Canyons and Divides

Chapter 1
Alex and Base Camp

The plane banked into a wide turn and the mountains I had been straining to see finally came into view. I knew they were coming, the pilot had announced our approach and descent into Denver, but I couldn’t see anything but more of the same out my warped, scratched oval window. The flat, buckskin plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado, previously interrupted only by the crosshatch work of small towns and the giant, green circles of irrigating farms, now rippled and abruptly uplifted. The foothills and mountains originated from a distinct, uniform line running north and south, an occasional rise broke ranks and bulged out of formation, but the bulk of the dramatic uplift rose from one row. The foothills piled upon one another, coated with dark green pine forests. Some rose high and steep enough to shed their vegetation and were capped with rocky slabs and peaks. Behind them, the mountains grew higher and wider. There were bald, rounded domes and sharp, stone pyramids. I spied splotches of snow in cracks and cups. It all knit together to fill the horizon. I’d never seen something so massive and felt like my Ohio hometown would have been easily swallowed in just one of the shady canyons between the peaks.
I was relieved to have a legitimate reason to keep my face glued to my window. The businessman in the aisle seat looked like he might try to talk to me when we boarded back in Cleveland. He looked me over after settling in. Solitary teenager, long hair, Judas Priest t-shirt, shorts, and hiking boots. He probably wanted to ask me the standard travel conversation starters: where you headed? Traveling alone? First time coming out west? Before he could even think of uttering a simple courteous greeting, I angled away from him and busied myself with staring out the window even when there was nothing but clouds and sky. All I gave to him was shoulder and back. The empty seat between us might as well been a wall.
If I had felt like talking, I could have filled his ear with gripes, questions, and fears. I could have told him that I was headed to six weeks of backpacking somewhere in those mountains now bobbing in the window. I could have told him that I was split about the whole thing, a confusing back and forth between reluctance and anticipation. Maybe he would have liked to hear about how my mom sent me off every summer, most times without even asking me if I’d like to go somewhere. If he would have probed, I would have told him that all I wanted to do was stay home, hang out with my friends, days at the city pool, nights partying, maybe get a girlfriend before school started. But like every summer before, I was packed up and shipped out.
It started with a week in a cabin full of other boys at Camp Tippecanoe when I was ten years old. Tippecanoe wasn’t more than two hours drive from my Ohio home, but at nights, in the humid bunkhouse, trying to fall asleep to the din of crickets and tree frogs and the occasional squeak of a rusty bunk spring, it felt like I was a thousand miles away from family. It felt like abandonment. Each summer, especially after my dad died, the camps were farther away and the stays longer. Two weeks here, four weeks there. It wasn’t all bad. I got to meet some cool kids, try some new stuff, and reinvent myself for however long I was away. And the same thing was being done to my two older brothers. July in my house just meant it was time to pack a bag. But as I got a little older, I started to get the feeling that I was being sent off because my mom had no idea what else to do with me. Although she always told me it was a growing experience and that most kids would jump at the chance to go, these obligatory summer camps, especially six weeks way out west, felt like banishment.
I could have filled Mr. Businessman’s flight time with all of this, from the Ohio valley, over the Mississippi, and to the Rocky Mountains. But by the summer of my sixteenth year, I’d learned the benefits of silence. I’d become an expert at keeping things to myself. There was no one in my life that knew my whole story.
Most of the kids I hung out with knew my dad was dead, fewer knew about my mom’s problems. My mom and my brothers were active players in all the family history, but they were clueless of who I was outside our home. They knew I was bombing out at school, more interested in being social and having a girlfriend from time to time. All that was in the light, they lost track of me after dark. That was the time of alcohol, a little bit of weed, narrowly avoided fistfights, petty vandalism, and death-defying driving. All sirens’ calls to bored teens looking for a thrill, but I took to these things with desperation, throwing myself into them in some bizarre slam dance thinking I was going to get something out of it.
To the guys and girls I hung around, I was wild, fixated on a good time. I told them all so many lies and avoided so much truth, I wasn’t always sure of who knew what about me.
