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Ridge Running

Three men sit on a rock. The rock is wet granite, a bouldertop surrounded by snow that has melted just enough to reveal it. Snow extends away from the rock in every direction. To the east it drops to treeline, to the west it rises to a rock wall that points up and ends at sky. The boulder the three men are on is the only break in the snow from the treeline to rock wall. Snowshoe tracks lead to the rock, coming from the north on a traverse across the slope. The men sit sunning like marmots.

One man chews snow. He is short and broad-chested, with thick arms and legs. He adjusts blue nylon gaiters that cover his boots and lower legs. His thighs are bare, he wears gray gym shorts. He leans over to strap a boot into an orange plastic snowshoe.

The man sitting beside him says, “Brian, I thought we were going to eat lunch.” This second man is big, and he wears sunglasses that clip onto prescription wire-rims.

“Pe-ter,” Brian drawls. “We can’t eat here comfortably, there’s barely room to sit. As soon as we get around that shoulder”—he points south—“the traverse will be done and we’ll be at the pass.”

Peter takes in a deep breath, lets it out. “I need to rest.”

“O.K.,” Brian says, “do it. I’m just going to go around to the pass, I’m tired of sitting.” He picks up the other orange snowshoe, sticks his boot in the binding.

The third man, who is medium height and very thin, has been staring at the snow granules on his boot. Now he picks up a yellow snowshoe and kicks into it. Peter sees him do it, sighs, bends over to yank his aluminum-and-cord snowshoes out of the snow they are stuck in.

“Look at that hummingbird,” the third man says with pleasure and points.

He is pointing at blank snow. His two companions look where he is pointing, then glance at each other uncomfortably. Peter shakes his head, looks at his boots.

“I didn’t know there were hummingbirds in the Sierras,” the third man says. “What a beauty!” He looks at Brian uncertainly. “Are there hummingbirds in the Sierras?” 

“Well,” Brian says, “actually, I think there are. But…” 

“But not this time, Joe,” Peter finishes.

“Ah,” Joe says, and stares at the spot in the snow. “I could have sworn…” Peter looks at Brian, his face squinched up in distress. “Maybe the light breaking on that clump of snow,” Joe says, mystified. “Oh, well.”

Brian stands and hoists a compact blue pack onto his shoulders, and steps off the boulder onto the snow. He leans over to adjust a binding. “Let’s get going, Joe,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.” And to Peter: “This spring snow is great.”

“If you’re a goddamn polar bear,” Peter says.

Brian shakes his head, and his silvered sunglasses flash reflections of snow and Peter. “This is the best time to be up here. If you would ever come with us in January or February you’d know that.”

“Summer!” Peter says as he picks up his long frame pack. “Summer’s what I like—catch the rays, see the flowers, walk around without these damn flippers on—” He swings his pack onto his back, steps back quickly (clatter of aluminum on granite) to keep his balance. He buckles his waistbelt awkwardly, looks at the sun. It is near midday. He wipes his forehead.

“You don’t even come up with us in the summer anymore,” Brian points out. “What has it been, four years?”

“Time,” Peter says. “I don’t have any time, and that’s a fact.”

“Just all your life,” Brian scoffs. Peter shakes off the remark with an irritated scowl, and steps onto the snow.

They turn to look at Joe, who is still inspecting the snow with a fierce squint.

“Hey, Joe!” Brian says.

Joe starts and looks up.

“Time to hike, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, just a second.” Joe readies himself.

Three men snowshoeing.

Brian leads. He sinks about a foot into the snow with every step. Joe follows, placing his yellow snowshoes carefully in the prints of Brian’s, so that he sinks hardly at all. Peter pays no attention to prints, and his snowshoes crash into and across the holes. His snowshoes slide left, downhill, and he slips frequently.

The slope steepens. The three men sweat. Brian slips left one time too often and stops to remove his snowshoes. They can no longer see the rock wall above them, the slope is so steep. Brian ties his snowshoes to his pack, puts the pack back on. He puts a glove on his right hand and walks canted over so he can punch into the slope with his fist.

