Tracy’s living room was spare and minimalist, the furniture white and earth-toned; even the landscape photos that hung on the walls were all in black-and-white. The only touch of color came from the magazines on the side table, and from the dozen or so action shots of Tracy that were scattered throughout the room. Gwen had been to Tracy’s place twice before to meet for hikes, and it seemed like there were fewer things with each visit. The house looked stripped down to the bare essentials.
Gwen sat rigidly on the edge of the couch and sipped her coffee. She didn’t really need the stimulation — she was hyped up, had tossed and turned most of the night with thoughts of rattlesnakes and lightning and bears. In daylight she felt better, although the fears remained. She tried to assuage her guilt for not calling her mother as she’d promised — she’d left a message instead on Alene’s voice mail at work — as well as her larger guilt for missing work. This was Thursday, and she normally had two afternoon groups. Most of the kids would be fine skipping a week, but she worried about Sandra Gutierrez. I’ll call her on Tuesday, Gwen told herself. I’ll touch base with her as soon as I’m back.
“You’re going to boil in those jeans.”
Gwen jumped. Tracy had come back from the kitchen, bearing a tray that held a serving dish of sliced fruit and several small plates.
“You scared me!” Gwen said. “I know, but it was cold this morning. And I’m thinking it’ll be cooler in the mountains.”
“You’re right. Although it looks like we’re in for good weather. Highs in the seventies, lows in the low to mid-fifties.”
Tracy sat in the armchair perpendicular to Gwen and put the plates on the coffee table. She was one of the few women Gwen knew who seemed truly at ease in her body. It had the shaped, chiseled look of someone who worked out hard, and often; and who cared about how she fueled it. Even now, as she was resting, there was something in her posture that suggested energy and movement, like all that muscle was ready to spring. This was part of why Gwen liked being around her — you wanted to know what would happen next, and if lucky, you might be included. Tracy’s classes at SportZone were always full, popular with men and women alike. Her allure wasn’t really sexual, or at least Gwen didn’t think so. Tracy had a fine enough face — high cheekbones, strong nose and lips, bright hazel eyes — and straight black hair she usually wore in a ponytail. But it didn’t quite add up. Some other quality skewed her looks toward severe. Sometimes, when she focused on something and Gwen saw her in profile, Gwen thought that she looked like a wolf.
“Am I going to be warm enough at night?”
“You brought a base layer, right? Plus that down sleeping bag. You’ll be fine. That reminds me — I should go get my pack.”
Tracy stood up and went into the other room, closing the door behind her. Gwen looked at the fruit — the perfectly cut wedges of honeydew and watermelon, cantaloupe and mango — and spooned a few pieces onto a plate. It occurred to her that she’d never seen more of Tracy’s house than what was visible to her right now — the bright, airy living room, the little bathroom, the kitchen. She had seen the garage where Tracy kept a huge amount of canned and boxed food, containers of water, a generator — but most of the inside seemed off-limits. The door to what she assumed was Tracy’s bedroom was always closed, as was the door to the stairs that led to the lower floor. The house looked small from the street — one-story, wood-framed, with a few succulents planted half-heartedly in neat ceramic pots. But from the side you could see that it spilled down the hill, another floor below the first one. Down in the yard there was a separate structure, which Tracy had converted into a gym. How wonderful to be able to decide what to do with your space. Someday, Gwen thought, someday I’ll have a place of my own.
Gwen put her plate down, stood up, and walked around, looking absently at the framed action shots. Each of them captured a moment of triumph or drama — Tracy on the summit of a snow-covered peak, ice axe extended above her head; Tracy hanging precipitously off a rock face; Tracy and a dark-haired man in a kayak negotiating rough-looking rapids. She had the same joyous, self-satisfied look in all of them, the kind of expression that Gwen had seen in pictures of hunters displaying their kill. Tracy was alone in some of the photos, in others with the dark-haired man; in two, with a young blond woman. Was the man Tracy’s lover? The woman? It was impossible to tell.
