Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)

Part V. BOX OF RAIN

17. INTO A PRIMAL GEAR

Oregon was a hopscotch in my mind. I skipped it, spun it, leapt it in my imagination all the way from Crater Lake to the Bridge of the Gods. Eighty-five miles to my next box at a place called Shelter Cove Resort. One hundred and forty-three miles beyond that to my final box at Olallie Lake. Then I’d be on the homestretch to the Columbia River: 106 miles to the town of Cascade Locks, with a stop for a holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-I’m-almost-there drink at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood at the midpoint of that final stretch.

But that still added up to 334 miles to hike.

The good thing, I quickly understood, was that no matter what happened in those 334 miles, there would be fresh berries along the way. Huckleberries and blueberries, salmonberries and blackberries, all of them plump for the picking for miles along the trail. I raked the bushes with my hands as I walked, sometimes stopping to fill my hat, as I made my way leisurely through the Mount Thielsen and Diamond Peak Wildernesses.

It was cold. It was hot. The tree-bark-plucked-dead-chicken flesh on my hips grew another layer. My feet stopped bleeding and blistering, but they still hurt like hell. I hiked a few half days, going only seven or eight miles in an effort to alleviate the pain, but it did little good. They hurt deep. Sometimes as I walked, it felt like they were actually broken, like they belonged in casts instead of boots. Like I’d done something profound and irreversible to them by carrying all this weight over so many miles of punishing terrain. This, and yet I was stronger than ever. Even with that tremendous pack of mine, I was capable of hammering out the big miles now, though at day’s end I was still pretty much shattered.

The PCT had gotten easier for me, but that was different from it getting easy.

There were pleasant mornings and lovely swaths of afternoon, ten-mile stretches that I’d glide right over while barely feeling a thing. I loved getting lost in the rhythm of my steps and the click of my ski pole against the trail; the silence and the songs and sentences in my head. I loved the mountains and the rocks and the deer and rabbits that bolted off into the trees and the beetles and frogs that scrambled across the trail. But there would always come the point in each day when I didn’t love it anymore, when it was monotonous and hard and my mind shifted into a primal gear that was void of anything but forward motion and I walked until walking became unbearable, until I believed I couldn’t walk even one more step, and I stopped and made camp and efficiently did all the tasks that making camp required, all in an effort to get as quickly as possible to the blessed moment when I could collapse, utterly demolished, in my tent.

That’s how I felt by the time I dragged into the Shelter Cove Resort: spent and bored with the trail, empty of every single thing except gratitude I was there. I’d hopped another of my squares in the Oregon hopscotch. Shelter Cove Resort was a store surrounded by a rustic set of cabins on a wide green lawn that sat on the shore of a big lake called Odell that was rimmed by green forests. I stepped onto the porch of the store and went inside. There were short rows of snacks and fishing lures and a cooler with drinks inside. I found a bottle of Snapple lemonade, got a bag of chips, and walked to the counter.

“You a PCT hiker?” the man who stood behind the cash register asked me. When I nodded, he gestured to a window at the back of the store. “The post office is closed until tomorrow morning, but you can camp for free at a spot we’ve got nearby. And there are showers that’ll cost you a buck.”

I had only ten dollars left—as I’d now come to expect, my stops in Ashland and Crater Lake National Park had been pricier than I’d imagined they’d be—but I knew I had twenty dollars in the box I’d get the next morning, so when I handed the man my money to pay for the drink and the chips, I asked him for some quarters for the shower.

Outside, I cracked open the lemonade and chips and ate them as I made my way toward the little wooden bathhouse the man had pointed out, my anticipation tremendous. When I stepped inside, I was pleased to see that it was a one-person affair. I locked the door behind me, and it was my own domain. I’d have slept inside it if they’d let me. I took off my clothes and looked at myself in the scratched-up mirror. It wasn’t only my feet that had been destroyed by the trail, but it seemed my hair had been too—made coarser and strangely doubled in thickness, sprung alive by layers of dried sweat and trail dust, as if I were slowly but surely turning into a cross between Farrah Fawcett in her glory days and Gunga Din at his worst.

