Neither Hunter or Nell get sick after the chocolate cake incident. A few days later I’m still apologizing for waking her up when I drop them off with Mara. Because I’m hiking to Crested Butte.
Way too early for a Monday morning and my day off, I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Mae’s ancient yellow VW bug, sounding like the sullen teenager I feel like. I’m also pretty sure I can see the road through the gaps of rust in the floor. Maybe walking would be safer than driving this tuna can of a car over a mountain pass.
“We’re going to walk over the mountains to get to a place we can easily drive to? On roads? In my car with AC and a jammin’ playlist? Why?” I’m whining. Probably due to the fact I’m awake and dressed before six in the morning. And I’m not coming home from a night out.
My phone started squawking at me before the sun had crested the mountain peaks. We’re talking early enough to beat the birds to the earliest worms. Sounds like horrible motivation to me. A little gag at the thought of eating a worm forces my mouth open and I cough to clear my throat.
“What’s in Crested Butte?” I sip the coffee she gave me as a peace offering.
“Life’s not about the destination. It’s a beautiful journey.”
I jab my index finger into the fleshy part of her shoulder.
“Ouch!” She swerves into the oncoming lane for a second as she jerks her shoulder away. Her tone is harsh, but joking when she glares at me. “Don’t use your super anatomy knowledge for evil.”
I shrug. “It’s too early for platitudes and clichés.”
“Big words for someone who swears she’s not awake yet.”
The road to the start point winds past the Highlands ski area and twists through dense forests as we climb to the Maroon Bells.
A bend takes us into a grove of skinny pine trees dotted with small log cabins. Resting on two hand-hewn log posts, a rustic metal sign spans the narrow road.
“The Easy Z Ranch. Sounds like your rap name.” Mae chuckles at her own joke.
“That’s me. Easy Z. Right. Middle class white girl from the Chicago suburbs.” I tuck my thumbs in my armpits and attempt to look tough.
“What are you doing? Please tell me you’re not going to smell your fingers.”
“What?” I jerk my hands away and sit on them. “No, I was being gangsta.”
“About as gangster as the Disney Channel.”
She’s totally right. “I’m so glad my mother didn’t push me into being a child actor. Dance, gymnastics, theater, art classes. I was well on my way to being precocious.”
“Same, same, same, but throw in skiing and snowboarding. My dad swore I had the skills to be an Olympian.”
“He wanted me to train for the trials.”
“A tale as old as these mountains. I rebelled. I discovered boys and the joy of pissing off my parents.” Her voice is flat as she says all this like she’s reciting off the dinner specials at work.
“You gave up a shot at the Olympics?”
“I wasn’t that good. Around here we grow up on skis, starting as soon as we can walk and not face plant. I liked the speed and lack the fear gene. I’m fast.” She shrugs off the conversation. “Someday I’ll figure out what I want to do. No way am I going to wait tables forever.”
“It must be strange to grow up in a place like this.”
“Aspen’s a small town. Like a lot of other small towns, you have the same kids in your class from kindergarten to graduation.”
“With Hollywood celebrities and billionaires walking the streets.”
“You kind of get immune to it. We were more excited about the X Games because we might know some of the athletes. Local kids making the big time.”
“That’s crazy. I didn’t know anyone famous in Chicago. Does Sage count? She has a trust fund and her family does a lot of fundraisers. Or Lee? He’s modeled.” I shake my head at his unfortunate man bun phase.
As we follow the sweeping curves of the road, a few glimpses of the famous maroon peaks greet us, only to disappear around the next turn. Because it’s still too early for humans, the ranger booth is empty when we arrive. Mae fills out the overnight parking pass and slips some money in the envelope.
“If we don’t get the car tomorrow afternoon, they’ll know to start looking for us.” She slips our proof of life into the slot.
“Not comforting.” I check the battery life on my phone and pat my backpack for the portable charger. “Do we even have service in the back country?”
A spark of city girl panic over being out in the wilds of the unpaved world grows in the middle of my chest, pressing against my lungs.
“We’re going on a day hike.”
“To a whole other town.” I pull my bag off the backseat and tug the straps over my shoulders. There’s no way we could survive on the trail mix and snack bars I have packed. The two minis of Tito’s vodka to celebrate our arrival at the trailhead in Crested Butte now seem like extra weight. Maybe we can use the vodka to sanitize a wound or start a fire. I probably shouldn’t have dropped out of Girl Scouts after the Great Cookie Debacle of third grade when I ate over half the boxes of Thin Mints I’d sold. To other people.
Shoot. I should’ve packed cookies.
