“Did you hear that?”
I stopped, Ollie tugging on the leash to carry on. The woods were quiet.
Ollie was anxious, his hunting instincts had kicked in. A deer had crossed our path early on our walk to the top of the mountain, which by Rhode Island standards would have been impressive, but really is nothing more than a hill in upper New York. Ollie’s rear legs were shaking, his tongue was hanging.
Sunlight angled through the heavy canopy of oak, ash, hickory, maple and beech, lighting blankets of ferns. The woods were silent. I wasn’t surprised, for surely any living creature within a half-mile radius knew we were coming.
Olivia was enthusiastic when I suggested we take Ollie for a walk and climb the mountain.
“Can we go now?” she asked expectantly.
I suggested we go after breakfast, maybe in a half hour. In five minutes she was asking again.
“Another five minutes,” I said heading back to the house to see if the coffee was ready. I poured myself a mug and headed upstairs. I didn’t want to be walking through the woods in flip-flops especially with Ollie tugging on the leash.
Olivia would be good company, besides it would take her away from the iPad, which came out as soon as she and her father arrived in his convertible. He is the foreman of a crew that started repainting the house earlier in the week. Thus far the work was focused on scraping and sanding. The cedar clapboards were pock marked giving the house a sorrowful and furlong look.
Olivia’s dad was good with the mountain plan and with his approval her level of expectation reached a new high.
“I guess we’d better get climbing,” I said, finishing off my coffee.
“Yeah,” said Olivia reaching to give me a high five. We slapped hands, making us instant companions for the trek ahead. Ollie didn’t need any prompting. We set off through the woods, a short walk to the upper road.
Ollie led the way, sniffing the forest floor thick with fallen leaves. These were not the long and thoughtful sniffs of our Warwick walks, where he deliberately rotates around a spot, anchored until you pull on the leash to move on. No, he was in a tracking mode, moving swiftly ahead.
Olivia was trailing.
“Is this the mountain?” she asked after we had barely covered 100 yards. She didn’t wait for an answer.
“Last time I walked in the woods was a long time ago. I was five,” she said. “I’m eight now.”
I paused for her to catch up. She was smiling. She grabbed on to Ollie’s leash. He jerked her forward.
“I think you should take him.” I didn’t object. He was straining to move on.
“Do you have a brother or sister?”
“A brother,” she said. She told me he was older, but she didn’t know how old. She didn’t remember when she saw him last. Her dialog was unguarded and innocent.
“My parents are divorced. It hurt a lot.”
The sudden turn in her conversation threw me off. I kept walking, waiting for her to tell me more if she wanted. We were now on the road and moving faster to Ollie’s satisfaction. Olivia lagged behind.
“I’m back here,” I heard her say. I turned and she ran to catch up.
“What are those? They look like giant ears.” We had left the traveled road and we walking on the park service road. Grass grew between the ruts. The ears were a fallen branch.
“How much further,” she wanted to know.
I told her it wasn’t too far to the mountain trail. She kept up her pace and when we arrived at the trailhead we paused to look into the woods.
Olivia was up for it. Ollie had the leash sprung tight. He’d be pulling me up.
We walked in silence for a couple of minutes, but silence is tough for Olivia.
“What’s it like at the top?”
Wondering whether we’d make it, I thought it best to change the topic.
“Think of the craziest thing for breakfast,” I suggested.
“Pancakes,” she said.
“Right,” I said, “with tomatoes on top.”
“Then some blueberries and syrup.”
“I think we should add a layer of cheese and broccoli.”
“Oh, I hate broccoli.”
“Then it should be spinach.”
“Not spinach, I don’t like that either.”
We’d made progress, but our breakfast diversion hadn’t deflected the question, how much further to the top?
Olivia had fallen behind. Ollie was in the vanguard.
“There’s an ice cream shop at the top.”
“What did you say?” Olivia queried.
“I don’t know if they’d be open.”
“I’m just as good if they aren’t open,” I said. “all they have is chocolate and I’m so sick of chocolate ice cream.”
“I love it,” she announced. She told me about the divorce and how her father had to go to court. She was relieved not to testify.
“They had the pictures of the bumps where I was bitten by the bugs.” I asked about her mother. She said she sees her once or twice a year.
“My father takes care of me,” she said.
This was all petty serious conversation for anyone, least of all an eight-year old.
“We’re almost there.”
“Really,” she said in amazement.
I pointed to the last hump in the trail, just before it leveled off. There’s a bit of a view between the trees, but nothing spectacular, certainly not worthy of being called a summit.
“I don’t see the ice cream shop,” I said.
She smiled. “You were kidding.”
I winked. She knew.
We kept walking. Then she asked the question about whether I had heard it or not.
“It sounded like an owl,” I said straining to hear it again.
Olivia stood looking at me. She was smiling again.
“It’s my stomach,” she announced. “It growled.”
Kids can climb mountains, but their stomachs always let them know when to stop.
“Time for pancakes; let’s head back.”
We took the shortcut, straight down the side of the hill…I mean mountain.