With her thirtieth birthday looming, Liz Kroft is heading for the hills—literally. Her emotional baggage weighs her down more than her backpack, but a three-week trek promises the solitude she craves—at least until her boyfriend, Dante, decides to tag along. His broad moral streak makes the prospect of confessing her sins more difficult, but as much as she fears his judgment, she fears losing him more. Maybe.
They set off together alone under blue skies, but it’s not long before storms threaten and two strange brothers appear along the trail. Amid the jagged, towering peaks, Liz must decide whether to admit her mistakes and confront her fears, or face the trail, the brothers and her future alone.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
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Liz hopped from foot to foot and hugged herself against the cold. She glanced at the porch of the Yosemite Valley Wilderness Office, where Dante stood with his back to her, chatting with some other hikers. His shoulders shrugged and dropped, and his hands danced this way and that. He was telling a story—a funny one, judging by the faces of his audience—but not a backpacking story because he didn’t have any. His idea of a wilderness adventure was staring out the window during spin class at the gym. Not that it mattered. He could have been describing the self-contradictory worldview of the guy who changes his oil, or the merits of homemade tamales, or even acting out the latest viral cat video. Liz had known him for over two years and still couldn’t decipher how he captured strangers’ attention without apparent effort. Dante was black velvet and other people were lint.
Their backpacks sat nearby on a wooden bench like stiff-backed strangers waiting for a bus. The impulse to grab hers and take off without him shot through her. She quelled it with the reminder that his pack contained essential gear for completing the three-week hike. The John Muir Trail. Her hike. At least that had been the plan.
She propped her left hiking boot on the bench, retied it, folded down the top of her sock and paced a few steps along the sidewalk to see if she’d gotten them even. It wasn’t yet nine a.m., and Yosemite Village already had a tentative, waking buzz. Two teenage girls in pajama pants and oversize sweatshirts walked past, dragging their Uggs on the concrete. Bleary-eyed dads pushed strollers, and Patagonia types with day packs marched purposefully among the buildings: restaurants, a grocery store, a medical clinic, a visitor’s center, gift shops, a fire station, even a four-star hotel. What a shame the trail had to begin in the middle of this circus. Liz couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
She fished Dante’s iPhone out of the zippered compartment on top of his pack and called Valerie. They’d been best friends for eleven years, since freshman year in college, when life had come with happiness the way a phone plan came with minutes.
Valerie answered. “Dante?”
“No. It’s me.”
“Where’s your phone?”
“Asleep in the car. No service most of the way. Even here I’ve only got one bar.”
“Dante’s going to go nuts if he can’t use his phone.”
“You think? How’s Muesli?” Valerie was cat-sitting for her.
“Does he ever look at you like he thinks you’re an idiot?”
“All the time.”
“Then he’s fine.”
“How’s the slipper commute?” Valerie worked as a Web designer, mostly from home, and had twenty sets of pajamas hanging in her closet as if they were business suits.
“Just firing up the machine. You get your permits?”
“Try to sound more psyched.”
How could she be psyched when this wasn’t the trip she’d planned? She was supposed to hike the John Muir Trail—the JMT—alone. With a few thousand square miles of open territory surrounding her, she hoped to find a way to a truer life. She sure didn’t know the way now. Each turn she’d taken, each decision she’d made—including moving in with Dante six months ago—had seemed right at the time, yet none were right, based as they were on a series of unchallenged assumptions and quiet lies, one weak moral link attached to the next, with the truth at the tail end, whipping away from her again and again.
Maybe, she’d whispered to herself, she could have a relationship with Dante and share a home if she pretended there was no reason she couldn’t. She loved him enough to almost believe it could work. But she’d hardly finished unpacking before her doubts had mushroomed. She became desperate for time away—from the constant stream of friends in Dante’s wake, from the sense of sliding down inside a funnel that led to marriage, from becoming an indeterminate portion of something called “us”—and could not tell Dante why. Not then or since. That was the crux of it. Instead, she told Dante that years ago she’d abandoned a plan to hike the JMT and now wanted to strike it off her list before she turned thirty in November. She had no list, but he accepted her explanation, and her true motivation wriggled free.
