two and three years older, respectively, than my charismatic sister and my brainiac brother, and as such had my own claim on authority, in the woods, Stephanie was the expert and therefore the natural leader of us three. Usually, we weren’t allowed to forget it. She was the one who knew how to hang a bear bag and dig a shit hole. She was the one who explicated on the use of a pinecone or a fistful of leaves for proper backcountry ass wiping.

But this time I felt compelled to reclaim my supremacy in our sibling hierarchy. True, most of my backpacking had been of the Eurail variety and the touring sort supported by Sherpa cooks, but the Gila Wilderness was my neck of the woods now (not that I’d ever been there), and besides, this time I had a scale-tipping weapon: my taciturn, all-things-New-Mexico savvy, desert-weathered Westerner boyfriend Steve.

Steve wasn’t one to boast, or to say much of anything, and he and his own two siblings conducted themselves with a quiet congeniality that I found utterly suspect, but his wilderness resume was substantial: Eagle Scout, Appalachian Trail alumnus, and, most importantly, born-and-raised desert-dweller who had captured tarantulas as a kid and, unlike us three Easterners who had never seen one out of captivity, he knew his way around a rattlesnake. Since he was my boyfriend, and since my siblings and I don’t really care whether other people are better than us so long as we are better than one another, in this contest I would claim credit for his doings.

Not that anyone was calling a six-day backcountry trek a contest. Out loud, anyway.

Officially, this was bonding. I picked them up at the airport—my tall, dark-haired brother whose face was starting to look chiseled as he lost his college softness, and my fashionable sister who knew how to show off her long neck and porcelain skin—and we hollered and hugged each other and made a scene. Look at you! So glad you could come. So happy to be here. And I took them home to Steve’s and my little pueblo-style home in Albuquerque to prepare for our Gila adventure.

For a day or so, as Stephanie and Clayton acclimated to the altitude in Albuquerque, we sifted through our combined gear to eliminate superfluity, mixed GORP with dark chocolate and candied ginger, debated the menu and rations and how much water we would need to be prepared to carry and whether we could trust the filter or if we should iodine in the water first, with only a passing joke or two about my previous good luck losing weight on the giardia “diet.” Poring over a topo map, we sketched out our route up the West Fork of the Gila, over the ridge to the Middle Fork, then descending to the hot springs and finally, above the confluence, circling back to the Cliff Dwellings where we would leave the car. We calculated altitudes, read up on the efficacy of snakebite kits and the recent outbreaks of bubonic plague in prairie dogs, and photocopied the map so we could leave the bulky original safe and dry at home. Stephanie had brought orange whistles for each of us and she tied these to the outside of our packs, where we could reach them. We tested the stove, filled canisters with white gas, lined our packs with plastic bags, purged again the nonessentials. Then we divvied up supplies and stood on the scales until we felt the load was balanced across our respective fitness and strength levels. It would be real backcountry, the kind of place people could and did get into real trouble, and we knew we had to be smart about it.

But we were preparing on other levels too, each of us stoking our own competitive fire. Stephanie scored a warm-up point or two pointing out that I was the slowest hiker in the history of hiking, which Steve corroborated. And I accepted the title with grace, for the time being: Steve and I may have had throw-downs in the woods before over my incapacity to cover any distance, but in this scenario his speed would cancel mine out. Soon after, I won the boys over to my side by standing up to Stephanie on the issue of toilet paper and tossing a plastic-wrapped roll in my pack. Steve couldn’t know what was brewing, and Clayton, though he had sufficient experience to go by, was not one for forethought, so neither noticed how Stephanie and I circled one another, smiling even as our matching blue eyes narrowed.

 

Established in 1924, the 871 square miles of the Gila Wilderness was the first designated wilderness in the world. It was the birthplace of, and later sanctuary to, Goyaałé, the Apache resistance fighter known in English as Geronimo. It is home to bear, various large cats, and controversially reintroduced populations of Mexican gray wolves. Other resident treacheries include the plague-infested prairie dogs and a pretty comprehensive line-up of North America’s most poisonous snakes, from the rare Arizona coral snake, the most poisonous snake in the Americas and New World cousin to the cobra, to blacktails, diamondbacks, and rock rattlers. The venomous Gila monster, however, is rarely sighted.

My sister and brother and I had grown up catching tiny green grass snakes as they whipped their way over the water of the crick below the barnyard on our farm, and we knew the stink that a gartersnake leaves on your skin after you toss it out of the squash patch, but we were fascinated by rattlesnakes, pestering Steve to tell us his every encounter.

