The Through-Hikers

She walked alone for a long time. She had spent the last night in a hiker’s shelter with a couple of families of four who were hiking the trail together. She was the odd one out.

The family banter was annoying at best, but she played along. They asked her lots of questions about why she was hiking alone, where was her boyfriend and so on.

What a disappointment. Where were all the interesting hikers about whom she had read so much? She was almost glad to be alone as long as she was away from these cozy troupes.

Fortunately, the two families were headed South, she North, so she set off alone. She was alone almost the entire morning. She contemplated the woods, the trail, her life. Would the trail change her? Would she meet any interesting people? Or, was it all just a waste of time?

A few small groups passed her from time to time, exchanging only a wave, but no-one caught up to her and no-one else seemed to be headed North.

She gained on a sole northbound hiker around 11:00AM. She followed the anonymous hiker a long way, four miles according to her GPS app.

He would stereotypically stop occasionally, to take a cellphone picture or to methodically scratch his wrists. Wrapped around his neck was a small brown towel that he used to wipe his forehead. Whenever he stopped, she stopped. He never looked back or seemed aware that she was gaining on him.

He had an unusual gait, almost bouncing to his right side. Something about him irked her. She reminded him of the useless 50-something slugs at work. She hung back a little. The more she observed him, the more she disliked him. She didn’t know why. There was just something about him.

She finally caught up to him when he stopped to adjust his pack. He knelt on the trail and she stood above him, hands on hips.

”Hi.”

She said.

“Hi, kid.”

He answered looking up at her.

“How do you hike that light? Are you just a day hiker?”

She snarked, as they took a breather on this particularly high-altitude segment of the Appalachian Trail in West Virginia.

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Trail Steps

She was about 36. Very attractive, in an executive-power-chick sort of way. He was 56, grizzled at best with just a simple backpack, a bedroll and other gear.

She thought he was an amateur. Another faceless, pathetic old dude who got divorced and fled to the East Coast to hike the Appalachian Trail as some kind of bucket-list thing. She hated him at first sight.

“A through-hiker, for the time being, kid.”

He replied.

“Huh, is that so?”

She offered.

He gave a weak smile. He tried to ignore her by looking away from her unblinking gaze rather to the 1930’s WPA-era arrowhead symbols and the colored vertical rectangular trail markings on the trees.

She was too young, too pretty. He didn’t want to take up her time. He did not want to hike with her, but he believed that a woman hiking alone on the trail was a risky venture at best. There were always weirdos about in the deep woods.

He thought back to when he encountered a woman hiking alone with two Rottweilers once upon a time near Pilger Ruh in Pennsylvania. He guessed that she probably was safe at any rate. Her hounds looked like the Cerberus who guarded the gates of hell.

“So, I’ll bite, what’s your story, grandpa?”

She squared to him with her arms crossed, trying the feminine executive dominance thing that he always hated so much. She had light brown hair in a ponytail and she sported Khaki shorts, hiking boots and a nice jacket.

“Whatever you want it to be, kid.”

“I’m not your kid.”

She barked.

“Nobody is. Have a good hike, kid.”

He turned away and he started hiking up the trail. The path narrowed, continuing a slight winding rise over the past four miles. She stopped and fumed for a second, then she angrily stomped after him. No-one had talked to her that way in a while. She ran in front of him and tried to force eye contact.

”May I help you Miss?”

He stopped, stone-faced.

”Who are you to patronize me?”

She queried.

He looked her in the eye with no expression.

”Kid, let’s go enjoy our separate hikes.”

He stepped around her and she followed closely. He probably seemed like the kind of man she was used to intimidating.

“I’ve been hiking for two days with no conversation and I have to run into an asshole.”

He didn’t respond.

”Why do you have a canteen and not a Camel-Pack™? Are you trying to play Army?”

She asked, mockingly.

“All the cool kids carry canteens, Miss.”

He responded with amusement.

”You’re wearing a ring, are you rude to your wife too?”

He looked down at his hand.

“My wife? Long gone. She was a sweet soul though.”

He had no idea why he was engaging her banter.

“Why do you still wear a ring?”

She asked.

“She died. Please go your own way, kid”

He wiped his brow. He ran the towel around his neck. It was cool, but he sweated from exertion.

“I’m sorry.”

She said in a quiet, falling tone. It was more mechanical like she had said something mildly inappropriate.

She had very green eyes, he noticed.

“Find your pace, kid.”

He muttered.

“Do you have children?”

She was persistent, he thought. Maybe he was judging her harshly, but that’s what people do.

He scratched his wrist under his watch. No mosquitos yet, but it was still itchy. He had a little green compass on his other wrist.

“I’m sorry. We didn’t start off right.”

She stated, pacing alongside him, while she looked straight ahead.

“Kid, go enjoy your hike.”

