I have to escape the tatters of my ruined life, so I flee to the outdoors. Hiking, camping, and rock climbing have always been in my blood, but all my friends say I might have overdone it. They could be right.
But one look at my view makes me secure in my decision. I have a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panorama of the majestic North Cascade mountain range in a remote part of north-central Washington, with near unlimited visibility on this cloudless July morning. Precipitous, snow-capped summits reach for the blue sky in every direction. Deep emerald forests extend as far as the eye can see in the valley below.
I’m standing on the perimeter balcony of the Castle Butte fire lookout tower, watching the sunrise with a steaming mug of coffee. The lookout is a fourteen-foot square wooden hut perched on the tip of a mountain. Glass windows line every side to provide an unobstructed view of the surrounding forests. Inside is everything I need to spot forest fires. Plus, all the supplies I need to survive. The next closest human is a day’s hike away.
So yeah, maybe I went a little overboard when I quit my job, left all my electronics at home, and hiked out here with nothing but my clothing, a few supplies, and about twenty gay romance novels. But after what I’ve been through in the last couple of months, I think it’s understandable.
The crackle of the portable satellite radio sounds from inside the cabin, my single tether to humanity. “Ethan, this is Allie at Cougar Ridge Station. Do you copy? Over.”
I open the cabin door and enter the sparse confines of my summer residence. The handheld radio sits on the desk.
“Allie, this is Ethan at Castle Rock Station. I read you. Over.”
“Hey, Ethan, good to hear your voice. We have a lost hiker. Pretty far from you, but I wanted to give you a heads-up. Caucasian female, twenty-six, red jacket, last spotted yesterday afternoon. Over.”
“Copy that. I’ll keep an eye out for her. Over.”
“Also, you might see a few search and rescue people in your area. Might get kinda crowded. And by that, I mean you might actually see another person. Over.”
I chuckle to myself. “I consider myself warned. Over.”
There’s a bit of a pause before the next transmission.
“How you doing out there, Ethan? You holding up? Over.” Allie’s voice, which is usually all business, has softened.
“Yeah. Thanks for asking. I’m doing fine. Over.”
“Okay. Know that I’m here if you need to talk. It can get lonely out there. Over.”
Her concern is well-meaning, but like always, it triggers bad memories. I moved out here to avoid that.
“Copy that. I’m good for now. I’ll let you know if that changes. Over and out.”
I turn off the radio and cry a little as the thoughts of my ex-husband Cameron flood my mind. The memory of me walking in on him cheating with our mutual best friend, Ryan, is still vivid, despite being almost six months ago. I came out here to be as disconnected as possible because everything reminded me of the life I once had. But I shake off those memories, tighten my boots, and throw some supplies in my pack. Time to head out for my daily hike.
Getting down from Castle Butte is always an adventure. One of the more technical fire watch lookouts to get to, it requires some moderate rock climbing skills. It’s about two hundred feet from the top of the lookout tower to the valley below. Most of it is just a rock scramble, jumping from bolder to bolder. But there are one or two spots where the wrong move could send you falling to your death.
When I get to the bottom, looking up at the cliff I just scaled down makes my head spin a little. It always looks more dramatic from this angle.
I’m standing at the side of a trail that extends both directions. To the east, it runs along a ridge for about ten miles, where it meets trail crossroads. That’s the way to civilization, but to get there is at least a two-day hike.
To the west, the trail descends into a small valley. Nestled at the bottom is the beautiful alpine gem known as Hidden Lake. It’s one of my favorite places to hike when I just need to clear my head and take in some beautiful sights. It’s also the best place for me to clean up when the layers of dirt and grime have really started to build up. So today, west it is.
After about forty-five minutes of hiking through forests and alpine meadows, I catch the first glimpse of the crystal blue water. Hidden Lake is nestled between three separate peaks, whose melting snow drifts feed the lake and the small creek that springs from it. You don’t see the lake until you’re on top of it. Hence the name.
As I walk on the trail which orbits the perimeter, I’m met with an unusual site. The typically dead-calm lake has ripples originating from a spot I can’t quite see. So I walk until I get to a rocky outcropping where more of the lake is visible.
In the far corner, a person is treading water near a large rock formation that provides easy access to get in and out of the lake. That’s where I usually go to take a quick swim as well. My curiosity is piqued. It’s very unusual to see anybody out this far in the wildness. Only serious backpackers can make it out this far.
When I get to the rock formation, a backpack and a pile of clothes are lying on it. About twenty feet out in the water, a mop of dark hair on a head is bobbing just over the water.
