Chapter Nineteen

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Paradoxically, hiking was both harder than I'd remembered and less disastrous of an experience than I'd expected. The climb up the first couple of rises, a loaded backpack digging into my shoulders, had my sides cramping and my head swimming from lack of oxygen. The farther we went though, the easier it got, and by the time we reached the high point in the trail that looked out over the valley, I found that I'd stopped having to concentrate on the act of walking and could instead enjoy the scenery.

Apparently DIY construction work and a morning jog weren't a bad substitute for a gym membership.

"I bet we can see the town and the reservoir from here," Connor said, indicating the valley with a jut of his chin.

"You think?"

On the few occasions I'd driven down into Cortez, I'd noticed a big body of water off to the north while passing through Dolores, but you couldn't see all that much of it from the road.

"Let's check it out," Connor suggested.

We stepped off the trail and picked our way through the mix of rocks, scrubby grass and cactus that separated the path from the cliff's edge.

There'd been a steady stream of signs along the way reminding hikers to not leave the official trail, but you could tell that this was one of the places where people frequently ignored the rules and veered off for a more scenic perspective. The ground was littered with narrow footpaths; grass flattened and earth packed down by the passage of many a hiking boot.

Reaching the edge, I could see why. It was a hell of view.

There was, in fact, no sign of the town, but below us the Dolores river valley wound away to the south, a rich green furrow in an otherwise arid landscape. To the east, the line of the San Juan Mountains stabbed up through the foothills, the jagged blue-grey slopes incongruous in the surrounding quilt of muted greens and browns.

Living in Defiance, up in the mountain themselves, I hadn't, until that moment, really appreciated their scale.

I'd know they were massive, but holy hell, I thought, a chill prickling across my scalp.

I must have voiced the exclamation because Connor made a noise of agreement. Then he spoke and I could hear reflected in his voice the same reverence that was electrifying my own nerve endings. "I could never live somewhere else," he breathed. "This place, these mountains, they get in your blood."

"I can believe it," I said, and meant it.

Seattle was bordered by its own set of mountain ranges, but this. Maybe it was because I had grown up with the Olympic and Cascade mountains for a constant backdrop, but there was something different, something... staggering, about the world laid out before us.

"You should see it up in the Gunnison," Connor went on. "Black Canyon, the West Elk range. Sometimes I catch myself wondering why people decided to settle here. Why they didn't keep movin' on to nice sunny California. I mean, hell, here it can drop a foot of snow on your head the first day of summer. And in the winter?" He let out a low, dismissive whistle. "But then I stop and look around and I get it. You know? You can see god in these mountains."

And gold and oil, and all the potential free labour, I thought, but I kept that to myself. This was a beautiful moment in a beautiful place. No need to go shitting all over it with my embittered world view.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Connor slant me an amused look. "I spent a few months in college down in Florida," he said. "Driving back, seeing that first peak rising up in the distance? I cried like a baby."

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