They walked in silence. She fell back. Despite his obvious limp, she noticed that he had a relentless pace.

He had known women like her. He chafed at their arrogance. He wasn’t the club Med type, more the old society parlor type. But he did like Manhattan cafés.

She felt an odd sort of worry, but she couldn’t put her finger on it, he was a tall, powerful-looking man, too athletic for his apparent age, but he also seemed unusually articulate, a bit like a professor.

It was May Day, still nice and cool, but the vegetation was already getting thick. You now had to wait for a lookout point to see any good vistas. No insects out yet. Every now and then a cool wind broke through and cut the humidity a bit.

For some reason, he thought about a time many years ago on the Trail in Central Pennsylvania, when he had seen two Mennonites in a meadow; a young man and a woman holding hands in a trail clearing. They were silently enjoying the magnificent vista below, almost like a still painting. They seemed so peaceful.

Now this woman walked ahead of him. He tried not to notice how athletic and attractive she was, but it had to be nothing to him. Just a wasted thought, a mere moment’s reverie. Time had passed him by. He was old, she was young. He knew not to waste his energy.

He deliberately let her get further and further ahead. Eventually, he spotted a clearing with a nice rocky outcrop to his right. Hikers had probably sat there since 1936, Indians since forever.

It was now high noon in the mountains of West Virginia. Time for lunch. He saw her disappear up the trail so he switched his focus to his meal. Solitude again.

He pulled off his pack and he searched for his trail meal. His shirt was sweaty from the backpack. He shook his shirt as if that would help make it instantaneously dry. The pain from his heavily-wrapped knee was withering.

He always kept a bottle of Irish Cream with him. He placed it on the rock. He closed his eyes for a long moment, when he was abruptly summoned from his meditation by a harsh voice.

“Hey, old man, do you think maybe you might want to share some of that?”

It was the lady. He collected his energy and he pulled out two little Bavarian pewter shot glasses from the side pocket of his pack.

She sat on a flat white rock across from him.

”There’s something unusual about you.”

She observed, pointing her finger, then she removed her high-end gear.

“Not really, kid.”

He said.

“So what is your story, old man?”

She said resting on her palms like a teenager.

”My story is not interesting.”

He stated, without looking up.

”I apologize. For before, I mean. I was kind of out of line.”

”Kid, no offense taken, but you wouldn’t enjoy my company.”

He observed.

”That’s for me to decide. Why are you hiking alone, what about your friends?”

She asked, hoping to hear his old-man bucket-list story. She opened her silver trail-mix foil packet with a loud tearing sound.

”I don’t have any.”

He whispered dryly.

”Any what?”

”Friends, like Yossarian, but you wouldn’t know who that is, kid.”

”Catch-22, Heller, I’ve read the book, old man.”

She added sarcastically.

”OK, a worldly one.”

He acknowledged.

“What was your wife like?”

She kept up her terminal stare with her crazy green eyes.

“She was kind, ethereal, mystical, romantic, melancholy, Old America, Old Baltimore, like from the time of Poe. We had a son, but he died.”

”What happened?”

She wondered aloud. Twirling her hair with one finger and cocking her head. She inhaled the breeze and she closed her eyes for a second, trying to imagine the tragedy.

”Sometimes people just die.”

He stated.

”I’m sorry.”

She muttered, as she munched on her power bar.

The breeze cycled through again, shaking the trees out of their silence and forcing him to put a hand on the empty wrappers.

“I can guess your story: Ivy League wunderkind at some investment house or firm in the City.”

She became agitated and she squared to him angrily.

”Now you’re out of line. Don’t you dare judge me. What makes you think I’m from the City, anyway?”

She was standing up, hands on her hips again, like a petulant eight-year-old with pigtails.

”I’m from Albany. High School in the Bronx. Your gear is top-of-the-line. Your watch is about 15k. Even your boots are high-end. Your accent is Upper West Side.”

He sipped his drink.

“Let me try to guess you now.”

She said sitting right next to him.

”Please don’t, Miss.”

He finished his meal and he took another sip of Irish Cream, pinching the little shot mug between two fingers. He leaned back and he looked out at the dark-green chasm in the forest floor.

They were so far up that he couldn’t see any roads or cell towers, just dark, early Spring green. It was oddly quiet. No birds or insects. Too cold yet? He eagerly awaited the next gust of wind.

”You’re retired, a typical boomer, probably a tech guy. Got downsized, probably by a female executive. Now you’re hiking the trail to find yourself. Your equipment looks like cheap Army surplus, including the canteen, your boots look sturdy, though some brand I’ve never heard of.”

He noticed how dry the ground was. He hated rain, rain complicated everything so this weather was good.

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The Trail Narrows

“I’m a killer, kid.”

He said, fixing his own ice-cold, green-eyed stare on her.

”Funny, but not funny.”