Joe and Peter stop where Brian stops, to make the same changes. Joe points ahead to Brian, who is now crossing a section of slope steeper than forty-five degrees.

“Strange three-legged hill animal,” says Joe, and laughs. “Snoweater.”

Peter looks in his pack for his glove. “Why don’t we go down into the trees and avoid this damn traverse?” 

“The view isn’t as good.”

Peter sighs. Joe waits, scuffs snow, looks at Peter curiously. Pete has put suntan oil on his face, and the sweat has poured from his forehead, so that his stubbled cheeks shine with reflected light. He says, “Am I imagining this, or are we working really hard?”

“We’re working very hard,” Joe says. “Traverses are difficult.”

They watch Brian, who is near the middle of the steepest section. “You guys do this snow stuff for fun?” Peter says.

After a moment Joe starts. “I’m sorry,” he says. “What were we talking about?”

Peter shrugs, examines Joe closely. “You O.K.?” he asks, putting his gloved hand to Joe’s arm.

“Yeah, yeah. I just… forgot. Again!”

“Everyone forgets sometimes.”

“I know, I know.” With a discouraged sigh Joe steps off into Brian’s prints. Peter follows.

From above they appear little dots, the only moving objects in a sea of white and black. Snow blazes white and prisms flash from sunglasses. They wipe their foreheads, stop now and then to catch their breath. Brian pulls ahead, Pete falls behind. Joe steps out the traverse with care, talking to himself in undertones. Their gloves get wet, there are ice bracelets around their wrists. Below them solitary trees at treeline wave in a breeze, but on the slope it is windless and hot.

The slope lessens, and they are past the shoulder. Brian pulls off his pack and gets out his groundpad, sits on it. He roots in the pack. After a while Joe joins him. “Whew!” Joe says. “That was a hard traverse.”

“Not really hard,” Brian replies. “Just boring.” He eats some M&M’s, waves a handful up at the ridge above. “I’m tired of traversing, though, that’s for sure. I’m going up to the ridge so I can walk down it to the pass.”

Joe looks at the wall of snow leading up to the ridge. “Yeah, well, I think Pete and I will continue around the corner here and go past Lake Doris to the pass. It’s almost level from here on.”

“True. I’m going to go up there anyway.”

“All right. We’ll see you in the pass in a while.” Brian looks at Joe. “You’ll be all right?”


Brian gets his pack on, turns and begins walking up the slope, bending forward to take big slow strides. Watching him, Joe says to himself, “Humped splayfoot pack beast, yes. House-backed creature. Giant snow snail. Yo ho for the mountains. Rum de dum. Rum de dum de dum.”

Peter appears around the shoulder, walking slowly and carelessly. He spreads his groundpad, sits beside Joe. After a time his breathing slows. “Where’s Brian?”

“He went up there.”

“Is that where we’re going?”

“I thought we might go around to the pass the way the trail goes.”

“Thank God.”

“We’ll get to go by Lake Doris.”

“The renowned Lake Doris,” Peter scoffs.

Joe waves a finger to scold. “It is nice, you know.”

Joe and Peter walk. Soon their breathing hits a regular rhythm. They cross a meadow tucked into the side of the range like a terrace. It is covered with suncones, small melt depressions in the snow, and the walking is uneven.

“My feet are freezing,” Pete says from several yards behind Joe.

Joe looks back to reply. “It’s a cooling system. Most of my blood is hot—so hot I can hold snow in my hand and my hand won’t get cold. But my feet are chilled. It cools the blood. I figure there’s a spot around my knees that’s perfect. My knees feel great. I live there and everything’s comfortable.”

“My knees hurt.”

“Hmm,” Joe says. “Now that is a problem.”

After a silence filled by the squeak of snow and the crick of boot against snowshoe, Pete says, “I don’t understand why I’m getting so tired. I’ve been playing full-court basketball all winter.”

“Mountains aren’t as flat as basketball courts.”

