What is the appropriate age for a midlife crisis? Is it a fixed number, or a moment uniquely defined by the individual? The onset was gradual, not a sudden moment in time as if a great epiphany was revealed about the advancing years. Yet the development of it was something Mick had time to contemplate, at least for the moment. He was driving west, away from everything familiar and into an unknown future, possibly even an adventure. Not that he was necessarily looking for adventure, but if it came he would let it take him where it may. That, he mused, was the rationale for acting upon the urges presented by a midlife crisis.
As the nondescript miles rolled by, he found himself analyzing what had brought him to this moment. Two years ago his father had dropped dead of a heart attack. A man who chopped his own wood, built his own home, and generally worked with his back, he was, on the outside, a picture of health at sixty five years. There were medical explanations given to Mick, irrelevant details that failed to numb the shock. They had not been some inseparable father and son pair, having a relationship with its typical ups and downs, especially as he neared adulthood. He loved his father nonetheless, and his death not only hurt, it also got him thinking about his own mortality. He didn’t chop wood, or do much of anything physical for that matter. He wasn’t in as healthy a position as his father had been at his age.
And then there was Kelly. It was so easy to look back and reflect, discerning when and where it had all begun to fade. In the beginning it was amazing, high school sweethearts that never parted ways. The match was meant to be, and they stayed together, even choosing the same college. Mick knew now that it had been too much. Marriage followed, then a house. As time wore on the things that normally defined a satisfying life slowly disappeared. Visits to friends became more infrequent, eventually ceasing altogether. They had never had any children, not that it was ever seriously discussed. It was just how things played out. Ultimately the sex dried up as well. Kelly stopped offering, and Mick stopped asking. They became roommates at much too young an age. He was never inclined to stray, even though the lack of intimacy took its toll on his mental well-being.
Life was now a monotonous series of tasks repeated weekly. He would wake up, go to work, come home, have dinner, and sit on the couch until the day was over. On the weekends it was tasks around the house, cleaning rooms or maintaining the yard. The riding mower was nice, at least he could drink a beer and listen to music. The worst of it was that, for as much as he hated his job, it was the highlight of his day to get out of the house and interact with other people.
Mick was a low level actuary, spending his day in a cubical crunching numbers for reports. He wasn’t making the decent wage he had heard was available in the business, though with Kelly’s job they were financially comfortable. The initial draw had been his penchant for numbers, combined with the allure of a decent pay without having to bust his ass at some blue collar job. That was changing, and he found himself fantasizing about doing something with his hands.
The real catalyst was found at night on the television. While he was not typically big on watching shows, the sterile condition of their marriage eventually drew him in. Kelly sat in the other room, bent over her keyboard as she engaged in her online life. Mick spent enough time at work looking at a monitor. The television required no interaction from him. He was amazed at the sheer number of reality shows, so much worthless effort put into what barely qualified as entertainment. Most of it by his account was nothing more than idiots doing idiotic things. With lots of free time though, a few began to pique his interest. They were all variations of the same concept, people out battling the elements, battling nature, and otherwise testing their limits. It struck a chord in him, and he found himself drawn into the drama, even if it was scripted.
The fascination grew into a hobby. In his free time, which was rare outside the evening television period, Mick would search online. There was an expected wealth of material, ranging from the innocuous camping guides to extreme survival. When it came to the latter, Mick was careful to avoid the anti-government militia type sites that invariably popped out, slightly paranoid that he might somehow draw unwanted attention.
During lunch breaks Mick visited a nearby outdoor sporting goods store, a small local supplier as opposed to one of the big franchise places. There he found the equipment he read about, and a willing salesman to talk to. He was an older gentlemen, who didn’t mind humoring Mick. At least he was someone to talk to in an otherwise not terribly busy store. There were also books with all sorts of information, such as edible plants, outdoor survivability, and field triage. He bought a few, keeping them in his cubicle desk to read when the continuous onslaught of numbers became too much. Slowly he nurtured his fascination, romanticizing the thought of an adventure in the wild, relying only upon himself for survival.
The daydreams morphed into urges, until finally they began to affect reality. He made mistakes at work, nothing catastrophic, just bad enough to garner a response from upper management. Still, Mick found more and more that he cared less about the work or the consequences of his deteriorating performance. Finally, one early summer day he acted upon his thoughts. Rather than staying at work he showed up and retrieved the books. Without a word he left, heading next to the bank. The process of withdrawing a large sum of cash took some time, but it did not matter. Schedules were tossed away.
Back at the sporting goods store, Mick spent a large portion of the cash on supplies. The old man was a bit surprised, yet wasn’t about to determine if his customer was truly prepared for what seemed, by the looks of the purchases, to be a significant outdoor experience. Having someone to talk to did not outweigh a week’s worth of sales in one shot. He even made some additional suggestions for items not on Mick’s list, which were quickly accepted. The transaction nearly filled the car, a silver four door sedan, which did not matter for this solo journey. The last stop was back home, unoccupied since Kelly was still at her own job. There was only one thing left to do. On the table next to the front door he left his phone, the closest thing to a note. One last look around confirmed there was nothing to keep him there. Time to leave.
And why not? Was he supposed to go through life doing nothing more than repeating each day doing the same thing until it’s all over? He thought about Kelly, unsure if he still loved her. It was obviously not the same as it had been years ago. Maybe that was how love aged, softening and muting until it was more about a feeling of familiarity. Or maybe it was just that, while their relationship was amicable, they had grown apart, and love was no longer an element of their marriage. Regardless, he was certain he did not feel any guilt or regret about leaving her. In his opinion, once the initial shock wore off he believed Kelly wouldn’t care much either.
A sense of giddiness washed over Mick as he drove down the interstate outside Columbus. He knew it wouldn’t last, as there were going to be many hours of driving in solitude ahead. Yet solitude was not only welcome, he was somewhat used to it. All of his personal interactions were superficial, so there was no reason to miss them. Unrealistic expectations played out in his imagination. Now was the time for adventure. Even if his destination proved to be mundane, it was still new to him. He was sure it would be an adventure.
The destination was South Dakota. It could have been anywhere. There was no particular reason Mick had chosen that state. The initial logic behind it was quite silly, really. While randomly clicking around the internet checking out areas of wilderness, he came upon an interesting designation. Located outside the town of Allen was a place known as the continental pole of inaccessibility. Designated as geographically the most inaccessible place on the continent, it seemed more of being a mathematical construct, a determination based upon distances. In reality it was quite accessible, though it was a considerable drive to reach. The town itself consisted of only a few hundred people, smack in the middle of nowhere. Yet the area was generally close to other points of interest. There were plenty of parks, including the nearby Badlands, as well as designated Indian reservations. The geography itself was not as challenging as other wilderness areas, such as further west into the mountains. It was a perfect place to start, remote but not terribly difficult. First, Mick had to get there.
