by Eric Torgersen
I’m out walking, three quarters of a mile from my house, breaking in the hiking boots I’ve just bought because, at sixty-five, I’ve signed on to go backpacking, for the first time since the early 1980’s, and almost certainly the last time in my winding-down life, with my daughter Elizabeth, who’s forty years younger. We’ll be doing just a couple of nights, nothing all that strenuous, on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but one reason I’m going is that Elizabeth says she’d otherwise go alone, and there are sheer cliffs, black bears and unknown human beings up there. I’m in decent shape and have only a couple of minor physical issues (right shoulder, left foot), but the truth is that besides breaking in the boots, which are cheap but seem to have good fit and support, I’m trying to make sure no part of this aging body is going to give out. I haven’t started carrying a pack yet, but I’m covering more distance each day.
As I reach the bridge over the Chippewa River, I notice two people coming toward me, on the same side of the road, starting down the hill I’m about to start climbing, almost a half mile ahead. As they come closer I can tell that they’re girls, and closer still, they’re something like fourteen and wearing only bathing suits. I’m sure they notice soon that I’m an old guy, not the boy they may have imagined, and I’m gray and unshaven and wearing a funny old-person hat no boy would risk being seen by girls in. Reasonably, about then, they cross to the other side of the road, as if they’re aware of some possibility or risk or, against all outward signs, want their privacy. Just as the imperative to stop looking—I don’t want to embarrass or bother them—overcomes that primary impulse to look, I see that the suit on the one on the left, the taller of the two, is nothing much more than three small patches of cloth over a body lean but ripening, and that the girl’s walk is that body-conscious adolescent walk of a girl who’s being looked at. As they pass I shoot them, while studiously not looking, a quick, awkward smile, intended to be grandfatherly and benign, which I’m almost sure they don’t see because they too are carefully looking away. I keep on climbing the hill and don’t look back.
Every couple of minutes, on this country road, a pickup goes by, doing sixty. I imagine some of them slowing down a little as they pass the girls.
And I’m puzzled. They must live up there somewhere where the houses are spread out, not concentrated in anything like a neighborhood, where taking a walk like that wouldn’t seem quite so out of place. Some kids go tubing on the river, but no one was there on the bridge to meet them as I crossed, and the girls aren’t carrying anything with them. They’re just out for a walk in those new bodies, but Jesus, dressed like that? That’s flat dangerous out here. As a parent, I wouldn’t have allowed it, and if I found out my daughter had snuck out and done that, she’d have been in big trouble. (I was too much of a pushover, to tell the truth, but my wife would have laid down the law.) We had big enough arguments over where she could go out running—we wanted her to go back and forth on our half-mile cul-de-sac, at least when it was either early or late, but she wanted to head out on the road I’m walking now, and a lot of the time, I’m pretty sure, she did.
I remember next that, when my daughter had a sleepover in junior high, five or six friends tenting in our back yard, we learned much later that two of those Catholic school eighth graders had snuck out in the middle of the night and walked to the Soaring Eagle Casino, a couple of miles away. We never did find out what they did there. But there’s something about junior high girls I may have forgotten, if I ever knew it.
Then I remember the two girls who used to walk by the house I grew up in, not in bikinis—it was the fifties—but in very tight and very short shorts, with that I-know-you’re-looking walk. We, the boys, would watch them as they passed, calling them tramps to ourselves but getting a good look. I think I remember they came over and talked to us once, but I at least was too young for that to go anywhere. But those girls seemed to want to be seen, and there’s ordinarily no one at all on this empty stretch of road for these girls to be seen by. Still, I can’t quite believe they’re unaware of what the world makes, at a certain point which surely they know they’ve passed, of those bodies when it sees them.
Then I think: Poor kids. They go out for a walk where they live, where possibly in their own minds they’re stuck living, and in bodies they’re stuck living in too, and even a benevolent old guy like me gets all worked up about it. That’s a load they’ll carry on their backs for years.
So, okay, it’s still kind of puzzling, and making only this much sense so far: the girls in their bikinis were working on how to do fourteen-and-growing-up-fast, making a mistake I still think, that day, as I was working on how to do sixty-five-and-fading, climbing that hill in hiking boots, getting ready for one last long walk in the beautiful, dangerous world.