The birdsong begins before my alarm, an overlapping chorus of tweets and peeps and chirp-chirp-chirps. It’s a comforting sound, a sound that sounds like home. Which it is, really. Over the past year, I realize, I’ve spent more nights sleeping outside than in.
I roll onto my side and open my eyes. They fall closed. There’s crust in the corners, I can feel it, and my mouth tastes awful. Swirl my tongue across my teeth–forgot to brush them last night.
I want to sleep more but the birds are singing and the light is seeping in through the crepe-paper thin walls of my tent and I have to pee. Let out a sigh. Begin the day.
Morale’s low lately. I’ve been alone for the past few days. The young dudes wanted to take their time, I wanted to go faster.
“Hurry up!” I told them.
“Slow down!” They said.
The freedom feels good, though. The ability to call the shots, stop when I want to, keep going, too. But there’s a loneliness that nags at me at the end of the day. When I’ve been alone with my thoughts for too long. When I miss the company of others. Dumb jokes around a campfire. Burnsides farting. Moosehead erupting in laughter. Cambo calling out “goodnight, Neverland” as the sky fades to black.
I stop to fill my bottle at a stream and decide that today I’ll hike thirty miles. Maybe more. A morale booster. A challenge with myself. See if I’ve still got it.
So I hike fast and I hike hard. Pop my headphones in and listen to terrible eighties music. Sing the choruses out loud because I know no one’s listening. Because those are the only parts I know.
At three o’clock I come to a road. Take out my map and see, to my surprise, that I’ve already done twenty miles. There’s a cement picnic table beside the blacktop, so I take off my pack. Rest for a moment. Eat a tortilla slathered in peanut butter and drink water from a nearby spring. Another hiker is here, an older man who started the trail in early March. This road, he tells me, is called The Snake.
“Buddies and I used to take our cruisers out here. 489 curves in 33 miles!” He whistles as a dozen motorcycles whiz past, leather-clad riders hugging the hairpin turns.
“Mmmm,” he nods. A satisfied smile.
I hang out a bit longer. Eat more snacks. Watch the bikes buzz by. Head back onto the trail as the sun is high and fierce.
The trail climbs out of the road and I’m sweating immediately. Pump my trekking poles through the thick, steamy air like they’re oars. Rowing a boat through a lake of humidity.
But I feel fucking fantastic. My heart thumps inside my chest. Skin slick and salty. Flying on endorphins and miles and sugary snacks. Pass a handful of hikers beside a shelter, drying their sweat-soaked socks and shirts on the limbs of trees.
“Afternoon!” They say. “How far you going?”
“Til dark,” I say without stopping. Can’t break my stride. Scared if I stop I won’t find it again.
Finally the trail flattens out, the evening air begins to cool. Check the map app on my phone. Half a mile short of thirty. There’s a campsite in 3 1/2 miles. I can make it there before dark.
As I zip my phone back inside my hipbelt pocket, I sense movement up ahead. Lift my gaze. A massive black bear shimmying up a tree fifty feet ahead.
“Shit,” I say softly. Stop. Stand uncomfortably in the middle of the trail. The bear doesn’t see me. Shift my weight from one foot to the other.
I don’t want to startle the bear, so I do what I do when there’s a hiker in front of me. Cough loudly. The bear freezes. Turns his head towards me. Stares right into my eyes.
“Hey bear,” I say in a deep voice. As deep as I can muster. Comically so.
It doesn’t move. Keeps its eyes on me. Head turned sideways. Arms and legs straddle the tree. Huge rump pressed outwards.
I raise my arms over my head. Criss-cross my trekking poles in the air. Try to look big and menacing, unfuckwithable. I feel incredibly awkward.
“Alright bear,” I say. “Time to go. Move along now.”
“Look, I’ve got somewhere to be, I’m sure you do, too.”
Try to reason with it. Talk rationally. The bear is completely unfazed.
I sigh. The sun is setting. Sky is growing dark. I don’t want to night hike, don’t want to wait here much longer. Ready to get to camp and eat dinner. Set up my tent. Crawl inside the comfort of my little home.
A few minutes pass. I grow more frustrated. The bear is still unfazed.
“Alright bear, I’m going for it,” I say. Take a deep breath and a few steps forward. The bear turns his gaze away, scrambles down the tree. I stop. It looks back at me again. I take a few more steps. It lumbers off into the woods.
I sigh. Keep walking. In half a mile I find a flat stop on the side of the trail. Thirty miles. Throw my pack on the dirt. Call it a day.