Maples and pines veiled the mountain. Reds, yellows, and oranges delineated the transition of creation. A vibrant tribute to summer’s acquiescence. The crisp air infused grateful lungs with a blessing reluctant to leave, as evidenced by its tenuous, misty remnants. Isaac blew into his hands hoping to return them to a functional state. They, along with the rest of his joints, had stiffened in the early morning chill. He stood leaning against a plain rail fence overlooking the valley where his father had played as a child. Frost coated every blade and every leaf in a sheath of translucence. The shimmer from the morning sun created the illusion of a chest rising and falling in deep, even breaths. A steady pulse flowed through the mountain and everyone who refused to let go of what had once been.
Even though they weren’t his memories, he knew so many stories about this place that he felt connected to it. The people recounted in many of the tales were long gone but the mountain remained just as it had been described. Quaint homes with lush lawns of succulent grass, speckled with a patchwork of color from the siblings of the same artists found on the slopes behind the town. In its truest form, this hamlet in the Catskill Mountains was an echo of what America used to be. A community of families forging a life in the midst of nature’s splendor. None seeking to undermine the other but leaving no doubt that they would protect their own first and foremost. It was an intentional balance between men, and a recognition of nature’s power. Isaac believed that very equilibrium to be why this place had survived, relatively well intact, when the major cities all fell.
A solitary figure approached along the gravel road that led to the main street. Early morning shadows from the canopy of trees that lined the lane left it impossible to tell who it was by sight alone. Isaac would have found it curious to see another soul prowling the dawn hour had he not made arrangements to meet his cousin Devin here the evening before. Devin had taken some convincing, especially after the excursion’s goal was made plain. Isaac had come back with a singular purpose, to fulfill his father’s final request. After nearly five decades removed from this place, his father wanted to be laid to rest at home. Considering the sacrifice he had made, Isaac certainly couldn’t deny him.
The risks were undeniable though. Traveling in the forest since the collapse of the economy and the government qualified as suicidal. There were many who had evacuated the more populated areas and sought survival in anyway they could. With nowhere else to go, they took refuge in a place without law or mercy. If they ran across anyone in their territory they wouldn’t hesitate to take them for everything they had and let the coyotes and coy dogs make a meal of their bones. Devin was one of the few willing to risk the woods to hunt and trap. They had been his home his whole life so if anyone could navigate their many treacheries and return safely it was he.
Isaac watched his cousin draw closer and pushed off the fence. Devin slid the rifle that hung over his left shoulder off and handed it to Isaac. He took it without a word and slung it over his right shoulder to match the one Devin had kept there. They headed along the road as it wove deeper into the forest covering the mountain. It would take them nearly seven hours to make the six mile hike to the spot Isaac’s father had designated. The worst case scenario would have been spending the night in the woods. Even Devin wasn’t foolish enough to think he could tempt fate in that way. They were fortunate to embark on this hike before the first snowfall. Winter conditions would have made the trail impassable without snow shoes and turned a six hour hike into twelve. As it was, a brisk pace would be required if they were going to make the summit and complete the Burnt Knob loop before nightfall.
Isaac had made this hike once before. July of 2026, the summer before he went to college, his dad wanted to spend some time together before life became all encompassing. They had stayed with Devin’s parents in the same house his father had grown up in. Isaac wished he could remember more details of the two weeks they had spent in the Catskills. His father had introduced him to family he barely knew but who welcomed his dad like a prodigal. The way his extended family embraced them both was unlike anything he had experienced in any home but his own. Profound was how he would later describe its impact on who he would become. Interacting with a community of people who unequivocally supported one another and fiercely defended their blood allowed him to recognize just how his dad had become the man he was. That glimpse into his father’s past was invaluable in helping him to understand the man who had always been his rock. It was the last trip he would take with his dad.
The memory of those people and the time spent on the mountaintop were what called Isaac back to the small town after things came undone in the rest of the world. If there was anywhere that would hold together and provide shelter for one of their own it was this place. He had been right. When he arrived in Ashland everything looked much the same. Everyone still gave a two finger salute from their steering wheel as he passed them on the way into town. Any wariness he met evaporated as soon as he was recognized as a legacy of the mountain. Family was an unbreakable bond that excused all possible transgressions.
Devin paused, pulling Isaac up short and evicting him from his silent reverie. Before Isaac could ask, Devin pressed a finger to his lips and then pointed to a thicket along the side of the path. At first Isaac saw nothing. Then the browning leaves quivered and a mountain lion stepped out onto the trail right in front of them. The sheer power of the animal rippled beneath its sleek coat. Isaac froze, fear racing like ice water to his extremities, leaving them more numb than the chill air possibly could have. The magnificent creature turned baleful eyes upon them, a rabbit limp in its mouth. Isaac reached for his rifle, but Devin raised a hand to stop him. The great cat considered them for a moment longer, let out a low, throaty growl, and moved on amongst the maples and pines on the other side of the path. Isaac and Devin exchanged a wary glance and proceeded on toward the peak. They did their best not to draw the attention of any other of the wood’s residents.
“Why was your father so insistent on this place?” Devin’s tone harbored no resentment toward the hike or the danger it put them in, simply wonder.
“This was the last trip we took before things fell apart. The last place things were good. It was his way of reminding me they can be again.” Isaac tried not to let the wistfulness he felt invade his tone.
His cousins were all self-made men. There was no time for emotion in their life. They had to be strong for their families. Any show of weakness would be taken advantage of. The regression of the civilized world had truly turned back time. Though it was no longer the fittest that would necessarily survive. It was the most ruthless. A willingness to do whatever was necessary had become pre-requisite to advance within the the confines of society’s new lawlessness.
The suspension of morality had been a wave swelling on the horizon for many years prior to breaking on the shore of reality. While visible in the distance, the erosion went mostly unnoticed until nothing could stop the devastation that would be perpetrated on everyone. Those that had spoken out against it were marginalized as intolerant. Their logic couldn’t be tolerated in an emotionally driven society. Right and wrong were replaced by relativism, and individual truth took the place of common sense. There was no reasoning with those unwilling to accept responsibility for anything, their own actions in particular. So when inflation numbers were finally surpassed by unemployment rates in the mid twenties, there was plenty of blame yet no one held accountable. What was worse, the appetite for self-indulgence was not tempered in the least. In fact, the demand that it be slaked only seemed to strengthen the longer it was denied.
“Here’s a good place to break.” Devin called as he reached a small alcove in the pines.
Isaac slid his pack off his shoulders and settled on to a stump, glad for the respite from their aggressive pace. Before he could free his thermos from its burlap confines, the view directly in front of him sent icicles of fear racing down his spine.