“The Road to Gold Ridge” by Jennifer Swallow

The photos on the website of the Gold Ridge Inn showed a log structure with a wrap-around porch and a hitching post for the horses of gold miners long gone. Inside, two massive fireplaces occupied the walls on either end of the bar area. Rocking chairs and coffee tables made a half moon around them for a living room effect. Quinn pictured people enjoying the crackling heat on their outsides as they warmed their insides with hot toddies on single-digit temperature evenings like this was forecast to be. Other groupings of rickety tables and chairs were scattered across the open space, but she imagined they would be moved to the side for the evening’s folk band. 

The place looked like half a dozen others she had gotten drunk in many times back in the Sawtooths until a month ago when an acrimonious divorce prompted her to pack up and start life over. She would have preferred one of the upscale bars downtown. If her social habits started repeating themselves, Quinn couldn’t become someone new. 

She knew the type of men who would be at the show—bearded, large belt buckle wearing Budweiser drinkers with too many antiquated opinions, politely framed as “traditional values,” about a woman’s place. The night would be about getting to know her new acquaintance better, trying to make friends, not about scoping out potential dates. 

That was just as well because her closet didn’t offer many options to show off her perky chest and legs toned from thousands of miles of trail running. Purging her wardrobe had been part of starting over, but she hadn’t gotten around to replacing many of the tossed items. Besides, on a night like this, even with those massive fireplaces, she already knew the building would be drafty. 

Quinn took her favorite cable knit sweater off the top shelf of her closet and found a pair of dark-washed jeans. She put them on and went into the bathroom. Her face was too pale for her liking this time of year. Even so, she didn’t apply more than a few swipes of mascara and a few dots of coverup on the dark circles under her eyes. She ran a brush through her long hair and then went back into the bedroom.

She completed her outfit with her favorite calf-length boots that had solid, flat rubber soles. After growing up in a place where the first October blizzard left snow that wouldn’t melt until May, she always prepared for the worst. Heels in the winter, even if those heels were on fleece-lined boots, were foolish. 

“Goodbye, Bert. Goodbye, Ernie. Don’t get up to anything fishy while I’m gone,” she said to her Black Skirt Tetra fish as she tapped a little food into their tank. Then she put on her parka, grabbed her winter gear, and headed into the frigid, early March air. 

The main route out of town went through a canyon that twisted and turned over thirty miles until the next town. Snow fell softly, but the road was well-plowed and salted. Quinn’s all-wheel drive SUV, under the guidance of her two decades of winter driving, handled the turns expertly. 

“It’s called the Gold Ridge Inn. The band doesn’t start until seven but leave early so you don’t have to drive up the road in the dark,” Sarah, a web designer about Quinn’s age, had said. They had met that morning on a group trail run. 

“I know how to drive on mountain roads,” Quinn replied, trying not to sound annoyed. She saw friend potential in this woman. 

Sarah raised her eyebrows. “Not like this you don’t. The county doesn’t plow those roads often and the packed ice makes the turns deadly. We’ll be there around six.” 

“Alright, see you there. And thanks for the invite.” 

Quinn had smiled at her new acquaintance, but now, alone in her car, she pursed her lips. When she told people she was from rural Idaho, they assumed she was a farm girl. They never seemed to believe her when she said she’d grown up in a wood cabin seven thousand feet up a mountain.

Mentally shaking her head at the idea that anyone would find this canyon road challenging to drive, Quinn took a right into a narrower canyon at the instruction of her GPS. As the road started to rise, she felt the condition worsen slightly beneath her tires, so she sat up straighter and tightened her grip on the wheel. The mountains rising to the west obscured much of the remaining sunlight, leaving only twinkling from the windows of the houses that dotted the canyon floor to illuminate the world beyond her headlights. 

How could people live in the dark and cold like this? Back outside Sun Valley, her home had been on the south side of a peak with excellent light exposure all afternoon and evening. 

The number of houses decreased as the road ascended from the valley floor. Soon, her path was flanked only by a rock face to her right and a sheer drop, uninhibited by a guardrail, to her left. She imagined the landscape of towering blue spruces and jagged ridgelines was spectacular in full daylight and felt a twinge of nostalgia for her former life. Then a sense of gratitude for the invitation to see the band washed over her. She needed friends.

On that morning’s run, a mountain biker had whipped around a curve, forcing Sarah to jump into the bushes to avoid a collision. Quinn helped her back up, and they started chatting about the conflicts inconsiderate cyclists frequently caused. They took over the trails and they took over the roads too, which was how the road to Gold Ridge—and eventually the invitation—came up. Sarah had told her the canyon road residents disliked road cyclists, who positioned themselves in the center of the lanes or rode three abreast. Quinn had often found herself in this situation back in Idaho, honking furiously for room to pass. 

