Who Defied the Sky and Escaped Only with a Broken Pole. Fiction from The Gallatin Review.
The Myth of the Boy Who Defied the Sky and Escaped Only with a Broken Pole
Stories travel omnidirectionally from their origin. Somewhere—perhaps at a shelter around a fire or at a hostel over a hot meal while Appalachian fingers pluck away at ukulele strings—a bearded sage, the trail personified, weaves for his audience this tale:
Salisbury is a small town of fine tastes and high education. The people there enjoy comfortable lives of a sort that one might readily imagine stock the jacketed, boarding-school, historic villages of New England. It’s the type of place where uptown New Yorkers own country homes, which lie dormant until Spring gives way to Summer and leisure implies golf carts and caddies. Collared shirts of the Polo brand complement clean shaves and smart cuts as they stroll the sweet streets. Grass is always handsomely trimmed and bushes elegantly groomed. Everything is quaint and in its proper place.
If there were ever a town to which the word “colonial” would apply, it would indeed be little Salisbury, 276 years young, tucked away in Connecticut’s most distant North West corner. The Town Hall, rebuilt after its Jeffersonian colonnade and Doric columns crumbled to ash in the late 80s, stands resolutely, protected by an armor of white clapboard. Main Street is bisected by the Salisbury Congregational Church, its belfry and Palladian windows overlooking barns, mills and wholesome saltbox houses. One such house, to the right of the Church and still further to the right of the Town Hall, on Lock Up street, is owned by a woman named Vanessa Breton. Almost every day, weary hikers, slightly rested from their stay at the home of Vanessa Breton, set out onto Route 41 to resume travel on the Appalachian Trail.
One late morning in the beginning of June, a young fellow by the name of Orwell counted himself among their number. He had spent the previous night with Penguin, Tight-End, Sniffles and Fresh, trading stories about Pamby and Mad Tom, while doing his very best to internalize a new language to which he was only just being introduced. “Yellow blazer” referred usually to the lazy, cheating hiker who passes himself off as having put in his miles, when really most of his time has been spent in cars and bars, hitchhiking from one trail town to the next. “Pink blazer” referred to that love— or lust—struck soul who crosses paths with a woman whose hold he cannot shake and who, hoping to meet her once more, follows in her wake. Penguin mentioned a young man he had hiked with who suddenly, on account of “seeing pink,” began hiking 25 miles a day instead of 15 and would likely continue his pursuit into New Brunswick on the International Appalachian Trail. To “banana blaze” was to “pink blaze” in reverse. Orwell had learned about “flip-floppers,” “nobos,” and “sobos;” “zeros,” “neros, and noros;” “slackpackers,” “ridge runners” and “trail angels.” He had picked up a few phrases he would henceforth keep close: “Hike your own hike”; “The trail provides.” Now, equipped with new poles generously gifted to him by Vanessa, Orwell danced down Route 41 to “Mystery Train” by Bon Jovi. As he did, he was stopped by a bearded thru-hiker who introduced himself as Long Haul and needed directions to the local pizza parlor. Before parting ways, Orwell asked Long Haul why he had stopped his hike so early. There was a storm coming, Long Haul said—“a nasty one just out yonder.” He did not want to be around when she hit.
There were thirteen miles between Orwell and the shelter at which he had agreed to meet Sniffles. Along those thirteen miles were Bear Mountain, the tallest climb in Connecticut, consisting almost entirely of steep exposed bedrock sanded down to a finish by millennia of violent elements—and plenty of unguarded ledge, which one certainly would not want to be walking without the guidance of daylight. These were thirteen miles to which he was committed, and he would not be deterred. He simply had to be sure to outrun the darkness.
