In a Forest Torrent

Cold but Not Alone

By Michael Stubbs

In 2016, the author wrote about accompanying Tom Klein on part of his sporadic quest to hike the more than nine hundred miles of the rugged Idaho Centennial Trail (“Along with Tom,” November 2016). The pair walked a second leg together the following year (“The Bell and the Bear,” December 2017). Here, they take on a third section.

When Tom caught up to me, I was standing under a tall pine whose branches functioned as an umbrella and prevented most of the heavy rain from dousing me any further. The lowest branches were gray and dead and reached down past my shoulders but were attached to the tree much higher up, so I could stand straight while I waited. I shivered. A light sprinkling of water percolated through needle and branch to patter on my jacket and pack. In the dim, gray light, Tom crawled across a downed tree and approached me with a smile. He was dressed all in black: black poncho, black rain pants.

“What’s the plan, Mike?” he asked pleasantly.

I struggled to find words.

“I’m cold. Hypothermic. I can’t get much farther without some heat. I need hot food or something. I’m gonna lose . . .”

“Let’s light a fire,” he said without waiting for further explanation. He dropped his pack against the dry trunk of the tree and within moments had a fire-starter stick, his stove, a butane canister, and a lighter. He assembled and lit the stove, put water on to boil, lit the stick, and then quickly started piling small twigs on top.

I stared blankly. I struggled to move.

“Come on. Drop your pack and collect some sticks for the fire.”

I obeyed. He broke small, dry, dead limbs from the tree we stood under. I copied. We dropped them on the fire. It smoked. Tom grabbed sticks from the wet ground and tossed them on. Everything on the fire. I stopped and stared. It took me a moment to realize the chemically-composed fire stick would not go out. In fact, it heated and dried the wet sticks, and soon we had a blaze.

“Water’s boiling! Give me your dinner.”

I prepped my freeze-dried meal and Tom poured boiling water into the foil envelope. I stirred my chili-mac, licked the hot spoon, and then zip-sealed the meal and stuffed it inside my jacket. I hugged it gently against my belly and savored the heat.

Tom continued to pile sticks on the fire. He prepared his own meal.

We stood in the smoke.

Time passed, and the meals rehydrated.

“Eat,” said Tom.

I ate. Slowly, my wits returned.

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