The highway stretched out before him, an endless path of asphalt. The monotony made his mind wander, the repetitive scenery beckoning daydreams. He wondered what is was like before the entire country was crisscrossed with roads. He wondered where all the asphalt came from. Mostly he wondered what it would be like being miles away from any road. Occasionally he was startled into an irrational belief that he had heard his phone, and that Kelly was calling to demand what he thought he was doing. Then he remembered the phone was left behind, and that simple act cut him off from so much of today’s technology. He had bought a few maps, relying solely on the static images on paper and his recently self-trained ability to read them. Packed in the car was everything necessary to survive in the wild. Though he had never done any type of camping before, in the days leading up to now he had repeatedly gone over the necessities, contemplating what he needed to pack. In truth he imagined this first run would be no more than a few days, a chance to try things out and test his mettle.
During the drive Mick went through a series of emotional states. When he had first pulled away from the house, Mick experienced nervous excitement, a combination of anticipation, fear, and relief. After a few hours, when his surroundings had begun to become less familiar, he entered a state of fantasy, his imagination trying to predict how the future would play out. As the day drew longer he began to think of things a bit more rationally. None of this was long term planning, and he realized that at some point, unless he planned on becoming a mountain man living off the land, he would have to find a job somewhere. Going back to Columbus was out of the question, the only problem was that he had not left in a way that he could utilize anyone for a reference. Walking away without a word was not the proper way to part with an employer. Maybe this was a catalyst for leaving the desk jockey lifestyle and becoming something new. Breaking free of the monotony of daily repetition was exactly why he was doing this.
By mid-afternoon Mick was several hours into the journey and deep into Illinois. He stopped at a roadside rest area to relieve himself, fill up the tank and his stomach. There were rations in the back seat, which he was saving for when he set out on foot. Even though he had more than he needed, it was better to play it smart and use the cash at hand while he was still on the road. He and Kelly had taken few long trips, so the experience was somewhat unfamiliar. The drone of the engine as the miles slowly passed had started to become tiresome, and he now regretted leaving his phone behind. Radio stations came and went, and even those he found entertaining usually had too many commercials. At least with the phone he could have had more options, if there were a way to block his wife’s calls. It did not matter now. This was the situation he was in, and obviously once he was alone off the beaten path it would be even quieter. He thought to himself, this is what I wanted, right?
Gradually the sun drew closer to the horizon, and as the car headed due west it began to reach the ground just to the south of the endless highway. Outside of Des Moines a rest stop beckoned. Mick pulled in and found a spot away from the other vehicles yet not isolated. He decided to rest, not wanting to drive into the night and risk falling asleep at the wheel. This also meant he could get an early start. With the car packed his seat reclined only a few inches, not much but in his physically and emotionally drained state sleep came easily. The temperature cooled off in the evening, such that he could keep the windows closed. It provided a sense of security, knowing that he had that transparent barrier between himself and the highway society. As tired as he was, thoughts did not crowd his head and sleep came quickly.
In the early morning hours as the day slowly overtook night Mick stirred. The slightly inclined car seat, which had initially felt comfortable, was now putting a dull ache in his lower back, and his knees felt the consequence of his legs’ confinement. Slowly he stretched, taking a few deep breaths and taking a moment to register his situation. The pressing need to eat and pee coaxed him to get moving. As he pushed the button to raise the seat, Mick was startled by the dark figure that stood beside his window.
A young black male child stared silently back. By his looks he was probably somewhere around ten years old, an uneducated guess from a childless person. In his quick analysis Mick assumed he was young enough to be harmless, doubting he had reached the age to be walking around rest stops holding up unsuspecting travelers. Thinking he might be lost, Mick turned the key in the ignition to power the window. As he rolled it down, he wondered if the child were indeed lost, whether he was old enough to know his name, address, and other relevant information. Most likely he had some bizarre name concocted out of ghetto vernacular. Just as he was about to speak to the boy a voice called out. “Bobby, get over here and leave that man alone! I’m sorry sir, he’s just very friendly, has to go talk to everybody he meets.”
The boy turned and walked away. Mick leaned out the window. It was still too dark to not see everything clearly, and he couldn’t make out from which direction the voice came. “That’s okay,” he answered, “no problem.” He felt a twinge of guilt about making assumptions about the boy. There was no reason for Mick to be prejudiced. He had not grown up that way, and in fact race was never even considered one way or another in his family. His father was very neutral in those regards, preferring to rely on personal observations concerning an individual. Mick surmised his reaction was a result of social conditioning, the never ending onslaught that the differences in people can be compartmentalized according to their looks. Still, it was no excuse for his thinking the worst just because the boy was black.
Hauling himself out of the car, Mick stretched to relieve his stiff muscles before heading to the main building at the rest stop. After a quick trip to the bathroom that included a careful wash of his face in the questionable sink he was on his way again. The rest stop reeked of society, that unmistakable smell created by people, their technology, and possessions. It was vehicle exhaust, road grit, industrial chemicals, and plastic, a combination that reminded him of Columbus. The smell must be universal, he thought to himself. A stop at the gas pump to fill up the car and Mick was down the road again. Time to put some distance between himself and the crowds.
With the rising sun in the rear view mirror, day two of the adventure had begun. A night of rest, even one as low quality as the unnatural position of being half-reclined in a packed car, gave a much needed boost to the excitement factor. By the end of the day, the destination would be close.
The excitement of the day began to dissipate. Day two was less an adventure and more a feeling that Mick was driving yet getting nowhere. The landscape was flat, as it was back home. In addition, it was barren. There was nothing here, and once he had passed the outskirts of Omaha there was even less. The highway that was headed north through endless farmland was replaced by a state route with the same scenery and lower quality blacktop. Mick’s sore lower back was joined by his buttocks, which had become much too familiar with the seat and were threatening to generate a rash. On top of everything, he was getting bored and starting to wonder what it might be like to have some companionship.
The memory of Kelly crept into his thoughts. The image was of an earlier time, not the present, when they were younger and more vibrant. She was beautiful, and he could clearly picture her and the way she had looked when they played in bed in the middle of the day. If only things had stayed like that, he wouldn’t have found himself alone in the middle of nowhere. As he daydreamed Mick imagined a future where he would turn back and go home. In the turbulent emotions that would follow they would make wild love like they used to. Only it wasn’t love, it was just sex, and the years of neglect had left him wanting physical attention. The thoughts aroused him as he drove.
A small speck in the distance interrupted his thoughts. Someone was walking on the shoulder far down the road. As he approached the form became more detailed to reveal the telltale extended arm, thumb protruding. Did people still hitchhike, Mick wondered? Obviously they did, he answered himself. Realizing his daydreams were becoming conversations, decided maybe a slip back into society was in order, at least to break up the monotony for a while on the way to his destination.
The hitchhiker’s size grew as the car got nearer. He slowed, but not enough to make it obvious he was considering picking up the stranger. As active as his mind was, the possibility that this was not such a good idea surfaced. Wasn’t there a movie years ago about the perils of picking up a hitchhiker? There probably was, and likely more than one. When he was within a hundred yards the shabby figure had gained enough definition to relieve his anxiety. Underneath the raggedly clothes and baseball cap was a slender form with long wavy brown hair. The hitchhiker was either a woman or a small man, too small for Mick to feel threatened.
