The Middle of Somewhere
Author:Sonja Yoerg

Dante was still chatting. He glanced over his shoulder and flashed her a boyish smile. She pointed at her watch. He twitched in mock alarm, shook hands with his new friends and hurried to her.

“Leez!” He placed his hands on her cheeks and tucked her short brown hair behind her ears with his fingers. “You’re waiting. I’m sorry.”

She was no more immune to his charm than the rest of the world. The way he pronounced her name amused her, and she suspected he laid it on thick deliberately. He had studied English in the best schools in Mexico City and spent seven years in the States, so he had little reason for sounding like the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

“It’s okay.” She rose onto her toes and kissed his cheek. “We should get going though. Did you get the forecast?”

“I did.” He threw his arms wide. “It’s going to be beautiful!”

“That’s a quote from the ranger?”

“Más o menos. Look for yourself.” He swept his hand to indicate the sky above the pines, an unbroken Delft blue.

Things can change, she thought, especially this late in the season. Her original permit had been for the Thursday before Labor Day. It could snow or hail or thunderstorm on any given day in the Sierras, but early September was usually dry. She’d had to surrender that start date when Dante insisted on tagging along, because he didn’t have a permit. They were forced to take their chances with the weather, two weeks closer to winter.

And here it was, September fifteenth. A picture-perfect day. Dante’s beaming face looked like a guarantee of twenty more like it.

? ? ?

When he’d first seen the elevation profile of the John Muir Trail, Dante said it resembled the ECG tracing of someone having a heart attack. Up thousands of feet, down thousands of feet, up thousands of feet, down thousands of feet, day after day.

“You’re going to love Day One in particular,” she’d said, pointing out Yosemite Valley at four thousand feet, then, twelve miles along the trail, their first night’s destination at ninety-six hundred feet.

He’d shaken his head. “Impossible.”

“Difficult, yes. But entirely possible.”

He’d argued that since they would arrive at Tuolumne Meadows the second day, and could easily drive through the park and pick up the trail there, they should skip that nasty climb.

“That would be cheating,” she’d said.

“It could be our little secret.”

“I’m doing the whole John Muir Trail.”

He’d sent her a doleful look, but didn’t bring it up again.

At least not until they’d been climbing for two hours. Panting, he undid his hip belt and slid his pack to the ground. Dark patches of sweat stood out on his green T-shirt. Liz stepped aside to let a group of day hikers pass. She leaned forward on her trekking poles, but did not take off her pack. They’d already taken two breaks and hadn’t yet reached the top of Nevada Falls, two and a half miles from the start.

He plunked himself onto a boulder, took off his cap and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “It’s not too late to turn around and drive to Tuolumne.”

She stared out across the valley. “Breathtaking” didn’t begin to describe it. A mile away, the falls shot out of the granite cliff like milk spilling from a pitcher and crashed onto a boulder pile before being funneled into a foaming river. She could make out the tiny colored forms of people at the falls’ edge. The tightness in her chest loosened slightly at this first hint of vast space. Above the falls was Liberty Cap, an enormous granite tooth, and beyond that, Half Dome. Its two-thousand-foot sheer vertical wall and rounded crown made it appear to once have been a sphere split abruptly by an unimaginable force, but Liz knew better. A glacier had erased it, bit by bit.

Her back to Dante, she said, “Let’s keep going to the top of the falls. Then we can have lunch, okay?”

The trail leveled out after Nevada Falls, no longer as steep as a staircase. After a set of switchbacks, they passed the turnoff for Half Dome, where all but a few of the day hikers left the main route. The early-afternoon sun was a heat lamp on their backs, and by two o’clock they’d finished the three liters of water they’d carried from the valley floor. At the first crossing of Sunrise Creek, Liz unpacked the water filtration kit. She’d shown Dante how it worked at home—for safety’s sake—but gadgets weren’t his strong suit. He might be inclined to coax bacteria, viruses and parasites out of the water with a wink and a smile, but she was the professional gizmologist. She designed prosthetic limbs, myoelectric ones that interfaced with living muscle. He worked for the same company, on the sales side.

Crouching on the grassy bank, she attached the tubes to the manual pump and dropped the float into a small current. It took five minutes to filter three liters. She handed Dante a bottle. He took a long drink.

“So cold and delicious!”