hey’d been coming to the southern Appalachians for more than a decade, and always in that first week of August, eager to escape the Midwestern midsummer heat. Last year, it had been the entire family—Roger, Sue, Jennifer, and Michelle—but the twins were sophomores at a college in Iowa now, immersed in boyfriends, the prospect of grad school, summer internships, slowly drifting out of their parents’ gravitational field into orbits of their own making. So for the first time, it was just Roger and Sue and a Range Rover filled with backpacking gear heading south through Indiana, Kentucky, the northeast wedge of Tennessee, and finally up into the highlands of North Carolina.
They spent the night in Asheville at the Grove Park Inn, had dinner on the hotel’s Sunset Terrace, watching the lights of the downtown fade up through the humid dark.
At first light, they took the Blue Ridge Parkway south into the Pisgah Ranger District, the road winding through primeval forests, green valleys, past rock faces slicked with water that shimmered in early sun. Their ears popped as the road climbed and neither spoke of how empty the car felt.
By late morning, they were pack-laden, sunscreen-slathered, and cursing as they hiked up into Shining Rock Wilderness on a bitch of a path called the Old Butt Trail. Roger let Sue lead, enjoying the view of her muscled thighs and calves already pinked with high-altitude sun, glistening with perspiration. He kept imagining footsteps behind him, glancing back every mile or so, half expecting to see Jennifer and Michelle bringing up the rear.
They crested Chestnut Ridge in the early afternoon, saw that the sky looked cancerous in the west, a bank of tumor-black clouds rolling toward them, the air reeking of that attic mustiness that heralds the approach of rain. They broke out the rain gear. The pack flies. Huddled together in a grove of rhododendron as the storm swept over them, thunder cracking so loud and close that it shook the ground beneath their boots.
They reached Shangri-La a few hours shy of dusk. Sue had named it on their first trip here, thirteen years ago, having taken the wrong trail and accidentally stumbled upon this highland paradise. The maps called it Beech Spring Gap, a stretch of grassy meadows at 5,500 feet, just below the micaceous outcroppings of Shining Rock Mountain. Even the hottest summer afternoons rarely saw temperatures exceed eighty degrees. The nights were always cool and often clear, with the lights of Asheville twinkling forty miles to the north. Best of all, Beech Spring Gap was largely untraveled. They’d spent a week here four years ago and never seen a soul.
By 8:30, they were in their sleeping bags, listening to a gentle rain pattering on the tent.
The next two days transpired like mirrors of each other.
Warm, bright mornings. Storms in the afternoon. Cool, clear evenings.
Roger and Sue passed the time lying in the grass, reading books, watching clouds, flying a kite off the nearby peak.
The emptiness seemed to abate, and they even laughed some.
Their fourth day in Shining Rock, as the evening cooled and the light began to wane, Roger suggested to his wife that she take a walk through the meadow with a book, find a spot to read for a half-hour or so before the light went bad.
“Why do you want me out of camp all of a sudden?” she asked. “You up to something?”
When Sue returned forty minutes later, a red-and-white checkered picnic blanket lay spread out in the grass a little way from their tent. Roger was opening a bottle of wine, and upon two dinner plates rested a bed of steaming pasta. There was a baguette, a block of gruyere, even two of their crystal wineglasses from home and a pair of brass candlesticks, flames motionless in the evening calm.
“You brought all this from home?” she asked. “That’s why your pack was so heavy.”
“I’m just glad the crystal didn’t break when I fell climbing up the Old Butt.”
Roger stood, offered his arm, helped Sue down onto the picnic blanket.
“A little wine?”
“God, yes. Honey, this is amazing.”
He didn’t know if it was the elevation or the novelty of eating food that hadn’t been freeze-dried, but the noodles and tomato sauce and bread and cheese tasted better than anything Roger had eaten in years. It didn’t take long for the wine to set in behind his eyes, and he looked down at the mountains through a haze of intoxication, watching the light sour, bronzing the woods a thousand feet below. It was the first time in a long while that things had felt right, and Sue must have sensed it, because she said, “You look peaceful, Roge.”
It was so quiet he could hear the purr of the river flowing down in the gorge.
Sue set her plate aside and scooted over on the blanket.
“Is it the girls?” she asked. “That what’s been bothering you?”
He reached his arm around her, pulled her in close.
“Let’s just think about right now,” he said. “In this moment, I’m happy and—”
Roger unhanded his wife and rolled over on the picnic blanket to see who was there.
A stocky man with wavy gray hair and a white-stubbled chin smiled down at them through reflective sunglasses. He wore well-scuffed hiking boots, tight blue shorts, and a frayed gray vest, bulging with an assortment of supplies. His chest hair was white, skin freckled and deeply tanned. Roger estimated him to be ten years their senior.
“Hope I’m not interrupting. I’m camped up in the rhododendron thicket and was just on a stroll through the meadow when I saw your tent. Wow, crystal wineglasses. You guys went all out.”
“We just finished eating,” Sue said, “but there are leftovers if—”
“Oh, I’ve got my dinner simmering back at camp, but maybe you two would be interested in a card game later?”
“Sounds lovely,” Sue said.
“Then I’ll come back in two hours. I’m Donald, by the way.”
“Good to meet you both.”
Roger watched Donald march off across the meadow toward the rhododendron thicket at the base of Shining Rock Mountain, and didn’t realize he was scowling until his wife said, “Oh come on, Roge, you antisocial party-poop. It’ll be fun.”
* * * *
No campfires are permitted within the boundary of Shining Rock Wilderness, but the moon would be up soon. Roger and Sue relit the candles for ambience and sat on the picnic blanket, waiting on their guest, watching for the flare of meteors in the southern sky.
Roger never heard his footsteps. Donald was suddenly just standing there at the edge of the red-and-white checkered blanket, grinning.
“Lovely night,” he said.
“We were just sitting here, looking for shooting stars,” Sue said.
Donald set some items in the grass and knelt to unlace his boots, stepping at last in wooly sockfeet onto the blanket, easing down across from Roger and Sue.
“I brought playing cards, an UNO deck, whatever your pleasure, and some not too shabby scotch.”