Looking up Sheldon Creek. Effectuated by making it this far without submerging my boots once in river water—deft side-skirting, hanging on of root as glacial braids of the Toklat guzzled Away and North, to Yukon or further mysteries, ten feet below where I clung to sand that fell if you looked at it.
For the hundredth time, I think: why am I alone?
It starts raining. Within seconds my insides drown.
Denali Park’s belly rises 7,500 feet, since—my map assures—peaks I’m staring at are six-grand. Swaying left and right so they’re wind chimes. Sheldon Creek boils. Not silty like glacial-fed waters. Clear. Rocks all colors of tropical fish, which once comprised the body and blood of Mt. Sheldon, now smaller than my fist, swim seasick at the commotion of rain, bob, drunkenly, toward and away from confluence of creek and river. Snowmelt ejaculates in the cinnamon-grayness, swirling. Autumn reds and yellows glow ruthless in shadows.
I slip rain gear over my body and pack, leaving out the bear container holding my food and valuables. Having awoke at 4:30 to catch a bus, to get within six miles of Mt. Sheldon, not counting two of Sheldon Creek, I didn’t manage breakfast, instead busily forgetting everything important to bring on this trip.
Digging for rain-gadgets, failing to see any shelter amidst my belongings now twisted like organs in a cloth cadaver. I have a moment, I see the utter smallness of me, my pathetic pack, so that my stomach lurches and the blunt stupidity of this trip hits me like the knife of a street- murderer. All I can do is hold tight to this dream, forsake comfort a sad walk and sadder bus ride six miles could bring. Terror-comforts: coffee shops, hotel phenomenology, the metric-measure chilidog.
At least I have a sleeping bag. (It later rolls down a hill.) All my austere planning, up the crick without a pallet. I gag on trail mix. In my bear container, next to my camp stove, is a thimble’s-worth of pot. Which in prison would merit fifty dollars. Here it’s worth more.
The backcountry office requires viewing a grim video where two bears exterminate a campsite over scented hand wipes. Natural-scented, these wipes. My hands sweat. I drag my Model of Rugged Outdoor Savvy beneath the closest, largest, spruce tree, and collapse on needle dandruff.
Hands shaking, product of hunger and bears, it’s tricky to get the joint rolled. In proud accomplishment, I’m able after seven or eight tries to get my waterproof lighter to put up a commensurate fight. In shear amazement, the spruce tree does not erupt in flames.
Alders slip naked fingers around Sheldon Creek and the rain impresses them closer so they touch where they once hadn’t. The wind blows trees and loneliness through my heart.
A golden eagle soars black, its neck snaps—though, no one hears it—searching vole-snacks lured from cavernous tunnels by the rain. And the sun burns the necks of clouds and their shoulders steam and drop gold on the rivers.
Cannabinoids with their soothing anxiety flush my blood and perform a cloud- dance for my subconscious. On wobbly legs, I drift closer to where I must go, eyes on HIGH ALERT.
A reader with experience must remember, before one begins, one knows nothing. I couldn’t know, the professional photographer also solo-hiking a few nothing-miles away, snapped his camera while candidly a grizzly held tight his dinner of river root. Crept the professional brazenly closer, and bear brought roots ever nearer his purple heart, from his side-eye, hating the professional; eventually (camera, later found, boasted twelve minutes of cameos) the grizzly would slowly charge and delicately place his mouth around the man’s neck, until his head popped and rolled the river bottom. (When you come upon a recently occupied bear-bed, made of fur and ferns, the smell raises the hairs of your neck perpendicular—I didn’t know.) I couldn’t know, yet, after tree-line, as I shook persistent rain from my head, behind me the sun carved light-cones through clouds, illuminating the river valley in interspersing dots much like boats at harbor. Within each stood a rainbow, not arching, but traveling up the way paper towels get their shape.
I stare at creek.
Around me the horizon is close.
Tyler Dempsey wrote the poetry collection Newspaper Drumsticks and chapbook Time as a Sort of Enemy. His first novel, Consumption, is forthcoming at Bear Creek Press. He’s a fiction reader at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Find him on Twitter @tylercdempsey.