The Spectacular View

by J. M. Kessler

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 didn’t 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 Rick’s 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 Syd’s 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 wasn’t that low.

Before Rick could respond, Doug said, “Hi, Syd, it’s nice to meet you,” and shook her hand, and Kai asked, “Have you hiked here before?”

“No,” replied Syd. “But I’ve been wanting to. I hear the view from the peak is spectacular.”

“It’s 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, let’s not stand around gabbing all day. We’ve already wasted enough time. Let’s hike.” He started up the trail, and everyone heard him say under his breath, “The view is spectacular.”

Brad said to Syd, “I’ve got extra water in my pack if you want some,” and Syd was saying “Thanks” when Rick stopped and turned around.

“Ground rules. Everyone carries their own weight. And don’t expect anyone to wait for you if you want to pick flowers or something. If you fall behind, you stay behind. Let’s go.” He turned and headed up the trail.

Syd recognized 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 don’t have to carry everything. He won’t know the difference.” Syd smiled awkwardly at him and said, “It’s all right, I’ve 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 Syd’s 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 girl’s 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, you’re 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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, “I’m certainly getting my work-out for the week.”

“Well, 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. “I’m all right, really.”

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 he’d 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, it’s steeper, takes longer, but that’s 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 aren’t the only animals who eat fruit. I’m sure there’s a chipmunk around who’ll finish it off. Besides, it’s 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 don’t we go?”

Rick let out an obstinate “Yup,” and everyone gathered their gear.

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 it’s getting too rough for you, you could just stop and wait here and we’ll pick you up on the way back down,” he said. “We won’t tell anyone you couldn’t make it to the top.” She was finding the hike strenuous, but replied simply, “No thanks, I’m 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 Syd’s eyes, and he turned to Rick. “Did you do this?” he asked warningly.

Rick seemed surprised that Brad would suspect him. “No. Why would I?”

“Are you kidding?” Brad snapped back in disbelief.

“Look,” Rick said, putting his hands up defensively. “I didn’t 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 that’s all she wanted today, to hike with her friend and see the spectacular view. She wasn’t 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 hadn’t anticipated Brad’s 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 wasn’t important how the rock got in her backpack. What mattered was what the rock accomplished. Telling them they were being narrow-minded boors wouldn’t have helped; they had to get there on their own, and he thought he had found a way for them to do that.

Syd, who’d 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 couldn’t say what it was, and he wasn’t going to ask because he didn’t want to look stupid.

It looked like Brad and Rick would need an explanation. Doug wasn’t looking forward to it, but it had to be done. He was about to speak when Rick drew everyone’s 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 did it.”

Doug watched as everyone considered Rick’s idea. It was possible, he supposed, even if it didn’t 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 didn’t 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. “She’s good people. Hey, Syd,” he called out.

Syd turned.

“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 wasn’t sharing Brad’s reaction. Brad shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said. “If someone had done that to me, I’d 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. Doug’s response opened up the reading of Brad’s 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 Kai’s 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, patiently.

“So, 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 don’t think she needs a memento,” said Kai. “What was found today wasn’t in a rock.”

“Yeah,” Rick agreed. “Probably right.”

The End