By: Connor McPherson
The raspy ache of Robert Plant’s vocals seep into the aging interior of my dad’s old Ford pickup truck.
“Hey, hey mama said the way you move / Gon' make you sweat, gon' make you groove,” my dad croons. “Hey, wake up Jimmy Page.” He slaps my arm with his thick hairy hand, snapping me back to reality.
“Sorry.” I rub the crust still encasing my eyelids from last night’s sleep.
“What’s up with you, bud?”
“I’ve been having dreams about mom; now it’s all I think about.”
“What kind of dreams?” The tone of his voice softens as he turns down Page’s solo, which is usually my responsibility to play my air guitar.
“It seems to always be the same one in which she’s holding me as she dances around singing.”
“She did love singing to you.” He smiles, or what seems like a smile; it was the type of facial expression that is unaware if it’s happy or sad.
We sit for a while and take in the flat farmland outstretched before us. Off in the distance is the faint silhouette of long mountain ranges masked by the dense haze of the Central Valley. Workers draped in long sleeves and straw hats move methodically through rows and rows of trees, as they pick almonds and place them in woven baskets. After a couple hours on the straight line that is Highway 99, which induces a hypnotic lull, the once distant mountains now tower before us.
“You ready for this, bud?” The corners of his mouth twitch up to the middle of his cheeks. He shows off every single one of his iced tea stained teeth.
“I think so.”
“Fifty miles is nothing for you. We finally get to experience the Pacific Crest Trail.” My dad always loved spontaneous trips. He worked hard to keep our time occupied. If it was not for our adventures, then most of my free time would consist of a journey down a dark rabbit hole. For a while my bed was my only muse.
On the trail the fresh air of spring is abundant. An intoxicating scent of wildflowers in bloom is accompanied by an orchestra of birds that welcome our fresh faces. Somehow my dad is able to distinguish each bird. He spouts off names like the western wood-pewee, dusky flycatcher, mountain bluebird, and Steller’s jay. The songs of the birds seize momentarily as a Sharp-shinned hawk nose dives from the sky, like a silent assassin. It snags a squirrel a mere one hundred feet down the trail.
“I feel like John Muir!” my dad yells. His deep rumble echoes into three more John Muirs.
The evening sun fades into the horizon of the mountains that surround us. The once vibrant colors of the day transform into a shade of faint blue. We set up our tent and start a fire before nightfall bestows its mysteries upon us.
My dad leans toward the blaze, which leaves a trail of smoke ascending toward the stars. “Want to hear a ghost story?” The flames perform their dance rituals in his eyes.
“A ghost story?” My thick eyebrows stretch to the center of my forehead. They stand tall like the mountains that surround us. I’ve never been one to really like ghost stories. I don’t know what to say, but I also don’t want to look scared, so I suck the smoke filled air through the tiny crevices in my teeth and let out a cough.
He laughs and looks up to the dark slate of hole punched sky. “It was your mom’s favorite. Her grandfather started telling it to her when she was only eight years old.” He continues to concentrate on the night sky. With his thick pointer finger, he traces along the wavy cluster of stars that forms the Milky Way. “Ah ha, Polaris. There she is son. The North Star. If you are ever without any sense of direction, just know the night sky can help.”
“Sure, let’s hear the ghost story.” I cut him off before he is able to delve any deeper into his lecture about the cosmos.
His stargazing trance snaps over to me wrapped up in my sleeping bag. “I actually think you’ll like it.” He smirks. “So there is this tale about a bear, but this is no ordinary bear. This ferocious beast has extra-long claws, like the tips of daggers. One can hear them tearing through flesh from a mile away. All it takes is one swipe to severe a limb. Its fangs are so long that they hang out of its mouth in a menacing grin.” He exposes his upper row of teeth and rubs them over his bottom lip. It sounds like the crunching of leaves as his teeth rub against his developing beard. “Saliva and blood constantly drip off its fangs as they await their opportunity to dig deep into the flesh of its unsuspecting prey. One may think they can outrun this monster, but little do they know it can run faster and climb higher than any other beast. Once it detects your scent, there is no escape. This bear is also double the size of any grizzly, and once every spring, it chooses an enemy, and imprints on them for trespassing on its land. It lives in a terrain just like this one. With the freedom to roam and discover new hikers along the trail that, the beast has claimed as his land. This mighty beast stalks hikers for many miles, and slowly creeps on them before it lunges its massive body in attack. Its claws pierce the flesh with ease, draining the blood of its victims before it drinks the puddling pool of scarlet syrup. Legend says that you can only hear the crunch of the earth before it is too late. It stalks and stalks and stalks until bam... You’re dead!”
I jump to my dad’s sudden scream. “I sure hope there’s none of those out here,” I say with a slight tremble, now weary of the enclosing darkness.
