It had been a whirlwind year.
After coming back to the city, I found myself a cause celebre’, the poster child for protecting our wilderness. My photography assignments were still pretty scarce but I had a new calling on the environmental lecture circuit.
Colleges, committees, even Congress, had called on my experience. For the first time I was in quite a bit of demand even garnering a few modest gallery showings of my photos. Okay, I didn’t become Annie Leibovitz but it was something.
Could you believe I actually worked the nerve to ask Abby’s boss out on a date? Trust me, I was just as surprised as Jack when I flat out asked him. I happened to be visiting Abby when the opportunity presented itself. Without even thinking I blurted the question. Abby was downright horrified if not just embarrassed. It’s not every day your younger sister asks your much older boss out on a date in front of you.
He thought I was kidding and until I showed up back at the office later ready for dinner.
It was fun and we had a nice time. Nothing serious though. He’s still cute but the age gap between us was weird especially when the waiter called me his daughter. We laughed about it however we knew the relationship would go nowhere. At least we enjoyed each other’s company for a short time. I’m sure Abby was relieved to hear a dinner would be the extent of the experiment.
Funny though. The whole night I had this nagging sensation haunting me the entire time. I kept finding myself comparing Jack to someone but to no one specific, at least not anyone I could remember. And that fact was bothering me too. Just by going out with him felt like I was cheating.
On who though? It’s not like I’ve ever been close to anyone to feel that strongly…
National Park Magazine called me again. They want me to do a follow-up article -‘Thorn Valley: One Year Later’. They were hesitant about giving me the assignment, afraid it might not have been enough time for me to recover from my experience. The minute I heard the name Thorn Valley however I didn’t even hesitate in saying yes. I needed to go back.
My therapist wasn’t too thrilled with me going. She felt there would be a chance I’d end up having a severe panic attack and being in the middle of the woods would make me especially vulnerable. I reassured her I would be okay but I took an extra bottle of medication just in case.
Just driving back upstate left me a bundle of nerves. On my way to the reserve I made a pit stop at my aunt and uncle’s house. Eddie was just as happy to see me as I was of him. He followed me with his usual endless energy, chasing away anything that moved.
I watched as he played in the tall grass, ignoring any of my attempts to control his wild behavior. Conflicting emotions welled, something my therapist told me to watch out for. The more I watched Border collie, the sadder I became.
I felt as if a bond had been severed. Eddie was supposed to be more than a dog but wasn’t. I shrugged at the strange notion and made a mental note of the feeling. Just another moment to share with a woman paid to listen to all this crazy talk.
The rangers had locked down the reserve even tighter than last I was there. I had a guide this time around who kept close contact with headquarters as we camped out and hiked. Even though I found her intrusive at the same time I appreciated the company. The meds would stay in my pack unused.
The photos came easy, which I was grateful for since it meant not staying longer than I had to.
We hiked along the edge of a large valley that surrounded the mountains bearing the reserve’s name. Scanning over the wide grassy field, the air had a pleasant tree-scent with just a hint of residual wood smoke.
I stopped suddenly in my tracks, startling my guide. “Something the matter?” she asked as I looked through my camera lens with shaking hands.
Excitement pounded my being as I followed the edge of a small stream, my mind beginning to lift a veil.
“Rats…” I whispered, my heart beating fast. My guide looked at my glazed demeanor with confused concern.
“What happened?” she asked again. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
Looking through the lens again, I trailed the area – tall, wild grasses hid common plant food peeking from its center. I could see the dark round holes in the side of the rocks close to the ground. Nearby, thick shrubbery only allowed the faintest peek at what looked like circular track in the grass. With each view my mind began to fill in details I dared not speak aloud. Although I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at, something was reminding me that this was meant for me alone.
I breathed in deep, hardly able to conceal my thrill. The corners of my eyes glistened as a huge smile appeared on my face with an even bigger burden lifted from my shoulders.
“I remember,” I replied.
“Remember what?” the ranger asked, looking over the landscape and seeing nothing.
“I had forgotten how beautiful this place is.”
Lowering my camera I continued staring. I breathed in the air, the memories returning like a welcome rain.
“Well, aren’t you going to photograph it?”
Refusing to answer the question with neither words nor action, we stood in silence for several minutes. The ranger, tired of doing nothing, turned away from the sight I was deeply wrapped up in.
“There are some things not even a camera can capture and do justice,” I finally answered, the words sounding like a thinly veiled excuse.
The ranger shrugged. “I see this place every day,” she replied. “I guess you city folk don’t get out much.”
“You’ll never see this valley the way I have,” I answered, smiling at her words. “By the way, I’ve taken enough photos to last me a hundred articles. Let’s get out of here.”
With a relieved nod my guide began heading in the opposite direction with me close behind. As I turned, a rustling near me caught my attention. Out of the corner of my eye a flash of red and dark gray disappeared.
We are Rats of N.I.M.H. We live and die on our terms, not theirs…
My heart skipped but I showed no outward reaction. Looking over to make sure the ranger was far enough away I raised my hands to my lips. Kissing my fingertips I waved my hand in the direction of the blur in the trees. Despite everything I dared not imagine what I thought I saw.
You were right, Anna. We don’t have to be afraid. Not anymore…
“Not anymore,” I whispered to the wind as I turned to follow the ranger. “Not anymore.”