by J. M.
Doug had been looking forward to this hike with the guys for weeks. They
had waited out bad weather and tight schedules until they, the five that
made up their group, had finally found the same day free, on condition
that Brad could bring along a friend who was in town that weekend. So,
there they were at last, the six of them, at the foot of the trail on
a cool but sunny Saturday morning in April.
Brad introduced everyone to his friend. This is Doug, Kai, Rick,
and Nate. This was followed by nods of acknowledgement. And,
in keeping with our monosyllabic roll call, this is Syd. Syd nodded,
grinning warily. It was awkward, being new to the group, an established
group going on a long-planned hike. And it didnt help that everyone
else was at least a head taller than Syd. It became uncomfortable when
Rick looked at Syd, shifted his eyes to Brad, and stated unhappily, Your
friend is a girl.
For a moment, everyone watched Rick, wondering if he meant to be funny.
With Rick, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between humor and
contempt. Initially, their group hike included girlfriends, but Ricks
idea of friendly banter proved too unpleasant for them after their first
hike, and so they declined any further invitations, making the group an
unofficial boys club (and Brad unexpectedly single). Rick appeared now
to be waiting for an explanation.
All eyes shifted to Brad. He seemed unaware that he had made a gaffe by
not informing them of Syds gender before. He just looked back at
Rick and said brightly, Yeah. Is that a problem?
Doug began to sense that it was. Rick looked offended by the question,
and he saw disappointment in the eyes of Nate and Kai, perhaps concern
that Syd would slow them down and ruin the hike. Then Doug had the unsettling
thought that Brad had brought Syd along for the express purpose of baiting
Rick, hoping for an excuse to sock him in the jaw. But surely Brad wasnt
Before Rick could respond, Doug said, Hi, Syd, its nice to
meet you, and shook her hand, and Kai asked, Have you hiked
No, replied Syd. But Ive been wanting to. I hear
the view from the peak is spectacular.
Its a moderate hike. It gets steep and rocky near the top,
though, said Kai. Might be a bit rough, he added.
Syd, and Doug, wondered if he was warning her off the hike.
Well, she smiled, thanks for the heads-up.
Rick snickered and picked up his backpack. Well, lets not
stand around gabbing all day. Weve already wasted enough time. Lets
hike. He started up the trail, and everyone heard him say under
his breath, The view is spectacular.
Brad said to Syd, Ive got extra water in my pack if you want
some, and Syd was saying Thanks when Rick stopped and
Ground rules. Everyone carries their own weight. And dont
expect anyone to wait for you if you want to pick flowers or something.
If you fall behind, you stay behind. Lets go. He turned and
headed up the trail.
the adversary he was, and made no attempt to tame or tempt his displeasure.
She thanked Brad for the water bottle and slipped it into her pack next
to the two she had brought with her. Brad apologized for Rick, and added,
You can dump some stuff in my backpack, you dont have to carry
everything. He wont know the difference. Syd smiled awkwardly
at him and said, Its all right, Ive got it. Brad
asked was she sure. She assured him that she was, and they followed Rick,
Nate, and Kai up the trail.
Doug looked up at the peak. It would take five hours to reach it. He wondered
now just how long those five hours would last.
The first part of the trail was a pleasant walk on a flat path that gave
way to a gentle upward slope, making conversation easy. Syd talked with
Brad and Doug about working at the design firm, how getting the top projects
was an uphill struggle, and how her yogi suggested that she think of it
as an uplifting journey instead. Ahead of them, Doug could see Rick, Kai,
and Nate take looks off each other, laughing at Syds remarks. But
soon enough, the path began to climb and an earnest hike was underway.
They had hiked for an hour before Rick stopped everyone for a break. No
one knew exactly how he came to be in charge that day, not that it really
mattered. Rick was considered their expert, having hiked fourteeners in
Colorado and Alaska, but all five of them were experienced hikers. On
the trail, Rick had been teasing Syd, pointing out how pretty the rocks
and shrubs were, and asked her to let him know if she needed to use the
little girls tree. Syd just smiled, but Doug was tired of it already.
The trail ran alongside a stream at this point. They stepped off the trail
near the trickling water and everyone dropped their backpacks. Rick looked
at Syd and remarked, Wow, youre already sweating. Syd
just grinned, and then politely accepted a bandana that Brad offered and
wiped her brow. They stood around drinking water and eating nuts and protein
bars. Nate ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Doug removed his boots,
and a pebble, and put his feet in the stream. But the mountain water was
too cold for him.
Rick stood barefoot in the stream and made a show about how refreshing
it was, acting as if the chilling water didnt bother him, but his
discomfort was obvious. When he stepped out of the stream, he made an
exaggerated shiver sound and flapped his arms a few times, to keep limber,
he said, but everyone knew it was to keep warm. He then announced that
he had to water a tree. It was decided that everyone should go off in
a different direction and find his, or her, own tree and meet back here
in a couple of minutes.
