This story is by Pam R Selthun and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Susie smacked her head on her light as she jumped up to turn off the alarm clock. At 5 am, it was still dark outside, but she knew she needed to get to the trailhead by 6 or her teammates would leave without her. This was their first training day with multiple summits. She had climbed all of them before, but doing three in a row, back to back, would be a new experience and help her gain stamina, something she needed for the Phoenix Summit Challenge.
As she pulled a couple of water bottles out of the fridge, she looked over at her kitchen table, where five sunflowers stood in a tall vase. Their long, thick, bent-over stems sat in the cloudy water. She knew she should toss them, but they brightened up the room even if they were past their prime. The yellow crown of seeds and petals adorned each flower, but the petals had started to drop.
Susie didn’t have the heart to throw them away. She promised herself she would do it later.
She drove to the trailhead, praying she would make it on time. “Shit,” she said, looking at the gas gage as it dipped closer to E. There wasn’t time to stop for fuel.
At the trailhead, she snagged one of the few parking spots left. The city lights dotted the valley below, and a predawn purple glow outlined the south and eastern mountain ranges. Susie took out her headlamp and clicked in on. The soft glow illuminated the rocky path in front of her. She had yet to encounter a snake or scorpion, and hoped today wouldn’t be the day. She took out her cell phone and texted her friend, Mary, “Here.” Mary replied, ”Running late. Go on without us.” Susie knew she was the slowest one of the bunch on the ascent, so she acquiesced and started to climb.
As she rose, so did the sun. Susie stopped to take a photo of the summit trail marker, with the city lights below, slowly fading as the sun moved in to take their place. She loved the sunrise, with its promise of a new day, a chance to start over.
Climbing up, the only sounds she heard were her boots scraping over the rocks and her own breathing. Occasionally, another hiker would come down, sometimes running. She liked coming down better than going up and often ran. Going down, she had no time to take photos or enjoy the scenery. She allowed herself that pleasure now.
After a few sets of switchbacks, about a quarter mile up, she paused again. The sun was just breaking over the horizon. Again, she snapped a photo and took a few selfies, which she would never publish. Her Facebook friends loved the dramatic sunrise photos, which she posted almost as often as she hiked, three or four times a week. Susie wouldn’t make it to the summit before the sun rose, so she documented its rise along the way.
When the sun popped up, first a half circle, then whole, she snapped a few more photos. The fact that the sun rose every morning, and wasn’t usually obscured, fascinated her about this desert life. She had grown up in Chicago and New York City, where the sun was often obscured by clouds. But Phoenix rarely had cloudy days. It had been months since it had rained. Still, the desert thrived. The cacti and critters didn’t require regular moisture. How unlike they were from the dying sunflowers, which had water in abundance but still withered because their roots had been cut off. Susie squinted up at a saguaro cactus, and pondered how it stored the water it received and rationed it. She took a sip of her own water to combat the sweat dripping down her face and neck, and kept climbing. First one staircase, then another, each carved into the mountain.
She often wondered about who had created these beloved trails, and thanked them for their hard work and foresight in paving the way to the top. They were sometimes the reason she got up in the morning, and kept her sane as she sat at her computer all day, writing and editing and putting out fires.
Susie often took prayer hikes, silently praising God for this beautiful creation, for her health, her family, and friends. She also prayed for those who were sick or grieving, worried or distraught, in pain or lost. “God,” she would pray silently, “I feel Your Holy Spirit in the wind. Blow through this mountain and let me know you are here. I am not alone.”
As she prayed, she slowly reached the peak, and joined other hikers huddled on the rocky crag. She took a deep breath and slowly turned in a circle, taking in the 360-degree view. There was no place she’d rather be than on the hiking trail, at the top of a summit, next to a saguaro.
Feeling strong, she started her descent. Slowly at first, then quicker, finding a rhythm in her steps. Like a mountain goat, she scrambled down, until she stumbled. She’d had several falls over the last year, when she began training in earnest, so she instinctively put out her hands and came down hard on the rocks. She could feel the searing pain along her forearm and hoped she wasn’t bleeding too much. Her pants gave her some protection, but she could feel a bruise beginning on her right thigh. She picked herself up, and dusted herself off. A few well-meaning hikers asked if she was okay. She assured them she was, but set aside her plan to join her other teammates at the next trailhead. She’d need to wash her wounds and recover. If she felt strong enough, she’d continue on her own. She’d send Mary a text as soon as she got to her car.
With the sun now fully in the sky at 7:30 am, she could feel its heat on her scrape. When she got home, just a few minutes away from the trailhead, she washed her wounds. The vertical, parallel marks from her wrist to her elbow were superficial. They would heal in a few days, unlike the bruises she still sported on her calves from various falls over the year. One bad one she remembered well, slipping off the side and banging her face on a rock. She was lucky she had glasses on. One of the lenses still had a chip where she came down hard. That fall convinced her to invest in a new pair of boots with better tread.
At home, she pulled a long-sleeved shirt over her head to avoid further scrapes. She decided she needed to do a second hike, even though she would be alone. She thought she could handle it.
She took a last look at the dying sunflowers, smiling at their still beautiful crowns, and headed out the door. She climbed back into her car, and sang along with Sara Bareilles’ song, “Who died, and made you king of anything?” As she drove, she thought how great it would be to head to the Superstitions instead. So she went east instead of west, stopping for gas along the way.
The trailhead was farther away, and she was less familiar with the terrain, but the wilderness beckoned her. Already in the 80s at 10 am, Susie knew the mercury would rise, but she wasn’t worried. She would watch the time, her water, and her phone, so her battery wouldn’t drain. For a split second, she reconsidered, but the beauty and solitude intoxicated her. There was no turning back.
The trail wasn’t as well marked as she remembered, and she wasn’t the best map reader, but thought she was going the right way. Soon, the sun was nearly at its peak. She wiped the sweat from her brow.
Susie continued to hike up and around the winding trail. She didn’t meet anyone else, which seemed strange, and began to question the last turn she had taken. Her phone app, Map My Hike, shut down unexpectedly. “Damn satellites,” she cursed, when she couldn’t get an internet signal to activate the GPS on her phone.
She continued walking, but her legs felt heavy. Her lips cracked and her skin felt dry. She had finished one of her pints, and wondered what would happen when she ran out of water. She wasn’t a cactus.
How far had she hiked? Without her GPS, she wasn’t sure. Disoriented and tired, Susie sat down under a saguaro. She crouched under the small sliver of shade, and let her mind wander. Without realizing it, she had consumed most of her water. The sun hung in the west, almost touching the horizon. She watched the sun dip further, bathing the desert sky in radiant oranges and pinks. Susie thought of the sunflowers, bent her head down, and let her eyes close for just for a minute.