Gwen sat back down and picked up the first magazine on the stack, an issue of Outside with a rock climber on the front. The magazine beneath it caught her eye. It was called Modern Survival, and on the cover there was a couple in full camouflage gear, the man holding a rifle, the woman a radio. Gwen picked it up carefully and flipped through the pages — there were pictures of people canning food, starting a fire with sticks and flint, of exercises for women to build upper-body strength so they could fire high-caliber assault weapons. How to Recognize a Bomb Threat, one article promised. Another was titled, Pedal Power: Generate Your Own Electricity — With Your Bike! In the back there were ads for pre-built emergency shelters, food storage sheds, bullet-proof vests, and boots that could walk through fire. Gwen put the magazine back on the pile and dropped Outside on top of it, as if replacing the lid of a container whose contents she wished she hadn’t seen.
Just then Tracy returned, carrying her gray and red pack. She set it down next to Gwen’s by the door. It looked svelte, no lumpy spots like Gwen’s lavender pack, which was so stuffed she thought the seams might burst. Gwen’s sleeping bag dangled from the bottom of her pack; Tracy’s bag was nowhere in sight.
“That looks very . . . efficient,” said Gwen. “You could probably teach me a thing or two about packing.”
“We can do a pack check when everyone’s here.”
Everyone, Gwen knew, had reduced in size — the Pattersons had dropped out at the last minute because the wife was sick. She wasn’t sure whether a foursome would be better or worse than the original group of six, but then the doorbell rang, and Tracy was greeting her real estate agent, Oscar Barajas, with a thumping jock-like hug. They sounded like teenage boys: “What’s up, Oscar?” “Nothing. Just getting ready to kick some mountain ass!” And Gwen suddenly felt like the grown-up in the group, worried that she wouldn’t fit in. Maybe she should have just driven to Santa Barbara or Palm Springs. Maybe she should have gone to a spa and gotten a massage, a facial or mani-pedi, some pampering. But then Oscar walked over to her, real-estate charming, and extended his hand.
“Nice to see you, Gwen,” he said. “I’m glad you decided to come!”
He was a little slick, Oscar. You could see it in his combed-back hair, his soft hands, his well-ironed clothes. Mostly you could see it in his face — handsome, friendly, but controlled. He must have worked hard to be as successful as he was, selling houses in what had long been a Latino neighborhood to nervous whites. Since he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, she saw what his long-sleeved work shirts concealed — a tattoo of a mountain lion crouching on his right shoulder, the name Lily in script across his left bicep. Yes, it must have cost him something to be so agreeable. But she knew he had a little girl and that he took good care of her, and so Gwen was inclined to give him slack.
“My stuff’s out in the car,” he said now. “Should I bring it in?”
“No, leave it out there,” Tracy answered. “Might as well just transfer the bags straight to my car.”
He glanced around the room. “Looks good in here.”
“Thanks,” Tracy said, hands on hips. “A little different than before, isn’t it?”
“The family that was here before were pack rats,” Oscar explained to Gwen. “It took them so long to clear out of here that we had to delay the closing.”
“I keep thinking about them and all their damned stuff,” Tracy said. “Better to live simple and not accumulate things, you know? You hear about people having to evacuate because of fire and they can’t figure out what to take. It’s better not to have so much to lose in the first place. I mean, what if something really bad happens? What if there’s a terrorist attack? Or the economy collapses? Or the Big One finally hits? You’ve got to be able to pick up and exit, quick.”
“Well,” Oscar said, “I hadn’t thought of all that.”
“Think about it, buddy. Think about it. And there are limited ways to get out of here, you know? Just last winter I was trying to get back into the city, from Sequoia, and the Tejon Pass was closed because of snow. The hotels before the pass all filled up quick, and people were sleeping in their cars, and the restaurants ran out of food and water. I turned around, went back up the 5 and over to the coast, and came down through Santa Barbara. Took nine hours from the Grapevine instead of ninety minutes. But hell, at least I got here.”
Gwen wasn’t comfortable with the banter, with the talk of crisis and doom. And again she felt bad about missing Sandra Gutierrez in group this week. Sandra had been an A student at King Drew Medical Magnet when suddenly, during her sophomore year, her grades began to plummet. Then it was discovered that she was cutting herself, and no one could figure out why — she had a stable home, a good mom with a steady job; they were generally better off than the other families Gwen worked with.
