After almost killing ourselves on a double black diamond named The Rumor, Cormac and I decide to hit the single black, Chatiemac, before taking the lift back up to the summit. From there the plan is to rest our legs on Cloud, a friendly, winding blue square, and work our way back toward the main trails of Gore Mountain. By then we’ll have had another solid day of skiing in the books.
“Thought that guy was gonna take you out,” Cormac says as we raise the chairlift bar and approach the unloading area near the mountain’s summit. A sign reads Ski tips up!
“No kidding,” I reply. “Hopefully he made it all the way down alright.”
Cormac turns sideways and eases his snowboard onto the snowy off-ramp, and I’m sure to follow the sign’s advice. I raise my skis. We slide off the lift, glide down the ramp, and veer to the left toward Chatiemac, the final trail on this side of the mountain. Beyond it is nothing but woods – frozen, Adirondack wilderness for miles and miles.
“At least this one’s not as steep,” Cormac says as we approach the crest. He bends over and adjusts his bindings.
“No moguls, either.”
“Thank the lord above. My legs are still on fire.” He pulls out his flask from his jacket, takes a swig, and puts it back. “You didn’t want any, did you?”
I shake my head and gaze down at the trail before us. It’s still steep enough to psyche yourself out if you wait too long. That’s half the battle with skiing or snowboarding – the mental aspect of it. It doesn’t matter how many black diamonds you’ve faced in your life. The butterflies will always flit around in your stomach before attempting each one.
“Let’s go, bitch,” Cormac half-shouts as he hops and turns down the mountain. I thwack him with one of my ski poles.
“Ow!” he yelps through a spurt of laughter. I point my skis downhill, bend my knees, and chase after him.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Cormac, it’s that he’s a bit of a daredevil. Maybe he’s got a few screws loose, too. He used to do these crazy big air contests at our local mountain in high school. I thought for sure he would go on to the X Games or maybe even the Olympics someday because he always mopped up the competition. He never did make it. Turns out he was just a big fish in a small pond like the rest of us.
Oh, and if there’s another thing you need to know about Cormac, it’s that he makes a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions. Most of them are questionable at best. My downfall is that I tend to be right beside him making the same poor decision – or getting talked into whatever the hell his happens to be.
He yells back to me as we carve down hard-packed Chatiemac, but I don’t catch it.
“What?” I respond. My voice cuts through the frigid air but he probably doesn’t hear me, either.
He turns back momentarily and waves me toward the right side of the trail, near the forest. He cuts all the way over and then slides into a backside stop, sending chunks of snow everywhere. I pull up beside him and spray him with snow.
“You shouldn’t have,” he says as he brushes it off his midsection. “Want to hit some glades? Maybe hug the tree line and go off the trail a bit? It looks like there’s some awesome powder in there. Like feet of powder.”
Skiing through the woods is always fun – I’m the first to admit it – but it always comes with a pretty high risk because of what’s beneath all that fluffy white stuff. Fallen trees, logs, rocks – you name it. It’s all there, and you don’t always see it. You can’t.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I reply. “I’m not sure I feel like breaking an ankle today.”
“Come on, Robbie. I promise I’ll bring you home to Bella in one piece.”
I sigh. “Fine…fuck it.”
“That’s the spirit!” Cormac punches me in the arm and dips into the forest. Which, if I must admit, is rather lovely, dark, and deep.
Before following Cormac, I check my watch. It reads 3:08 PM. It’s pitch-black by 4:30, and all lifts close at 4:00, so we’d have to get back up to the summit after this run and plot our route down to the main lodge at the base of the mountain.
No big deal – we’ll have plenty of time.
I sink the tips of my poles into the snow and push myself forward. I keep my feet close together and do a lot of fast, sharp turns to avoid the trees – lots of spruces and firs, I think. Cormac lets out excited whoops in front of me. I must admit, the spirit of adventure is contagious; I do the same.
Before long we dip into a ravine and ride it like a wave. I don’t know how far we go or how long we take it, but I try to put those thoughts on pause. The path we take is addictive and fun, and I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. We take the ravine all the way down into thicker, deeper woods.
It’s almost as if a glowing trail lights up for Cormac and tells him exactly which way to go. We snake in and out between trees, up and down gullies, and avoid every visible obstacle in our path. We hardly slow down at all because the line we take is perfect.
Robert Frost can go to hell. This is poetry in its purest form.
Eventually, I snap out of this daze. I’m happy I did because Cormac would’ve continued in this trance, this dream, forever, I’m pretty sure. “Should probably start cutting back to the left,” I shout. My voice gets muffled by the snow-covered limbs – the snow-covered everything. “Cormac!” I yell louder, straining my voice. It feels like I’m screaming into a pillow. “Cut left!”
Cormac looks over his shoulder at me and gives me a thumbs up. He starts to head in that direction. We carve between trees, go around a massive boulder, and keep working towards Chatiemac.
