By Lauryn E. Nosek
“Are you sure that you’ve got everything? Extra Band-aids? What about bug spray?” Flitting around from cooler to back pack to the bathroom’s already emptied medicine cabinet, Tracey Austen rechecked everything. Her husband, Bill, sighed and shook his head but let her continue with her self-reassurance.
Their nine-year-old son poked his head in the front door to the house to check on their progress. “Dad, how much longer?”
“We still have to pack the car. Then we’ll swing by and pick up Todd and meet at the Patersons’ before heading up to the mountain.”
“Well, what’s taking so long? How come the car’s not packed?”
Both looked at Tracey who was on her third lap. Mark looked at his mother and turned red. “Mom! We’re gonna be late. We’ve got everything, let’s go.”
Tracey stopped pacing but continued going over her list mentally as they packed each item into the trunk of the car with the preciseness that all men are born with. At last it was time to actually leave. She hugged her son longer than he felt was necessary. Bill kissed his wife on the cheek and walked around to the drivers’ side door. “They’ve been looking forward to this camping trip for weeks, Tracey. Let him enjoy it. And you, enjoy some alone time.”
As the car backed out of the driveway and turned left at the end of the street, Tracey tuned reluctantly back to the house.
It was hard driving the twenty miles to Little Grizzly Mountain and the campsite. The group of nine and ten-year-olds were rambunctious and feisty strapped into their seats. The snake of cars and minivans, dangerously top-heavy, wove along the highway leading to the mountain. Every time one of the vehicles in front slowed there were at least three cries of “Are we there yet?”
At last the blessed moment arrived and the doors were flung open allowing a half-hour’s worth of pent-up energy to explode out on the unsuspecting wilderness. The four fathers who drew the unlucky straws and were forced to accompany the group of young boy scouts unpacked the cars and fully appreciated the others’ company.
“Who’ll coral the boys to help pitch their tents?” Bill Austen finally asked when all the materials were on the ground. No one replied and Bill went off to do it himself. He would have at least expected Paterson volunteer. He was, after all, the leader of the pack and it was his idea to organize this little experiment. “C’mon in boys. You’ve gotta help set up camp.” He looked up at the mountainside. It was early fall but the chillier airs of the altitude had set the foliage off earlier at the mountain. The treetops were ablaze with color. It was just possible to see several tree enthusiasts at the summit of the mountain with binoculars and, presumably, cameras.
Grumbling the boys turned to the tents but their disappointment soon lifted when they were enlightened as to the infinite possibilities for the plastic poles when used in the form of weapons. In the end, the four fathers and one very determined Boy Scout by the name of Tommy maneuvered the tents into place and after a series of tragic collapses set about unpacking the prepared sandwiches for lunch.
“Okay boys, after lunch we hit the woods,” Bob Paterson, the boys’ leader began once the food was in their mouths and there was little possibility for disruption. “This afternoon we’ll be picking up trash in the woods to help out the rangers.”
“Will we get a badge for this?” the same determined boy asked. He had put his sandwich aside when their leader started talking.
“We aren’t going to do this for a badge, we’re doing it ‘cause it’s the right thing to do. They didn’t have to let us come and camp here. We are going to leave this place in better shape than when we arrived.”
The boys were not amused by the little pep talk. Going on a camping trip wasn’t supposed to involve chores, at least not the same chores that you would have at home like picking up trash. It’s supposed to be fun chores like carrying buckets of water and gathering sticks for the campfire or keeping an eye on the campfire or, basically, anything to do with the campfire.
“Is that clear?” Eliciting no response, Paterson signaled to Bill who took out the fixings for S’mores. “I’m sorry, I thought that you boys would want to have a treat tonight. Best not let it go to waste. Maybe the rangers would like it?”
The boys groaned and finished eating their lunches, then used the restrooms located in a building a few hundred feet from the campsite and trudged off into the woods with trash bags and eyes peeled.
