The Girl on the Mountain
Anyone traveling from Danfield to Morson has a choice of route. The shorter way, over the mountain, faces the traveller with an immediate and severe acclivity which invariably inclines him to the longer and much less scenic option, along the highway out towards Eddisburg, and the gentler gradient of the Snake River valley.
Uncle Jess was not so readily dissuaded. For him and for my younger self each ascent marked the commencement of a journey of adventure. We made it on more occasions than I can recall during my weeks of vacation at Morson. His ageing Dodge truck did not make the climb exactly easily, but it did so with assuredness and plenty of noise. The potent growl of the two-hundred-and-eighteen-cubic-inch engine, the six-cylinder staccato of its exhaust echoing back from the canyon walls, and the furious rumbling of the uneven road beneath the wheels attested its potency.
The well-practised technique was to hit the bottom of the rise at full speed and to shift down a couple of gears at just the right moments whilst maintaining maximum impulsion. If you knew the way well enough - and we did - and were ready to take a few liberties with the wrong side of the highway, cutting corners, straightening out the curves and not hitting the brakes too often, then those initial two gear shifts were the only ones you would ever need.
The thrill of the ascent was only the start of it. Here and there the tumbling torrent of the Hammerhead River roared beside us, turquoise and foaming white, cascading ever downwards with purpose equal to our own, cutting through the polychromatic strata of the timeless rocks.
Fifteen minutes of a steady ninety-horsepower brought us to what would pass for the end of a blind canyon. Here the road looped back, crossing first the boiling rapids below the spectacular Hammerhead Fall, then spiralling upwards along the opposite side of the valley onto a flimsy-looking yet substantial steel trestle bridge that conveyed it at some considerable elevation back across the gorge and its earlier self, delivering it neatly amongst the mine workings to which the road and the bridge owed their existence.
The bridge afforded breathtaking views: to the right a panorama of the waterfall again, and its turbulent progeny; to the left the wild forest beyond Danfield, stretching in misty green to the horizon. They say that on a clear day you can see to the Blueback Mountains from here, but I have to declare that in all my years of making the journey, I never saw them.
The mine workings, abuzz with industry for my earlier visits, fell silent for the later ones: abandoned and derelict. Activity was brief, if intense.
After that the road was less steep for a half-mile or so, then it levelled out completely. Uncle Jess could slip the Dodge into top gear and the going was suddenly easier.
Up here was a different world. The severe narrow gorge gave way to the wide, level, rock-strewn floor of the upper valley. The churning, tumbling and turbid torrent was now a lazy gentle stream that tripped daintily over pebbles and glinted and sparkled in the sunshine. The 'new road' became the 'old road' - little more than a gravel-covered track that marked our progress with clouds of white dust swirling and hanging in the air behind us.
Shrubs and trees were scarce indeed, except where they delineated the course of the meandering stream: abundant where they were visible. A little childish imagination would have us traversing some arid foreign desert, or on the desolate surface of a distant alien planet, yet there was life to be seen on the fifteen-miles or so crossing before the descent through the forest above Morson. Colonies of paddling and wading birds - Uncle Jess knew the names of them all - flourished in those places where the river was slowest and widest, and I guessed fish thrived too.
Once we saw a cougar, loping across the road a couple of hundred yards ahead of us. Uncle Jess saw it, though he said it was more likely a large dog or some other animal; cougars had been extinct in those parts for many years, he insisted. Wolves, too. Yet I am sure it was no dog; it's deportment was unmistakably that of a cat, and not a few others had reported seeing the same over the years, asserting their continued presence in such an isolated place.
The only building in the upper valley was a house that stood at some distance from the trail, on the opposite side of the river in a wide gulley whose rim formed a wide arc that the road was obliged to follow. Stone-built with a single storey, a rusty-red roof and a tumbledown timber porch along the front, the house would have appeared unremarkable anywhere else. Here, alone in the wilderness, its incongruity was absolute.
The only one I ever saw there was the girl.
She was slim and pretty, as far as I could tell from the road, with long black hair the brightest red dress that swirled and flapped as she moved. She was always dressed the same.
Whenever she saw us coming she would jump down from the porch and run to the corner of the house. There she would stand, waving both arms high above her head in greeting, and watch us trundle by.
Any passer-by, though few and far between, would surely be privy to the same warm greeting, though I liked to kid myself that I was specially chosen: that she waved only to me.
I would wave in reply: in slow and subdued fashion, like some mediaeval monarch acknowledging the crowd from his carriage. I hoped that she saw, and that Uncle Jess did not. I was uncertain of his response to a perceived precocious interest in young ladies. He might disapprove and think ill or me or, worse, make fun and tease me. In any event he never mentioned it and neither did I, even when I got to an age when such attention it would be expected. The Gestalt was made, and it stayed.
Back home, my thoughts would often stray back to my summers in Morson, especially in the end stages of long and tedious afternoon math lessons when the boredom became too much to bear. My imagination entertained me with fantasies about the girl on the mountain: about how, next time, we would pull in and stop at the little house. She would invite us in for coffee and we would meet her folks, too. She would be called Mary Sue, or some such, and she would be beautiful and kindly and funny. We would hit it off right away, kindred souls destined to be together, and fall in love. The story had many happy endings, in my imagination.
Real life moved on. My summer excursions to Morson gave way to more pressing matters: college, qualification and career. In idle moments my Mary Sue was less often in my mind. Six years passed before I ventured to Morson again.
Then Uncle Jess broke his leg and the family decided to take turns in helping out.
When my week arrived, I took the train to Danfield, collected a hire car and took the mountain road. This time I was resolved to make a stop along the way.
I wasn't sure I'd got the right place at first; the house was no longer there. I turned off the road and followed a rough track which I supposed to lead to it, splashing through a wide ford and crawling for a quarter of a mile over undulating and uneven rocky terrain. Eventually I drew up by the very edge of the stream at the spot where I had so many times seen my Mary Sue.
All that remained were piles of stones that had once been walls, scraps of indeterminate timber and rusty fragments of roof. A single course of half-buried stones marked the outline of the building, or at least most of it. All around, in such proximity to the life-giving stream, plentiful vegetation, including trees and shrubs,had sprung up, filling the former clearing both inside and outside the building line. From the girth of their trunks it was clear that no dwelling could possibly have stood, nor any inhabitant sojourned here for very many years past. This was a most perplexing realisation.
Until that moment I had never seriously considered the possibility of the existence of supernatural apparitions. Yet what other explanation could there be apart from the entirely less appealing one of calling into question of my soundness of mind? This mystery was never going to sit easily with me.
...to be continued.