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Winter, 1975

MORE THAN A DAY’S WALK: A story in 20 stanzas

A classic BACKPACKER story from the winter 1975 issue of BACKPACKER

At my shoulder loom the mountain. If I looked I’d see new clouds hiding old peaks. But I could not go back. Not now, after yesterday’s snow.

And at last I am walking toward the gap. A week ago, through this gap in a line of low hills that furrow the plain, I saw the tips of dark spruce trees. It seemed only a small stand of trees, but the tips pointed and promised. Although I had already reached the foothills of the mountains when I saw the trees, I knew that to stand among them I would have to make more than a day’s journey.

No trees stand in the mountains. You live between rock and cloud. But I was born into the mountains. And once, when I was young, before the rock eroded, I believed in them.

No trees stand in their foothills either, or on this tundra before the gap. And in the foothills, among the caribou, rifles thump. I languished many many days among the rifles, while rain fell on soft moss. Peering through my tent door across the sodden tundra, I told myself each day that the Promised Land always lies on the other side of the wilderness.

But now at last the gap lies just ahead. I think it’s the right gap, the one through which I glimpsed the tips of those dark spruce trees. I wish I were sure, though. Yet perhaps I do not really wish I were sure, or without fear.

Th threes looked very dark, I remember. But although I saw only their tips I knew how they stood. They stood conical and elegant, standing as trees should, reaching for the sky. Should trees have standing?

Knowing it was more than a day’s walk, I left the foothills late yesterday afternoon as soon as the rain stopped and the clouds lifted to show new snow on the mountains. I walked westward across the tundra, eagerly, toward the distant gap. I had no map. For me, for all of us, this is uncharted country.

I camped last night beside a sullen, windswept tarn. No moon rose. But this morning, early, a herd of caribou drifted past, cropping lichen. Through glasses, I could see veins and arteries standing out on their brown faces.

The caribou drifted eastward, unknowing, toward the rifles. I walked on westward, knowing, toward the gap. Above me soared seven ravens. I walked on across the treeless tundra, alone yet accompanied, toward the trees that would stand as trees should stand.

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