Two double-turn blazes in quick succession confused him. The Trail was teasing, playing tricks, tossing him forward and backward, hither and thither, North and South—while the storm prepares her invasion, swirling and gurgling and condensing “just out yonder.” It was this active paralysis, this vigorous stagnancy that would have been portentous to him of a fierce impending clash, and perhaps of the unification of his spirit and that of the turbulent and capricious sky-goddess whose shrieks had not yet reached him. If only Orwell had been outside of himself, hovering just above his busy body that couldn’t seem to find the correct turn and kept reappearing at the same dead end! For as he sat, disappointed by his navigational deficiencies, waiting for some savior to happen upon him and take pity, she was hurtling towards him with a speed and magnificence beyond that of any man. But, alas, our young, bull-headed hero refused to yield to a danger which he had misconstrued as possible rather than probable. So, when old, indubitably wise Doc and his animated daughter Toons, perhaps the most fabled duo next to Fresh and Karaoke (who had once seduced a bartender with his German charm all the way to the back of her rank Toyota Camry in the parking lot) appeared before him, sure of the path on which he had faltered, Orwell resumed with treble the force in his feet. Lost time would be recovered and his two opponents, darkness and sky, both advantaged but one closer than the other, would be outpaced. At least this was his conviction.
Whenever Orwell’s vigor stuttered, treacherous black flies, persistent, unforgiving, and far less benign than the swarming gnats they resemble, snatched their opportunity to launch an attack of impressive coordination. It was a tough sort of love, but he knew that those little fiends that he was either swatting, cursing, or running from were keeping him on task. For that, he thanked them. All the way past Lion’s Head to the summit of Bear Mountain the black flies chased him, insistent that he not even pause for hydration’s sake. Only then, once the peak had been reached, did they allow a brief break. There was no time for rest or refreshment, however; it was there, at Connecticut’s gorgeous crest, in front of a village of spectator midget trees, that she revealed herself to him. And how glorious she was! Roiling and whirling with ever-thickening turbidity, she bellowed from above, cracking her electric whip and asserting her undisputed power. Orwell, shuddered in intimidation, but quickly regained composure. Straightening his back confidently, raising his chin, he confronted sky. He met her gaze. He looked her straight in her eye and, assured by his buzzing companions beside him and his stoic supporters behind, all committed to weathering her tyranny, accepted her challenge.
That first collision of wills was almost mythic. There stood an unlikely adventurer, small, unimpressive by all accounts, a novice on foreign terrain, confronting an ancient beast feared by all other beasts. But bull-headed as our young Orwell was, he thought not of surrender. In any case, surrender was not a choice. All midpoints had been made and his surroundings were unarguably terra non grata. His pathetic tarp, beyond the protection of which the ends of his hammock would not extend, could no longer be erected; there were no available trees that could withstand the murderous downpour. He was forced to press on, but he was not forced to do so with such spirit. Even after a misplaced foot, punished by that smooth rain-slick bedrock with a hiking pole snapped cleanly in half, his stride did not stutter. In fact, he felt more alive in the knowledge that at that moment his expiration date could have instantly and unintentionally been amended to present: a stranded walker impaled by his own equipment!
But this mortality was not morbid in tone, nor was it fatalistic. It was spontaneous and exhilarating. It was essential, primordial, savage even. “The domesticated generations fell from him,” just as they had from Buck, Ghost Dog of the Yeehats. He no longer answered the booming dual voices of Astrape and Bronte with words: “I’m still here! I’ll always be here!” The wails and woots and chest rhythms that had been pressed into him by eons of civilization came surging forth. “They came to him as though they had always been his.” And now, the rain having soaked him to the bone and washed away all but the purest of hereditary instinct, running along a trail transformed into a stream whose current was always opposite his own, he howled. Oh, he howled! He howled the howl of howls past, unknowingly harmonizing with the dual-voice with which he had thought himself at war.
When peace was restored, Orwell found himself walking along a sprawling ridge, watching the canvas before him drip with sunset. He watched until there was no color left. Rather than brace himself against it, he greeted darkness as an old, ancient friend.
The sage stands, evaporates, and diffuses into the trail. The story remains. And the hikers he told it to? Some of them travel south, some north, and some return home, all relaying a memory-meddled version of the myth of the boy who defied the sky and escaped only with a broken pole.