There’s no way anyone knows oneself at sixteen and there’s little chance of self-discovery if everyone around you has been filled with lies and half-truths.
The plane careened away from the mountains, straightened out, and dropped its landing gear. The businessman stowed a magazine he’d been reading in his seat pocket and with nothing else to do, looked to me. One last chance to ask a question, unravel the mystery kid. I pulled out my ticket and pretended to read it like I might have a connecting flight. His eyes glanced off me and settled on the window.

Everyone around me moved with a purpose as soon as we cleared the cramped jet-way and entered the terminal. Most of the other travelers had other planes to catch or were in a rush to make it to baggage claim. I was swept into this stream and pushed toward the main corridor where even more people moved in both directions like auto traffic. The plan was to be met at the gate by one of the trip leaders. I had a folded letter in my pocket with a phone number on it to call if no one was there.
I imagined what kind of camp counselor might be waiting for me. Most of them up to this point had been unremarkable and uniformly blended into a convenient stereotype: male, white, eighteen/nineteen, feathered hair, shadow of a mustache, and all trying to look older and more authoritative than they were. But this wasn’t going to be some summer in a cabin with crafts and food served in a big mess hall, there was going to be hiking, climbing, tents, and meals made over a fire. I tried to imagine the type of counselor that would lead that kind of trip. All I could come up with was a lumberjack, right down to the plaid shirt, thick, dark beard, and stocking cap. For all I knew, a normal-sized Paul Bunyan was going to be standing in the crowd up ahead holding a sign with my name on it.
He was standing at the edge of the confluence of traffic and had seen me right away. We both smiled as way of greeting when I finally made it up to him.
“You must be Jeff,” he said. “I’m Bhaskar.”
I was convinced he said his name was Boxcar. His six-foot frame, blonde hair and blue eyes did nothing to help define his exotic name. He was no lumberjack, but something about the way he stood, a hybrid posture of rigidity and limberness, and the mild curve of his smile, told me he wasn’t going to be a toothy, bright-eyed counselor refereeing a sack race or leading a chorus of sing-alongs.
He immediately asks me if I’d been drinking enough water. The dangers of dehydration and the need to consume mass amounts of water was something that was almost neurotically repeated in the trip preparation literature. I lie and tell him I’ve been drinking plenty.
“They’ve got a saying out here,” he says. “If your piss is white, you’re alright. Yellow, you’re a hurting fellow.”
Before I could start asking too many questions, Bhaskar tells me we’ve got to hurry to meet some of the other arriving campers. We waded into the flow of travelers. Bhaskar’s gait was so wide I almost broke into a jog to keep up with him.
We collected kids off planes like picking up groceries during a quick stop at the market. A large group disembarked together off a flight from JFK. We all hastily shuffled down the terminal to meet a skinny kid arriving from O’Hare. No time for introductions. We fetched a girl coming in from Milwaukee. By the time all the planes landed and our luggage was collected, we were a group of twelve: four girls and eight boys.
Lynette, the second of what would be three adult leaders, was waiting with the van. She climbed to the top of a rooftop cargo cage and reached down with long, tan arms to hoist up our gear, a yellow braid snaked off her back and dangled beside her hands while she worked. She gave each of us a genuine smile as we handed up our overstuffed packs. Lynette and Bhaskar didn’t seem more than a couple years past their mid-twenties, but there was something about them that was distinctly adult.
Bhaskar ordered us all in the vehicle as he slid behind the steering wheel. The interior of the van was lined with a phalanx of gray vinyl benches. I found a spot in the back.
We drove south and along that line of foothills I’d studied from the plane. Typical of most sixteen-year-olds, my perception did not go beyond the van walls, and I was focused on first impressions of the peers I would spend the next six weeks with. As the introductions started, names didn’t stick, but accents and attitude did. At first glance the extremes stuck out. Andy was huge, Rachel cute, Jake cocky, and Ross overanxious. The others muted into the background.
