The hand-written note on the dashboard read: Not abandoned. This was a nice courtesy to others but unnecessary since the car was parked in the parking lot at the head of a popular hiking trail, called “The Ridge”. My curiosity piqued, I studied the vehicle, looking for what I don't know. It was a little dusty, probably from the dirt road, not the kind of dust that accumulates after several rains and drying winds, which we had recently. Two, three days ago? I wasn't sure, but it had to be at least two. I reluctantly put off my hike to avoid any rain. I usually don't mind hiking in inclement weather, it keeps the other hikers away, but "The Ridge" is notorious for looking like a muddy river on days like that. There was no camping along the trail. A fairly difficult out and back, once you get past the first section, which, if the trail sign was to be taken as gospel, was a half-day hike, about six hours. I've done it in three. I've come close to that a few times, but that day was my crowning glory. Now, in my 60's, I usually finish it in four. Not to bag. Not to bag…(I have no idea where I picked up that saying). Since I wasn't here as an investigator, I checked my backpack: water, jerky, M&M's, half a baked potato, and my first aid kit. And my knife. I saw only one other car in the lot. The couple had started just as I had pulled in, so that gave them a twenty-minute head start. Not that it was a race or anything, I just liked to know these things. I'm sure to catch up with them. OK, it's kinda a race. After kneeling to tighten my laces, I did a few stretches (getting older sucks) and started up the path. The first section was wider and hard-packed. Most people go to the first lookout, take a few pictures, and head back. It is a stunning view. The trees stretched upward, providing a decent amount of shade, while letting in magnificent shafts of light, which gave the forest a surreal quality. It only took half an hour to get there. I was expecting that I might see the couple making out on the bench, and I was pleased that I was wrong. Leaning on the rail, I took a drink of water and started to chew on the jerky. No matter how many times I come up here, I'm always blown away by the view, the valley, the mountains rising along the river, and the sea of green forest as far as the eye can see. After the lookout, the trail begins to rise steadily. A bit narrower, a few more rocks and roots to put you off balance, but I've grown to know where each and every one of them are. There is one rock, right in the middle of the path, that is so smooth and black from all the shoes stepping on it, that it is almost as reflective as a mirror. At about 11:00 am, depending on the time of year, it seems to glow. I have been on this trail a lot. As the left side of the trail begins to drop away, the right side gets steeper. Most hikers hug the right side (going up). I kind of like the feeling of being on the edge, so I’m a lefty today. It surprised me to learn that no one had ever died on this trail. Lots of injuries, though. I have a scar to prove it. The hikers in front of me must be moving at a good pace. I thought that I would have been able to hear voices, since the sound carries well in this valley. I pick up my speed a bit, despite the heat, and the fact that I'm breathing a bit harder than usual. Another sip of water and a few bites of potato gives me a bit more energy. I'm lost in my thoughts. Looking at my watch, I see that I've been hiking for an hour and a half, so that means that I’m getting close to the end. I feel that I'm exceeding my normal pace. A little competition will do that. I decide to stop and listen. I'm not sure, but maybe there are voices. After another twenty minutes, I definitely hear voices, and they're getting closer. Rounding the corner, I see a woman and a man coming toward me. Knowing the narrowness of the path and the steep bank, I call out, "What side do you want to pass on?" "We'll take the inside, " the woman replies, "Chickenshit here gets a little dizzy!" He slaps her on the shoulder and says, "I tripped on that root and nearly fell over! Excuse me for being cautious." "Been there, done that, and I have the scar to prove it!" I laugh and they join in. "Have a good one," I say as they pass me. "You too," he says back. In a few minutes, I'm alone again. I completely forgot to ask them about the car, I think to myself. I forgot about it too. They probably would have mentioned it, wouldn't they have, if they had seen something?