Joe’s pace is a bit faster than Pete’s, and slowly he pulls ahead. He looks left, to the tree-filled valley, but slips a few times and turns his gaze back to the snow in front of him. His breaths rasp in his throat. He wipes sweat from an eyebrow. He hums unmusically, then starts a breath-chant, muttering a word for each step: animal, animal, animal, animal, animal. He watches his snowshoes crush patterns onto the points and ridges of the pocked, glaring snow. White light blasts around the sides of his sunglasses. He stops to tighten a binding, looks up when he is done. There is a tree a few score yards ahead—he adjusts his course for it, and walks again.

After a while he reaches the tree. He looks at it; a gnarled old Sierra juniper, thick and not very tall. Around it hundreds of black pine needles are scattered, each sunk in its own tiny pocket in the snow. Joe opens his mouth several times, says “Lugwump?” He shakes his head, walks up to the tree, puts a hand on it. “I don’t know who you are?” He leans in, his nose is inches from bark. The bark peels away from the tree like papery sheets of filo dough. He puts his arms out, hugs the trunk. “Tr-eeeee,” he says. “Tr-eeeeeeee.”

He is still saying it when Peter, puffing hard, joins him. Joe steps around the tree, gestures at a drop beyond the tree, a small bowl notched high in the side of the range.

“That’s Lake Doris,” he says, and laughs.

Blankly Peter looks at the small circle of flat snow in the center of the bowl. “Mostly a summer phenomenon,” Joe says. Peter purses his lips and nods. “But not the pass,” Joe adds, and points west.

West of the lake bowl the range—a row of black peaks emerging from the snow—drops a bit, in a deep, symmetrical U, an almost perfect semicircle, a glacier road filled with blue sky. Joe smiles. “That’s Rockbound Pass. There’s no way you could forget a sight like that. I think I see Brian up there. I’m going to go up and join him.”

He takes off west, walking around the side of the lake until he can go straight up the slope rising from the lake to the pass. The snow thins on the slope, and his plastic snowshoes grate on stretches of exposed granite. He moves quickly, takes big steps and deep breaths. The slope levels and he can see the spine of the pass. Wind blows in his face, growing stronger with every stride. When he reaches the flat of the saddle in mid-pass it is a full gale. His shirt is blown cold against him, his eyes water. He can feel sweat drying on his face. Brian is higher in the pass, descending the north spine. His high shouts are blown past Joe. Joe takes off his pack and swings his arms around, stretches them out to the west. He is in the pass.

Below him to the west is the curving bowl of a cirque, one dug by the glacier that carved the pass. The cirque’s walls are nearly free of snow, and great tiers of granite gleam in the sun. A string of lakes—flat white spots—mark the valley that extends westward out of the cirque. Lower ranges lie in rows out to the haze-fuzzed horizon.

Behind him Lake Doris’s bowl blocks the view of the deep valley they have left behind. Joe looks back to the west; wind slams his face again. Brian hops down the saddle to him, and Joe whoops. “It’s windy again,” he calls.

“It’s always windy in this pass,” Brian says. He strips off his pack, whoops himself. He approaches Joe, looks around. “Man, for a while there about a year ago I thought we’d never be here again.” He claps Joe on the back. “I’m sure glad you’re here,” he says, voice full.

Joe nods. “Me, too. Me, too.”

Peter joins them. “Look at this,” calls Brian, waving west. “Isn’t this amazing?” Peter looks at the cirque for a moment and nods. He takes off his pack and sits behind a rock, out of the wind.

“It’s cold,” he says. His hands quiver as he opens his pack.

“Put on a sweatshirt,” Brian says sharply. “Eat some food.”

Joe removes his snowshoes, wanders around the pass away from Brian and Peter. The exposed rock is shattered tan granite, covered with splotches of lichen, red and black and green. Joe squats to inspect a crack, picks up a triangular plate of rock. He tosses it west. It falls in a long arc.

Brian and Peter eat lunch, leaning against a boulder that protects them from the wind. Where they are sitting it is fairly warm. Brian eats slices of cheese cut from a big block of it. Peter puts a tortilla in his lap, squeezes peanut butter out of a plastic tube onto it. He picks up a bottle of liquid butter and squirts a stream of it over the peanut butter.