Mick pulled onto the shoulder just past the hitchhiker. He could see in the side view mirror it was indeed a female, and the face looked a bit young for him to consider her a woman. She didn’t rush, keeping her walking pace until she reached the car and pulled open the door. Without even looking in she slid into the seat, dropping her silver backpack between her legs. He wondered how he could have been so cautious while she could climb into a stranger’s car without as much as a glance at the driver. The door remained ajar, and he waited a minute for her to close it. When she didn’t he finally spoke up. “Don’t you want to know where I’m headed?”
The hitchhiker leaned out the open door, looking forward and back with exaggerated moves. She sat back, hand resting on the door handle as she turned to face him. “Why,” she asked sarcastically, “does this road go in a different direction than forward?” Mick did not answer, his mouth open as if he might. She laughed, slamming the door shut. “I’m just kiddin’ ya. Doesn’t matter where you’re headed. I’m not going anywhere in particular.” She extended a hand. “Name’s Julia.”
“Mick,” he responded, accepting the handshake. It was soft, not rough like he expected based upon the rest of her looks. Her clothes were dark gray and looked like they could use a wash. Yet the hand was clean, and he held on for arguably a little too long. He let go, taking the wheel firmly while he waited for her to put on her seat belt. When she didn’t, he put the car in gear and resumed driving. “So, don’t you feel a little unsafe hitching rides? You never know who’s going to come along.” He glanced back at Julia. “I’m not crazy or anything, by the way.”
“This is country,” Julia replied, as if that explained everything. “We don’t have the crazies like in the cities. So where you from, Mick?” She noted the packed car. “You moving?”
“Uh, no. Well, I guess I am. That is, I’m from Columbus, Ohio. Just traveling right now.” He felt his palms getting sweaty on the steering wheel, but wasn’t sure why.
Julia laughed, a most wonderful sound. “Relax, Mick. I guess you had to assure me you’re not crazy since you’re from Columbus, right? Don’t worry, I can take care of myself.” She pulled up her right pant leg to reveal a knife strapped around her smooth ankle.
“I see,” said Mick. Briefly, he rethought his take on who might be the one risking danger. He pushed the thought aside, not willing to entertain the idea she could be a threat. This young woman was quite attractive under the baseball cap and dirty clothes. Serial killers were not like that. “So, if you’re not headed anywhere in particular, how do you know where you’re going?”
“That’s an interesting way of putting it, Mick. I don’t think too far ahead. There’s so much to see out there. I just hop rides and see where I end up. Along the way I pick up some odd jobs for cash and rely on the king people to help me out.” Julia removed her cap and dropped it onto the backpack between her legs. Her hair was full and quite pleasing in its wild curls.
Mick wondered if some of those odd jobs were in the form of sexual favors. That had to be the most readily attainable position for a young woman out on the road. He doubted she could offer much in the way of hard work. She was also quite beautiful, which made keeping his eyes fixed on the road somewhat difficult. “Yeah, well, I’m kind of doing the same thing. It’s just I have a destination in mind. I’m doing a little camping, going to a place called the pole of inaccessibility.”
“What’s that?” Julia asked, her nose scrunched up with the question. “Like a flagpole?”
“No, it’s not a literal pole. It’s a geographical reference to what is considered the most inaccessible place on the continent. Fact is, there’s nothing special about it at all. It’s just a patch of land a little outside the town of Allen, South Dakota.” Mick let go of the wheel with his right hand to fumble behind him. He retrieved a map, offering it to Julia. She took it, not bothering to look.
“If it’s outside a town, it’s not really inaccessible to them, is it? I guess whatever floats it for ya. So is there anything interesting around there?” She could have answered her own question with the map. Mick was glad she didn’t, as he preferred to interact now that he had someone with him.
“There’s lots of stuff, parks and stuff. It’s actually real close to the Badlands National Park.” He tilted his head back to indicate the pile of supplies behind them. “I might go explore there for a few days before moving on.”
“They call it Badlands for a reason, you know.” Julia ran her fingers through her hair as if they were some kind of digital comb. The act was entrancing. “You do this kind of stuff often?”
“Honestly? This is my first time. But I’ve done a lot of research, and as you can see, I’m well equipped.” Mick wondered if that last comment came out wrong, or if that was just his own testosterone-fueled thinking. He wanted to invite her along, in a platonic sense, of course. After all, she was simply wandering without a destination. His lack of courage prevented the offer from being made.
“Well, if you think you’re ready. I wouldn’t advise it, at least not going far from town the first time out. And if you’re going to the Badlands alone, good luck. I wouldn’t go near that place.” As quick as that, Julia dashed any thoughts of joining Mick on his adventure beyond a car ride.
Mick could feel his blood cooling off. This wasn’t going to turn into some incredible fantasy. Julia was just a temporary traveling companion. By the looks of her soft, unblemished skin, he judged her to be maybe nineteen or twenty. Even though he was probably only a few years past a decade older than her, it made him feel much older. That, he reasoned, is the telltale indication of midlife.
The conversation came easily, with both describing their past. Mick opened up about how he simply up and left his wife, and Julia relayed a story of a childhood on a farm that drove her to leave and explore. There was no judging, only honesty. Before long almost three hours had slipped by, time that was Mick was grateful to have.
The day had the kind of weather one could have described as either warm or cool, depending on one’s perception. Julia, still not wearing her seat belt, decided to take off her sweatshirt. As she pulled it up over her head, the short, white t-shirt underneath it came up as well, exposing her unrestrained breasts. They were small and perfectly formed, a testament to her young age. She was aware of it, as well as Mick’s staring, but did not rush to pull her shirt back down. When she finally did it almost didn’t matter, the thin cloth not doing much to hide their outline or the protruding nipples. She lowered her head a bit, looking back at Mick. “Sorry.”
The arousal returned, and Mick hoped nothing was visually obvious. “I have no idea why you’re apologizing.” The air between them seemed as if it might become awkward. Julia did not allow that to happen, resuming the conversation. Mick found it hard not to look at her chest when he responded, and he wished that she somehow shared the same level of interest in him that he did her. The conversation continued to stay sexually neutral, regardless of the image of desirability she portrayed.
The day was getting long. Mick would need to find gas soon, and he realized that he had not eaten in quite some time. “Listen, I need to stop. If you like, I’ll treat you to a meal. I’m sure there’s something in the next town.”
Julia looked away, waiting a moment before responding. “You know, that’s okay. I should get moving in a different direction anyway. Besides, I got some supplies.” She patted the backpack.
There was no reason to go for broke. Mick screwed up his courage and went for it. “I, um, I’ve really enjoyed the ride with you. Maybe we can stick together for a little while? I don’t need to go to the pole or the Badlands. They were just places.” Her look told him she assumed the offer was something more intimate than a ride. Deep down it probably was, though he was also just interested in some simple companionship. “No expectations. Seriously. Just someone to ride with.”
