Snowbound (excerpt)

2.

It was chaos in the Bluffs. No one was prepared for the temperature drop and the snow, and though no one was ever prepared for the weather off the Peak, this was different. In the middle of the night, someone had gotten up out of their tent to pee and, on seeing the silent blanket of white building on the ground, trees, and cars, had shouted, “Snow!” No one had paid him any notice at the time. In the morning, the first ranger to get up just stood at the door to her cabin until the cold woke her roommate.

Tents were being dismantled and clothes torn down from clotheslines by first light, and concerned fathers and mothers were revving their vehicles’ engines to make sure they still worked. Many of them were convinced that they were caught in the middle of a system or a storm. Of course, the rangers knew that the Peak was just shedding some precipitation, but the snow was so unexpected and the panic so general that the order to evacuate came down from regional first thing that morning—just in case some big weather did come in the next night, trapping hundreds of people beneath a wrathful Peak.

After trekking seven hours down from the ridge, Jake stood atop the Little Bluff above the campground that afternoon and surveyed the madness. Campers and vans had churned the snow into a grey paste, their windows lined with hands and eyes that had never seen the stuff before. Their engines and tires groaned louder against the mush, and the exhaust from their back ends choked out darker and darker. To help people dig their cars out, rangers were handing out tagged shovels and stopping cars to collect them by the exit, but most of them had their hands full directing traffic and fielding questions. In the end, they got about a third of the shovels back.

“Shit,” Jake said. It was the first thing he had said all day. He hadn’t even shouted for Steve when he had found him gone this morning. He had looked over the bluff and into the next saddle, but he was gone, his tracks leading up and over the hill, then disappearing amid the snow-choked rocks, and on toward the Peak. He had frozen up when he found Steve gone, and, surprised at himself, didn’t know what to do. He had to talk to someone, let someone know Steve was out there, but it would take hours for him to get a hold of someone in this mess. He didn’t like knowing (though it was true) that he was in the same boat as everyone else. And that Steve was out there with no winter gear except a pair of crampons.

He walked over to the ranger’s office, a little wooden shack with windows and a sign that said “Ranger Station” by the campground entrance, but it was empty. Everyone was out doing damage control. He peered  into the unlit shack and saw a plastic bag with three shiny brass tubes tapered at the end. Instinctively he turned behind him and checked the rocks for movement. There was nothing except two squirrels chasing each other up and down a whitened tree trunk.

Beyond the entrance, two cars staggered on through the snowy two-lane highway like dogs slipping on hardwood while a camper followed them out of the mouth of the exit. As the camper rounded the corner on to the road, its back-left tire hit a snow bank by the exit sign, jumping its the rear end about a foot into the air, knocking snow off its roof and flopping from side to side on its front two wheels. It tried to get out of the snow bank, but the back-left tire was in deep, and by the way they spat out snow every which way behind them, Jake could see that those weren’t snow tires.

Jake walked back through the empty access road up toward the long press of vacated and partly-vacated campsites. It was like they were fleeing a white plague, leaving behind possessions that might weigh them down—clotheslines left knotted up on trees, five half-visible canisters of propane by a set of wheel tracks, a dirty diaper tossed into a snowbound fire pit. From here, he could see the long line of cars backed up to the far group of campsites, the occasional honk prompting exasperated looks from the other, anxious drivers.

One site over from the propane canisters Jake saw a man struggling to start a small coupe. It looked about twenty years old, Jake thought, twenty at least, something that would have needed breaking-in in high school. Years ago, he had driven a sedan at least a decade older than this one, and whenever he thought of it, he still thought of Diane and him lying in the back seat like tired children, holding each other and then doing what they both wanted, what young lovers do, as the song would play over and over again on the half-broken tape player.

Jake wiped the memory off his lips and called over to the man. “Say!”

“Try it now,” the man said. A raspy growling noise bent around the car’s hood. “Stop! Stop, stop.” The man leaned into the coupe’s innards again.

“Say, excuse me. Know where I can find a ranger?”

The man looked over from his car and a woman flopped a head of long, dirty blonde hair out the window.

“Hi there,” Jake said.

“Hey friend,” the man said. He was older, probably fifty or so, with jeans and wet cowboy boots and a bothered expression. “You stuck here, too?”

“Yeah.” Jake looked up at the top of the Peak between the trees.

