Erica stared out the IHOP window, deep in thought on what to do next.
“I really think this is a mistake,” Alan said from across the table.
Erica continued to look past him at the traffic on Lombard Street.
“I’ve been good to you, I’ve been there for you,” Alan pleaded. “When did I ever let you down?”
Erica remained stoic.
“Have you really thought this through?”
She finally looked back at Alan. “There just isn’t much to think about.” He was looking at her with an achingly earnest expression, and she remembered how she used to find his sincerity endearing. “We just want different things out of life.”
Alan leaned in. “Do we? We both want a long term, committed relationship. We agree on most things, we get along with each other’s friends. We don’t even fight for the remote control,” he added desperately.
Erica tried to maintain her coolness.
“Is it troubles at work?” Alan went on. “Your parents getting on you? Is it the pressure of living here? We all know how expensive it is.” His plaintive stare was beginning to affect Erica. “Please, just tell me what it is.”
Erica was conflicted as she realized breaking up was going to be more difficult than she had anticipated. “Alan, you’re a nice guy, and you’ve been good to me, but I think you want this more than I do.”
“What?” Alan appeared shocked. “When did that happen?”
Erica was unexpectedly sympathetic. “Well, I think it’s always been that way.”
“But why did you go out with me in the first place?”
Alan’s sincerity put Erica on the spot. “I don’t know,” she admitted. She thought back to the time when they first met. “I had just gone through a difficult break up, I was wondering where to go next in life, and then you showed up at the right place at the right time.” She leaned in. “But I’m just not that person anymore.”
Alan looked down in disappointment. “And all this time I thought we were on the same page.”
Guilt came over Erica. “Well, maybe you were actually hoping,” she suggested while trying to sound nice. “Sometimes it happens that way.”
Alan let out a breath. “Maybe I was.” He looked back up hopefully. “But I really think I deserve another chance.”
A server walked up to their table. “All done with that?” she asked in a friendly tone.
Erica looked down at the remains of her late lunch “Yes, thank you. I’m done.”
“Well I hope you enjoyed it,” the server said as she took her plate then Alan’s. She pulled the check out of her apron with her free hand and placed it on the table. “A beautiful weekend day. Any big plans?”
“None so far,” Alan answered, “but the day is young,” he added with superficial cheer.
“Well I hope you have a nice rest of the day,” the server said and left.
Alan looked at the check, then got his wallet and pulled out some cash. “You know, that might be a good idea.”
“We should do something today.”
“I don’t think so,” Erica replied warily.
“You don’t even know what I had in mind,” Alan pointed out.
Erica was torn. “Okay, what did you have in mind?”
“How about a nature hike?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“But I’m not wearing any hiking boots.”
“Okay, just a walk in the woods. It’ll be nice and pleasant.”
Erica was flummoxed by Alan’s sudden request and wondered if he had any ulterior motives. “It’s not going to change my mind,” she forewarned.
“One last thing to do together,” Alan beseeched. “Would that be so bad?”
Erica considered what to do. I could just walk out that door, she thought, take a bus home and get on with my life. She looked back at Alan. He was struggling to convey persuasiveness. Why does he have to stare at me like that? she thought irritably, trying so hard to tug at my heart strings, and if I say no he’ll probably give me his sad, lost little boy look. “Did you have any place in mind?”
“How about the Muir Woods?” he suggested eagerly.
“Isn’t that kind of far?”
“Just over the Bridge to Marin County. We can be there in half an hour.”
“But without hiking boots I don’t know if I can do it.”
“This won’t be a hike, more of a walk, and the trails are well maintained.” Alan pointed at a downward angle. “And you have your running shoes on, that’ll be plenty good.”
Erica looked down at the Adidas she slipped on whenever she went out. She thought some
more about doing something outdoors, and the idea of being in a natural setting began to appeal to her.
Oh, there I go again, she thought frustratingly, giving in to him. She then thought some more, and conceded that it would be nice to get out. I am feeling cooped up in this city, she admitted to herself, spending some time out in nature may be just what I need, and he’ll probably keep pestering me if I say no…and I kind of did end up hurting him. “Can we get a bottle of water on the way there?