By now, Doug had an idea and decided on a course of action. There was
no point in asking Rick to lay off Syd. Rick would only become defensive
and turn the situation around somehow, claiming himself innocent of any
wrong-doing. And Brad wouldnt let that go by easily. Doug walked
about eight steps, then turned back. There were several good rocks to
choose from. He picked up a smooth, round rock, weighing about five pounds,
and shoved it into the bottom of the backpack. Then he hurried back into
the woods, and was the last one back to the group.
They were waiting on him. Rick stood with his arms crossed and his eyes
fixed on Doug, then hoisted his backpack over his shoulders gruffly. Doug
grabbed his backpack and the group got back on the trail.
Brad asked Syd how she was doing, and she laughed, Im certainly
getting my work-out for the week.
let me know if you need a break, he said quietly. We can hang
back and go slower, if you want.
No, Syd replied, mildly offended. Im all right,
They hiked another hour and a half before taking a proper break at an
overlook. There they met three hikers, men, who were finishing their lunch.
They, too, were headed to the summit, but they were going to cut across
and pick up a steeper trail. Rick asked where the access was, and one
of them said hed be happy to show them. The group dropped their
backpacks and followed the hiker on a narrow path through the trees.
This takes you to the Tippett trail, takes about twenty minutes
to get there, he said, stopping on the path. As I said, its
steeper, takes longer, but thats what we want today.
Yeah, Rick said, sounds like my kind of hike. Not today,
though, he added, implying with a roll of his eyes that the presence
of a female necessitated a less strenuous route.
Well, anyway, the hiker said, this is where you can
cut across, next time.
They returned to the overlook and the three hikers packed their gear,
wished them a good day, and left to pick up Tippett Trail. The group relaxed
on boulders and had lunch. Rick finished off his Gatorade with a belch
and said it was time to get back on the trail. Plenty of mountain
still to climb.
Syd took the last bite of her apple and then threw the core into the woods.
Rick turned on her.
Did you just litter? he asked disparagingly.
Brad turned to Rick. We arent the only animals who eat fruit.
Im sure theres a chipmunk around wholl finish it off.
Besides, its biodegradable.
Rick shrugged indifferently and turned away. Brad rolled his eyes and
shook his head. Syd laughed it off, smiling broadly and saying, Well,
why dont we go?
Rick let out an obstinate Yup, and everyone gathered their
It had been a mistake to sit down. Getting back up resulted in some moaning,
and more than one person remarked on how much heavier their backpack felt.
The tree line thinned, the trail grew steep, and conversation was replaced
with labored breathing. Rick turned to Syd. If its getting
too rough for you, you could just stop and wait here and well pick
you up on the way back down, he said. We wont tell anyone
you couldnt make it to the top. She was finding the hike strenuous,
but replied simply, No thanks, Im fine. Rick said, Okay,
then, and picked up the pace.
The final ascent was the most arduous, a steep rock scramble in a strong,
biting wind. Over one quite tricky section, Rick warned Syd, No
piggy-back rides. Too dangerous. She was too tired and sore by now
to spare any energy on even a small amount of annoyance. She followed
Brad over the rocks, matching his foot and hand placements, but declining
when he offered her a hand up.
Syd was done in by the time they reached the summit, but it was well worth
it. They had a clear, panoramic view, which was spectacular, and which
everyone admired for a moment before diving into their backpacks. Doug,
Brad, and Kai put on woolen hats right away; Nate put on a hat with a
beard attachment. Rick filled his lungs and let out a hearty sigh before
pulling on his hat and taking a selfie. Syd, squatting on the ground,
slipped a hooded sweatshirt over her head, and then, puzzled, reached
into her backpack
and pulled out a large, smooth rock. She stared at it, then looked at
the members of the group, most of whom looked just as puzzled. Rick let
out a laugh and said, What the...? The idea of hiking with
a five-pound rock in your backpack was so absurd that everyone laughed,
not knowing what else to make of it. Doug smiled, but said nothing.
But then Brad saw the hurt in Syds eyes, and he turned to Rick.
Did you do this? he asked warningly.
Rick seemed surprised that Brad would suspect him. No. Why would
Are you kidding? Brad snapped back in disbelief.
Look, Rick said, putting his hands up defensively. I
didnt put that rock in her bag, I swear it. Back off, man.
Syd knelt on the ground staring at the rock. She had been in town for
a conference. It had been a taxing week of lectures, meetings, and presentations
crammed into three days, and then a day with Brad at the local winery.
But he had this hike.... Even better. And thats all she wanted today,
to hike with her friend and see the spectacular view. She wasnt
here to prove anything to anyone. So, why this rock? Was it punishment
for intruding, for not being one of the guys? Was it just a joke? What
was the point? What was the point of carrying a rock up a mountain?