We traveled down a flat stretch of dry land. The windows glowed with intense sunshine and offered a parched yellow backdrop for the first cautious conversations.
“What grade are you in?”
“Got your license yet?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Ever been camping before?”
Paul sat in the back corner beside me. He always seemed to be smiling and had one of those bodies that made him look like an old man hiding out in a kid’s skin, wiry and slightly bent, and a high hairline of thin, curly brown hair. Paul was one of the New Yorkers and regaled me with stories of living in the big city.
“Taking the subway to school isn’t too bad. Sometimes a train breaks down and you get to school late and they can’t do a thing about it,” he said casually. My Midwestern, small town amazement didn’t allow me to even come up with a question.
“Shit,” Alex chimed in, “when I’m running even a few minutes late to school, my mom throws me in a cab.” She was right in front of Paul with her back to the window, feet on the seat, and knees poking up over the bench.
Her real name was Jessica, but she preferred Alex. It suited her tomboy image. She was pretty with sandy, shoulder length hair and a pug nose. Her face was speckled with lightly toasted freckles. She wore tattered jeans, an un-tucked, plaid flannel shirt, and a red bandana on her head. This outfit gave away little about her body shape. She carried herself in a way that told the boys that she was willing to play their games and challenge them as well. Alex had a confidence about her that I had yet to see in girls. Her confidence carried over into a murky sexuality and an air of mischievousness; it made her attractive. Yet, I wasn’t interested in her. In fact, I was eyeing Rachel. She was small, feminine, blonde and laughed a lot. But Alex was intriguing.
The road began to climb and we all took notice of the changes occurring outside the van. Pine forests rose on both sides and the light softened. Civilization shrank away and the big country came to the forefront. The hills on either side of the van were steep and occasionally separated to reveal stretching views of forested gullies leading to bare-rock mountains. In comparison to home, everything seemed monstrous. The foothills rippling before the taller peaks were more massive than any hill back in Ohio. The big mountains in the distance slowly scrolled through the moving van windows, too stubborn and colossal to hurry by. The last road sign I could recall mentioned a distance to Gunnison.
Jake moved back in the van so he could join the conversation among Alex, Paul, and me.
“I used to ride the L to junior high when I lived at my mom’s,” he said. “Now that I live with my dad, I have to take the bus.”
“A school bus?” I asked.
“No, the city line.”
Jake was small, but far from meek. A squint in his dark eyes was piercing and calculating like he was on to anything coming his way and was be hard to catch off guard. His denim jacket smelled like cigarettes, a wire ran from an inside pocket to a set of headphones circling his neck. Jake had been talking with Caryn, a tiny girl with big eyes and black kinky hair. He seemed to be hitting it off with her.
It was amazing how quickly bonds and minor circles started to form. Rachel was abuzz with activity. Two clean-cut guys, Wex and Sheldon, hovered about her. Ingrid, with apple-plump cheeks and braids, gingerly ventured in and out of the conversations around her with nods and reserved smiles. Ross, a redhead with glasses sitting near the front of the van, talked in flurries to Bhaskar and Lynette; he was twitchy and scanned the group like he was expecting an attack. The groundwork for the entire trip was being laid right there, right then. I could already envision the buddies, the jesters, the jerks, and the girlfriends. Why didn’t I sit next to Rachel?
The road narrowed and began to wind. We dropped in along a quick flowing stream jammed between giant canyon walls. The water was so clear in places I could make out individual rocks under the water while other spots were a tumult of curling white waves. The rock walls parted and presented a grand treeless valley cupped by hills backed with fast climbing, forested mountains. Pavement turned to dirt road. We passed a reservoir that harbored what looked like a shantytown. The only structure above one story was a general store with gas pumps outside. Receding behind it down the valley and up a scrub-covered hill were cabins in various states, from well kept with chimney smoking to roofless and abandoned.
The van turned up a rutted trail where we were all ordered out. The path was too rough to make it with a full load. We walked a half-mile following the van as it teetered and bounced over rain-cut ditches.
