TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
The ice cold lemonade was her only defense against the hot sun overhead. She shielded her eyes, and watched. Across the street, the phenomenon continued, just as it had every summer afternoon for as long as she could remember. The small store, with its candy cane awning and large window display of souvenirs, attracted a steady stream of tourists. Sweaty, sunburned bodies entered through the single door, but nobody ever came out…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
The words of well-meaning friends trundled on a loop through her head as she set each booted foot onto the rocky path.
“Are you crazy?” “Do you have an extra inhaler?” “Did you bring lots of sunscreen and mosquito repellant?” “You don’t have to do this. You could spend the summer with me. We’ll drink margaritas by the pool.” And, “You’re too old for this.”
The answers to these questions kept her going, determinedly.
“Yes, yes, yes and yes, I do. And I’m only 55 and in good shape. I know I haven’t hiked for 30 years, but I’ve been working out. “It’s not the same thing,” people told her.
Indeed, her feet were telling her that. Even though she’d worn the new shoes for a month before leaving, as recommended, her toes were threatening to blister. She’d brought bandages for that purpose.
Six miles in and she was recuperating under a granite outcrop, letting the coolness of the stone seep through her sweaty clothes. She’d filled her canteen from the stream, and finished off the last of her lemonade packets. She finally lifted herself up and shrugged into her pack, re-tied her shoes, and struck out across an expanse of slickrock.
As she went, she glanced about, noticing an interesting rock formation on her left. It was green with white striations and it stood out from the rest of the granite. There were a lot of features like that in this part of the Sierras. When she had hiked with Ted so many years ago, he had never tired of photographing these details from all angles. He could spend hours in one spot snapping pictures, using the shadows for contrast.
She had not brought a camera with her, or even a cell phone. Her priority had been to lighten her load. It was just as well. She was not good at photography. In fact, she usually became bored with his perfectionism. They had thousands of photos of this area already, possibly even this same place. Maybe that’s why it drew her attention.
She proceeded along the trail, moving upward, beyond anywhere she’d ever been in the past. Because of her asthma, she would always end up sitting under a tree, looking down at the view of Lake Tahoe. She would wait, sometimes for hours. Sometimes she would head back to the campground and read or sleep till his return. She gave up worrying about him. He always returned. Except once.
By dusk, she had made it all the way to Azure Lake, a place she had seen in so many photos but never in person. She stood looking down at it, a jewel in the sky. She knew now why Ted came here so often. You felt like it was put here just for you. A special place that no one saw the way you did. She took a long, deep breath of the clean air. And realized she had not used her inhaler all day.
She erected her tent and fixed a meal of freeze dried stroganoff. It wasn’t bad. One of the many she had tested at home in the year prior.
Noon the next day found her staked out 100 yards from the cave. The rocks around it were red with white streaks, just like the picture. She had her binoculars focused on the overhang at the entrance. So far she’d witnessed two jack rabbits, a fox, and a bobcat disappear into the shadow and not come out.
Eventually she made the decision to check it out. What’s the worst that could happen? It could be a bear den. But that seemed unlikely, given the variety of traffic going in. She got up and walked slowly toward it.
At the mouth there was an immediate rush of cool fresh air. Yes, fresh. Not stinky like you’d expect an animal den to smell. She stepped in but couldn’t see much. It quickly became pitch dark and she switched on her flashlight. The air was cool, almost cold, compared to outside.
In 20 feet or so she had not encountered any walls around her but she could feel dampness on her skin. She set down her pack and pulled out her sweatshirt and a small battery-operated lantern. With this she had a wider view and could tell she was in a fairly large cavern.
And there was a pool in the center with a little waterfall coming out of nowhere! The animals must come here to drink, and then…move on? There must be more tunnels. She spun slowly around, shining her light on the walls and saw… Crystals embedded in the rock. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, the light glinting off their prismatic sides. Possibly quartz, but maybe something more precious. Oh, my god. This was amazing. Did anyone know about this place? Had Ted been here?
She suddenly realized that this was her destination. This was where she’d been headed all along. She dropped her pack and pulled out the aluminum canister. Carefully she unscrewed the lid and tilted the powdery contents into the pool.
“Goodbye, Ted. Happy travels.”