This story is by Gary G. Little and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The pickup, long past its prime, bounced and rattled over ruts in the hard-packed road leading to the base of a trail that would take her to the top of Mesa Roca. It was late June in west Texas, just after midnight of a day so hot it could rip the hide right off you. A battered driver-side door opened, and a figure stepped down from the ancient F-150.
The vertical wall and jumble of rock at the base of the mesa re-radiated heat from the day. Hours after sunset, it was still brutal.
She lifted a backpack from the truck’s bed and steadied it on the side while she checked the water bottles and the main load in the bag. That secure, she shrugged into the straps, buckled it about her waist, and grabbed the walking stick.
“Are you ready for this, old girl,” she asked what he always asked. As always, she answered, “You bet I am, old man.”
This climb would challenge someone half her age, but she had climbed this trail with that old man many times over the past three-quarters of a century. Just a boyfriend the first time; a lover and husband for over fifty years the last time. It was a place they both had come to love and to cherish.
One last check, she patted the right front pocket of her Levis for the small flashlight. The batteries were fresh, and she had spares in a utility pocket of the backpack.
“Ok, my love, let’s get’r done,” echoed back to her as she trudged up a hill that seemed to go up forever.
Because it was there, she snickered at that thought. He always said that, somewhere on this steepest part of the hike. She had been curious, and he would have told her, but she never asked. When she did look it up on Bing, she found George Mallory had said it when asked about Everest. Climbing Everest was the dog-eared book to the left on the second shelf in his office.
“Because it was there,” she shouted in remembrance of the one she loved. Her burden seemed to lighten, and there was a bit more spring in her step as the memory lingered.
An hour later, she rested with one hand on a hip, the other a death grip on the walking stick. She picked up the bottle of water and returned it to the pack, leaned into the trail, and continued to trudge ever upward.
She grinned as she remembered a time when she zipped up the path without ever stopping. “You ain’t zippin’ now, old girl,” she chuckled. “You ain’t neither, old man,” she whispered to another memory.
The trail almost disappeared at times, only marked by a rock or two here and there.
Looking forward and up, the edge of the butte was barely visible in the skyglow of the myriads of stars twinkling like diamonds in obsidian black. The trail was familiar, and a full moon along with a cloudless starry night provided all the light she needed. She refused to use the pocket flash. Even with the red lens, it ruined her night vision.
She remembered there was a gnarly mesquite that marked a right dogleg. After that, the last bit of the climb was almost vertical.
Was the mesquite still there? It had been last June, but it always looked ready to … blow away.
How our lives have changed since last we walked this trail. The memory of their last climb together was one of sadness. She worried when she saw that vibrant man begin to falter and stumble and hesitate where there had always been confidence. Weeks later, they had gotten the diagnosis. A year later, she was here, alone.
Shifting and settling the weight of the pack, she paused a moment as she stifled her emotions. It was not wise to climb this trail blinking back tears.
The smell of alkaline caliche and piney mesquite filled the air. Tumbleweeds added a mild dusty pungency. From high overhead, there came the cry of a red-tailed hawk. Too high to be seen, she knew it was on an early morning hunt. From far away, she heard the last squeal of a jackrabbit. Someone got breakfast.
She found the gnarly mesquite, and just beyond was the dogleg. Tumbleweeds barred the way of the final ascent, but she forged through the prickly barrier and set foot on the top of that massive cap rock. She brushed the clinging weed from her jeans and turned north for the two-mile hike to Jumper’s Rock.
Now the trail paralleled the western edge of the cliff and was as perilous as she remembered. One twisted ankle or slip, and she would join the pile of rock at the base of the mesa.
She used the pocket flash here but held it low to illuminate the trail and not restrict her night vision. She did this walk-about for remembrance and because of a promise.
The rock she journeyed to may be called Jumper’s Rock, but in all the stories told, including those spoken by the Comanche tribes, no one had ever jumped or fallen from Jumper’s Rock. Why would they? It took hours to climb the mesa and more hours to get to the Rock. Before they could get there, all those intending to jump said, “To hell with it.” At least, that was the story she had heard.
After a quarter-mile, the trail meandered back toward the center of the mesa. She turned off the flashlight and returned it to her pocket. The sky to the east showed a visible line of pink that marked the edge of the world.
“Perfect,” she said, eyeing the brightening horizon. “I got time. I’ll be there before the sun crests.”
A final slope of loose caliche and she stood on the granite hump called Jumper’s Rock. She shrugged out of her backpack and carefully removed the sealed wooden box, and hesitated.
There was a perfect place on the mantle for the urn. The polished walnut container would look …
She shook her head and laughed as she said, “Have no fear, my love. You will not become Uncle Joe.”
Uncle Joe had sat in her Aunt Maggie’s bookcase for as long as she could remember. The last time they had visited Maggie, as they pulled out of the drive, he remarked, “There must have been an inch of dust on Joe.”
From a hip pocket, she pulled a tool her brother-in-law had given her. Using it, she managed to break the seal on the box and made sure the bottom flap would open.
The horizon flashed to diamond brilliance as the edge of the sun greeted the plain below. She heard the rush of the wind. It hurried to meet her, to help with the task at hand.
She remembered standing here with her love, embracing, faces turned to the spectacle of the rising sun. Every year they could, they made the trek to watch the solstice sunrise in all its majesty on the longest day of the year. Last year had been his last. This year, she would cross off the last item on his list of tasks.
Stepping to the edge, she looked down and watched the crimson light of dawn chase away the dark of night on the slopes of Mesa Roca.
“Now,” she said out loud to the jackrabbits and coyotes that might be listening. Grabbing the urn, she twisted low to the right and then whirled like a dervish. She held on to the handle, and the urn’s contents exploded outward in a large clot of gray that burst into a cloud of dust as the updraft hit it.
The wind whirled and swirled. Eddies formed around the sides of Jumper’s Rock as the dust was picked up and carried by that rush of air. She dropped the box and threw her arms wide.
It was the wind, but she felt his arms encircle her. It was the wind bearing the dust, but she felt the roughness of his stubbled face. It was the caliche, and the mesquite, and the tumbleweed, but she smelled his aftershave.
She stood there, eyes closed, and cherished the feeling, the memories, and the warmth of his presence for one last time.