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Lorraine Berry

Murder on Valentine Mountain

My love planned our entire Valentine's Day.

We set off from southern New York around ten and drove to a tiny Thai restaurant in the Poconos where he sometimes meets with people on business. The food was exquisite, but what I was really looking forward to was the promised hike.

February is doing her cruelest dance of the seven veils—it's been above freezing during the day for almost a week now, and even though I know that this is the annual February thaw and I shouldn't be fooled—I really do start to think that spring is coming—and then, sometime in the next few days, Mother Earth is going to go all Medea on our ass and whammo: eight more weeks of winter. Every year. Driving through the Endless Mountains on I-81, I actually told him I was hoping to see some pink in the trees that would indicate that they were budding.

"I know it's way too early," I said, "But this thaw is making me think spring is coming."

"You keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at," he said. His movie-quote code for "I don't think so."

So a hike in February is a big deal. We drove through the little town on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap; a lot of stores were closed for the season, but I could still see their signs for "inner tube rental" and "boat rentals." The Delaware Water Gap is (wait for it) where the Delaware River etched a path through a wall of rock to escape south and east. The river marks the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and the bridge across the river costs nothing to cross over into New Jersey, but 75 cents to get the hell out of Jersey and enter Pennsylvania. Go figure.

We drove to the trailhead and set off. The night before, when I had packed to come down to his place for the weekend, I had forgotten my hiking boots. Instead I was wearing a pair of my 11-year old's castoff boots. She had bought some ersatz UGGs, worn them once, and decided they were crappy. She gave them to me, and even though I don't like how they look, they're all fuzzy inside, so it’s like getting to wear my slippers all day. The boots swallow my feet—my daughter has at least a half a size on me, so I either lift my feet and slap them down on the ground, or I sort of drag them. I tend to drag them. These boots will not be the cause of my accidentally startling a Grizzly. He can hear me coming for miles.

So anyway, those are the boots that are going to carry me on this hike. Rob's got us pointed toward the top of Mt. Minsi. I'm up for a climb. I love to climb when I'm hiking—just something exhilarating about pushing your body to go and go based only on the promise that when you get to the top, you'll get to see something. And you won't know unless you do it.

First, we stopped at the big, worn, board of information. Rob's looking at the map. I'm looking at a piece of colored copy paper . Two criss-cross lines cut it into four sections. WARNING! is the heading at the top of the page.

In the top left-hand corner is a drawing of an oversized mosquito. WEST NILE ENCEPHALITIS, it's explained, are transmitted by mosquitoes and they're in the area.

To its right, LYME DISEASE, with a blown-up deer tick. Again, a warning that this area's infested with them. (We even have them where I live: I pulled a deer tick out of my daughter's forearm two summers ago.)

Bottom left: POISON IVY with a description of the plant.

Bottom right: CONTAMINATED FISH Don't eat the fish. Too many heavy metals, etc.

Boy, it's sure good I love the wilderness because otherwise, I might not want to go. But it's spr…winter, and those things aren't going to be out today.

Uh-oh. One more sign. "Please do not kill the bears" An explanation about how people feeding the local black bears causes them to become aggressive. So don't feed them and they can stay. No word from the bears on that.

Bears? I've always wanted to see a bear in the wild. But, again, it's February. They're still hibernating. (Wouldn't that be a life? You eat yourself sick for the nicest eight months of the year and then you lie down and take a nap. If you're a female, you wake up with two cuddly cubs sleeping next to you and you don't remember giving birth to them. I could so be a bear.)

(In a wonderful 1983 New Yorker article, John McPhee—Rob's favorite author—wrote, "Bears in winter in the Pocono Plateau are like chocolate chips in a cookie.")

Okay. I'm now armed with all the stuff I'm should be watching out for.

The winter woods are pretty damn quiet. I hear "chick-a-deee-deee-deee-deeee." I can't see the chickadee wherever it may be. But I don't hear any other bird life. Not even the blue jays or cardinals who stay through the winter.

Rob spots it first. "Is that a nest?" It is. The barren branch that bears it seems too slender. I pull down on the branch, carefully lest I disturb anything, and we peer into the nest's perfect symmetry.

The nest is woven onto the branch on one side. I can't stop staring at the work that its tiny inhabitants put into creating a home. We pull the branch lower so that we may look inside. Tiny downy caramel feathers cover the bottom.

