HIKE Chapter One - Downtown to Lemon Gulch
by Mark Ward, 3.49am Jan 20th 2022
getting off the bus
a squall of sulphur hits us -
Bear Creek says hello
I thought it was wind
whipping through the empty streets
the town was keening
Si, walking ahead,
says the road's full of locals -
we are out of sync
downtown’s abandoned -
flunking the tutorial -
make the right choices
some shops are open
the checkout girls at Lloyd's wait
for fresh flattery
a pack of dogs snarl
in unison - windows fill
with alerted eyes
knock us back – the sky changes
hue like a mood ring
the echoing snarls
guide us around barriers -
the dogs are hiding
Main Street stretches out
Si says we shouldn’t engage
with its defences
close your eyes and walk -
feel the wind settle, the dogs
still, people return
Si hadn’t explained exactly why he needed to go back. From what I’d gathered, it happened every two years and that he needed to take a few weeks off work to recover. That’s where we met – at work. Si was a freelance photographer at the magazine I wrote for, travel articles mostly, before being put on staff like me. We were work friends but after he became full-time we got closer: he even slept on my sofa for a couple of nights when he was in between places, and it was then, after a night of accidentally heavy drinking – those nights where you don’t realise how drunk you are until it’s way too late – that he told me about Bear Creek, where he lived for three years as a teenager.
And then he spent three days trying to deny it.
Whilst I’m not, say, Truman Capote with his ability to never take notes and regurgitate entire conversations, I do have a pretty good memory and quoted back enough detail that he gave up the charade. When he realised what he’d said, he had bargained on the booze to obliterate it but I never forget anything when I’m drunk – a curse and a blessing. I remember every word that people later try to retract, remember their faces given over to abandon, remember those moments when their hands and eyes betrayed them.
So when he told me that he was taking some time off, I knew, knew where he was going, and I wanted in. It nearly broke up our friendship. I was, admittedly, being obstinate but from the whispers I had heard of this place, I knew this was somewhere I needed to see and who better to guide me but a former resident? He kept telling me how dangerous it was, that it wasn’t worth it, but the two photographs I managed to find – weirdly, there’s next to nothing online about it – made the place look picturesque: green flowing hills, what looked like a beautiful seaside, and overall, good vibes.
“That’s not accurate,” Si said.
“Of course, it isn’t. I mean there’s a whole lot more to a town than two pictures.”
“No,” he said. “That’s literally a different town. The Council thought they could attract visitors if they stole some visuals and put their name on it.”
What surprised me though was that later that night, after I’d resigned myself to not going, he said I could come. He told me I needed to listen to him and be very careful and I said, sure, of course, that’s why I’m going with you. He looked haunted and I realised he’d said yes because he didn’t want to go back there alone.
Main Street, when it came into focus, seemed utterly normal. Locals bustled in and out of shops. People were chatting over coffee and sitting outdoors. Children ran screaming.
I could feel the dogs were closer but I still couldn’t see them. I was going to ask about them when somebody shouted at Si from across the sidewalk.
“Si. Si! You’re back. Is it that time already?”
A sturdy woman with two small kids crossed over and gave him a big hug. The two children – a boy and a girl around four – stared at me as we three patiently waited, not knowing the others involved. The little girl had a doll with long blonde hair and the little boy had its twin. The dolls’ arms were covered with what looked like tribal tattoos and the children held out their dolls so I could see them clearer
the dark river snakes
across their bodies – their eyes
Si and his friend amiably chatted away, catching up, and the children’s eyes shifted to behind me. They broke out into wide smiles; it was something they had never seen before. A man was selling snow globes. Bear Creek Crystal, his banner said. There were about fifteen globes laid out on a trestle table, each depicting a different area. They were beautiful. I gestured, asking if it was okay to touch and he smiled. I crouched down to see them – one showed Main Street, from right where we were standing; another was a beautiful bay; yet another was a covered bridge that somehow, on a track perhaps, featured cars going into it. I kept waiting for them to reappear out the other side but they never did.
The most beautiful globe showed a forest; thick, dark green trees amid a sea of gorse. I had never seen anything so exquisite. I picked it up -
I push through the ground -
the yellow furze cheers me on -
I reach for the sky
Si gripped my wrist. “Put it down.” All around me, overlaying Main Street, were flowers and I felt myself stretching, shooting towards the sky. Si got right in my face so all I could see was him. “Put. It. Down.”
I put it down. The man exhaled, exasperated, and tutted. Si pulled me down the street. It was brighter; the clouds that had been threatening rain has dissipated and the sun shone down, high in its kingdom. “You can’t just go around touching things. They know you’re a tourist.”
I had been in the forest. I had been the forest.
“I’m sorry, Si.”
We reached the end of the street. I asked him where the woman went.
“Janet. She had to get her kids home. They tried to wake you but after half an hour they gave up.”
I laughed. Si looked at me, his face stony, hard. We walked down some cookie-cutter residential streets.
“You need to listen to me, okay?”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
The streets gave way to a large park: fields that stretched out in all directions, with a scattering of trees. After a while, the park just stopped - we had reached its edge. Si gestured to look below. We were atop one side of a ravine.
“Lemon Gulch. It’s something everyone should see.”
He set towards a path I hadn’t noticed; steps were carved out from the face of the cliff. “There’s nothing to hold onto, so be careful.” As Si worked his way down – the sheer amount of time this staircase would have taken to create – he looked out onto Lemon Gulch, walking the clearly familiar steps with ease and, for the first time since we arrived, he seemed happy.