I am in grad school, my first day as a teaching assistant. I am an utterly clueless nervous wreck. One of my students comes up to pat Bailey. He introduces himself as Hugh, and talks to me for a few seconds before the lab begins.
Hugh and I are deep in the woods flagging a brook. He is on one side of the brook, I am on the other. We are talking, laughing. Suddenly he says, “Mandy, get over here.”
It seems urgent, so I drop my flagging half tied and hop across the brook to stand next to him. He grabs my arm as I get there, backing up. He and points to the space where I was just standing. Directly above my last flag sits a gigantic papery gray white faced hornets nest, churning with the angry bastards.
I can see them crawling on the blue flagging tape I just hung.
Bailey is missing. He has been gone for an hour, it is getting dark and we are 30 miles into the woods. I am freaking out. Hugh says, “We are not leaving here until we get him back, we will get him back.” The two of us go back into the woods with flashlights in hand.
Hugh hands me a reflective vest. “Here, wear this if you are going to be a crazy fool and run at 4am.”
We are in a bar in Calais, ME. It was a wet miserable day in the woods. Hugh is buying rounds of drinks, winding everyone up, and watching the show, laughing.
Hugh, Adam and I are having a beer. Hugh’s eyes are twinkling, I don’t think I have seen him so happy. “So, Mandy, I wanted to tell you before the big announcement – I am engaged.”
The three of us raise our glasses in celebration.
I call Adam. My heart is racing and my hands are shaking.
“Adam. It isn’t true is it? Tell me it is not true.”
“I wish I could Mandy. I really wish I could.”
We talk, we cry, we even laugh a little. I wish like hell that I wasn’t 4 hours away.
A bottle of Old Forester Whiskey sits between Tom and I, we drink straight from the bottle, taking turns. Tom picks up the bottle and puts it down. Then he looks at me, looks at the bottle and says, “I don’t know if I can buy this anymore. I will always think when I see this label this is what Hugh should have gotten to be, an old forester.”
I am on my bike, tears streaming down my face. I am trying to ride out my sadness at the loss of one of my best friends, I am trying to beat it out.
I want my body to hurt more than my heart does.
I attack Durgin Hill like a maniac, mashing all the way up. It helps for a little while, because instead of thinking about Hugh, I am thinking about how my legs and lungs are burning. I am thinking of the beauty of the swollen river, slapping over the bank. I think of the things he loved – the outdoors, nature, friends, and family – and how those are the same things I love, which is probably why we were such fast friends.
At the top of Durgin Hill I stop, breathing heavy, my legs all wobbly. I take in the view for a second before I turn around, and head back down the hill.
I let go.
I never do that on this hill, I always ride the brake. The hill is long and steep, and the pavement is dicey – vertical cracks, frost heaves and chunks of loose pavement litter the shoulder. Log trucks go by and the wind from their passing shoves you around.
So you play it smart, and take it kind of easy on this stretch.
To hell with all that. I moved a little into the road, away from all the crap, and started pedaling, pushing until the pedals were just spinning around in a useless whir. Hugh would tell me I was crazy and to be careful. Maybe I was trying to get his attention, who knows.
I hit 49 mph somewhere on the way down.
I passed the 35 mph speed limit sign at the bottom of the hill going 41 mph. There is a certain glee in that.
The road flattened and I slowed down.
Flashes of memories come flooding back to me.
He is laughing at something Adam and Tom just did.
We are driving woods roads drinking beer.
We are eating ice cream in Ashland, not wanting to go back to the office.
He has those damn hip waders on again.
Gritting my teeth, I pedal on, moving persistently, relentlessly forward – it is the only thing I know to do.