Finally, I arrived at the trail end. There was a stone and concrete wall with a metal railing that would have been quite the task to build. There were still remnants of the old wooden posts sticking up through the ground, which had to be replaced after the avalanche twenty-five years ago. I sat for a moment, had a drink, and looked around. From here, a person had three choices: go back, go down (straight down), or up (straight up). I got up and walked to the metal railing. I turned and looked up at the sheer rock face. A free climber could scale it, but I have never seen any attempts. With my hand brushing along the rail, I followed it to where it met up with the mountain. My hand was quite dusty, so I brushed my hands together and then wiped them on my shorts. Not wanting to leave the rest unwiped, I began to run my hand along the top, then stopped. I had to look closely, but there was a boot print in the dust on top of the rail. A jumper? Peering down, I had a feeling of vertigo, which surprised me, since I've been here before. If someone had jumped or fallen, there was no way of survival or discovery. I looked over the edge and could see there was a bit of a ridge about two feet below the wall. I backed up a bit to see if I could tell how far it went along the rock face. It seemed to curve around a vertical shaft of rock. There was a narrow crack above, paralleling the ridge. A brave soul could inch along, with fingers twisted into the gap, but to where? I looked at my watch: 3:43. Plenty of time to get back before dusk. My curiosity fought with my sensibility. I've done some climbing before, but always supported. I looked around and spotted a long branch lying by the path. Grabbing it, I returned to the wall. I poked down to the ridge to see how stable it was. It was about an inch wide to start, then narrowed as it approached the corner. I used the branch to flick some of the loose material away and watched the tiny rocks fall to the valley below. Except for one…
CHAPTER 2: On the Edge
It seemed to hover there, a few inches from the cliff face. I pulled it toward me with the branch, and it dropped when it was about two feet away. My head spins. Did I just really see that? I reached out with the branch and tapped the ridge. Then, I moved it away from the rock wall and slowly lowered it until…it stopped. There's something there, but I can't see it. I drag the tip outward, and it drops away, three inches from the wall. I look around and behind me. I'm alone, and I'm…freaked out. I lifted the branch, brought it down hard, and it broke. I tried to put the pieces together: footprint on the rail, ledge, invisible ledge… three pieces of a 500-piece puzzle. Not much to go on. I still had time before I had to head back, so I made up my mind. I climbed over the rail and held on tighter than I have ever before. I stretched my left foot out to where the rock was and slowly placed it on the…whatever it was. It was solid, so I put a bit more weight on it. I took my left hand off the rail and put my fingers into the crack above my head. It was deep enough and had an edge thick enough to feel comfortable. Next was the right hand. I ran my hand along the railing to erase the hand and footprints. If I fall, no one will ever know. With both hands and feet ready, I moved along the ledge. It seemed to get a bit wider as I followed around the corner. The observation lookout disappeared out of my sight as I made my way between the pillar of rock and the cliff face. The space was just enough for me to stand sideways, my back to the cliff. There would be no way that someone standing on the lookout would see this. To my left, a dark crevasse both beckoned and scared me. Moving slowly sideways, I squeezed through toward the darkness. I expected it to feel cold, but there was no change. Suddenly, I was in complete darkness, and I stopped. I couldn’t see anything, and I even looked back to where I had come in. I should be able to see light. Did I go blind? Feeling a sense of panic, I moved in the opposite direction and immediately was bathed in sunlight. What the… Seeing yourself as half a body is not a pleasant feeling. Part of me, my right side, was on the ledge that I had come in on, the other side, well, I couldn't see, just black. With my left hand, I tapped my leg. I could feel that. I moved my whole body into the light. I took a flashlight out of my pack and turned it on. Pointing it toward the entrance revealed nothing. I mean nothing, no reflection, no penetration. This is so weird, I thought to myself. Sliding back into the crevasse was the same as it was before. I was in complete darkness. I tapped my flashlight onto the palm of my hand, without result. Clicking it on and off proved futile. I stood there, quietly, with my back to the wall. For a brief instant, I thought that I heard something. I listened as carefully as I could. I thought that I heard movement or breathing, but the darkness was so heavy that it was difficult to tell if it was me, someone, or something else. Time felt meaningless, like in a sensory deprivation tank. Did I stand there for a minute, two, more? I reached around and put my flashlight away and snapped the pocket. "Hello?" I said quietly, "Is there someone here?" Nothing. "I know someone is here. I saw your boot print on the railing." "Shit," a female's voice came out of the darkness. "I can hear you, but I can't tell from where," I said. "You are probably pretty freaked out, I know I was," she answered. I found myself talking quietly. I don't know why. "That's an understatement. Where are we? I can't see a thing, and my flashlight died." "Light doesn't work in here, and sound travels in an odd way too." I realized that I couldn't tell if she was near or farther away. "Where are you?" "Weird, huh?" There was a pause, as if she were trying to decide to reveal anything. " I have a spot here where I feel safe. Maybe I'll tell you, maybe I won't," she let out a quiet laugh. "When did you find this place?" I asked. "About a year ago. I've come about ten times, well, in here I mean. I've come up the trail a lot, but if there were other people, I just turn around." "So, you come up here and sit in the darkness?" She started to laugh. "No, no. There's a lot more to it."