I put my coins in the little coin box, stepped into the shower, and luxuriated under the hot water, scrubbing myself with the sliver of soap someone had left there until it dissolved completely in my hands. Afterwards, I dried off with the same bandanna I used to wash my cooking pot and spoon with lake and creek water and dressed again in my dirty clothes. I hoisted Monster on and walked back to the store feeling a thousand times better. There was a wide porch in front with a long bench that ran along its sides. I sat down on it and looked out at Odell Lake while brushing my wet hair with my fingers. Olallie Lake and then Timberline Lodge and then Cascade Locks, I was thinking.

Skip, hop, spin, done.

“Are you Cheryl?” a man asked as he came out of the store. Within a moment, two other men had stepped out behind him. I knew immediately by their sweat-stained T-shirts they were PCT hikers, though they didn’t have their packs. They were young and handsome, bearded and tan and dirty, equal parts incredibly muscular and incredibly thin. One was tall. One was blond. One had intense eyes.

I was so very glad I’d taken that shower.

“Yes,” I said.

“We’ve been following you a long way,” said the blond one, a smile blooming across his thin face.

“We knew we were going to catch you today,” said the one with the intense eyes. “We saw your tracks on the trail.”

“We’ve been reading your notes in the trail register,” added the tall one.

“We were trying to figure out how old you’d be,” said the blond one.

“How old did you think I’d be?” I asked, smiling like a maniac.

“We thought either about our age or fifty,” said the one with the intense eyes.

“I hope you’re not disappointed,” I said, and we laughed and blushed.

They were Rick, Josh, and Richie, all of them three or four years younger than me. They were from Portland, Eugene, and New Orleans, respectively. They’d all gone to college together at an insular Minnesota liberal arts school an hour outside the Twin Cities.

“I’m from Minnesota!” I exclaimed when they told me, but they knew that already, from my notes in the trail register.

“You don’t have a trail name yet?” one of them asked me.

“Not that I know of,” I said.

They had a trail name: the Three Young Bucks, which they’d been given by other hikers in southern California, they told me. The name fit. They were three young and buckish men. They’d come all the way from the Mexican border. They hadn’t skipped the snow like everyone else. They’d hiked over it, right through it—regardless of the fact that it was a record snow year—and because they’d done so, they were at the back of the Mexico-to-Canada thru-hiker pack, which is how, at this late date, they’d met me. They hadn’t met Tom, Doug, Greg, Matt, Albert, Brent, Stacy, Trina, Rex, Sam, Helen, John, or Sarah. They hadn’t even stopped in Ashland. They hadn’t danced to the Dead or eaten chewable opium or had sex with anyone pressed up against a rock on a beach. They’d just plowed right on through, hiking twenty-some miles a day, gaining on me since the moment I’d leapfrogged north of them when I’d bypassed to Sierra City. They weren’t just three young bucks. They were three young extraordinary hiking machines.

Being in their company felt like a holiday.

We walked to the campsite the store set aside for us, where the Three Young Bucks had already ditched their packs, and we cooked dinner and talked and told stories about things both on and off the trail. I liked them immensely. We clicked. They were sweet, cute, funny, kind guys and they made me forget how ruined I’d felt just an hour before. In their honor, I made the freeze-dried raspberry cobbler I’d been carrying for weeks, saving it for a special occasion. When it was done, we ate it with four spoons from my pot and then slept in a row under the stars.

In the morning, we collected our boxes and took them back to our camp to reorganize our packs before heading on. I opened my box and pushed my hands through the smooth ziplock bags of food, feeling for the envelope that would contain my twenty-dollar bill. It had become such a familiar thrill for me now, that envelope with the money inside, but this time I couldn’t find it. I dumped everything out and ran my fingers along the folds inside the box, searching for it, but it wasn’t there. I didn’t know why. It just wasn’t. I had six dollars and twelve cents.

“Shit,” I said.

“What?” asked one of the Young Bucks.

“Nothing,” I said. It was embarrassing to me that I was constantly broke, that no one was standing invisibly behind me with a credit card or a bank account.

I loaded my food into my old blue bag, sick with the knowledge that I’d have to hike 143 miles to my next box with only six dollars and twelve cents in my pocket. At least I didn’t need money where I was going, I reasoned, in order to calm myself. I was heading through the heart of Oregon—over Willamette Pass and McKenzie Pass and Santiam Pass, through the Three Sisters and Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson Wildernesses—and there’d be no place to spend my six dollars and twelve cents anyway, right?

