rogerinblueongray

rogerinblueongray

THE RED AXE



This story by Roger C. Lubeck is reprinted from Journeys: On the Road & Off the Map, 

10th Anniversary Edition of the Redwood Writers Anthology, Amber Lea Starfire, Editor.

Redwood Writers is a branch of the California Writers Club. 

Jealousy and doubt are natural companions. I was putting Christmas boxes away when I came across my red ice axe. It was hanging upside down on the garage wall by its blue leash. The rusted steel adze, pick head, and spike were covered in masking tape. Some things are too dangerous to handle.
The axe was a gift from a girl I met in college in Utah in 1974. She was a junior taking Psychology 301, and I was the graduate student teaching the class. When the semester was over, I asked her out and, after one date, we lived together for a year, until she moved to another school a thousand miles away to study for her Masters.
Being honest with each other, we decided that our romance could not endure the distance, so we called it off. However, months of loneliness and long distance phone calls brought us back together over the holidays in Michigan.
Before Christmas, I mentioned that I had taken to winter hiking and I needed something more than a walking stick when crossing snow fields and icy slopes. Her gift to me was an ice axe. The shaft of the three-foot axe was solid ash, painted bright red with a steel pick head and sharpened steel spike. Owning the red axe made me feel like a real mountaineer; I was Hillary on Everest.
Back in Utah, my classes kept me out of the mountains through the winter. Early in spring, the temperature was in the high seventies, even though the mountains were capped in deep snow. On such days, the sight of the red axe brought back images of The Third Man on the Mountain, and I longed to do something physical and real.
One Friday afternoon, I was at home feeling sorry for myself. I had talked to Axe Girl the night before. She was going out with some PhD student. In a moment of anger, I’d admitted I was seeing other women. The phone call ended with neither of us knowing what to say except “talk to you later.” The truth was she was seeing other men because I said I wasn’t ready to settle down.
For an hour, I paced around my small apartment. There was a hole in my life left by Axe Girl, and I was letting jealousy and doubt drive me closer to complete despair. Seeing the red axe, I knew what I needed to do. I needed to journey high up into the mountains. I needed to physically exhaust myself. To drive Axe Girl out of my mind.
Referring to a local hiking guide, I searched for a short hike that was close to town. The China Wall seemed perfect. The hike started in the Spring Hollow Campground. At the top of the ridge, there would be a sign to a mile-long ledge of limestone called the China Wall. The book said the hike was less than two hours round trip, and the path along the top of the wall provided great views of Logan Canyon.
Grabbing the red axe, I filled a water bottle, and then shoved matches and a couple of Chick-o-sticks into my daypack. Standing in the warm afternoon sun, I debated putting on jeans and a sweater. I had on blue gym shorts, a gray college T-shirt, wool socks, and glacier boots. Knowing I would be back before dark, I compromised and put on a lightweight jacket. I was ready for an adventure.
It was about two-thirty when I pulled into the campground parking lot. The day seemed perfect. The sun was hot on my face and shoulders. I had on a pair of sunglasses and I wore a red bandana tied back around my ponytail like a pirate cap, hipster turned mountain man. At the trail head, the ground was muddy and wet. The path led through an evergreen forest to a series of steep switchbacks. At times, I could see the wall of limestone a thousand feet above and to my left. To the right, Mount Logan was visible to the southeast.
I labored on the steep trail to the top of the ridge. Sweating, I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. The hillside was a mix of trees and open ground covered in a thin blanket of white. Removing my axe, I used it in my right hand for balance as I followed the path up into the mountains. Relying on the axe, I found my rhythm and climbed at a steady pace.
I hiked for an hour or so until I was in knee-deep powder. Ahead was a treeless ridge covered in a crust of ice. The China Wall should have been visible to my left, but all I could see were my footprints in the snow. Somehow I had missed the trail marker and the turn to the wall. Judging by the sun just above the mountains to the west, I was traveling south and east toward Mount Logan. I guessed I was above the wall and as much as a mile off course. Not lost exactly, or in trouble yet, just tired and a little cold.
What was I doing wearing shorts, hiking alone in knee-deep snow near sunset? I thought. A real mountaineer would have dressed for the snow and carried a compass and a map. I had neither. I had two candy bars, a water bottle, and a box of matches. I didn’t even have a watch.
I ate a Chick-O-Stick and drank a mouthful of water. The setting sun on my back told me it was late. I considered retracing my footsteps, but that would have added hours to the trip and it lacked adventure. Instead, I decided to really use the red axe and scramble cross-country to the China Wall.