Alan maneuvered his car out of the Valero station next to IHOP and into the westbound lanes of Lombard Street. Erica sat in the passenger seat with a half liter bottle of water from the station mini mart in her lap. They drove along with the brisk traffic, merged right onto another busy avenue, and entered the US 101 freeway. The freeway twisted through the wooded Presidio then straightened as it pointed north and left solid land. As they drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, Erica looked across San Francisco Bay toward the urban mass of Oakland and Berkeley. She was reminded of its density and felt its cramped oppression. The buildings shimmered in the sun as it began its arc away from land and over the Pacific Ocean. They drove under the second burnt orange support tower and into the greenery of Marin County. Erica was relieved to be in open space.
“I think you’ll like this,” Alan began. “You just can’t beat mother nature.”
Erica continued to look around at the scenery.
“Have you ever been up to the Muir Woods?” Alan asked.
“Hm? Yeah, my school went on a field trip there once.”
“One of the last places in California that has old growth redwoods.” They drove under the rainbow painted archway and through the lit up tunnel. “It was nice of Caltrans to rename this tunnel
after Robin Williams,” Alan remarked.
“Yes it was.” Erica agreed.
“Really too bad what happened to him,” Alan said, and seemed to want to keep the conversation going.
“Mental illness is a problem for a lot of people,” Erica replied. “Very sad.”
“Yeah,” Alan said wistfully. “A great talent, and he gave so much.”
“He did, and I respect his talent and his career, and I’m sympathetic for him, but I think you’re more more of a fan of his than I am.”
“Fair enough.” They emerged from the other end of the tunnel and drove alongside Sausalito east of the freeway and groves of evergreens to the west. The freeway veered to the northwest into Marin City then alongside the marina at Richardson Bay. Erica gazed eastward at a couple of sailboats out on the bay and found the view tranquil as they merged right onto the Highway 1 exit lane. She looked upon the bay some more then their car made a sharp turn left, went under the ramped up freeway, and into the wooded suburb of Tamalpais Valley. The highway went west, north, then meandered its way into the woods. They turned north onto another highway and drove through a green valley, then turned west onto a mountain road that twisted its way into the towering redwoods of the Northern California coast.
“When you get this far into nature you can forget that you’re near a major metropolitan area,” Alan observed as the road curved right then left as it went further west.
“You’re not going to leave me out here, are you?” Erica joked.
“Ha! You’re too funny.”
Ha! I should grab the keys and leave you out here for the mountain lions, Erica thought
mischievously, then she reminded herself that she was mean to him earlier, and resisted further devious ideas. “I have my moments.”
The road curved to the south until they arrived at the visitor center, a man made island in the middle of wild forest. They parked and Erica put her water bottle in the front pocket of her sweater as they got out. Other visitors were milling about as Erica looked all around. The tall evergreens stood proudly rigid, a wall of dense forest, and appeared imposing. They walked along a trail until they came to an old wooden building with a ticket window. Alan went to the ticket window as Erica looked around some more. The towering redwood trees blocked out part of the sunshine, and began to intimidate her.
“Got our day passes,” Alan surprised Erica. “I see you’re taking in the beauty of nature.”
“Oh, just looking around. Shall we get going?”
“Okay, let’s,” Alan replied with anticipation.
The beginning length of the Main Trail went north at a level grade and ran along the right side of a gently flowing, rocky creek with shallow banks covered in ferns and clover. The creek and the trail curved toward each other, then pulled away separately. Erica could hear its flow beyond the trees as the trail continued north and slightly veered left. Alan walked briskly as Erica followed at her own pace.
“The great outdoors!” Alan said grandly.
Erica thought his remark clichéd. “Yeah, it’s all right.”
“But nature puts us in a different mindset, away from all the trappings of civilization.”
“And all its conveniences,” Erica reminded.