I figured it was time to introduce myself. "I'm Thomas, by the way," I had encroached into her secret, and there was no backing out of this. "April," was all she said. "So…" I tried to choose my words carefully, "it's not like I'm just going to turn around and leave, and I don't want to scare you, do you mind telling me what this place is?" Again, she let out a laugh, but it was more nervous than anything. "Scare me? You should be the one who is scared. I could leave without you knowing and…" she stopped. "You could get stuck in here." "OK, OK, I didn't mean it as a threat, I just mean, this place seems pretty special, not just for you but in general. Look, put yourself in my place, would you be able to just leave without finding out more?" I waited for her to respond. "I guess not, it's just, you know, hard to accept that it's not my secret anymore." "I'm lucky you don't have a gun. You…don't have a gun, do you?" There was no answer for far too long. "No," she answered. " I don't." I thought for a while, trying to craft what to say next. "So, what do you do here?" "Well, I started by exploring, mapping in my mind the perimeter of the…room. It's not really a cave, you know. Feel the wall." For the first time, I turned my hands and placed them on the wall behind me. "They're smooth." "Yup." "How big? "About 30 by 40, but not square." "And what's in here?" I asked. "Nothing. It's what's out there that is the interesting part." I was puzzled. "Out where?" "One moment, I'll show you." I heard some rustling, then a light thump, like cat feet hitting the floor. I stood still trying to discern where it was from. "Move to your left along the wall until you come to a bit of a curve," she said. I did what I was told, slowly, and after about a minute, I felt the wall fall away behind me. "Get down and keep following," She directed. I had a moment of panic. Was she tricking me into a trap? Why am I just blindly obeying this person? Is it a person? "I'm not sure about all this. Where are you?" "Follow me." I jumped a bit; the voice was right in front of me. "Here, take my hand." I felt air move in front of my face. I reached out and was relieved that what I touched was a hand, a hand smaller than mine, but I could tell it was strong for its size. "Not much further, " she said, "it is worth it." I felt her crouching down, and I did the same. As we crawled along, I could feel the space narrowing, but thankfully not to the point where I felt it to be tight. "I'm going to go ahead, just follow and watch your eyes," she told me, and it was suddenly quiet. I moved forward and was instantly blinded by the brightness. My arm came up to cover my eyes, and I raked my hand along the wall. "Owch!" I yelled and put my head down and my arms over it. I heard her giggle. "I warned you," she said, still laughing. I opened my eyes, and though my arms, I could see a ledge ahead of me. Behind me was blackness, just like the entrance I had come in before. "Just move ahead a bit, or you'll hit your head when you get up," I heard her say. I crawled forward and began to sit up. Sitting on the ledge, was a woman, shoulder-length brown hair in a ponytail, hiking shorts and a t-shirt, her bare feet dangling over the edge. She looked to be in her early 30's, maybe younger- I could tell she was fit. She looked over and smiled. "Here we are," she said as she spread her arms across the openness. We were on a ledge on a sheer cliff face. I couldn't tell how high it went, and below, I could just make out the water, gently lapping along the cliff. There was water as far as I could see, except, I thought, a patch of darkness on the horizon. The sky had a few long wispy clouds, but was mostly…not blue, it had a violet hue to it. There were no shadows from the cliff, and I couldn't tell where the sun (a sun?) was. The look on my face told it all. April looked at me and said, "Wow. Huh?" I was speechless.
