Every time I drive past these meadows, my heart banks a little to the west, a left tilt, as if aligning itself plumb. Pines the color of faded brick stand across the corridor of green where elk and moose forage. All around is old timberland, wiggling lines of firs sprouting from the clearcut scars. Logging roads web the mountainsides into a maze, signage sparse, memory essential.
Once a homestead, the clearcuts pardoned this old-growth ponderosa savanna. Trunks rise into pillars above flaxen bunchgrass, creeping Oregon grape, arrowleaf balsamroot, I imagine. The ecology is conjecture. I’ve never been down there, only turned my eyes through flashing alder as I pass. One of these days, I assure myself. It’s on my list. Another wooded corner of the world to poke through, scratch my legs through snowberry, gulp the vanilla air. One of these days.
The Forest Service rig rattles on. I hang my arm out the window, return my eyes to the road. And miles to go, I think. And miles to go.
Monday evening, and the ER is quiet. I’m fine with that. I’d rather not be here, but for workers compensation I have to go to a hospital before a regular doctor’s office. I don’t sit long in the waiting room, where it’s just me and a woman in capri sweatpants crying on the phone.
“She’s never been this sick,” she says, wiping her nose. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
I carry the names in my mouth like warm stones. West Fork of Gold Creek. Bull Lake. Trail 333. Boulder Point. Five Lakes Basin. Trail 518. Fly Lake. Trail 504. Triangle Peak. Porcupine Ridge.
I close my eyes and see them. I open my eyes and see them, gleaming in the post-storm light. I open a map and trace them under my fingertips.
Where to next.
The nurse traces the swollen back of my ankle. “Do you remember a specific moment of injury?” he asks.
I could bore him with the specifics. A thousand feet climbing out of Boulder Lake, cutting out a seventeen-inch diameter rotten ponderosa across the trail with a crosscut saw. Then twenty-five hundred feet down Porcupine Ridge, sawing out another eighteen-inch fir. Thirteen miles that day, most with a sixty-five-pound pack. The last five miles felt like a stone had tucked itself against my heel.
I shake my head. “I couldn’t say. It just got increasingly worse.”
He nods and has me turn over onto my stomach so he can squeeze my calf. “You’re all good there, at least,” he says.
I think of the white strip of tendon that roots at the ankle and runs up my leg, like a limber trunk branching into sunset-red muscle.
The redtail hawk screams above the trail junction. She was screaming there a week ago, and the week before that. The word scream fits the sound, but I’m not sure the emotion holds. She could be singing.
“Sick of this trail yet?” I ask my crew member. She shrugs.
We hang a right onto Trail 518. I haven’t been on this stretch in four years. Still I can count the dips in the trail, the shaded flat bench leading to our camp spot.
On the tread, moose tracks split through mud. Behind one, the faint print of a wolf. Dense claws spur into the dark loam.
I hover my fingertips over the print and ground them softly into the pads. The earth feels warm, but then again, all earth feels warm after a storm.
The air smells like rain and hunger.
In the curtained-off area next to mine, the baby has stopped crying. She’s stopped throwing up, and her fever’s come down, I hear the mother in capri sweatpants say, down from 103. Her voice still chokes.
“I don’t know what’s going on with my allergies,” she says, and sniffs. “God, this never happens. I took allergy pills and everything.”
Above my bed, painted fish twist against the wall. The mural stops at eye level, so that the beige paint job turns to sand. There are no windows in the ER unit. I’ve been outside for four days straight, where there are no windows because everything is a window. I feel like I’m underwater.
The mother flashes out of the room, dabbing her eyes. A man emerges from behind a curtain holding the baby. He has a buzzcut and tattooed arms and a beer gut. The baby lies across his stomach, left arm draping down his side. She’s asleep, and the man watches her face.
He looks up at me with a broken grin. “Advantage of a belly,” he says, swaying side to side under the fluorescent lights.
We take lunch on the steep ridge above Boulder Lake, where snowbanks slump in waves beneath whitebark pines. A cold wind spikes sunlight across the rocks, distinctly un-summer-like. Today is the first day of July. I slip numb hands into my down coat.
Gold Creek Basin. McLeod Peak. Across the Jocko, the Mission Range, shawled in snowfields. The Swan Range above the Clearwater River. One of those high peaks blinking white in the Scapegoat is Red Mountain, but I’m not sure which one. My maps don’t go that far. Some day. It’s on my list.
Below me is a sheer drop of five hundred feet. Subalpine fir and whitebark snags jut into the sharp brushes of wind, and from up here they look like long emerald feathers dipped into the earth. I shift my shoulders back into the cold stone, ignoring the jab of bedrock. When I nod off, I dream of these same places.
Above me, the vitals monitor asserts a high beep. I never got hooked up, and the screen shows a green thread sunk to the base, flatlining.
The little girl fidgets, scrunches her face.
“There, there, I know,” the man says. “She’s not even mine,” he adds, looking at me past the curtain. “But damn. Today it sure feels like it.”
Porcupine Ridge is the Great Divide of the Rattlesnake. Its northeast flank drops water into West Fork Gold Creek, to Gold Creek, to the Blackfoot River. On the southwest, Porcupine Creek draws it down Rattlesnake Creek to the Clark Fork River. The waters touch again in town, just downstream of the footbridge strung in globe lights that wink against gusts of Hellgate wind.