Alan looked back and slowed a bit. “But leaving our man made surroundings for something more primeval helps get rid of the clutter. It clears the mind.”
“I wasn’t aware that my mind needed clearing.”
Alan chuckled. “Not what I meant. All I’m saying that excursions away from our normal
routine helps bring perspective.” He continued to lead them along the path and they came to a trail head on their right. They stopped.
“Which way?” Erica asked.
“Well,” Alan began as he pointed east, “this path curves to the left, climbs up north in the mountains, and will take us pretty far away. We’ll stay on the trail we’re on.” Alan continued on and Erica followed. The trail began to elevate slightly and curve a little more left to the west. They came to a wooden foot bridge on their left.
“Let’s cross here,” Alan suggested.
“Shouldn’t we stay on this trail?”
“It’ll just keep going to the north for quite a far distance before it turns around and comes back, but if we cross here the trail will loop around and bring us back to where we started.”
“You’re the guide.”
They went over the bridge and came to an intersection. The other length of the Main Trail loop crossed the other side of the bridge and ran north to south. To their right diagonally was another path marked Hillside Trail.
“That’s where we want to go,” Alan pointed. “Hillside Trail.”
“But isn’t this the way back?” Erica asked as she pointed south down the Main Trail.
“We’ve barely begun. Besides, that’s for tourists,” Alan said dismissively. “We’ve got more
nature to see. ”
“But how long will it take?”
“Not that long. It’s just a bigger loop. As long as we don’t dawdle we’ll back in no time.”
“Okay,” Erica relented.
The smooth, flattened trail continued to the north then curved left to the west as it slowly climbed higher. Trees rooted into the moist earth appeared one after another to Erica. Some were old and wide, others young, thin, and struggling upward into the light. Green from leaves, needles, moss, and ferns colored the landscape along with red and brown from the tree bark. Erica felt surrounded by earth tones and the cool humidity of the forest. Alan continued his brisk stride as Erica struggled to keep up.
“How long is this trail?” she asked.
“Not long, just over a mile until the next trail.”
Erica was crestfallen. “There’s another trail?”
“Well, yeah. This trail will dead end onto the next trail, and we’ll go left which will take us south, then east, and head back down to the parking lot.”
The trail wound into a clearing and they were back in the sunlight. Erica looked up and noticed
that the sun was getting closer to the horizon. “We’ll be back before dark, right?” she asked.
“Of course, as long as we keep moving.”
“Glad one of us is good at directions.” The trail continued its windy upward path then made a sharp left turn. The trail made a long U-turn around a steep ravine and Erica was careful to not look down. The trail made another left, continued to the west, and finally reached its end at a bisection. The sign read Ben Johnson Trail. Erica pulled out her water bottle from her front sweater pocket and took a drink. “So to the left?” she asked.
“Yep,” Alan answered. “You know who Ben Johnson was?”
“You mean the playwright?”
“Yes, there was a writer by that name, but this Ben Johnson was a caretaker that used to live
here long ago. He carved out this trail back in the the 1930s.”
“Well you’re very informative.”
“Yeah, maybe a little too much.” Alan seemed to expect a response as Erica silently put away her water bottle. They resumed hiking. “There was another Ben Johnson from old Hollywood,” Alan continued. “Did a lot of Westerns.”
“Also sounds like a name a man would use when he checks into a hotel with a hooker.”
“Ha! Another one of your moments.”
“I must be on a roll.”
The new trail rose at an upward angle as it curved right and to the west. Time seemed to stretch out for Erica as she tediously trudged up the meandering, escalating trail. The surrounding trees and plant life stayed in her periphery as she focused her attention to the path ahead. Occasionally they’d pass another hiker or group of hikers coming toward them. Alan would nod or say hi to them while Erica kept looking forward. Why did I agree to this again, she rued. Alan slowed down periodically until Erica caught up. She thought his encouraging smile as he waited for her was a bit too smug. As if he has me where he wants me, she suspected.
He stopped and waited for her.
“You’re just loving this, aren’t you,” Erica accused.