Brian looks at the concoction and squints. “That looks like shit.”

“Hey,” Peter says. “Food is food. I thought you were the big pragmatist.”

“Yeah, but…”

Pete wolfs down the tortilla, Brian works on the block of cheese.

“So how did you like the morning’s hike?” Brian asks.

Pete says, “I read that snowshoes were invented by Plains Indians, for level places. In the mountains, those traverses”—he takes a bite—“those traverses were terrible.”

“You used to love it up here.”

“That was in the summers.”

“It’s better now, there’s no one else up here. And you can go anywhere you want over snow.”

“I’ve noticed you think so. But I don’t like the snow. Too much work.”

“Work,” Brian scoffs. “The old law office is warping your conception of work, Peter.”

Peter chomps irritably, looking offended. They continue to eat. One of Joe’s nonsense songs floats by.

“Speaking of warped brains,” Peter says.

“Yeah. You keeping an eye on him?”

“I guess so. I don’t know what to do when he loses it, though.”

Brian arches back and turns to look over the boulder. “Hey, Joe!” he shouts. “Come eat some lunch!” They both watch Joe jerk at the sound of Brian’s voice. But after a moment’s glance around, Joe returns to playing with the rocks.

“He’s out again,” says Brian.

“That,” Peter says, “is one sick boy. Those doctors really did it to him.”

“That crash did it to him. The doctors saved his life. You didn’t see him at the hospital like I did. Man, ten or twenty years ago an injury like that would have left him a vegetable for sure. When I saw him I thought he was a goner.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. The man who flew through his windshield.”

“But you don’t know what they did to him.”

“So what did they do to him?”

“Well, they stimulated what they call axonal sprouting in the areas where neuronal connections were busted up—which means, basically, that they grew his brain back!”

“Grew it?”

“Yeah! Well some parts of it—the broken connections, you know. Like the arm of a starfish. You know?”

“No. But I’ll take your word for it.” Peter looks over the boulder at Joe. “I hope they grew back everything, yuk yuk. He might have one of his forgetting spells and walk over the edge there.”

“Nah. He just forgets how to talk, as far as I can tell. Part of the reorganization, I think. It doesn’t matter much up here.” Brian arches up. “Hey, JOE! FOOD!”

“It does too matter,” Peter says. “Say he forgets the word cliff. He forgets the concept, he says to himself I’m just going to step down to that lake there, and whoops, over the edge he goes.”

“Nah,” Brian says. “It doesn’t work that way. Concepts don’t need language.”

“What?” Peter cries. “Concepts don’t need language? Are you kidding? Man I thought Joe was the crazy one around here.”

“No seriously,” Brian says, shifting rapidly from his usual reserve to interested animation. “Sensory input is already a thought, and the way we field it is conceptual. Enough to keep you from walking off cliffs anyway.” Despite this assertion he looks over his shoulder again. There stands Joe nodding as if in agreement with him.

“Yes, language is a contact lens,” Joe says.

Peter and Brian look at each other.

“A contact lens at the back of the eyeball. Color filters into this lens, which is made of nameglass, and its reflected to the correct corner of the brain, tree corner or rock corner.”

Peter and Brian chew that one over.

“So you lose your contact lenses?” Brian ventures. 

“Yeah!” Joe looks at him with an appreciative glance. “Sort of.”

“So what’s in your mind then?”

Joe shrugs. “I wish I knew.” After a while, struggling for expression: “I feel things. I feel that something’s not right. Maybe I have another language then, but I’m not sure. Nothing looks right, it’s all just… color. The names are gone. You know?”

Brian shakes his head, involuntarily grinning.

“Hmm,” Peter says. “It sounds like you might have some trouble getting your driver’s license renewed.” All three of them laugh.

Brian stands, stuffs plastic bags into his pack. “Ready for some ridge running?” he says to the other two.

“Wait a second,” Peter says, “we just got here. Why don’t you kick back for a while? This pass is supposed to be the high point of the trip, and we’ve only been here half an hour.”

“Longer than that,” says Brian.

“Not long enough. I’m tired!”

