A Great Distance

A Great Distance

for Daniel Wallace

When she was six years old, she spent two nights lost in the woods. Her mother and father had decided to camp in the Smoky Mountains for the weekend, leaving Raleigh on a June morning and arriving at the park entrance in mid-afternoon, just in time to unpack the car at the campground, pitch the tent, and get a fire going before nightfall.

On Saturday morning the girl and her parents hiked to the top of Mt. Le Conte where fog wrapped the summit in a gauzy fabric so dense the girl couldn’t see beyond the crags and red spruce that marked the place where the ground fell away into white nothingness.

That evening, her father buried stuffed green peppers wrapped in cellophane beneath the coals of the fire while her mother made tea by heating water on the camp-stove. When her parents’ backs were turned, the girl slipped off to the edge of the campground. She was always doing this: crawling to the center of the circular clothing racks at the mall; climbing onto shelves in the grocery store to hide behind stacked boxes of cereal.

She hid, not really hiding from anything, and she waited, not really waiting for anything either.

Dusk had settled by the time she decided to walk back to her parents’ campsite. She expected to cross the paved road that led to the parking lot, but she stumbled upon a stream instead. She stood by the babbling water and looked for the trail because she knew it led back to the campsite, but it was difficult to see too far into the woods, so she decided to turn around and head back the way she’d come.

She found the paved road easily enough, but she couldn’t decide which way led to the parking lot and which way to the campground. She turned left, and after walking for a few minutes she was certain she heard voices and saw flickers of light through the trees, so she left the road and soon found herself at the creek again. When she turned around the road was gone.

That night she slept beneath an enormous shrub whose twisted branches had woven themselves into a low canopy of green leaves and large white blooms. She fell asleep listening to the creek roiling over the rocks. She woke often during the night, disturbed by what felt like the light touch of a hand on her back, the whisper of a voice around her head. In the morning she found the shrub’s soft, white blooms sprinkled all around her.

The next day dawned cloudy and gray, and the light that reached the forest floor was barely enough to distinguish day from early morning or dusk. She slept often, and when she woke she wondered if she were dreaming, and she wondered if it were in her dreams that she heard someone’s voice and felt their presence.  

■■■

A park ranger found her sitting beneath a stand of old growth hemlocks just after dark on her third day in the woods. In the yellow beam of the flashlight, his young face appeared clean and kind, and he introduced himself before telling her of how many people had been looking for her.

“Where’s the woman?” she asked.

“What woman?”

“The woman that was here.”

“Let’s find your parents,” he said.

The girl was not surprised that her mother wept while holding her, her hand combing over the back of the girl’s head as if brushing the experience away from her memory. Nor was she surprised to find that her father’s usual moodiness had given way to a quiet joy that was anchored in the overwhelming sadness and fear that he had weathered since the moment she had gone missing. 

After being interviewed by park authorities at a ranger station, she and her parents left early the next morning and drove home to Raleigh. Her father hardly spoke while he drove. He wore the same clothes that he’d worn since the night she went missing.

The girl’s mother sat in the backseat and held her in her arms, occasionally choking back a sob.

“It’s all right, baby,” her mother said. She moved the girl’s hair out of her face and used her thumbs to wipe her tears. “You’re safe now.” She wrapped her arms around her again. “I know it must have been scary to be all alone.”

“But I wasn’t alone,” she said. “There was somebody there.” This felt true, but even as she said it, she did not know if it was.

■■■

Although Raleigh was the state’s capital, word of mouth moves quickly when carried by death or pain or mystery. Much was made of the girl’s time in the woods. She only gave one interview to the local newspaper before her parents decided that she was too young for so much attention, especially because she insisted on telling the story of someone being with her in the woods.

As the years passed, the girl could not help but feel that her parents’ lives had continued without her while she was lost and that she would always be three days and two nights behind them. In this way they became and always remained strangers to her.

