Nothing up my sleeve

Writers tend to hesitate or become vaguely mystical when asked where they get their ideas. Maybe, like magicians, we fear we’ll lose our special status if we let too many people see behind the illusion.

In honour of the literary magazine Prairie Fire publishing one of my latest stories in its spring Uncharted Territory-themed issue, I’ll try to show you how my story of a couple of bickering hikers in a storm-struck Central European mountain range came to be. (If you click on the Prairie Fire link, you’ll see a few previews of work in the magazine, including my story.)

In 2018, my wife Rosemary and I went for a four-day hike on the Tatranska Magistrala, a hiking trail that traverses Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains. Our plan was to stay three nights in mountain huts, crossing two high passes along the way, and end with a scramble to the top of the highest peak in the area.

As we made our way to our first night’s destination, early October drizzle turned to snow, which became heavier as we reached our hut. The next day, with the high trail impassable, we hiked back down, caught the narrow-gauge railway at the base of the mountains to the next valley along, and hiked up to that night’s destination. The next day, the sun came out and started melting the snow and we continued toward our third mountain hut. The snow was still deep in places and, after we met up with an Australian woman, my wife decided to hike down with her to the railway and repeat the previous day’s hike-train-hike itinerary in order to skip the high pass up ahead.

I ended up walking alone on an increasingly snow-covered trail, then stepping gingerly down a long series of heavily drifted switchbacks to reach the hut where I would later that day reunite with Rosemary.

The next day, the trail to the high mountains was covered with melting slush, so we gave up on reaching the Slovakia-Poland border. Instead, we visited a nearby collection of memorials to Slovakian mountaineers and others who had died in the Tatra Mountains. The Symbolic Cemetery was the kind of haunting place that, if you’re a writer, you just know will generate a story somehow. Between this and the Holocaust memorial we saw at the railway station in Poprad, the nearby town that provides access to the mountains, just before we started the hike, this trip was book-ended with haunted feelings. For three years, these memories ripened in my mind while producing only a half-page of a dreary piece that might have been about mourning if I hadn’t abandoned it.

Then in September 2021, while hiking the James Duncan Trail, at Big Trout Bay, near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Rosemary and I again temporarily split up. On the James Duncan Trail, you can hike there-and-back to a high viewpoint 250 metres above Lake Superior, or you can do a 10-km point-to-point that bypasses the viewpoint in favour of a beautiful cobble beach, then finishes at a different trailhead. Since I wanted to reach the summit, we decided that I’d accompany Rosemary to the beach, then turn around, hit the heights, return to the car, and pick her up at the other end of the trail. As I walked alone along beautiful, but infamously moody, Lake Superior, I thought of the other time we’d parted ways on a hike and of the dangers attendant upon solo hiking in rapidly changeable autumn weather. In the space of the couple of hours it took to get back to the car, a story of a hiking couple in a haunted mountain range came to me, almost word for word. I wrote it up longhand that night and when our trip was over, expanded on my first scrawled draft to create the version I submitted a few weeks later to Prairie Fire.

They don’t all come to you in one piece like this, but sometimes it happens. Sometimes a specific action or image, a view from up high, feet stepping over rough rock, can  make the story spring to life. Sometimes a spark smoulders for years before bursting to life. Maybe it is a magic trick.