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I UNZIP MY TENT, SCOOT forward through the door, and slowly stand up. The breeze blowing down from the high mountains keeps the mosquitoes away. Clouds stained pink block the early morning sun and give the landscape a reddish tinge. I put my binoculars up to my eyes to check on the others. Derrick is a couple of miles away on a rocky ridge, higher than the one I’m camped on. I can’t make out his tent, but I can see a green triangular flag flying close to his campsite—just like the flag at mine.
Derrick’s on the same side of Simon Lake that I’m on. The two girls are on ridges that rise above the lake on the opposite side. I guess it’s the camp director’s way of keeping us from hanging out together while we’re supposed to be by ourselves. I look up and across the lake and spot Brooke’s flag, and then a couple of miles beyond hers I see Shannon’s flag, too. Both green, which means everything is okay.
Below us all, at the head of Simon Lake, sits the main complex of the Simon Lake Leadership Camp. I can’t see the camp’s flag right from this spot, but I can from where I’ve got my food stored about a quarter mile away, and last time I checked it was green, too. We haven’t even had one red flag, which orders everyone back to camp immediately.
After this solo experience ends tomorrow and the four of us hike down to the camp and join up with everyone else, we’ve got a few more days until the floatplanes come to haul us all back to civilization. Back to the land of buildings and roads—and people. And back to the trees. Living above the tree line this past month has been cool. It’s like there are no obstructions. You can see forever. And if you want to see farther, all you need to do is climb higher.
Part of me wishes I could stay in the mountains. That I could take my backpack and keep hiking deeper into the wilderness. But another part of me is ready to go back to Fairbanks. Ready to start my senior year of high school. Ready to run cross-country and see if we can take State this year just like we did last year. My coach was concerned about me missing a month of summer training by doing this Simon-Lake-Leadership-Camp-thing, but I’ve been running up and down steep mountainsides to stay in shape so I’ll be ready for the season. You can’t run up the slope right from the camp because it’s so rocky and almost vertical, but if you jog down the lakeshore for a mile or so then you can go up. One of the counselors, Theo, runs college cross-country, and I’d been running with him almost every day until it was my turn for a solo experience. Theo’s pushed me hard, but I like that because it’s the only way to get faster.
I set my binoculars down just inside my tent and bounce on my toes a couple of times. I could take off running right now, but part of the solo experience is staying put and seeing what comes up in your head. Instead of filling your time with activities, you’re supposed to fill it with silence. Besides clothes, food, and binoculars, I’ve got a journal to write in and that’s it. So far, I’ve written Josh Baker—that’s my name—on the inside cover, plus a list of things I’ve been thinking about.
Running. How can I get faster and stronger?
My parents. How can I keep them from splitting up?
Brooke. How can I get to know her better?
Control. What do I really have control over?
I added that last one because of Theo. Not only does he push me to run faster, he really gets me thinking and challenges me to, as he says, go deeper.
On our last run, Theo said, “Josh, you can’t change other people. You can only change yourself.”
“But I can do things that will make other people change, right?” I asked.
“Someone might change,” Theo said. “Like your mom might decide to stay with your dad. But that’s still her choice. It’s an illusion to think you can control her. You can only control your own actions—not what other people do in response to them.”
Now I’m thinking about control and what Theo said. I mean, I don’t really want to control anyone. I just want them to do certain things.
Like I want my parents to stay together. But that doesn’t mean I want them to be unhappy. I want them to be happy together. I want them to stay together because they want to stay together.
I want Brooke to like me. But I want that to come from her. I don’t want her to pretend she likes me. She hasn’t been that easy to get to know. Out of everyone in camp, she’s probably been the most reclusive. Besides being beautiful, there’s something about her that makes me want to get to know her better. What is going on in her head when she’s silent? Or when she chooses to sit by herself instead of with the group? What’s she thinking about? There’s this mystery there that I want to solve. I mean, she lives in the same town that I live in, but I’d never met her until now.
I want to be the fastest cross-country runner in Alaska. I don’t want other people to slow down so I can win. I want them to run their best and still beat them.
None of those things, like Theo said, are things I can control. I can still want them, but all I can do—all I can control—is what I do and how I do it.
When Theo says it, it sounds easy to remember, but it isn’t.
