“You’re welcome,” he says, grinning. “Now, let’s pack up and hit the trail. Miles to go before we sleep.”
Okay, I can do this. It’s not the plan I wanted, but it is a plan. One that’s been calculated and drawn on paper. I like that. It makes me feel less panicky. I just wish it were my plan and not Lennon’s.
Getting ready to leave takes longer than I imagined. The group didn’t leave just the corpse of Brett’s mutilated tent behind. They left Reagan’s and Summer’s tents too, along with a bunch of camping supplies Reagan purchased for this trip. Guess she doesn’t intend to use them again, but holy moly, what a frivolous waste of money. Lennon is mad, because all of this mess completely violates the leave-no-trace policy of the backcountry. And we can’t physically take it with us: That would be impossible. All we can do is pack some of the food inside our bear canisters and scavenge a few items we may need. A single-burner camp stove. An additional Nalgene bottle. A backup lighter. Eco-friendly wet wipes. Reagan’s water filter. Because of my telescope, I can’t hold much of anything else in my pack, so Lennon carries most of it, attaching things to the outside of his pack with carabiner clips. What we don’t need, he stacks in a single pile inside Reagan’s tent.
“We can report this stuff when we get to the ranger station,” he tells me. “They’ll send a ranger to pick it up.”
“If the bear doesn’t come back and destroy it all first.”
“Or that,” he says with a sigh.
After all of this is finished, it’s late morning. I change into fresh clothes, brush my teeth, and try to tame my frizzy curls. When I’m finished getting ready, I take down my dome tent. It’s harder to pack than it was to unpack. And after watching from the sidelines, saying, “Nope,” and “Wrong way,” Lennon finally takes pity on me and helps. Then it’s just a matter of getting it inside my backpack, and I’m ready to go.
As ready as I’ll ever be, anyway.
We climb to the top of the waterfall, where Kendrick and Brett took turns diving the day before. I still can’t believe they’re gone. Or that I’m alone with Lennon. This is crazy. And it’s also physically demanding. Climbing a hilly trail, as we did yesterday, is far different from pulling yourself up tiers of rocks with a giant backpack. It takes me longer than Lennon, but halfway up, I begin to get the hang of it. There’s a sort of rhythm to climbing, one that’s careful and patient. Looking for the right handhold, taking time to push up with my legs, leaning into it. By the time we get to the top, I’m breathing heavy but feeling exhilarated.
“Goodbye, Mackenzie Falls,” I say, peering down into the waterfall’s pool below.
Lennon laughs. “The book I found it in called it ‘Unnamed Waterfall #2,’ otherwise known as ‘Greaves River Falls.’?”
“Those are terrible names.”
“Mackenzie Falls sounds way better,” he agrees. “When I write my backpacking book, that’s what I’ll name it.”
“Oh, you’re a writer now? And when can we expect to see Grim’s Super-Gothy Guide to the Dark Wilderness on the shelves?”
“You remembered my code name,” he says, smiling.
“Of course I do. I’m the one who came up with it.”
He makes a satisfied noise, and we smile at each other for what I’m now realizing is a little too long, so I break the connection and look away. You know, before things get weird.
“Come on,” he says. “The trail I originally used to find this place is just beyond that boulder.”
We make our way through the brush and spy Lennon’s trail. Much like the one we used to get here, it’s narrow and barely there. It could even be confused as a deer trail, or some sort of animal path. That makes me a little nervous, but Lennon assures me that it’s a real trail for real people. And at least it’s mostly under the trees, because the closer it gets to noon, the hotter it gets. I was prepared for this; I strip off my long-sleeved T-shirt to reveal a short-sleeved one beneath. It’s all about layers.
After a half hour or so of hiking in silence, I feel more comfortable with both the trail and being alone with Lennon. He’s intense and quiet, walking steadily alongside me with his eyes constantly scanning the distance. And despite the zombies, chainsaws, and anarchy signs covering his denim jacket, he looks . . . not out of place, oddly enough.
“When did your zeal for camping start?” I ask.
He pushes a dark slash of hair away from one eye. “Last year, I guess. I was . . . going through some stuff, and Mac suggested the family trip to Death Valley. It just clicked for me. I loved everything about it.”
“Sleeping on rocks?” My hip still hurts from the rock poking into it last night.
“No, but that’s better with a bedroll beneath your bag,” he says, reaching back to pat the rolled-up pad attached to the bottom of his pack.
Wish I had known that.
“I just thought wilderness camping was exhilarating,” he explains. “You’re alone out here with your thoughts. No stress or pressure. No timetable. You could read all day, if you wanted to. Just set up your camp and do whatever. And I liked doing it all myself. At home, everything is provided for you. School is scheduled, dinner is served. You turn on the TV and everything’s programmed. But out here, nothing happens unless I do it myself. And that may sound weird, but I feel like I’m doing something real when I build a fire and cook over it. Like, yeah, if the end of the world came, I could actually survive. Most of the people at school would die in the wilderness after a week or two, struggling to stay warm or forage for edible food, or getting attacked by wild animals.”
“You were pretty impressive with the bear last night,” I admit. “If you hadn’t told me, I would’ve run and probably ended up as bear dinner.”
“Bear attacks aren’t common, but if you follow a few basic rules, you’re fine. If you were aggressive to a mama bear around her babies, then the chances of you being mauled are higher. It’s basically just common sense.”
“Still. You knew what to do.”
“The trick is avoiding them altogether,” he says. “But when you can’t, and the people you’re camping with are blockheads—”
“Not all of us,” I say.
“No,” he agrees, a hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth. “But when you can’t avoid animals, you just have to treat them as a real threat and respect that they have the upper hand.”
That makes sense. “So you got into camping because you like making fires and outwitting bears?”
“I feel like I’ve accomplished something that’s measurable. I can feed myself—”
He figured out how to make coffee out here, which is pretty much the pinnacle of cooking in my eyes.
“—and find my way without a computerized voice telling me which way to turn. I know first aid basics. I know how to collect water if there’s no river in sight. I know how to build a lean-to in the woods. And that’s . . .”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s being a capable human being, which is something I think a lot of people have forgotten how to do.”
“So you come out here to feel like a manly man,” I say.