I started down off the trail traveling northwest on a diagonal. The snowpack was deep with a hard layer of ice on top. I used the ice axe in my left hand to break through the crust. Digging the steel tip into the snow before each step, I found crossing the frozen slope to be exhilarating. For the first time in weeks I felt alive. I was free of any worries about Axe Girl. I was in a groove. All that mattered was planting the axe spike and taking my next step. I was a mountain man. Surviving on my own.
For half an hour I made good progress, but I was in a race against the setting sun. In the mountains, the sun disappears long before it actually sets, leaving a bone-chilling cold. At some point I put on my jacket. Eventually I reached a rock ledge that was perhaps ten feet wide with a sheer face of stone dropping a hundred feet or more to the forest below. I’d made it to the China Wall.
In the dark it was difficult to tell where I was. I remembered from the guidebook that there was a trail down on either end. I headed north and walked for half an hour along the narrow ledge before I reached a break in the rock wall leading to a steep gully with boulders and a dense forest below. If there was a trail down, it wasn’t obvious.
Standing back from the ledge, I clapped my arms for warmth and wondered whether I could survive a night on the wall. I had a box of matches, so it was possible I could start a fire. The problem was the brush around me was covered with mud and snow, and I skipped that day in Cub Scouts when they explained how to start a fire using wet green wood. Debating what to do, my chattering teeth told me it was time to get off the mountain.
Putting my axe in the loops on the day pack, I climbed down through the break in the ledge and worked my way through the gully into the forest below. Inside the canopy of pines, the trees were dark shadows. I started down and slid twenty feet into a tree. The hill was too steep to walk straight down, and the snow combined with the pine needles made the ground muddy and slippery.
Removing the axe, I used it to regain my footing. Moving slowly from tree to tree, it felt like I was playing bumper cars. When I could, I’d reach out and try to slow my descent by grabbing a tree trunk even as my momentum carried me on down. Frequently I lost my footing and slid forward. On one slide, I used the pick end of the axe head to try to slow my fall. When the steel pick head dug in, the axe turned in my hand and the adze cut into my knee. At the same time, my body hit a tree sideways and for a second I seemed to lose consciousness as all my breath was expelled in a single grunt.
It was at that moment I wondered if I might die. Standing up, I buried the axe tip in the muddy loam and considered the line of trees below me. In the darkness I perceived a narrow corridor winding through the dense fortress of evergreens and pines. It was a deer path. I started again, following the path through the dark pines.
Half an hour later, bruised, bleeding, and covered in mud, I emerged out of the trees into Guinavah-Malibu campground. Exhausted, I got on my knees and kissed the ground. My whole body was shaking from the cold. My car and its heater were only a mile south. Staggering, I crossed the highway and started to walk back to my car.
Hearing a car approach, I stepped into the road and started waving the red axe. The car slowed and then kept going. Angry that the driver didn’t stop, I realized what I must look like. I was a bearded, long-haired, twenty-six-year old man in blue gym shorts, wearing a pirate hat, standing in the middle of the road and waving an axe.
I slipped the axe through the carrying loops on the back of my daypack and put the pack on over my jacket. Zipping the jacket, I stuffed my bandana in a coat pocket. There wasn’t much I could do about my hair or beard. Fortunately, three cars later, a car stopped and a fellow hipster asked me what I was doing hitchhiking in the canyon at eight-thirty at night?
I explained about missing the trail to the China Wall. The driver was sympathetic, but commented on the dangers of hiking alone. I didn’t mention Axe Girl. Privately, I vowed to never let any woman drive me into some foolish or dangerous act again.
A month later, I found myself sitting on a fallen tree at the top of a mountain slope, knee deep in hard-packed ice and snow, holding my red axe, and waiting for the sun to rise. At three that morning, Axe Girl had finally answered her phone, explaining that she hadn’t been home all night, saying only that she was seeing yet another grad student.
Off the phone, my jealousy and despair grew into an ugly knot of anger and self-pity. Despondent, I drove into the canyon in the early morning darkness. For some reason, I imagined that seeing the beauty of the sun rising over Bear Lake would drive away my sadness and sense of loss. Parking at a trail marker, I used a flashlight and my red axe to hike up a short path to a ridge overlooking the lake. Near the top of the hill, I cleared the snow from a log, sat down, and waited for the new day. When the sun finally peeked over the eastern mountain range, I felt no warmth on my frozen face. Somehow, the beauty of the moment only made me feel more alone, and I realized I was lost without Axe Girl.
Picking up the red axe, I knew what to do. I headed down.

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