Spider Race
Copyright © by Hideo Asano

The dull black asphalt of the highway — the Mt. San Jacinto mountain road — danced beneath my feet under the scorching sun as I hiked up along an uneven shoulder, carrying my heavy backpack.
     On the road, sun-baked, rust-colored rocks, cacti, the blue sky and the shadow of myself were my only companions. Once or twice, I saw silver lizards scampering from the shadow of one rock to another. I learned from them that even the desert's own must keep to the shade in order to survive.
     For two hours, the road zigzagged like a snake. My feet began to hurt and I was exhausted and thirsty although I had not yet left the foothills. When I forced myself to rest, I sat beside the road and sucked on some navel oranges I had brought along instead of water, believing they would quench my thirst. They didn't. My lips were cracked, and very sore, but I had to keep on. Several rabbits looked at me encouragingly. The roadside yellow and purple cactus flowers seemed to smile at me.
     I kept walking. At a little past 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I finally emerged from the desert. I could see a blue-green forest up ahead, very dimly. It gave me some hope that I would be able to find water. A white lizard quickly crossed the road and disappeared. I walked along the shoulder facing the traffic. Many cars passed by me. Children waved to me through rear windows; some people even stopped to offer me a ride, but I politely declined. After all, I was in a personal race against myself.
     Ahead of me lay a plateau. In the shade of a huge rock, I rested. I took out another couple of oranges and sucked on them before continuing with the trek. A single, small crooked pine tree stood brightly atop a big white rock beside the road. I admired that pine tree.
     Then I noticed a small coiled rattle snake which looked more like a flat stone because it did not move. I was surprised because I almost stepped on it.
     Near sunset, I reached a small café with a sing which read "OPEN" on the door. In the dirt parking lot in front of the café, a white pickup and a brown sedan were parked side by side. Inside the café, the air was cool and my shirt, wet from sweat, stuck to my body and caused me to shiver. Two men were sitting at the counter. The bartender was talking with them. I slipped my backpack from my shoulders and leaned it against the leg of a stool.
     "Excuse me," I said. "May I have beer?"
     The bartender --- a bald man with a smooth sharp nose --- pointed to a steel and glass refrigerator against the wall. "Help yourself." He replied with a thick German accent.
     I took out a cold bottle of beer and first rolled it across my forehead. Then, sitting at the counter, I savored each sip. There was an American flag proudly displayed over the cash register and when the bartender saw me looking at it, he explained that although he was Austrian, he loved America. Before I left, I drank a glass of ice water and paid for my beer.
     Before dark, just after the quarter-moon had risen, I reached a campground beside the road where I could spend the night. While resting my weary body against my tightly packed sleeping bag under the trees, a small single-burner camp stove worked for me; I threw small pasta noodles, a combination of dehydrated vegetables and red and black beans into a pan of boiling water. Then I added a good-sized yellow onion, which I had sliced on my hand with my pocketknife to make a magic flavor with the help of the smell of pines and then seasoned it with salt and pepper. All the dehydrated items were inflating to their original shapes as they were tumbling in the furiously boiling water. I stirred it slowly and gently with a stick, which I had picked up from the needles. Then I licked the tip of the wood and said: "Umm."
     There were a lot of school children camping, busily pitching their tents and preparing dinner not far from me. They must have arrived just before I did. It was quiet throughout the camp except for their happy sounds.
     After my meal, I enjoyed an exceptionally delicious cup of coffee made with the mountain water. Then I crawled into my sleeping bag, wearing a ski cap pulled deep down to my eyebrows, and heard footsteps approaching while I was reading in the beam of my mini flashlight, leaning back against my backpack.
     "Hi," said one of the two adolescent girls standing before me.
     "Hello," I said, looking up.
     "Would you like to have dinner with us?" the girl said.
     "Thank you very much," I replied. "But I've already eaten."
     I went over to their one of among rows of tents with them. Next to it were three red Coleman kerosene lamps lined up on the long wooden tables that were set for dinner. A group of junior high school girls were at the tables with two adult chaperones. I learned that they were Girl Scout Troop 99. This was the first time I had ever talked to so many American children. I felt very warm toward all of them. I especially loved their happy smiles that were like dazzling moons. Their leaders were a married couple. We shook hands, and I enjoyed the soup and a cup of hot coffee that they generously offered me. The night was cold. We talked for a bit around the campfire, and then I said goodnight and thanked them for their hospitality.
