The Old Man and the Mountain, 2019 First Place Adult Division

By Valla Kaye Shalz

Shadows fell across the gray window panes and the old man stooped to gather wood and place it in the fireplace. A chill stirred the cabin air, and in his bones the old man knew the time had come.

Long had been the summer of gathering wood, of stashing away a winter’s worth of food and goods, but the body had turned the bend and on this evening the tide had turned as well.

High in the Idaho mountains against the backdrop of his beloved Greylock, a mammoth granite whale tooth punching the sky, he breathed out his life in a simple cabin, void of most comforts but oh-so-comfortable to him. He nearly timed his breathing to the cadence of mountain life. He had been a prospector since his father taught him how to feel the presence of gold more than to search for it. He had worked for the Talache Mines for some time, but as he aged, he felt the need to dredge the water himself and he staked out claims wherever he could.

The old man never took the time to find out how much gold he actually had. He sold what he needed when he stocked up on his twice-yearly trips to Boise with his only friend Jim Thompson. Jim owned a truck and was willing to take the old man to town. He kept a quiet eye on him as he saw age overtaking his frail frame. He had grown to genuinely care for his somewhat grizzly character with the spark of warmth in his eyes, and he greatly enjoyed the every-Thursday-night cribbage games in the musty cabin by the firelight or a kerosene lamp. The difference in their ages made no difference, for the younger man and the old man were bonded by their love of the mountains and their thirst for adventure.

In the summer, the old man chopped wood, worked his stakes, and spent as much time as possible sitting by the creek, listening to its song and gazing at Greylock. He believed in God, but his church was the rising sun grazing the top of his mountain, setting it on fire. Life was hard, and simple.

In the winter, he had to struggle to survive. He would snowshoe into Atlanta for meager supplies, especially his pipe tobacco, but eventually, when even Jim couldn’t get up the trail to the cabin, the old man sat in silence, watching the flames lick away the wood he piled on the fire.

He sometimes thought about the family he never had. He wondered if he was lonely, but how could he know since he had always been alone? He felt no need for other people and he avoided inquisitive eyes in town as much as they avoided contact with him. Men crowded around the bar in the saloon down by the log ponds where he bought a few of his supplies, but they were all strangers to him.

There was something unique about being isolated in the winter. Once the snow flew, it would be months before anyone could travel in or out of Atlanta, its wretched one-track road hanging on the edge of a deep ravine above the raging Middle Fork. People did look out after each other, but, of course, the old man was not a part of that connection.

When did he get old? Was it while sawing timber or fishing for salmon in the big Salmon River? Was it while he was bent over his claims, searching for the glint of gold? Was it when he hiked up endless trails hunting big game or cooked a pot of chili? Why did it arrive tonight? Old age. Aching bones. Feeble fingers. Weak legs. What now?

Behind the cabin, up a winding trail and through some brush was a rock pile and in the middle of the pile was a hidden hot springs. The old man would soak his bones and ease the pain early in the morning and before bedtime. It was his private heaven.

On this autumn evening though, the first night requiring wood in the stove, he sat watching the rays of light disappear and he felt a new fear. What was going to happen to him? There would be no more summers of chopping wood. Many of the mining claims were being bought up by mining companies, and he didn’t have the strength to fight change.

He thought about his options. He had no family. He knew that somewhere down in Boise there would be a nursing home where he would be cared for by strangers . . . people who smiled and made small talk but who had never known the song of a brook. He knew he would sit by some window in a sterile environment in a place that would never hear the cry of a hawk or the call of the eagle. He knew everything precious to him would forever be just a memory. He also knew that he could not be a part of that strange world.

He needed his rushing rivers, his wildlife, the bugle of the elk, and the sizzle of the trout in the skillet. He needed to simply broom away the dust of the day, to walk up brushy trails and to soak in pure water that bubbled up out  of the earth. He needed wood smoke and the sound of a chopping ax echoing through the canyon. He needed his Ponderosa, his rich mountain loam and the promise of a fresh spring rain in the forests He needed to wake up to the smell of forest life. He needed to feel the smooth, worn wood of his .30-40 Winchester with anxious hands, waiting for the kill. He needed to come around a bend in the trail and smell the blueberries before he came upon them. He needed to drink from a fresh, cold spring. He needed to smell again the scent of freshly-sawn wood and to lean back into the yellow light of a kerosene lamp while he rocked an evening away. He needed to watch a thunderstorm approaching and feel the fear that it might start a fire somewhere. He needed the life he had just lived.

It had been a good life. A very good life. He could not have asked for anything better. He had had it all. But now, caught between the past and the future, he needed to make a plan. It was not difficult. He would get up the next morning when the sun was just cresting and the steam was rising from the mountain top. He would straighten up his cabin for the last time, but he would not kindle the fire. His gold, as always, would be neatly tucked in a box in an old coal bucket behind the wood bin where Jim would know it was. A cribbage board would sit in the middle of the small table.

He would wear only a canvas jacket against the crisp morning air. A breeze would make it seem colder than it was, and the old man would be acutely aware of the beauty all around him. The softness of the forest floor would contrast with the cold hard granite stones all about him. The berries were gone now and the animals would be searching for winter quarters. All things would move in their appointed paths. He would begin to climb the Joe Daley Trail. He would remember the strong muscle and sinew that once carried him up its steep back, but now the eighty-three-year-old legs would struggle for each step. Still, he would revel in the familiarity of the trail. He knew its every twist and turn and rise and fall. This was his trail. He would be walking the story of his life again.

He would think about the feel of granite warmed by the sun. He had been so young and able. Life had been so vibrant, and it all came through his mountain. The golden aspen would be quaking. He would tingle with the thought of what was yet to come. Always the explorer, the prospector, he was ready for the next adventure. He would just sit in a special place and wait to go home. He would breathe in deeply the richness of the mountain air and look out over the land he loved so much. Here he would be in great company and he would thank God for this perfect window. He and his mountain would become one.

He awoke to the drizzle of rain. He opened the door, on this, his last day, and breathed in deeply the musty scent of forest floor. He thought of his God. He had been blessed with paradise for most of his life. He sat down in his chair, the dampness of the cabin pressing in on him. His bones ached. Unexpected tears welled up in his eyes, for deep in his soul he knew the trip up the Joe Daley would be impossible. He had always lived his life in harmony with nature. He valued the wisdom of the mountain and the lessons it taught. He could not violate the divine order of things. God was on His throne. The old man spied the coal bucket. The gold was there . . . a gift from the mountain. A gift for the rest of his life.

The rain stopped, and slowly the sun burned away the fog. The old man lifted his eyes to the golden mountaintop, acutely aware that a new day had dawned. He kindled the fire. He put slabs of bacon on the stove and sliced up a potato to fry. Smoke curled up into the pines, signaling Joe Thompson down below that the old man was stirring in the cabin. There would be a game tonight.

In the evening, the two friends sat rocking and talking. “I don’t ever want to leave this place,” said the old man. “You won’t,” said Joe. An entire conversation in ten words. A promise in two. All was well.