going to be very cold in not too long. Getting up and getting the backpack on was a multistage process, one so difficult it made me decide I didn’t get to stop again until I had reached the bottom of the crater.
Always a student of the mind, my own included, a part of me observed the free-floating anxiety I experienced, the mulling over my cases, the possible stalker, the hundreds of tiny unfinished bits of business I’d left uncompleted on the Big Island, including Detective Freitas’s case—which I’d at least thrown into the backpack in its folder.
There is a Zen that occurs after that first hour or so when the decision has been made not to stop anymore. Gradually the swirling of random thoughts settled, like those tiny white snowflakes in a plastic globe, and all that was left was the physical discomfort. My breath tore through my lungs with a sound like ripping cloth, and I concentrated on slowing it down, trying not to hyperventilate as my lungs looked for oxygen that simply wasn’t there.
My feet were better in the thin socks, but the downhill angle continued to pinch my toes into the boots. I felt my lower back begin a deep ache that had to do with being unused to bearing burdens of any kind, let alone forty-pound ones.
And I could smell myself. That was the worst thing of all. I’d always disliked body odor, my own especially.
I reached the bottom of the crater with what had to be the slowest time ever in the history of hiking and felt the sharp afternoon sun wicking that rancid sweat up into the dry air, surrounding me like a really bad Pier 1 fragrance dispenser. I headed for the only shade around, a large clump of mamane bushes with a churned-up tie-out rail in front—apparently some people got to ride into the crater in saddle-sore comfort.
Under the bush, I took the pack off. I felt dizzy with exhaustion. I got out my beef jerky and chewed a piece, drinking water, and that helped a little.
The desert floor of the crater spread before me, rugged grasses beginning the process of taming raw lava into soil. Sunbaked hardy ferns and the tough little native shrubs called pukiawe were making inroads, and silverswords continued to punctuate the expanse, explosions of symmetrical grace notes. Over the whole spare, vividly colored landscape, the extravagant blue sky was the only excess.
Chortling and bobbing, several grouse approached me, dancing back and forth as they begged. They were bright and round, unfamiliarly marked. I was sure they weren’t native, and they were panhandling like pros.
“You don’t want my beef jerky,” I said. The birds were not discouraged. One trotted up and pecked my bootlace.
A little energy came back eventually, and I rewarded my tired body with a lot of water. I could feel the withdrawals beginning, a gathering of misery like clouds massing on the horizon. I got on the trail again, taking the left-hand turn marked Kapala`oa Cabin, my first stop.
The trail was flat now, but there were two more miles, and the sand was still deep and soft. I breathed, and walked, and throbbed, my eyes on the fine volcanic gray dust my boots sank into. Periodically I would put my butt up against a boulder and rest the backpack’s weight on it and pant for a while, taking sips of water. The arc of sky had flamed with sunset deepening to rose and then purple by the time I finally spotted the cabin ahead.
It was a little, square, surprisingly modern-looking building, and in front of it was a verdant patch of green plushy grass like an oasis. As I got closer, I could see that the grass was nurtured by a spigot, and chuckling and cooing in gentle snorting commentary were a pair of nene geese.
They approached me fearlessly, these beautiful endangered birds, cocking their heads, blinking shiny chocolate eyes to check on my intentions. I collapsed onto the grassy patch, immobilized by tiredness, and they circled me, clacking their beaks sympathetically. A soft buff like a soldier’s