“You can back out now. Take the shuttle down to town in a couple of hours.” Her shrug is dismissive and stings.
“No, I’m here. I’m awake. Let’s do this.” I pump my arms over my head like I’m at a Broncos’ game. Something I’ve never done. Yeah, totally faking my enthusiasm.
Dressed in my beat up, gray trail runners, black leggings, and a faded Northwestern tee, I’m the picture of a reluctant outdoor enthusiast. Or college student. Mae’s wearing real hiking boots, olive shorts and a tank. Adjusting my Rockies baseball cap, I pull my braids through the hole at the back.
“You packed booze in your bag, didn’t you?” Her hand lifts my bag to test its weight. “Anything else?”
I twist away from her. “Protein bars and some trail mix, change of clothes, extra socks, toothbrush, deodorant, underwear … you know, the basics.”
“Some Tito’s for after.”
“You didn’t fill your hydration bag with vodka again, did you?”
“It’s water,” I huff. “One time at the end of season party at Highlands and no one lets you live it down.”
“I’m not holding back your hair again.” Mae dodges my lame attempt to kick her.
The first part of the trail is mostly flat, winding past the creek and around the lake. Because it’s so early, the area is mostly deserted except for a few weirdos, I mean morning people, taking pictures in the crisp morning light.
These strangers wish us a great day as we pass them. So friendly so early. Weird.
I manage to mumble greetings and fake a happy smile as we trudge along the dirt path. This is going to be the longest day of my life.
“Channel your inner Cheryl Strayed,” Mae instructs from her spot ahead of me. “From Wild.”
“Is this a conspiracy? Mara told me to watch that the other night. I’d rather channel myself in a comfy seat at the movies with a bucket of popcorn with extra butter watching Reese Witherspoon in the movie.”
“Boring. You’ve spent too long as a half a couple. Time to get out of your couch rut and experience new things.”
“You know, I liked your suggestion of sleeping with a cowboy a lot better than this mountain goat fantasy.”
“Moose!” Mae’s voice rises in excitement.
“Okay, fine, your moose fantasy.”
“I’m sure the next Ansel Adams back there doesn’t really think you have actual fantasies about moose. I mean, how would that even work?” I slam into Mae’s back because she’s stopped in the middle of the trail.
“Shh.” She fumbles and reaches behind herself, trying to cover my mouth.
Unable to breathe with her palm over both my nose and mouth, I peel away her fingers. “What is wrong with you?”
Without speaking, or removing her hand from all up in my face, she points ahead of us a few feet and to the left.
I immediately begin backing up, tugging her along with me by the straps of her pack.
When Mae said moose, I didn’t think she meant an actual, living, breathing, giant rack of horns, enormous male moose standing a body length away from us.
Off the top of my head I can’t quote the number of people killed by moose in an average year, not including Canadians, because I’m sure their moose to human ratio is much higher than ours, but I really don’t want to become a statistic.
Or a cautionary tale.
I know I’m holding my breath and Mae is too as we slowly creep backward.
Mister Moose lifts his head from where he’s eating some tasty leaves off of a shrub and stares directly at us. I can almost see his eyelashes. He blinks, and we freeze.
“Do we play dead?” I whisper close to Mae’s head.
“No. Slow and steady. Keep moving away.”
The sedan-sized beast lifts his snout to sniff the air. Probably deciding if we’re a threat. I don’t think moose are omnivores, but death by trampling isn’t something I want to add to my obituary.
With a shake of his head, the moose steps away from his breakfast.
Mae grabs my arm as we turn to statues, watching for his next move, and waiting for our impending death.
Debate flashes in his bottomless black eyes right before he takes his first step.
Toward the water.
We remain frozen as he meanders away until he’s up to his knees in the chilly lake.
I’m ready to turn back for the car, text everyone I know an exaggerated retelling of our encounter, drive to the nearest bar, and call it a day.
“Come on, let’s get past him while we can.” Mae’s on the move. In the wrong direction. Up the mountain. Putting the moose between us and all modern civilization not requiring hours of walking to get to.
“I’m going to be honest with you. That sounds like a terrible idea.” Unless she’s planning to walk to Snowmass, and even then, the car is only a few hundred yards away. Probably less. Even I could run the distance without breaking a sweat.
“Don’t let one moose ruin our fun. He’s not interested in us.” Why doesn’t she sound terrified? She must be in shock.
“I wasn’t thinking of asking him out on a date. Is it a bad omen we’ve already run into a creature the size of a car, who could kill us three different ways, and we’re not five minutes into this adventure?” I stand in the middle of the path, staring at the moose—torn between flaking out on my friend and living to a ripe old age.