But then Sandra told her mother that her stepfather had been molesting her, in the evenings while her mother was at work. Her mother had locked the husband out and immediately called the police, and slowly, through intensive therapy and Gwen’s leadership group, Sandra had started to pull herself back together. She was a shy girl, soft-eyed and quiet, and when she first came to group, she sat in a folded-in, self-protective way that broke Gwen’s heart. Without her mom’s steadfast toughness and love, Sandra might not have made it through.
And now she was facing a new challenge — her stepfather’s trial was starting in a couple of weeks, and Sandra had to testify against him. That was a crisis, she wanted to say — facing someone who raped you; having to tell your story in front of strangers. Gwen felt little patience for people who had to invent or imagine disaster.
Now Tracy clapped Oscar on the shoulder again, grinning. “Hey, you want some coffee? Water? Fruit?” She was so pumped up that she was practically jumping in place. Tracy seemed to possess the secret of a fully lived life, and inhabited hers completely. Even her preparedness kick had a kind of enthusiasm mixed in with the worry. The terrorists might come, Tracy’s attitude suggested, but she would make quick work of them, and have fun in the process. Gwen was drawn to her in spite of herself.
“I’m good,” Oscar said, and then the doorbell rang again.
Tracy was at the door in an instant, pulling it open wide. “Todd!” she exclaimed. “You found us!”
Todd looked like he wasn’t quite sure what he had found. He was, Gwen thought, a pretty average-looking white guy. About 5’10”, dirty-blond hair, with a broad face that, in another ten years or so, might be described as “meaty.” He seemed preppy — Ralph Lauren polo shirt, khaki shorts, expensive leather sandals. But there was something that didn’t quite hold together in all of this, as if he was dressing like his successful older brother. And at the moment, he seemed a little confused.
“Hi, Tracy. Yeah, but not without some wrong turns. My GPS sent me up a one-lane dirt road.”
“GPS and MapQuest are useless up here,” said Oscar, in a litany he must have used a thousand times with clients. “This neighborhood was designed to turn people around. There used to be speakeasies up here during Prohibition. And then it was a communist hangout.”
“Todd, this is Oscar Barajas and Gwen Foster,” Tracy said, ushering him into the house. “Oscar and Gwen, this is Todd Harris.”
Gwen saw something shift in Todd’s eyes — an acknowledgment that he was in the minority here. He probably wasn’t used to being around people of color — at least, not ones who didn’t work for him. She thought of the looks she’d gotten at REI when she’d gone shopping for supplies, and had been the only black person in the store: not hostile, not unwelcoming — in fact, a couple of the clerks were overfriendly — just simply noting the unusual fact of her presence. But Todd shook their hands firmly and met their eyes. “So we’re just waiting for the Pattersons?” he asked.
“They’re not coming, unfortunately,” Tracy said. “Carolyn is sick.”
Again, a flicker in the eyes, but he quickly recovered. “That’s too bad. They’re both great people.”
“I know. We’ll have to manage without them. But in some ways it’s easier — now we can take one car.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Todd said, still not convinced. “Hey, is it okay to leave my car here?”
“Absolutely,” Tracy answered, and Gwen had to look away. What a rarified world Todd lived in if he thought this neighborhood was iffy.
After Todd declined the offer of coffee or food, Tracy took everything back to the kitchen and led them all outside. There, they did a pack check, and with Tracy’s help, Gwen winnowed down to a single long-sleeved shirt, removed an extra jacket, kept one extra set of socks and underwear instead of two. With the extra space Gwen could fit the sleeping bag inside the pack and pile everything else on top.
Once their packs were reorganized, they loaded up Tracy’s Volvo XC60. Gwen watched Todd heave the cooler and packs into the car; she saw Oscar help figure out how to fit everything; she saw Tracy direct the whole process. The back of the SUV was soon full to the roof.
Gwen felt like a neophyte, useless. What had she been thinking? She looked at her own Honda across the street, flanked by the BMW she knew to be Oscar’s and the Audi she assumed was Todd’s, and had an urge to just make a dash for it, drive away, get out while she still could. She could drive to the office — that’s where she really belonged. Not with these people whom she barely knew. Not in the outdoors, in some remote corner of the mountains.