“I think you’re looking for something, Mick. You’ve left everything behind but yourself.” Julia shook her head, putting an end to it. A side road was coming up. She pointed it out. “Here’s good,” she said.
Mick reluctantly pulled onto the shoulder. By the looks of the road, it could not conceivably go very far. Julia pulled her sweatshirt back on and grabbed her backpack. She opened the door and stepped out, leaning in to say her goodbye. “Don’t try and get attached to anyone out here. None of this is for keeps. Figure yourself out first, then find where to go.” With that she shut the door and walked across the road. At that moment a beat up red pickup truck was coming the other way. She flagged it down and hopped in the passenger side, just as routinely as she had gotten into his car. The truck turned down the side road. He watched it disappear, kicking up a cloud from the layer of dirt that covered it. He imagined the road was not used much, and that it did not go very far. Why couldn’t she have just stayed with him?
Taking a deep breath, Mick resumed his journey alone. His mind began to wander again, this time bringing up the fresh memory of Julia instead of Kelly. He carried his thoughts into the next town, stopping at the only unassuming diner at the one main intersection. The meal was consumed alone, and nobody spoke to him beyond the bored looking waitress that took his order. Afterward, he gassed up at the station across the street and drove off.
Evening approached, and an open area on the side of the road looked as good a place as any to pull off and rest. This time he pulled out a sleeping bag, choosing to sleep next to the car instead of in it. The air was cool, not cold, and the sleeping bag provided adequate protection. He had to satisfy himself before he could sleep, standing alone in the darkness with his pants around his ankles. It was a darkness more absolute than he ever experienced in Columbus, and he found it helped him focus on making a clearer picture of Julia. When he was done he crawled into the sleeping bag. He had the feeling that wasn’t what she meant by figuring himself out, but it was better than nothing.
Morning arrived, and the consequence of sleeping outside was announced by the cacophony of bird song. Having retired early the night before, Mick was not upset with the early wake up call. He was actually quite excited. The destination was close, probably no more than an hour’s drive to the town of Allen. How close the pole of inaccessibility was to any road was unclear, or where he could even park. That was part of the adventure.
The sleeping bag was quickly packed. Mick relieved himself next to the car. The road was deserted, without another vehicle in sight. All around was scrub grass and farmland. It was peaceful, just the way he expected it to be. He climbed in behind the wheel and set off.
By the looks of the map, the town was not going to be large enough to offer a place to eat or gas up. The latter was not an issue, but from here on out he was dependent upon his supplies and whatever he could find in the wild. He reached behind him while he drove, fishing through his cargo until he found some of the rations and a bottle of water. There were several choices, and Mick decided on a meal replacement bar, designed to meet all his nutritional needs. The taste was off, intended to be a variety of chocolate, and bearing a hint of flavor reminiscent of cat food. He washed it down with the bottled water.
Mick was correct in his assumption about the town. Nestled in the gently rolling hills were a few scattered one story houses. The never-ending prairie was punctuated by the occasional tree. What looked like a school was the only indication it might actually be a town. There were more cars on the road now, hinting that true civilization could not be too far away. Yet even these were all older vehicles, making him feel as if he had somehow traveled back in time. He wondered where the nearest mall might be, and how far anyone had to travel to obtain household goods. If they simply lived off the land, he could understand that. That would be akin to what he was doing there. Living there for good was different.
Pulling the car to the side of the road, Mick fumbled through the maps. There were roads leading in the direction he needed to go, but they did not appear to be named. He laid out a course he determined would get him as close to the pole as possible. There was a side road that initially ran straight, then meandered, following the contours of the land. That was the destination. He put the map on the passenger seat, turned so that he could glance at it. He pulled back onto the road and started the final part of the drive.
The road was nothing more than packed dirt. Mick drove slowly, for some reason not wanting to raise a cloud of dust. At the end of the straight portion stood a house, larger than the others he had seen along the way. It appeared to be a farm, evident from the rusting tractor and other implements scattered about. A few chickens wandered about. The road continued on to the left, entering a cluster of trees where the land became slightly hillier. He wondered if that’s how all of the area looked long ago and people cleared it out. He pulled over and shut the car off. Getting out, he stretched for a minute before heading to the house.
An old man sat on the weathered front porch in a rocking chair, a glass of untouched lemonade sitting on a wood table beside him. His wrinkled face looked like a topographical map, the eyes tucked into the folds like two dull marbles. If he was aware of the stranger’s approach he gave no outward indication. When Mick was about twenty feet away he stopped. “Hello. Is this your property?”
“Yup.” The word was drawn out slowly.
“Do you know how far the road goes?”
The old man moved slightly, his eyes turning to the road. “All the way into the woods.”
It wasn’t the answer Mick was hoping to get. “Well, I was interested in doing some camping. If that’s still your property I’d like to ask for you permission.”
There was no reaction beyond a slight rocking of the chair. “Why?”
The reason for the question was not clear. “Just camping. There’s a place called the pole of inaccessibility. Perhaps you know it?”
The wrinkles hid the scrunching of the face as the old man tried to comprehend. “Ya mean like a telly-phone pole?”
“No, it’s, well…” Mick paused, looking about in hopes there was someone else at home. They appeared to be alone. “…not really important. I’d just like to hike, maybe camp for a few days.”
The accent was so pronounced it took a moment to understand what was asked. “No. no,” Mick answered, pointing back at the car. “I actually have everything I need.”
The moment dragged on in silence. If it were not for the fact the old man’s eyes were open, Mick would have thought he had fallen asleep. Then again, maybe he was asleep, or dead. Finally he moved again. “I ‘spose. Ain’t my land anyway. Just got the farm.”
“Oh, okay. Do you know if anyone owns that land out there?”
“God. But he’s loaned it to the Injuns. I reckon ya might want to ask them if ya see ‘em.”
“Sure, I’ll do that.” Mick turned to walk away. “Have a good day sir, nice talking to you.” He walked back to the car. The interaction with the old man was a textbook example of why he felt a pull to the wilderness. Dealing with people was so fruitless. He thought about the interactions he had come across since starting out. The closest anything was to being relevant was the time spent with Julia, and even that, he realized, wasn’t much beyond physical urges. He began to pack, arranging the necessities in a large hiking pack he had picked up at the store. When he was done he secured the sleeping bag to the top and jammed the complete bulk into the passenger seat. Climbing in, he started up the car and headed for the woods.
The road turned into nothing more than a single lane dirt track once it reached the trees, with only a pair of ruts for the wheels to follow. He crept along for about a mile, passing through a couple of streams in the low areas that did not even have a bridge. They were shallow, and moving so slowly they almost looked stagnant. At least he would be able to test out his new portable water purifier. The road led to the other side of the woods, where it emptied out into more gently rolling plains of scrub grass. He left the car on the road, keeping the hot exhaust off the vegetation. Grabbing the map, he got out and went around to retrieve the pack.
