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When the Laws of Man and Nature Collide in the Mountains

     The year was 1983. July, to be exact, as a young man’s lone figure eased into an overgrown Adirondack trailhead parking lot and turned off his truck’s engine. He did a quick personal pat down; keys, pocket-knife, wallet, as he exited the vehicle and mentally inventoried his planned week’s work.

He inhaled the new day’s dew-covered South Meadows marsh moss and balsam aroma, exhaled slowly, and stretched.  The boot and blue jean clad trailhand stood momentarily, embracing solitude, scanning the rising Phelps Mountain ridgeline to his left as he listened to the gurgle and churn of the brook flowing down off the mountains.

     Morning sun burned rising mist from the landscape. One thing was certain, the young man mused as he doused his blonde mane with bug dope, even in the Colden shadowed cabin that had over the past two summers become his second home, the upcoming midsummer days were definitely going to get hot.

      He leaned in and pulled his bulging external frame pack from the truck, fully loaded with a fresh full week’s provisions; steaks, chops, eggs, bacon, cheese, cold cuts, two loaves of freshly hand cut deli bread, butter, fresh milk, a big box of nails to support what was certain to be a demanding week’s planned trail maintenance projects, and a flask of good whiskey to serve as his evening companion.

     He stood upright, calloused hands deftly hefting the pack over his sturdy young shoulders. His lean nineteen-year-old frame was well toned, muscled and hard, from long days spent as part of a DEC trail crew, manning an axe and a bowsaw, maintaining mountain trails after a long winter’s runoff, erosion and blowdown.

    He checked the trailhead register as he added his own name. The little parking lot was empty at the moment, but the flow of hiker traffic had been steady, including register entries from several DEC forest and park rangers.

     He started up the old truck trail from South Meadows.  It was gated off below the parking area, just above the trailhead. It was rugged, having over the years washed out a bit in a number of places. Public motor vehicles of any kind were prohibited. The DEC still used it for occasional supply runs to Marcy Dam’s Ranger headquarters, larger scale trail maintenance operations, and when needed, for rescues.

     The young man reached Marcy Dam in under an hour. Even with a fully loaded pack, he’d barely broken a sweat. It was a route his young man’s legs knew quite well. He stopped for a moment for a drink from his water bottle, another heathy bug dope dousing, and a brief trail status update chat with Marcy Dam’s caretaker.

     He blew past several groaning hikers as he made his way up to and through Avalanche Pass. Wright and Avalanche Mountains rose hard to his right. Phelps Mountain’s peak and ridges flanked the steep trail on the left, rising towards Mount Colden’s scarred shoulders.  Mount Marcy’s massive silhouette loomed beyond all of them. It was not a trek for the novice, ill-prepared or ill equipped. They didn’t call it “The Misery Mile” for nothing. That section of trail’s nickname was legend.

     By the time he began working his way nimbly along the shoreline rocks and wooden suspension trail “Hitch Up Matilda’s” of Avalanche Lake, it was nearly 11 am. Black flies were swarming. His shirt was drenched with the mixed scent of DEET and a good healthy sweat. His bug dope drenched baseball cap proved to be no deterrent. The deer flies were immune. They targeted his matted blonde mane with a ravenous appetite.

     Though on no particular schedule, he was determined to reach Lake Colden’s Interior Outpost before noon. That would give him time to coordinate with Lake Colden’s “Interior Headquarters” caretaker, his boss, on the upcoming week’s list of projects before the Caretaker headed down into town for a well-deserved weeklong vacation.

     They normally worked together. Two men working as a team with axes and bowsaws in the mountains could get a great deal of work done. A lot of that work involved clearing blowdown and felling cedar trees to use for building for stringer bridges and ladders. At times that work could be treacherous. On occasion the entire DEC trail crew joined them.  That would not be the case during the upcoming week. He’d be working alone.  His task list would be adjusted accordingly.

     The caretaker was packed up, ready and waiting when he arrived.  He was clearly ready to head out of the woods for a break. Living and working alone in the mountains was both physically and mentally a challenging endeavor. It took a unique skill set to thrive in that environment. It wasn’t for everyone. This would be the young man’s first full week living and working out of the cabin alone. He was very much looking forward to it.

     His boss prepared to head out as the young man unloaded the contents of his pack into the cabin’s propane fueled refrigerator.  The young man nodded as he received his week’s task list, and one final word of warning.

     “One last thing. For the past several days there’s been a young girl camped down by the lean-tos.  I think she’s been whoring for food. Stay away from her. She’s trouble. And whatever you do, don’t under any circumstances give her food or let her into this cabin.”   

      With that, the caretaker was off.  The young man had a week’s worth of provisions, a manageable task list, a flask of good whiskey, an old aluminum rowboat, and Lake Colden’s Interior headquarters cabin all to himself.

