There’s a mountain between J.’s house and her parents’ farm. And apparently J. has hiked it a few times to get to the farm, but never successfully - she ends up in all sorts of places, and never the farm. It’s a mountain dense with forest, and while the trail is obvious when you start out, it gets vaguer and vaguer. And the ferns are humungous and there’s been some timber men up there disturbing things, so there are great swathes of mud. We set out for the farm late on a rainy afternoon, with welding class behind us, and grand ideas that THIS TIME J. would triumph and we’d come out on the ridge over looking farm. And I had my iPhone with it's nifty GPS to keep our bearings. And Pip was going to be a good dog and give us hints that we were on the right track. Right? Wrong. We slogged around on that dark medieval hill chest high in blackberries and nettles . . . but wait, what child has strewn little orange rubber toys on the trail? Look, the moss, the dark wet soil is positively alive with burnt ochre bodies . . . I stop, “J., what are these?”
“Yes, yes they are . . . Pip wants to go that way? Do you think we should follow her?”
I watched the newt at my feet, his dark eyes, his black speckles, his wet wrinkled skin, his little fingers feeling the earth beneath him - oh! what a feast for a hungry bird - so tropical, really, which set my head to wondering, how do they survive the horrible winters?
The GPS was useless, the blue dot barely moved, we seemed to be headed in the right direction, but J. didn’t recognize a thing, apparently her hikes are never the same up here, it’s as though this mountain transforms each time she hikes it.
“Have you ever hiked from the other direction?” I ask her.
“Started out from your parents and worked your way back . . . maybe you could tie it altogether that way.”
“Maybe, I dunno.” She started down a steep bank, “Oof, we aren’t supposed to be here, I don’t think. If we get to the creek . . . ”
J. apologizes for leading me astray as the rain comes down harder, and I joke, “So this is the part of the trip where you actually murder me . . . the past few days were just a ruse, you fattened me up, made me slow, and now you’ll cut my throat and leave me in this godforsaken wood never to be seen again, my corpse nibbled by newts . . . ”
J. tells me about the bears. How certain times of year you don’t come up here cause of bears. What times? Breeding season? When they have cubs? Pip suddenly yips and dives onto a mound, digging and insistent - she stops, whips her tail and pleads with us to join her, “Leave it Pip! Leave it!” we walk on without her, she is steadfast in her find, You people don’t know ANYthing! This is IT. This is why I came out here with you! Never mind getting somewhere. We’re THERE!
“LEAVE IT PIP!” and finally she does, because a Meunsterlander eventually listens, and she bounces to J.’s side and J. asks her? “Is it this way Pip?” and Pip runs ahead excitedly having completely forgotten the golden mound and J. says, “We should be there by now, where are we?” J. is visibly annoyed in her orange rain coat and her rubber boots and for some reason I’m not bothered by being Lost. Lost was the key word on this trip - even when I knew where I was on the trip, I was lightheaded and lost, displaced, and out there in the rain, with the stupid GPS which is meant for city streets, I didn’t flinch - I was a blinking blue beacon not far from a road according to the little screen, and that was comfort enough.
Pip took a hard left and we decided to follow her into a clearing. There was a livestock trailer overgrown with vines and then the roof of a house. We were in someone’s backyard, but no backyard that J. knew of. We skittered out onto their driveway and J. guessed we were on the road one over from her parents road, and the GPS confirmed this . . . which was annoying as hell, now it decided to be of assistance. We began walking the road and came to the base of her parents’ road, we hiked up the windy road, and now that we were out in the open, the rain really started to come down and there was just enough wind to make us cold.
We are greeted by a terrific crowd of bird dogs, J.’s father’s setters all feathered and full of news - “Oh you’re here! Your mother will be so relieved she’s out on the porch in a panic!” J.’s father leads us to the kitchen and offers us something to drink, “So you came up the road? You got lost again?”
“I’m still shaking! You won’t believe it!” J.’s mother comes in from the porch, wine glass in hand, all a twitter, “We were watching for you two up on the hill and we see two dark figures up by the grove of small birches, and I say to your father, there they are! They’re in dark rain coats, they must be soaking wet, but they made it! We look through the binoculars and the dogs are all excited and it’s bears! Two bears, small, probably brothers, a year or so old! And I thought oh no! They’re going to run into the bears! And your father says, don’t worry, they’ll run. Oh but thank goodness you got lost and didn’t run into the bears!”
J. and her mother headed back into the house and J.’s father stands with me on the porch looking out over the rain on their garden and the pond and I stare up on the ridge hoping the bears might circle back so I can see what we missed up close and personal, but all I see is the wind. And J.’s father begins to tell me bear stories; cubs in trees, dogs finding a bear and leading the bear back to him as though he were supposed to save the dogs from the bear, and everyone having to run, bears tearing down the bird feeders, but leaving the garden alone, and then he tells me black bears tend more toward eating people than grizzlies, and I’m getting colder and wishing I had a glass of wine in my hand instead of the cold can of seltzer, but most of all I’m trying to decide if I’m disappointed or glad that we barely missed the bears.