There was a small compass in the front netting, which Mick grabbed before donning the pack. All of it was heavier than he had expected, but his new hiking shoes helped to cushion the weight. With map and compass in hand he set out. The pole was only a few miles away. He had never done much hiking, so was not sure how long it would take. After a few steps he stopped, remembering he had left the keys on the front seat of his unlocked car. Other than additional supplies there was nothing of value, and it didn’t seem like this was a place he had to be concerned about theft. He resumed the walk.
Little life was around except for the small birds that flitted about in the tall grass. The map and compass guided the way, a skill Mick had never used until now. It was not that difficult, only a matter of paying attention. His footsteps left a slight trail as he walked, putting distance between himself and everything else.
The resources in hand would not get Mick to the exact location, down to where one might expect a landmark to indicate the very spot. After a few hours he figured where he was standing was just as likely to be the place as one ten feet farther on, the weight of the pack helping in the decision. He slung it off his shoulders and dropped it to the ground. He slowly turned in a complete circle, taking in his surroundings. Off to the west was the beginning of the Badlands, closer than he imagined they would be. In the other direction was another farm house, tiny from this distance but still visible. He had known there wouldn’t be anything special about the place, and now that he was there, the pole of inaccessibility was something of a disappointment. Echoing Julia’s comment, it was not terribly inaccessible. If he had an off-road vehicle, he could have reached it from the nearest house in a matter of minutes.
The hike made Mick tired. He decided to camp for the day and night here. Tomorrow he might go and trek towards the Badlands, estimating he could reach the first set of carved hills in an hour or two. There should be water too in the valley area, and he could fill up. The water he had brought with him would last the rest of the day, so after that it was either head back to the car or find more. Since he wasn’t ready to return, he made plans to hike east to the Badlands. For now, he would rest at the pole, testing out his new camping skills. He reached into the pack and pulled out three books he had brought along, all about wilderness survival. Leaning his back into the pack, he opened one up and started to read. The adventure was not so adventurous after all. At least it was peaceful.
The morning was cool, but the sleeping bag provided adequate protection from the low temperature. Mick stretched his arms. It was a wonderful way to wake up, peaceful, and without any demands of a schedule. The air was filled with the sound of birds as the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. He had not bothered with a fire, slightly paranoid about attracting attention, human or otherwise. As he drifted off to sleep it had occurred to him that he never checked as to what kind of wildlife he might encounter, and determined a fire would be a beacon to the curious. Now he was glad he had decided against one, as he felt more in tune with nature to wake up without the smell.
Coffee would be missed, the one consequence of not having a fire. At the moment it did not seem to matter, as his insides were telling him it was time to get up. He unzipped the bag and grabbed his hiking shoes. Pulling the roll of toilet paper out of his pack, Mick got up and walked a short distance to relieve himself, dressed only in his underwear. When he was done he returned to his resting spot and pulled on his jeans and a fresh shirt. He reached into the bottom of the pack and selected a freeze dried package of scrambled eggs. It was a product the store owner had shown him, complete with a self-heating packet that required a little water to activate. The owner told him they were similar to the ready-to-eat meals the military used, and Mick wondered if it was going to be just as lacking in taste as the stir fry beef with mixed vegetables he had last night. Since he did not want to rely on foraging, he had bought enough for two weeks, placing half of it in his pack for the first journey out.
With the water, he had to be careful about consumption. It was the heaviest item in his pack, and once he started loading up the bottles he found he could only tolerate about two gallons total. There was no reason to stay at the pole, and the Badlands a short distance away caught his interest. After eating the eggs, which required a generous amount of salt that, luckily, was supplied with them, he packed up his gear. Rolling up the sleeping bag, he attached it to the top of the pack and hoisted it all onto his shoulders. His legs were a bit sore, the hike yesterday being his first real amount of exercise in quite some time. It felt good to him. With an easy pace, Mick set out for the hills of the Badlands.
Heading towards the east was putting the distant farm house further away, and without any in front of him further from civilization. Still, the Badlands was a national park, and he knew there was a possibility of coming across other people. He had mixed feelings about that. While he was enjoying the solitude and peace, it might be nice to interact with someone. The problem was, he did not want to worry about disengaging with anyone. A few minutes talking to a passing stranger might be nice. Finding another wanderer who remained might not be so good. Unless, he daydreamed, that wanderer was Julia. His mind reached back, recalling the image of her chest as she removed her sweatshirt. Like any memory, it was not perfect, and he had to concentrate to get it right.
After an hour or so he stopped, pulling the topographical map out of the pack and assessing his location. The hills seemed closer than they should be. The skill of map reading would need to get better for any future outings. This one was simple, the land flat and the way back to the car an easy hike. He thought maybe next time he would give in and buy a GPS, though he really wished to get as basic as he could. In time, he told himself. For now it was just about the experience. He grabbed a bottle of water and downed it, crushing the empty plastic and putting it back in the pack. Once again he set off.
The edge of the Badlands came sooner than expected. The weathered hills were preceded by a deep valley, not noticeable from the prairie at a distance. When he reached the edge he stopped, looking down. A river wound its way around the bottom, wide and slow moving. He could try fishing, he thought.
Mick pulled out the map once again and studied it. Unless he was reading it wrong, the valley did not appear to be on it. He traced the lines that indicated the contours of the land, trying to orient his location with respect to the hills. Each cluster of swirls he could associate with a hill in the distance, the valley just wasn’t on the map. Yet, undeniably, here it was, and it must be that the map was wrong. It was a lesson learned in choosing your resources.
There were only two choices. He could turn around and head back, or continue forward. Mick descended into the cliff, the ground changing from grassland to smooth cliffs and loose rock. He picked a diagonal route that was not too difficult. The terrain continued to change as Mick descended. The cliffs were replaced with steep slopes covered in thick brush. Below that where the land leveled off it became lush with trees in some places, with large sections of grassland especially near the river. It was odd to have an area so vibrant with growth between the open prairie and the stark hills of the Badlands. There still wasn’t much sign of wildlife beyond birds, and he wondered if they had a natural or even learned avoidance of people.
The valley was beautiful, more in line with his expectations of roughing it than the pole of inaccessibility. He set up camp a short distance from the river under the tree canopy, clearing out the area and making a small ring of stones for a fire. The day was spent reading by the fire and swimming in the cold but exhilarating river. He even caught a sizable fish, corralling it into the shallows and lifting it by hand out of the water. It wasn’t a trout, and he wasn’t sure exactly what kind it was. He remembered from one of the reality shows that all freshwater fish are supposed to be safe to eat. So he cleaned it with his knife and cooked it on a flat rock in the middle of the fire. Even with limited seasoning, it was much better than the freeze dried packaged food. As the sun disappeared over the ridge and the valley grew dark, he tossed a few more dried logs onto the fire. Mick crawled into his sleeping bag, contented. This was what he had been looking for.
An overcast sky greeted the dawn, robbing the valley of warming sunshine. Mick was loath to leave the warm comfort of the sleeping bag, trying to ignore the urgent prodding of his bowel. The battle was not one that could be won, and he crawled out in defeat. There was a light jacket in his pack, and he took it out to help keep warm. The fire had gone completely out, and he did not have enough dry material gathered to start another.