Base Camp rested in the bottleneck of a soft valley. A single room cabin with a loft guarded the valley entrance. It was a multi-use facility: kitchen, infirmary, storehouse, and adult meeting center. The temporary homes for the campers were behind the cabin; large canvas tents stretched over plank floors on the hillside under a spread of pines.
Jake, Andy, Paul, Harry, and I took one tent while the other boys piled into another. Jake dug through his bag and pulled out a crumpled pack of Marlboros.
“I knew these were going to get crushed. Hope the others are in better shape.” He dug deeper.
Andy unzipped one of his side pockets, “My dad found my cigarettes when I was packing. It’s going to be a long six weeks.”
“I can hook you up for a while. My dad bought me a carton before I left,” Jake said as he extracted a large Ziplock full of the red and white packs. “I’m sure we’ll hit a gas station now and then. We’ll stock up then.”
Harry opened his backpack and quizzically peered in like someone else had packed it for him. His light brown hair was a ruffled mess and his face seemed permanently stamped with confusion like he was perpetually working over some puzzle in his head. He looked to Andy and Jake and asked, “Do you think Bhaskar and Lynette will care if you guys smoke?”
“I’m not planning on letting them know,” Jake responded and tossed a sealed pack to Andy. Andy caught it in his big mitt of a hand and brought the pack up to his nose and inhaled. Jake looked over to me with a pack in his hand.
I didn’t smoke but felt a need to take it. Jake pitched it over and I caught it with one hand.
“Actually,” I said, “I don’t smoke.” I lofted it back to him. “Thanks, though.”
“No biggie,” he said and stowed it away.
The time between dragging my pack to the tent and suppertime was the first chance I had to slow down and let my senses come round. I walked alone to where lines of trees closed our valley to a point. There was a verdant smell all about. A short-lived thunderstorm preceded our arrival leaving everything moist, but not soaked. The pines and sage gave off a sweet but acrid odor—little bit skunky. It was cloudy so I didn’t have a good view of the surrounding country but I could perceive the scale. Back in Ohio, humidity and deciduous trees cut down the view. Anytime I looked out from some high ground back home, like Flickenger Hill down into Overton Swamp, the not-so-far distance dissolved into a haze. Here, there’s a sense of openness. I could see distant ponderosas and aspens as clearly as the ones around the cabin. The grasses grew clumpy and yellow, scattered here and there before blotting out to shin-high sagebrush. A stream flowed a half mile down from the valley mouth. In the crotch of the valley, near the cabin, large logs circled a fire ring.
A bell rang and kids trickled out of the woods and tents to get something to eat.

After dinner, Bhaskar and Lynnette called all twelve of us around the fire ring to talk about the days to follow. They were joined by Dave, the last of the leadership trio; he sported a dark beard and deep set eyes and although he was the smallest of the leaders, his well-worn boots and squat form gave him a more outdoorsy feel like he’d been waiting out in these mountains a long time for our arrival. The talk started out very technical. Lynette spoke of daily chores and rotating duties. Everybody would take on a different role ranging from cook or sump hole digger to litter patrol or leader for the day. Bhaskar talked about respect for the land and each other. Dave didn’t really talk at all. Bhaskar wrapped up the meeting by introducing the idea of “group.”
“About every other night, we’ll call group. This is a time to share. Share thoughts, feelings, problems, and maybe concerns.” He seemed to be reciting from a script. “Some nights we’ll have a specific agenda for group, maybe we’ll talk about family or school. What each of you needs to know is that group is a safe environment. Feel free to talk about anything. What’s said in group stays confidential. You guys got any questions?”
Bhaskar looked around the circle. It was dark now and Dave had built up a strong fire so that every face was lit.
Nobody had a question. Bhaskar finally added, “I thought we could keep group short tonight and just go around and do simple introductions.”
The leaders went first so they could model what they expected out of each speaker. They each kept it succinct and light, mentioning their hometowns, their families, some hobbies, and how they’d come to be a leader for our trip. Paul was the first kid to speak and he kept to the script.
