The Word: Pan
She wondered how it would be to backpack with Dan. She didn’t know him that well, they’d dated at school. But now they were here, she was glad she came. He was at his best in nature, so happy to show off his backcountry skills and the high meadows of yarrow and lupine and Indian paintbrush. The Colorado sky was Van Gogh blue, straight out of the tube. Five days in the Lizard Head Wilderness, just the two of them.
Dan had planned the whole thing, traced their route on the green topo maps. He’d completely repacked her backpack, eliminating extra pants and sweaters and shirts she was sure she’d need. Scrapping all her toiletries. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap would be her major toilet item. All one, All one.
Now she saw how right he was. She hadn’t needed any of it. He’d packed perfectly– aluminum camping dishes, fitted knife/fork/spoon sets, all nested together. Dried food, ground and measured coffee. A tiny stove, no bigger than a takeout box. Everything weighed and measured, every ounce pared away. Her pack was only 35 pounds, he took 60, all the heavy items–tent and food and fuel.
She loved Dan in the out-of-doors. Holding her hand when she had to balance on switchbacks, encouraging her to cross a fallen log straddling a creek. He was never this nice back at school. Mostly he kept to himself, or drank himself stupid with his roommate Chuck.
She liked nature. She had gone to Y Camp in the San Bernardinos, though it was nothing like this. He laughed at her when she woke the first night and thought there was a streetlight outside the tent. She was 19 years old and had never understood that the moon rose. She’d stood outside the tent in her long underwear and gaped at the full moon.
They pressed on toward Lizard Head, skirting timberline, rising up into high meadows, dipping down into cool fragrant pines or trembling aspen. He had it down. They didn’t even have to carry much water, he’d planned the trip never to be far from a stream. They filtered the water with a little gizmo so they wouldn’t get giardia. Though it looked clean enough.
So self-sufficient. “Well, you have to be, out here,” he said. “You can’t just run down to the hardware store. You forget the flashlight, you’re SOL.”
They’d found the perfect camping spot–a clearing in the pines, two downed logs, the stream close-by–but not too close. Put up the tent, set up their ‘kitchen’, made some lemonade, settled in.. She took out her watercolors and painted him reading, lying on his Therm A Rest-padded log. She wandered, identifying woodpeckers and wildflowers. There was nothing they needed, they had everything–tent, sleeping bags, food. It was perfect.
The light soaked the afternoon mountains in rose-gold when they saw the lone figure struggling up the trail.
They’d made their camp almost astride the path, having no idea anyone might walk right through it. They hadn’t seen anyone since the trailhead. “Who the fuck is that?” Dan said. “Look at the size of that pack. What a moron.”
Now they saw, it was a boy, wearing shorts and enormous hiking boots. He humped an orange backpack, bigger than he was. He climbed slowly, he seemed to be making no progress at all, just this dot, green shirt, an orange pack, laboring up the mountain.
As he got closer, Jen could see he was exhausted, pushing himself, hands on his knees, as if he had to force each leg in turn to press the earth and carry him forward. But finally, he was within hailing distance of where they sat on their Therm A Rest pads. He grinned and called out, “Boy am I glad to see you! Wow. That’s some trail, huh?”
Dan didn’t even say hello, just stared at the intruder, a boy, smiling, chestnut haired, about sixteen.
“Hi,” Jen said. Trying to distract him from Dan’s glower. “How long you been climbing?”
“All day. Wow, that’s was some hike.” He stood looking back to where he’d come from, gasping, cheeks red, fingers hooked around the straps of his enormous orange backpack from which a cast iron frypan hung. A fishing pole peeked out the top. The frypan alone must have weighed ten pounds.
Jen could tell he wanted to drop the pack and join them, but he was offput by Dan’s unwelcoming vibe. Well, unexpected things happened, whether Dan liked it or not. “Take off your pack and sit awhile. Want some lemonade? Cold from the stream..”
Dan gave her a withering look.
But she couldn’t exactly send the kid on his way, not like that. That wouldn’t be friendly at all.
