Around 2:30am, I woke to the sound of rapid footsteps outside the tent. The forest was quiet for a moment, and then an anxious discussion began in one of the neighboring tents. Someone was sent out to investigate. My tentmates, Cady and Jacob, began speculating on the source of the noises. Cady said she’d heard something that sounded like dry rice. A freshman from the neighboring tent called out, asking if anyone else was awake and had heard the noises. She wanted to know what we should do about it. She was seeking comfort. I, charming person that I am, told her it was either a skunk, a serial killer, or a prankster from our own group. Regardless, there was little we could do.
Cady and Jacob are more softhearted and left the tent. On the picnic table in our campsite, they discovered a beer bottle, a pan filled with sautéed black rice and asparagus, and a watering can. Their description of these items made me curious enough to pry myself from my warm sleeping bag to join them. It reminded me of the riddle where there’s a naked man lying face down in sand with a straw in his hand, and you’re supposed to figure out what happened. I’ve always thought it kind of a dumb riddle since many things could have happened. The “correct” answer is only correct because the riddler says it’s so.
The near-freezing temperature outside the tent made me realize I needed to pee. Though I’d given the freshman a callous answer, I, too, was afraid. The beer bottle and sauté pan seemed to suggest that we were dealing with a human perpetrator rather than a skunk or a figment of our imaginations. I had no idea what to make of the watering can. The porta potty stood on the edge of the dark forest. I imagined it’d be a good hiding place for the culinary killer who’d run through our campsite before vanishing. As I opened the door to the porta potty, I half expected to be chopped into little pieces by someone holding a chef’s knife. I hoped Cady and Jacob, still standing over by the picnic tables, would come to my rescue (although I wouldn’t have blamed them for running the other way). Fortunately, the porta potty was empty.
Back at the campsite, the people who’d initially gone to investigate had returned. They’d encountered Marcus, a member of the climbing team who’d come up unexpectedly that night. It was Marcus who’d run through our campsite. He’d been my year at school until he took a semester off to climb. He had a reputation for being a skilled outdoorsman, a devout outdoor climber, who looked down on gym climbing and those who favored it. I hadn’t interacted with him much while we were in school together, but I’d gotten the sense that he thought little of the way I trained for indoor competitions (if, in fact, he thought anything of me at all). I’d heard he’d had some kind of mental health episode earlier in the fall. I didn’t know if his run through our campsite had anything to do with that, or if it’d just been a poorly timed prank. I’d climbed with him the week before, and he’d been his usual competent, opinionated self, inadvertently yet efficiently invalidating my existence as a climber. Mystery somewhat solved, we all returned to our sleeping bags.
In the morning, we learned that Marcus had gotten a ride up to the campground with Genevieve, a climber who’d graduated the year before. They’d arrived around midnight. Genevieve had gone to sleep. Marcus hadn’t. He’d made food and run through our campsite, and at 5am he’d woken up Genevieve and convinced her to go hiking. We met them as they were returning around 7:30am.
A whispered conversation among those in our 15-person group who knew enough about Marcus’s situation to be apprehensive led to the decision that he would spend the day hiking instead of climbing with the rest of us. We split up for the day.
Cady and I were climbing with Spencer, a boy who greets people with the enthusiasm of a young golden retriever, and a cheeky sophomore named Ben. Ben and I have a history of being somewhat competitive with each other after he bragged in a group email about beating me at speed climbing (though we do not actually compete in the same category since he is male). Though it should have been beneath me, I was looking forward to “beating” him at outdoor climbing with the skills I’d gained over the summer.
The day was short but fun. Ben and Spencer were new to outdoor climbing and each led a 5.8. Cady attempted her hardest outdoor lead ever, and I sent my first outdoor 5.11c, though I had to squash a ladybug to achieve this feat.
Cady, Ben, and I had plans to leave Rumney that afternoon around 3:15pm along with Jacob and Max, who’d spent the day hiking. When we arrived at the parking lot, our meet up point, they were nowhere to be found. Cady received a text that there was trouble regarding Marcus. Ben and I traded back massages while Cady tried to firm up a plan with Max and Jacob. At 4:30 we learned that they’d “found” Marcus and had stopped to feed him. After a short phone call with Jacob, Cady began making calls to other members of the group, trying to rearrange cars so that six people could leave Rumney that evening. Marcus would be departing with us.