I silently rehearsed what I would say when it would be my turn. It would be simple and in the tempo Bhaskar and the others had set. I’d offer up enough to appease the leaders, but stay guarded enough that I could insert whatever I needed during the next six weeks to make myself whoever I wanted. Leave enough wiggle room to fit myself into this place and in with these people.
What happened next changed everything. Someone, in the middle of telling how many brothers and sisters they had and the name of the family pet, decided to go a little deeper. The speaker revealed that his or her parents were going through a nasty divorce and that it had rocked the whole family off its foundation. The words were true, plain spoken and hard, and with them, some dark door was cracked open that night and out of it poured a successive string of stories about defeat, divorce and death.
Each kid has his or her turn.
“My dad left us last summer. I got to see him at Christmas. His girlfriend wigs me out. It’s like she tries to be my new mom.”
“I wish my dad would take off. If he yells at my mom again, my sisters and I are going to go live with our grandma.”
“My parents just don’t give a shit. Every chance they get, they send me packing. I’ve been to more summer camps than I can count. They just can’t wait to pick up and go to Europe or the Bahamas. They just ship me off. I start boarding school in the fall.”
“When it was my turn to go into the room, I couldn’t do it. I just sat out there and looked at the wheelchairs and rolling beds. He died that night. So I never got to say goodbye to my grandfather.”
What was supposed to be a round of simple introductions had turned into some kind of demented tragedy contest with each kid trumping the previous kid’s story. If a girl said her grandmother died just this spring, the guy beside her rolled out his dead grandmother and added an abusive father. Most frightening was that it all true. The only corroboration needed was to watch the tellers. Twisted faces, quivering chins, trembling shoulders, and most everyone took a turn at crying.
As spectators, we listened with mouths dropped open and eyes wide. Girls hugged each other and rubbed backs. Boys unabashedly wept. The leaders, stoic at first, quickly wiped at their tears.
My turn was coming up and I was scared to death. It would be easy for me to lie and to cover up, I’d been practicing since grade school. But as each kid broke him or herself open and spilled out fears and pains, I was presented with the option of honesty. Still rapt with the stories being told, I quickly played out what if scenarios. What if I told them about my dad? What if I told them about my mom? What if I told them how scared I was? In that moment, I realized that no one, other than my brothers who had lived it right alongside me, knew my whole story. I’d doled out bits and pieces, but no one had the full narrative.
Everyone was looking at me. The spotlight was now trained on me. I leaned forward putting my elbows on my knees and cupped my chin in my hands. The circle hadn’t been quiet in some time and the silence made some people fidgety. I looked into the fire and made the choice to let them have it, lay it all out and see what comes of it. I straightened and uncontrollably smiled at them. It was a weird smirk, partly an apology for what was to come mixed with a touch of relief.
I told them of my mother’s instability, erratic behavior, and how she had run off a couple times in fits of panic and madness. I described how it had whittled my already quiet father down to nothing, turning him into a hollow-eyed ghost. Divorce became the only option and my brothers and I were faced with inconceivable choices of who to live with and how to split the family up. By the time I got to my father’s death, my voice became unhitched and I was the one crying. I almost felt disembodied in the telling, like it was so fantastical that it couldn’t be real, I had to be listening to someone else. But another part of me was anchored solidly to that log at the edge of the fire, happy to be there and sharing the truth. It wasn’t tears and snot running down my face, it was poison, and I was glad to be rid of it, even if it was only a small dose.
During my story, Alex got closer to me. She was beside me all along, but leaned away for a time to put an arm around Ingrid. When I spoke, she edged closer on the log, never taking her eyes off my face. At one point, I’m pretty sure she laid her hand on my back.
My story was the tragic high water mark. Most of the campers that followed almost felt embarrassed that they didn’t have some big skeleton to drag out for the group to gasp at. But one thing became apparent, either by accident or design, everyone in this group had something weighing on him or her. Some loads were heavier than others, and some were just the typical cramps and knots that come with adolescence. Whatever the source or the weight, we were all sitting there tainted in a way that didn’t seem fair for our age, like the heaps of troubles that come in life had come early delivery for us.
