When Harold awoke the next morning he heard noises outside of the tent, the crackling of a fire. He awoke Susan, and she smiled at him, as she so often did in the mornings back home. He thought that she looked just as beautiful in the morning, when she was just waking up, with her hair in disarray, and her eyes squinting, wearing her fluffy wool pajamas, as she did when she was all dressed up, with her hair neatly combed back in a ponytail. He saw the way other men looked at her, envious of the fact that she was with him, and counted himself lucky to have her. "Good morning, dear," he said, "I guess we should get ready to hit the trail. Graham said he wanted to get an early start."
"What time is it?" she asked, squinting one eye, and turning her head inquisitively to look at him.
He looked at his watch, "Seven-fifteen."
"I could sleep for at least another hour," she said, leaning her head against his shoulder so that her hair spilled over him. "So could I, but I think we should try and do what Graham wants to do for the next few days. After all, he was good enough to agree to come out here and act as a guide for us."
Susan rolled her eyes, and he put his arm around her, holding her tight, feeling her cool, soft skin against his own. He felt himself stiffening as he kissed her neck softly. Then, as if it had been timed perfectly to ruin his arousal, he heard Graham's voice outside of the tent, "Okay folks, let's get a move-on! Time waits for no man. Or woman either."
"Be right out," said Harold, rolling his eyes and smiling at Susan.
They squinted at the bright sunshine when they came out of the tent. It was a beautiful morning, quite cold, but beautiful, nonetheless. Graham was sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, his hunting knife in one hand, and his rifle in the other, staring up at the mountain, it's vast white expanse spread out before them and looking down upon them, like some giant, probing celestial eye.
"What a sight," Stephen said. He and Janice had just joined the others by the fire, and they stood looking up in wonder at the morning sun casting it's radiance down against the snow-capped peaks high above.
"How far up do you think we'll get today, Graham?" said Stephen.
Graham kept on staring at the mountain, as if sizing up a well-known foe. "It's hard to say. I guess it'll depend on how many times we'll have to stop so that Murphy can rest. If it's as many as yesterday, then I can't see us making a great deal of progress. In fact, I'm not too sure how he's going to be able to handle the climbing part. Walking on flat ground seemed to be difficult enough for him."
They all looked over at Murphy's tent. Apparently he was still sleeping. Loud snoring noises were coming from within.
"I'll wake him and tell him that we need to get going," Harold said, walking toward the tent."
After a few minutes Murphy appeared from the tent. They were all seated around the fire having breakfast. He sat down next to Harold, rubbing at his eyes, still seemingly trying to emerge fully from the land of broken sleep, in whose unkind arms he had spent a night tossing and turning. "Did anyone else hear the howling last night?"
"Yeah, I heard something. It sounded like it was coming from above, up in the mountains. A wolf, or a coyote, or some wild dog," said Janice.
"There are lots of wild creatures wandering about up in the mountains," Graham said. "They usually tend to keep their distance from humans, though. We don't really interest them."
"That's good to know," Murphy said.
After they finished eating they packed up the tents, loaded the supplies into their backpacks, and began walking toward the mountain. There was a long, rocky trail that led up through the lower region. "We'll stay on this trail until we get to that first ledge, way up there," Graham said, pointing to a rocky overhang roughly fifty feet above them. When we get there, that's where the real fun will begin…"
"I can hardly wait," Murphy said, shoving his hands into his coat pockets for warmth.
Graham had told them, before embarking upon the trip, that they would not need any actual mountain climbing equipment, like ropes or special shoes, since there was a trail that they could walk upon, which led all the way up to the top of the mountain, and across to the other side. He and his father had gone up over this very mountain on numerous occasions when he was a boy. Still, the trail went entirely uphill, and they would have to make a detour through a large cave in the centre of the mountain, since the trail went right through the middle and then ascended farther upward on the other side.
They had been moving for no less than an hour when they arrived at the lower ledge. Looking down, Harold thought that the landscape below seemed almost like an illusion, like nothing more than a vivid painting across a massive canvas. Trees, for miles and miles, and the river which they would eventually have to cross when reaching the other side of the mountain, running through the depths of the woods on each side, crumbling rocks and gravel, all seeming to be held in place by invisible strands of indestructible thread. This was truly what people meant, when they spoke of the 'rugged beauty' of nature. He breathed in the cool morning air, and put his arm around Susan. They looked down on the world, and he thought that this would likely be a moment that they would both remember when they were old and gray. It was times like this that you wanted to hold onto, that you wanted to freeze in your memory for the rest of your life.