With toilet paper in hand, Mick headed away from the river and a little downstream. He picked a clear spot and dropped his pants. Just as he started to squat he was startled by a voice from behind, yelling “You must not do that there!”
Mick shot up, cursing as he struggled to get this pants up. He spun around, spotting a man standing less than a hundred feet away. The clothes and color of his skin confirmed without a doubt he was an Indian. Although he should not have been surprised to see an Indian, Mick nevertheless found the encounter unexpected. Had it been another hiker he would have been angry. The fact it was an Indian gave him pause. “I’m sorry. Is this, like, sacred ground or something?”
“No,” the Indian answered, walking towards him and pointing at the spot, “there is a hornet nest under there. See?”
Right between Mick’s feet was a small hole. As he watched, one of the stinging insects flew out, inspecting his leg for a moment before flying off. Dousing their front door with feces and urine would not have ended well for him. He chuckled nervously, taking a step back. “Uh, thanks. But how did you see that?”
“I did not. I know this valley like my favorite hunting bow. That spot has always been their home.” The Indian stopped when he was a few feet away. He was older, his face bearing the quality of someone who spent all his life outside. While he was not as wrinkled as the old man from the porch on the farm house, that was obviously in his future.
Mick imagined the Indian’s analogy was a bit made up. From what he knew, Indians lived on reservations, which were really just towns like anywhere else. They had houses, stores, and schools. None of them wandered the plains, hunting buffalo and living in teepees. Even so, the intervention saved Mick from a most unpleasant experience. “Okay, well, thanks again.” He looked around, still needing to designate a bathroom spot. “Uh, if you’ll excuse me?”
“I understand,” the Indian answered, speaking slow and deliberate, with an unmistakable accent. He held out an open hand. “You are used to privacy. I will wait down by your campsite.” He turned and walked away with deliberate footsteps.
The self-invitation caught Mick off guard. However, this was not another hiker, and he did not see the Indian sticking around for long. It might even be an interesting visit. He found another spot, and after checking the area for anything threatening, squatted and took care of business. He made his way back to the campsite, wiping his hands with antibacterial gel from a small bottle he kept in his pocket. The Indian stood by the cold pile of ashes, expressionlessly looking out toward the river. “Looks like it might rain,” Mick remarked, looking up at the sky.
“Not might. It will rain, it always does. It is just a matter of when.” The Indian turned his face up to the sky. “Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.”
If there was some deeper meaning to the comment, Mick didn’t catch it. “Right. So, you said you know this valley. Is this part of a reservation? I hope I’m not trespassing. It wasn’t on my map. My name is Mick, by the way”
“Mick, I am known as Hunter of the Valley. Trespassing implies we do not belong. It is only the white man who feels the right to define where others can wander.” The Indian spread his arms out wide. “This valley here will not show up on any map. This is the valley of the Yeatai.”
“The Yeatai?” The name was unfamiliar, though Mick honestly did not know much about Indians beyond what was presented in popular media. “Is that your tribe?”
“Yeatai is not a tribe. It is a balance. In all things there is a balance, and in all balance there is continuity, a connection between opposites. This is Yeatai.”
“I’ve never heard of it.” Mick was interested, and pressed for more. “And you say it is here in this valley? Some kind of continuity?”
The Indian nodded. “It is in many places, created by the need for balance. It is in the bogs of Louisiana, the pine barrens of New Jersey, and the mountains of Himalaya. It exists in many forms and many places with different names, but they are all one and the same.”
Mick considered the locations. He was confused. “You mean the Yeti?” It sounded similar, however to his knowledge that was only for Nepal.
“I mean Yeatai. Just because the white man butchers our language does not mean I do not know how to speak it. But yes I am referring to the Yeti. You also may know it as Sasquatch, Chupacabra, or many other names. They are all the same, just given a different vision for different cultures.” A distant rumble of thunder echoed, almost punctuating the Indian’s words. “Those who do not understand usually see it as some kind of unusual creature.”
The implication was crazy. This man, who looked like an extra from a movie set, was telling him Bigfoot not only lived in this valley, it was also not really some hairy ape-like creature after all. Instead, he was some concept of balance. “Okay, well I don’t want to intrude on the Yeti’s, sorry, Yeatai’s, territory.” Mick walked over to pack up his gear. “Besides, I should get moving. Don’t want to get caught down here when the rain comes.” One failure in Mick’s plans was to check the weather. Too much rain might make the river flood. He decided this was probably enough for his first excursion. He could make it back to the car before the end of the day, or spend another night near the pole if he wanted.
“Where are you going?” asked Hunter of the Valley.
“Just time to move on,” said Mick, as he finished rolling up his sleeping bag and attaching it to the backpack. “Thanks for the information, though. It was a nice story. I’m going to try and make the top of the ridge before the rain comes.” Another volley of thunder came through, sounding closer than the first.
“Yes,” agreed Hunter of the Valley, “you are going to try.”
The effort to reach the top of the ridge left Mick winded, but the view that greeted him took his breath away. Yet it was not the beauty of the view that prompted his reaction. Rather, it was the wrong view. Stretched out before him as far as he could see were the stark rugged hills of the Badlands. He stared, bewildered. How did he get here? He didn’t cross the river. Desperately, his mind reached for comprehension, looking back at his time spent in the valley. He camped. He swam. He fished. He slept.
He swam. Did he swim downstream and not come back up? No, he set up camp first. The gear would not have been there. This didn’t make any sense, how could he be on this side? The situation made him a bit angry, thinking of the effort to reach the top of the ridge. Now he would have to go back down and up the other side. At least there was water below and he could replenish. And for all the extra effort, he at least had enough food and all the time in the world. He turned back towards the valley, and his mouth went dry.
Across the valley, on the other side, was the endless panorama of the Badlands. “What the hell?” he asked himself. His head began to swim and there was a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He felt something he could not recall ever having felt in all the years of his mediocre, repetitive life. He felt fear. Things became surreal, and his legs grew weak. They buckled, and he dropped to the ground. The weight of the backpack made him fall backwards, and he scrambled like an overturned tortoise for a moment before he got upright. He slipped out of the backpack and reached in to grab a bottle of water, which he drained.
Mick slowly got back on his feet, pushing off the backpack like an old man in need of help. He turned completely around, taking in the entire view. The valley was smack in the middle of the Badlands, something he could not understand. He stood there for several minutes, confusion changing to panic. Where was he? How would he get out? His heart raced, pumping adrenaline as his mind wrestled with the idea of fleeing. Finally, he forced himself to calm down and try to think clearly.
Staying put was not an option. He had deserted society, and nobody knew where he was. The closest was the old man at the farm house, and he had only told him he was going to the pole. It did not matter, as he knew the old man wasn’t going to remember, care, or think to report the disappearance of a stranger into the prairie. Nobody would be looking for him.
He remembered the Indian. What was his name? He had to find him. If anyone could show him the way out it was the Indian. Mick grabbed his pack and headed back down into the valley. This time he went straight down, sliding and skittering down the slope of loose rock. He fell a few times, cutting his hands and hitting hard enough to undoubtedly leave some bruises on his arms and legs.