Perhaps this trip was billed a bit differently to our parents. Under all the attractive shots of mountain sunsets and exciting frames of river running, the fine print maybe read, “send us your damaged and disillusioned teens and we’ll let the soothing balm of nature facilitate their psychological recovery.”
Whatever the purpose of these nighttime discussions, the first one was a doozey. Bhaskar, Lynette, and Dave glanced back and forth. It was impossible to tell if they were frightened or encouraged.
But one this was for sure: in that moment, we were one group. The earlier connections and rings of inclusion and exclusion were gone. We desperately fused together like we’d all found something that floats in open water.

It was getting late and we had a big day ahead. Bhaskar urged all of us to turn in, and then he and Dave and Lynette headed off to the cabin. But bonds had been formed and small groups gathered in clumps in each other’s tents and continued to share stories of family, hometowns, and high school.
Before we could join with the others, Alex gripped my hand. I was surprised, but didn’t show it. Something about it felt right. She led me away to one of the empty tents the girls claimed earlier. There was a determination in her grasp. She didn’t say a word.
She moved quickly like she urgently had something to show me. Perhaps she feared the passing of the invisible bond that had overtaken over the group. Maybe she was just looking to prolong the buoyancy that follows a hard cry. She had shared in the group too, talking about not knowing her dad and being raised by a single mom in a big city. Something possessed the girl in that moment and she had chosen me and probably wouldn’t have let go of my hand if I had pulled it away.
Her sleeping bag was already unrolled. A small flashlight threw a harsh but tiny light in the big olive tent. I angled it toward the corner so it reflected a softer green. We spread out on the slick sleeping bag and began to kiss. Her directness threw me off. Boys were usually the confident, forward ones. I apprehensively slid my hand up her shirt. Alex pulled away and, in a few quick contortionist movements, unclasped her bra and pulled it out a shirtsleeve. Forward and tricky. We came back together.
Ingrid entered. We rolled apart, more out of curiosity than embarrassment.
“Sorry,” she said, her fleshy cheeks blushing.
“It’s no big deal,” Alex replied.
Ingrid climbed into her sleeping bag and rolled away from us. Alex turned off the flashlight and reached for me. It was a bit uneasy kissing her again. I’m not sure how far we would have gone that first night if Ingrid hadn’t come along, Alex didn’t seem inhibited. But to me, the tent suddenly felt crowded and the forest outside wasn’t offering any sounds loud enough to cover the noise of our lips.
“It sounds like you guys are making mayonnaise over there.” We all started to laugh and I said goodnight.

We were up with the sun the next morning. The group and the leaders moved around quietly. There was a lot of yawning and bleary stares at the hills, now even crisper in the cool, white light on morning. I got a sense too that people were a bit unsure about how to approach each other. Everyone was so open the night before and now, with the moment gone, everyone was feeling vulnerable and a bit unsure. It was like everyone was sizing each other up all over again.
I had a moment of regret for sharing my story. Maybe it was too much and now there was no way to take it back. But I realized that, in the end, all I gave them was a story. A narrative. I hadn’t let them in, hadn’t showed them the real fear, the self-loathing, the anger. Sure, I had cried, but who didn’t? I took some solace that I had offered up a window into myself to these strangers, but hadn’t really opened the door.
All through breakfast, Sheldon was bugging me for details about Alex. He knew, as did the rest of the group, that Alex and I disappeared together after group. No doubt Ingrid shared her observations to stoke the rumor engine.
“Where did you guys go?” Sheldon asked with his plate on his knees. Somehow, after a night in a sleeping bag, he had managed to perfectly feather his hair. I wondered if he hid a travel mirror in his pack, maybe in a little, plaid zipper grooming case.
Wex and Ross leaned in.
I scooted down the log a bit, “Your eggs are gonna get cold.”
The guys from my tent knew the most. They were still up when I slipped in after midnight and hit me with a flurry of questions.