No cyclists would be out here tonight though. She’d be amazed even to see another vehicle, no matter how much local fame this band had. Her tire tracks were the first in some time to rooster tail the accumulated snow. The ninety-degree turns were slick and as she rounded each one, she felt the center differential shifting power among the wheels to maintain traction. 

Going less than the recommended fifteen miles per hour, Quinn inched the wheel counterclockwise to navigate the next hairpin, but her car rotated more than she intended. The rear swung forward and floated uphill, perpendicular to the road.  

“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” Quinn whispered, taking her foot off the accelerator. She turned the wheel back to the right to arrest the skid. That worked, but after the car stopped its antigravity motion, it began sliding backward toward the rock face. After a long second, she felt the rear end drop slightly and the car came to a standstill. 

 Quinn exhaled. Maybe Sarah’s warning about the road had been fair after all. From the car’s sideways position, she overlooked the valley. At this elevation, there was a little more twilight than there had been below, but not much. The trees she’d imagined moments ago as majestic and inspiring were obscured by shadow and stood like dungeon guards. If she’d been making a right turn, she certainly would have been dragged backwards down the mountain right into their grasp. 

But skidding across ice and bumping into snowbanks still weren’t new experiences to Quinn. Her heart rate quickly returned to normal and her mental state transitioned from nervousness into practicality. She unbuckled and got out to inspect her car. Although the rear tires rested in what would be a drainage ditch in the summer, this time of year packed snow and ice filled it, making its surface almost even with the road. Quinn was sure she could apply enough gas to free herself. But when she got back behind the wheel and saw again how little slick roadway lay between her front bumper and the deadly drop off, her certainty decreased. She contemplated getting the chains out but knew it would be nearly impossible to get them on in the circumstances. And she knew if someone came around the curve in either direction, she would be a danger to both of them, so she needed to get unstuck fast. 

“Goddamn it,” she said. She wiped her palms on her jeans, shifted into low gear, and gripped the wheel again, hands at two and ten. She bit her lower lip and narrowed her eyes, then, breathing heavily through her nose, she applied slight pressure to the gas pedal. The car didn’t move. After a little more pressure, the weight of the vehicle shifted slowly at first, and then suddenly. The second she felt both rear tires come up, Quinn pinned the brake pedal to the floor. She allowed herself to close her eyes in relief for only one second before turning the wheel to the right to reposition herself in the correct lane.  

“Take it easy,” she said aloud as she resumed driving, although she had already complied before giving herself this directive.

After another five-minute climb off the canyon floor, the road plateaued and Quinn found herself on a straightaway. Her phone rang for a half second and stopped. She pressed her thumb to the fingerprint reader to open the home screen and saw the No Service indicator in the upper-left corner. 

Good thing that I got the car out of that spin. I would have been screwed. Not that she was surprised there was almost no service.   

When she looked up from her phone, she was in the middle of a curve, only feet from the edge of the road. She jerked the wheel to the right, but as she did, her headlights caught a large animal. She jerked the wheel back to the left to avoid it, and her rear tires caught another heavy ice slick and spun her around. The torque propelled the rear end of the car over the edge of the road and it plummeted, back end first, down the hill. 

In the first few seconds, she stiffened her arms against the wheel, pressing her body back into her seat, willing her own stillness to be transferred to the vehicle. But when she began pinballing against the evergreens, she let go and covered her head and face with her arms as she slammed into the driver’s side window repeatedly. 

After several more terrifying seconds, the vehicle jolted to a stop. Quinn remained motionless, face in the crook of her elbows, trying to catch her breath. She didn’t know how stable her position was and didn’t want to risk any movement that would dislodge the vehicle and send her further down the canyon wall. Gravity pinning her to the seat let her know the SUV was facing uphill, and when she looked out of her limb cocoon through the spider-webbed windshield, the edge of the road above was illuminated by her headlights. What had seemed an interminable drop hadn’t been as far as she feared, thanks to the trees. House lights peeped through the forest to the right, too far for the inhabitants to realize something had happened and too far for anyone comfortably indoors to hear if she screamed.

She reached an arm out to feel for her phone, hopeful that from her new position away from the rock face she might have one bar, but the center console was empty. She raised her head and torso to assist in the search, but as she did, a sharp pain shot into her brain. She sat back and put her hands to her head. It was slimy. She turned on a dome light and pulled down the visor to inspect herself in the mirror. Blood seeped from somewhere on her skull down the left side of her head. She groped around the passenger’s seat for her hat and gloves but found nothing. 

