Chapter 2: The Most Unexpected/Unexplainable Thing
It smells of summer, sweet fragrances of flowers in full bloom, along with the scents of pine and other fresh green plants. Even though it’s early July, it’s as if spring ended yesterday. The hot days of the season have yet to wilt or dry the terrain, and I’m grateful for that. But with the warm humid air enhancing the odors all around us, I suspect it’s not long before the scent of sweat permeates the air. For now, the agreeable smells of nature are breathing life into my soul.
Like most of our hikes, Alex begins leading us, already shirtless and eager to offer us geology facts in his serious instructive tone. As he rambles on and on, Morgan and I watch his muscular torso glisten in the sunlight. His well-defined shoulders and visible back muscles are far more interesting than his lecture, but we keep that to ourselves.
At the rear of our train, is quiet and distracted Hunter, scribbling in a small spiral notebook. His amber eyes briefly focus on his paper, causing him to stumble over a small rock on the dirt trail.
“Feeling inspired back there?” I whisper in a playful tone.
Hunter grimaces at his feet. “Hardly.”
“What is it that your writing, then?” I ask, attempting to walk backwards.
“A reminder to bring duct tape.”
I chortle with my continued awkward steps. “Let me guess. For a certain someone’s mouth?”
His little smile brings an even bigger one to my face.
“C’mon, he’s not that bad,” I say, slowing my pace so I don’t trip.
“Give it another hour…,” he says, slipping his notebook into the back pocket of his shorts. “Then get back to me.”
“Hey, we all have a passion. Some are just a little more interesting than others.”
He nods with conviction. “That’s for sure.”
“So what did you actually write?” I press him.
He quickly lifts his chin. “Later Tater. We’re starting to lag behind.”
I flip back around and realize Morgan and Alex are several yards ahead of us. In fact, Morgan’s tall slender legs are walking exceptionally fast. I watch her softly kick Alex at the calf, causing him to swipe his other leg and trip. The most amusing part is it doesn’t even phase him. It’s expected at this point. By any of us, at any given moment.
After quickly catching up, I find myself reflecting on my friendships, specifically my friendship with Hunter. Near the end of my freshman year of college, I partnered up with him for a psychology project. We hit it off immediately. There was something about his quiet and collected demeanor, paired with his sarcastic humor that I found enjoyable and comforting. It wasn’t long before I introduced him to Morgan, whom I met at the beginning of the school year. Alex tagged along one day and the four of us have been hanging out and roasting each other like a proper dysfunctional family ever since.
But I can’t help but wonder if the dynamics of our group will ever change. Will we always be this close and carefree? This uncomplicated and easy? And more importantly, will Hunter continue to be my most caring and reliable friend?
“You OK?” Morgan asks, looking over her shoulder.
“Huh?” I say, breaking my trance.
“You looked deep in thought,” she explains, wiping sweat from her brow.
My cheeks rise with my answer. “Just thinking about how we all met. And how lucky I am to have you all in my life.”
“You’re being overly sappy today,” Alex addresses bluntly.
“I agree,” Morgan admits. “But that’s what I love about her.” She turns to give me the sweetest smile.
“I personally love the way she drags her feet when she walks,” Hunter chimes in. “That cloud of dust really tickles the nose.”
“I don’t drag my feet,” I argue weakly.
“Alex— switch places with me. Laken needs a second opinion.”
“Hell no,” Alex exclaims. “I’m not about to ruin these fine set of lungs.”
Morgan laughs. “Y’all are so dramatic.”
The grass begins to rustle in the breeze, making it an almost manageable temperature. If only I could ignore the humming and buzzing of insects as we pass each bush and tree. The high-pitch buzz of cicadas irritate everyone in our group, but especially Hunter. It seems I’m most sensitive to smells, whereas he’s more reactive to sounds. Listening to him gripe and complain doesn’t seem to bother me like the others. His lower-pitched voice has always had a calming effect on me.
About an hour into our hike, I get a whiff of murky smelling water, leading me to believe we’re near a stream or pond, but the tempting scenic detour doesn’t deter me from my agenda. Instead, the earthy smell of red dirt attracts my attention and urges me to the front of our pack. Alex, Hunter and Morgan follow me without question. I’m surprised not one of them speaks up as I continue to lead the four of us several minutes off the marked trail.
