The trail map claimed it was only fifteen feet’s worth of elevation change from the parking lot to Copeland Falls, but it sure felt like more. Donald felt the weight of every year he’d lived, and some he hadn’t. The insulated backpack bounced heavy against his spine; every step required unreasonable effort. He’d never planned to take this trip by himself. Ellie had seen a picture of Bluebird Lake wreathed in wildflowers, and it had topped her list of trails to hike. But now the loneliness pulled him downward, away from the heights. He wished he hadn’t promised Ellie he’d make this trip, even without her. But today of all days, her absence gaped.
The air was still, the faint warmth of cinnamon and butterscotch wafting from ponderosa pine. The promise of the quiet was what had caught Ellie’s imagination. But as he walked, the roar of water falling emerged from the silence, along with voices, faint, but growing louder every moment. Soon they came into sight: a family, three boys, one of them in a backpack, a girl wearing an oversized ballcap, and their parents. They were moving slowly; in a moment he had overtaken them. He was prepared to pass them without speaking, but the girl, who was holding her father’s hand, turned and spotted him. He had only a moment to process the almond-shaped eyes, the curled ears, and recognize Down syndrome, before her face lit up. “Oh hi, Geepaw, hi!” she shouted, the word “hi” drawn out at either end.
“I be see!” she yelled, thrusting a tiny hand, palm flexed, toward him.
Nonplussed, he flicked his eyes toward the mother, who smiled ruefully. “I be six,” she interpreted.
“Is today your birthday?” he asked, surprised.
The roar of the falls justified the shouting now. The boys ran to look at the crashing cataract, but the little girl stopped walking as Donald bent down. She clasped her hands in front of her and tipped a heart-shaped face up toward him. Her smile outshone the sun. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. He gestured to the symbol on her hat: an orange circle with a large W in the middle. “Wartburg?” he said. “Wartburg College?”
“You know Wartburg?” said the father. “I work there.”
“My wife graduated from there.” Donald looked up at the man. “Today was her birthday, too.” Ellie had spent her whole life teaching kids like this one to read and write. It all seemed like a little too much coincidence. His eyes misted. “You know,” he said, pulling the backpack off his shoulder, “my Ellie died last month. I promised her I’d have cake and ice cream at Blubird Lake on her birthday. But I’ll bet she wouldn’t mind if I shared it with you here instead.”
I had more I wanted to do with this “ice cream and cake” prompt, but I’m out of time and out of words. In case you hadn’t intuited it from the photos and the family described, I based this in part on some encounters we had with other hikers along the Wild Basin trail at RMNP in June. But most of it is fiction. We certainly didn’t have ice cream and cake at Copeland Falls. Although we did have peaches. 🙂