We were less interested in the more practical dangers. The river, for example, was by mid-May past the flooding of early spring, but would still show spring swell, and flash floods were not out of the question. And then there were the backcountry hazards that had nothing to do with the place we traveled through and more to do with physical capacity and chance: sprained ankles—or worse; blisters and hangnails; giardia; or getting in so deep over our heads that we’d have to admit the greatest defeat of all backcountry endeavors and get our sorry, leaf-wiped asses rescued.

In short, the Gila offered all the tests: Man versus Nature. Man versus Man. “Man” versus herself.  And on top of this, we three siblings packed in our own baggage.

 

It is my personal preference to start journeys at the end of the day, to cover some token distance before the sun goes down. This way, I wake up the next morning in media res. Besides, the drive from Albuquerque to the Gila is substantial and it made no sense to get a hotel room on the eve of sleeping in the woods. So, according to plan, we arrived at the border of civilization and its theoretical opposite in the late afternoon. We parked our car, stretched out the ride, and then strapped on our packs. At the trailhead we wrote our names and route in the trail ledger and glanced over the posted guidelines for safe dealings with wolves, bear, and mountain lions. We made a few jokes about whom we would feed to what animal should we be attacked, and then we marched single-file into the pale green of willow and cottonwoods vivid from the thaw’s diluvium.

We didn’t speak, but I knew my companions well enough to know we all felt then the same elation. We were young and vigorous and outside at last, preparing for a good spring cleaning of our bodies and minds. We had come away into the woods to release ourselves from the increasingly stressful urban lives to which our unstructured, out-of-doors childhood had somehow given rise. We had come away into the woods to get back, in some elemental way, to our original state, our unfettered selves. We had come away into the woods to shed all the superfluous junk we’d accumulated, all our petty insecurities and unfounded obsessions and twisted priorities. We had come—like John Muir, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, and so many nameless nature walkers before us—to strip ourselves back to our essentials: few tools, basic food, simple movement of body over distance.

A quarter mile in, we emerged on the banks of the Gila River’s West Fork, still tumbling down out of the Mogollon Mountains. The flowing water flashed in the bronzed light, rushing clear over its bed of red-mottled stone. For a moment, we stood in silence to appreciate the scene and how starkly it contrasted where we weren’t. Then we brushed away our awe in favor of logistics: how to cross.

Steve and I had cheap water mocs strapped to our packs in easy reach (his idea), so we removed our boots and socks and slipped these on our feet. Stephanie, the staunch minimalist, didn’t carry anything so sissy as water shoes, but since it was our only crossing of the day she didn’t feel like getting her boots wet already. As she took off her boots, she mentioned that, according to her Outward Bound training, one ought to keep one’s boots on at all times. Clayton shrugged: he’d just wear his sneakers. After all, they were light enough to dry overnight.

Steve went first, testing the river’s depth and cold current for us all. As the water rose to his knees and then higher, Stephanie called out to him to unfasten the waist strap on his pack, and he did. In a few steps he was through the strongest channel of current and clambered out the other side. It looked easy enough.

“Hey Steve,” Steph called next, swinging a heavy boot underhand. “Catch!”

He held open his hands and she let go the boot.

Idly we watched it arc over the river—a fly ball that rose into the golden afternoon light slanting through the canyon—and land, with a slap, sole down in the middle of the river. Then, like a little boot boat, it began bobbing downstream at startling speed.

First we stared, and then the three of us on our side of the river started shouting.

Stephanie hobbled down the bank with one unlaced boot and one bare foot. Clayton charged past her into the river.

Across the river, Steve ditched his unstrapped pack and started to run along the bank. Twenty yards downstream, and before my sister’s boot tipped and sank, my boyfriend rescued it and our whole expedition.

By the time we all reassembled on the far bank, the Jackass Prize had been born.

Stephanie, as its first recipient, accepted her new title with grace. After all, as she herself reminded us, she had been reciting the rules of boots just moments before her boot hit the water. But now, less than a quarter mile in, she was no longer after regeneration, but redemption: of her reputation, of her pride.

