The water birch

It’s the shortest day of the year and I want to spend every second of daylight under an open sky.  The morning is not so much grey as silver. Sunless, but bright. Mountain chickadees flit from tree to tree. The Clark’s nutcracker stays uncharacteristically quiet. I only hear her wings thumping the air.

It takes four miles for my mind to clear. Eight before my hip begins to ache. I’m just outside the wilderness boundary, lurching and sliding. Graceless on the icy slope. In the shade of titanic Jeffrey Pines, I wonder if I’ll make it back before dark.  

At the place where the trail crosses Whites Creek, there is a rough bridge—just a pair of logs thrown across the gully—which is winter-slick and bows considerably under each hesitant footstep. The water is fast and loud coming down out of the Sierra. It feeds my uneasiness.

A water birch juts from the opposite bank, young and at an angle that approaches forty-five degrees. From the near side of the bridge, I lean out far as I can. My wingspan comes short and there’s nothing to do but jump. A moment of moving through the air too fast for fear, then I grasp the water birch, glean its balance and composure. As I step to the other side, I notice the spot where my hand touched the bark was stained oily and dark. Any notion that I was somehow special in my little adventure is erased. The tree has been marked by hands of many hikers who have held on in just the same place. Folks who abandoned the city for the forest and found they still can’t get by without something to lean on.

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