The trail is a flat ribbon of dirt as it skirts the two-lane highway out of Front Royal, Virginia. I’m well-rested, shower-fresh, and finally, after almost 1,000 miles, I have my first new pair of shoes. Today, I decide, is going to be a good day.
I pop in my headphones, pump my trekking poles to the music. Sing out loud. There is no one else around. There hasn’t been for days. Weeks, it seems. I’m getting used to the solitude, to the loneliness. To the lack of comrades to commiserate with at the end of the day. There must be a lesson I’m supposed to learn in all of this. That’s what I tell myself, at least. To get through it. Survival techniques or whatnot.
Then come the bugs. Armies of them. Dotting my arms like dancing freckles. Diving into my mouth when I open it to sigh. Gnawing at my ankles and calves. I claw at my skin like a crazy person when they bite.
And then, humidity. My god, the humidity. It turns my legs to lead. Slows my clip to a crawl. I’m sodden with sweat. It drips down the sides of my face, the back of my neck, all the little nooks and crannies. I’m so hot. So soggy. But I keep walking, because what else is there to do.
Today’s destination is a shelter thirty miles away. Tomorrow, only 23 into Harper’s Ferry, the “unofficial” halfway point of the trail. I got a late start, though, didn’t leave town until 8:30. And the weather report looks grim. Severe thunderstorms! Torrential downpours! Flash flood warnings! So there’s that.
Despite the bugs and the humidity and the late start, I’m making decent time. Check my watch. Should be at the shelter by 8. I haven’t taken a break all day, so I stop beside a spring to eat a snack, chug a liter of water, sit on a rock. Dump pebbles and pine needles out of my shoes as ants crawl across my legs. Up and over mountain ranges of red welts and crusty scars.
Then, raindrops. I shoulder my pack. Keep hiking. Thunder rumbles low and distant, an animal’s growl. I sigh, walk faster as the rain falls harder, coming down now in driving sheets. I’m drenched within minutes–seconds even. Feet slosh through water and mud. New shoes soiled. Soaked all the way through.
Cold is starting to seep in, so I start jogging, head down, breathing heavy. I round a switchback, hear cars going fast, honking horns, semi-trucks downshifting, and then, the trail stops. Spits me out at a four-lane freeway. I wait for a lull in traffic then dart across the asphalt to the other side. Look at the drivers, warm and dry, as they eyeball me with something like pity. A drowned rat with a backpack. A shivering puppy running through traffic. Pull over! I tell them in my head. Take me to your house. Feed me. Wrap me in blankets. Give me shelter from the storm.
As I make my way across an empty gravel lot, a dark green sedan with an even darker green stripe along the side pulls over next to me. The driver’s side window is already down and I stop, peer inside at a thin man wearing black wrap-around sunglasses, despite the utter lack of sun.
“You hiking alone?” He says, and the corners of his mouth curl upward, though he doesn’t smile.
“Nope,” I answer, automatically.
“Wellllll goooood,” he says, drawing out the syllables slow and syrupy. “Because if you were, I was gonna tell you to be ve-ry, ve-ry careful.” He grins. His teeth are long and yellow. Drives away.
I stand still, arms at my sides, watching his car get smaller, until it becomes a pinprick on the pavement. Disappears behind a bend in the road. My insides burn and coil and I feel so small and helpless and afraid.
I take off running up the trail as it climbs steeply through the dense woods. Shrouded by the safety of trees. Trying to get as far as I can from the highway and the speeding cars and the skinny man with his Chesire Cat smile. But the forest is still awash in rain. Lightning flashes bright white, thunder explodes like a bomb in the sky.
“Fuck! Not again!” I shout, but it’s barely a whisper against the storm’s roar. I throw my trekking poles into the brush on the side of the trail and, in a panic, start running south back towards the road. The sky’s out to get me, I think. It didn’t kill me the first time, but now! Now it’s going to finish what it started.
And then I stop. Take a few deep breaths. Remember the man in his car, and what if he’s down there waiting for me? So I turn around, stomp back through the sludge. Pick up my poles. Keep walking.