“I wouldn’t hang around here if I were you,” a male voice warns from behind me.
I spin and come face to chest with a tall guy. His gray T-shirt hangs off of broad shoulders and his cargo shorts end above strong calves covered in a light thatching of brown hair. The hiking boots on his feet are broken-in and caked with dried mud of varying depths. A bedroll and backpack complete his REI catalog model look.
After cataloguing his outfit, I drag my eyes up to his face. In dark sunglasses and a faded green baseball cap, only his lower face visible. A thick multiple day scruff covers his jaw and a faded cut on his bottom lip barely has a scab.
“Are you coming or going?” I ask, not sure why it matters. He’s clearly one of those loner types who can live off of a few berries, a stream full of trout, and a box of quinoa for a month.
“Been in the back country for a few days, so I’m not really sure which.” A deep rumble of a laugh softens his words. “Not that it matters to the moose.”
Like he knows we’re talking about him, the moose lifts his head and snorts.
“If you’re coming down, can you tell me if you ran into more like this one up ahead?” I want to know what to expect.
“This little guy? He’s a juvenile male. Nothing too much to worry about. It’s the mommas with their calves you want to worry about. Elk calving season is over, so you shouldn’t have any issues with them. Other than a few bears, the only critters around this trail are the beavers.”
I choose to ignore the bear comment. “Great. Beavers.”
“Unless one chomps down a tree and it lands on your head, you’ll probably be okay.” His chuckle pours out of him like slow honey. He’s laughing with me, because he thinks I’m joking. Better than laughing at me. I guess.
Mae returns and stops beside me. “Who’s your new friend?”
I have no idea. “He was just warning me to not loiter by the moose.”
“Excellent advice. Shall we go?” Mae studies the helpful stranger.
“Have a safe hike, ladies. I’m headed home.” He dips the front of his baseball cap. “Watch out for the beavers.”
“Thanks for the tip.” I wave as we turn away.
Once we’re a few feet up the trail, Mae mumbles, “Sounds like you wanted more than just the tip.”
“What? No. I wasn’t even flirting with him. Unwashed and happy to sleep on the ground aren’t top of my list in qualities I look for in a man.”
“He’s probably not homeless, if that’s what you’re worried about. He was cute.”
“You couldn’t even see his face.”
“He had nice shoulders. A man’s shoulders can tell you a lot about his character.”
Mae’s a nut. There’s no other explanation.
“Explain why you have such a theory?” I fall in step behind her as the path narrows in the trees and begins winding away from the lake.
“Does he work out? Or are his muscles from physical work? There’s a difference. Are the muscles for show or strength? Avoid the ’roid users who are compensating for something. Is he a shoulder sloucher? What’s he hiding? Or does he stand confidently with his shoulders back. Personally, I never trust a man with narrow shoulders.”
She lists all the things shoulders reveal about a man as we hike up, up, up, passing another lake reflecting the maroon peaks dusted with white snow. When we stop for water and a snack in a flower filled meadow, she switches to men’s hands.
“A man’s hands tell you the story of his life. Well-groomed and baby soft? Calloused? Thick and strong? Narrow and elegant? They’re the first thing I notice.”
“Not his face or height? Or hair color? His hands?” I stare down at my own hands. They serve me well. To earn money to live. To create art. But I wouldn’t say they’re remarkable. Other than I never get a manicure and could probably give my cuticles more love. “Let me see your hands.”
She lifts her hands in front of me.
“I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before. You have long fingers and nice nail beds.”
“Thanks. My point is, you need to figure out what kind of man you want. Someone who does physical work or sits in a climate controlled office all day? If you pay attention to shoulders and hands, you can rule out a lot of bad choices immediately.”
“Hiker back there had nice shoulders. The cut on his lip was a little concerning. Like he’s the kind of guy who gets into fights in bars. Except he said he’s been hiking for three days.”
“See? Pay attention to the details and they’ll start to tell a story of the person behind the pretty face or fancy job title.”
I lose myself in thinking about the men I know as we reach the apex of the trail. We’re above the tree line surrounded by scree slides of dusty red rocks and pale green meadows. A few white columbine flowers dot the scrubby, low grass.
The landscape feels foreign and not of this planet. Above us puffy clouds float across the deep sapphire sky. I’m relieved there’s no threat of rain or thunderstorms while we’re exposed up here.
Both Mae and I are quiet as we traverse a rock-strewn slope. I’m still thinking about hands and shoulders to the point the kids’ song is on a loop in my head: hands, shoulders, knees … and tips. Okay, I’ve modified the lyrics a little to fit our conversation.