Their lively banter grows louder as my eyes remain fixated on an enormous boulder in the near distance. Very unique in its appearance, the contrasting light and dark rocks form the shape of a dogs face near the top. Even though it appears to be at least thirty feet high, I’m eager to make the climb.
“Whoa,” I hear from behind. “Look at that beauty,” Alex continues excitedly.
“That’s incredible,” Morgan says, finally taking notice of the view. “How have we not seen this before?”
“Probably because we’re no longer on the designated trail,” Hunter points out.
“Exactly,” I add with emphasis. “An off-trail hike can lead us to great things.”
“And cause erosion,” Alex adds.
“Relax. We’re simply experiencing things that can’t be reached by trail. It’s perfectly legal. I checked.”
Once we reach the base of the sun-warmed rocks, I take a moment to admire the scenery. I rest my hand on the rough tree bark next to me and peer up and down the boulder. One little tree is visible up top, its thin branches partially extending over the edge. From where I stand, it appears to be an ideal tree for my ultimate objective.
Two small birds begin to tweet and scurry in the tree next to me. The back and forth twittering is pleasantly distracting. They eventually settle, as do I. For a moment anyway.
After grabbing my water bottle from my backpack and swigging a good amount, I make a bold statement. “I’m going to rappel from the top.”
Alex delivers a short belted laugh and Morgan lets out a few chuckles, neither of them realizing that I’m serious.
“Do you suddenly have a death wish?” Hunter asks, an anxious look gripping his face.
“Don’t be silly. It’ll be fine.” I place a soothing hand on his arm briefly, then quickly crouch down. “Who’s ready to climb?” I ask, tightening my boots.
“Laken…,” Hunter continues, shifting his weight to one side. “You can’t rappel from that height. Not today. Not without proper climbing gear.”
“Remember the bluffs by the college?” I remind him. “I’ve rappelled many times from the top with only this.” I open my bag to show my neatly wrapped climbing rope.
“No way. It’s too risky without a harness,” Morgan speaks, one hand cupping her forehead as she scans up the boulder.
“Rappelling is always dangerous,” Alex says, gliding a hand through his blond frosted tips. “But I’m all in for some free soloing. I spot some good looking footholds.”
Keeping my expression neutral, I concede with feign enthusiasm. “Alright, let’s just see if we can safely reach the top.”
Impatient to get started, I’m the first one to the rock. I test a few different handholds and decide on which way I want to go. Because rock climbing is like a puzzle, you want to problem solve fast, before your muscles tire and give out on you. You must constantly ask yourself questions: Where can I put my right hand? If I move my foot up there, can I swing myself up to that next position and if so, how does that leave me for the next move? It can be mentally challenging, but also emotionally rewarding, especially when faced with a spot that seems impossible to conquer.
“The rocks are quite dusty, but manageable,” I say, scrunching my nose.
“Take it slow,” Alex insists, following my path with ease. “And trust your instincts. If something looks unsafe, avoid it. Find another way.”
“I know, I know,” I mumble, my voice slightly irritated.
The truth is, Alex is the most knowledgeable and experienced in the world of rock climbing. I trust his opinion and instincts. And even more so as I feel gravity pulling me down with every minute I spend on the side of the rock face.
About a third of the way up the boulder, I notice a particular jutting horn of rock ideal for climbing. That is, if it weren’t shattered in about a dozen places. Some of the cracks are wide enough that I can almost see through them. It doesn’t appear stable at all. I’m no geologist, but I have a good sense of how they ought to look. And this looks like it’s getting ready to crumble.
“We have a problem,” I announce nice and loud. “I can’t find a secure position.”
“There’s no shame in coming back down if you feel unsafe!” Hunter shouts.
“What about that small nub to your left?” Alex suggests. “Can you reach it?”
“I think so, but where do I put my foot?”
“There’s a crack just above your right shoulder.”
“OK, I see it now,” I state rapidly, my voice carrying a mixture of anxiety and relief.
Right as I start to doubt myself, I glance down, creating an immediate rush of panic and fear. If I were to fall, it most likely wouldn’t kill me, but it would certainly hurt and cause severe injury. The thought rattles me for a moment.
“Hunter’s right,” Alex says unexpectedly. “We can head back down. There’s nothing wrong with that. Especially if your head game is not in a good space.”