I reach my arms over my head to stretch, and that’s when I lose my balance, when my feet are swept out from under me and I fall on top of my tent, which is bouncing up, down, and sideways. I’m tossed off the tent onto the ground and feel a stab of pain, like a knife has been shoved into my calf. I roll onto my stomach and grip the ankle-high tundra plants, trying to ride out the earthquake, but the shaking grows stronger. Then the ground starts to split apart directly under me.
I ROLL TO THE RIGHT, toward my tent, which is tipped upside down, and reach for it. Now I’m lying on my side with my hand wrapped around the base of one of the tent poles. Another jolt pitches me forward—like the earth is a trampoline that I’ve just made contact with. I grab the base of another pole of my inverted tent and hang on, draping my body on top of the flimsy nylon.
Then the ground is still. I let go of the tent and slowly stand up, keeping my knees bent in case I have to ride out another wave. I turn and look behind me. There’s a gap in the ground, about five or six feet wide and seven feet deep, that didn’t used to be there. My flag is still upright, but it’s in the gap so only the top foot of my flagpole is aboveground. There’s no way anyone else could see it now.
I reach for it and feel this pain in my calf, like someone hit it with a hammer. I can still move but it hurts. I remember the stab I felt when the quake threw me to the ground, so I twist my body around and work my pant leg up to my knee. There, in the middle of my calf, is a black bruise about as big around as a silver dollar. It’ll heal, I think, in time for the first cross-country meet of the season. It’ll have to.
I set my flag up so it’s flying again. Then I flip my tent over. I fish my binoculars out of the mess and peer across the lake. Both Brooke’s and Shannon’s flags are flying. I turn and search behind me and see Derrick’s flag flying as well.
I walk a few steps, testing out my calf. It throbs but I can tell it’ll be okay for the few miles I’ll need to hike down to camp. I keep walking, picking my way through the rocky tundra for a quarter of a mile, until I get to my food cache. We keep our food in these black plastic bear-proof canisters that screw closed. Down at Simon Lake we’ve got camp stoves to cook on, but on our solos we only bring simple food. Raisins, peanuts, dried fruit, cheese, and tortillas.
I unscrew the top half of the canister from the bottom half, pull out the peanuts, and munch down a couple of handfuls. I screw the two halves back together, and then I look down toward the lake, scanning with my binoculars, but I don’t see the camp’s green flag. It could’ve fallen like mine did and they just haven’t put it back up yet. I limp a little farther along the ridge, knowing that eventually the whole camp complex will come into view, the outdoor kitchen with the low blue tarp and the dome tents for sleeping.
I keep walking and looking, walking and looking, but when the end of the lake comes into view all I see is a massive pile of boulders and smaller rocks and a brownish-gray dusty haze. When I scan the slope above the pile, I see a monstrous scar on the mountainside.
And then I realize that somewhere under that massive pile of rocks lies the Simon Lake Leadership Camp.
Four staff. Twenty participants—minus us four on our solos, which makes sixteen.
I scan the boulder pile, searching for movement, for a color of clothing different from the gray-brown of the rock. And then I notice the rock slide is so huge that the bottom end of it is actually in the lake. Like a new peninsula has been created from the slide.
And the camp had been thirty or forty feet back from the lakeshore.
I let my binoculars hang from my neck, and I take a breath. I swallow the peanuts that are trying to come back up. I jog back to my food canister, unscrew it, and stuff my binoculars inside. I can’t take them with me right now because I need to move as fast as I can.
Then I start picking my way down the mountain. The wind is blowing from behind me. A dull ache settles into my calf but doesn’t stop me from pushing on. At this pace, in a couple of hours I’ll be down there, searching for survivors.
NOW THAT I’M AT THE lakeshore and walking toward it, the rock pile from the avalanche is even bigger than I imagined. It’s as long as two or three football fields and a couple of stories high.
“Josh,” I hear a faint voice call. “Josh.”
I scan the massive mound of rocks and dirt but see no one.
“I’m coming!” I yell back, and pick up the pace. My calf throbs but doesn’t slow me down. Now I can see a person scrambling down the mountain of rock toward me. If there’s one survivor, I think, there must be more. But as we approach each other at the base of the slide, I shake my head.
“Brooke,” I say. “I thought maybe you were, you know, someone who was actually in the camp.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see Brooke. But I figured she was okay since she was up high in a mostly flat area and I saw her green flag.
“I’ve been screaming your name,” Brooke says, “since we both started walking toward the lake. Didn’t you hear me?”
“No,” I say. “The wind was at my back the whole way down. It was pretty strong up there.”