      Interrupted only by the occasional clutter and clang of hikers, the lonely call of a loon or moonlit wail of coyotes, he had the lake to himself.  Serenity’s silence surrounded him. For all intents and purposes, for the next week of his life, the young man was alone.

     The cabin was a rustic two-story log structure sitting near the lake’s shore. Downstairs, the kitchen was equipped with a propane stove and refrigerator.  An old-style hand pump well serviced the sink. The outhouse toilet seat hung on a nail over the wood stove. The living room’s picture window looking out over Lake Colden towards the namesake mountain behind it was the primary décor.

     There was a two-way radio and a rotary dial phone. Down a short hallway was a supply room filled with canned goods and supplies, brought in by helicopter each fall and spring. Beyond that were two small bedrooms.

     Upstairs was a big bunk room outfitted with six army cots. That was used when the entire trail crew was on site for spring blow down clearing or as needed for crews assigned to the cabin for bigger planned trail projects.

     When the whole crew was there, that was where the young man slept. But when He was there alone with the caretaker, or by himself, he claimed the second downstairs bedroom for himself.

     The young man enjoyed time alone in the cabin. He signed in and out with DEC dispatch on the two-way radio every morning and evening, working long hard days in between, ending each day with a sip or two from his flask and a rustic lakeside mountain feast.

     The end of the third day’s work found him coming down off the trail that followed the Opalescent up towards Lake Tear of the Clouds. He had his axe, his bowsaw, a hammer and what was left of the box full of nails.  As he crossed the swinging bridge over the river and approached Lake Colden’s campsites near the dam on that end of the lake, his silent serenity was broken by a beckoning voice.

“Oh Mr. Ranger…”

     His eyes tracked the voice’s origin to the sunlit shingled roof of a lean-to. Sitting there sunning herself was a blonde-haired young woman in skintight ripped blue jeans and a red string bikini top. She was smiling and waving.  The young man’s brain disengaged.  He smiled and gulped. Nature’s law took over.

     She smiled again and pointed towards the lake.

“Is that your rowboat over there by the dam? I’d sure love a ride!”

The young man nodded and gulped again.  The caretaker’s words of warning held no sway. The young man knew in that moment, the only one in any trouble in those mountains at that moment was him.

“Yup! It sure is! In fact, I’m headed back across the lake now. I’ve got a couple of nice steaks in the frig. I was going to throw one on the grill. Would you care to join me for dinner?”

     The young man didn’t have to ask twice. The blonde-haired girl threw a shirt over her shoulders, raced back to her tent and grabbed her day pack, hopped into the rowboat, and off they went. Two creatures of nature, a young buck and doe, rowing across the lake to the cabin.

     They reached the cabin and went inside. Once the cabin door shut behind them, they quickly lost themselves in each other. The cabin door never opened for nearly two days.  

     She showed him a reality the young man never dreamed could exist. He gave her things she’d never experienced from a man; gentle considerate kindness, a compassionate shoulder to cry on, an ear open to shared whispered secrets and dreams, a young hart’s kindred spirit, a hand to hold on to.

     Late in the afternoon of their second day together, nature’s law was shattered by a knock at the door.  The young man went to the door. Standing there was one of the park rangers.

“There was a young woman camped down at the far end of the lake. She hasn’t been seen in a couple of days. Her tent’s empty. I was wondering if by chance you might know where she went.”

     The young man gulped again, dropping his eyes. He knew the jig was up.  He’d ignored his boss’s warning.  The young man was in way over his head and in trouble.

“Yes. She’s here with me.”

The park ranger just stared at the young man incredulously, shaking his head. He sighed and said,

“Okay, thanks. That’s all I needed to know.”

 With that, the park ranger turned and left.

     The young man shut the door and turned around. The blonde-haired girl had been listening from the hallway. She stepped into the living room.

“You’re in trouble now, aren’t you? I’d better go.”

     The blonde-haired girl got dressed and packed her things. The young man rowed her back across the lake, and after a brief embrace, watched in silence as she made her way to her tent.

     The remainder of the week seemed as if it might pass without incident. The young man hoped to quietly pack up and make his way out of the mountains without encountering the caretaker.

    He had no such luck, however. One afternoon after a hard day’s work on the trail, the caretaker was there waiting at the cabin to confront him, along with the blonde-haired girl, and two forest rangers.

     The blonde-haired girl was still just sixteen. She’d been running from a lifetime of nightmares and secrets she dared share with no one, trading what she had for what she needed, finally finding refuge in the secluded safety of the mountains.

  One of the rangers was there to escort the blonde-haired girl back to live with an aunt they had located. The other was there to escort the young man from the cabin in handcuffs.

     There were less than three years between them, the blonde-haired girl and the young man. They were closer in age than either one’s parents. That did not matter. They never saw each other again. She went to live with her aunt. The young man went to jail.

     Even in a remote mountain cabin, when laws of man and nature collide, man’s law prevails.

Some things are forbidden.


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


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