She said, then she froze up, realizing that they were a million miles from civilization or another human being and she had no cell signal. She also sensed the silence of the forest while every bad TV series about psycho-killers flashed in her head.

”I’ve been killing people a while. But they mostly deserved it. The rest, I feel pretty bad about from time to time. But it was my job.”

He took another sip, still looking down the mountain.

”What are you talking about?”

She said, raising her tone like a frightened child.

”I was in the Army, kid. More than thirty years. I did get this gear from an Army surplus store in Junction City, Kansas, when I was with the B-R-O. The Army was too cheap to supply us properly before we went overseas.”

He paused to drink some water from his canteen. He refastened the cap.

“I was kicked out on a medical. But I run twelve miles a week, I have all the time in the world, I no longer live anywhere, so there it is, here I am.”

He tossed his desert pattern ID holder to her. It had his last valid Army ID chip card. She looked at it, flipped it over.

”You scared me, you know. I thought you really were a serial killer. You can be scary when you want to be.”

She got up and sat on the ground in front of him with her legs crossed.

”I’m anonymous. I have no family. I have nothing to do for the rest of my life, so I’m hiking, so I can meet awesome people, kid.”

He chewed on a dried mango slice.

”Now I suddenly like when you call me kid.”

She waited for a while to catch breeze.

“So maybe you really do know what you’re doing out here then. I should have known because your gear is so Spartan.”

She mentioned.

”Kind of. I have met some cool people out here, though. Not everyone is an ‘asshole’ like me. One was a preacher whose church gave him three months leave to hike the trail. I saw a couple of families hiking. Then I met two women who were fast-hiking the trail for some LGBTQ challenge thing. We hiked together for three days, but they were too fast for me.

He adjusted his hiking shoes.

She began her story.

”I’m doing a month on the trail. I saved up vacation time. I am actually an investment banker, so good work, Sherlock. I’m single. Of course. I don’t like the men I meet in the City, so I’m trying to do outdoorsy activities, everyone talked about the App Trail. Maybe I’m looking for people who are real. When I go out, in the City, it’s always the same. They try to impress me, they’re so generic.”

He poured her more booze.

“I know how I can impress you, kid: to New York, Excelsior!”

He said, raising his pewter glass in a toast to their home state.

”Excelsior!”

She replied with a smile.

“Kid, I can’t wait to cross the New York Line.”

She nodded.

He began to reassemble his pack and clean up His detritus.

“You know, kid, out here, it’s all Dharma bums, seekers, lost souls, old creepers, extreme athletes, hip Millenials, weird foreign guys. I love every one of them.”

He stated.

”Why did you get kicked out of the Army?”

She crossed  her arms over her knees like she was listening to a campfire tale.

”It was just a like Wild West showdown. I was calling in air strikes and this dude comes out of a canal like Rambo and he shot me right through the knee and hip. I shot him in the face.”

He recited awkwardly like he’d never told the story before.

“For real?”

She asked wiping her brow.

“Real life isn’t ‘Call of Duty’. It’s actually quite sad. He was bold, this kid. In real Arab garb, like a young Sheik. I kind of admired him.”

“Why did you admire him?”

“No fear. If some foreign army was invading my country I would shoot at them too. What a World. The Witch was right.”

”What witch?”

“You know, the Wicked Witch of the West…”

“Oh, yeah.”

She kept twisting her hair.

“I recovered OK, but my leg kept being an issue and I ran out of time.”

He intoned.

”Does it hurt?”

”Always. I never took pain-killers.”

He paused and he looked across the sea of trees.

“Kid, if a tree falls in the forest and and there’s no-one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

He continued.

”What’s the answer?”

She queried.

”It does make a sound, but there’s no-one there to hear it.”

She understood.

They cleaned up their trash ‘to leave the trail better than they found it’ and they got ready to go on.

”You seem sophisticated for an Army guy.”

”I have a PhD in Physics.”

‘I may be smart, but I ain’t no fool, it’s US Army Physics School.’

He sang quietly.

”I spent years in Defense research and R&D while also doing my real job as an Artillery Officer.”

He said idly..

”Do you miss the Army, old man? Did you like being cool?”

She asked.

“I used to think other people thought Army people were cool, but now I think they see it like any other profession. No-one cares if you’re a cop or a banker or a plasterer.”

They got ready to head back up the trail, when she abruptly stopped and put her pack back down on her rock.

”How do I know you’re not making this all up, old man?”

She asked, hands on her hips again.

”Look me up online if you like. Of course, that could be all bullshit too, Miss. But out here… out here, kid… you can be whoever you want.”

”F@&k me, old man.”

She said, with one eye askance, blowing a lock of hair from her face, hands on hips, standing on the big flat rock.

Two marvelous green-eyed people all alone in the woods.

So he f@&ked her.

And they hiked on together.

 

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