     That night I fell into a deep slumber beneath a canopy of stars and the moon.
     The sun woke me up and I joined the troopers for breakfast and then I focused on the snowcapped peak of Mount San Jacinto. After admiring the sight for a few minutes, I prepared to continue with my journey.
     The new day was much cooler. What had been drudgery and painful the day before was pleasurable now, even though my body was exhausted. My appetite for life was sharpened; some blue jays, soaring from one fir tree to another; squirrels, scooting across the road; pine needles, rubbing one another in an easy wind; wild flowers sunned on a soft slope in a green meadow.
     After several hours of walking, I became conscious of my left leg becoming weak. Sometimes, I almost had to drag it.
     Now I could see several lovely houses clustered together. A woman was gathering cones beneath a huge pine tree.
     I stopped and asked her for a drink of water. She pointed to the water faucet on the side of the house.
     "I saw you yesterday," she said.
     I smiled my reply, then enjoyed the cold water and thanked her. Then I was on my way again.
     Up ahead, tall pine trees bordered the road. I continued one step at a time — very slowly, because I was so tired. Soon I saw a blue station wagon some distance ahead parked beside the road. When I reached the vehicle, I stopped to ask the occupants. "Do you know how many miles it is from here to Mountain Center?"
     "I don't know," the driver replied. Then he asked, "Why are you walking? For fun?"
     "No," I replied. Walking isn't fun, I said to myself.
     A little further along, I decided to take a long rest. I was exhausted and my backpack felt like it was full of lead.
     I slipped it off my back and leaned it against a giant pine tree as I sat down on the dry needled floor in the shade. I took out a cookie bar and my last orange and saw a small black spider slip into my backpack; I couldn't get him out because I was too tired to make the effort. I figured he would come out on his own when he got ready to, or at my next rest. I took my shoes off and let the air freshen my feet. I ate my snack and lay back, lazily watching the white clouds overhead, beautifully setting off the clear blue sky. Several cars passed by. A small brown squirrel searched for food near me. I shared my cookie with him.
     Then I walked some more. As I walked, I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment. To have walked as far as I had, required much endurance and I struggled with the thought of quitting.
     "Why am I walking? Why do I have to walk? Why do I feel the need to do this?" I asked myself.
     "It is to enjoy the feeling of achievement," I answered. "Or rather, struggling and then enjoying furthermore, this is a race for me, so I can't abandon it. To do so would be the same as abandoning the plan of my life."
     Further down the road, was a most wonderful sight. There were many tall pine trees and a big stock farm. Under scattered pine trees were masses of white, yellow and purple wild flowers that looked like a colorful patchwork quilt. The flowers moved gently in the cool breeze.
     And then, in the distance, I could see a small, red-painted market and a tiny bit of Lake Hemet. In the market, I bought a can of Budweiser, drinking it as I sat on the ground, leaning back against the wooden wall of the market, looking out across the road at the cattle grazing on the green grass as they swung their tails lazily. The sun was still sharp. I was still four miles from my destination.
     I began my journey again. The road began to rise and fall. I marveled at the beauty around me. Yellow buttercups grew under old trees, setting off a scene of pure romance as the sun began to set. As I spotted a familiar cabin beside the road, which curved away from a while and then sloped down for a bit further, I began to walk faster, feeling that my goal was near.
     Through the coming darkness, I could see the tavern with several cars parked in the dirt lot, and a small wooden post office with the sign on the roof which read: MOUNTAIN ENTER POST OFFICE.
     Suddenly, I realized that my feet and legs were quite sore. It had been a long walk. I saw a long-bearded friend walking up the road toward me. I had met him several weeks before in the tavern one night. What a coincidence, I thought. It was as if he was there to welcome me, after my long and exhausting race against myself.
     The next day, after I had returned home and cleaned off my backpack, I saw the small black spider was still alive inside it — my tiring journey along Highway 74 had not been made alone.