I take the nest as a sign of hope. Spring will come again. Birds will return, and soon noisy bird chatter will accompany me into the days. We proceed. We ascend; we're on an old carriage road. As if they are an echo, lining it on both sides are a long-ago planted species: rhododendrons. Hundreds of them. Dark green against the yellow and brown background.

"Apparently, deer don't like rhodies," I note. "Can you imagine how many deer there would be here if they did?"

We figured that the rhodies had been planted when the road had led up to one of the grand hotels that folks from New York City used to come and stay in when they wanted to "take the air."

Two foreign sounds hum in the background. Highway noise is the faroff buzz from I-80. But closer, babbling. Running water. Odd for February. But certain. Some creek beds move with the liquid rushing over their rocks.

The road begins to climb at a more steep angle. Two-thirds of the road is still covered in a solid sheet of ice. On the edge is mushy gravel. He sets up the side. I decide the ice looks like too much fun and too big a challenge to pass up. I've forgotten, of course, that the boots I'm wearing have about as much traction as banana skins, so I have I walk up the hill. This means I can't look up: I have to place each step carefully and make sure that foot is set before lifting the other one. I have no idea where I am on the side of the hill, but now I'm really getting into it. I'm imagining that I'm Edmund Hillary—except without the crampons, the ice pick, or Tenzing—and I'm having a high old time.

Rob's voice startles me. "Honey, what are you doing?"

I look up. He's at the top of the ice slick. Waiting. "I'm pretending I'm Hillary, climbing Everest."

"Well, that's great honey. But the difference is, Hillary was quicker."

Oh oh. Now he's done it. I can't simultaneously laugh, flip him off and keep my balance. One foot slips. I brace the other to prevent disaster, and drop one of my hands down. That starts to slip. Slap comes the other hand. Okay. I've got four paws on the ice and, oh shit, I'm stuck. I cannot move any limb without the other three sliding out from underneath me. I don't want to do a faceplant. I'm on a gigantic Twister board, and I'm about to fall. I manage to tilt my head up. "I'm stuck," I say, and now I'm giggling.


What is he doing? He's got the goddamned camera out. He's not going to help. And now I'm starting to laugh, the giggles like hiccoughs, and oh shit, now what. My sunglasses fall out of my coat pocket, hit the ice and begin the inevitable, excruciating, slow slide back whence I came. I watch those bastards through my legs sliding farther and farther down the ice.

OH FUCK. Okay. I cannot go up, I cannot go down. I can only go sideways. So I begin my crab-scuttle toward the gravel. Whoops, I've over-compensated and I lose two limbs at once, do a barrel-roll and wind up on my knees in the mud. Pick up the sunglasses. Begin my trudge up to where Rob is with his fucking camera.

Stupid Edmund Hillary. Tenzing got there first anyway.

The path gets narrower. We're now climbing frozen creekbed. In the opposite direction, making his way down the mountain, is a single man. "Good afternoon," we chirp. He chirps back.

We continue on. In a few minutes, another single man. I'm beginning to feel kinda bad for them. Hiking alone on Valentine's Day. But something else is forming in my mind. It comes from watching too many detective shows.

When we get to where our trail and the Appalachian Trail cross, we meet another young man: hyper in his movements and seemingly driven to be somewhere else. But he stops to ask us about the trail we've just climbed. We share our map, giving him some direction, and in return, he cautions us that—on our way down—the Appalachian Trail leads to an overlook dead-end, and he wouldn't recommend returning that way. Tells us he knows these trails well—"I hiked the other side this morning. Climbed Mt. Tammany."

I thank him. The young man hurries away, and I swear he takes out his pocket watch. "I'm late. I'm late."

I turn to Rob, who says, "He doesn't know what he's talking about." Pulls out his map again. Shows me the little dogleg that leads to a roadside overlook that "trail boy" mistook for the trailhead. I marvel again at the male dynamic around directions. Why do men feel compelled to tell you which way to go? And why does that cause other men to immediately pull out their compass needle and show you that they are, in fact, correct, too?

Anyway, we resolve to take the Appalachian Trail down, after this last sprint to the top of Mt. Minsi. We're in the midst of woods and I can't focus on anything but the jutting stones that describe the trail. The bottom of my boots are not protecting my feet. I keep telling myself I'm getting a foot massage. I'm really thinking that I'll be loaded up with stone bruises in the morning.

