I take stock of his clothes and gear. His pack sits next to him, covered with the grime and dust that one can only get after serious time on the trail. Matted hair sprouts out from under his knit hat. Though filthy, it all appears to be top of the line, expensive stuff. I have no idea if he knows that I am there. I try to figure out whether or not to beat feet back down the trail when he jumps up, arms outstretched, like some sort of crusty-chic Christ, his crucified silhouette a sharp contrast against the sanguine sky.
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains,” his voice booms and cascades down the valley in front of him.
I turn to run. The snap of a twig under my foot sends him spinning around.
“Oh, shit.” He tumbles backwards off the log, his face turning a shade of pink not altogether dissimilar from the early morning sky.
“Are you okay?” I ask, my hand still on my bear spray.
He responds with a cackle as he claws his way back onto his perch.
“I think so,” he says. “Nothing busted but my pride.”
As I approach I get a better look at him. White male, probably early forties. His eyes dance behind Burberry frames and his beard, brown shot through with flecks of gray, frames a beatific smile. There is something oddly familiar about him.
“How about you?” he asks. “Sorry for my little outburst there. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.”
“I’m fine.” I decide that I like this stranger. “What was that? Thoreau?”
“Not a bad guess, but no. John Muir. The grand old man of these hills. And boy did he get it right. Not a better sunrise in the world that the one up here. It hits me everyday.”
I glance again at his gear. It has seen a lot of miles.
“You doing a thru-hike?” I ask.
“Nope. Just kind of wandering.” He bends over and reaches out, his fingers gingerly caressing a delicate orange flower that I hadn’t noticed until now. He pulls it close to his face and buries his nose in it. There is something about his innocence that is staggering. “You?”
“Just looking for a little peace and quiet.”
He inhales deeply from the flower again.
“And you had the misfortune to run into a crazy like myself.”
“You’re a whole lot less crazy than what’s going on back down there today.” I jerk my thumb towards the metropolis I fled well before dawn. “It’s election day. Time for the people to roll their bones and cast their stones and decide the fate of the free world.”
The stranger stands up, his face switching from serene to sullen.
“Oh wow. I guess I lost track of time.”
He looks at me and it suddenly hits me who he is. The face staring at me, sans beard, had been plastered all over every screen I’d looked at for the past month. A high ranking official in the Democratic Party, his disappearance had fueled wild conspiracies from both sides of the campaign. Especially when his car was found, ransacked and vandalized on a lonely stretch of Highway 30 up near Big Bear.
Before I can say anything, he speaks.
“My first job after college was in car sales. And man, I was good at it. It got to the point that when a real pile of shit car would come onto the lot, everybody bet on how long it would take me to unload it onto some hapless rube. And then one night, I’m driving home, I see this young girl on the side of the road. I recognize the car as one I’d sold. And I remember her dad, how he’d scraped together everything he had, all to buy her a ‘dependable’ car so she could get back and forth to college. I remembered the look of pride in his eyes, and the look of love in hers. And I remember the laughter in the sales office after they left.”
He reached out for the orange flower again, his fingers tracing the petals.
“Seeing her stranded, I got this pain in my gut. Worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. So I pulled over, wrote her a check for two thousand dollars and never went back to the car lot. And the pain eased up. I decided to dedicate my life to public service, to help people instead of fleecing them.”
He takes a deep breath and continues.
“And so it went for a number of years. Just like at the car lot, I found my niche, and I leapt up the rungs of the ladder, all the way to inner workings of the party. I felt like I was making a difference. But then one day, a couple of months ago, I opened my eyes and the message seemed to have changed. Somewhere along the way we switched from being a beacon of hope to a machine that churned out nothing but fear. And my job went from telling the world about the good we were trying to do, to feeding into some sort of collective anxiety. And all of a sudden, the pain returned and I felt like I was selling used cars again.”
“So what are you going to do now?” I ask.
“I guess that depends on you,” he said. “Are you going to go running off and tell people you saw me?”
“There’s a reason I hike alone,” I say. “I’m a man who values privacy.”
He smiles and picks up his dusty rucksack.
“Well, if that’s the case, I will once again quote the estimable Mr. Muir, 'The mountains are calling and I must go.'”
Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Fabrice Poussin
Photograph by: Fabrice Poussin