Neil’s fit, a great skier, but his hands are soft and better manicured than mine. Something about his metrosexual grooming always bugged me, but I brushed it off as me being superficial. Turns out it was more about him than me.
My mind brings up the image of a cowboy’s hand gripping the horn of his saddle, or looped with a leather rein or rope. Sure, they wear gloves, but I bet their hands are slightly rough with callouses.
And I wonder how those fingers would feel on my naked skin. Would they be rough like sandpaper as they skimmed my breast or parted my thighs? Or would there be a balance between a gentle touch and the underlying strength?
“It’s all downhill from here.” Mae’s voice interrupts my thoughts. “We should have plenty of time to check out Crested Butte before dinner.”
“I need a hot bath and some Ibuprofen.” I lift and drop my shoulders, then stretch my arms in front of me, one over the other.
“Nothing a margarita and some good food can’t cure.” She stops at a trail sign. “Or we can head over to the hot springs.”
The sign says five miles. Nope. No way. “Ten more miles? Not happening. Plus, we have zero food or shelter.”
“I bet we could find some hot guys to share their tent with us.”
“That sounds exactly like the start of a horror movie.” I step around her. “Last one to the trailhead buys dinner.”
I manage to jog a few yards before my calves start screaming at me in reminder of the miles we’ve already walked and the thousands of feet of altitude we’ve gained and lost.
When we finally reach the trailhead, the welcomed sign of a paved road up ahead greets us. I consider kissing the asphalt. I shrug off my pack and pull out my phone.
Glancing at the time, I calculate how long it’s been since we started. “We’ve been walking for seven hours.”
“Pretty good time.” Mae holds up her hand for a high five.
I half-heartedly return the gesture as I find a rock to sit on while we wait for our ride to pick us up and drive us into town.
Mae bumps my shoulder. “Wake up. You’re falling asleep sitting.”
I blink open my eyes and stretch. “We’re still out here in the middle of nowhere?”
She points at a dusty, older Jeep. “Our ride’s here.”
I read the lettering on the side that claims the vehicle is part of My Outdoor Adventures of a Lifetime. Ballsy claim given they don’t know me. I snap a pic with my phone. Just in case.
The older guy inside waves and grins at us, but I like to err on the side of potential death versus blindly trust strangers.
After introducing himself, Chad chats us up about our hike, asking questions and giving enthusiastic responses as if we’re the first people he’s ever picked up who walked the trail. People like him must be born with a specific gene the rest of us don’t have that allows them to live in an infinite loop of positivity.
I bet Chad’s never eaten a whole pity cake with his hands before. He probably doesn’t even like cake.
The colorful buildings of downtown Crested Butte greet us as we drive down the busy main street.
“What’s the hustle and bustle all about? Something going on today?” Mae asks as we pass sidewalks crowded with people.
“Rodeo’s in town tonight. Could be that.”
Chad’s not aware of the panty destroying bomb he’s just dropped in my lap.
“Oh really?” Mae pinches my leg right above the knee. “What time does it start?”
He gives us the details as he stops in front of a small boutique hotel. Unfortunately, he keeps talking, sharing where to get the best green chile stew, the best gelato, the best coffee. Evidently, he’s the love child of Yelp and Trip Advisor.
“Okay, well we don’t want to take up any more of your time. Thanks for the ride.” Mae waves a folded twenty dollar bill between the seats.
He takes the money. “You didn’t have to. I’ll be back tomorrow at nine to drive you home to Aspen.”
“Great.” I widen my mouth into a super fake grin.
Mae steps out of the backseat and I spill out after her. My legs feel like I’m a newborn giraffe. I’m stiff and gangly. She laughs as she shoves me in front of her into the hotel lobby.
“First, we rehumanize ourselves. Second, we find margaritas.”
“Third, rodeo,” I add.
“Your cowboy might not be at this one.”
“I don’t have a cowboy. I’m an equal opportunity fan.”
“Uh huh. Sure.” She walks toward the check-in desk in the colorful, updated Victorian lobby.
She’s right. Black hat is definitely my favorite.
As soon as we’re in our room, I flop face first on the closest bed, keeping my dirty boots off the pristine white duvet.
“Never mind. Cowboys or not, I’m never moving from this bed again.” The soft down pillows swallow my words. “Do they have room service?”
“First dibs on the shower.” Mae drops her daypack on the floor. Her weight dips the mattress when she sits. The muffled thud of her hiking shoes hitting the floor is the last thing I hear.