“I’ll love it when we get back to our car.”
“Well we better get going,” Alan encouraged and he resumed hiking.
“Hope you appreciate me joining you on this death march,” Erica called out then started hiking. “Don’t you like the climb? Good exercise.”
“I can go to a gym for that.”
The trail curved to the left and Erica assumed they were circling back to where they began. The trail then turned to the right as it climbed up, and Erica was exasperated. She noticed the sun was getting closer to the horizon and both were in her eye line.
“Will this trail finally go downhill?”
“Of course,” Alan assured.
The trail continued its meandering westward rise, bordered by phalanxes of trees and the occasional small clearing. The primeval terrain seemed a world away from civilization to Erica, and her unease was turning to apprehension. The overhead sunlight was dimming as it struggled to reach over the treetops. Erica breathed a little heavier as she tried to pace herself without getting too tired. Alan maintained his stride and appeared energized. Anticipation continued to stretch out time unbearably as Erica kept waiting for the trail to curve around to the left and back toward their car. They passed a couple of more hikers coming the other way and she envied how they were moving downhill. Gradually the trail veered south but still continued westward.
Eventually they came to a junction with another trail. “Finally!” Erica announced. “I hope we’re heading left.” She took another drink of water.
“Or we could also keep going straight ahead to Stinson Beach.”
“If you want to do that, then give me the keys,” Erica demanded. “I’m heading back to the car.”
“Okay, okay,” Alan chuckled. “Back to the car it is. Mind if I have a sip?”
Erica handed him the bottle of water.
Alan took a drink then handed it back to Erica. “Thanks.”
Erica stashed the bottle into her front pocket as they headed down the south trail. Their hike continued its upward climb as it moved straight ahead, sharply turned right, climbed up further, then switched back to the left and kept elevating. Erica looked behind her and saw the sun getting closer to the Pacific Ocean. The impending darkness made her apprehension grow. Time continued to stretch out as she tried to keep up with Alan. The trail climbed on and upward until it finally reached the ridge peak. Alan stopped and looked around.
“Quite a view,” he proclaimed.
Erica looked to the west and saw only the sun moving closer to the horizon. “How much longer before this trail ends?” she worried.
“We should be about halfway there, but at least we’ve reached the peak so it should all be downhill from here,” Alan reassured. “But it doesn’t hurt to look around and take in Mother Nature’s beauty and creation.”
“Wild animals are also Mother Nature’s creation,” Erica reminded.
“Don’t worry,” Alan assured, “I’ll protect you.”
“Can you fight off a mountain lion?”
“There have been no mountain lion sightings around here lately. We’re safe.”
“Well let’s get going in case one decides to show up,” Erica insisted.
Erica began walking down the trail and let the downward slant carry her along. The trail angled one way then another as it continued southward through the woods. Erica kept her focus on the path ahead of her and ignored the scenery. Eventually they came to a dirt road. “Now which way?”
“Well this is a fire road.” Alan pointed across the road. “And up ahead that way is the trail that will take us back to the parking lot.”
“So which way?”
“I’d like to stay on the trail, see some more woods.”
Erica looked to the west, saw the sun at the horizon, and was becoming anxious. “Which way will get us back quicker?”
“Either or, they mostly parallel each other. They’ll intersect again.”
Erica looked down the fire road, then to the other trail in the distance, and then over to the setting sun. “I guess we can go on the other trail.”
“Cool, and if we move quick we should before it gets too dark.”
They crossed the fire road and continued along the trail. It rose again as it went southeast, and the gradually dimming sunlight spurred Erica to move quicker. She felt a rush of adrenalin as she raced against the setting sun. The trail reached another peak then gradually lowered as it traversed the darkening forest. The trail came into a clearing and Erica felt relieved to be back into open space, then she saw that the sun was almost completely below the horizon. Twilight spread over the clearing and she hurried along as Alan came up next to her.
“As long as we stay on the trail we’ll be all right,” he reassured. “It’ll take us straight to the parking lot.”