“We’ve only hiked about four miles today,” Brian replies impatiently. “All of us worked equally hard. Now we can walk down a ridge all afternoon, it’ll be great!”

Peter sucks air between his teeth, holds it in, decides not to speak. He begins jamming bags into his pack.

They stand ready to leave the pass, packs and snowshoes on their backs. Brian makes a final adjustment to hipbelt—Pete looks up the spine they are about to ascend—Joe stares down at the huge bowl of rock and snow to the west. Afternoon sun glares. The shadow of a cloud hurries across the cirque toward them, jumps up the west side of the pass and they are in it, for a moment.

“Look!” Joe cries. He points at the south wall of the pass. Brian and Pete look—

A flash of brown. A pair of horns, blur of legs, the distant clacks of rock falling.

“A bighorn sheep!” says Brian. “Wow!” He hurries across the saddle of the pass to the south spine, looking up frequently. “There it is again! Come on!”

Joe and Pete hurry after him. “You guys will never catch that thing,” says Peter.

The south wall is faulted and boulderish, and they zig and zag from one small shelf of snow to the next. They grab outcroppings and stick fists in cracks, and strain to push themselves up steps that are waist-high. The wind peels across the spine of the wall and keeps them cool. They breathe in gasps, stop frequently. Brian pulls ahead, Peter falls behind. Brian and Joe call to each other about the bighorn.

Brian and Joe top the spine, scramble up the decreasing slope. The ridge edge—a hump of shattered rock, twenty or twenty-five feet wide, like a high road—is nearly level, but still rises enough to block their view south. They hurry up to the point where the ridge levels, and suddenly they can see south for miles.

They stop to look. The range rises and falls in even swoops to a tall peak. Beyond the peak it drops abruptly and rises again, up and down and up, culminating in a huge knot of black peaks. To the east the steep snowy slope drops to the valley paralleling the range. To the west a series of spurs and cirques alternate, making a broken desert of rock and snow.

The range cuts down the middle of it all, high above everything else that can be seen. Joe taps his boot on solid rock. “Fossil backbone, primeval earth being,” he says.

“I think I still see that sheep,” says Brian, pointing. “Where’s Peter?”

Peter appears, face haggard. He stumbles on a rock, steps quickly to keep his balance. When he reaches Brian and Joe he lets his pack thump to the ground.

“This is ridiculous,” he says. “I have to rest.”

“We can’t exactly camp here,” Brian says sarcastically, and gestures at the jumble of rock they are sitting on. 

“I don’t care,” Peter says, and sits down.

“We’ve only been hiking an hour since lunch,” Brian objects, “and we’re trying to close in on that bighorn!” 

“Tired,” Peter says. “I have to rest.”

“You get tired pretty fast these days!”

An angry silence.

Joe says in a mild voice. “You guys sure are bitching at each other a lot.”

A long silence. Brian and Peter look in different directions.

Joe points down at the first dip in the ridge, where there is a small flat of granite slabs and corners filled with sand. “Why don’t we camp there? Brian and I can drop our packs and go on up the ridge for a walk. Pete can rest and maybe start a fire later. If you can find wood.”

Brian and Pete both agree to the plan, and they descend to the saddle campsite.

Two men ridge running. They make swift progress up the smooth rise, along the jumbled road at the top of the range. The bare rock they cross is smashed into fragments, splintered by ice and lightning. Breaking out of the blackish granite are knobs of tan rock, crushed into concentric rings of shards. They marvel at boulders which look like they have sat on the range since it began to rise. They jump from rock to rock, flexing freed shoulders. Brian points ahead and calls out when he sees the sheep. “Do you see it?”

“Sure do,” Joe says, but without looking up. Brian notices this and snorts disgustedly.

Shadows of the range darken the valley to the east. Joe hops from foothold to foothold, babbling at Brian all the while from several yards behind him. “Name it, name it. You name it. Naammme. What an idea. I’ve got three blisters on my feet. I named the one on the left heel Amos.” Pause to climb a shoulder-high slab of granite. “I named the one on the right heel Crouch. Then I’ve got one on the front of my right ankle, and I named that one Achilles. That way when I feel it it’s not like pain, it’s like a little joke. Twinges in my heel”—panting so he can talk—“are little hellos, hellos with every step. Amos here, hi, Joe; Crouch here, hi, Joe. It’s amazing. The way I feel I probably don’t need boots at all. I should take them off!”

