The Spruce Trap
A walk in the woods.
First published by Icarus Down, Vol. III March 2016.
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Mike turned off the motor and inspected the narrow figure across the parking lot just the other side of the trailhead. Sure didn’t look like a hiker. Old olive parka with an Army surplus tail, hood up, face in brown stubble, cigarette hanging, stamping russet work boots alongside a Ranger four-by-four streaked with salt and frozen mud. Mike pushed open his door, pulled on balaclava, winter shell, and mittens, and walked over, the white ground squeaking beneath his steps. Sunken, packed snow two feet wide, like a miniature luge, ran uphill from the trailhead indicating many snowshoers yesterday. Today, Sunday, just the beat-up Ranger and Mike’s Acura RDX.
“No takers today,” Mike said.
The man withdrew his right hand from parka pocket and picked the cigarette from his lips. “You set on going up?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, that’s why I’m here.”
“A mite cold.”
“Yeah. It gets that way. January.”
“Late start, aren’t you?”
Just what Mike needed. Counsel from the locals. He put an edge to his voice. “I don’t suppose you’re hiking today?”
“Nor any day.”
“So? You’re just, what, passing the time?”
“I’m a waiting on Dorothy.”
Mike clapped his mittens and stamped his feet. “From the The Wizard of Oz?”
“From Jackson. She commutes me to work. Walmart Supercenter. Other side of Gorham.”
The man inclined his hazel eyes toward Mike’s RDX. “Guess you don’t work in a Supercenter. Oh shit here she come.” He squeezed the cigarette flame with thumb and forefinger and returned his hand to parka pocket. “Been nice talking to you. My name’s Randy.”
A green Subaru Forester scrunched and halted. The driver’s window rolled down revealing a black and gray haired woman with Native American looks. Abenaki maybe, or maybe French. She eyeballed Mike, Snowblime boots to Voberry balaclava. “Where you off to?”
Where was he off to? Jesus. “I’m bagging Mount Isolation today.”
“You’re getting a late start.”
Christ. “Well, maybe I’ll be coming out in the dark.”
“Don’t you know better’n going out alone in this weather?”
“It’s clear as a bell.”
“It’s colder’n a witch’s tit. You turn around by one. Hear?”
Randy leaned over from the passenger seat. “Dorothy used to be in mountain rescue.”
“And don’t get lost.” The window rolled up. The Subaru rolled away.
Don’t get lost. Fucking locals, they think they know everything. They don’t even hike. Mike stepped into snowshoes, rectangular MSR’s, best on the market, pulled the bindings tight. He stepped into the track. Don’t get lost—if they only knew how lost he was already. Five weeks into separation, once-a-week contact with his son, no female contact, he, Mike, an engineer with a salary close to six figures, a pearl blue Acura, trim body, perfect teeth, full head of brown hair, twenty-twenty vision, while his estranged wife spread her legs for a bald-headed, four-eyed, gawky-ass asshole, her sales team leader at Target.
Mike interrupted his contemplations. He had veered off the hiking trail onto the ski trail going north to Pinkham Notch. Jesus. Wouldn’t Dorothy and Randy laugh if they saw him not a mile out on the wrong path? He backtracked to the hiking trail and turned west. After a thousand feet of elevation gain, one snowshoe digging alongside the other, the track turned south for a level walk in stands of oak, maple, ash, and white birch, branches bereft of leaves, topped by fingers of snow; and pines, their needled branches bent under alabaster blankets. The next turn brought him due west again, again a sharp uphill, and he soon stood panting in the pass below Engine Hill. Here Mike consulted notes and map which told him to bushwhack northwest to the Rocky Branch Trail, to follow it north looking for a second, westerly bushwhack.
With the navigation falling into place, Mike’s mind again wandered. Oh the injustice of it all! His wife drains his hard-earned money to live like the Queen of Sheba putting out for a four-eyed bald-headed nothing from Target while he whacks off in penury. His lawyer sits behind his desk like a toad, collecting three hundred an hour exuding aphorisms, take it easy, Mike, calm down, Mike, things could be worse, Mike.
Damn, which way? Mike had reached the end of the first bushwhack rambling over snow encrusted meadow and back into hardwood and pine, and had started north on the Rocky Branch Trail. A snowshoe track diverged left crossing the shallow Rocky Branch River. The second bushwhack already? Mike crossed the river on rocks and ice and followed the track until it took a tight circle and came back on itself. What the fuck? Had yesterday’s hikers quit for the day or was this the wrong way? Mike didn’t feel like retreating and pushed west into fresh snow, the going slow, each step compacting a stretch of fluff into new track, altitude gain taking further exertion.
Mike entered thick spruce, felt his right snowshoe sink, pulled it back, and peered through the hole he’d just made to the base of a spruce tree seven feet below. For the snow surrounding spruce trees congested over the needled branches, forming caves. Small trees were dangerous. A nine-foot tree in an eight-foot snowpack appeared as a sapling in solid snow. But the snow wasn’t solid. It was a shell resting on the buried branches and gave way if stepped on, the stepper likely to drop and entangle a snowshoe. Hence the name. Spruce trap.
At two o’clock, Mike pulled a water bottle from under his jacket for a long drink. Dark in three hours and much colder. He heard the locals telling him to get out and decided best to heed their call. He retraced his incoming track, sometimes stumbling to one side or the other, mind wandering. Oh the injustice of it all! His money. His house. His sex life. His left snowshoe started sinking. Spruce trap, but before he could react, Mike’s leg dropped to the crotch, folding him forward, chest and face in the snow, left leg down, right leg skewed.
Mike pulled but the trapped snowshoe held tight. He tried pushing his body toward the hole to drop a hand and free the binding, but branches and snowpack held him in place.
How stupid. What a pain in the ass.
Mike bent his right leg, the one that wasn’t trapped, yanked straps, and freed the snowshoe. He pulled the leg closer hoping to slacken the left snowshoe or bend the left knee. But the knee refused to bend and the snowshoe stayed jammed.
It occurred to Mike that his plight might be serious. He retrieved his phone from an inside pocket and turned on the power. No signal.
Mike grabbed the free snowshoe and worked it into the hole against the entrapped binding, but what he needed to do was what he couldn’t, grasp and pull each of the three straps.
A chill shook Mike. He shed his pack and retrieved a light down jacket and extra fleece, removed his winter shell, put on the fleece and down jacket, replaced the shell. Why hadn’t he brought his heavy down? How long would it take for the cold to hack through those few extra layers? Mike worked again at freeing the binding. He worked again at re-angling his body so the left boot would loosen.
Dark for hours. The pain of the cold was good. Shivering was good. No longer feeling the cold, that would be bad, the beginning of the end. Mike heard a voice, a woman’s voice, and called out, or was he hallucinating, and when he called out, was his mouth making sound?
Time passed in blackness. Was the pain of the cold going away, the beginning of the end? He heard the woman’s voice once more and called out. It must be real. Yes, yes, it was real, it was Dorothy, the mountain rescue woman, Dorothy, and her sidekick, Randy, the scarecrow, or maybe the tin man. The locals were coming to rescue him. They’d finished their shifts at Walmart and drove back to the trailhead. They saw the Acura still there. They called for help, grabbed snowshoes, and started in. They had a powwow at the Rocky Branch River, figured out which track belonged to Mike, that he’d crossed the river. And here they attended, headlamps bobbing against the stars, voices bubbling through blue cold, Dorothy and the scarecrow.
Around midnight a half moon ascended above the trees in the eastern sky throwing tree shadows across the frozen surface. Mike felt good. He felt warm. He pulled off his mittens. He yanked the balaclava from face and head.
He tore away his winter shell.