At least, that’s where we think we’re going.
The minutes slip by. I check my watch: 3:27.
“Holy shit, Cormac,” I say. “Hold up!”
I’m close enough to him that he hears me. He stops and looks in my direction.
“We’ve been in here twenty minutes.” I tap on my watch. “Lifts close at 4:00.”
His jaw drops. “Christ,” he says. He reaches inside his coat and pulls out his flask. This time I take a hearty swallow, too.
“What should we do? Turn around? Just hike back up the way we came?”
Cormac’s entire body, his whole being, deflates. The spirit of adventure vanishes at that moment for both of us. So does the allure of the woods. They no longer seem lovely – just dark and deep.
And we must be deep within them.
Before he answers my question or even has a chance to think about it, we see movement through a thick copse of trees to our right.
A massive cat – the largest I’ve ever seen in my life – emerges.
It’s a mountain lion. Its muscles ripple with each step it takes, and it has to weigh over two hundred pounds.
Cormac glances at me, index finger over his mouth. I give him a slight nod and grip my ski poles tighter.
The mountain lion creeps closer as if examining us, eyeing us up and down. Calculating its next move.
Seconds pass. A minute, maybe. Out of the corner of my eye, I see more movement. I tilt my head ever so slightly and glance out of my peripheral. It’s a second mountain lion. And then, before I take my next breath, two more emerge directly in front of us. The four of them create a semi-circle and inch closer.
I grip my poles harder to keep my arms – my entire body – from shaking.
Simultaneously, I do a quick calculation: four big cats against two fucking idiots. There appears to be a clear winner.
Not knowing what else to do, I brandish the pole in my right hand like a sword and wave it out in front of me. “Get back!” I yell at the top of my lungs. “Get out of here!”
All four of the big kitties start to snarl and hiss at us. Their bellies drop lower to the ground and they bare their teeth.
“Jesus Christ, Robbie,” Cormac says in a hushed tone. “What do we do?”
My instincts tell me to back up – leave – but Cormac can’t budge an inch with his two feet strapped into his board. I wouldn’t be much better off. I’d be duck-walking backward in my skis.
“What do we do?” Cormac says again, fright evident in his voice.
“Now that is the question, isn’t it?” a rugged voice asks. Chills overcome me. A fifth mountain lion – the largest, by far – emerges from behind the same copse of trees. It isn’t alone.
A tiny man rides atop the mountain lion in a saddle of sorts. The man – or dwarf, or gnome, perhaps? – has a long, twisted beard that matches the color of the nearby trees. He wears what appears to be deerskin clothes, and a crossbow is slung over his shoulder. His cheeks are ruddy and look like worn leather.
“You’ve entered sacred ground. For this, you will need to come with me.”
Cormac is wheezing beside me – I have no idea what he is doing – but I don’t dare make eye contact.
“Our apologies. We’ll just go back the way we came,” I stammer, barely getting the words out.
The rider cracks a hard smile. “Oh no, you won’t.”
Crossbows click all around us. There must be more of these good-natured dwarves or gnomes – whatever they are – lying in wait.
“You’ll be coming with us. For now, at least. We have questions, and we’re hoping you have answers.”
The mountain lions circle us, still snarling.
Happy New Year, everyone!
I hope you enjoyed the first part of “Off the Trail” — it was an absolute blast to write. Though I won’t send out stories in parts often, I felt that splitting this one made the most sense.
My inspiration for writing this story comes from two places. First, my brother and I once had a similar experience while skiing at Gore Mountain (admittedly, there were no mountain lions and dwarves involved). More on that later. My second source of inspiration comes from Stephen King’s latest novel, Fairy Tale. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for me, it ranks right up there as one of his best. I couldn’t put it down.
If you’re interested in seeing a trail map of Gore Mountain, please click here. The trails mentioned in this story are located in the upper-left section of the mountain (and map).
The second and final part of “Off the Trail” will be sent out next Monday!
Fifties by the Fire
I’m really excited to kick off the new year with some more fifties! Moving forward, I’ll be hosting these fifty-word writing challenges on the first and third Friday of every month. On the second and fourth Fridays, I’ll share “mystery” prompts in a similar fashion. Altogether, I may end up calling the Friday writing challenges “By the Fire” — but we shall see.
Our first “fire” will be held this Friday, January 6 at 7:00 AM EST.
Prompt: Write a fifty-word story (or poem, or work of CNF — whatever you want!) that ties into the concept of a “fresh start” or a “new beginning.”
Same guidelines as always!
Have a great week. And thanks so much for being here.
Yowza! What a ride! The tension started building in the first paragraph and never let up. I clenched my teeth all the way down the mountain. To me, the ride was scarier than the little people and pumas! But I am not a skier. I am a sucker for a good cliff-hanger.
Fantastic start to the week and the New Year, Justin. Can't wait for part two. 🏔️