“Crazy about all this snow, isn’t it? It’s just been impossible to get this thing started,” the man said. He shifted to one side expectantly.

“Yeah,” Jake paused. “Is there any place I can find a ranger?”

They both gestured over to the line of cars.

“They’re over there,” said the man.

“I know,” Jake said, “I just mean, have you seen any who aren’t helping get people out of here?”

“What?” the woman asked.

“I said, have you seen—”

“No, I don’t think I have,” the man cut in. “They’re all over there. Except, I did tell one I was having car troubles. But what do you want to talk to a ranger for? We should all just get on out of here. It’s just going to dump on us in another couple of hours, at least that’s what I heard, and I sure as shit am not going to be around when it does.”

Jake looked at the woman’s head protruding from the car window.

“So this ranger—” Jake said.

“He said he would be back with that antifreeze,” the man went on, his head twitching nervously around.

“Where’d he go?” Jake asked.

“Over to the cars with everyone else,” the woman said. She nodded her head again to the line extending like a taproot up toward the wall of the Big Bluff, after which it splintered off into fragments, each one a procession of white-capped vehicles inching nervously along the road toward the exit. “Said his name was Craig.”

“Craig?”

“Yeah I think so,” the man said, his eyes darting to the woman then back at Jake.

“Great, thanks,” Jake said, putting a hand up in farewell.

“Wait a second,” said the man, shifting over to the other side of the car by the woman. “Answer me a question, friend. Know anything about antifreeze?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Jake said.

“He means do you have any,” the woman said.

“No, I don’t have any antifreeze.”

“Are you sure? What about your car? Can’t we siphon some off?” the man asked, panic rising in his throat as he ran down his dwindling list of possible options. He was tall and lanky with tight, compact muscles, the kind you find on distance runners.

“I came in on my friend’s truck and I don’t have the key. Sorry.”

“Where’s this friend of yours?” the man asked. Jake bristled at the question even though he remembered it was he who had interrupted them.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? How can you not know?” His voice cracked with strain.

Jake looked at the man with one eye and shifted his left foot back a step. “I think I’m going to go look for Craig.”

“Wait!” the woman said, trying to stick her head further out the window as if she were trapped in the front seat.

“Thanks very much,” Jake said.

The man walked from behind the car around to where Jake was. “Come on, buddy, I can get you into your friend’s car. We’ll get that antifreeze and I’ll give you a lift to town and you can catch the bus to wherever you want. We just gotta get out of here.”

“I can take care of myself,” said Jake. “Besides, I have to find my friend.”

“Some friend,” the woman said. “He just up and left you.”

Jake’s fist tightened. It was a mistake talking to these two. “Good luck with your antifreeze.”

“Come on, be a friend and help,” the man said.

“Thanks, but I really can’t. My friend is up on the mountain.” Jake turned and started walking, hoping to be rid of them soon. Steve didn’t have winter gear on him. The temperature at night must have been around ten degrees.

Jake heard the soft crunching of boot heels tamping down snow.

“Up on the mountain?” the man called.

Jake kept walking.

“Your buddy’s a goner. There’s no way he made it through that shit last night.”

Anger welled in Jake’s gut. He walked faster. Eight degrees, maybe. Too cold for September.

“You can’t just walk away like that! We’ll get you out of here. Hey! Hey, what’s your name?”

The man had caught up to Jake, who was moving slower because of his pack. It bore heavily down on his hips, and its weight tipped him off balance as he walked faster. The man was still there. Jake didn’t respond.

“I know you must be able to spare some antifreeze from your car. You can’t even drive it. Your buddy’s not coming back with those keys. Hey you!”

The man put his hand on Jake’s pack and pushed him to the left. Jake briefly careened on one foot, off balance, the weight of the air and ground beneath his foot giving him a sickly feeling in his stomach, and landed with that boot deep in a snow bank by the road.

“Hey hands off, asshole,” Jake said.

“Asshole? Fuck you.”

“Hey just back off.”

“Back off? Don’t tell me to back off,” the man said.

“Dean?” the woman called from just down the road. “What are you doing Dean?”

“This is ridiculous,” Jake said, and walked toward the road.

“You think you can just leave us here?” the man said.

“I have to find my friend.” Jake shot the man a look like the ones his mother used to give him when he broke a plate or locked the dog in the closet.