He laughs and pats me on the back. I try to laugh it off but can only think of death. The night feels darker than before as the dense trees hover over us. A cold wind whistles through the outstretched branches. They reach their long limbs toward my back.
“Come on, pal. Let’s head to bed before one of those bears gets yah.”
Sleep once again thrusts the same dream of my mother upon my unconscious mind. “Come a little bit closer, hear what I have to say,” seeps like honey from her lips. Her long black hair is pulled behind her ears in a tightly woven braid. She cradles me in her arms as she waltzes barefoot around our ocean green carpet that we still have to this day. Harvest Moon by Neil Young grows louder on our vintage record player as she continues to sing along. Her voice is soft, and pillows my ears in the pitch of love. She sings every word just loud enough to make Neil Young sound like a back-up singer, and as the song ends, my dream fades to black.
I awake to the sound of rainfall dancing on the tops of newly sprouted leaves, so green and full of life. They soak in the pureness of the early spring offering. The crisp smell of rain fills my lungs as they are finally alleviated of last night's smoke.
I hear my dad crunch through the dirt. “Looks like the first rainfall of spring came a little earlier than expected.” He unzips the door of our tent and pokes his face inside, painted with his excited grin like a mischievous kid who outsmarted his parents for the first time.
“It’s kind of nice,” I say through a yawn.
“Well let's hope the storm doesn’t get any worse. Now get up, I made some oatmeal. ‘We have miles to go before we sleep.’”
“Alright, Robert Frost.” I lay back down and outstretch my arms to relieve myself of any remaining sleep.
“Get up boy.” He throws a packaged poncho at me. The chemical smell of plastic replaces the scent of rain.
After breakfast we pack up our gear and embark on the first twenty miles of our expedition. About five miles into our trek, the soft kiss of the sprinkling mist turns more ferocious. The once mere whispers of rain become a thunderous roar as the droplets seem to triple in size and numbers.
“Goddammit,” my dad mutters under his breath as he looks up into the dense gray sky. The water droplets drip down the speed bump like wrinkles on his sun worn face. We endure what seems like hours of heavy rain when it ends just as fast as it began; almost like someone remembered to shut the water valve off. “Just in time for the home stretch.” He lets out a single laugh that sounded more like a squeal.
“Woohoo,” I say in a faint tone. Though I miss the roar of the rain. It blocked out the commotion going on inside my head.
The now distant clatter of the rain allows for animal noises to take over, but behind the usual sound I’ve been hearing a continuous thud in unison with the breaking of branches.
“Dad, do you hear that?”
“It sounds like a loud thumping and cracking of branches.”
His attentive stride is paused with immediacy, examining the dense circumambient forest. His light green eyes scan the tree-line with the analyzation of an accountant during tax season but the trees with their lush vegetation make it hard to see. “Must be nothing.”
We return to our quest when the thuds begin again louder than before. My dad does a quick one-eighty and his eyes widen. The gathering of branches in the distance shakes in a violent manner.
“Run!” he yells.
I quickly glance back to discover a large furry creature in the distance, sprinting toward us. I run, catching up to my dad in a matter of seconds. A slight mist still hangs in the air as we search for an escape. We weave in and out of the massive trees, further discombobulating our sense of direction. My dad slips on a group of wet roots which catapults him into the base of a tree. He screams and grabs his knee just above his shin. I throw my backpack to the ground. A puddle of muddy water sprays into the air. I pull him to his feet, leaving his pack to sink in the mud. Without hesitation we begin to run again. An extra dose of adrenaline courses through our bloodstream as we are back to a full sprint until my dad falls into a dense covering of bushes. We peer around its blooming wildflowers, and to our surprise there is no movement in sight. Was something really there?
Too exhausted from the sprint, we agree to setup camp. My mind is encapsulated by a vision of the beast watching us as it waits for the perfect opportunity to strike.
“We’re gonna have to camp here for the night. I think my leg is broken,” my dad says. The reality that we are lost without our gear sets in. My throat plunges into my stomach as I’m overcome by the feeling that occurs when one stands up too quickly. We remain silent for quite some time. The fire cackles with the laugh of a wraith, mocking our human naivety. This and the steady hum of the crickets combine with my dad’s soft cries.
“Dad?” I stare into his green eyes that glow orange from the fire. I search for an answer but nothing is there. I have gone to these same eyes so many times before but all that remains in the moment is the steady dance of the fire.
“Yeah, bud?” Those two words are met with a grimace as he struggles to put a makeshift splint around his shin. His olive skin is painted in multiple shades of purple.
“Are we going to die out here?” Unable to handle the sight of him in pain as I wait for a response, I look up and search for Polaris.