We pass yet another guy on his way down the side of the mountain. "You know," I say, "I know this sounds insane, but every time I'm hiking and there's a guy by himself, I always think he's just come from burying a body."

Rob laughs.

We reach the climax of our hike, a small tabletop of rocks. And then turn around. The view is spectacular, but not perfect—perfect would be a summer's day—but you've got to learn to love winter's browns and yellows and grays if you're going to survive seven months of this.

"You realize we climbed all this way to get a view of New Jersey," I say. Across from us, Mt. Tammany rises as Minsi's twin. Between the two mountains the Delaware River snakes, and above it, I-80. Traffic hisses below, but we're oblivious. This view's enough to drive other thoughts from one's head.

We sit for a few minutes, and then opt to head down. Not the way we came, but on that shorter and steeper Appalachian Trail route that we knew would cut across the side of the mountain and back to our starting point.

Ice covers the rocks on this shadowed side of the mountain. The rocks are the trail, and choosing those not too slick to step on becomes a challenge in focus and agility.

The narrow path restricts the number of hikers who could pass each other. So as a couple approach us, we step aside to let them by, and exchange brief small talk.

Out of earshot, Rob shoots me a CSI-glance, and says, "Two go up. One comes down."

Damn, here come the giggles again.

We pass yet another couple, heading up the mountain. Rob again raises his eyebrows. I wonder if the poor woman knows her fate.

A few minutes later, a single guy passes, clicking and poking with his two hiking poles.

After he passes, Rob says, "He's probably going up there to make sure there are no bones sticking out. Never know what the thaw is going to do to your burial spots."

We continue picking our way down the mountain. We meet another couple, this time with two dogs yanking them upward. The guy, who looks maybe five or so years younger than I am, says "Where did you get to?"

"The top," I say.

"Good for you."

We continue on. "Good for me? Good for me? What does that mean? Does he think I'd be too old to climb? Or, oh my god, he just called me FAT, didn't he?"

Rob shakes his head, perhaps glancing about for good, soft, easily dig-able ground.

Nevertheless, we hold hands the rest of the way down until we reach our original trail, just below the scene of my skating game of Twister. One more landmark to pass and then we'll be back to the car. A small lake, Lake Lenape. It's mostly frozen over, except for a couple of soft spots and one clear area where the lake drains into a culvert.

"What's that?" I say, my eye catching a man-made shape, contrasting against the natural curve of the lake.

It's a white bucket holding ice, leaves and a home-made cross. Next to it, an American flag. The name on the cross is somehow familiar to me. Lying on the top layer of the bucket, a pair of eyeglasses.

I feel a chill move through me. I have no idea who this person was, but—together—Rob and I sense it's an echo of a suicide. Personally, I can't connect the name, and haven't been able to find him in Google searches, but I can almost see him in the litany of all the stories I've been writing about PTSD this week, and believe there's a connection. If only because we look for stories in what we see around us. In rocks. In crosses.

And so we come back to John McPhee's hibernating "chocolate chips." But instead of bear, human; not rounded, but an angled cross; not anonymous, but named.

We talk about the shrine all the way back to the car. Can't really make sense of it. It's a familiar highway marker—so many of them around here on our narrow but fast country roads. Usually kids who didn't know how to take the turn or control the car in an ice skid. What could have happened to this kid?

We get in the car. Head for a local Irish pub for something hot to drink. We Google the name again, using every spelling variation we can think of. Nothing.

I ask the bartender, describing the spot. She knows nothing about it.

The writer in me feels a story coming on. Knows it'll show up in some piece of fiction at some point. I'll have to know why that shrine is by the pond.

But at the Irish bar, my love and I are warm and happy. My legs are trembling a little bit from the steep descent—as hikers say, "Up is hard; down sucks"—and I feel that "happy tired” you feel when you've done something good for yourself.

I kiss him. "I'm sorry I don't have a Valentine's gift for you," I say. "Too broke."

I know I don’t have to say that; we both know what an up-and-down battle my finances are.

"You know what the best Valentine's gift was?" he says. "Looking back and seeing you right there, and neither of us needing to talk...just lost in our own little worlds. Together."

I'm so lucky.

©2009 by Lorraine Berry

Lorraine Berry grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but has lived in the Finger Lakes region of New York for more than a decade, where she is raising two daughters. She teaches at SUNY Cortland. She and her partner, Rob, hike together often, but as of yet, have not found any corpses.

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