“You’d probably better keep them on,” Brian says seriously. Joe grins.

The incline becomes steeper and the edge of the ridge narrows. They slow down, step more carefully. The shattered rock gives way to great faulted blocks of solid mountain. They find themselves straddling the ridge on all fours, left feet on the east slope and right feet on the west. Both sides drop sharply away, especially the west. Sun gilds this steeper slope. Joe runs his hand down the edge of the range.

The ridge widens out, and they can walk again. The rock is shattered, all brittle plated angular splinters, covered with lichen. “Great granite,” Joe says.

“This is actually diorite,” Brian says. “Diorite or gabbro. Made of feldspar and darker stuff.”

“Oh, don’t give me that,” Joe says. “I’m doing well just to remember granite. Besides, this stuff has been granite for a lot longer than geologists have been naming things. They can’t go messing with a name like that.” Still, he looks more closely at the rock. “Gabbro, gabbro… sounds like one of my words.”

They wind between boulders, spring up escarpments. They come upon a knob of quartz that rises out of the black granite. The knob is infinitely cracked, as if struck on top by a giant sledgehammer. “Rose quartz,” says Brian, and moves on. Joe stares at the knob, mouth open. He kneels to pick up chunks of the quartz, peers at them. He sees that Brian is moving on. Rising, he says to himself, “I wish I knew everything.”

Suddenly they are at the top. Everything is below them. Beside Brian, Joe stops short. They stand silently, inches apart. Wind whips around them. To the south the range drops and rises yet again, to the giant knob of peaks they saw when they first topped the ridge. At every point of the compass mountains drop away, white folds crumpling to every horizon. Nothing moves but the wind. Brian says, “I wonder where that sheep went to.”

Two men sitting on a mountaintop. Brian digs into a pile of rocks, pulls out a rusty tin box. “Aha,” he says. “The sheep left us a clue.” He takes a piece of paper from the box. “Here’s its name—Diane Hunter.”

“Oh, bullshit!” cries Joe. “That’s no name. Let me see that.” He grabs the box out of Brian’s hand and the top falls off. A shower of paper, ten or twenty pieces of it, pops out of the box and floats down to the east, spun by the wind. Joe pulls out a piece still wedged in the box. He reads, “Robert Spencer, July 20th, 2014. It’s a name box. It’s for people who want to leave a record of their climb.”

Brian laughs. “How could anyone get into something like that? Especially on a peak you can just walk right up to.” He laughs again.

“I suppose I should try to recover as many as I can,” Joe says dubiously, looking down the steep side of the peak.

“What for? It’s not going to erase their experience.”

“You never know,” says Joe, laughing to himself. “It very well might. Just think, all over the United States the memory of this peak has popped right out of twenty people’s heads.” He waves to the east. “Bye-bye…”

They sit in silence. Wind blows. Clouds pass by. The sun closes on the horizon. Joe talks in short bursts, waves his arms. Brian listens, watches the clouds. At one point he says, “You’re a new being, Joseph.” Joe cocks his head at this.

Then they just sit and watch. It gets cold.

“Hawk,” says Brian in a quiet voice. They watch the black dot soar on the updraft of the range.

“It’s the sheep,” says Joe. “It’s a shapechanger.” 

“Nah. Doesn’t even move the same.”

“I say it is.”

The dot turns in the wind and rises, circling higher and higher above the world, coasting along the updraft with minute wing adjustments, until it hovers over the giant, angular knotpeak. Suddenly it plummets toward the peaks, stooping faster than objects fall. It disappears behind the jagged black teeth. “Hawk,” Joe breathes. “Hawuck divvve.”

They look at each other.

Brian says, “That’s where we’ll go tomorrow.”

Glissading down the snow expanse, skidding five or ten feet with each stiff-legged step, the two of them make rapid progress back to camp. The walking is dreamlike as they pump left… right… left… right down the slope.

