Read the rest of the "West" saga: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9
Chris reached the top of the peak and looked east. He saw clouds passing, obscuring his view, then clearing away. Trees, wild and unfettered, without the usual corridors for cell phone towers. The lake down below, for which the mountain had been named.
This was almost everything he’d had in mind.
He wished he could distract himself, think of anything but his original vision of being here with Dena. But he’d cut himself off. His usual distractions--the scrolling pictures, the flashing lights, the texts--were gone. He’d called his father from the AT&T customer service desk after having his cell phone shut off.
“I just wanted to let you know my phone got stolen,” he lied. “I know...yeah, I’ll be reachable soon, but we’re going to be in a national park in a couple of days, and I doubt there will be any service anyway...I just didn’t want you to worry…”
Lex, the AT&T employee who’d disconnected his phone, grinned at him when he hung up.
“Going off the grid, dude?”
“Just...taking a break,” Chris had said.
At first, he’d hoped that taking a break would be enough for him and Dena, too. Getting out of town. Reinventing themselves on the road. Dena had been through a lot. She’d suffered more in the past six months than he had in his life. What bad thing had ever happened to him?
His parents’ divorce, after which they both became better, happier people? Getting busted for carrying drugs one, isolated time--then getting off with a stern warning?
When your life diverges from another person’s--theirs into misery, yours into happiness--what do you have? Dena sat right beside him as they drove, but she was still miles away. He couldn’t change her. He couldn’t even heal her.
He retrieved the Chinook keys from the pocket of his corduroy jacket. Dena had given him the keychain--a flat rubber raccoon advertising Ricky’s Recycling Service, Macon, Georgia.
“Sorry, pal,” Chris said.
He hurled the keys over the side of the mountain, closing his eyes as they flew through the air so he couldn’t see where they landed.
“That was dramatic,” a voice said.
Chris turned around to see a man standing behind him. He was older than Chris, maybe mid-forties, and wearing a backpack.
“How are you going to get home?” the man asked.
“I’m kind of in transition right now.”
“Oh, one of those.”
“What do you mean?”
The man unclipped a water bottle from his pack.
“You know. Finding yourself in the great outdoors, or whatever. Quarter-life crisis. I get it, I really do.”
“I don’t need to be patronized right now, okay?” Chris said.
“Nah, I didn’t mean it like that. Just--I’ve been there.”
“Are all the people in your life shit?” Chris muttered.
“We’re all shit, man,” he said.
“Sorry,” the man said. “It’s my store.”
As the hiker stepped away to talk on the phone, Chris tried to burn an image of this place into his memory.
Skinny pines. Grey rocks. Algae and reflections creeping around the borders of the lake, making it look like the flecked iris of a human eye. This place was made for Instagram. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was made for this moment only--for Chris’s deliberate efforts to really see it.
Maybe Lake Peak didn’t need the likes. Mountains are above validation. Mountains don’t give a fuck.
“So you have a store?” Chris asked.
“Camping supplies. Over on the other side of the National Forest. A new shipment just came in, and my assistant manager is brain dead.”
“You need a new one?”
“A brain? God, yes. Please.”
“An assistant manager.”
“Now that’s a thought,” the man said.
In the final montage of their story, a Bob Dylan song would play on the radio station for the brief moment before the three cars passed out of range. The first car, Drew’s old Toyota, would be the only one still headed west. He would pour a package of peanuts into a plastic bottle of Coke, and dream of a place where he could play ping-pong on his lunch break. Where his desk chair would be a stability ball.
In the second car: Chris, riding shotgun, his new boss driving east as they wound their way out of the Santa Fe National Forest.
“Let me get your number, and I’ll call to let you know what time to come in,” the hiker would say. Chris would just smile.
The last car would be the hot-wired Chinook re-routing its path back to Austin. Dena would reach for Jennifer’s hand, but she’d pull away.
“Let’s go slow, okay?”
Dena would nod.
“Yeah,” she’d say. “We’ll go slow.”
In the last moments of the story, the chorus of the Dylan song would swell, guitars jangling as the radio flickered in and out. The invisible triangle connecting the three vehicles would grow larger and larger, stretching until it was too faint to imagine, until everyone had landed on a different frequency. The sun would drop away in the west, headed for the ocean.
But this was not a story. Truly, there is no such thing.
Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Luke Pamer