Solstice

(A/N: forgot to post this when I finished writing it in November. Originally this was a standalone piece, but now it’s also the opening for Rule of Thirds from NaNoWriMo 2012. Like most of what I write during NaNoWriMo, this could use an edit.)

This is how I like to live — snow blinding from all sides in the evergreen forest and a trail winding behind and before me. I never feel this free in the presence of cement. Out here I’m completely unplugged, snug in my warm thermals, and only a light pack weighing me down. Each step up the mountain leaves another nagging thought behind; each exhaled breath of fog into the cold winter air vaporizes another worry. Given my current state, it’s going to take this whole hike to clear my head.

I know this path better than my favorite book — all the bumps and turns, all the tricks to making it through. I only have to focus on the push and pull of my body, the muscles straining against each other as I climb the steep trail towards the summit.

I’ve never done this alone — not because it’s scary or difficult or dangerous or anything, quite the opposite. I’ve walked this path since I was a little girl, six years old and gasping and stumbling my way up the mountain. The trailhead originates in our backyard, so my lack of solitude on past treks was due to sheer accessibility rather than some desperate need for companionship. All the same, it doesn’t feel right trudging up this path by myself.

Around me, the forest seems acutely aware of my intrusion. Most of the animals are hibernating in the cold, but even devoid of birdsong, I can tell the forest feels me here. The snap of twigs under my hiking boots is a foreign sound. Even more so is the squeak and creak of the tripod in my pack shifting around with every step. I can’t help it. Who am I to silence these sounds that are mine? But even I don’t like these unnatural noises that pollute the expectant silence of the forest. Maybe it was always like this, but hiking alone just made me notice. Before, there was always the thrum of conversation. As I kid I would yell and shout, demanding the family’s attention while I ventured just off the trail. Vicky had to start telling me fantastical stories while we hiked just to shut me up. In recent years though, this turned into a therapeutic hike. Conversations about college, boyfriends, research, graduate school, job prospects, economics, education, marriage, same-sex marriage — anything anyone wanted to bounce ideas about could be discussed on this trail with the right company.

I guess it’s just that. The right company — that’s what I’m missing today. The solstice hike was for me and Dad. It was our tradition. Every year since I was six, we would hike up to the summit on the winter solstice and take a photo of the setting sun. Every single year. We planned vacations around it. We battled snowstorms for it. Even with Dad’s bad knee keeping him off the trails these days, this was the one hike for which he made an exception.

But this year, today, he isn’t with me. Instead, he’s in the hospital, a cocktail of painkillers dulling that gleam in his eye. Cancer is eating away at his insides, metastasizing into his bloodstream and spreading like wildfire, and the doctors don’t have much hope. All they can do now is manage the pain. All we can do is watch.

I’m not sure what hurts more — the fact that I’m losing my dad, or the fact that he’s known about the cancer for months and never said anything to anyone about it.

***

As I crest the peak, my phone, tucked in the side pocket of my backpack, picks up a signal and chirps for my attention. It’s a message from Vicky, asking me to call when I reach the summit so she knows I’m okay. I glance at the sun and gauge its position where it hovers above the horizon by a finger width. The light in the valley is too perfect right now to waste, so I make a mental note to call Vicky once I’ve taken a few shots.

From up here, I can trace a thin strand of smoke back down into the valley to our cabin. Without it, it would be hard to spot the cabin nestled in the trees, even with the icy sliver of the creek slicing the landscape into identifiable regions. Clearings are little more than divots in the snow-topped forest, and the trail up to the summit is invisible under the trees.

I leave my pack on a dry patch of sun-bathed rock and pull out my tripod and camera. Like the rest of the trail, I know every detail of this clearing. All the same, I wander around, hunting for some new angle, some new detail that will make this photo different from all past ones. The landscape as a whole doesn’t change much from year to year — just more snow or less snow, and different cloudscapes depending on the weather. But what makes each year different is the lichen growing on the side of the big pine tree in the clearing; the squirrel venturing out of hibernation into the cold, his beady eyes squinting against the sunlight mirrored off the snow; the bush on the ridge that’s finally mature enough to be growing bright red berries this year. These are the details I search for.

