I borrowed the image of the Harper's Creek Falls from this website. Somewhere in my boxes of slides I have photograhs of the falls. Warning, this memory isn't exactly a sappy Valentine story.
I stirred the fire, and then rechecked our packs and the food bag hanging from a limb. Everything looked in order. I fluffed out my bag on the ground cloth. Sitting on the bag, I pulled off my boots and placed them near the top of my bag, putting my flashlight inside, in case I needed it in the middle of the night. Anticipating the warmth, I crawled inside my bag and finish undressing, leaving my pants and socks at the bottom where they’ll be warm in the morning. For a while I listened to the water in the canyon below while tracking the stars across the sky and watching the waning moon rise. Although past full, it was still plenty bright. I rolled over and looked at Michelle, fast asleep in her bag. She looked angelic. Her smooth face rested on arm crooked under her head. Her hair glistened in the moonlight. But I found myself pondering if I was on a date with a junkie.
Michelle and I had met that spring. She was the breakfast and lunch waitress at a resort where I was staying. It was our annual Council Staff's planning retreat. Bubbly and cute, we flirted for the first two mornings. It would have probably not gone any further had not David, my boss and the council scout executive, made a comment her being unsuitable for me. "She's too young and obviously doesn't have a college degree," Based on his comments, I decided to ask her out that evening. There was something about my boss making such comments that got me riled up. I don’t remember much about the evening except that we drove over to Boone, a college town where she lived, and hung out. I was a young looking twenty-seven year old; she was nineteen; we fit into the town's scene. As I was living about 50 miles away, I didn’t see her again for several months. It was shortly after that planning retreat that I met Terri. That fall, after Terri and I had parted company, I gave Michelle a call. One weekend we went on a day hike, in which she impressed me by preparing a wonderful picnic. Another, we went to the movies and had dinner. This was the third weekend in a row we were together.
I no longer remember if she expressed an interest in backpacking, or if I had encouraged her to join me. It doesn’t matter. Unlike our day hike, there was little joy in this backpacking trip, and it killed any relationship that we might had established. Although she appeared physically to be in good shape, I found myself struggling to carry both of our packs. She kept getting sick, and it became evident that she was hung over from the night before. I had not seen this side of her and it didn’t make me very happy. We hiked into the Harper Creek section of Pisgah National Forest. I’d been there once before and had wanted to camp on the ridge overlooking the falls and to photograph them in the morning light. It was getting late when we got the camping spot. The beauty seemed to be lost on Michelle, whose first order of business was to light a joint. She offered me a hit. I shock my head, expressing displeasure. We had things to do to get ready for the evening. I strung a line and hung the tarp, got out my stove and headed down to the creek to get water. Soon, water was boiling. I fixed us both a cup of tea and then added noodles to the remaining water. It was getting dark quickly and I asked if she could find the butter, which was in a plastic bottle. She dug through my pack and came over and squirted soap into the pan.
“You idiot,” I shouted, as I watched the bubbles grow.
She didn’t say anything and I realized that in the near dark it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between the container of soap and butter.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. Although I didn’t admit it, my outburst had more to do with my frustration of the day than with the ruined noodles. Normally, I’d laughed it off. I opened a can of tuna that was going to be added to the noodles and handed her a fork. We sat on a log, both eating out of the can. I pull out some crackers and a couple candy bars. It wasn’t filling, but was enough to get us through the night. I buried the noodles away from the campsite and pack the food into a bag and hung it, with our packs, in a nearby tree. Without saying a word, Michele walked off a distance; I suppose to use the lady’s room and also to finish smoking her joint. Then she crawled into her bag and, without saying a word, fell asleep.
I woke up early the next morning. It was cool, as it was early October, and some of the trees were beginning to show their colors. Taking my camera and a tripod, I hiked down into the canyon and photographed the falls in the early light. She was still asleep when I got back, so I fixed us both a cup of tea and prepared oatmeal. Michelle's mood had improved. After breaking camp, we stored our packs and spent much of the morning exploring the canyon before hiking out in the early afternoon.
Nothing was really said, but we both knew the hike had exposed parts of us that the other couldn’t handle in a long term relationship. I didn’t see Michelle for another two years. It was right before I moved to Pittsburgh for grad school. I was in Boone with some friends and we had gone out for dinner. I didn’t recognize her at first, even though she was sitting at an adjacent table. “Sage,” she shouted as I sat down. She came over and we talked for a few minutes. She looked as if she was doing well and mentioned she was in school taking some business courses. We talked for a few more minutes. Although I never saw her again, I was glad to have met up with her a final time. I'd have hated for my last image of her being that hung-over girl unable to carry her own pack.