The guys were still standing there looking at the rock when Rick chortled
quietly. Seriously, how stupid do you have to be not to know you
have a huge rock in your backpack. Both Nate and Kai let out another
snort of laughter.
Brad made a move toward Rick, but Doug grabbed hold of his arm. Come
over here, Doug said as he pulled Brad away from the group. Just,
cool off for a minute, he added as Brad paced around.
You should have let me hit him, Brad hissed through his teeth.
And have to hear about it all the way home? Uh-uh. Doug hadnt
anticipated Brads reaction to the rock. He wondered now what Brad
would do when he learned the truth.
Doug frowned. He had figured on his actions being anonymous. After all,
it wasnt important how the rock got in her backpack. What mattered
was what the rock accomplished. Telling them they were being narrow-minded
boors wouldnt have helped; they had to get there on their own, and
he thought he had found a way for them to do that.
Syd, whod been motionless all this time, looked up now. A plain,
simple truth finally dawned on her, and she smiled contentedly to herself.
She let the rock tumble carefree out of her hands, then stood up and walked
over to the outlook. Doug watched as, slowly, Nate and Kai found their
way to the same obvious fact, and their arrogance began to fall away.
And from their silence, Rick knew he was missing something, although he
couldnt say what it was, and he wasnt going to ask because
he didnt want to look stupid.
It looked like Brad and Rick would need an explanation. Doug wasnt
looking forward to it, but it had to be done. He was about to speak when
Rick drew everyones attention.
Hang on, Rick said confidently. I know what happened.
Remember when we stopped? Those guys we met. We followed that guy through
the woods and left our packs with the other two. Obviously, one of them
as everyone considered Ricks idea. It was possible, he supposed,
even if it didnt make sense. Why would strangers play such a cruel
joke on a fellow hiker? But the idea seemed to go over. Heads nodded and
shoulders shrugged. Rick looked around, but didnt see the alleged
perpetrators, whom, Doug noted curiously, he now seemed fully prepared
to take on.
Brad stared at the ground for a bit, sighed heavily, looked hard at Doug,
then walked over to Rick.
Sorry about earlier.
Rick stared him down with steely eyes until a smile broke across his face.
Water under the bridge, my friend, he said affably. He extended
his hand, and Brad shook it. Rick nodded toward Syd. Shes
good people. Hey, Syd, he called out.
No hard feelings? Rick asked.
She considered his question, then smiled. No hard feelings,
she said. She caught the eye of Kai and Nate. They looked a little smaller
suddenly, each giving her a sheepish grin and a curt nod of the head.
It was a sweet, funny little gesture, conveying both apology and respect,
a considerable admission with a minimum of effort. Syd appreciated the
gesture. She grinned and nodded in return, then turned back to the view.
Brad walked back to Doug now. His anger at Rick was assuaged, but he was
still bitter. Doug assumed it was due to the general situation, but now
it seemed to be due to a slight loss of allegiance; Syd wasnt sharing
Brads reaction. Brad shook his head. I dont get it,
he said. If someone had done that to me, Id be pissed as hell.
But look at her. Syd was looking out over the mountain with peace
and contentment. She just climbed a mountain with a five-pound rock
in her backpack.
Doug lifted his eyebrows and nodded softly. Yeah, he agreed
pointedly. She did.
The effect was slow-coming, but it came. Dougs response opened up
the reading of Brads words, offering Brad a new point of view. He
felt foolish for catching on so slowly. He grinned self-consciously, then
turned back to Syd with admiration. Yeah, he said. She
did. She just climbed a mountain with a five-pound rock in her backpack.
It was a pleasant, congenial descent. Brad and Syd led the group down
the trail, followed by Nate, then Doug, with Rick and Kai bringing up
the rear. Doug was thinking about what he had done, and how easy it would
be for someone to see nothing more in it then an act of cruelty or injustice.
But he knew that the big picture offered a more generous view of the situation,
a view that included a certain truth, and a deliberate kindness, and he
was glad to find that his friends were capable of the bigger view.
Rick had been quiet for some time. He put a hand on Kais arm now,
slowing him back from the others.
So, the rock was actually, kind of a good thing, Rick confirmed
quietly. It proved that even someone like her could do this.
Kai winced inside, then nodded. Yeah.
I mean, she hiked this mountain the same as we did. Even more than
we did, because of that rock, Rick continued as Kai nodded again,
in a way, Rick supposed, having that rock in her backpack
was good for her.
Kai grinned. It was good for all of us, he said.
Rick hummed in agreement as he considered this.
After a while, Rick said, I wonder why she left the rock up there.
I would have kept it, you know. A memento. So I could always remember
where I found my strength.
I dont think she needs a memento, said Kai. What
was found today wasnt in a rock.
Yeah, Rick agreed. Probably right.