It was a picturesque October Friday evening in the South Carolina Upstate. Cool and cloudless with the faint aroma of woodsmoke. He thought of his childhood when his Grandfather would burn fallen Pecan branches. It was the manliest scent he knew and it made him miss those days.
In the distance a marching band serenaded the Friday night football crowd. The snare drum and brass, rousing and vaguely militaristic, made him miss football. It made his pulse quicken – made him miss hitting people.
It was a fall Friday night in the American South. The sound of marching bands was as common as the cry of train whistles or the singing of birds.
With nothing better to do after work, Solomon Jackson stopped into the outdoor supply store on Laurens Road in Greenville. Here, he spent his time browsing for boots and backpacks and other pricey camping supplies. He pushed open the shop door and a bell attached to the inside handle announced his arrival. The fragrance of nylon and leather and canvas – equipment unused and awaiting sale – filled his senses, and he inhaled deeply.
Though he rarely purchased anything, he always came here on Friday evenings. He was between girlfriends. This was how he explained the regrettable status of his love life to anyone who inquired. He harbored an unrequited flame for Sharon. She was a quirky, curvaceous brunette coworker from Spartanburg. She considered him a friend but walked the earth in utter oblivion to his plight. “Friend”, that contemptible epithet, was the lonely burden he shouldered.
Sol had jumped at a job offer in Greenville after a miserable few weeks at work in Columbia just three months prior. Hemlocks and fir and the loamy soil of the Southern Appalachian foothills took the place of scrub oak and pine and heat-cursed sand hills of Columbia. He luxuriated in the relative coolness that the altitude change provided. He spent his weekends exploring the trails north of town.
Despite the welcome change in scenery, he found no great satisfaction in his work as a small-time beat writer for the local weekly paper. He covered the mundane comings and goings of Greenville County and its citizens. Car dealership grand openings, church revivals, arrest dockets, weddings and funerals and births. It was a job and he could take some comfort in the fact that he was writing at all, but he still felt stifled. He had grander visions for his writing. Hemingway – his literary hero – was reporting from the Western Front during the Great War at Sol’s age. He ached for more.
Sol was six-foot two and lanky, with an unruly mop of thick, brown hair that seemed in perfect unison with his slouching posture. He lived for the weekends and found great solace in his Saturday morning retreats to the woods and hills and trails north of town.
The next day, one of his eagerly anticipated Saturdays, he rose around six and dressed for the day while coffee brewed. An NPR reporter whispered news of genocide and famine and gut-wrenching tragedy. “Seventeen people died in Guatemala when a bus left the roadway on a high mountain pass” the sedated female voice droned with an odd emotional detachment. It was as if she were reporting on fluctuations in the price of hog futures.
With a shudder, Sol switched off the radio and emptied the coffee into a large stainless travel mug. He bagged two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and filled his Camelback with water for the long day of hiking. It would be a forty-five minute drive to the small gravel parking area at the Raven Cliff Falls trail head just north of Caesar’s Head State Park.
In the dim light of a pre-dawn fog he steered his old CJ-5 north onto highway 276 and headed out past the Greenville city limits. The Jeep’s familiar and pleasing aroma of damp canvas and spilt coffee relaxed him. He was happy to be up at out at this early hour. He passed by the leafy environs of Furman University, just outside of Traveler’s Rest. Further north, he rolled through the tiny hamlets of Slater and Marietta and Cleveland. The serpentine highway narrowed as hills and trees claimed dominion over the more cultivated world below. It was turning cooler now and the forecast called for clear skies later in the day.
Reaching the parking area at 7:15, his was the third car there. One of the vehicles, a late-model blue Ford pickup, had been there for some time from the thick layer of frost still covering the windows. He unfolded himself out of the old Jeep and began to stretch as he took in the first few damp breaths of cool mountain air. It was a good ten degrees cooler than back in Greenville.
The occupants of the other vehicle – a black Range Rover – stood with dour expressions of regret beside their SUV. The woman stabbed the air accusingly, spewing bile in hissed whispers to her brow-beaten companion. They had dressed in top of the line North Face jackets and boots and cargo hiking pants. One of their expensive technical walking sticks had a tag still dangling from it. They had made some shop owner’s day, spending lavish sums for hiking gear that would soon know the dark recesses of a cluttered garage. Personal injury attorneys, Sol thought to himself. He grabbed his daypack and set out so as not to end up behind them on the narrow trail.
As the miles went by and the fog cleared, blazes of oranges, garnets and yellows preened like the vestments of some joyful Caribbean monarch. The sky was crystal blue, almost cloudless except for the accents of high, wispy cirrus clouds.