In a stand of ponderosa above a bend in the river, we pitched camp: one tent for Stephanie and Clayton and another one for Steve and me. Then Stephanie hung the bear bags and I pumped river water into the Nalgene bottles she’d insisted we drink empty in preparation for our real start in the morning. Clayton opened his sneakers wide and set them on a rock then sat down with his back against a tree. Steve hit the river with his fly rod. It all felt, that first night, like a dress rehearsal, like the slow steps of a square dance when the caller is still teaching everyone the pattern and the fiddler is still tuning. But once it was dark, it was different. I half-slept, my hips fully aware of the hard ground in spite of my sleeping pad, my ears open for wildlife, human or otherwise. And in the morning, Clayton’s teeth chattered after a near-freezing night in the light sleeping bag I’d lent him.

“Here, Jackass,” I had said, tossing him the silk sleeping bag liner he’d cast aside when we packed. I’d brought it myself just in case I had the opportunity to remind him that however smart he was, his big sister would always and forever be wiser. The newly crowned Jackass muttered something under his breath, but he put the liner in his pack.

As I scrambled curried tofu for breakfast  over the stove only I was any good at lighting, a sock on each hand as our mother had taught me on some long ago camping trip, I was sure I caught scent of certain victory.

 

All that real first day we hiked up the riverbed pale green with new willows, crisscrossing the West Fork as it meandered through its canyons. After a half-dozen crossings, no one bothered anymore to take off boots. There was no point: we were wet from waist to soggy sock. Full immersion was a real risk. The current pulled at our legs; rocks shifted underfoot. Clayton’s sneakers had no traction on the rocks, so Steve gave him his water mocs. Stephanie and I held hands to brace better, and we crowed as the cold water engulfed our prickled skin, rising feet to knees to thighs. Steve, who, unwittingly caught up in the spirit of the competition, started crossing the river teetering atop downed trees with his sixty-pound backpack.

“Just because you’re not related to us doesn’t mean you can’t be Jackass,” we hollered at him from the middle of icy river.

But Steve didn’t fall, and, without a successor, Clayton held onto his Jackass title.

 

On the third morning, we began to climb. The ridge separating our two forks of the Gila River gained another thousand feet in elevation. The trail, which had been more haphazard, a sequence of cairns, across the recently washed riverbed, became more definite, a rutted line of switchbacks that rose from willow shrubs to ponderosa as the morning burned on.

As a hiker, I don’t climb well. My lungs and my legs get heavy; my horizon shrinks down to the view of my dusty feet and all pleasure goes with it.

Stephanie has always accommodated me, reciting platitudes from her Outward Bound manuals: “A group is only as strong as its weakest member” and “the slowest sets the pace” and “never rush a summit.” She once told me it was better to keep moving, however slowly, than to rush only to rest: turtles and hares and all of that. On the trail that day I visualized a donkey, steady on.

Steve, on the other hand, does not tolerate my drag-assing uphill: he is convinced I poke along only to drive him crazy, and he interprets my donkey invocations differently than I do: stubborn on, more like it. Meanwhile, his long legs stride up three switchbacks as if he were climbing a flight of stairs two or three at a time. Then he’ll stop and watch me, his hands on his lean hips, as I pant after him thinking donkey-donkey-donkey. Of course, before I get to him, he’s off again, leaving in his wake the exhaust of his exasperation. Alone, we throw down our packs and shout at one another, as soon as I have breath enough to shout. But climbing the ridge between the two forks of the Gila River, we were not alone, and he knew and took his advantage with this particular crowd.

I held the Jackass prize before I hit the first switchback of the morning, and so I seethed with a slow fury that did nothing to improve my speed.

By midday, as we each gnawed our rationed half of a banana Powerbar, me flat in the dust and pine chaff, Steve got Stephanie over to his side: we’d never make it to camp at my rate, and there would be no more water until we did. It was thereby decided that I had to walk faster.

Now all three taunted me, hoping to humiliate me up to speed.

“Come on Pokey,” they called back, using a tone that, in our sibling code, invoked our father verbally prodding a cow into the barn.

If it weren’t true about the water and the campsite, if Steve wasn’t there witnessing my failure, I would have sat down and refused to take another step until they stopped. But, at some point when it seemed we had reached the top at last only to round a bend and find the horizon still rising on ahead, I had finished the last of my water. The desert air, the altitude, and the exertion had sucked me dry and now my mouth was mossy with thirst.

Finally, our ascending trail t-ed into the trail that ran along the western crest of the ridge between the rivers. The climb was over, but the campsite we were heading for beside an old homestead cabin, and Prior Creek, the water source we hoped it had, was still miles away. Steven and my siblings, now that I could keep up, strode quickly through the sparse arid forest strewn with boulders. We didn’t talk to one another until we reached a trail marker at the top of a broad downward sloping meadow.