“Fuck your friend,” the man said, curling his lip and jutting his chin out. “You don’t even know where he is. He’s frozen up on the mountain. He’s a popsicle. Fuck him.”

Something broke inside Jake and he threw his left arm into the soft of the man’s abdomen with a grace and power neither man expected. As the man doubled over, Jake took his right arm and bent it up behind his back toward his shoulders, grabbing the nape of his neck and pushing down hard. A low hoarse cough came from the man below him. It sounded like the car turning over, except with the rattle of mucous and spit. It was one movement to Jake, welling at the tips of his fingers. This was more important than finding Steve.

“Get off!” the man screeched.

“Dean!” the woman yelled.

“Fuck you,” Jake said low, and kicked the back man’s right knee, driving his face ahead toward the road. The man kicked forwards and lost his balance, ending up down on the dirty gravel. Grey brown and teal stained his hands and knees, and the rocks stung like spider bites. The man yelled in pain and surprise. Jake responded by driving the man’s face into a pothole. It was filled with oily-looking slush, a rainbow of oil working its way around the edges with the mid-afternoon sunlight. Jake felt as if he could see himself doing it from over his shoulder. The man was gurgling under the slush. Was he drowning him? It was fluid and familiar and fast.

“What the fuck are you doing?” the woman yelled, and kicked Jake with an outstretched, flying foot to the ribs. Jake breathed sharply and let go of the man’s arm to deflect her next kick.

Suddenly, Jake heard a deep, wheezing breath and felt a pressure against his chin. With his arm free, the man was pressing against Jake’s chest, and soon wrenched his neck free with a single, violent twist. He staggered across the road, not bothering to care about cars, and moved his arm across his dirty face like he was punching the air. “You motherfucker I’ll knock you out,” he said.

“Stop it, both of you!” she yelled, then looked at Jake. “You’re crazy!”

“Come at me from the front this time, I’ll kick your ass you pansy fuck.”

“Hey! Stop it now. Cut it out!”

Both of them turned and saw a ranger with a nightstick extended in one hand.

“Craig?” the man said. “This man—”

“Shut up goddamnit,” the ranger yelled. He looked a little sheepish, but still in control. His hand tightened on his nightstick. “What the hell is going on here?”

* * *

It was raining and they weren’t going anywhere today. Jake and Vanessa sat on the couch together looking lazily out the window, the water streaking down the glass in drops and streams.

“We could see a movie,” he said.

“You already said that!” she protested with a smile.

He laughed. “It’s all I can think of.”

Steve came in from his bedroom. “Hey guys,” he said and looked down at them. They were a tangle of hands and legs and feet.

“Hey,” they both replied.

“Still trying to figure out things to do indoors?”

“All he can think of is going to the movies,” Vanessa said.

Jake looked at Steve with a wide grin. Steve shrugged.

“What can I say?” Steve said, standing by the coffee table. “Jake, you’re just not the romantic type.” Vanessa felt her stomach prickle defensively. Who was he to say? These were days when Jake still had a spark behind his eyes.

“Shut up, Steve,” Jake said, and threw a pillow. The pillow hit Steve in the neck and shoulders, landing with a dull thud in his arms.

“What can I say?” Steve said.

Jake threw another pillow.

“Throw all you want. What can I say?”

“He’s perfectly romantic,” Vanessa said, running her hands through his hair with a satisfied grin.

Jake turned to face her. “Not too much, I hope,” he said with a grin.

“No,” she said, “just right.”

“I did find that Indian place.”

“Yes, you did find the Indian place.” She kissed him on the forehead.

Steve took this opportunity to interject. “What Indian place?”

“We were just walking around and he found it when he was looking for an ATM,” Vanessa said.

“Of course the irony of it was that I didn’t find an ATM and the place was cash-only, but that was one of the best lunches we’ve ever had.”

“Right, but I had to pay,” Vanessa said.

“You didn’t mind,” Jake said with mischief in his voice.

“Guess not,” she said, raising her arms as if to say, “Here I am!” They both had smiles on their faces, remembering that afternoon. Outside the rain quickened and the roof seemed to bear in closer on them.

They leaned in toward each other, and Steve went over to the kitchen. It was open air, and there was plenty of space to see them kissing, but, to Steve, somehow being flanked by chest-high countertops seemed safer and more removed.

After a few minutes, Steve turned away and pretended not to see them. He called out over his shoulder, “Want to see where we’re going?”