I hiked out an hour later with the Three Young Bucks, crisscrossing with them all day; occasionally we stopped together for breaks. I was amazed by what they ate and how they ate it. They were like barbarians loose upon the land, shoving three Snickers bars apiece into their mouths on a single fifteen-minute break, though they were thin as sticks. When they took off their shirts, their ribs showed right through. I’d lost weight too, but not as much as the men—an unjust pattern I’d observed across the board in the other male and female hikers I’d met that summer as well—but I didn’t much care anymore whether I was fat or thin. I cared only about getting more food. I was a barbarian too, my hunger voracious and monumental. I’d reached the point where if a character in one of the novels I was reading happened to be eating, I had to skip over the scene because it simply hurt too much to read about what I wanted and couldn’t have.

I said goodbye to the Three Young Bucks that afternoon. They were going to push on a few miles past where I planned to camp because in addition to being three young incredible hiking machines, they were eager to reach Santiam Pass, where they’d be getting off the trail for a few days to visit friends and family. While they were living it up, showering and sleeping in actual beds and eating foods I didn’t even want to imagine, I’d get ahead of them again and they’d once more be following my tracks.

“Catch me if you can,” I said, hoping they would, sad to part ways with them so soon. I camped alone near a pond that evening still aglow from having met them, thinking about the stories they’d told me, as I massaged my feet after dinner. Another one of my blackened toenails was separating from my toe. I gave it a tug and it came all the way off. I tossed it into the grass.

Now the PCT and I were tied. The score was 5–5.

I sat in my tent with my feet propped up on my food bag, reading the book I’d gotten in my box—Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things—until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I turned off my headlamp and lay in the dark. As I dozed off, I heard an owl in a tree directly overhead. Who-whoo, who-whoo, it hooted with a call that was at once so strong and so gentle that I woke up.

“Who-whoo,” I called back to it, and the owl was silent.

“Who-whoo,” I tried again.

“Who-whoo,” it replied.

I hiked into the Three Sisters Wilderness, named for the South, North, and Middle Sister mountains in its boundaries. Each of the Sister peaks was more than 10,000 feet high, the third-, fourth-, and fifth-highest peaks in Oregon. They were the crown jewels among a relatively close gathering of volcanic peaks I’d be passing in the coming week, but I couldn’t see them yet as I approached from the south on the PCT, singing songs and reciting scraps of poems in my head as I hiked through a tall forest of Douglas firs, white pines, and mountain hemlocks, past lakes and ponds.

A couple of days after I’d said goodbye to the Three Young Bucks, I took a detour a mile off the trail to the Elk Lake Resort, a place mentioned in my guidebook. It was a little lakeside store that catered to fishermen, much like the Shelter Cove Resort, only it had a café that served burgers. I hadn’t planned to make the detour, but when I reached the trail junction on the PCT, my endless hunger won out. I arrived just before eleven in the morning. I was the only person in the place aside from the man who worked there. I scanned the menu, did the math, and ordered a cheeseburger and fries and a small Coke; then I sat eating them in a rapture, backed by walls lined with fishing lures. My bill was six dollars and ten cents. For the first time in my entire life, I couldn’t leave a tip. To leave the two pennies I had left would’ve seemed an insult. I pulled out a little rectangle of stamps I had in the ziplock bag that held my driver’s license and placed it near my plate.

“I’m sorry—I don’t have anything extra, but I left you something else,” I said, too embarrassed to say what it was.

The man only shook his head and murmured something I couldn’t make out.

