From the author's forward:
The trails of the Umbra Region of the Vespertine are not well marked. One of the pleasures of hiking in this region is the distressing uncertainty you struggle to subdue as you walk for hours with no sign, no affirmation that you are on the right trail until, finally, there it is... a magnificent cairn. Unfortunately, on many hikes you will go all day sighting only one of these glorious trail markers.
I have written this book to help the nervous traveler enjoy the special pleasures of hiking in the Umbra region of the Vespertine without suffering quite so much anxiety. -J. Kathleen White
Hike 1: The Ohio Wood Fairy [excerpt]
Long before this, I was a seven-year old on a walk in the woods with my dad. It was winter and cold. The woods were bare and the trees scrawny. The woods were small, in between town and farmland, and we had never seen anyone else in them. But this time we saw a figure in the woods, not far away, four feet tall in a green, belted tunic with short sleeves and a green, pointed hat. It's arms and legs were bare. This figure appeared, looked at us sideways and disappeared. Where could it have gone? The trees were too narrow to hide behind. I looked up at my dad. He looked transfixed and astonished. We never discussed it.
When my dad was in his eighties, I asked him, "Dad, do you remember when we went for a walk in the woods outside of town and saw a fairy-like creature in a green outfit?"
A special look came into his face as he remembered and said, "Yes, that was strange."
Hike 2: The Golden Fish
I used to be intense about making myself cinnamon toast. The butter had to be evenly spread all the way to the edges of the crusts and the mixture of cinnamon and sugar had to be just the right color. When I sprinkled the cinnamon sugar on the toast, it had to be perfectly distributed so that it would everywhere turn the proper dark color as it blended with the butter. One time, when I was about seven years old, I made a perfect piece of cinnamon toast and, before I could eat it, my dad grabbed it away from me and took a huge bite out of it, half the piece of toast. I thought I was going to die. I screamed and sobbed.
Basically, my father gave me a lecture on sharing, which humbled me, though I was still crushed by disappointment and horror.
Later, I pestered him to take me fishing at the local pond. We went to the five-and-dime and got a cheap plastic rod-and-reel toy. We baited it with bread crusts and we cast it into the pond. A spectacular huge golden fish struck the bait. It leapt up into the air like a sport fish, the sun glinting off its glowing body. I can see it now: the fish leaping and Dad's astounded face. The line broke and it was gone. I have never since felt a need to go fishing.
Hike 4: Eagle Butte
Louis wanted to check on his property on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. His property was way out on the reservation three miles from a road and on it was the little cabin where he had grown up (without running water or electricity) as well as a newer house. He wanted to check on the new one because he had heard that it had been trashed. The man, or the man's son, or whoever had been living there had moved out. No one wanted to live out there it was so far from anything. The closest collection of dwellings, Blackfoot, didn't have a store.
We drove ouver to South Dakota from Bozeman in Louis' vintage red 280Z Datsun. It took about fourteen hours to get to Eagle Butte. Next day, we drove further out into the reservation and parked the Datsun by the side of the road. No way could we drive that Datsun on the faint track that led to the cabin. All around us was beautiful: rolling hills, endless sky, benevolent clouds, mild breeze, silence. Louis wasn't happy, though. It was a long walk. He knew there were rattlesnakes, and he wasn't looking forward to what he might find out at the property. On the ground, everything was fascinating to me: intriguing rocks, big fossils and tiny, sweet-smelling flowers. There were no human structures of any kind in sight-no fences, nothing. After three miles, we came up over a rise and looked down into a picturesque valley in which we saw the old homestead cabin, the new house, an old corral, and beyond, our first sight of Lake Oahe, a vast sparkling resevoir, dazzlingly bizarre in that setting. Such fantastically breath-taking scenes do not appear very often in one's life.
As we walked down to the houses, we could see that the door to the new house was open, not a good sign. When we pused it open further, we could see it had indeed been trashed. It was wrecked. Well, I said, after studying the scene, "at least it's not vagrants or vandals. This is animal stuff."
The original party animals, birds, mice, groundhogs, snakes, every living thing on the prairie must have spent time in there co-habiting and making a mess. There aren't trees or caves or structures of any kind on this land, so I could see why everyone wanted in. The smell was powerful.
Louis was glum. He and his ex-wife had spent time and money fixing the place up a few years ago when they had tried to live out there. Louis had a little boat and they had cable TV, but eventually they realized it was too far away from everything. I liked the old homestead cabin and wanted to fix that up and live out there, but I'm sure after awhile, like everyone else, I would have given up. Still, for a while, I would have liked to. The grass was high all around and in it old farm equipment lay antiquating. I wanted to explore, walk down to the lake and run around.
But we heard, and then saw, a truck lurching and jolting over the uneven track coming toward us: two men from Blackfoot. They had come to find out who we were. They had seen the red Datsun 280Z by the side of the road and were concerned we might be drug dealers out there for an airdrop and they didn't want any trouble. Also they were afraid for us because of the rattlesnakes. They never walked out where we were. Too many rattlesnakes.
"Give us a ride back?" asked Louis quickly.
We had only been there for about twenty minutes and now we had to go back. I was disappointed we couldn't stay longer, but it was difficult for Louis to take such a long hike, six miles altogether, because of his partial paralysis from a stroke.
On the way back, the men from Blackfoot wanted to go a different way, but they couldn't find the road they wanted. I was in the back of the pickup. I saw nothing anywhere that looked anything like a road. Over hill and dale, this way and that, we roamed in the truck until we went down into a gully and got stuck. The front left tire was sunk in a ditch all the way up to the wheel well. I saw no way out of this one. The driver got out to look. Only then did I see how big he was. He must have weighed 400 pounds. He got down in the ditch and I put my 130-pound body next to his and we pushed the front end. He fairly well just lifted the truck up out of the ditch. I would have put money down that such an action was physically impossible.
Back at the Datsun there was a policeman waiting. Louis told him the story of why we were there.
I wanted to give the truck driver something, but I didn't know what. Seemed like the best thing I had at that moment was a loaf of bread from a local bakery in Bozeman. It felt stupid, or worse, possibly offensive, to offer a loaf of bread, but that's what I did.
" Would you like this loaf of bread?" I asked.
The driver looked at it. "Okay," he said.
Hike 15: Prehistoric Friend
Walking along a dirt road beside a river, I came to a bridge. Crossing it, I looked down. The riverbed was dry, a sunken grassy field, slightly swampy. As I watched, water started coming downstream, flooding the area. Under the water, creatures emerged, especially all kinds of turtles. I had never seen anything like it. A young woman came along, and I exclaimed, "Look! Look!" Some of the turtles were big. A special jade-green creature came out of the water onto the riverbank and looked up at me. I said to the girl, "Look at that! That looks prehistoric!" The girl was not engaged, but I was thrilled. The creature seemed to know me, and likewise I felt familiar with it, although I had never seen anything like it so far as I could recall.
The water rapidly attained such a depth that everything was submerged and we couldn't see ground or creatures anymore.
Now there were alligators on the bank, many of them, short and squat. A cormorant dove from the air into the water. A cute tiger appeared on the riverbank and jumped in. We could briefly see it swimming underwater with a breaststroke motion; its front paws came together and swept outward.