Jake took a seat beside me, put his plate on his knees and put a cup of steaming water on the ground by his feet.
Sheldon scooted after me, “What did you guys do? Just kiss?”
Jake butted in, “Get off his case. Just because you didn’t hook up with someone doesn’t mean you should get your jollies from him.” He said this coolly and respectfully without a hint of envy.
Sheldon was not to be put off. He turned his attention to Jake. “I heard you and Caryn were up all night talking in one of the empty tents.”
Jake didn’t respond but pulled a lock blade knife from his denim jacket and whipped it open by pinching the blade and snapping his wrist. The blade locked into place with a pop. He gashed open a packet of hot chocolate.
Sheldon and Wex watched him fold the knife closed and dump the powdery mixture into his cup.
Sheldon switched topics, “Rachel hung out in our tent. Did you know she has a boyfriend back home?”
“And he plays rugby,” Wex added.
“Here they come,” whispered Sheldon.
The girls arrived together and sat on a long log opposite us.
Sheldon couldn’t wait, “So Alex, where did you go after group last night? We couldn’t seem to find you anywhere.”
I shook my head.
Alex smiled at me, approving my tendency not to kiss and tell. She deliberately forked a lump of scrambled eggs from her plate. “I was making out with Ozzy in my tent. Any other questions?”
After breakfast, Baskhar announced the plans for the day. “Have your daypacks ready to go at 10:30. We’ll pack lunches and do a short hike. Meet here around the fire ring. Until then, the time is yours.”
Alex, Andy, and I headed off to explore the slope of the valley behind our tents. There was no trail so we weaved between the trees in a relatively straight line from base camp. We reached the rise in about fifteen minutes, and were all huffing pretty bad.
“I guess this is that altitude they were talking about,” Andy said. Andy was a solid mass of coarse black hair and muscle that belied his sixteen years of age. But the hill and the thin air didn’t seem to favor his formidable size. He seemed better equipped for the wrestling mat or defensive line of the varsity football squad.
The pines gave way to a rocky clearing. The sun glinted off the crumbly gravel. I picked up a fist-sized chunk and recognized splinters of cloudy mica throughout the stone. The edge of the clearing opposite our ascent revealed row upon row of pine-studded hills. Large, stone flatirons rose out of every other slope, and rigid parapets crowned others. I hurled the rock through the gap in the trees and listened for the impact. Andy stepped to the edge for a better view.
Alex sat and dug through her pockets. She pulled something out of each of her four jean pockets, something else from her shirt pocket, and a final object out of her sock. She now held what appeared to be a handful of tiny, brass plumbing hardware. Her hands quickly connected the pieces in a series of twists and screws. It wasn’t until she tightened a small cup on the end that I realized what it was.
“I use this when I travel. When it’s broken down, nobody can tell what it is,” she said and pulled a sandwich bag out of her right hip pocket. Alex unrolled and opened the bag and packed the bowl with a crumbling bud.
This was not my first experience with marijuana. Yet, I hadn’t seen anyone so casual with it. I couldn’t help looking back down the hill toward Base Camp to make sure no one was coming.
Alex snapped her lighter and took a quick hit. She held the pipe out to me.
I took it and sat beside her. The pipe itself was a mash of cylinders, discs, and squares. “Quite the geometric oddity,” I said taking the lighter. I took a feathery draw off the pipe not wanting to cough like a novice.
Alex exhaled and called Andy over. He accepted the pipe and dragged heavily, reducing the bowl to pure ash.
“How much did you bring?” He asked in a scrunched voice holding the smoke in his lungs.
“Just over a quarter, so we’ll have to go easy.” She replied, taking the pipe and digging through the bag for another fill.
I exhaled and felt a light tingling in my sinuses. The sun was hot but the air was cool. The hills spread out before us like a path. They led to a massive mountain with fingerlike snowfields.
Alex finished packing the bowl, tucked the baggie in her pants pocket, and took the lighter from Andy. “This is going to be such a cool trip,” she said.

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