We march down the ridge, finally shedding our down jackets as the clouds skim south. I wander off-trail to pee and follow the narrow tread of a game trail, or an old stock trail. I find a blaze in a tree, bark scraped to the soft, pitchy cambium. It could have been hatched from a single-bit, or bruised from another tree toppling down beside it, or a bull elk rubbing his antlers during rut. I think about following the trail until it threads out, swallowed by huckleberry bushes, sunk into headwater springs that tip water one way or the other.
We still have seven miles to go until camp. I turn back down the game trail, away from another wooded corner of the world I’ve yet to touch.
The radiologist is lanky with kind eyes. When I sit up to follow him, he smiles and stops me. “You just lay back,” he says, stomping the brakes on the bed’s wheels.
I can walk fine. I walked fine four miles this morning, albeit in sandals because my sturdy Italian leather boots sent my whole lower leg throbbing. Still, the radiologist pushes me through the quiet ER. I fold my hands over my stomach, which curves hollow beneath my palms.
“Who’d you kick?” the man holding the baby asks me as I’m wheeled past.
“Just myself,” I say.
The USGS map I carry on this hitch won’t make it out again, soaked in drizzle one time too many. It’s eighteen years old. The edges feather out, and its creased corners have yawned into star-shaped holes.
Just east of the wilderness boundary, there’s a lake split in half by the map’s edge, labeled Hidden Lake. One side is ringed in contour lines, splashed with the green wash of timber, and the other side lies blank. No texture or color save for the paper’s stain, a blotch of soil that needled into the fibers and settled there like red algae in snow.
Where to next.
Outside of dentist’s visits, this is my first x-ray. Childhood spared me broken limbs, and, so far, so has this line of fieldwork. The radiologist drapes a heavy blanket across my lap and clicks a gridded light onto my ankle. He steps behind a small partition. Through the window I can see his face and the computer screen gathering images of my foot. White stones pressed with precision onto a bed of graphite. Ligaments like spiderwebs yoked to the tarsals.
I picture the pile of scat we passed the day before, a coyote or small wolf, knotted with grainy hair. It was fresh enough that flies hummed away as I crouched down. Shards of bone poked through, gnawed keen and smooth.
After the long winter, maybe the canine was desperate. I can see him trotting across a moose calf that didn’t make it through the snowpack, tearing into blizzard-tough hide to the ulnas and vertebrae still cold as ice.
Or, I remember, maybe it was a feast. Fatty marrow husked in ossein, lapped out with a hungry ruby tongue. The hidden places. This is where the good stuff sinks, dark and rich, down a long corridor of bone.
At the base of Porcupine Ridge, I throw my pack down in the shade of a ponderosa. The trail peters out into a rocky wash. Spotted knapweed grips between sprigs of yarrow and wild strawberry.
I pace the wash, back and forth, one heavy foot carefully in front of the other. My fingers lift the three-lobed strawberry leaves one by one by one. Eyes search for crimson-fruited stars hidden in green and stone.
I’ve scoped too many miles to count, too many places to name. The distances have worn me thin. This is all I want, right now, a blink of blood-red, a sweetness drawn from the sun.
I find two berries. I hand the ripe one to my crew member. The other rests pale in my fingers, pricked with graphite-gray seeds, flesh rolling from white to blush like a sunset. In my mouth, it’s as tart as rain.
The radiologist figures my ankle looks fine. “I’ll get those images to the doctor,” he tells me, lifting the leaden cover from my lap. He unlocks the bed’s brakes again and throws his weight into the frame. Back we go down the empty corridor, past whiteboard charts scribbled with names and areas of focus. Debbie, pelvis. Allen, shoulder. Michael, thoracic. The bed rumbles across polished linoleum, thunder hemming a valley.
We roll through a tight corner where one edge juts into the hallway. Even though I’ve never run a river, I’m reminded of shooting a raft past canyon walls. There’s a hand’s length of clearance on either side of the bed rails. The radiologist barely adjusts.
“You’ve really got that spot down,” I say.
He laughs. “Eighteen years,” he says, wheeling me back into the triage unit where the man and woman are packing up to take their baby home. “Eighteen years and that corner has never changed. I could do it with my eyes closed.”
I count my corners, the sway between their margins. They are walls of granite and timber frayed in snow. They don’t change much either, but still fires burn and limestone topples and trails sink beneath jackstraws of pine.
If I close my eyes, I can see them, curtained in mist, bronzed in sunset, coiled out across a tattered map and inked in names.
If I close my eyes, I miss the changing light. The fluorescent light. I miss these hidden places, the long corridors of beige, the baby asleep and cool and held by arms inked in names.
Author Bio: Sarah Capdeville received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Raised in Montana, she has traveled and worked odd jobs throughout the United States and Europe. She currently lives in Missoula, Montana, where she works seasonally in conservation and recreation, preferably in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, her home of homes. Her writing has been published in Fourth Genre, Camas Magazine, Raven Chronicles, and Bright Bones, an anthology of contemporary Montana writing.