“Hello!” I shout. I figure it’s only polite to let this person know somebody is watching.
The person paddles around until they face my direction. I pull in a sharp breath as this stunning man looks back at me. His eyes are icy blue, contrasting with his dark olive skin and jet-black hair. He has a strong nose and square jawline covered in a week’s worth of stubble. He smiles at me with these perfect white teeth and waves.
“Hi!” he yells as he starts paddling toward the shore. “Rare seeing anybody out here.”
“I’m at the fire lookout just east of here,” I say. As he starts to get out, I quickly add, “Oh, let me give you a little privacy.”
“No bother.” He pulls himself up on the rock. He’s fully naked, and let me just say the rest of him is as nice as his face. Toned muscles cover every square inch of his body, and he has just a bit of hair on his chest and more on his legs and private parts.
I fight back warming in my cheeks and feel things stirring that haven’t stirred for quite a while. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any man naked, not to mention somebody quite so—um—entirely manly. As he walks up to his pack and grabs his towel, his eyes look right at me. I do my best not to stare.
“So what brings you out so far?” I ask, trying to do anything to break the silence.
“I’m a search and rescue volunteer. I’ve been scouting, looking for signs of a lost hiker.”
“Oh yeah, I heard about her. Any luck?”
He shakes his head as he towels off his body. “No luck so far. I’m Alex by the way. Alex Torres.”
“Nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Ethan.” I smile. “Anything I can do to help?”
“You said you came from a fire lookout, right?”
“Well, I have some guesses of places she may have been lost. Maybe a view from above would help. She may have a signal mirror or something. She’s supposedly an accomplished hiker.”
“You’re welcome check it out,” I say, trying to suppress a smile. “But I have to warn you, it’s a little technical getting up there.”
“I’ll give it a try.”
“Okay. Well I came here to get cleaned up too, so let me do that, and we can be on our way.”
With that, I strip down and jump into the water. I try not to meet Alex’s gaze for fear of blushing or losing control over certain parts of my body. Although I’m pretty sure his gaze is on me as I head out to the water. I’m not quite as muscly as him, but I stay in good shape.
When I’m all cleaned up, I get dressed, and we walk back to my lookout tower. On the way over, we talk about hiking and the outdoors but don’t get much past surface stuff. He has no wedding ring and doesn’t mention any girlfriends or boyfriends. He’s a school counselor for his day job, which explains why he has the summer off. He’s thirty-three. Just two years younger than me.
He’s friendly, has a sense of humor, and is generally pleasant to talk to. I forgot what it’s like to have a normal conversation, and I miss it. The fact that he’s smokin’ hot doesn’t hurt much, either.
When we get to the base of Castle Butte, Alex is impressed by just how technical the climb is. But he handles it without any problems, and before I know it, we’re both up a the top.
He points out some of the regions where the search teams are looking, which we have a pretty good view of. But after an hour of scouring with binoculars, we come up empty.
“Well, I’d better start climbing down and find someplace to set up camp before it starts getting dark,” Alex says. There’s just a touch of sadness in the way he says it.
Before I think it through, I say, “You know, I haven’t had a dinner guest in—well—I’ve never had one. Would you like to join me?”
Alex’s gorgeous mouth extends to a big smile. “Yes. I’d like that.”
“I hope you don’t expect anything gourmet.” I smile back. “The cuisine is pretty much limited to corned beef hash, or similar.”
He laughs. “The company should make up for the food,” he says, staring right at me.
At this point, it’s pretty clear he’s flirting, and I freak out a bit. I’m not sure I’m over my messy breakup. But his smile is so warm, and his face is so handsome that I ignore those nagging thoughts and just go with it.
I try my best to make a nice meal, pulling out canned beef and green beans. I sprinkle in a few spices to enhance the taste and mask the canned flavor.
“So what makes a person decide to come out here for the summer,” Alex asks.
I take a deep breath and decide to be direct. “My husband and I divorced a couple of months ago. He cheated. It ended ugly. I had to get away.” Then I hold my breath.
“Man, sorry to hear that.” Alex says. “My boyfriend broke up with me last month because he didn’t like me disappearing for months every summer. He wasn’t much of an outdoor person.”
And there it is. Everything is laid out. Both gay, both single, and both getting over relationships. We just stand there, looking into each other’s eyes. I’m pretty sure we’re both thinking the exact same thing.
I have the good sense to take the food off the stove before we run into each other’s arms and start kissing with a longing that only months of pent-up sexual desire can create. In moments we have our clothes off, and we’re on my little bed, grinding our bodies together.