“I’m fine, really,” I insist. “I got this.”
Just as Alex instructs, I take hold of the rock knob with my left hand and slip my foot into the crack, angling my body perfectly for the next placement. My next five moves are very successful. Not once do my hands or feet let me down. But the last move, the one I need to reach the summit, is a real struggle. I push through, despite being exhausted and out of breath. My fingers grip the ledge so tight, allowing me to pull myself up and over the top of the boulder. The adrenaline pumping through my body finally peaks and with that comes a full body collapse. I lay on the ground, all splayed out, beyond satisfied that I made it.
Alex reaches the top quickly after me with no sign of fatigue. Not that I’m surprised. He’s in the best shape of his life. I listen to him help guide Morgan and Hunter the rest of the way up.
As I sit upright, my hand rests on a spongy moss patch. I begin to look all around me, noticing most of the ground is rock with a few shrubs and plants sporadically growing. With my heart still pounding, I force myself to rise to my feet and take in the breathtaking views. Parts of the canyon walls can be seen, along with lush green vegetation that extends for miles. The blazing midday sun shines relentlessly on the horizon, while ribbons of clouds decorate the blue sky. Part of me wishes we had waited until sunset to make the climb. What a view that would’ve been.
“So much unspoiled land in every direction,” Morgan says, appearing at my side.
Turning my head, I say, “Yes, it’s incredible.”
I hear Hunter release a loud grumble with his final advance to the top.
“Quite the adrenaline rush, isn’t it?” I say, meeting him with a grin.
He shakes his head with a hint of a smile. “The things you make me do.”
His remark catches me off guard, for I don’t know how to take it. Is it meant to be playful? Thoughtful? Annoyed?
I ignore the embarrassed feeling rushing to my face and say, “Trust me, the view makes it all worth it.”
Hunter joins my side, the horizon finally in his sight.
“So, what do you think?” I ask, carefully surveying his face.
Taking a moment, he scans the field of view, wiping the perspiration running down his forehead. After a deep inhale of breath, he meets my gaze. “It’s beautiful,” he whispers.
I pull my hair into a temporary makeshift ponytail. “Totally worth the climb, right?”
“Yes,” he answers, appraising me with his eyes.
But it’s not long before his smile fades and his gaze shifts to Alex. “So any ideas on how to climb down without any equipment? We weren’t exactly prepared for this type of climb.”
Hunter makes a good point. Down climbing is far more difficult than climbing up. With your face near the rock, and your torso, feet and arms limiting your field of view, it’s more challenging to see a few steps ahead. When you’re looking up, your head is further away from the rock and unimpeded.
“We rappel,” I propose, presenting my ten millimeter rope. “Rappelling is obviously much easier than down climbing. We can use that tree as our anchor.”
“I don’t know,” Morgan mumbles. “That seems rather risky.
“It’s a risk either way,” Alex offers, jutting his mouth back and forth.
Alex is probably thinking the same as me. Without equipment, it’s about the same level of risk. With that said, the effort required to rappel is considerably less than down climbing.
“Before we decide anything, we’re taking a group photo,” Morgan orders, already preparing her phone. “Everyone bunch together.”
Morgan and I situate ourselves in front of the boys, giving us—or at least me—an overpowering smell of dirt and sweat. After climbing on a hot day, it’s an inevitable result. One that makes me regret my keen sense of smell.
Once Morgan achieves the desired photo, she walks the perimeter, taking more pictures with her phone. “Hey, come check this out!” She yells from the other side of the boulder.
As we quickly gather near, she begins to point and explain, her face beaming with excitement. “Look how different this side is shaped. There’s practically man-made platforms all the way down.”
I can’t help but frown in disappointment. Hunter immediately sighs in relief. And Alex nods, yet somehow appears disinterested.
“I’m still rappelling,” I boldly make known.
“What?” Morgan says sharply. “Why?”
“Because it’s fun,” I explain, making my way to the tree. “But also because I need to. I promise I’ll be careful.”
I pull out my rope and start wrapping it around the twisted sideways trunk. As soon as I toss the rope down the cliff, I adjust the length around the trunk of the tree.
Hunter immediately parks himself in front of me, a look of genuine concern on his face.
“Hey, you can trust me,” I try to appease him. “I know what I’m doing.”