Max and Jacob finally showed up at the parking lot two hours late with Marcus in tow. While Marcus paced around restlessly, we tried to work out in low voices what to do next. It was imperative that Marcus go back. He’d missed a dose of his medication that morning and had been in bad shape when Jacob and Max found him walking on the side of the road, an impressive 40 minute drive from the trailhead where he was supposed to have been picked up.
The easiest way to get six people back to New Haven in a five-person sedan was for one person to volunteer to stay in New Hampshire an extra day. As often happens when someone is needed to rise to the occasion, no one did. I was traveling to NYC the next morning. Cady had to meet her mom in New Haven. Jacob had work the next day, plus we were driving back in his car. Ben had a lot of homework to attend to, and Max had been feeling ill the entire trip.
After a complicated game of phone tag with the people who were still out climbing, we arranged to drive a second car back to New Haven. We just needed to collect the keys from a runner they’d sent to the base of Rumney’s Main Cliff. Feeling restless, I volunteered to fetch the keys. I was about to head out at a brisk clip when Marcus declared that he, too, wished to go. My eyes met Jacob’s. I couldn’t tell if he thought this was a bad idea, and I couldn’t think of a polite way to tell Marcus that I’d prefer he didn’t come. I could sympathize with the urge to do something rather than stand around.
While I was eager to get out of Rumney as efficiently as possible, Marcus seemed content to saunter his way to the meeting point. He complained that the climbing team takes forever to turn thought into action; “They need to double check everything with phone calls and everybody just stands around.”
I ignored this comment and asked about his day. He started talking about Blackhawk helicopters. “They’re visual illusions.” He saw one on his hike, he said. It was flying right at him, but, thinking quickly, he grabbed some sticks and started waving at it the way the people with the orange wands do on the tarmac at airports. Apparently, this motion was enough to reassure the Blackhawk, and it left him alone. It was a terrifying experience, he said.
Now I was a little terrified. Marcus was imagining communications with likely fictional helicopters, and he was my responsibility. I had no idea how to respond.
“I killed a ladybug today,” I said after a pause. I explained about crushing the bug, which had been sitting on the exact spot I needed to place my hand on the hardest part of the route, and feeling bad because I’d decided the bug’s life was worth less than sending.
Marcus did not seem to feel that these were equivalent and went back to describing the Blackhawk. I realized we’d passed the turnoff for the trail to Main Cliff. Marcus kept walking, assuring me that we’d come to another turnoff that would take us to the same place. After another minute of walking, I again tried to insist that we head back. At this point, Marcus turned off the trail entirely and started walking uphill through the trees.
“Hey, let’s stick together,” I called out. “Marcus!”
He didn’t turn around. I weakly bleated his name again with the same result. Was I supposed to put my foot down and yell at him to come back? Tell him he had to the count of three to get back to the trail or what? No TV for a month? He was an adult, after all, even though his perception seemed somewhat out of touch with reality on this day.
I called his name a third time. He would soon crest the hill and be out of sight. I realized I had a choice with only bad options. I could either go back to the turnoff, which was guaranteed to take me to the keys but might or might not lead back to Marcus, or I could stay with Marcus and follow him up a hill, which might or might not lead to the keys. Losing Marcus would be a much harder problem to rectify, so I started after him, cursing myself for not being better at putting my foot down.
The wooded hillside gave way to a boulder field. “Oh my God, we’re free soloing. Oh no! Get down. We might get hurt,” Marcus said as we climbed over the rocks. His tone didn’t sound scared. If anything, he sounded amused, as though he were mocking what he perceived to be my thoughts. Galled, I considered telling him that I’d free soloed something early that summer and this 4th class scrambling did not scare me. But why was I trying to prove myself to a guy who was imagining helicopters? I think I wanted him to respect me which, helicopter or no helicopter, he clearly did not.
We hit the trail just to the left of Main Cliff. Marcus made a beeline for the base and began clambering on the rocks. Victoria, the car key runner, texted that she was camped out on the trail to the right of Main Cliff, which meant we had to backtrack to get to her. If we’d gone up using the trail, we would have run into her on the way.