It’s the best sex I’ve had in years or maybe a decade. Alex is loving, deeply passionate, and so damn sexy. As we make love, I’m so connected to him. I forgot how powerful that feeling can be.
Afterward, I’m so overwhelmed with emotion I can’t help but cry.
“Everything okay?” Alex says with soft, caring eyes.
“Yes,” I say, laughing through the tears. “Just a little emotional.”
He reaches out and caresses me. I put my back to his front and nuzzle into him. He wraps me in his arms, and we stay that way for the rest of the night.
The next morning we wake with the dawn. I make a pot of coffee, and we sit on the balcony, sharing a blanket and watching the view.
“Last night was great,” he says with a smile. “I’m so glad you like guys. I’d hoped that from the moment I saw you.”
“Me too,” I say, and I kiss him.
“I gotta leave pretty soon to start the search again.” He looks up at the darkening sky. “This weather doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate.”
“Yeah, looks like a storm.”
“Hey, I’d like to see you again, if that’s okay,” Alex says with a smile, looking a bit vulnerable.
“Yeah, I’d like that.”
“I have a satellite radio. I noticed you do too.” Alex says. “This may sound kinda silly, but can I call you?”
“Are you asking me for my phone number?” I smile.
“Maybe,” he says with a sheepish grin.
We exchange our communication info, so our radios can contact each other. Now Alex will only be a button press away.
“I have to go,” Alex says as he leans in to kiss me goodbye. “Hopefully, I’ll see you soon.
“I hope so too. Good luck in the search.”
The skies get darker. It’s the worst kind of weather; rainy and warm. A recipe for thunderstorms.
It starts off on the horizon. Bright flashes of light burst forth from the sky, followed by guttural rumbles. But soon, they get closer. The time between lightning and thunder gets shorter.
A bright flash comes streaking down from the sky, followed by a massive concussive boom. It struck a tree in the valley not far away. In moments, the sickening sight of smoke rising starts to waft above the forest.
I run into the cabin and quickly oriented my Osborn Fire Finder, a large circular device that can precisely pinpoint the location of fires. Grabbing my radio, I quickly call central dispatch and relay the fire’s coordinates.
It’s been an exceptionally dry summer, so while the rain is good, it’ll do little to stop the spread of anything today. Things are just too dry.
Over the next hour, the pillar of smoke rising from the fire gets larger and denser. And worst of all, it seems to be headed this way.
The radio crackles. “Ethan, this is Alex. Do you copy? Over.”
“This is Ethan. I copy. Over.”
“Thank god. Do you see that fire? Over.”
“Yes. I called it in, but I may have to evacuate. Over.”
“I’m surrounded on three sides and pinned to a ridge. Over.”
My heart skips a beat.
He gives me his coordinates, but looking at the terrain on my map, I’m not sure the chopper will be able to get to him. Not unless he makes it to the top of the ridge.
Thinking fast, I grab my climbing rope, my gas mask, and oxygen and race down the slope. I call dispatch and send the coordinates to the top of the ridge, then call Alex.
“Stay put Alex. I’m coming!” I yell into the radio as I run down the trail toward the back side of the ridge.
“No! Get away from here Ethan!” Alex yells through the radio. But I ignore him.
The air gets worse the further I go. The billowing of smoke mixed with flames is only a few hundred feet away in the valley below me. This fire is spreading fast. I finally put my mask on because I’m starting to cough, and my eyes are burning.
Consulting my GPS device, I get to precisely the location on the ridge right above where Alex is pinned. I anchor the middle of the rope to a tree, throw two ends of the rope over the ledge, then belay down to the forest floor below.
Alex is lying flat on the ground with a layer of smoke just inches above him. A large wall of fire is moving fast, just a hundred feet away.
When I run to his side, he looks half relieved and half worried. “You shouldn’t have come! But thank you!”
“We’ll have to share oxygen, lets go!” I yell.
We climb the ridge side by side, each climbing one end of the rope. We trade off the oxygen. My lungs burn each time I have to climb while holding my breath.
When we finally reach the top, the fire surrounds us in all directions. We embrace and look at each other with tears in our eyes.
Just as the last shreds of hope are disappearing, we hear the sound of a chopper. In moments, it’s hovering above us, and a ladder flies out and drops to the ground beside us. We climb up it and into the chopper. We’re saved.
We sit in the chopper with our arms around each other as we fly away from the raging inferno below. We were no more than five minutes away from being burned alive.
“Thank you for saving me,” Alex says as he looks into my eyes.
“I was lost before we met.” I say. “Thank you for saving me.”