"Excellent view," said Murphy, being careful to stay as far back from the edge as possible. He had always had a fear of heights, and despite the superb scenery, he couldn't help thinking about how horrible it would be to fall to one's death from up here. How many times would a person smash against the rocks, their bones shattering like glass, before they finally landed on the stony ground, far below? As if reading his mind, or perhaps sensing his nervousness, Graham said to him, "Look on the bright side, Murphy, if you were to fall from here, you'd likely be dead before you hit the ground, anyway."
"That's really nice, Graham," Susan said, looking at him with distaste.
Graham looked at her, and for a moment she saw something menacing in his stare. Then he looked away, and his eyes were downcast.
The time moved along slowly, or so it seemed to Murphy, as they made their way higher up, following the trail across the coarse, rock-covered ground, very thin patches of hardened snow crunching beneath their feet as the progressed onward. After three hours Murphy requested that they stop so that he could rest. He looked very fatigued, and Harold was starting to get concerned. There was very little doubt that the man had been ill-prepared for the trip, and that it had been a mistake inviting him, but he couldn't help but feel sorry for him. He was still trying to give it his all, despite his physical limitations, and there was something noble and admirable about that. Graham, though, was quite unimpressed by any of this. He simply saw Murphy as a hindrance. While the others were sitting down on the rocks, talking amongst themselves, Harold took Graham aside and said to him "Listen, Graham. I'm beginning to think that we shouldn't have brought Murphy along on the trip."
"So maybe we should just call it quits. You know, turn back and head home. I'm not sure how much more he's going to be able to handle."
"Once I get out on a hike, I don't turn back until I'm finished."
"Well, how much farther do you want to go?"
"We'll do as we planned: come across the other side of the mountain, cross the river, then go back through the forest until we reach the waterfalls about twenty miles from here. Then we can turn around and go back."
"How many days do you think that'll take?"
"No more than three," said Graham, looking at his watch, in a gesture of impatience. "Although, if we keep on stopping so frequently, it'll take longer. We're moving at a snail's pace because of him."
"Maybe Susan and I should turn around and go back with Murphy. That way you can keep going, and Stephen and Janice might want to keep going on with you as well. I just think it might be for the best if we got him back home. He's definitely not an outdoorsman."
"How are you going to find your way back? You'd get lost in the woods for sure."
Harold thought about it, and came to the conclusion that this was probably true. Despite the fact that he had a map, it would be difficult to get very far without Graham, since he knew this area like the back of his hand. To Harold, their trek through the woods had been arduous, and confusing, to say the least. He remembered certain areas, like the wet, swampy land on the outskirts of their entry point, but overall so much looked the same within the forest. Miles and miles of trees, muddy ground, and fallen leaves. They would most certainly get lost if they attempted to turn back without Graham's guidance. There was no doubt.
"So I can't convince you to come back with us? Don't you think it'd be for the best?"
Graham shook his head. "Like I said, when I go out hiking, I don't turn back until I reach my planned destination. Besides, it'll do him good to find out what it's like to really be a part of the wilderness, to appreciate it fully. He obviously lacks that appreciation now. The only way to gain it is through experience."
"I think he appreciates it. It's just that he's having trouble with the physical aspects of the hike."
Graham smiled then looked over at Murphy for a moment. "He needs to lose weight, get in better shape. Then he wouldn't be such a pain in the ass to us all."
"He's trying. He just isn't used to this sort of thing. Like I said, he isn't an outdoorsman, but he's a good friend of mine, and I invited him because I thought it would be a good experience, not just for him, but for all of us. You know that Susan and I don't do this type of thing either. That's why I was so glad when you agreed to come with us: because, this is your territory. You're familiar with it, you're comfortable here."
Graham nodded. "If you really want to turn back, Harold, that's fine with me. I intend to keep going, though."
"What do you think the odds are that we'll get lost if we try to go back through the woods without you?"
"Oh, I'd say about fifty/fifty. You might do alright. You have a map, so just keep looking at it as you go along. It isn't too difficult."
Harold sat down next to Murphy. "How are you doing, Murph?"
Murphy took a swig of water out of his plastic bottle, and rubbed his hand across his forehead in a gesture of fatigue. "A bit tired. I didn't sleep too well."
"I spoke to Graham and asked him if it would be a good idea for us to turn around and head back. I know that you're finding this a bit rough."
"I'll be okay," said Murphy.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, let's keep going."
"Alright, if that's what you want to do. But let me know if you want to turn back, alright?"
So they moved on. Murphy did not ask to stop for the rest of the day, although when Harold looked back at him, he thought that he was simply forcing himself to plod along.