“I don’t care. It’s not worth the risk,” he argues, his voice almost pleading with me.
“Alex, can you please tell him I’ll be fine.”
“You realize the friction of that rope is going to hurt,” Alex points out. “You’re up about thirty feet. That’s a lot of give and take to endure.”
“I can handle it. Don’t worry.”
Before anyone can change my mind, I step in between the gray climbing ropes and wrap them around my waist. Then I take one more step over the ropes and pull them through my legs and out one side, creating a makeshift harness.
Alex kindly inspects the line, even giving it a good tug. “Make sure you really lean back as you let off pressure. And remember, it’s your only way to break, so play it safe.”
My heart starts to race. “I will.”
“Are we really going to let her do this?” Hunter inquires, hardening his gaze at his relaxed best friend.
“It’s her life, bro. Besides, it’s really not that difficult. As long as she’s not distracted and has a good headspace, she’ll be fine.”
“Whatever,” Hunter scoffs, pacing a few steps away from us.
I walk backwards to the edge of the rock, my nerves almost getting the best of me. I hate that Hunter’s upset, but it’s not enough to stop me. With a giant inhale of breath, I guide my feet in small stages over the cliff and immediately lean back, both my hands holding a set of the rope. I’m careful to let off a little pressure with my right hand, taking me down a few inches. Right away, a surge of adrenaline courses through me. I notice my ears are alert, tuned into the sounds around me. I can smell the particles of dirt and dust as my boots brush up against the rock.
Not much later, I’m reminded of the harsh elements, as the sun heats my backside. Even though I’m tempted to go faster, I tell myself it’s not a sprint.
“Guys, this is amazing,” I say loudly, continuing to gain a sense of freedom and confidence.
“Glad to hear it,” Alex says. “But don’t get too cocky. Stay focused.”
Everything is going as it should. I’m feeling brave and confident, happy and excited. But then I realize I’m only halfway down. I still need to make it the rest of the way. Safely.
I pause my descent for a moment. The friction around my waist is really starting to bother me. As I try to adjust the rope, my foot scrapes off a piece of the rock. It startles me a little.
“Everything OK?” Alex shouts.
“I’m good. Just taking a breather.”
Seconds later more rocks come loose and start tumbling down, causing me to lose focus. Fear sets in. I can hear my heart pounding in my chest. Instead of remaining calm and trusting my instincts, I panic and lean forward. A disastrous mistake. The rope becomes loose around me, making me lose my grip. As I fall, I try to grab hold of something. No such luck. It’s all happening so fast. There’s barely time to scream. But I do cry out. A short almost mumbled cry.
With only seconds before I hit the ground, I close my eyes and try to brace for the painful impact.
But instead of feeling the hard ground, my arms and legs feel the touch of warm skin. A powerful smell of wet hair mixed with an earthy aroma wafts to my nose. I open my eyes and see the most unexpected/unexplainable thing. A man with black shoulder-length hair and golden sparkly eyes staring back at me.
“Is this a dream?” I ask, unable to take my eyes off his beautiful olive complexion.
“No, but you might be in shock,” he says, voice gentle and calm.
I reach for his face, unwilling to believe him. My hand caresses his cheek, sweeping it down his sharp jaw line. He doesn’t say a word, but his small smile grows into an adoring expression.
As I remove my hand, my eyes start to linger past his neck. His chest is bare. Muscular. Bronzed.
“You OK down there?” I hear Hunter yell.
The angle of the rock formation doesn’t allow me to see him, or him me. At this point, I’m not even sure any of them saw me fall.
“Yes! I’m fine!” I holler back.
The broad-shouldered guy speaks again, gently settling me to my feet. “I’m glad you’re OK,” he says.
“Thanks to you,” I say, tucking my hair behind my ears.
Wait. Are my eyes deceiving me? Oh, Wow! Nope.
The man in front of me is in fact naked. Butt naked. My eyes grow wide as I gawk at the sculpted body in front of me.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he explains, covering his front with his hands as if he suddenly remembered he was nude. “I fell into a pond earlier and was drying off.”
“Oh, umm…OK then,” I stumble to say, feeling my face heat up.
“I should go,” he says, already backing away.
“Wait—what’s your name?” I step forward.
“West,” he says, turning around to run. “My name’s West.”