The Park Service issued only a few permits for each trailhead. She’d faxed in her application as soon as she decided to go. When she received e-mail confirmation, a crosscurrent of relief and dread flooded her. In two months’ time, she would have her solitude, her bitter medicine.
Then two weeks before her start date, Dante announced he was joining her.
“You’ve never been backpacking, and now you want to go two hundred and twenty miles?”
“I would miss you.” He opened his hands as if that were the simple truth.
There had to be more to it than that. Why else would he suggest embarking on a journey they both knew would make him miserable? She tried to talk him out of it. He didn’t like nature, the cold or energy bars. It made no sense. But he was adamant, and brushed her concerns aside. She’d had no choice but to capitulate.
Now she told Valerie, “I am psyched. In fact, I want to hit the trail right now, but Dante’s holding court in the Wilderness Office.”
“I can’t believe you’ll be out of touch for three weeks. What am I going to do without you? Who am I going to talk to?”
“Yourself, I guess. Put an earbud in and walk around holding your phone like a Geiger counter. You could be an incognito schizophrenic.”
“I’ll be reduced to that.” She dropped her voice a notch. “Listen. I have to ask you again. You sure you feel up to this?”
Liz reflexively placed her hand on her lower abdomen. “I’m fine. I swear. It’s just a hike.”
“When I have to park a block from Trader Joe’s, that’s a hike. Two hundred miles is something else. And your miscarriage was less than three weeks ago.”
As if Dante could have overheard, she turned and walked a few more steps down the sidewalk. “I feel great.”
“And you’re going to tell Dante soon and not wait for the absolute perfect moment.”
Despite the cold, Liz’s palms were slick with sweat. Her boyfriend knew nothing of her pregnancy, but her friend didn’t have the whole story either. Valerie had made her daily call to Liz and learned she was home sick, but she’d been vague about the reason. Knowing Dante was out of town, Valerie had stopped by and found Liz lying on the couch, a heating pad on her belly.
“No,” Liz had said, staring at the rug. “Worse.”
Valerie had assumed she’d had a miscarriage, not an abortion, and Liz hadn’t corrected her. Next to her deceit of Dante, it seemed minor. Valerie had made her promise she would tell him, but when Liz ran the conversation through her mind, she panicked. If she revealed this bit of information, the whole monstrous truth might tumble out, and she would lose him for certain.
“I will tell him. And I’ll make sure I’ve got room to run when I do.”
“He’ll understand. It’s not like it was your fault.”
Liz’s chest tightened. “Val, listen—”
“Crap! I just noticed the time. I’ve got a call in two minutes, so this is good-bye.”
“Don’t get lost.”
“Don’t fall off a cliff.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Watch out for bears.”
“I love bears! And they love me.”
“Of course they do. So do I.”
“And me you. ’Bye.”
Liz put the phone away. She checked the zippers and tightened the straps on both backpacks. On a trip this long, they couldn’t afford to lose anything. Besides, a pack with loose straps tended to creak, and she didn’t like creaking.
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!”
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?”
“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.
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.
She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice and pointed to the downstream trail. “It’s this way.”
“Really?” the older brother said. “I was sure it was the other way.”
The younger one added, “Thanks for saving us the mistake.”
“No problem,” Dante said, waving.
They started off again. Before the trail veered to the left, Liz looked over her shoulder. The older brother stared in her direction. Given the distance, she couldn’t be certain, but she thought she detected a smirk on his face.
At six thirty, the sun hovered above the horizon, and they stopped for the day. The campsite overlooked Long Meadow, a vast expanse ringed with pines. The Echo Peaks and Matthes Crest stood guard in the distance. Tawny grasses in the meadow awaited the first precipitation since early May, and the tops of the peaks had lost their snow.
