Creative Writing Submission: Trial by Fire

Crunch, crunch, squelch. My newly-bought hiking boots crushed twigs and brush as I dodged puddles on the muddy Appalachian Trail. While crossing a stream a few miles back, I had slipped off of a rock, slick from the rain, and found myself wading ankle-deep in the freshwater.  With every step, I could feel my blistered feet squelching uncomfortably within the damp boots. 

“What if I can’t make it the last four miles to the base camp?” I worried.  

Seeking reassurance, I lifted my gaze from the path and focused the beam of my  headlamp on my Dad, hiking just a few paces ahead of me. He didn’t turn to face me, change his pace, or even say a word. He didn’t have to. Just seeing him there, walking steadily, and with his eyes focused on the path ahead was enough to keep me going.  

Crunch, crunch, squelch. I reflected on the events of the past nineteen hours and couldn’t help but marvel at the perfectly disastrous combination that had led me here. It all began bright and early the previous morning with scrambled eggs, blue skies and fresh boots. However, with just one overgrown trail, a few missing cairns and a surprise thunderstorm, our “simple”  beginner’s hike to the summit of Mount Madison had transformed into anything but simple. Who would’ve thought… 

Flap, flap, smack. A colossal light-seeking moth launched itself at my headlamp,  interrupting my thoughts and momentarily plunging my world into darkness. The beast collided twice with my cheek before I could shoo it away and regain the light of my headlamp once more. I no longer had the energy to splutter or curse at the moth as I once had. He and his brethren had plagued me for more than two hours now and I had conceded to them. After all, the moths and I shared a common desire: to resist being swallowed by the 3 a.m. darkness. 

“Trial by fire,” I remember thinking quietly to myself. 

Crunch, squelch, smack. The final hour of the hike followed a similar progression to the countless hours that preceded it. We continued walking, one step after another until finally, we saw it: a faint splotch of illumination. A tiny cabin window spilling light out into the darkness. 

Suddenly, images of dry beds, flushing toilets and cooked meals flooded my mind. Like the moths to a headlamp, my father and I pursued the window light with newfound vigor. As we dragged ourselves the final stretch, blistered and exhausted, towards the base hut, I  felt a strange calmness come over me. It was as if everything around me was exactly where it belonged. The proud Hemlock trees which flanked my descent, the crescent moon hanging delicately in the sky above me, and my Dad, still trudging just a few paces ahead.

The moments after we reached the base hut are a blur to me now. I remember the startled look on the concierge’s face when my Dad and I stumbled through the door, I remember the disconcerted weightless feeling of walking without my thirty-five-pound backpack, and I remember clutching my Dad’s equally shaking hand for a moment before we both collapsed onto our beds. Most of all, I remember that my last thoughts before giving in to sleep were not of my aching feet, the dirt caked beneath my fingernails or the scrapes, bruises and bug bites that adorned my body. Rather, I remember that they were of the proud Hemlocks, the delicate crescent moon, and my Dad trudging silently just a few paces ahead.