I don’t remember actively learning to do this. I think it just sort of happened one year when we were driving through Yosemite National Park and stopped for a moment at the tunnel view turnoff. The view from there is the quintessential Yosemite panorama, and tourists bunch together, elbow to elbow, pushing for a shot of the valley. I remember watching them jostling each other and thinking, don’t they see that their photograph of that breathtaking view, of Half Dome in the distance, El Capitan on the left and Bridalveil Falls on the right — it’s the same photo you can buy in the gift shop, whether you take it in the spring or summer or fall or winter, whether you pull out your camera-phone or take the time to set up a tripod for a dSLR. There’s no artistry in the photograph that geology framed for you. So that day when we pulled over to soak in the view, I learned to look for something else: the tourists gathered in their peculiar flocks, a long exposure blur of the cars flowing into and out of the parking lot, the unique framing of the familiar landscape blurred behind the detail of pine branches in the foreground. The scenery can stay the same, but you can say something different with every shutter snap.

But my solstice photograph is part tradition, and there’s a certain artistry in the sequence of photos running back to the one framed by my six-year-old self. Dad had to lift me to the viewfinder, my feet planted on his thigh and my hands resting on his head for balance as I went up on tiptoes to see my shot.

How’s it look? he had asked.

I clambered down with a pout. Too far this way, I told him, gesturing left. I want the tree in it.

He adjusted the camera and helped me back up. How’s that?

Perfect. Click. I hadn’t yet learned to adjust aperture or exposure or ISO. I couldn’t reach the lens to change the manual focus on my dad’s old Nikon camera. We’d had to hook up the shutter cord because I couldn’t hit the shutter release without knocking over the entire tripod setup. But every photograph on the winter solstice since has been a new year’s incarnation of that six-year-old’s photograph.

After I’ve taken a few shots of the trees and the smoke rising from the cabin, I kick open my tripod and frame my shot. I adjust the settings in anticipation of the sun slipping into the frame, then settle down and dial the house phone, eyeing the sunset through the viewfinder as I cradle the phone to my ear and peel open a CLIF bar.

Vicky answers. “Harper residence.”

“Hey, it’s Melanie,” I say, mouth full of chocolate almond fudge.

“Mel! You only just got to the summit?” she asks. I can practically see her leaning over the kitchen sink to look out the bay windows in search of the sunset. “You’re going to miss the sun.”

“I set up the shot before I called. Mom’s still at the hospital?”

“Yeah. We’ll bring dinner over when it’s ready.”

“Is Lewis home yet?”

“He hit traffic because of an accident on the five, but he should be here by the time you get back.” I can hear her chopping vegetables. “How was the hike?”

“Quiet,” I answer. “But a good quiet, you know? I feel like I can think out here.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, though the sound of the knife hitting the cutting board continues. I can’t tell if she’s thinking about Dad, or thinking about getting space to think about Dad, or about vegetables or what. I’m about to ask her when I hear her inhale to speak.

“Devon called,” she says, so quickly that I almost don’t catch the name. “He’s wondering why you’re screening his calls.”

Oh God, Devon. I’d forgotten about the messages from him that I’d received while driving up to the cabin from school. Then reception sucked at the cabin, and I’d been avoiding the pileup in my email inbox like the plague.

“Mel?” Vicky cuts through my thoughts, even as she expertly slices some hapless vegetable under her chef’s knife. “I take it you haven’t told him what’s going on.”

“Not yet,” I reply.

“Well… I’m not one to tell you what to do—”

“Since when?”

“But you should call him back. I told him you were out hiking and that you’d be home in the evening, so he’s probably going to call again.”

I sigh. “I know.”

She pauses for a moment, then asks, “You do like him, don’t you?”

“What?” I ask, caught off guard. “Yes.”

“This isn’t you avoiding having to break up with him by just ignoring him?”

“What—no. Devon and I are fine. I’ve just had a lot on my mind. I haven’t gotten around to dealing with the outside world quite yet.”