Dante groaned as he lowered his pack to the ground, then sat on a fallen log to take off his boots. Liz unpacked the tent and began clearing pinecones and other debris from the rectangle she’d chosen for their shelter.
“How are your tootsies?”
He crossed his ankle over his knee and examined the damage. His boots were new, as was the rest of his gear and clothing, but unlike everything else, he’d refused Liz’s advice on which boots to buy. She agreed that his choice, Italian Zamberlans, were fantastic boots, but doubted he would have time to break them in and suggested he pick a lighter, more modern style he could wear off the shelf. He’d ordered the Zamberlans, and she had packed plenty of moleskin.
“Several, but not all, of my toes have sore spots.” He pointed out the red areas and turned his foot over. “And this looks perhaps like a blister on my heel.”
Liz unfurled the groundsheet with a snap. Blisters on Day One. Not a good start. “Tomorrow morning please mole-ify all of them.”
“Okay, Mama.” He sniffed his underarm. “I smell like a pig!”
“Well, you’re in luck. I read there’s a standpipe nearby because of the High Sierra Camp. We don’t have to filter water, and if you carry it away from the pipe, you can wash, too. Luxurious, huh?”
“Yes. It’s wonderful that, after today’s efforts, I will be treated to a bath in a saucepan.”
“A cold bath in a saucepan.”
She clipped the tent ceiling to the arc of the central pole, then fitted the crosspiece through the grommets, forming the roof. “Ta-da!” She’d hoped Dante would clap, but he continued to worry his toes.
A hiker came around a stand of trees a dozen yards away. Though the light was failing, he wore sunglasses and had trouble finding his way. He wasn’t anywhere near the trail.
“Hey, there!” She waved at him. “Are you lost?”
“Maybe.” He took a step, caught his toe on a log and stumbled a few steps before righting himself. She guessed he was orienting by sound. “I’m looking for the High Sierra Camp.”
“Oh, lucky you. I hear those camps are swank.”
Probing delicately, he took baby steps toward them. “I hope so. I just learned about it today.”
Dante looked up from his podiatric pity-party and addressed Liz. “Why aren’t we staying there?”
“Because we’re stoic.” She noted Dante’s pout. “Well, some of us are. Besides, you have to reserve months in advance.”
The man stopped dead. “Are you shitting me?” He unclasped his hip belt and threw the straps off his shoulders as if they were the strangling arms of a rabid orangutan. The pack hit a boulder with a crunch of metal and glass.
Liz said, “Was that a camera?”
The man ignored her and she regarded him with concern. She couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t taken off his sunglasses, nor could she fathom why anyone who seemed so unhappy about roughing it would be backpacking alone. Dante, at least, had a reason for being here, even if he had no clue what he was getting himself into. She had tried to warn him, but when he began to take her warnings as evidence for her lack of feelings for him, she backed off. But this stranger was another story. Why would he put himself through this? Did he lose a bet?
The man kicked his pack several times, shouting, “I’m gonna kill him! I’m gonna kill him!” with each kick. Spent, he staggered in a small circle, tripped on a rock and came down hard on his hip. “Goddamn fucking rocks everywhere!”
Dante jumped up to help him but realized he was barefoot and sat again. He didn’t do barefoot. “Are you okay?”
The man had lost his sunglasses in the self-induced fray and was searching for them on his hands and knees.
“Are you visually impaired?” Liz asked, thinking the impairment was more likely mental.
For some reason, this question calmed him. He looked straight at her.
“Oh!” She pointed at him and couldn’t help jumping up and down in excitement. “You’re that guy!” She turned to catch Dante’s eye so he could verify her I.D., but he was digging in his backpack. “Dante!”
He didn’t look up. “What? I’m trying to find my camp shoes.”
“It’s that guy! The one in the movie!”
“Oh, here they are.” He bent to strap on the shoes. “My feet are killing me. What movie?”