You just can’t do this, she thought, and the words appeared so fully formed that she realized they came from someone else: Chris, the last man she had dated. Chris was a field deputy for the local city councilman, a charismatic, talkative guy she’d met when he toured the agency. They’d had a whirlwind year of dinners, neighborhood events, Saturday brunches with his politically active family and friends. Gwen had found this all thrilling, until eight months in, Chris began to say that she worked too much, that he didn’t like her clothes, that she needed to lose ten pounds. (“What kind of self-respecting black man,” remarked Tanisha, her best friend at work, “complains about a black woman’s curves?”) He hadn’t been terribly sympathetic when Robert died, and he’d been dismissive when she’d started going to SportZone. When she told him she aspired to do a really big hike one day, like Half Dome or Whitney, he’d scoffed. “There’s no way you can do that. That kind of thing’s for people who are really in shape.”
Gwen was hurt when Chris left her for a Princeton-educated lawyer, but in the wake of Robert’s death, all losses were relative. How, she thought, did she manage to attract such jerks? Why did she get involved with men who told her what she couldn’t do? Chris’s insults stayed with her, though, and she still felt them now.
But then she turned and caught sight of the mountains, the San Gabriels starting to the west and extending to the east, getting taller as they went. There was 10,064-foot Mount Baldy in the distance, and closer, Mount Wilson with its satellite spires, and closer still, Musgrove Point. Last spring, she had hiked to Musgrove Point with Devon and three kids, including Robert. It was the hardest hike she’d ever done. The trail was three miles up, two thousand feet of elevation gain. It was punishing, and Gwen would never have made it if Devon and Robert hadn’t pushed her along — cajoling, teasing, encouraging. On the top she’d taken the picture of Robert that now hung on her bulletin board.
They’d stayed an hour up there, eating lunch, taking in the view. From that high up she could see the buildings of downtown, the curve of the coast, the way the ocean hugged the land. How small the problems of people seemed from this perspective, how miniscule the neighborhoods and buildings. A few hearty wildflowers were still in bloom, and she was lifted by their beauty. I’m so happy to be alive, Gwen remembered thinking. She might have even said it out loud.
Ten days later, Robert was dead, and part of what tortured her in those first confused weeks was that his death had come so soon after this day, when all the world seemed well. While she had been exhilarated, he must have been miserable, already making plans. She would have said so much more that day if she had suspected what was coming. She hadn’t even had a chance to tell him how much he meant to her.
“Gorgeous, isn’t it?” someone said, and Gwen turned to find Todd standing next to her. She didn’t know how long he’d been there.
“Yes,” she replied. “It’s amazing how much you can see from here.”
“When I was driving up, I just kept looking from one view to the next. That’s part of why I was late.”
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Over on the Westside. I didn’t even know this neighborhood was here.”
Gwen felt a twinge of distaste. But this guy, whatever his limits, was making an effort to be friendly, so she would try to do the same. For a moment she wondered if she should have signed on with a professional guiding service, maybe even for a women-only trek — but the descriptions she’d found on the Internet had put her off: Hiking and Journaling for Inner Peace, one of them said. Another promised, Find Yourself in Nature! But she wasn’t going on this trip to find herself. She was going to find the mountains.
“Okay, kids. Ready to go?” asked Tracy.
“Let’s do it!” said Oscar, grinning.
And then there was the awkwardness of who would sit where, which Todd solved by saying, “Why don’t you ladies ride in front?”
They all seemed to understand that, whatever the arrangement, Tracy would be driving. And so the men got in back, Todd directly behind the driver’s seat and Oscar behind Gwen. Tracy took a deep breath and smiled, her energy so palpable it seemed to light the whole car.
“Ready, captain?” Oscar asked, and Tracy nodded.
“Ready.” She turned the key in the ignition, put the car into gear, and drove off down the hill.
Excerpted from Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr. Copyright (c) 2015 by Nina Revoyr. Reprinted with permission of Akashic Books.