Valley of the Rocks

Gail Helgason

Translation text: "La vallée des rochers "


Artwork by Alexander Stovbur

January 1

 

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Ogloff:

 

I didn’t know your son, but I saw him shortly before he disappeared. The circumstances of his death are to some extent known to me.

Here it is a new year, and I’m still obsessed with what happened last year. That’s why I’m alone at my dining room table this evening, working my way through a second bottle of Beaujolais-Nouveau. Lately on my afternoon walks, I’ve started hearing noises—noises that sound like the crunch of bicycle wheels on gravel. These noises seem to be getting louder, and I cannot understand where they are coming from. It occurred to me a few minutes ago that if I just pour myself another glass of wine and tell you everything I know, I might be able to drive those sounds away.

I first saw your son around noon last September 12. As far as I can tell from the newspaper reports, he disappeared later that day. What a cold and drizzly day to be in the Canadian Rockies, especially at that elevation. Sleet was falling at the gondola lifts where I started out.

In a way, I rejoiced in the cold. I thought I would have the trail to myself. The sleet let up by the time I reached Citadel Pass. The dark spruce on the mountain slopes, with golden larch here and there, could have made the cover of my favourite magazines, Backpacking and National Geographic. I’d been poring over them, thinking about the trip.

It was through my late husband, Galt, that I first experienced the wilderness. I mention Galt partly because I’m certain I miss him as much as you miss your son. We hiked to Egypt Lake one September, on our first backpacking trip together, and now I’ve vowed to hike in the same mountains each September. In a way, that annual trip is sacred to me.

I became aware of your son when I was halfway down Citadel Pass. A voice behind me shouted “Track” and I almost jumped out of my hiking boots. Your son whizzed by in blur of Lycra and aluminium. He had his head bent down and he rode that mountain bike like a rodeo bronc. He sailed down parts of the trails so treacherous I had to just inch along them, gripping my walking stick, even though I’m only thirty-five and considered athletic.

And then your son disappeared into the mist.

To be absolutely frank, my first thought was that mountain bikes are not allowed on that trail. My second thought—more of a feeling, really—was that some of the magic had gone out of the day. The encounter reminded me of the time Galt and I found the perfect camp spot up in Yoho National Park, beside a stream. And just after we’d put up the tent, two RVs rolled in. Minutes later, five families and as many ghetto-blasters flanked our campsite.

I could tell right away that your son wasn’t planning to stay overnight in the back country. He just had that little fanny pack. So he could be eating at some burger joint in Calgary the same night. Here I was on my way to a lodge with no electricity, and no road in, only a dirt trail, just the way things have been in these mountains valleys for sixty years. And then your son came barging along on his alloy horse and stole something away.

Please don’t think I’m a crackpot about technology, though. Earlier tonight I heated dinner in a microwave and watched a documentary on Yosemite which I pretaped on the video cassette recorder. It’s just that too much technology in the wilderness makes me feel there’s nowhere to escape.

Galt felt even more strongly about this. That first time, up at Egypt Lake, he criticized me for taking along a Canon Sureshot. He said he didn’t like to think of the wilderness being packaged into paper squares and rectangles.

I just said, “To hell with you, Galt, I’m carrying the damn camera, and taking as many pictures as I want,” and he didn’t try to stop me. He always said there was no stopping me once I’d made up my mind about something, which can be pretty fast.

So Galt didn’t try to keep me from taking photographs, but he always refused to hold still for the camera. The last snapshot I have of him shows his face slightly out of focus, standing in the door of the ski chalet, peering up at the peaks, looking like a cross between a high school track star and a philosopher king.

Galt was far and away the best looking man in a mountain climbing course I took in Jasper ten years ago. I noticed him at once. He actually managed to look trim in baggy gray jogging pants. On the second day, we were divided into two groups for a practice climb. I was supposed to go with another group, but at the last moment I walked over to where Galt was standing, and tied on.

When we finished the course that afternoon, we exchanged cards. I remember being afraid that Galt was only looking for a climbing partner. But he called three days later and wanted to go to a movie. We went to see Clint Eastwood climbing the Eiger, and joked about how many celluloid bodies had tumbled down the mountain.

Galt died last winter, and the way he died will help me to explain what happened to your son. I’ve enclosed a Xeroxed clipping of the account that appeared in the paper:

 

   Banff – Galt Hagan, 43, of Edmonton, died Tuesday of internal injuries sustained in a skiing accident Sunday at Lake Louise.