She makes a sound somewhere between skepticism and understanding. I hear her scrape the vegetables off the cutting board and into a pot of water. “Well, call him from the darkroom if you have to, okay? I’ve got to go, the rib roast is going into the oven.”

At these words I start drooling. It’s not like I meant to; it’s just trained behavior when it comes to Vicky’s rib roast. “You’re making rib roast for dinner?”

“Yeah, so hurry home. Nail that photo, okay? For Dad.”

My heart freefalls for a second with this reminder. I open my mouth to say something, but I hear her yelp on the other end of the line and the phone clatters to the countertop or the floor. “Sorry Mel,” she yells at the receiver. “Kitchen emergency—I’m hanging up!”

I stare at my phone for a moment, watching the duration of our call flashing on the screen for a few moments before going black. I consider calling Devon right now, but I look at the sun and it’s hovering on the very tip of Angler’s Peak, the summit of the mountains opposite. Devon will have to wait a little bit longer. I shove my phone back into my backpack and peer through the viewfinder.

The angle of the sun has turned the clouds a rich yellow. I snap a few shots, adjusting camera settings as I go. With the clouds so soft and gold, I decide to ditch the option of black and white film, finishing off the color roll before loading a new canister with smooth, practiced speed in order to capture every moment of the sun’s easing slide down behind the mountain. The dusk sky turns orange then pink and purple, while overhead the stars start winking in. I don’t have the patience today to capture them with a long exposure. Besides, extended exposure is more fun with company and conversation, neither of which I have right now—unless you count the fact that I’m talking to myself, rehearsing what I might say to Devon.

With the sun gone, darkness closes in fast, and with it comes the cold. I pull on the light jacket from my backpack, but even then I can feel the cold seeping from my fingertips and toes up toward my core. There’s nothing left for me up here now—no sun, no light, no warmth—and there’s no point in sticking around longer than I need to. I return the tripod to my backpack and don a headlamp for the trek down, though I don’t turn it on yet. My eyes are adjusting to the dusk landscape, and I can see well enough to make it down the trail for a ways.

I pause where the trail narrows from the clearing and turn back to look at Angler’s Peak. Tomorrow the sun will set just a little to the right, and then a little further over the day after that. Just today, on the winter solstice, the sun drops behind the mountain at that particular spot. I shift my pack on my shoulders and turn my back on the dusk to head down the mountain.

***

About a mile from the cabin, the lingering sunlight finally fades. With no moon to illuminate the path, I have to switch on my headlamp to light my way. It’s cold, even though the hike is keeping the blood pumping through my system. I feel a shiver building up from the back of my neck and wrap my arms around myself. I start jogging down the mountain to keep warm and speed up the trip home. I haven’t been thinking as much as I was during the hike up, just focusing on the rocks and bumps in the snow-covered trail. As I jog on, the focus on the trail drives everything else from my mind, even though the cold persists in my hands. A fleeting memory flashes past in my mind, a memory of wandering through the park hidden in Faculty Ghetto and Devon rubbing my hands to keep them warm. It goes as quickly as it comes, making way for trivial thoughts of balance and traction. But the memory reminds me of those sweet moments with Devon, and a different kind of comforting warmth seeps into my chest.

Time and distance pass quickly at a jogging pace. I find myself at the last switchback that descends down to the backyard and the cabin. Through the trees, I can see the lighted windows of the cabin, and I can almost make out Vicky coming and going from the dining room to the kitchen, laying out dinner. If my nose weren’t numb, I might be able to smell the pot roast.

I slow down to a walk again, panting from the run. I’ve missed trail running, even though the cold bites at my lungs. But I realize as I hop over the fallen log at the trailhead that this is it. This is the end of the first solstice hike without Dad. I stop and close my eyes, letting memory resurface the photographs I took earlier. This one will stick in my head forever. It will always be the snag in the sequence as my eyes slide along the row of photos I’ve been taking since I was six. The first one I took alone.

Whether I’m ready to face it or not, the reality is that Dad won’t ever be with me on this hike again. I swallow the threat of tears welling in my throat. The solstice hike was for me and Dad, and I’ll feel his presence every year, no matter what.

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