The crusty kids from Virginia and I hike together today. Patrick flies along the trail, barging up the big climbs and jogging down the steep descents. I’m amazed at how fast he hikes with that giant pack; camp shoes swinging wildly from carabiners, a coiled silver sleeping pad thwap-thwap-thwapping against the backs of his thighs.
Ellen is still getting her trail legs but she’s steady and determined. We wait for her in front of Blue Mountain Shelter, eating handfuls of potato chips and peanut m and m’s.
“Let’s do two more miles!” I say when she arrives. There’s still another hour of daylight left.
“I’m not walking another step more.” Ellen throws her pack on the ground and it’s settled, so I set my tent up on a flat patch of leaves a few yards down the trail. Hiking with these two, I decide, is more fun than pushing on.
The next day, Patrick tells me he’s glad they met me, that I motivate them to hike faster and farther. It feels good to hear, even though I’m not quite sure Ellen shares his sentiment yet.
I hike alone for most of the day, listening to music through my headphones. I sing along to Cyndi Lauper and Songs Ohia, then switch to Metallica when the trail climbs straight up and over a mountain.
I catch Patrick and we hike together for a few miles, trying to remember jokes and riddles to pass the time. He points to a hand-written sign on hot pink poster board on the side of the trail: Cold Drinks! Hot Food! Trail Magic! Only 1/2 a mile off trail!
Patrick heads down the dirt path at Addis Gap and I press on. 1/2 mile each way sounds awfully far, and I already have way too much food in my pack as it is. He says he’ll try to talk Ellen into hiking a few more miles when she shows up. “Do it!” I say, although I have a feeling they won’t be showing up. The force of the trail magic vortex is strong.
Right away, the trail starts climbing steeply. I check the elevation profile on my phone to know what to expect, and let out a deflated sigh when I see that the trail climbs almost 1,000 feet in one mile.
I decide to make the peak into a challenge. To push myself to get to the top without stopping, and without music to distract me. I slow my pace, focus on the sound of my labored breathing. Take steady little steps all the way to the top. It’s humid as hell, and there’s sweat dripping down my face. It gets in my eyes until I can’t see very well, so I blink a few times until everything’s clear. Can’t break my rhythm to wipe it away.
When I make it to the top I let out a little “whoot!” Give myself an internal high five. Cruise on endorphins for the last two miles to the spring that we had planned to camp at.
I find a flat spot set back from the trail. Pitch my tent in the last light of day. Sit on a damp log and fire up my little stove to cook dinner. It’s eerily quiet and I feel exposed among the spindly trees and bare branches. I have the feeling someone’s watching me, or some thing, I can’t quite tell. Dump the ramen into the boiling water, stir the noodles, extinguish the flame.
Then the sound of leaves crunching underfoot. I look up from my pot of food. A man stands fifty feet away. He keeps both hands on the rifle that’s slung over his shoulder.
“Ello,” he says. Stares at me. His beard is dark and bushy.
“Hi,” I say, too quietly, but inside my head, everything’s loud. Never camp by a road, never camp by a road, nevercampbyaroad. The words crash into one another. They’re words I know well. Words I’ve said so many times. Words I’ve always abided by until now.
He stands still for a moment, in the clearing between the trees. His hands don’t move from his gun. I look at him. I think a thousand thoughts. A second stretches on forever. We are sharing this space, this moment, these woods, this never ending second. We don’t look away.
“You have a good night, then,” he says. Looks away first. Walks through the campsite and disappears down the trail.