I looked around again. Sheer rock cliffs stretched in both directions. The ledge we were on was inset slightly and wide enough that I didn't feel I was in danger of falling. Moving to the edge, I looked down at the water. "How far down is it?" I asked. She looked at me and shook her head, "I don't know exactly. I dropped a rock, and it took about 20 seconds. I never did the math." I did. Well, I tried. I tried to remember my math classes so long ago. I thought that objects fall about 10 feet/sec, so 20 seconds would be 200 feet, about the height of a 20-story building. I peered down again. Yeah, that looks about right. "About 200 feet?" I asked her. "That makes sense," she said," and at least that high." She pointed up. I looked down again at the cliff face, searching for any marks, any sign of structures, and repeated my investigations upward as well. I knelt and studied the rock. It was slightly rough, like granite, but not cracked. "There's no sign that anyone has climbed up or down. Do you climb?" I asked. "I have, but I don't think that that is an option. I don't think you could anchor on that, " she said, and I agreed. I looked at April and said, "The only way here is through there," I pointed back to the tunnel, "or by… flying?" "That's what I figured," she replied. " If we got a drone…" "Tried that," she interrupted, "nothing electrical works here." "Sorry if I'm annoying you with questions and options, I'm sure you have thought of it all," I said "It's OK. It's kind of nice to have someone to share this with." She looked at me and shrugged. "I don't know how long I would have kept coming here alone," she told me. "Have you seen anything out there?" I gestured to the view. "No animals, no sign of any life. It's as if it was abandoned." "It's beautiful." She nodded. I walked back and forth along the ledge, running my hand over the rock, thinking. "Well, someone made this…obviously. Any ideas?" I asked. "I started reading about parallel worlds and universes, ancient alien theories, disappearing civilizations, and stuff like that," she told me. "I don't have any solid theories. All I know is that when I'm here, I feel at peace, content, and energized when I leave." "Why were you sitting in the dark?" I asked. "I was on my way out. I heard you come in. I never thought that anyone else would find it." "Is there anything in the room?" "Not that I've found, I've gone through it quite thoroughly. It took me a couple of visits to find the tunnel to here." I sat down next to her. I didn't feel uncomfortable on the edge. It felt… natural. "Someone could have constructed it to leave this place for some reason," I pointed out over the water. "Escaping rising water?" I said. "Or, bringing people here, perhaps. There may be land out there," she said. I pointed up, "Or up there…" I realized that I had no idea how long we had been there, so I looked at my watch. 4:03. And the second hand wasn't moving. That would have been the time that I entered the cave. "We should probably start to head back, not that I want to, but you know how the trail is in the dark," I said. She glanced over at me and replied," I wouldn't worry about it. We have plenty of time." "How long have we been here?" I asked. "It doesn't matter, I've camped here before and when I left it was still the same day. Maybe a few hours had passed," she told me. "It's not always consistent, though." "This place is quite the conundrum. Isn't it." It wasn't a question that I was asking or expected an answer to. We sat there for a while, legs dangling off the edge. The ocean breeze tossed her hair, and there was a faint hint of salt in the air. The sun, much brighter than ours, sank on the horizon, radiating reds and yellows across the sky and making the water shimmer. "Are you going to tell anyone about this?" she asked. "No," I answered, "don't think that I will."
We agreed to meet the next weekend. She would bring the food and camping supplies, while I purchased the climbing gear that I didn't have, plus an inflatable boat from the surplus store. I figured that a week's worth of supplies should be sufficient. I slept well the first few nights, but after that, my excitement kept me from much-needed rest. She beat me to the parking lot, her familiar "Not abandoned" note on her dash. I left a note too, just an arrow and the words "I'm with stupid". Old joke reference that she probably wouldn't get, but it made me laugh. "What took you so long?" she said as I turned that last corner to the lookout. "I'm old," I replied, and she smiled. "Ready, grampa?" "Ha, ha, ha, let's go before someone comes," I said.
Epilogue After the earthquake hit, the largest on record for the area, the park was deemed too hazardous to re-open. The landslide and rushing water obliterated most of the trail system and public access areas. Known to be missing was a senior park ranger. Parts of several vehicles were found downstream from the mountain but were not able to be identified.