Mountaintop


Writing Contest home

Catherine Sheard, Canton, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner-up in Category: Short Story, age 12-20

"What are all these cars doing here?" I mutter, flicking my brights off. The road obligingly darkens and I can't see where I'm going.

"Same thing we are?" Kate pragmatically offers as the other car zips by and I turn the brights back on.

"We're in the middle of nowhere. We're on a shortcut from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere. But that's the third car we've seen!"

"More cars than porcupines. How sad." We've already seen two porcupines since we left.

"You're mocking me. I'm serious. This road must get about three cars a week. How come all of them are on it at eleven o'clock at night?"

Kate shrugs, then shifts into a more comfortable position. She's curled up on the passenger seat, her head against a pillow. I told her before we left that she had to keep me company and that she wasn't allowed to sleep, but she still brought the pillow.

The road ends and I turn onto another road, a paved one this time. It's riddled with potholes; around here, most dirt roads are in better condition than the paved ones.

"Are we almost there?" Kate asks as I turn yet again, onto a bouncy dirt road that's belying my previous claim.

"Yeah, I think so. The trailhead should be around here somewhere - it'll be on the left. We may have some trouble finding it." I've never actually been on this trail before. My father has, but he's at home with the flu, which is why Kate is here. I am amazed that our parents would let two seventeen-year-old girls hike an unknown mountain, by themselves, at night, but they did, so here we are.

"Drat. I think that was it," I say, ten minutes later, realizing that we just passed a break in the trees. I execute my renowned three-point-turn, a product of driver's ed. "Yeah, right there, wooden sign. This is it!"

I pull the car completely off the road and turn off the engine. It's really dark. I unbuckle my seatbelt and reach into the back, tossing Kate my hiking boots and a pair of wool socks. I'm going to be wearing my father's - Kate doesn't have any of her own, and on hikes like this hiking boots save lives.

"Oh, glory," Kate breathes, looking up at the stars as we climb out of the car. Though tall trees loom over both sides of the road, the sky is magnificent; it looks like somebody spilled glitter all over it. Even in our little town, there's a fair amount of light pollution, and I've forgotten that Kate has probably never seen the sky like this, miles away from any man-made light. Pooja, my usual hiking- and canoeing- partner, has, of course, but Pooja moved to California to live with her mother in January.

"Why are we doing this at night, again?" Kate asks as we turn on our flashlights and allow ourselves to be swallowed by the woods. It's chilly enough for a sweatshirt and there are zero insects, though the frogs are making a racket worthy of a rock concert. The trail is well-maintained and flat; I hope the former will continue to be true, but I know the latter will not.

"We - well, I - have to be at the first site at 4:30, and I really didn't want to backpack up. Anyway, two girls sleeping alone, eight miles from the nearest road and thirty miles from the nearest house? I don't think so."

An hour later, the question has been altered slightly.

"Why are we doing this, again?" Kate pants. It's become very steep; she's having trouble keeping up with me. I stop and turn around to look at her. She flops down on a rock and greedily gulps from her water bottle.

"C'mon, this is fun! We're surveying birds. People all over New York and New England are going to be on top of mountains in a few hours, doing the same thing we are."

My father and I have been birdwatching together for years, and when I was in sixth grade we began to volunteer to survey rare species for various organizations. My favorite is a loon survey we do in July, even though last year it was on the day the new Harry Potter came out.

"Hey, look at it this way; you can put it on your college applications - 'participated in ornithological study.' Georgetown will be really impressed," I add, teasingly. Kate grins. Her devotion to Georgetown is famed.

We brush ourselves off and continue; I let her lead. We've been playing tag with a creek; the rocks are slick, and when our feet slip we land in several centimeters of cold water. Besides the frogs, I only hear my footsteps and breathing, which seem boorishly loud. I realize that I should be tired - I had school, so I've been up since six - but I'm more awake than I ever am during the day.

Our flashlights illuminate small circles that direct our feet, small circles that cut peepholes so we can steal a glimpse into what the forest looks like during the day, peepholes that destroy the film of darkness to reveal colors. It feels as though we're cheating, somehow, cheating by bringing our human electricity into the cool, serene nighttime.

I stop, suddenly, my eye drawn by the movement a few yards up the trail. I hold my breath, fearing that it will take off as suddenly as it alighted.

"Look, Kate," I breathe as I grab her arm. "An owl."

I quickly run through the possibilities. It's too large for a Screech Owl and we're too far north for a Barn Owl. Short-eared? Long-eared? Barred? Great Horned? Without warning, he (she?) leaps off the branch and into the night, hooting. I smile. I know what the owl is.

"Wow," Kate says softly.

"That was a Barred Owl," I explain. "Did you hear its call? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?"

It's too bad that it wasn't a Great Horned. I've seen some of the rarest owls out there - Snowy, Great Gray, Boreal, Spotted - but I've never seen the common-as-mud Great Horned Owl.

