The Mountain Died
© Copyright 2001 by Ruth Truman
The Carryall motor pulled against the ascent from the desert floor. In the front seat Mark, ready for college in another month, talked louder to his father. This is it, I thought. The last vacation together. I looked at the sleeping face of our twelve year old, curled securely against my mothering arm. Behind me the two middle children sprawled on top of the sleeping bags and banged on an old guitar.
Alone in the noise that filled the car I remembered the mountain. The first time we came Mark was a tiny baby. Diapers, bottles, play pen. So much for such a little person. The cool breezes hit my cheeks as we turned a curve and I thought of Lee, my husband, stranded with just a frozen orange on top of those icy peaks. Thank God he found his way back! Then there was Mark, so tall now, loaded down with a pack almost as large as his eleven years coming down the trail triumphant. He had conquered the mountain. And young Becky had caught her first trout in the dishpan, then let it go to join its friends Setting up camp in the dark--how many times? Moving the next morning to a better site, part of the family ritual.
And now, one last time all together.
"This road is quite an improvement over the old one, eh Ruth?" My husband's voice intruded into my thoughts. "Really!" No need to talk about the one-lane potholed trail that used to leave me in nervous exhaustion by the time we finally reached campground. "How much longer?" I knew, but he liked me to ask him.
"Nearly time to put on your shoes--not more than five minutes now."
"Becky, wake up. We're almost there." She rubbed her nap away and looked around at the thickening pine trees. "Do you think we'll get our campsite, Mom?"
"Maybe. We're ahead of most of the Friday campers. But if we don't it will be ok, won't it?" The questions went unanswered as the car turned off the highway onto the campground road, winding itself down the side of the mountain to come alongside the snow fed stream.
"Hey, Dad there's a good campsite." Mark's suggestion was drowned by a chorus of voices. "Not that one!" "Look over there." "Isn't that one good? Close to the johns too, Mom." And finally, "What do you think, Ruth? Do we stop here or try for the old site?"
My husband knew the answer. This was part of the game, like picking out a Christmas tree. Finally we would choose the old camping place, but first we had to convince ourselves that it really was the best campsite we could find.
"What number was it, Mom?" a voice from behind me asked.
"Wouldn't make any difference. They change them every time they rebuild the campsites, dummy!" The boys knew we made it a point not to go by the numbers.
Rounding the bend, our special shady nook came into view. "That's it, that's it!" Becky cried. "And it's empty!"
"Are you sure?" Lee called for a vote, and we moved in. Tent, stove, supplies, clothesline, pots, lanterns, and finally chaise lounges. Then the boys took off for the trout pool, Lee and Becky went to explore the stream, and I was alone in a spot of sunshine with a new book. Vacation had begun with two hours until supper.
"ESP Can Work For You" blazoned the cover. The breeze, the birds, the stream slipped into oblivion as my mind scanned the pages. This wasn't the first book like this. It was my kooky vacation reading the family laughed at. "Mother's reading one of those books again, guys," they'd say, but I didn't care. It was fantasy at its best because people thought it was real. My eyes followed the lines:
"Each individual has the ability to experience phenomena outside the realm of day to day existence, but this ability must be trained. With proper techniques, extra sensory experiences will become a normal part of everyday life. Before his death, Arthur Ford laid down the following instructions for developing extra consciousness." (reference now unknown) I smiled at the simplicity of the directions. Even I could do that.
I looked around me. Except for some campers in the distance there was no one to disturb me. Why not try it? See if there was anything to it...after all, this was my vacation and I could always quit if I didn't like what was happening. Reviewing the instructions, I folded my hands, closed my eyes, and tried to sink into my mind, my inner self.
Familiar voices jolted my brief reverie and I quickly returned to reading. "Don't worry if nothing happens at first. It takes time to develop your psychic abilities." Then the writer went on, "And remember that what you hear or receive in the beginning may not always be exactly right, for your receiver is not yet finely tuned." The family was back and I closed the book.
Dinner and a campfire soon erased the afternoon's quiet as the six of us shared jokes and tales of conquest, real and imagined. Vacation had dropped its lovely shawl around us and we were, as we had been so many times before, free on Mount Whitney.
" Hey, Mom, listen!" Mark picked up the sound first. Men's voices. Then flashlights sifting the forest dark, streaking the campgrounds around us. "Wonder what's going on?"My husband reached for the lantern just in time to illumine the unshaved face of a worried man.
"We could use every man that's got a flashlight, mister."The man was breathing hard. "There's a boy lost.....about three. His sisters left him standing on the bridge while they put their garbage in the can and they thought he went back to camp. Didn't miss him till dinner...eight kids in the family and they thought he was with somebody else. His father's up on the trail with some Boy Scouts. We've sent for him. Can you help?"
Lee and Mark picked up our two flashlights and zipped on warm jackets. The two other boys and Becky, much to their disgust, had to stay at camp. Lanterns, our only other lights, were too much of a fire hazard to use in a forest search. As the searchers' voices faded into the darkness, the four of us rekindled the fire and settled down to wait in silence.
The night sounds were suddenly cruel. The stream became a rushing monster that drowned out voices a tiny boy might hear. The water was not deep, except in pools, but the current could be overwhelming to a three year old. The forest became loud as our imaginations were caught in a cacophony of wild animals waiting to claim a small person. The velvet darkness scratched against our fears.
"Mom, I'm scared,"said Becky.
"Well, we're all too quiet for our own good. Play something, boys, and we'll sing."
