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Eliot had wanted to hike in deep, but the trails were all closed that day, and clouds were blowing in fast from the west, whole countries of weather that slid over Whitefish and roiled there in the sky. Even the mountains felt small. [End Page 11]
He was hungry. It had been weeks of beef jerky and trail mix from the panniers on his bicycle. His legs had stretched out taut and ropy from the miles of pedaling through the Montana mountains, and then the early spring prairies filled with pink flowers, past a river jammed with logs, on that stretch of road where it seemed as though his bike would nose up from the pavement and fly him over the meadows and mountains and, further south, to the red soil of the canyon lands. He carried with him a pinecone big as his foot and a smooth white rock he’d pried from the mud at the edge of a clear lake. He carried with him the space of big sky country. He had taken it into his body. But come Whitefish, come the national park signs and printed regulations and asphalt, come the ponderosas spiking up into the expanse of blue, he had, against his will, shrunk back down to the size of a common man. By the time he reached Osha on the porch of the visitors’ center, he fit perfectly inside a familiar idea of himself.
“Can’t believe you didn’t read about it, hear someone talking, something,” Osha had said as they stood there on the porch of the visitors’ center looking out over the near-deserted parking lot. “Took the hand of one hiker and the thigh muscle of another. Protecting its cubs, they think. They got it today but still have to confirm it’s the right one. A team is coming over from the university in Bozeman for the dissection.”
“Can I see it?” Eliot asked. Osha laughed a little. He squinted at the sky.
“Yeah, but we should go now. Before they get here,” he said. They walked around the building and then down the back stairs to a service road that cut through the trees and further back into the woods.
Eliot hadn’t seen Osha in ten years, not since college. He’d only heard updates from time to time: Scandinavia at a Norse shipbuilding school. Traveling with sherpas to the Tibetan interior. A monthlong hike through the Chilean rainforest for a single day with some neural science guru. He ran the ecopsychology program now at the park, dressed in cleanly pressed government-issue beige-on-green.
“Never thought I’d see you in a uniform,” Eliot said.
“Right?” Osha said, laughing and touching the metal on his chest. “I get a badge.”
Eliot tried to run his hand through his hair, which had clumped in dark, greasy hanks. Stubble sanded his neck and sunken cheeks, and it was almost as if he could feel his skin wrapping around the contours of his ribs and the ropes of sinew running through his legs. As if he’d [End Page 12] been shrink-wrapped. As if all the air was being sucked from him by an invisible machine. He could smell himself. He knew there was an insanity to the way he appeared. His thoughts that day had been of blood and damage.
“So you started in Idaho, man?” Osha asked. “How long have you been riding? And why? I mean, just for fun?”
Eliot made a laughing sound. They walked in silence, watching the long legs of light stretch between the boughs.
Before the bike trip, he’d been on vacation with Becca. Idaho, at his dad’s cabin. A last go of things. One more honest attempt. Canoeing and long afternoon walks, lovemaking in and out of sleep, late breakfasts with small white cups of strong coffee and runny eggs. But it hadn’t worked, hadn’t even been meant to work if Eliot was being honest with himself...