I explained to Marcus that we needed to head back down the trail to meet Victoria. He said he felt he’d been manipulated. He’d been told we were meeting in one location, and now we were switching locations on him. I tried to explain that this was not manipulation but miscommunication.
After we got the keys from Victoria, Marcus seemed content to saunter his way back to the parking lot. I tried to signal that we should pick up the pace by walking faster, but I was just leaving him behind.
“Have you seen Dr. Strangelove?” Marcus asked. I told him I had. For Marcus, the film’s relevance seemed to have something to do with his Blackhawk sighting and a sense of feeling manipulated. I worried he’d think I didn’t get it, that I was a cog in the manipulation machine, or worse, a dull conversationalist. So I grasped at the only thing he’d said that made any sense to me, the idea that life is predetermined or “manipulated.” I told him that I sometimes have that feeling, but mostly I ignore it because, even if life is manipulated, there’s not much you can do about it.
“You do that with prescription drugs?” he guessed. I told him this was not the case.
Back at the parking lot, car groups had been drawn up while we were gone. Cady, Max, and Ben would take the rental whose keys we’d just retrieved. This left Jacob, Marcus, and me in the other car. It was now 5:30pm, which meant that the three of us could be back to New Haven by 9:30pm if everything went according to plan. I had little hope that this would happen.
Jacob said we needed to swing by the campground to pick up Marcus’s medication from Genevieve. A five minute detour. No problem.
We met Genevieve and proceeded to search Marcus’s belongings. For what would have been a two-night camping trip, he’d brought four backpacks of various sizes, a bin filled with climbing equipment, a round tub filled with miscellaneous objects, a large propane tank, an enormous burner, a cooler, a bag of food including a pineapple, a sleeping bag, a water jug, and two wooden chairs (not the folding kind). Somehow, Genevieve had fit all this in her SUV. We asked Marcus where he thought we’d find his medication. He selected one of the backpacks and dumped the contents on the grass. Warm layers, a camelback, a pair of climbing shoes, and a ripe avocado tumbled out. He searched the rest of his bags in a similar fashion, dumping the contents on the ground. Each bag contained at least one ripe avocado, but his pill case was nowhere to be found. I worked to stuff the contents back into the bags while Genevieve and Jacob brainstormed about where else the pills could be. Jacob had communicated with Marcus’s parents who’d said it was imperative that he get his evening dose.
We located a case of pills, but it was not the same one Genevieve remembered from their drive up to Rumney. That one had been green. Marcus offered no helpful insights about where this case might be. We were quickly moving past twilight into full-blown night, and the sky was a deep blue-green. Marcus wandered over to the picnic table with his laptop and started playing electronic dance music. He walked in slow circles, bouncing his arms and head to the beat. His pale skin and juddery movements conjured up images of ghosts and vampires.
Jacob said we should wait for Max, who might know more about the pill situation and who we believed was going to swing by the campsite before heading back to New Haven. By 6:30pm Max still hadn’t shown up. The other climbers were back for the day and starting to make dinner. I watched with envy.
“Hey Ceri,” Marcus called. He pulled out a little bottle of clear liquid and took a sip, smiling. It felt like he wanted me to react strongly to this, to tell him it was not okay to consume whatever that was. As I was working through a decision tree of whether or not to attempt to confiscate the material, and how uncool Marcus would think I was if I did, Jacob noticed the bottle.
“Hey, what is that?” Jacob asked evenly. Marcus grinned.
“Can I see that?” Jacob asked, extending his hand. Marcus handed it over reluctantly. Jacob questioned him, and we learned that it was some kind of liquor that Marcus had taken from someone else’s things (who remains a mystery). Jacob told a petulant Marcus that it probably wouldn’t mix well with his medication and asked me to keep an eye on Marcus while he went to call Marcus’s parents using the campground owners’ landline. What those people must have thought of us. First we’d locked ourselves out of the car and now we were experiencing yet another crisis. Marcus paced up the road that ran between campsites. I followed at a discreet distance, trying to keep him from suspecting that he was being followed or manipulated. Every now and then, he’d abruptly change direction and pace the other way.