“So what about that bighorn sheep?” says Joe. “I never did see any prints.”

“Maybe we shared a hallucination,” says Brian. “What do they call that?”

“A folie à deux.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.” A pause while they skid down a steep bank of snow, straight-legged as if they are skiing. “I hope Pete got a fire going. Damn cold up here.”

“A feature of the psychic landscape,” Joe says, talking to himself again. “Sure, why not? It looks about like what I’d expect, I’ll tell you that. No wonder Im getting things confused. What you saw was probably a fugitive thought of mine, escaping off across the waste. Bighorn sheep, sure.”

After a while they can see the saddle where they left Peter, far below them in the rocky expanse. There is a spark of yellow. They howl and shout. “Fire! FIRE!”

In the sandy camp, situated in a dip between slabs of granite, they greet Pete and root through their packs with the speed of hungry men. Joe takes his pot, jams it with snow, puts it on the fire. He sits down beside Peter.

“You guys were gone a long time,” Peter says. “Did you find that sheep?”

Joe shakes his head. “It turned into a hawk.” He moves his pot to a bigger flame. “Sure am glad you got this fire going,” he says. “It must have been a bitch to start in this wind.” He starts to pull off his boots.

“There wasn’t much wood, either,” Pete says. “But I found a dead tree down there a ways.”

Joe prods a burning branch, frowns. “Juniper,” he says with satisfaction. “Good wood.”

Brian appears, dressed in down jacket, down pants, and down booties. Pete falls silent. Glancing at Pete, Joe notices this, and frowns again. He gets up stiffly to go to his pack and get his own down booties. He returns to the fire, finishes taking off his boots. His feet are white and wrinkled, with red blisters. 

“Those look sore,” says Pete.

“Nah.” Joe gulps down the melted snow in his pot, starts melting more. He puts his booties on.

They watch the fire in silence.

Joe says, “Remember that time you guys wrestled in the living room of our apartment?”

“Yeah, we got all those carpet burns.”

“And broke the lamp that never worked anyway—”

“And then you went berserk!” Brian laughs. “You went berserk and tried to bite my ear off!” They all laugh, and Pete nods, grinning with embarrassed pride.

“Pete won that one,” Joe says.

“That’s right,” says Brian. “Put my shoulders to the mat, or to the carpet in that case. A victory for maniacs everywhere.”

Ponderously Peter nods, imitating official approval. “But I couldn’t beat you tonight,” he admits. “I’m exhausted. I guess I’m not up to this snow camping.”

“You were strong in those days,” Brian tells him. “But you hiked a radical trail with us today, I’ll tell you. I don’t know too many people who would have come with us, actually.”

“What about Joe here? He was on his back most of last year.”

“Yeah, but he’s crazy now.”

“I was crazy before!” Joe protests, and they laugh.

Brian pours macaroni into his pot, shifts to a rock seat beside Peter so he can tend the pot better. They begin to talk about the days when they all lived together as students. Joe grins to hear them. He nearly overturns his pot, and they call out at him. Pete says, “The black thing is the pot, Joseph, the yellow stuff is fire—try to remember that.” Joe grins. Steam rises from the pots and is whipped east by the evening breeze.

Three men sitting round a fire. Joe gets up, very slowly, and steps carefully to his pack. He unrolls his groundcloth, pulls out his sleeping bag. He straightens up. The evening star hangs in the west. It’s getting darker. Behind him his old friends laugh at something Pete has said.

In the east there are stars. Part of the sky is still a light velvet blue. The wind whistles softly. Joe picks up a rock, looks at it closely. “Rock,” he says. He clenches the rock in his fist, shakes it at the evening star, lofts it skyward. “Rock!” He looks down the range: black dragon back breaking out of blue-white, like consciousness from chaos, an unbroken range of peaks—

“Hey, Joseph! You lamebrain!”

“Space case!”

“—come take care of your pot before it puts out the fire.” Joe walks to the woodpile grinning, puts more wood on the fire, until it blazes up yellow in the dusk.

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