On nights when she couldn’t sleep, her mind’s eye would follow her path through the woods, stopping first at the spot where she’d hidden from her parents, then moving along the trail to the stream and the paved road before stepping into the darkness. By the time she lay down beneath the white blooms and twisted branches her eyes would’ve grown heavy and she would feel herself slipping off to sleep, and she would wait for someone or something, but she didn’t know who or what it could be.

During college, when she shared her bed with her boyfriend, she would tell him about the things she’d heard and felt in the woods. Over the years, she’d learned the names of the things she’d felt and heard at night: the damp feet of salamanders that scurried along her skin; the mysterious hoot of an owl she was never able to spot; the snort of a deer. She shared these things at night, starting with her college boyfriend and continuing through all of her relationships that followed. As she had whispered beside these boys she would listen to their breathing slow, the mattress giving as their bodies surrendered to sleep, her voice fading away to silence before she found herself alone in the woods. Eventually, all of these boys became one boy, their faces blending to a shadowy composite in the dark of a bedroom.

“I bet you were scared,” the boy would say.

“I don’t think I was,” she would say.

“But you were out there in the woods. At night. Alone.”

“I don’t think I was alone.”

“Of course you were.”

■■■

For her, time was a marble rolling back and forth around the basin of the Great Smoky Mountains, unable to breach the rim of the hills in order to roll free.

■■■

She left Durham after work on a Friday afternoon in early summer, and by dusk she had checked in to a hotel in Gatlinburg just outside the park.The next morning, she arrived at the park’s western entrance and crept along in a long line of cars and SUVs full of parents and grandparents and children. There were very few people on foot, and she saw no one resembling the campers she and her parents had been. She parked and grabbed her water bottle and tightened the laces of the boots she’d bought online and set off on the paved road that led from the parking lot. The campground was still there, and she thought she could estimate the exact spot where her father’s old tent had sat, the peak embarrassingly sealed with silver duct tape, her mother on her knees trying to light the stove, her father’s back to them both while he poked at the fire.

The Mt. Le Conte trail was there as well, and something about this surprised her, as if trails and old-growth trees and centuries-old boulders were things that could’ve been moved and resettled over the intermittent years. She followed the trail, and at every sign of water she stopped and tried to decide if this could be where she’d become lost, if this could be where she’d mistakenly stepped off into the woods. She spent the day this way, going up and down the trail, looking for spots along the creek that seemed familiar, several times going all the way back to the campground before setting out again.

By late afternoon she was out of water, tired, and hungry, and her new boots had carved blisters into her heels. As she walked back to her car she wondered whether or not she should return in the morning to try again. At the edge of the parking lot she passed a ranger’s station and decided to stop for a map that she could open across the bed in her hotel room that evening.

The building was warm and stuffy inside. She stood before a bank of pamphlets that advertised local attractions. From the counter behind her, a man’s voice asked if she needed help.

When she turned she discovered that the voice belonged to the ranger who had found her all those years ago, his face now deeply lined and his eyebrows and temples graying. She asked if he remembered her; he smiled and apologized that he didn’t. She told him who she was and how they’d come to meet, and she understood that perhaps he was one of the only people she’d ever really known.

The ranger locked the door and took off his hat and left it on the counter. She followed him to the office where he handed her a cup of coffee and got a cup for himself. He offered her a seat and he sat down at an old metal desk. It all came back to her: the worn carpet, the yellow-ochre walls, the topographical maps, the smell of coffee, her mother’s arms tight around her while her father answered questions.

The ranger told her he’d found seventeen children who’d been lost in the park over the years, but she’d been the first. He was twenty-five when he found her sitting in the darkness beneath the hemlocks.

“What was I doing when you found me?” she asked.

“You were sitting there like you’d been waiting,” he said.

“Did I seem scared?”

“No,” he said.

“Did I mention anyone being with me?”

The ranger looked down at his coffee.