“Use the buddy-system!” Ted Morgan called as the boys bounded off. The dry weather had killed some of the leaves prematurely and added to the brush. The boys found that they had to scour more intensely than they’d originally thought. There were countless candy bar wrappers, tissues, cigarette butts, and they even found a baby’s diaper, much to their disgust. Eventually they got the rhythm of the job. Using a stick they would poke around the dead leaves, turning them over before moving on. The same stick could, after a few seconds with a Swiss Army knife, be used to spear some of the easier items. The cigarette butts and the diaper were better handled with latex gloves. It didn’t take long for the adolescents to turn the task into a competition.
Mark and Todd wandered away from the group in their pursuit of garbage. It took them towards the eastern side of the mountain. Without the others there to keep them glued to the game, they were easily distracted.
“I bet can climb that tree and you can’t,” Todd boasted.
“I’d like to see you try,” Mark retorted.
“Just watch me.”
Todd grasped a handful of branch and hoisted himself up. He reached out for the next branch up but missed and had to try again.
“You should be careful,” a voice said from behind the two boys. “Somebody could get hurt.”
Todd nearly fell out of the tree and Mark whipped around to see who had been addressing them.
A man stood teetering on the edge of the hiking trail. He was tall and wore a leather jacket. Sunglasses were held in place but his gelled hair. An expensive watch glistened in the sunlight that made it through the trees. A pack of cigarettes stuck out of the jacket pocket and interfered with the thick strap that kept the elaborate camera from falling to the ground and wasting five hundred dollars worth of technology.
“We’re being careful, don’t worry,” Mark spoke up. Todd jumped out of the tree. He crept to his friend’s side and pulled him back a bit.
“C’mon. We’ve gotta get back to camp.”
The photographer chuckled as he pulled a cigarette from his pack and lit up. He blew the smoke towards the sky. The lighting was gone. He would have to come back the next day to get his shot. He dropped the cigarette butt to the dirt trail and looked up at the limbs of the tree the boys had just been climbing as the cigarette rolled to the edge of the path and he ground a clump of dirt into the soil with the toe of his boot. He turned and followed the trail down the side of the mountain.
By the time Mark and Todd reached the campsite again the campfire was roaring and the others had already collected a large pile of sticks and twigs to feed the flames. “Should we go help get some more?” Mark asked his father.
“No, there were plenty the first time around. You can go fill these buckets with water though.”
After a modest supper the group circled the fire and a S’mores assembly line formed inexplicably. Chocolate and marshmallow stuck to the children’s faces and attracted mosquitoes.
“Who can point out a constellation?” Paterson asked the boys huddled in their sleeping bags in an effort to keep mosquitoes out and a little more warmth in.
“I can’t see the stars too well. The sun’s still up and there’re too many clouds,” Jacob Morgan complained.
“That’s impossible,” Tommy said using the special light up feature of his watch. “It’s nearly nine o’clock. Sunset was over an hour ago.”
“Oh yeah, well then what’s that?” Jacob pointed at the glowing horizon.
“That’s east, stupid. Can’t you read a compass? The sun sets in the west, over there.” Tommy pointed to the west, which was indeed darker and where stars shimmered faintly.
“Then what’s that?” Jacob asked as he gazed into the distance.
“I smell smoke,” Tommy said sniffing the air.
“Now who’s the stupid one? We’re sitting next to a campfire,” Jacob smirked.
“The wind’s blowing to the west. The smoke I smell wouldn’t be from that fire, necessarily,” he added at the last second.
“What’s going on here boys? I hope it wasn’t you two I heard a few moments ago calling each other stupid?” Bill said coming up beside the two arguing kids.
“I smell smoke,” Tommy said first.
“And there’s some sort of light over there,” Jacob pointed.
Bill looked to the east and called the other fathers over. “What do you make of that?”
“I don’t think it’s anything serious. Likely another group of campers,” Paterson said matter-of-factly.
“I’m pretty sure that this is the only site open at this time of year, what with the weather we’ve been having lately,” Bill said pulling out his binoculars.