Once he neared the bottom of the valley he walked more slowly, taking note of his surroundings. It was still relatively quiet, with only the occasional bird giving an indication of any life. Mick had not been there long enough to gain a thorough familiarity, but he sensed he was near the same place as before. As he approached the river he found the spot where he had camped. It was completely cleared, even the ring of stones, as if nobody had spent the night there. He looked about, wondering what direction he should choose. Then he spotted the Indian, standing on a large rock next to the river downstream.
“Hey!” Mick called out. The Indian did not move, either not hearing him or choosing not to acknowledge. Instead he simply stared across the water as it gently flowed past. Mick walked with a quick pace. “Hey, you! Um, Valley Hunter?”
“I am Hunter of the Valley, Mick. Do you always forget new acquaintances so quickly?” The Indian still did not turn around.
“I’m sorry. It’s just, I think I’m lost. Could you help me find my way back to Allen?” The question was humbling. Mick was so excited about setting out on his own, and here he was on his first journey, looking for directions.
“You are lost, Mick. You have no balance.” Hunter of the Valley now turned to face him. “That is why you have returned to this valley.”
Mick did not hide his confusion. “What? This valley? No, I didn’t want to return.” His mind raced. “Wait, what was it you said about this place? It was home to the Yeti.”
“The Yeatai,” Hunter of the Valley corrected him. “Do not think of it as a beast. That is not the truth of the nature of the Yeatai.”
“You said it was balance. What does that mean?” Normally he would not care, but the Indian had mentioned Mick being out of balance. Though he did not know why, he thought there might be a connection.
“Everything has balance Mick; light and dark, good and evil, life and death. Though these are opposites, they are all in contact with each other. At that contact is the balance, the Yeatai.” Hunter of the Valley hopped off the rock and stood next to Mick. “Just like the Chinese philosophy of Yin Yang. When one force becomes greater than the other, the balance is upset. Yeatai restores that balance.”
An Indian that espoused Chinese philosophy was too much for Mick. “And I am out of balance, is that it? I fail to see what my opposing force is, or how some Yeatai is going to restore it.”
Hunter of the Valley nodding knowingly. “That is the consequence of being out of balance. You fail to see it from your perspective.”
“Look, I just want to get back to the town of Allen. I know it’s got to be close, I just don’t know how I got so far into the Badlands. Do you know which way I need to go?” Mick pleaded. A drop of rain fell on the back of his hand. He raised his arm to stare at it.
“Rain is cleansing. It always puts things as they should be. It always brings the Yeatai.” Hunter of the Valley turned back to the river.
None of this was helping. Mick knew climbing up the ridge only led to more of the Badlands, and there was no reason to go up the other side. His eyes wandered to the river. The water moved slowly, but it moved, and it had to lead out of the valley. Upstream was likely to lead further into the hills. He would follow it downstream. Without a reason to stay and talk to the Indian he left, staying close to the river and keeping an eye on it, should the coming storm bring on a flash flood. His experience with rivers was that, eventually, they led to civilization. It couldn’t be any different here, it just might take some time to get there.
After a minute of walking he stopped, turning to look back over his shoulder. The sky was darkening even more. He could still see where he had left the Indian. Hunter of the Valley was gone, replaced with exaggerated shadows in the dimness brought on from the hidden sun.
The valley meandered in great lazy arcs, twisting first one way then the other. It was almost as if it sought its own balance, not wanting to travel too far in any one direction. A mixture of concern and determination made Mick lose track of how long he had been walking. The growing pang in his gut told him it had been long enough for him to need to stop and eat. Reluctantly he paused, dropping his backpack to the ground and fishing out a freeze dried meal. He prepared it and sat down to wait for it to heat up.
The rain had been building but was not coming in fast. The rare droplet became the occasional one. Now it was enough to necessitate getting a rain slicker out, still nowhere near a downpour. Mick sat down under a thick pine by the river’s edge the branches sufficiently shielding him from the precipitation. When the food was hot he began to eat. It was a selection of beef lasagna, with a consistency that reminded him of something already partially chewed. When he was done he sat a little longer, pulling off his hiking boots and rubbing his feet.
By the looks of things, Mick was going to be spending the night out in the valley. He couldn’t tell from the sky, and no longer had any way of telling time. It had to be late afternoon. Refreshed and feeling the energy of the meal reach his extremities, he decided it was time to continue. Might as well make as much distance as he could, he thought to himself.
Getting up, he swung the backpack up onto his shoulders, something he was getting quite adept at doing. He looked upstream, the direction from which he had come. The storm was moving in from that direction, which was roughly west. The sky was getting progressively darker, and he knew soon he would likely need to find decent shelter. As he turned to continue heading downstream he hesitated.
Something had caught his eye. At the edge of his vision he saw movement upstream, on the other side of the river. It was distant, barely noticeable. Mick strained to see. Far off among the trees there was a shadow. Normally it would not have been remarkable, but there was no sunshine. The movement was slight and fluid, an effect that reminded him of thick branches swaying in the wind, only there wasn’t even the slightest breeze. Was it an animal? A black bear came to mind, as he could not think of any other black animal. He had never seen one before, Columbus not exactly their habitat, so it was merely a random guess. Perhaps there was wildlife here, after all. This meant he needed to be more aware of his surroundings, unsure of what animals might pose a threat. Cautiously, he began to walk downstream, glancing back occasionally to check on the dark figure. By the fourth time he checked it was gone. He scanned the immediate area around where he had seen it, finding nothing. He resumed his hike, walking a little faster.
The rain was more constant now, a gentle yet persistent drizzle. Mick pulled the hood of his rain slicker over his head. He wasn’t ready to stop just yet, the unchanging scenery of the valley prompting him to make more progress. At least the weather had cooled so that he was not perspiring, yet still not feeling a chill. It was actually pleasant, even with the rain. He kept a steady pace, calculating in his head that by now he must have walked at least several miles. The gentle sounds of the river and patter of droplets helped him relax. Had the situation not been so potentially dire, he thought he might have even broken out into a whistle.
Suddenly, he froze. There was movement again on the other side of the river, this time directly across from him. He didn’t want to move, draw attention to himself, but he had to look. With the tiniest motion, Mick turned his head to the left, looking across the river.
The shadow was there, a dark figure in the trees. If it was a bear, it appeared to be standing on its hind legs, from this distance looking to be maybe eight feet tall. Only the outline was not so distinct, as if the animal’s fur were very fine. Mick turned his body to get a better focus than the corner of his vision. As he concentrated, he now saw that it wasn’t really fur. Rather, it almost seemed to be like smoke. There were no discernible features. What he had originally thought were hind legs were nothing more than a hazy lower portion of the shadow. It reminded him of a picture so out of focus that you could not make out what it really was.