None of the destinations marked were ours.

“I think we’ve gone the wrong way,” I said, thinking back to the marker we’d barely glanced at when we intersected the crest trail, so confident we were in our direction.

“No,” Stephanie snapped. “It’s just not on the sign.”

“Let’s at least check the map again,” I suggested, trying too hard to sound reasonable.

Steve turned his back so I could unzip the pocket of his pack where our photocopied map was folded up in a ziplock baggie.

“We really should keep moving,” Clayton chimed in, and I shot back an adolescent sort of shut-up glare as I unfolded the map.

As I studied it, I couldn’t say for sure where we were. But none of the place names on the sign correlated with where we thought we were.

“The sign’s just wrong,” Stephanie said.

“I think we should go back to the last sign and double check,” I said.

“Backtrack? The sun is already going down.”

Clayton tried to cast his vote, but Stephanie and I both looked at Steve to arbitrate. I hoped my look said, “you can’t choose my sister’s side,” and made all kinds of threats as to what I’d do if he did.

Steve looked at the map, shrugged. “We only lose fifteen minutes if we go back.”

“Fifteen minutes there and fifteen minutes back,” Stephanie protested, but we were already drifting into reverse.

As we retraced our steps, I noticed how many of the trees around us were dead and twisted, victims, I knew, of lightning strike. I saw the skull of what I assumed was a deer. I thought about how little I liked hiking when I had to hurry, when I couldn’t look around. I couldn’t keep myself from saying so.

“God. Stop whining,” my sister snapped.

When we reached the trail marker, a wooden sign stained brown and written on with indented letters that had once been painted yellow, I opened the map I had been carrying and turned it this way and that. I still couldn’t make sense of what trail we were on and what trail we ought to be on and the sign didn’t really clear that up for us.

Stephanie seemed to have better luck.

“So it’s this way,” she said, and surged ahead.

“Is it?” I asked. To signal I wasn’t going to rush this, I unstrapped my pack and let it fall. “How do you know? I don’t see it.”

“Molly, we have to go,” Stephanie called over her shoulder. “Woods like these? At dusk? I would rather not be meeting bear.”

“If this is the way, this is the way. You don’t need to see it,” Steve said.

Clayton made some noise of agreement and I spun on the easier target.

“Oh right, because you have any idea how to get from point A to point B with a plan,” I snapped, rolling my big-sister eyes.

I didn’t look at Steve. I tried again to look at the map, but the other three were on the move again. I couldn’t tell where we were. I couldn’t concentrate or think. I was tired and I was thirsty and I wanted to pitch camp right where we were before wandering off without being sure where we were going.

“Well, fuck it,” I said, my ears ringing with anger. “I guess we don’t need this.”

And with that, I began to tear up the map, shredding it in strips and flinging them over my shoulder for effect. The sound of the paper ripping stopped the other three in their tracks.

“Oh, I’ve seen this movie before,” Clayton said softly.

“What the hell are you doing?” my boyfriend exploded at me.

But Stephanie and Clayton had begun to giggle, and once that got started they couldn’t stop. Soon they were bent double laughing.

“Jackass!” Clayton sang out. “Molly wins!”

“Definite Jackass,” my sister seconded, dropping her pack as if she couldn’t hold it up for laughing.  “Supreme Jackass.”

No one ever wins when there are three sides to the fight, but within the hour we were eating tinned ginger-sesame smoked salmon and rehydrated peas over rice noodles beside a narrow stream that threaded through banks of soft green grass.

 

The next morning, we saw a gartersnake in the grass, a vivid gold racing stripe running jaw to tail. As the trail came out onto the canyon rim above the Middle Fork, the views dramatic in clear morning light, we came upon a bull snake on the trail, long and lithe in the soft dry dirt. We posed for group photos with the self-timer, our arms around one another, our smiles big and our faces filthy.

As we descended into the canyon we crossed paths with the first people we had seen since we’d begun our hike. The two men asked us about snakes on the West Fork.

“None,” we reported. “Just a few on the ridge. Bulls and garters.”

They said they’d met rattlesnakes at nearly every river crossing, often on the very rocks they had intended to grab to haul themselves out of the water: there had been so many river crossings.

Oh, and they had seen a few bear.

We fumbled to think of how to top this. We were much too noisy to spot bear.