“Then it’s likely to be the rangers’ station,” Ted suggested.
“Yeah, the rangers’ station. They’ve gotta have some light to see by,” Roger Montgomery agreed.
As the four fathers watched they saw a sudden flash of light, as a pine tree ignited into a tower of flame and it was possible for them to hear it faintly crackling as it was consumed.
“I think that we ought to head out. We’ve got to alert the rangers,” Paterson said logically.
“I’ll take some of the boys and head off right away,” Roger volunteered. “Looks like we’ve still got some time. Should pack up as much of the stuff as we can. Don’t want all that money the boys raised to go to waste.”
“Okay, Tommy, Jacob, you two get in Mr. Montgomery’s car. Jimmy, you go too. The rest of you, pack up the stuff. We’ve got to clear camp,” Paterson announced. The air of authority permeated the group and there were no complaints to be heard as the boys stood up and packed. They didn’t need the sleeping bags to keep the bugs away anymore and moved quickly.
Montgomery took one of a pair of walkie-talkies with him. They only had a range of a mile and no one was sure where the rangers’ station was. Considering it took almost three hours for the camp to be set up, it came down relatively fast. But then there wasn’t the same degree of precision as they tossed unrolled sleeping bags into the back of mini van.
The walkie-talkie crackled to life. “Guys, we’re at the rangers’ station. Do you hear me?” Roger’s voice came over with a small degree of static interference.
Paterson was directing the packing procedures and the tents, which had been so eager to collapse earlier, were suddenly refusing to be torn down. Bill grabbed the walkie-talkie. “Yeah, we hear you.”
“Listen, the fire departments from a few different places are going to be here within a half hour. From what the rangers here can tell, the fire’s moving quickly. Get down here as fast as you can, before the fire blocks the way.”
“Gotcha. We’ll be there in a few. We’re ‘bout ready to head out now.” Bill turned back to the remaining cars and started rounding the boys up. When everyone was loaded into the three vehicles each father took a separate head count. Each came up with the same distressing number. They were two short. “Wait, where’s Mark? Todd’s missing too. MARK! TODD!”
“Bill, we’ve got to get these kids out of here,” Paterson pleaded.
“You go on ahead. I’ll find Mark and Todd and catch up,” Bill suggested, convinced that the boys couldn’t be all that far. They’d been there only a few minutes earlier when they were all cleaning up the campsite.
“You sure?” Ted asked.
Bill nodded. “I’ll be right behind you. Joe and Alex can help me look for Mark and Todd.”
The others pulled away while Bill and the two boys went off in search of Mark and Todd. It didn’t take long to find them.
“Todd, get out of that tree,” Bill called up. Mark cowered at the tree’s base, knowing the trouble that they were in. “What are you doing up there anyhow?”
Todd was having difficulty maneuvering back down the trunk. His sleeve caught on a strong branch and he could hear the fabric tear. “I wanted to get a better look.”
“Well hurry up and get down here. We’ve gotta go. The others have left us behind.”
They flew to the car and tore down the winding dirt road towards the rangers’ station. They had to head east to get to there but the fire had already cut off the road. Bill stopped the car, as the glow from the flames grew stronger. He did a three-point-turn into a tree and drove back to the campsite.
“Why’re we going back?” Mark asked.
“The road’s blocked. Camp’s the best shot we’ve got.”
They reached the wooded camp ground and looked around them and the kindling that would stoke the fires as it cooked them alive. Alex started whimpering.
“Don’t worry, Alex. Nothing’s going to happen. The fire department has special planes to put the fires out. They’re already on the way. They’ve probably already started,” Bill said as the boys clung to him.
“Where’re we gonna go Dad?” Mark asked. They were all looking east. The smoke was visibly thicker and Joey had started coughing. He pulled an inhaler out of his pocket and puffed on it a few times.
