Car headlights swept the blackness revealing a whirling glimpse of dirt parking lot that flashed in the night. Boulders ringed the empty lot before a backdrop of lumpy drab forest.
Two men stood bound in a sleepless stupor gazing at the tail lights burning red in the dark and the swirling dust like the afterburners of a departing spaceship.
They rose from bed at a ghastly hour. The sun still would not yet rise for hours.
The car drifted away and disappeared into the moonless black that swallows everything after sundown in its infinite cosmic immensity.
The two figures turned into Condor National Forest hunched beneath loaded packs, not a word between them.
Puny headlamps flung weak splotches of light into insatiable darkness and each man slipped through the night alone in his own orbit encapsulated in a faint bulge of illumination.
They trudged through ghostly white plumes of glowing condensation billowing from their heaving chests and floating across their faces and eyes in a constant flow that obscured their blinkered vision.
They filed through shadowy corridors pried into the dark by their little blazing diodes of the latest technological design, gazes lowered, eyes locked on a trail peeling relentless as a conveyor belt beneath the swipe of their feet.
Hillman hiked a trail like a trained street fighter systematically pummels a lippy drunk mouthing off at a bar; wickedly fast, brutally unrelenting and with calculated efficiency. He attacked trails with prejudice as if insulted by their empty presence.
Holt plodded along. Hillman’s white dot of alien light bobbed in the depthless night off in the near distance. The drive and sudden predawn physical exertion left Holt queasy and weak, having ripped his resting mind from slumber, confined it to a speeding vehicle, and wound it around the mountain’s many folds to arrive at the trailhead.
Holt felt the grip of nausea tightening around him during the drive. Hillman at the wheel and hauling ass along twisted mountain roads at three thirty in the morning. Hillman didn’t do much of anything at half peddle. He was full-court press, full-bore, all the time. A human blast furnace of energy.
The pint of coffee and the wad of bagel Holt forced himself to eat had churned into an awful sludge in his gut. Halfway up the mountain he feared his abdominal muscles might seize him by the midsection at any moment and slam his stomach flat and throw its contents all over the back of Freya sitting shotgun in front of him.
Holt walked awkwardly on stiff and bound up muscles feeling the weight of his clogged gut. Skin wrapped his body like a nasty film, tingling and itching as millions of pores opened and oozed an initial burst of sweat and sebum.
A hike necessitates discomfort, but the physical strain is less tolerable at the start. The muscles and mind need a few miles before each the physical and psychological components of the biological machine warm to the rigors of the long walk and the work of walking becomes, with each passing mile, ever more appealing until the bipedal creature, held up in the metropolis and so ravenous and deprived, craves the toil and hardship of the long walk for which it was crafted.
The grim physicality served as a morsel of much needed sustenance to nourish mind and body, to feed a deep evolutionary hunger, until finally, awash with sweat, hot faced and steaming in the wild night, Holt tore into the trail like an emaciated prisoner of war eating his first meal upon liberation.
Dew-frosted blades of grass stood like phalanxes of miniature silver swords jabbing into the night along the silty edges of the trail. A million acres of crosswise mountains bristling in chaparral and cut deep by creeks and rivers loomed unseen just outside the shadowed path.
The sun sets and the mountains cool and from the forested land flow streams of incensed air, earthy and herbal, from peaks down into headwaters through canyons and into lowlands where the melange of fragrance pools and steeps throughout the night.
The men plunged afoot through these deep aromatic reservoirs immersed in the redolence of dry chaparral and moist riparian woodlands and they sucked into their bodies and blew out billowing chestfuls of the richly infused mountain air, invigorated by its savory fragrance and fresh cool feel through the nose.
Holt stared at the trail running under a pair of feet whose stride never slowed, mesmerized by the rhythm of the walk, the crunchy footsteps, heavy breaths, the swing of arms jabbing trekking poles into the earth.
They walked for miles in the dark without stopping and for hours the lulling cadence, legs kneading mind into a perambulatory trance.
They operated by mental model. Automatons locked on a track. Like flinching at a sudden loud noise, automatically. Walking was second nature and they did so without thought of it.
Bodies powered and steered on their own accord, the long walk offered extended periods of otherwise unoccupied time, freeing the mind to wander, and there was a connection between the legs and the mind whereby working the former stimulated the latter.
The longer the walk the more fertile the mind. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers birthed their greatest ideas in stride.
Each man walked the same trail, but traveled afar through his own thick forest of thought. Neither man would have spoken a word had they been near enough each other to hear it.
Holt stopped. He eased his head back and closed his eyes.
A storm of polychrome noise exploded against the back of his darkened eyelids with hot fizzing specks of brilliant color percolating from a tie-died pool.
His body swayed for a moment. He melted into the inebriating psychedelic soup playing against his closed eyelids like movie screens, before it brought to mind the salt and pepper flecks of an untuned television and his eyes snapped open.
His headlight drifted up into the night diffuse like smoke in the blackened sky revealing nothing but its own pallid beam against the limitless star sprent dome wrapping overhead.
He inhaled great lungfuls of fragrant air until his hardened nostrils dribbled and ached from the predawn cold and his head began to whirl.
He pulled a long measured breath into his body. He stood tall, inflated with shoulders locked straight, bulging full of the mountain’s invigorating fresh breath. Resuscitated.
A plume of hot vapor flowed from his mouth and for a moment he lost himself in the minuscule world of swirling, luminous aerosolized droplets roiling the crisp air before his wide eyes and lit like tiny floating lanterns by his headlamp.
His first words in two hours came slow and breathy.
“Alive,” he whispered, feigning an ever so slight maniacal chuckle under his breath.
Crickets and frogs. Nothing else.
“It’s alive,” he said elongating his enunciation and raising his voice.
“IT’S ALIVE!” he shrieked starward, shaking, glowing orbs tracing winding paths of opalescent light through his darkened kaleidoscope vision.
Vast and darkened desolation swallowed his squeak in a gulp of indifferent silence. The crickets and frogs resumed their euphonic roundelays.
He cast a glance back in the direction of the trailhead. Light pollution from the coastal metropolis lit the horizon. The industrial candle never went out.
Blackened mountains poked into the night sky like Jack-o-lantern teeth, jagged peaks that carved a sawtooth silhouette into the distant city’s warm apricot glow.
“The loony bin,” Holt muttered.
He turned and walked deeper into the forest.