“We’ve seen lots of deer carcasses,” one of us tried. “Wonder if there are cats at work up on the ridge or if they’re sick? Maybe the plague?”

It wasn’t much. The information swap had been a one-way affair and we kept walking.

Did we need to be quieter? We wondered aloud. What if we didn’t see any rattlesnakes? Every crossing! Those men must have been exaggerating. The bear were probably bullshit too.

But we couldn’t keep quiet, so instead we interrogated Steve. Did a rattlesnake sound like that buzzing bug? How loud would it be?

All Steve would tell us: “You’ll just know when you hear it. You’ll definitely know.”

We were finally dried out from the West Fork, and in no hurry to make our first crossing, so when we reached the Middle Fork and found that the place called the Meadows on what was left of our map was in fact a nice level grassy area rimmed with wildflowers, we decided to have lunch before we made the first crossing. When we did finally face off with the river, we found it bigger and broader than the river we’d come from, but not so deep or fast. We just thrashed across and clambered up the bank to where a clear trail cut away from the river.

We’d only just come into the woods when the blacktail on the slope beside the trail rattled Stephanie from the front of the line to the rear.

We backed off, laughing and giddy: our first rattlesnake! So big—as big around as a person’s arm! Then we took his picture and counted the rings of his tocsin, while trying not to get so close that we’d scare him off. Not, it turned out, that he’d be scared off. The snake stayed there loosely coiled on his perch, his head a foot or so from where one’s knee would be, if a one dared walk past him on the trail, which we didn’t.

We clapped our hands. Clayton and Steve tossed rocks into the leaves near the snake. The blacktail rattled away, indignant, but held his ground. Finally, we bushwalked a wide arc around him, cursing the leaf cover in which we were certain his whole family lay in secret wait.

Five minutes and a few crossings later, Clayton spied an enormous diamondback lying parallel to the trail. This snake didn’t rattle, which rattled Clayton all the more. This snake just slithered off into the deadfall and out of sight.

We looked for walking sticks then. Snakes don’t hear, our Eagle Scout reported, but rather sense vibrations in the ground. Clayton interpreted this to mean that if he thumped the ground with a very large stick, snakes would get out of his way.

The stick he picked would be more adequately be called a log, except it was long and shaped like a hockey stick. He carried it with two hands. When it struck the ground it made a dull thud and he did this every few steps.

At one point, he shouted at me in the front of the line to slow down.

“Do you want your sister to get bitten by a rattlesnake?” he shouted, his voice baring a twinge of hysteria. I looked back at Stephanie, at the back of the line, and she flashed me a grin.

“My sister, huh?” I winked at him. We hadn’t realized our brother was so afraid of snakes.

We whistled “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as he hammered his way down the path.  We sneezed the word “Jackass.” Clayton seemed a shoe-in for the day’s prize.

But then Stephanie and I went at it when we pitched camp. She was a producer at a national newspaper and I a college teacher, but in the woods we were fifteen and seventeen, slamming doors, breaking or taking one another’s favorite things, coming near to blows; we were twelve and fourteen and she was shouting in an arena before all of our friends that she wished I would just die; we were six and eight and I had tied her up in my closet with strips of cloth torn from a shower curtain so she’d leave me alone; we were two and four and I was hacking off her first curls with blunt Crayola scissors. Now well into our twenties, at that serene bend in the river, she accused me of always taking the best tree branches whenever I hung up my socks. I  conveniently forgot my own immature response to this accusation, though I knew there must have been one. Then I showed Stephanie a draft of this essay and she reminded me: I threw her camp sandals into the woods.

Then she went to the river to cool off and saw a snake there that would change everything. It was small and beautiful, its body striped red, yellow, black. She called Steve over. The Eagle Scout couldn’t precisely remember the rhyme he’d been taught as a kid about yellow and red and what made a fella dead. It might be a coral snake, he said. Or it might not.

Stephanie went back to camp. Clayton and I wandered downstream, where I taught him how to cast caddis flies into a pool at the base of an enormous boulder. A kingfisher flashed past. We caught one very small fish.

When we returned to camp, Stephanie was livid. We had left her, it seemed, to be bitten by venomous snakes. We had not, it was true, responded to her emergency whistle. It did no good to argue that we had not heard said whistle.

“Only Steve came,” she spat. “You two just ignored me. You just don’t do that: What if I had been hurt? Then how would you feel?”