Liz continued to point at the man, so when Dante finally finished with his shoes, he’d know whom to look at. The man sat on a rock in the Thinker pose and rubbed his hip with his free hand. He seemed to be reminding himself to refrain from betting on a day never getting worse.
“The movie we saw last week. He played the dumb cop.” She shrugged at the man in apology.
He raised his hand. No offense taken. “Matthew Brensen,” he said. “Just to end the suspense.”
“That’s right!” she said, then caught herself. “Of course, you would know that.”
Dante walked over, introduced himself and Liz, and shook Matthew Brensen’s hand. The actor was not a big star—he’d never win an Oscar—but was famous enough that his embarrassing moments had a better than even chance of ending up on Entertainment Tonight.
Brensen said, “Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m doing out here?”
“Having a bad day?” Liz offered. The excitement of a celebrity sighting was wearing off. She was tired and wanted to eat dinner before it got any darker and colder.
He nodded sadly. “I let my fucking agent sign me up for a lead in a goddamn backpacking movie. Smart, right? But, okay, I go with it. Expand my scope and all that horseshit. Then the director says I need to find out what it’s like.” The anger flared in his voice again. He spread his arms wide. “So here I fucking am. And you know what it’s like? It fucking bites!”
Dante nodded sympathetically. Brensen pulled out his phone, and cursed when he couldn’t get a signal. Over their heads the sky was chambray blue, fading to pale pink at the horizon. The setting sun cast an amber glow on the distant peaks. A handful of deer had gathered in the meadow, heads low.
“Tell you what,” she said to Brensen. “Dante’s about to have a cold bath in a saucepan. You’re more than welcome to join him.”
• • •
The next morning, as soon as she judged it light enough, Liz crept out of the tent, leaving Dante dead to the world. Their body heat had warmed the interior; leaving it was like walking into a freezer. She pulled her fleece hat from the pocket of her down jacket and slipped it on, tugging it over her ears.
She poured water from a Nalgene bottle into the pot—the only one—and lit the stove. The quarter-sized circle of blue flame hissed, and she smiled. Morning in the mountains. She climbed a nearby granite shelf to get a better view, her thighs complaining about yesterday’s hike.
No questioning how Sunrise Camp got its name. The meadow stretched two miles in front of her, cast in near darkness, but the sun had found the Cathedral Peaks, painting them a warm orange, a promise for the coming day. The air was completely still, her breath in her ears the only sound. It was morning distilled, the sun rising on a quiet world, a mute witness. To Liz, it was both the oldest miraculous event, and the newest. This one belonged to her, and she to it.
She swallowed hard and shivered. Hugging herself, she descended to the campsite. The water would be ready. Coffee beckoned.
While Dante slept on, she prepared for the day. She retrieved the bear cans from where they had stashed them last night. The cans were large bear-proof plastic cylinders in which the Park Service required they store all their food, toiletries and trash. Liz and Dante each carried one, which, with careful planning, could hold food for ten days. Although, as Dante pointed out, not the food you really wanted and not enough of the other kind either.
Numb with cold, her fingers fumbled with the catches on the lids, so she used a spoon handle to open the cans. She rehydrated milk for granola and set aside the food they’d eat during the day (energy bars, trail mix, wax-wrapped cheese and dense bread) so the bear cans could stay inside the packs. After she drank her fill of water, she went to the standpipe and refilled the bottles. Brensen’s pack rested against a tree. Next to it lay a gigantic larvae—Brensen in his bag. Only the top of his hat showed. He’d been too pissed off to bother with his tent, a fine decision as long as it didn’t rain.
She returned to their site, stuffed her sleeping bag into its sack and deflated her air mattress. As she worked, the line dividing dark from light marched across the meadow. She looked at her watch. Seven thirty. Time to wake Sleeping Beauty.
Dante had never been a morning person, and he certainly wasn’t going to be a convert this morning. The sleeping bag was warm, he mumbled from inside, and his legs and shoulders felt as if he’d been pummeled by a prizefighter during the night.