"No thanks, Mom. I couldn't. I think I'll just sack out. It's getting chilly anyway."With a "me too", the boys disappeared down the john trail and minutes later into the tent. Becky snuggled against me watching the fire until she began to nod.
"Come on, Becky, let's get you into your sleeping bag."
"Not without you, Mom."Sleep slurred her words.
I covered the fire with dirt and followed her into the tent. Quietly, so as not to waken the boys, we changed into our night clothes, used the pot, and slid into our cold bags. Becky was quickly asleep. I lay listening. The terrain was treacherous. Everywhere there were logs, rocks, sudden changes in the mountainside where a misstep could mean death. I began to pray for Lee and Mark and for the child lost in this fearsome place. "Oh God, bring them back safe!"Finally I, too, slept.
"He is under a log behind Camp Nineteen."
I sat straight up. No one was in the tent but my sleeping children, but a voice had spoken those words--or was it my mind? Whatever, someone had just told me where the child was. I was still sitting up when Mark and Lee crept through the tent flap and slid their exhausted bodies into their sleeping bags.
"Any luck?"I tried to be calm.
"No,"Lee whispered. "And we've combed this mountain. Tomorrow they're bringing in a hundred prisoners to help in the search."He sighed deeply.
"Lee, where is Camp Nineteen?"but he was already asleep before I ventured this question.
"Hmm? Don't know....why?"I told him what had happened. He patted me patronizingly. "Tomorrow we'll look. Right now let's get some sleep. Besides, there's only one place he could be...."
"The river?"My voice squeaked.
But he was asleep. The long drive and the hours of searching had taken their toll. I listened to the river until it thundered through my dreams.
By the time we had finished breakfast the next morning, the searchers were everywhere--calling, overturning logs, quizzing campers. "Hey, Mom, we can go this morning to look, can't we?""Yeah, Mom, we both want to help. Ok, Dad?"
"I'm leaving now. Grab your canteens and come on."Lee stood up, then remembering what I had told him the night before added, "Want me to look around nineteen?"
"Why there, Dad?""Yeah, Mom, what's he talking about?"So I told them. A voice in the night. "Right, Mom. Reading those kooky books again? C'mon Dad, let's go."
"Don't bother, Lee." I said. "Becky and I'll walk up the river and see if there is a campsite nineteen. Ok, Becky?"She was scared but interested. "Sure, Mom, but what if we find him?"
"I don't know, Becky. I guess we'll just worry about that if it happens."
We chose the path closest to the river bank, watching for heavy logs and fearful of finding one. Two scoutmasters were working their way downstream with long poles, just as fearfully delving into the depths of the water. Trying not to sound too unusual, I suggested to one of them that they pay particular attention to big logs in the stream, adding that they should look with extra care behind Camp Nineteen, if there was one. The scoutmaster eyed me carefully and asked why. When I told him, he plunged his pole back into the water with a "right, lady"and I knew he must think I was crazy.
Becky and I followed the campsite numbers further up the mountain until we came at last to Camp Nineteen. "Something's wrong, Becky. This is too far from the stream, and there aren't any logs around here. I guess I must have been dreaming last night."Relieved, we turned back toward our own camp, discussing along the way what makes people dream such strange things.
By noon the scoutmasters, one on each side of the river, had worked their way downstream almost to our camp. "What do you suppose it's like to drown?"Mark ventured between peanut butter and jelly bites. Our eyes were watching the men. "Awh, he's not in there, Mark,"countered his brother. Suddenly the scoutmaster across the river roared an inhuman sound. His pole shot into the air with a tiny striped shirt hooked on the end of it.
"I've got him!"
Lee ran to the river, plunging into its icy flow to catch the object tossing in the foam. Paralyzed, we watched as he carried the battered body to the bank. The scoutmasters scrambled to help him. Someone produced a blanket, wrapped the once beautiful child in it, and gave the bundle to one of the men. The other man remained in our camp answering questions of the small crowd that had gathered. Finally I had to ask. "Where was he?" Pointing to the camp just above us he replied, "Stuck under a log right up there behind that camp."
I walked upstream far enough to see the log, then wandered back through the campsite beside it. Had I actually heard a voice? By light of day it seemed so impossible.
"Did they find him?"The people camping in the camp above ours were just returning from a morning trip for supplies. "Yes,"and I told them all that had happened, adding, "It was the strangest thing, but last night I was awakened by a voice that told me he was under a log behind Camp Nineteen. I know that sounds ridiculous, but now I'm not so sure....he was under a log."
One of the women looked at me sympathetically. "That doesn't sound silly to me. Last night I woke up hearing someone screaming, and I was the only one in the tent who heard it!"
That afternoon we left the mountain forever. The beautiful stream, the swaying pines, the blissful quiet no longer held their attraction for us. Only the memory of a tiny boy battered by nature, a life never lived, was on Mount Whitney now. Silently we folded camp, packed the car and pulled into the road to begin the slow drive through the campground to the highway above where we would go to another place to finish our vacation.
Glancing back for a last look at the spot once filled with such happy times, I chanced to see the number of the camp above ours. The book had been right. You don't always hear perfectly when your receiver isn't tuned. Never again when I thought of Mt. Whitney would I forget the number of our campsite or the day the mountain died for our family, for just above us, next to the stream where lodged a heavy log, was Camp Nine.
(Ruth has a new book called Not
Of This Fold. You can learn more about it at
Search by Ruth Truman or the title.)
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