As he stared, motionless, the shadow continued to move about, a slow flow like smoke in a breeze, only it would not dissipate. He thought back to the words of Hunter of the Valley, realizing that, this time, he had no problem remembering the Indian’s name. Could this be the Yeatai? Was it true, or was he somehow hallucinating the whole thing? Maybe he was even just mistaking some forest creature or strange meteorological phenomena for something supernatural. Then it shifted, twisting, and a pair of yellow eyes stared back at him.
Mick felt his testicles crawl inside his body, as if they would find safety in his belly. His heart began to pound, his body preparing itself with the basal instinct of a prey that catches itself in the sights of a predator. Still he remained rooted in place, unsure what to make of the smoke shadow on the other side of the river, or if it really did see him.
The shadow moved, coming in his direction. It ebbed and flowed, looking partly cloud-like and partly like an ambling beast. Mick could see how it might be viewed as a hairy ape-like creature from a distance, like Bigfoot. Then it passed through and around a tree, swirling about and meeting on the other side. That was enough to free his feet from their spot on the ground. He broke into a panicked run, fleeing downstream as his vision narrowed. He tried to push back the fear, to allow himself to think clearly. Maybe he should get out of the valley, choose the next one over. Surely they must all lead in the same general direction?
He chanced a backward glance. The figure had reached the bank of the river, its eyes still fixed on him. It moved, unimpeded, across the surface of the water, as the rain began to fall harder. Mick stumbled to the ground, hitting his face hard on a rock. The adrenaline prevented him from feeling the pain, yet the warm flow of blood was unmistakable from the cold, pelting drops of water from the sky.
Struggling to his feet, Mick slipped out of the backpack and ran, heading for the steep walls of the valley. They were taller here, and the rain had fallen enough to make the exposed rock slick. His run became a scramble over the loose rock fall at the base of the cliffs. When he reached the base of the cliff he clawed at it, frantic to find a hold. To his right was a deep cleft. It went all the way to the top. If he could wedge himself in it, maybe he could climb up. He had never rock climbed before. Whatever it was that was coming after him negated that concern. Taking a leap, he jumped into the cleft, pushing against the two sides with both hands and feet. The climb up seemed agonizingly slow, and it was all he could do to maintain his focus and not panic. The higher he got the more at ease he felt, putting distance between himself and the valley below. He had to be careful though, as one mistake would send him plummeting back down to certain death. The effort required his complete attention, which helped. He could not bring himself to look down and see if the strange smoke shadow creature was still there, or even if it was coming up the cliff.
The climb took forever, hampered by the wetness of the rock from the ongoing rain. Had the surface not been so rough it would have been impossible. When Mick reached the top he was gasping for breath, his mouth the only dry part of his body. The water was left in the valley below with everything else in the backpack. He did not care, at least he was out of the valley. Whatever water he came across he would drink and worry about the bugs in it later.
Mick did not rest long at the top of the ridge. It was only several feet wide, dropping straight into the next valley. Since he was high up he took the opportunity to scan the horizon. The Badlands stretched out into the distance, as if he had somehow made it into the center. The next valley at his feet was just like the other one, with another river at the bottom. At least he would have water. For all the meandering, it seemed to parallel the valley he just left. He would be traveling in the same direction, so he knew he would not be backtracking into the Badlands.
Picking a route, Mick searched for the best way down. He was feeling tired now, the emotional strain taking as much a toll as the physical effort. Once he had decided on the best way he started out, leaving the previous valley behind. He could not bring himself to look back at it.
The rain had become steadily harder, until it was an absolute downpour. The rivulets of water coming off the cliffs offered plenty to drink. It tasted like dirt, a reasonable compromise for the assurance it was free of organisms. Mick was thoroughly soaked now, the rain slicker torn in several places and no longer offering any protection. The rain was coming down so hard he could not hear anything else, not even his own footsteps. He had to find somewhere to shelter and hope it would ease up.
Climbing down was easier, which was fortunate as his hands were covered in cuts. The ebb of adrenaline was replaced with the pain in his face, and he tenderly inspected his cheek. The intensity suggested broken bone, and he imagined he must look pretty bad. With only the clothes on his back, there was no tending to his wounds beyond rinsing them with rain water.
At the base of the cliff Mick spotted a large overhang. Cautiously he approached, unsure at first from his angle if it was merely a simple overhang or the entrance to a cave. When he was nearer it was plainly nothing more than an overhang, a large one at that. The cascading water made a curtain over the entrance, and he had to pass through it get under. Since he was already soaked it made no difference. It was nice to be out of the rain, even if he wasn’t going to get any drier.
The area was large enough to stand, the ground dry dirt. Mick pulled of his rain slicker, letting it drop to the ground. He thought it might help to wring his clothes and get the excess water out. He removed his shirt, placing it on the rain slicker to keep it off the dirt. Then he untied his laces, taking off his hiking shoes and standing on top of them. Off came the jeans, to join the shirt. Even his underwear was soaked, and felt like it could use a wringing. He removed it, standing naked under the overhang.
“Where are you running to?” The voice so startled Mick that he screamed, jumping off the tops of his shoes. Hunter of the Valley was standing beside him, completely dry.
“What? How did you get here?” Instinctively, Mick’s hands moved to cover his genitals. The underwear was still in his grip, and he fumbled to put it back on. It could stay wet for the moment.
“He never left.” Julia walked through the curtain of water into the alcove, the small t-shirt clinging to every curve of her torso.
“Julia?” This did not make any sense. There was no way she could be there too. I must be losing my mind, he thought.
“Then again, we was never here,” said the old man in the rocking chair.
Mick started to laugh, unable to hold back. It was not a jovial laugh, but a maniacal one. “This can’t be real. I’m going crazy, aren’t I? It’s the only explanation for all of you to be here. I’m crazy. I think maybe you’re not even really here at all. Right?” he asked, looking at the old man. He was the one who said they in fact were never there.
Hunter of the Valley put a hand on Mick’s shoulder, which made him jump. “We are not here, because we are you.”
“All of us,” Julia agreed. She stepped forward, pressing her body against his.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mick protested. He did not pull away, the feel of her body providing some degree of comfort.
“We are yo manifestations,” said the small black child, flashing the gun in his waistband. “Took all yo preexisting assumptions and prejudices and created us in an attempt to escape.”
“But you can’t leave, only come back,” said the old man.
“I… what? Come back where? I wasn’t trying to escape, I just wanted something more in life.” Mick wondered if leaving Kelly was a bad idea.
“You tried to leave the valley of the Yeatai,” explained Hunter of the Valley. “You have upset the balance. The Yeatai always seeks to return the balance.”
“I did leave the valley,” Mick exclaimed. “I climbed out and into this one. I left.” He looked at each of them in turn. “The Yeatai can leave me alone now.”
“You didn’t leave the valley,” Julia assured him.
“Never did,” said the child. “You’ve always been here.
“Always will,” said the old man.
“The Yeatai always restores the balance of things,” said the Indian.
The alcove grew dark as the shadow moved in. Everything vanished from sight. There was no light or dark, pain or pleasure, joy or fear. There was only balance, the tenuous connection between universal opposites. Mick did not care, nor did he need to. He was the Yeatai.