Bill pulled out the walkie-talkie and radioed the rangers’ station. “Roger? Ted? Bob? Listen guys, we’re stuck here at the campsite. The fire’s already blocked the road.”
“Are the boys alright?” Bob had taken over the walkie-talkie.
“We’re all fine.”
“You find shelter. There’ll be people on their way to get you guys as we speak.”
“Thanks. Boys head on into the bathroom.” Bill gave them all a slight push toward the brick building. Bill popped the trunk of the car and brought out all the sleeping bags that he could find. They would have to double up. He dropped them inside the door of the bathroom. The boys crowded on the floor. Tears were streaming down Alex’s face and the others were comforting him.
“Don’t worry. My Dad’s gonna take care of us’
Bill went back and grabbed the cooler and piled extra clothes on top. The wheels helped him drag that to the bathroom except for the brief moment it caught on an embedded root.
“Boys, get the water going in the sinks, all of them. Plug the bottom with toilet paper. Don’t worry about it over flowing.” Bill fumbled through the clothes. He found one of his shirts and tore it into pieces. He dipped each of them in the water and tied them around the boys’ faces, covering their mouths and noses. Mark started to unzip the sleeping bags. “Good, Mark. We need to wet the sleeping bags from the sink. Get ‘em good and wet. We don’t know how long it’ll be until help comes. Keep the door open and Todd, go hang the on the side of the building.” He handed the boy a white shirt. Todd ran off.
Opening the cooler Bill pulled out the rest of the chocolate and the sodas that had been specially reserved for the adults. “Have as much as you can stomach. You’re going to need the caffeine to stay awake.”
“Dad, I don’t think we’ll be able to fall asleep,” Mark said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Get in those sleeping bags. Leave the water running in the sinks. It’ll keep them wet.” He pulled the walkie-talkie back out. “Bob, do you hear me?”
Todd came in and crawled into the soggy sleeping bag with Mark. The boys were shivering, more from fear than the cold. “Bob?” Bill tried again.
“What is it Bill? How’re you guys making out?”
“We’re in the bathroom. We’ve got water keeping things wet and cool for now. Let the rescuers know where we are, would ya? It’ll make things easier.”
“They’re going to have to fly you guys out from the looks of it. There’ll be someone coming in on the ground to find you and help you and the boys from any available areas. Should be there soon.”
“We’ll be waiting.”
It was the longest hour that any of them had ever known. No one would go near the door to see the fire’s progression. Bill used a plastic cup to keep the sleeping bags wet. Finally a man in full fire gear knocked on the side of the building. Bill got up and went to meet him.
“Helicopter’s on its way,” the man said. “It’s risky to use the basket with all the trees but it’s the only option we’ve got. Can’t use the road to get out. Luckily the wind’s changed directions a bit and is blowing the fire back the way it came. As long as it keeps going the way it is we shouldn’t have much trouble.” Bill waved an arm for the boys to join him. They followed the man out towards the road. “This is our best bet. It’s the closest to a clearing we’re going to get.”
Wind blew the leaves off the trees as the helicopter lowered. It had to stop a long way up. Bill knew that this wasn’t going to be fun. The basket was dropped and broke a branch on one of the larger trees in its descent. Not the most reassuring thing.
“We’ll send the boys up first. They’re small enough we can probably fit them in two at a time. I’ll need you to help me with the guide ropes. They’ll help keep the basket steady in the air.”
Bill couldn’t talk; he just nodded and did as he was told. The boys followed suit. The basket rose steadily through the trees with only a few altercations. When it was his turn to take a ride in the basket Bill closed his eyes as his weight shifted. He gripped the edge of the basket, white knuckled. A branch brushed his cheek. He opened his eyes and saw the destruction. The flames had been brought under control and were being extinguished systematically. Charred trunks were all that remained. Smoking charcoal. The heat given off by the fire could be felt even from that great distance.
All loaded up, the helicopter took its cargo down the mountainside to safety. They passed right by the summit in their flight path. It was the closest they got during their camping trip, but it would have to do.