Brooke nods. “The wind. Duh. I didn’t even think of that.” She points behind her to the ocean of rock. “What are we going to do?”
We’re standing next to each other now, staring at the slide. The scar on the mountainside above it—where it all came from—is like the inside of a huge brown bowl that’s been tipped on its side.
I turn to Brooke. “We need to search for survivors. Maybe people are trapped under there. Maybe when the rocks settled there were spaces left.” I pause, trying to picture it in my mind. “You know. If two huge rocks ended up like this.” I put the tips of my fingers together to form an inverted V. “If a tent was squished between them, and then more rocks piled on top, then the tent and whoever was in it would get buried but not squished.”
“Josh,” Brooke says. “Are you looking at the same thing I’m looking at?” She makes a sweeping motion with her hand, and that’s when I notice that it’s all cut up. “The pile is like thirty feet tall. And, it’s long.” She points. “It’s sticking into the lake. The camp might be underwater and covered with rocks.” She shakes her head. “How are we going to search?”
I look her in the eye and say, “We crawl all over the rock pile. We yell. We listen. If we hear something, we try to move the rocks.”
“And if we don’t hear anything?” Brooke asks.
“Then we move the rocks we can move and keep searching,” I say softly. “If there’s someone alive under there, we need to find them. They might be injured. They might die if we don’t get to them in time.”
“Josh, I’m just trying to be real.” Brooke brushes her hair back, and I see a bruise on her forehead and scratches on her cheek. “I climbed over that rock pile to get to you and there’s not one scrap of clothing or a food canister or anything visible. Nothing.”
“With Derrick and Shannon there’ll be four of us to move rocks,” I say. “Their camps are farther away than ours, but they’ve got to be on their way down by now.”
“What makes you so sure of that?” Brooke says. “My tent was swallowed into a crack that opened up, and I was inside it. While I was clawing my way out, a rock fell and hit me on the forehead. I thought I was going to die right then.”
“I saw your flag flying, so I knew you were okay,” I say. “I saw Derrick’s and Shannon’s, too.”
Brooke shakes her head. “I never touched my flag. It stayed up through the whole quake. I could still be in that hole, but my green flag would be flying. This little flag system only works if someone can actually get to their flag to change the color.”
I start telling Brooke about how I almost got swallowed as the ground split beneath me when I hear a humming noise in the distance. I stop talking and we both look skyward.
We yell and wave our arms when we realize what we’re seeing, but the planes are so high up we must look like specks of dust to them down here. The camp buried under a pile of rocks must make us an even harder target to spot.
“I counted twelve planes or jets or whatever they were,” I say.
“Who cares?” Brooke says. “They didn’t see us.” She’s got her arms crossed over her chest like she’s angry.
“It must mean lots of people are helping out,” I say. “Think about places where people actually live. The quake probably caused a lot of damage. Maybe whole houses were swallowed like your tent was.”
Brooke shivers. “I hear you, Josh. I just want to get out of here and see if my parents are okay.”
“Our parents will make sure someone comes for us. But right now, we’ve got to search for more survivors.”
The wind is starting to chill me now that we’ve been standing around talking. I glance up the ridge. I have warmer clothes and rain gear up there, but it’ll take at least three hours to get back up. Maybe longer with my injured calf.
I turn my attention to the rock slide. “Let’s crawl around on top of it and listen. And yell into the rocks and see if we hear anyone yell back or make a noise.” Last night I kept trying to think about a way to stay in touch with Brooke after the Leadership Camp ends, a way to have her want to spend time with me once we’re back in Fairbanks, but right now all I can think about is Theo and everyone else buried under this enormous pile of rocks.
Brooke and I walk side by side and then start climbing on top of the rock slide. Brooke puts her face into an opening between two giant rocks and yells, “Hello,” and then puts her ear into the opening and listens. After several seconds she shakes her head and moves on.
We spread out, each yelling into small openings and then turning to listen for responses. Every time I have to use my right foot to boost myself up higher, my calf throbs, but I keep going. I’m starting to warm up from the movement but my voice is going hoarse from all the yelling.
My mind jumps to Derrick and Shannon. Their solo camps were at least twice as far away as mine and Brooke’s, but if they’re okay they should be showing up soon. I stand up straight and turn toward the high ridge where Derrick’s camp is. I put my hand above my forehead to shield my eyes from the glare of the sun, which is growing brighter by the minute.
Before I can really focus, Brooke shouts, “Josh, I think I found something!”
Copyright © 2020 by Paul Greci