Jake responded immediately. “Yeah! Definitely.”

Steve got down a book from the shelf above the kitchen table and spread its fold-out map over the sugar and salt and bread crumbs from breakfast.

“So here—come over here, lovebirds,” he said.

Jake sighed and lurched upwards, his legs splayed in the air until he brought them down at the last second on to the floor.

“So here’s where I thought we’d put in.”

“This is where?” Jake said, “I don’t recognize the map.”

“Oh, right! This is the park around Mount Kennedy.”

“Ah. Are we trying someplace new?”

Steve looked up from the map. “Well, I didn’t think we could just go to the same place twice.”

“Hey, if it’s nice, I’d do it again.”

Steve went about explaining the hike he had planned. There was a lot of elevation gain because the trail straddled a ridge-like formation that ringed much of the mountain.

“I hear that between the ridge and the mountain the fishing is spectacular,” Steve said.

“Really?” Jake asked. Vanessa was lying on her side watching them talk. She and Erin had picked up the two best-looking men in the city that night, and she wished she hadn’t been the only one to hold on to hers. Steve had a friendly side when Jake was around.

“Yeah, apparently it’s amazing. Alpine lakes you have to bushwhack half a mile to get to. Fish just lined up against the surface.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, bring the gear,” Steve said.

“Definitely,” Jake said. “You ready to graduate to a fly rod?”

“I don’t know. Last time it was a disaster.”

“Wimp.”

“I think I’ll stick to a spinner.”

“Pussy.” Jake looked over at Vanessa sheepishly. She started laughing that light but strident laugh of hers, making the room with the rain and the men and their eyes all shimmer.

“You two are ridiculous,” she said. “I can’t even take it.”

Jake walked over and kissed her on the forehead. “I’m going to the bathroom,” he said, running a hand along Vanessa’s back as he left.

In the bathroom, he heard them talking. About what? he wondered. It didn’t matter. Lately, he had had all the luck a young man could wish for. Good things had just started happening suddenly, and six months later, his life was different. Better, he thought. A better apartment with a better roommate. Better now that he had someone to hold at night. He loved holding her more than anything, their eyes flitting in each other’s vision like their first night together. They had gone for a walk alone after breakfast that morning, down a street with flowerbeds in the windowsills. Outside the door, they were talking about something, and as he flushed their conversation murmured to a close.

Steve put the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher as Jake opened the door. Vanessa looked at Jake’s figure coming out of the bathroom, adjusting his jeans and his shirt. He looked like everything she wanted, just the way she thought of him when she closed her eyes alone at night. Just then, she had a feeling of motion inside her, her veins hardening and a shiver running to her fingers. She looked at the map on the table and crossed her arms, feeling cold all of a sudden. Jake came up behind her and kissed her on the head, sliding his left hand over hers. She knew this wasn’t how he liked to hold her, that he thought she looked funny with her arms crossed, but he did it anyway, as if to say that she was his, or that they belonged to each other, she did not know which. She looked up at him and smiled, sensing a deep remove when their eyes met. His mind was elsewhere. Her eyes flickered to the table then back to his, so fast so as to be imperceptible, but by then his face had already moved past hers, kissing her ear and neck underneath her wide, tumbling tresses of brown-red hair.

“We could go to the covered gardens. That’s romantic,” he whispered into her ear. Noticing the silence, Jake looked up at Steve, then at Vanessa. He loosened his hand. “Did I miss something?”

* * *

Craig, as it turned out, was less of a policeman than the nightstick made him out to be. Still, as he took their stories, he locked the one he wasn’t interviewing in his car, a brown and grey cop car that looked like a high country outfitter had gone to town on it in a body shop—high suspension, snow tires, and four-wheel drive.

At the end of it, Craig let them both go, and told them that if he heard anything more from either of them they’d both be going down to the county jail as soon as the evacuation was done. After that, he gave the coupe a jump from his car, which started it right up, and left the man and his girl to work on getting it out of the snow. He didn’t offer them a shovel.

“I suppose they’ll have to dig her out,” said Craig to no one.

“You think so?” Jake said.

Craig looked at him, puzzled. “You still here?”

“I have something to ask you.”

“I already said I wouldn’t call the real cops on you.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that.”

“Then, are we done here?” Craig asked.

“Well, I was looking for you when he jumped me, actually.”

“Looking for me?”