The kid awkwardly lurched from his pack–it tilted and fell like a tree, hard, and clanging, the frypan and other jangly stuff that sounded like cans of soup and metal spoons.
She poured the lemonade they’d made from packets of instant and their filtered water into an aluminum cup. The kid drank it straight down. She poured him some more. What a pretty boy, his freckles, his dauntless smile. “Where’d you come from?” she asked.
“Durango,” he said. “My parents are staying down there. I hitched a ride, some cowboy. It’s amazing up here, isn’t it?” He sat down on the log next to Jen’. Sighed. The view was tremendous, the craggy outcrops all around them. He pulled a pennywhistle from his pack, played a lively tune.
“Wasn’t there anything you left at home?” Dan said from his side. He was rolling a joint. “What else you got in there, golf clubs? A surfboard?”
Jen smiled awkwardly. What was it to Dan what the boy was carrying? He was always so mean to people who did things differently. Or was it was the boy’s happiness he envied?
The kid toed his orange monstrosity. “Yeah, I guess it’s a little heavy. But I didn’t know what to take so I just threw a few things in.” He was eying the reefer.
Dan finished licking it, lay back on his Therm A Rest, lit up. Dan was one of those people who brought his own bottle to the party and drank from it. If you went Chinese, he ordered the one thing he wanted, and didn’t share. He didn’t want to try yours, either.
He was at his best when it was just him and Jen, like on this trip. The other Dan, the one who couldn’t stand in line, the one who thought everyone else was a moron… she tended to put that Dan out of her mind. Excuse it.
The kid’s name was Jesse. He’d come up from Austin with his family, who were staying in Durango. A friendly kid, open-faced, laughed easily. Jen stuck her hand out for the joint. Reluctantly, Dan passed it to her. She handed it to the kid. That grin. Sweet. “Thanks, man.”
She took a good hit on it before passing it back to Dan.
“So where you trying to get to?” Dan asked, begrudgingly entering the conversation.
Jesse shrugged, hitched his aching shoulder under the green t-shirt that said There is no Planet B. “Nowhere in particular. Just checkin’ it out.”
Dan snorted. “Do you have a map?”
Jesse said, “No, just thought I’d follow this trail, find somewhere to sleep, rinse and repeat.”
“No map?” Dan said. “You’re up in the Rocky Mountains and you have no map.”
Jen felt sorry for the kid. She was used to Dan and his mockery of what he felt was the idiocy of others. It wasn’t so different than other guys at school. But now, she was embarrassed. “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Jen said, patting the kid’s sweaty shoulder.
“It’s how people die up here. They bring the shower curtain and the barbeque but no map.”
“I’m not going to die, dude. It’s not that big a deal. I’m going to go up that trail, and I’ll come down the same way.” He stood up and dusted his hands on his shorts. “Look, thanks for the bud. You guys have a good one.”
Jen wished he’d stay and play his little pennywhistle. Have dinner with them. She liked his attitude, his fresh, open smile. She envied his way of meeting the world, even if it was a bit haphazard. Even if that pack probably weighed 100 pounds. It didn’t bother him, he wasn’t complaining. Jen helped him on with it.
“Get tired of Mr. Sunshine there, I’ll be right up the trail,” he whispered under his breath.
She laughed, and watched him climb up the trail, the afternoon light catching the red in his hair, the ridiculous frying pan hanging off the back of his pack like a manhole cover. The sound of an Irish pennywhistle filled the cooling air.
“Probably won’t even hang his food tonight,” Dan said. “The bears’ll get his stuff and he’ll be one hungry puppy.” He seemed to savor the thought.
But Jen didn’t think the bears would get his food. And even if they did, Jesse probably wouldn’t mind. He’d be hungry, but he’d get down the mountain somehow. She’d give him half of hers. In any case, she bet that even bears wouldn’t dent the boy’s good humor.
She lay on her log, listening to the light sound of the pennywhistle echoing off the mountain peaks, getting fainter and further away.
Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word is: FOIL