“Wasn’t me,” she said, cheerfully. She reminded him that today was mostly downhill.
“As in ‘it’s downhill from here’?”
She bit her tongue to stop herself from reminding him he had asked to come, that it had been his idea. It was too early in the trip, and too early on a pristine morning to go down that road. Instead, she began disassembling the tent around him. He held out while she removed and folded the fly, but when she slid the pole out and the tent collapsed on him, Dante relented. Once he was up, the cold accelerated his preparations and within twenty minutes, they were on their way.
The trail took them past Brensen, firmly lodged in his cocoon. Liz commented it was a shame his face wasn’t visible so they could take a photo and send it to the tabloids when they got to Tuolumne Meadows.
Dante twitched with excitement. “There’s reception there?”
“So they say.”
“And a store with lots of food.”
“And campsites with plasma screen TVs, Dolby sound and reclining chairs with cup holders.”
His footsteps stopped. “Really?”
Liz turned, put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him. “No.”
“But you weren’t joking about the beer, right? Because there’s nothing funny about that.”
• • •
The prospect of evening refreshments buoyed Dante’s mood for several hours, right up until the moment he was splashing water on his face and slipped into Cathedral Lake. He was soaked from the knees down. All he could do was change his socks and march on. The moisture would worsen his blisters, but at least the terrain over the remaining five miles to Tuolumne Meadows was relatively flat.
They knew they were close when they passed three dozen Korean tourists wearing sneakers and Vans instead of boots. Signs pointed them to the campground, an enormous maze of sites, most of which were occupied. And not simply occupied but fully inhabited. TVs glowed through the windows of RVs bigger than school buses. Generators hummed. People in tidy clothing watched them pass from screened-in picnic tables and lounge chairs. Liz felt like a refugee carrying all her worldly possessions through a city that had never known war.
She couldn’t understand the attraction of parking a rolling house in a national park. For her, the section of the John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows was a gauntlet to run. Sure, the scenery was beautiful, but she resented having to suffer crowds to enjoy it. They would be turning south tomorrow, toward the wilder reaches of the trail. It could not happen soon enough.
In an ocean of RVs, the backpackers’ campground had a throwback feel, but with the amenities of a picnic table, a fire ring, a bear locker and access to a store, running water and real toilets, it was barely camping. Dante was delighted. He dropped his pack at the first open site, changed his shoes, asked her what she wanted from the store and took off.
Liz did some reconnaissance to find a quieter site. Not far from the entrance she passed a yellow tent. No one was around. On the picnic table were two blue backpacks she recognized as belonging to the brothers they’d met yesterday. She headed in the opposite direction and selected a site with a measure of privacy. She tore a page from a small notebook, drew an arrow on it and returned to Dante’s pack, where she wedged it under a strap. Returning to the site, she began to make camp.
A half hour later, Dante showed up with his arms loaded. He grinned and said, “Guess who I saw at the store?”
“No, those guys from yesterday. Remember?”
“How could I forget? They were pretty weird.”
“I don’t understand why you say that. Payton and Rodell were extremely friendly.”
“You’re kidding me, right? About the names?”
“No. Payton and Rodell Root. From Arcata, wherever that is.”
“Northern California. Way, way north.”
“Maybe it’s a regional thing. Anyway, they didn’t name themselves.”
“I guess not.”
“They met some guys having a bocce game later. They invited us.”
“Later? When later?” She checked her watch. Nearly six already.
“Eight or so.”
“Eight or so, I’m asleep. We have to leave early tomorrow. Aren’t you tired?” Stupid question, really. If there was a social activity, he was game. Always.
“No! My feet hurt, but I’m good.” He unpacked his haul: beer, cold cuts, bread, chocolate and ibuprofen. Dante’s food pyramid.
“Dante, I’m serious about leaving early.”
He frowned. “What’s the rush? I love it here.” He held up his phone. “I’ve got three bars!”