Clayton and I protested—she didn’t really think we would ignore her in an emergency, did she? But even Steve’s eyes asked, how could you?

The emergency had been another striped snake, only this one wasn’t in the river: she had spotted it crawling under her tent. Steve had chased the interloper off with a stick, but Clayton would not enter the tent until he’d seen underneath it with his own eyes. But once he’d pulled up the stakes and lifted the nylon dome, he saw not snakes but small holes, burrows of some sort. We turned in a circle. The holes were everywhere.

“Great,” Clayton said. “It’s the Snake Club here under my tent.”

“The American cobra den,” I corrected him.

But by then the sun had climbed the canyon wall and the light was gray. It could be a full mile to the next place level enough to camp. And Clayton would not hike blind, not with those rattlesnakes lying in wait for him.

I lit the stove and boiled something for supper. Stephanie sulked in her tent. At one point, somehow thinking it was a good joke, somehow thinking it might break the ice, I stuck a stick under her floor and made the most snake-like jiggle I could. She shouted obscenities at me. No one laughed.

Steve asked me that night how I could be so awful to her. I pointed out that I could because she was awful to me too, but he didn’t see how that gave me any right.

“Why can’t you just be nice,” he said. “I don’t recognize you.”

I rolled away from him, angry because I did recognize myself in my bad behavior: my old child self; the rougher, unrefined core of myself before time and experience and education smoothed my surfaces; my original, uncivilized self that only my siblings knew as well as I did. When I could force myself down into sleep, snakes slithered through the cracks of my dreams, wrapped themselves around my throat, and then, while I was held down, sank hollow teeth into my sister’s porcelain skin.

When morning finally came, however cold and dim on the canyon floor, I retreated to the river to pump water. In my absence, Clayton boiled water for coffee, but then extinguished the stove without starting the oatmeal. When I got back, muttering under my breath about having to do everything myself, it wouldn’t light again. I knew that I should wait, that once the metal cooled the gas would be liquid and easy to light, rather than escaping into the air. But in my fury I went at it, pumping and priming and pumping again, but the burner was too hot and the gas evaporated before I could light it. When I did finally get a flame, it was a fireball in my face. I smelled singed hair and knew it was my own, but I barely registered the heat.

Terrified at what I might discover, I put my hands to my head. The loose tendrils had shriveled, but I wasn’t bald. Then I touched my face and felt short stubs where before I’d had long lashes. I buried my face in Steve’s lap and wailed.

After I came up again, and showed them my wet, singed lashes, there was no more talk of Jackasses.

 

For our final days, we walked down the trail in unprecedented peace and quiet. At every turn, the canyons became more beautiful, the stone redder, and smoother, its weathering more intricate. We stripped on warm clay beaches and dipped in blue pools. We napped in meadows awash in purple lupine. We breathed ponderosa and juniper. We stopped to admire little barrel cacti in new bloom.

I told Stephanie what Steve had said to me about just being nice.

“Yeah, he and his brothers don’t fight.”

“That’s just weird,” she said.

For a while, we walked together quietly.

“You always take the best branches?” Stephanie said wryly, a half-mile later. “That was really par for the course.”

I reciprocated with some wry remark about the stick I’d slid under her tent.

We didn’t use the words “sorry” or “apologize,” but we still held hands when we crossed the river, which was so much broader and  more benign than the West Fork had been.

Then, in a river flat dense with large, lethargic carp, Steve lost his own cool, kicking at them for bumping into his legs but not rising for his fly, for not being Gila trout. From the shore, the three of us hooted and hissed in mock derision. He was becoming one of us.

When we camped next, I gave Clayton my thermal sleeping pad. He hadn’t complained, but I could tell from the darkening under his eyes that he could not sleep well. The ground was hard, but at least I was warm enough. Clayton thumped his log and the rest of us found good thumping sticks and joined him: perhaps as a result, we saw no more snakes.

The last night, camped under a rock overhang, we fried polenta in olive oil—a decadent substance to pack—and sipped Johnny Walker straight from the bottle Steve had carried all those miles so that we might toast our finale. The air smelled of sage and river silt, of the recent flooding that had cleansed that canyon, of the new growth that had come up since.

Clayton began to speak of discord, saying something about strife as a necessary part of the process. He said that you have to break things down before you can build again, before you can renew. He would have said more, but as his big sisters, it was our duty to tell him to shut up, and we did. But gently.

Don’t give it meaning, we said. Let it just be what it is: a few days together in the wilderness.

 

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