Erica kept walking.
“At least we’re going downhill,” Alan added helpfully.
“Yeah, we sure are,” Erica replied as she focused on the path ahead. The trail wound through
the sloped clearing and into another thicket of trees. The forest was becoming darker and more menacing as it blocked out the disappearing twilight. The trail then emerged out of the woods and into another clearing. Erica was relieved again to be back into open space but saw that it was getting darker. The trail narrowed and ran straight along a path carved into the hillside in between grasses and shrubs. Erica was racing against the darkness careful not to fall down the hillside. The trail then intersected diagonally with the fire road. “Now which way?”
“Straight ahead.” They kept moving along the trail as it wound ahead then back into the increasing darkness of the forest. Erica’s fear grew in the encroaching presence of nature and she began to worry about wildlife. The trail then merged with the wider fire road and curved one way then the other as it kept its southeast angle.
The trail came into another clearing which was almost as dark as the forest. Erica looked toward the horizon and the sun was almost completely gone. Survival instincts took over her consciousness. She kept moving ahead and the trail branched off the fire road. “Which way?”
“We can stay on the fire road,” Alan said. “They merge together again up ahead.”
The moved along the coarse, sandy road. The forest bordered the left side of the path and imposed upon Erica threateningly. The right side of the trail sloped downward dauntingly as Erica kept looking in front of her. They came to another fork. The fire road continued on the right and the trail went to the left. “Now which way?” Erica asked nervously.
“The trail is a more direct route to the parking lot.”
Erica looked left down the trail and struggled to get a better look. She saw the tree canopies forming into a dark tunnel. “Looks scary.”
“But if we hurry we should be able to make it to when it merges back into the fire road before it’s dark.”
“Well it’s getting dark already so we better hurry,” Erica said apprehensively. They took off down the trail. Erica’s consciousness continued to alter as the light disappeared to the west displaced by blanketing darkness. She struggled against the panic that was trying to take over and sensed that Alan was also feeling some fear. Erica hurried along the trail as it came out of the trees again and into another clearing that was almost as dark as the forest. The clearing was quickly surrounded by more trees and the darkness made the trail hard to follow. The trees became thicker and Erica became confused as she tried to figure out which part of the ground was the trail “Are we going the right way?” she asked worriedly.
“Of course,” Alan assured, “we just need to keep moving ahead.”
“What the hell are we doing here anyways?” Erica bemoaned as her frustration mounted. “This was supposed to be a fun little walk in the woods!”
“Hey, it wasn’t bad.”
“What, being stuck in the woods after dark? We should have stayed in town! Why did I agree to- aaaah!” Erica suddenly lost her footing and slid down the hillside. She panicked as she quickly scraped downward along the earth, rolled a couple of times, tangled up into a large bush, and crashed into a tree.
“Are you all right?” Alan called out down the hillside.
“No! I’m not all right!”
“At least your fall was broken!”
“Are you trying to be funny?” Erica yelled. “I could have fallen to my death!” She helplessly groped around in the darkness. “And I can’t see a god damned thing!” Her arm hurt where it struck against a tree and her ankle was twisted and sore. She struggled to free herself and avoid falling further. Her heart raced and her sense of direction was obliterated. “Why did I do this?!”
“Hang on, I’ll get you!” Alan carefully stepped down the hill, and Erica saw his silhouette advance upon her. She panicked some more at the sight of the dark figure coming for her and had to remind herself in her terror that it was Alan. The looming dark form outstretched an arm. Erica hesitatingly reached upward and his hand grabbed hers. He pulled upward and Erica disentangled from the web of little branches. She scrabbled up the hillside with help from her free hand as she reoriented herself. Pain shot from her right ankle when she stepped on it. Alan helped her up back onto the trail.
“Ouch!” Erica yelled out as she walked around on her hurting ankle.
“Wanna sit down for a minute?” Alan offered.