“You know what the rush is. We have to make it to Muir Trail Ranch, the halfway point, before they close for the season. Otherwise, we have no food for the last nine days. If we don’t walk an average of fourteen miles a day, we won’t make it. You know all this.”
“Okay, but I also know this is supposed to be a vacation. And so far it doesn’t feel that way.”
“It is a vacation. A strenuous one.”
“That’s a . . . what do you call it? An oxymormon.”
“That’s a detergent popular in Utah. I believe you mean ‘oxymoron.’”
“Yes, a moron. Because only a moron would design such a vacation!”
She leaned toward him and met his gaze. “Is this you giving this your best shot? Because I’m distinctly underwhelmed. I didn’t come here to play bocce. I didn’t come here to drink beer, although I’ll be having one in a minute. And, to be completely frank with you, I didn’t come here to be your cheerleader, your butler or your mother.” She stood. “Do what you want. I’m leaving at seven thirty tomorrow.” She grabbed a beer and walked away.
She went to bed alone. As exhausted as she was, she didn’t fall asleep for a long time. Someone setting up camp in a neighboring site repeatedly shone their flashlights on her tent. Then they spent ages talking loudly on their phones. Several times she thought about getting up and confronting them, but the freezing temperature kept her inside. Besides, she’d had enough confrontation for one day.
Dante woke her when he unzipped the tent and wriggled into his sleeping bag. He didn’t say anything, nor did she. She checked her watch—it was one fifteen—but she was past caring.
She awoke at dawn and crawled over Dante to get out. He was a champion sleeper. He fell asleep the second he closed his eyes and slept through earthquakes, parties, fireworks, thunderstorms and, most impressively, the frantic high-pitched barking of their neighbor’s dog. Usually she thought it indicated he had a clear conscience. Today she thought it indicated he was lazy.
When she retrieved the cans from the bear locker and placed them on the table, she saw Dante had left out his socks—the relatively dry ones. They had absorbed the dew and were primed to maximize blister potential. She shook her head and gathered what she needed to make coffee. Not long afterward, Dante surprised her by emerging from the tent of his own volition. He was no beacon of joy, but at least she didn’t have to collapse the tent on him.
They left the campground and picked up the trail at the bottom of a gentle slope, Liz in the lead and Dante trailing behind. At the bridge spanning the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, an older couple was poring over a map and sharing an apple. They exchanged greetings but Liz didn’t stop to chat. She was chilled and wanted to keep moving. Today they were finally going to leave the developed part of Yosemite, and she was eager.
“You don’t have to walk so fast,” Dante called after her.
She slowed a little. “I’m not walking fast. I’m just not hungover.”
He caught up to her with a hobbling step. “I’m not hungover either. I’m disabled.”
“Wet socks plus new boots equals unhappy feet. Isn’t the moleskin helping?”
“I didn’t have time to put it on. You were in such a hurry.”
She whipped around and stared at him. “So it’s my fault? Dante, how have you survived thirty-two years?”
“By driving when I need to go ten miles, and occasionally taking public transportation.”
She picked up her pace. “If you have reception, try calling a cab.”
Complaining, Liz believed, was a matter of opportunity and practice, and Dante had had plenty of both. As the youngest of four children, and the only boy, he was routinely indulged. Had he contained an ounce of malice, he would have become a despot. His sweet nature and abundant charm guaranteed that when he did grouse about the fundamental unfairness of life, he would be forgiven. Because he was an optimist, he did not complain routinely. That, and because he never had it that bad.
Liz was the only child of an egocentric mother and an absentee father, and had lacked an audience for her grievances. Her practical nature also made her disinclined to complain. A problem could either be fixed (usually by her) or it couldn’t, and confusing the two was a waste of time. She instead directed her efforts at improving what she could—hence her job providing limbs for people who needed them—rather than railing at an obviously flawed universe. Find a problem that matters, fix it and shut the hell up about the rest. Growing up, she kept her own counsel, eschewing the gossip and social maneuvering that drove other girls’ relationships, and had few friends because of it. She never intended to be awkward, or to hide. It was simply who she was and how she was raised.