   RCMP said Hagan, the co-owner of a computer software company, was struck by another skier while halfway down an advanced run.

 

The police told me the skier who hit my husband had been wearing one of those ski jackets that have a radio built into the collar. The volume was on high when the accident occurred.

“The guy said he was just skiing along in his own world, getting off on the music and the slopes,” the policeman said. “He didn’t see your husband until it was too late.”

I mustn’t write too much more about Galt, and my own sorrow, except to explain the connections with your son’s death. As I said, a drizzle started up again just before I started through the Valley of the Rocks. In that dark and isolated valley, deep in the wilderness, huge angular boulders face the famous mountain. I can never help imagining the Valley of the Rocks as a place of terrible rites. When Galt and I first hiked through here, I told him I thought it was an alpine Stonehenge. I even wondered for a minute if the natives who considered the mountain sacred ever used this valley for human sacrifices. Galt pointed out that I was confusing it with the Waipio Valley in Hawaii, where we had once camped. Afterwards we discovered that hundreds of virgins had been ceremonially sacrificed on a large flat rock not far from our campsite. I felt uneasy when I learned about the virgins, as if I should somehow have been able to sense the secrets the valley held.

The way I usually deal with anxiety is to picture calm scenes. So on that day in September after I encountered your son, I imagined arriving at the log-hewn lodge. I thought about the sauna I’d have before dinner, and about whether I would feel like chatting with the other guests, who would likely be quite well-traveled, or if I just wanted to retreat, as I usually do, under a thick down quilt, and wake up fresh the next morning to hike up to Wonder Pass.

I was halfway through the Valley of Rocks when the drizzle let up and I heard the music. I don’t know the name of the band, but I’m sure it was something like The Dead Toads. Then I saw your son. He was sitting on a rock about five metres off the trail, rewrapping a nasty-looking gash on his leg with a blood-soaked bandanna handkerchief. His shirt was streaked with mud. He had a small cassette player beside him. The volume was turned up high.

Your son looked as if he was sort of expecting me to say something. I keep trying to picture his face now, and all I remember is the thick brown hair, surprisingly clean, and how thin he was. Later, I read in the paper that he’d just won a math scholarship.

If your son hadn’t been playing the radio, I might have stopped and asked if he needed help. I had a first-aid kit with me. But I thought he would ask for assistance if he required it. Besides, I wasn’t in the mood for conversation. So I just nodded and kept walking. I wanted to get to the lodge by dinner time.

Before long I saw the famous mountain ahead of me, the one the Indians called “Place of the Spirit.” I started to pull out my trail guide, to find out how far I had left to hike, when I heard the sound of the radio again and realized that your son was not far behind. He caught up to me, and we spoke for just a few minutes. He was very polite. If only he had been rude, what happened would have been easier to bear.

“Excuse me, miss,” he said. “I wanted to ask you back there—could you check something in the trail guide for me?”

I nodded.

“Could you tell me how far I am from the trailhead?” he asked. “I’ll need to get back before the last gondola goes down at six.”

I wondered why he hadn’t brought a watch, or his own guidebook? But I just looked in the trail guide and told him he had twenty kilometres to go back, up a pass. It was 4:30 p.m.

“Jesus,” he said. “Like, I am going to have to have wings to make it back.”

Then he considered for a moment, and asked: “How far on to that lodge?”

I told him the truth. The lodge was about eight kilometres farther, hidden in a stand of spruce. “You’ll probably just make it to the gondola lifts if you head back now,” I said.

I remember that he looked up at the pewter sky.

“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

I kept on walking down the trail. I had a slight headache and a soreness in my back.

A fine sleet started up again a few minutes later. By the time I reached the lodge, the snow enveloped me like a thick woollen wrap.

 

The lodge appeared unchanged since the last time Galt and I were there. In the dining hall, reflected candlelight still gleamed on the polished surface of the pine table; sepia photographs of skiing pioneers of the Canadian Rockies adorned the walls. I hung my wet jacket and mitts above the stone fireplace to dry, and ate dinner: avocado soup, lamb with dill, rice pilaf, salade niçoise, dry white wine, fresh peaches in Sauterne.

“And how was the hike in?” a doctor’s wife from Portland asked me as she passed the pilaf. The glint of her gold and ruby rings flashed on the table top.

“Brisk,” I replied.