“No! I want to get the fuck out of here!” Erica limped ahead and focused on the trail. Alan walked up alongside and tried to help her. Erica pulled away. “I can make it!” They moved ahead as Erica kept her weight off her hurt ankle. The fire road came up from the right and joined along the trail. They crossed over to the wider fire road. Erica adjusted to her limp and moved ahead quickly and felt some relief to be on a more defined route.
Their path came to another fork as the trail went to the left and the fire road to the right. “Can we stay on the fire road?” Erica demanded.
“The trail will take us to the parking lot, the fire road goes further to the south.”
“Then the trail it is,” Erica decided as she limped ahead. The trail gradually lowered as it curved through the darkened woods. Erica took advantage of downward angle and let gravity carry her as Alan kept up. Time moved a little quicker as Erica sensed the end of their journey. The trail made a couple of more sharp turns then straightened out in a downward slope. They came to a bridge that crossed over a gently flowing creek. The sound of the running water ended the brooding silence. The trail continued then gradually emerged from the trees. Erica saw the parking lot lit up by lampposts and was greatly relieved by the sight of a man made setting. As they approached the parking lot she saw their car and a park ranger vehicle. They left the earthen trail and walked across the pavement. They came to their car, then the park ranger vehicle started up and drove off. Erica took the bottle of water from her front pocket and drank the rest of it.
“Any of that left?” Alan asked hopefully.
“Nope.” Erica tossed the empty bottle into a nearby trash receptacle.
They drove through the twisty mountain roads until they got to the 101 and headed south. The lights of Sausalito glowed to the left and more lights shone across the Bay.
“How’s your ankle feeling?” Alan asked.
Erica tried to rotate her ankle and felt dull pain. “Still a little sore,” she said. “Probably wouldn’t have sprained it if I was wearing boots,” she added.
“I’m sure it’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Erica brought her foot up and massaged the ankle as she was readjusting back into civilization. “We’ll see.”
They drove into the lit up tunnel. “At least I was there to help you.”
Erica looked at Alan incredulously. “I was only on that trail because of you.”
“Well, yeah, that’s true,” Alan admitted as they emerged out of the tunnel. “But at least I didn’t abandon you,” he added hopefully.
Erica lowered her foot back down. “I didn’t know we were going to take the long way around.”
“But still, it’s good to get out and have an adventure.”
“At least one of us had fun,” Erica replied.
“Look, I’m sorry. This is my fault.” They approached the Golden Gate Bridge. “Should have
planned it out better. Next time we’ll get an earlier start.”
“That’s presumptuous,” Erica resisted.
“Next time,” she mimicked.
“I don’t think you mean that,” Alan corrected.
“I know what I meant,” Erica shot back. They drove onto the bridge.
“Well I didn’t know you felt that way,” Alan said aggrievedly.
They drove under the first, lit up support tower. “Did you plan it like this?”
“What?” Alan responded with surprise. “How could I have planned you falling down like that off the trail?”
“Getting me into an unfamiliar setting so I would be reliant upon you.”
“Now why would I do a thing like that?”
“Because you’re the kind of guy that likes to come to the rescue,” Erica pointed out as they drove under the second support tower.
Alan seemed to consider what Erica said. “Is that really such a bad thing?”
“It is if you cause the trouble.”
Alan laughed. “Am I really that diabolical?”
The roadway left the bridge and onto land as it curved through the Presidio. “I can’t tell if
you’re being deceptive or if you genuinely don’t know what I’m talking about.”
They drove back into the city. “Well I never tried to deceive you, if anything I’ve only tried to help.” Alan seemed to await a response. “I know I have my problems like everyone else, I just wish I knew what I’m doing wrong.”
They drove along Lombard Street and went past the IHOP. Erica wanted to reexplain their differences but was too tired. “I’ll make it simple for you,” she finally said. “I am not your, or anyone else’s, damsel in distress.”
“What? I never thought that.”
Erica looked at him disbelievingly.
“Honest,” Alan asserted. “Certainly not the distress part,” he added coyly.
Erica looked away wearily. “Just drop me off at home.”
©2018 Robert Kirkendall