Eventually, as her world widened, her habit of not expressing her hopes, disappointments and desires tripped her up. Because a lie or, more accurately, the absence of truth, was akin to grit in an oyster. Once it had been covered with a silky crystalline coating, again and again, it didn’t feel the same. No one could see it—it’s not as though someone could pry her open—and the currents of time kept moving past her. But Liz could feel pearls of the lies and subverted desires inside her, lodged in her soul. They presented a problem she didn’t know how to fix.
The trail up Lyell Canyon required little concentration. The base of the canyon was broad and flat, with golden meadows on either side of a winding river. The trail didn’t do anything fancy, starting on the west side of the riverbank and continuing along for nine miles. After that, the map told her, the river narrowed to a rushing creek, and the trail climbed steeply to Donahue Pass. But for now, it was either easy going or monotonous, depending on how one looked at it. River on the left, forest on the right, and Potter Point and Amelia Earhart Peak dead ahead. The sky was clear, and the warming sun lifted the dew off the grass. A walk in the park.
Which was why Dante’s silence worried her.
He was thinking hard about something, something serious enough to overwhelm his usual compulsion to talk. Normally she would welcome the quiet, content with the company of her own thoughts. But now her only thoughts were what Dante was contemplating as he took one step after another behind her. There was no point in asking him before he was ready, only a matter of how far up the canyon they would travel before he let her in.
It turned out to be six miles. She told him she was ready for a snack. She left the trail and set her pack down a few feet from the river’s edge. He joined her and accepted the energy bar she offered. As she unwrapped hers, she scanned the water for trout. Within a few seconds, she spied a fish whose wriggling disrupted its camouflage against the mottled olive green riverbed. It darted under the shadow of rock and vanished.
“Liz,” Dante said from behind her. “I think I made a mistake.” She turned. His eyes were dark and a knot had formed between his eyebrows. “I shouldn’t have come. I should have stayed home.”
“The blisters are bad, huh?” she said, knowing blisters weren’t the issue.
“Yes, but that’s not it.”
Her stomach twisted. All the frustration she had been swallowing over the last three days rose to the back of her throat, acrid. “It’s hard! This hike is really hard. I tried to be realistic with you about it. I warned you.” The chastising tone of her voice made her wince. She coiled the wrapper of the energy bar around her finger, unfurled it and coiled it again.
“You’re not understanding me. I didn’t come because I was sure I could do it, and I’m not thinking about leaving because I can’t.”
She bit her lower lip. It wasn’t about the hike. Of course not. She just wanted it to be. “Why did you want to come then?”
He picked up her hand and held it between his. “Because I thought I would lose you if I didn’t.” His voice dropped. “I thought you knew that.”
She did. She didn’t.
She wasn’t certain what she knew. She was angry with him, but was that fair? He’d acted out of desperation, fueled by fear and love. Why else would he have insisted on coming? It was so obvious she almost laughed at the audacity of her stubborn denial.
He squeezed her hand. “Say something. Please.”
This was the moment in which she should explain everything. Valerie’s voice spoke in her head, telling her not to be such a pussy and spit it out. Liz could tell him about the pregnancy and how confused and scared she had been, and how sharing the news with him (clearly the right thing to do in retrospect) had been impossible because she was certain he’d want to have the baby. He was Catholic and had a moral streak as wide as Lyell Canyon. She, on the other hand, maintained she had nothing against religion but was holding out for one that revered the periodic table. Unfortunately, as much as humor helped her cope with the mistakes she’d made, it appeared useless in preventing them. If only she could graft a simplifying moral structure into her brain using the technology she designed for artificial limbs.