“Well, any ranger, but—”

“Any ranger?”

“No, no. You.”

Craig looked confused. Jake could tell that he was on the verge of leaving without giving him another thought.

“My friend Steve is out there. Up on the Peak I mean. Or going for it. We camped last night on the ridge.” Craig’s countenance fell. Jake kept on. “Steve has the permit. When I woke up this morning, he was gone and had taken our bear bag.”

“Bear bag?” Craig asked.

“Yes, bear bag. The guy who worked at the front office was out of canisters.”

“Jason.”

“Yeah.” Jake forced a laugh and tried to speak like Craig. “He’s a talker all right.”

Craig sighed and put his hands on his hips. “I thought we got all the stragglers off the mountain.”

“We were fairly far in,” Jake said. “Went up the eastern face.”

“Damnit.”

There was a long silence.

“Look, I’ll go with you to find him,” Jake said, “I was up here a few months ago with Neil, if you know him. I’m an experienced climber. He can vouch for me.”

“I was brought in to relieve Neil, so no, I don’t know him.”

Jake turned a bit so Craig could see the ice axes strapped to the side of his pack.

“That’s too bad.” Jake got a suspicious look from Craig. “Still,” he said, feeling the weight of a heavy obligation on his back, “can you find my friend?”

Anger flickered in Craig’s face, and the barking voice from before returned. “We can search, and that’s all we’ll do. The copters will have to be recalled—they’ve gone back down south. They’ll probably be up tomorrow morning, and so will we. I can’t go with you now with all these people here.”

“But you’re just one ranger. We could make it to the ridge tonight if we tried.”

“I’m not going up there without helicopters in the sky, and you don’t have a permit so you’re not going anywhere either. We leave tomorrow. Early. I’ll wake you.”

Jake acquiesced, but in part he felt relieved just to know he had someone to help him out. He didn’t ask for this.

He walked with Craig over by his campsite, back toward the ranger shack. It occurred to Jake to ask, “Why’d you tell him he needed antifreeze? He didn’t, did he?”

Craig laughed a deep belly laugh that was loud for a man his size. “Of course he didn’t. I just needed him out of my sight for a few hours.”

“You didn’t have time to give him a jump like just now?”

“You should have been around this morning,” Craig said. “I’ve never been screamed at by so many people in my life. It’s like they’ve never driven in snow before.”

“I bet a bunch of them haven’t. Our friend’s still stuck over there, moving that snow with his cowboy boots.” Jake couldn’t resist a small laugh. Craig said nothing, and at the nearby fork, Jake split off with a wave and went back to Steve’s truck.

The sun was setting, and Jake looked up at the sky. It was the same soft yellow-orange as two days before. Cirrus clouds streaked the upper reaches with wisps of absorbent texture, like grooves in a canvas for color to run into. They were green and yellow and red against what looked like the ceiling of heaven. Jake liked this sunset even better than their last one, and wondered whether Steve was seeing the same things he did—the same kind of fir tree, a patch of shinleaf, two young pine trees whose light green leaves had just darkened in time for this early winter. Of course, they wouldn’t be exactly the same, except for maybe the clouds, but he imagined Steve having looked at them before. The things he was noticing—they were all common in the Red Rocks, but the thought that they could help him reach Steve in his head made him look harder.

When he got back to the campsite, he opened the metal bear box by the car and took out the cooler. There wasn’t much left except for that half block of white crumbly cheese. He ate a little more than half of it, leaving the rest for his breakfast, and then ate the other apple, core and all. This time, with fewer people around, he swallowed the seeds and picked up the stray pieces of cheese. Afterwards, he closed up the bear box and urinated around where he had eaten. To a bear, though, all of these campgrounds must smell like human piss and food and shit, the way the wilderness smells like pine and wet rocks and snow to hikers. If a bear wanted his food, he would not hesitate to pay Jake a visit.

With that thought in his head, the bivy seemed an uncertain option for sleeping tonight, even though it would be comfortable on the snow. Jake took his knife out of his pack, bent open the small blade, and wiggled it into the lock on the door of Steve’s pickup, forcing the lock open without snapping any of the pins. He shoved his pack inside and then got in head first, stretching out across the two seats and the center console, twisting himself into a sleeping position on his back and his side. His eyes would only close after a few hours that night, and until then, he looked through the sunroof at Orion above him, creeping into his sky on silent, pearlescent feet.