As we climb on, winding our way up the mountain, the trees first thicken, deciduous to coniferous, then thin. The soil we crunch with our hard-soled feet becomes rockier, and the frequency of rocks increases. The air is thinning, too, like the trees and the dirt.

Many footsteps later, we reach what is the top and stop to rest. It's not yet 4. Few trees obscure our view; we can see almost the entire sky and its display of stars, as well as lights from the occasional house, far, far away from us on this mountain.

I explain that this is the last survey site; the first on the other side of the mountain, about a mile more, next to a small lake.

"You mean after all this 'up' we now have to go down?" Kate demands in mock-outrage. "And then come back up?"

Twenty-five minutes later, Kate has stretched out on the large, flat rock that marks our site, her head inches away from the water, staring up at the rapidly vanishing stars. To our left, the mountain looms over us, challenging our right to be there. It's noticeably lighter, but not yet dawn. I rummage through my backpack, locating what I need for the survey, then drop an apple and a bagel on Kate's stomach.

"Here," I say, munching on an apple of my own as I flip through Peterson. "This is what we're looking for."

I show her the sketches of the White-throated Sparrow, the Blackpoll Warbler, the Swainson's Thrush, the Winter Wren, and lastly the Bicknell's Thrush, the star of the survey. I omit the fact that I'm also counting red squirrels - not only is Kate a proud member of our school's "I Hate Squirrels" Club, she's the Vice President.

"Have you ever seen one? A Bicknell's Thrush?" Kate asks, sitting up to read the description in the birdbook. "They don't look like much."

"No. Not yet. I've been in places where they're known to be - Whiteface, Mount Washington - but I've never found one. They've got a beautiful call. You'll hear it, even if we don't find one. I have to play the tapes at each site after the survey if we're unsuccessful."

"Tapes?"

"Of the Bicknell's Thrush call," I explain, indicating the tape-recorder in my backpack. "If they're here and they just aren't singing, they'll hear the tape and respond to it. You aren't supposed to do that - it's really bad for birds - but they need accurate information on the Bicknell's if they're going to prevent its extinction."

The Bicknell's Thrush has always been my "nemesis bird," the one bird I've always wanted to see but always seem to miss. When we hiked Mount Washington, my father heard one, but by the time I caught up it had stopped singing. Our previous survey mountain had never yielded one, which is why it had been retired and we were assigned a new site. Every year when the survey results are published I pour over them, finding new mountains to hike or backpack during the summer, but despite all the time I've spent in Bicknell's habitat, they've always eluded me. I don't care if I never see a Great Horned Owl. I will be heartbroken if I never see a Bicknell's Thrush - a distinct possibility, considering how endangered they are.

Kate helps me record information on the weather - I have a thermometer in my backpack, but we need to determine if the wind is strong enough to cause "leaves to rustle" or "small branches to sway," to estimate the percentage of cloud cover, and to answer other questions complicated enough to rival the SAT. She nods at my warning to be quiet during the survey, pantomiming zipping her lips, and we wait quietly for my watch to display 4:30.

The frogs continue to screech raucously, like frat boys at a party, until at 4:31 they cease, suddenly and simultaneously, as though cut off by a conductor's cue.

There is silence.

Then, across the lake,

"Oh sweet Canada-Canada-Canada. Oh sweet Canada-Canada-Canada-Canada."

A White-throated Sparrow shatters the pre-dawn stillness in its high, beautiful voice. There is a beat of silence, and then another White-throated Sparrow answers it from somewhere above our heads. As though the sparrows were an invitation, other birds add their songs, and the dawn chorus begins.

Two hours later, we are back on the top of the mountain, sitting on the same rocks we sat on before. I have counted 13 White-throated Sparrows, 3 Winter Wrens, 2 Blackpoll Warblers, 5 Swainson's Thrushes, a whole host of other mountain-top birds, and, yes, three red squirrels. But no Bicknell's Thrush.

Dawn has come and gone; it is completely light. The cacophony has slowed, the concert ended. The view is gorgeous, but I am disappointed. I doubt the tapes will yield anything, and I'll go home Bicknell's-less for yet another year.

"It's 6:29," I say, the first words either of us have spoken since the survey began. My muscles are stiff, my legs muddy. The cold that was once refreshing is now just plain cold and several mosquitoes have already sampled my blood. "Shall we call it?"

"Sure," Kate answers, stretching. "Do we have to - "

"Wait," I interrupt. Lowering my voice, I add, "I thought I heard something...there!"

A pure note slices through air, morphing into a warbling, trilling, glorious song. I seize my binoculars, not that I expect to find the little devil, they're very good at camouflage, and grin triumphantly. I've done it.

Kate looks at me wonderingly.

"Is that it?"

"Yes. That's the Bicknell's Thrush!"