Telling Dante she’d been pregnant would lead to confessing to the abortion. During her interior rehearsals, this was where she forgot her lines. That confession, however worded, would inevitably lead to owning up to her ambivalence about living with him. Except for fleeting moments when she forgot her own painful history and she was simply happy, she hadn’t found level footing, the graceful certainty she’d done the right thing by moving in.
If she somehow managed to admit to the abortion (highly unlikely), and if Dante was still listening (inconceivable), she would have no choice but to explain why her actions had nothing to do with him. He would be relieved, and possibly encouraged, because it meant they’d have a chance after all—assuming he suffered an episode of amnesia regarding the abortion. But his relief would be misguided. And to explain why, she would have to voice something she had never told anyone, not even Valerie. When he heard that story, he would leave and never come back.
Which, from the look of things, might happen anyway.
She took her hand away on the pretense of pushing her bangs from her eyes.
“I wanted to do this hike alone. I wasn’t leaving you.”
He shook his head. “But you’ve been distant for a while. Like you’re making plans without me.”
“I was. I was planning this trip. And then you started having an issue with it.”
“Only because it seemed so . . . so, I don’t know, necessary to you.”
“And your problem with that is what? I’m too independent?”
He frowned deeply. She could see the answer was “yes.” She felt sorry for him, because her “independence” was, in part, a product of all the things he didn’t know about her. She kept truths from him because he wouldn’t love her otherwise, and she wanted his love. Her secrets were wrapped in a cloak of self-sufficiency she could both hide behind and hold up as a virtue. Independence was a flag American women waved proudly, and Liz knew Dante was drawn to this in her. His mother was a highly emotional woman who could do little more than breathe on her own, and his entire family had suffered because of it.
“Too independent? Of course not,” he said.
“Look, Dante, I was actually fine with you coming along if you really wanted to. And if you respected the way I wanted it to be.” Not entirely true, but true enough to state with conviction.
He regarded her with skepticism. “I think you were testing me. And I failed.”
“Now you’re feeling sorry for yourself. Why couldn’t you just have let me go? It could have been that simple.”
“Simple for you, Liz. Not so simple for me. Not when I don’t understand what’s going on with us!” He took a couple of steps back, turned away from her and threw his hands in the air. “Shit!”
Excerpted from "The Middle of Somewhere"
Copyright © 2015 Sonja Yoerg.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for House Broken
"A stunning debut that will leave readers wanting more! Yoerg is on par with established women’s fiction authors such as Jennifer Weiner and Sarah Pekkanen." – Starred Library Journal Review
“Sonja Yoerg creates a compelling tale of a family gone awry, and the ultimate cost of maintaining shameful secrets. House Broken is everything I love in women’s fiction…beautiful writing, strong characters, a dash of mystery, and the hope for redemption.” Lori Nelson Spielman, author of international bestseller, The Life List
"With an unflinching eye, Sonya Yoerg has created a riveting tale exploring the power of family secrets. House Broken is a novel that will burn itself into your memory.” Ellen Marie Wiseman, Author of What She Left Behind
“A beautifully rendered debut. It’s smart, heartbreaking, and thought provoking, and it’s spiced with just enough wit to offset the serious core of the story…Several passages took my breath away, and more than once I was moved to tears.”—Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt
“A beautifully rendered debut. It’s smart, heartbreaking, and thought provoking, and it’s spiced with just enough wit to offset the serious core of the story…Several passages took my breath away, and more than once I was moved to tears.”—Beth Hoffman, New York Times bestselling author of Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt
“A powerful tale of the ways in which families hurt and heal…gorgeously written with characters that shine.”—Eileen Goudge, New York Times bestselling author of The Replacement Wife and Swimsuit Body
“With impeccable prose and marvelous wit, Yoerg shows us that for almost every dark pocket of pain a family’s history hides, there is, ultimately, a ray of light and love.”—Julie Lawson Timmer, author of Five Days Left
"House Broken beautifully strips down the layers of family until all that is left is what's most important—love, forgiveness, understanding, and healing.”—Jennifer Scott, national bestselling author of The Accidental Book Club