Quinn sighed, and then sat back for a few minutes, listening to her car ticking and hissing, praying for another car to come snaking up the road. She cursed herself for agreeing to go see this band in her desperation to make a friend. She laughed at her own idiocy in taking her eyes off an unknown mountain road for even a second. How long would it be before someone noticed her absence if she couldn’t get out of here? Sarah would probably just think she bailed on the plans, and Quinn didn’t have a job yet, so no boss would wonder why she didn’t show up to work tomorrow.

Her breathing was shallow, and every tiny exhale let out a puff of condensation. Before long, the outside temperature, coupled with her loss of blood, would cause her body temperature to become dangerously low. She had to head for the road right away, so she pushed on the driver’s side door. It creaked in protest but opened, sprinkling glass. Quinn swung her legs to the left, her brain screaming as she did. She slowly lowered herself to the ground and then collapsed from the throbbing in her head, bare palms landing the snow. She wanted to remain on all fours, but pangs from the cold shot through her fingers within seconds, so she crossed her arms and stuffed her hands into her armpits. 

Quinn looked at the road above her. Climbing up without protection from the elements was out of the question. Looking backwards, she saw that the trees bracing her SUV stood close together, preventing it from falling further. She pulled herself up, wincing as her bare fingers made contact with the metal of the car, opened the rear driver’s side door, and exhaled a small laugh when she found her winter accessories on the back seat. Her teeth chattered as she pulled on the hat, scarf, and gloves. 

As she waited for sensation to return to her fingers, she scanned the car for her phone. It was nowhere in sight. Given the unreliable connection, Quinn decided not to look for it. Cautiously testing the depth and slipperiness of the snow beneath her first few steps, she began to move upward. She estimated the gradient to be a dangerous and slippery thirty degrees but the distance to be a manageable two hundred feet. Her headache and an acute fear of sliding prevented her from moving quickly, but she didn’t mind the turtle pace as long as she reached the top.

A throbbing forced her to crouch down several times to cradle her head, but the hot sweat she generated while climbing turned cold, causing her to shiver if she paused too long. A fear of becoming disoriented as her body temperature dropped got her moving again. 

After what could have been five or thirty minutes, her eyes reached the level of the pavement. Four feet of vertical rock buttressed the roadbed. She’d have to hoist herself over it. She looked around, hoping to find a slope or a rock pile or tree stump to elevate her body but saw nothing.  

“Ugh, come on,” Quinn whispered.

She leaned forward, pressed a forearm against the rock, and gently rested her head on her arm. She rubbed at the crusty blood on her left cheek while she thought about what to do. Maybe she could slide along just below the road until she reached a house. She rested a few seconds longer and then removed her scarf, tied it in a loop, and gripped it in her right hand. If headlights appeared, she could wave it and possibly attract the attention of the driver.

Quinn took two steps closer to elevate her head above the retaining wall so she could see the road. She immediately froze. 

Three feet from her nose was a much bigger nose—a pink nose, attached to a white muzzle with long whiskers. Above that, green eyes with enormous pupils glinted, unblinking. A mountain lion. This was what she had seen in her headlights, the reason she had lost control. Had it been watching her this whole time, during her fall, during her struggle to get back up, waiting for its chance to pounce? It took a step forward.

“No, no, no,” she whimpered at first, then tried to scream. “No, you—” Her brain exploded in agony from the internal force of her own voice. 

The cougar hissed and bared its teeth at her. Quinn’s mouth went dry at the sight of the pointed canines perfectly adapted to sink into her neck. 

“Get away!” She tried her voice again, but the second word was barely audible. The pain in her head caused a flash of light, and she struggled to maintain eye contact with the predator as it advanced again.

Then, in another two seconds, the light came back, brighter, steadier. Quinn didn’t dare turn to look at it, but the crunching of tires triggered a realization—it was a car. Maybe it was Sarah. Maybe it was one of these mountain dwelling men she hoped to avoid. It didn’t matter. Someone would save her. She raised her right arm and began to wave the scarf wildly, gritting her teeth. She has to see me.

The radiance of the headlights glowed in the deadly feline’s eyes, transfixing it. Even with the cougar’s attention off her, Quinn continued to stare at it as she whipped the plaid fabric. Her cheeks tugged downward as she fought an impulse to cry. 

Then, snow sprayed her face. She blinked and sputtered as the large cat leaped off in the opposite direction. Quinn turned to her rescuer in time to see asymmetrical treads embedded deep in black rubber right before they plunged over the edge and crushed her.

Jennifer A Swallow writes technical manuals by day and contemporary fiction by night. She finds inspiration in everything from multivitamins to traffic jams. She and her Finnish Lapphund call Boulder home, for now.

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