A. J. Windless
Tails and Trails

 This story was written as part of a five story series, each of the true stories woven together by the themes "leave no trace" and "trails".


Late evening the soles of my feet fall one after the other along a narrow trail strewn with the needles and protruding roots of nearby Douglas fir. Climbing steadily ever since I began, this mountain, already billions of years old, continues to exact a fee of anyone who wishes to tread here. Seemingly oblivious to the effects of gravity, my Alaskan Malamute prances up and down the trail ahead of me, pausing momentarily where perhaps days ago some curious creature left no trace, save footprints unseen. Curiosity fully inhaled, Tecumseh dances on, big white underside of his tail wagging back and forth high in the air like a flag of truce, naively warning wildlife of our approach, sometimes miles in advance. I never get any photos of wildlife when Tecumseh is with me. But I don't mind, I love his company. And before the night is through that huge white tail will save me from hypothermia.

This trail continues to lead us by the hand through unfamiliar forests and vistas of fir covered mountain sides. We break into an opening and, like the grizzlies did for thousands of years, cut through steep sloping meadows. Daylight tarries with us to this point, but will presently drift away to explore other realms below the western curvature of the globe. Knowing this, with footprints and hillsides to retrace, Tecumseh and I must turn back.

I haven't seen a map, but I get a sense that this trail may soon join the Porter Fork trail, which I am certain lies at the foot of the mountain to our west. We drop into the drainage below us, rugged and steep, but for a time open and clear. We descend until we are swallowed by a wall of shrunken aspens, as thick and tangled as any of the regions most contemptuous oak brush. What had started out as a hike now becomes a fight, stubborn branches overlapping from opposite directions, grabbing like the arms of hungry trolls. Out of character, Tecumseh lags behind, wading through undergrowth deeper than his ears, vaulting over debris. We find the chaos impenetrable and retreat to try another angle. Forging forward I jerk to a stop, my right shin solidly wedged front and back. I reposition my weight and deliberately lift my leg out of the aspen bear trap. Again we attack, branch at a time; progress too slow. One last time we retreat, flank to the right, the light is expiring. The trolls win. Reluctantly we face a long climb back to the trail, with shades of gray fading to shades of black.

We exit the gnarly aspens, the deceased among them still tripping at my ankles and shins as if anxious to pull me to their own fate. Once free from their taunting, even the chest pounding incline of the upper draw comes as a relief. The drainage narrows to a ditch and briefly interrupts the trail which jumps imperceptibly from one side to the other. With darkness closing claustrophobically, only sharp use of my memory finds the path that led us here. In the shadows we follow a barely discernible outline, feeling well rewarded for our return up the mountainside until we burrow into the firs. Here the darkness is complete. If the open trail was like closing the door and turning out the light, this forest is like crawling under the covers. I usually possess excellent night vision and have hiked extensively after dark including treks through rugged and unfamiliar forests, but never have I encountered a night as black as this. I am blind. I see no forms, no outlines; nothing. With all of our options expended, we must stop here. We are trapped. But wait, there is just one thing I can see tonight, even if barely perceptible, Tecumseh's tail!

When Tecumseh was a pup I had tried to train him to stay behind me on the trail. I thought I could help protect him from rattlesnakes, porcupines, dog fights, and even from the possibility of being shot by mistake for a coyote or a wolf. I soon realized, however, that he didn't seem to enjoy himself unless he was free to run out in front, beckoned there by the genes of generations of sled dogs. And now here he is, several feet in front of me, tail high in the air, nothing but white showing on the backside, leading me through the black like a seeing eye dog. How well he sees in this vat of ink I know not, but surely his keen sense of smell makes it easy for him to retrace our footsteps. Always so anxious to please, I wonder if he basks proud in his ability to help.

He settles into a quiet, even pace. For miles I follow what luckily is an unobstructed trail, unable to discern anything but a faint trace of white. At last we reach the truck. Here I pull off my small pack and find my quart of drinking water frozen to an icy slush. Carrying no extra clothing, that white tail, like a beacon to a wayward ship, saved me from a long cold night. Nights like this I feel fortunate to leave nothing behind... save a few tufts of Tecumseh's fur for some otherwise very hungry trolls.

 © 2002 A. J. Windless
First draft written and copyrighted in 1992

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    © 2002 A. J. Windless    
    First draft written and copyrighted in 1992