The Middle of Somewhere
Author:Sonja Yoerg

She disassembled the filter and carefully placed the intake tube in a plastic bag she’d labeled “DIRTY!” “And what’s strange is that every stream and lake tastes different. Some are flinty, some are sweet, some are just . . . pure.”

She zipped the pouch closed and looked up. Dante had that expression he reserved for her. His dark brown eyes were soft and a smile teased at the corner of his mouth, as if someone were poised to give him a gift he’d been wanting forever. She held his gaze for a moment—his love for her running liquid through her limbs—and got up to stow everything in her pack.

Liz had consulted the map when they’d stopped and knew they had to climb more than five miles and fifteen hundred vertical feet before making camp. Her feet were sore and her thighs complained as she hoisted herself—and her thirty-pound pack, nearly a quarter of her body weight—ever upward. She was fit, as was Dante, but this first day was asking far more of her body than it was accustomed to. Hiking would get easier as they got stronger, but there was no getting around it: today was a bitch.

They walked in silence, kicking up small clouds of dust. The creek stayed with them, then disappeared, and they were left with only pines, boulders and trail. After an hour or more, they came over a rise. The trail followed the crest for a short stretch, then dipped toward a creek bubbling down a seam between steep slopes. On the near bank two hikers were resting—the first they’d seen since the Half Dome turnoff. Each man sat leaning against a pine tree. The nearer man was large, and imposing even while seated. He’d taken off his boots and socks, and his long legs were crossed at the ankle. His head was tipped back, and his eyes were closed. When the other, smaller, man swiveled in their direction and lifted his hand in greeting, Liz immediately noticed their resemblance. The same lank, sandy hair, the same square jaw and full mouth. Brothers. They even had identical cobalt blue packs.

“Hey,” she said.

The big one opened his eyes and massaged his jaw. “Hello.”

Closer now, she judged they were both in their twenties. The big one was definitely older. He had the swagger as well as the looks.

“Hello,” Dante said, stepping off the trail to stand next to Liz. “How’s it going?”

“Excellent. Just taking a breather.”

“I hear you. I feel we’ve climbed halfway to God.”

The big one gave an appreciative snort, and took a swig from the two-liter soda bottle that served as his water container. “Is that where you’re headed?”

Liz glanced at Dante to see if he thought this an odd remark. He smiled good-naturedly and said, “Well, maybe eventually, if I’m lucky. But today, just to . . . what’s the place, Liz?”

“Sunrise Camp.”

“Yes, Sunrise Camp,” Dante said.

The man nodded. “You on a short trip, or doing the whole JMT enchilada?” He raised his eyebrows when he said “enchilada,” and gave it a Spanish pronunciation.

Liz frowned at the possibility he meant it as a slight on Dante, but checked herself. He seemed friendly enough otherwise. “The entire JMT,” she said. “At least that’s the plan.”

“That’s a lot of quality time for a couple.”

Liz didn’t know how to respond.

Dante stepped in. “How about you?”

The brothers exchanged looks. The younger one said, “Depends on how we feel. Could be a long trip. Could be a short one.”

Dante nodded as if this were the sort of freewheeling adventure he wished he could join.

“Well,” Liz said, anxious to leave these two behind, “have fun whatever you do.”

“We always do,” the younger brother said.

She started down the trail, with Dante behind her, and stopped at the creek’s edge. On the opposite side, one path followed the stream uphill, while another led downstream for a while, before dissolving into the forest.

She turned to the men, and pointed at one path, then the other, with her trekking pole. “Do you happen to know which way it is?”

The older brother pointed upstream.

“Thanks.”

Aware of the eyes on her, she gingerly crossed the creek, stepping on half-submerged rocks and using her poles for balance. The added weight of her backpack meant a small slip could result in a fall. When she arrived safely on the far bank, she waited for Dante to cross and turned left up the hill.

The trail followed the stream for a stretch, then cut steeply up the slope. Her pack felt heavier with each step. The footing became uneven, and she had to concentrate to avoid a misstep. She could hear Dante breathing hard behind her. Twenty minutes after they’d crossed the creek, she stopped, panting.

“Does this look right to you?”

His face was flushed with exertion. “You’re asking me?”

“I don’t know. The trail hasn’t been this lousy.”

“Maybe it’s just this piece.”

They struggled uphill on an ever-worsening trail for another fifteen minutes. And then the path disappeared.

“Damn it,” Liz said, and jammed her pole in the dirt.

They retraced their steps to the junction. The brothers hadn’t moved. They regarded Liz and Dante from their side of the creek.