Jacob finally succeeded in reaching Marcus’s mom. She told him which pills to substitute for Marcus’s regular dose. With that, Marcus, Jacob, and I (and a large number of Marcus’s bags and bins) piled into Jacob’s car and drove off into the night.
The ride back was long and dark. Marcus called shotgun and began playing electronic music at top volume. I was packed into the back next to his many things. I stared out the window at invisible trees and reflected on how trivial things like sending 5.11c, killing a ladybug, and forgetting your tent were compared to whatever Marcus was going through. Every now and then, I’d catch a few words of the conversation up front through the wall of music. At first, Marcus kept suggesting that we stop at Site 52, some mystical location that was supposedly nearby in New Hampshire. Jacob patiently explained that we needed to get back to New Haven.
“Every time I free solo, someone dies,” Marcus observed some minutes later. He then switched to criticizing the climbing team, saying he was going to quit. This seemed inadvisable since, without the safety net of the team, he’d likely be wandering down a rural New Hampshire road in the dark.
He expressed regret several times that we were headed back to New Haven. This, he said, was the most relaxed he’d ever felt in his entire life. He was finally figuring things out and getting done what he wanted to get done. He wanted to become a dirtbag. I wondered if this was the decision-making process that had led young men like Chris McCandless to wander into the woods without a map.
The Rand Corporation was mentioned along with the idea of creating music using static and random number generators. Jacob responded to Marcus in soothing tones. Marcus’s Blackhawk sighting came up again. Jacob had seen two Blackhawks and a military jet that day, suggesting the helicopter was not a figment of Marcus’s imagination. Jacob thought they must have been doing some kind of training exercise.
Marcus asked Jacob how he was so good at this, at staying calm in these situations. I listened intently but couldn’t hear Jacob’s response over the music. While I’d felt on the verge of exploding throughout this experience, Jacob had been unfailingly collected. In him I had yet to observe even the smallest trace of the anguish and despair I felt coursing through my body. I’d attributed this to a difference in temperament; Jacob is naturally calmer, more selfless, more mature than I am. Maybe if I’d heard his response, I would have learned some tips that would have set me on the path toward better-persondom. Then again, probably not.
“Is Halloween ever going to end?” Marcus wondered. It was October 20. I had no idea.
My mother’s brother Eric had his life shaped by mental health issues. I’ve never met him, and he’s not someone my family talks about much. There seems to be this tendency when it comes to mental health to insulate others through silence. From what I’ve gathered, he had some problems beginning in his early teens, but everything came to a head two weeks into his first year at Harvard. Eric dropped out. Since then, he’s been in and out of various facilities and prisons. He doesn’t seem to enjoy taking his medication. I reflected on what the future might hold for the Ivy League student in the car with me, who’d taught himself how to trad climb through books and practice.
In Vermont, we stopped at a McDonalds. The woman behind the counter could not locate the cappuccino option in the cash register and accidentally charged me twice for my BBQ bacon burger. Marcus played with an arcade game in the kids area while we waited for our food. My BBQ bacon burger looked nothing like the photo, but at least it tasted like something resembling food. The same could not be said for the coffee I’d ordered, which appeared to have been laced with rat poison. As we exited, Marcus observed that this was an excellent McDonalds, one he would return to in the future. He suggested we stop at the Vermont visitor’s center. Jacob reminded him that it was probably not open at 9pm.
It was my driving shift next. Marcus called shotgun after Jacob told him driving was not an option. Marcus alternated between placing phone calls to confused friends and begging to be allowed to change the music (I’d selected Graceland, my go-to crisis music, for my leg of the drive). Jacob told Marcus it was nice to let me choose the music since I was driving. I didn’t care about the music. I wanted Halloween to end. I wanted to scream, maybe rip the head off an unsuspecting stuffed animal. I wanted to be out of the car, back to the safety and relative order of New Haven where Marcus was someone else’s responsibility. I felt guilty and horrible for wishing that, for resenting what was a finite problem for me but likely a rest-of-your-life problem for Marcus.
I took a deep breath and told Jacob it was fine; Marcus could DJ if he wanted to.