“Anyone else on the trail?” asked the proprietor. You probably remember him being quoted in the newspaper reports. He’s a certified guide, short and stocky, about sixty. He’s dug a few guests out of avalanches in his time.

“No,” I said. “I was the only one crazy enough to be out there—except for one mountain biker.”

“And are you hiking out too?” the doctor’s wife asked. She glanced out the front window where snowflakes swirled in the blackness. “Or are you going to be sensible like us, and take the helicopter?”

I peered into my wine glass. “I’m going to be sensible,” I heard myself saying. I was the only one who seemed at all surprised.

Climbing into the helicopter two days later, I felt a childlike wonder. A panorama of new-born whiteness spread out below, and I could see all but the peak of the big mountain.

“Helluva storm,” the pilot shouted over the whine of the machine. “Never seen anything like it so early.”

From the heliport, I arranged to catch a ride down to my car with the pilot. We didn’t talk much. The pilot’s van rattled along the pockmarked road and his ash tray overflowed onto the tattered oxblood carpet.

In the resort town, I stopped at a self-serve, gassed up, then hurried inside to buy a sandwich for the drive back to Edmonton. On the cashier’s counter, I noticed the headline on the front page of the Calgary newspaper.

Mountain Biker Missing in Storm,” I read. “Wardens said they would resume their search this morning for a mountain biker missing on a day trip into the Valley of the Rocks.

The paper didn’t give the biker’s name. I wondered then if I should call someone, try to explain. But I could think of at least ten good reasons for keeping silent. I should have reported what I knew earlier, of course; there would have been questions about why I had delayed. There could be legal complications. And I thought there was still a chance your son would be found alive.

About a week later, Canadian Press reported that the body of a man identified as your son had been discovered near the horse camp north of the lodge. Under a subhead entitled “Loves Back Country,” the story quoted Mrs. Ogloff saying that her son loved his mountain bike because it allowed him to travel so far into the back country “without having to take a tent and sleeping bag.”

I wondered if I should contact you then. But again I found reasons not to. Now, for my own reasons, I feel compelled to describe to you exactly what I know of your son’s disappearance.

By five o’clock that September afternoon, the peaks disappeared again under rain clouds. I started to check my watch every fifteen minutes or so, trying to figure out how much farther l had to go.

The light was faint by the time I got to the last fork in the trail, near the end of the Valley of the Rocks. A weather-beaten sign on a pole pointed south, to the lodge. And just at that point, I thought I heard the radio a long way off, but getting closer. Sound travels so far in the mountains.

And all of a sudden I could hear that radio in the rinds of my nerves, appearing along the trail to Wonder Pass, or on the deck at the lodge, just as the guests enjoyed an aperitif after a day’s hiking. I envisaged your son hanging around, maybe playing his radio in his room, not really fitting in.

And before I really knew what I was doing, I was twisting the sign around. The sign was old, not the type the parks department has been placing in newer areas like Kananaskis, and a solid week of rain had made the earth sodden. When I finished twisting, the sign to the lodge actually pointed north to a horse camp about twenty kilometres away.

It was too cold to stand around. So I just walked on. I never saw your son again.

It would be trite to ask for forgiveness, or even understanding. I wrote earlier that the Valley of the Rocks reminded me of a site of human sacrifice. I realize that I shall always think of it as a place of dark forces and compulsions. Certainly I will never return.

 

Yours truly,

Alexandra Hagan

 

I place the letter in an envelope and address it with care. My handwriting has been deteriorating these last few pages, no doubt because I’ve polished off both bottles.

I walk into the kitchen, open the lid of the garbage container and tear the letter into little shreds. As I noted in the letter, nothing I could do now could bring that boy back, and even in the shape I’m in, I’m certainly aware that the letter could result in unpleasant legal implications.

I consider carting the bag out to the garbage container in the back lane before I go to bed, but change my mind. It’s dark and late; there’s no moon.

Gail Helgason

Gail Helgason’s first novel, Swimming into Darkness (Coteau Books, 2001), set during the beginning of Medicare, was short-listed for the Georges Bugnet Award, Writers Guild of Alberta, 2002. Her short story collection, Fracture Patterns (Coteau Books, 1995), was short-listed for the City of Edmonton Book Prize and for the Best First Book Award, Writers Guild of Alberta. She lives in St. Albert where she works as a freelance journalist. This story was originally published in Fracture Patterns by Coteau Books in 1995 and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.