“Yes,” he said. “A lot of kids who are lost see things too.”

It embarrassed her, and she confessed that she was able to recall very little about her time in the woods and that she’d spent the day looking for the places she remembered. He stood and went to the map on the wall and used the eraser-end of a pencil to show her the ranger’s station, and she followed the eraser as it skidded across the map to the campsite. And then he moved the eraser to the spot where he’d found her. It seemed like a great distance.

“Would you be able to find it?” she asked.

He studied the map for a moment.

“Yes,” he said.

“Can you take me there?”

“Tomorrow,” he said. “Come back tomorrow. It’ll be too dark soon.”

The ranger picked his way through a ring of keys and locked the station. The sky had settled to a deep purple. By the time they walked to the parking lot the darkness had begun to close around them like a warm blanket.

They stopped at her car and she fished through her backpack until she found her keys. The parking lot had emptied.

“I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said. She opened her car door and sat down.

“Okay,” the ranger said. “Look for me at the station.”

“And you’ll take me?”

“Yes,” he said.

They told one another goodnight, and she sat and watched him walk back toward the ranger’s station where his truck was parked. After he disappeared she started her car and drove a loop back to the campsite where she parked and then stepped into the woods.

She did her best to picture the map in the office. The light had faded almost completely, and the forest rose up in the dark shapes of trees. Once it became difficult to see the ground before her she pulled out her cell phone and used its flashlight to pick her way toward the distant spot she had fixed in her mind.

To her surprise, she found the hemlock stand easily enough, and she stopped at a particular tree and tilted her phone’s light toward the tree’s trunk, following it until the light reached the ground.

This was where he had found her.

She turned off her phone and sat down at the base of the tree. She looked up into the darkness and spotted the stars beyond the hemlocks’ boughs. Her eyes adjusted slowly, and soon she was able to see the forest around her, and then she heard the babble of the stream not twenty yards away.

She turned on the flashlight again and splashed across the stream, the light catching the glowing eyes of the fishing spiders hiding along the bank.

She hadn’t walked far when she found the same rhododendron where she’d spent those two nights almost twenty-five years earlier. It had grown considerably, and it was weighed down with the same heavy white blooms. At the base of the tree lay a young girl, her back turned, her body curved in sleep. She turned off her phone’s flashlight, and as her eyes adjusted to take in the girl’s sleeping figure, she felt something heavy and final close inside her with a near silent click. 

The little girl’s dark hair lay splayed over the side of her face, and she considered reaching out and moving it off her cheek and out of her eyes, but instead she sat down beside her, placed her palm on the girl’s back, felt her body rise and fall in its breathing. The girl stirred.

She lay down beside the girl, positioned her body around the arch of the girl’s back. She listened to the girl’s quiet breathing, the nearly inaudible rustle of animals and insects moving over the earth, the voice of the water running not far away. She fell asleep. 

She did not know how much of the night had passed when she heard the one sound she was not accustomed to hearing: the sound of something heavy moving in the woods nearby, and then the sound of it crossing the stream toward her. She sat up and saw the beam of a flashlight playing through the woods. He called to her. She lay down again beside the sleeping girl and listened as the ranger’s footfalls drew closer. She closed her eyes as tightly as she could, as if doing so would keep out the approaching light. Despite all she couldn’t remember and everything she would never be able to recall, she knew one thing for certain: They were not yet ready to be found. ■

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Last Ballad, A Land More Kind than Home, and This Dark Road to Mercy. The founder of the Open Canon Book Club and co-founder of the Land More Kind Appalachian Artists Residency, he has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Weymouth Center. He serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their two daughters.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Avatar
    Rosemarie blackwell at 7:12 am

    Great story Wiley !i I made the track up to LeConte on a beautiful September day in 2017 ! The beauty of the trail and the views are brilliant ! I will hike up to the Alum cave on the 9th of April
    With the senior center ! 6 years of hiking was ruff on my knees !😊

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