I walked down to the empty little beach along Elk Lake with the two pennies in my hand, wondering if I should toss them into the water and make a wish. I decided against it and put them in my shorts pocket, just in case I needed two cents between now and the Olallie Lake ranger station, which was still a sobering hundred miles away. Having nothing more than those two pennies was both horrible and just the slightest bit funny, the way being flat broke at times seemed to me. As I stood there gazing at Elk Lake, it occurred to me for the first time that growing up poor had come in handy. I probably wouldn’t have been fearless enough to go on such a trip with so little money if I hadn’t grown up without it. I’d always thought of my family’s economic standing in terms of what I didn’t get: camp and lessons and travel and college tuition and the inexplicable ease that comes when you’ve got access to a credit card that someone else is paying off. But now I could see the line between this and that—between a childhood in which I saw my mother and stepfather forging ahead over and over again with two pennies in their pocket and my own general sense that I could do it too. Before I left, I hadn’t calculated how much my journey would reasonably be expected to cost and saved up that amount plus enough to be my cushion against unexpected expenses. If I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been here, eighty-some days out on the PCT, broke, but okay—getting to do what I wanted to do even though a reasonable person would have said I couldn’t afford to do it.

I hiked on, ascending to a 6,500-foot viewpoint from which I could see the peaks to the north and east: Bachelor Butte and glaciated Broken Top and—highest of them all—South Sister, which rose to 10,358 feet. My guidebook told me that it was the youngest, tallest, and most symmetrical of the Three Sisters. It was composed of over two dozen different kinds of volcanic rock, but it all looked like one reddish-brown mountain to me, its upper slopes laced with snow. As I hiked into the day, the air shifted and warmed again and I felt as if I were back in California, with the heat and the way the vistas opened up for miles across the rocky and green land.

Now that I was officially among the Three Sisters, I didn’t have the trail to myself anymore. On the high rocky meadows I passed day hikers and short-term backpackers and a Boy Scout troop out for an overnight. I stopped to talk to some of them. Do you have a gun? Are you afraid? they asked in an echo of what I’d been hearing all summer. No, no, I said, laughing a little. I met a pair of men my age who’d served in Iraq during Desert Storm and were still in the army, both of them captains. They were clean-cut, strapping, and handsome, seemingly straight off a recruitment poster. We took a long afternoon break together near a creek, into which they’d placed two cans of beer to cool. It was their last night out on a five-day trip. They’d hauled those two cans the whole time so they could drink them on the final night to celebrate.

They wanted to know everything about my trip. How it felt to walk all those days; the things I’d seen and the people I’d met and what in the hell had happened to my feet. They insisted on lifting my pack and were stupefied to find that it was heavier than either of theirs. They got ready to hike away and I wished them well, still lounging in the sun on the creek’s bank.

“Hey, Cheryl,” one of them turned to holler once he was almost out of sight on the trail. “We left one of the beers for you in the creek. We did it this way so you can’t say no. We want you to have it ’cause you’re tougher than us.”

I laughed and thanked them and went down to the creek to retrieve it, feeling flattered and lifted. I drank the beer that night near Obsidian Falls, which was named for the jet-black glass shards that wondrously cover the trail, making each step an ever-shifting clatter beneath me, as if I were walking across layers upon layers of broken china.

I was less wonder-struck the next day as I walked over McKenzie Pass into the Mount Washington Wilderness, and the trail became rockier still as I crossed the basalt flows of Belknap Crater and Little Belknap. These weren’t pretty shiny shards of rock among spring green meadows. Now I was walking over a five-mile swath of black volcanic rocks that ranged in size from baseball to soccer ball, my ankles and knees constantly twisting. The landscape was exposed and desolate, the sun searing relentlessly down on me as I struggled along in the direction of Mount Washington. When I made it to the other side of the craters, I walked gratefully among the trees and realized the crowds had disappeared. I was alone again, just the trail and me.

The following day I hiked over Santiam Pass and crossed into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, named for the dark and stately summit to my north. I hiked past the rocky multipeaked Three Fingered Jack, which rose like a fractured hand into the sky, and continued hiking into the evening as the sun disappeared behind a blanket of clouds and a thick mist slowly enveloped me. The day had been hot, but within thirty minutes the temperature dropped 20 degrees as the wind picked up and then suddenly stilled. I walked as quickly as I could up the trail, the sweat dripping from my body in spite of the chill, searching for a place to camp. It was precariously close to dark, but there was no place flat or clear enough to pitch my tent. By the time I found a spot near a small pond, it was as if I were inside a cloud, the air eerily still and silent. In the time it took me to pitch my tent and filter a bottle of water with my insufferably slow water purifier, the wind started up again in great violent gasps, whipping the branches of the trees overhead. I’d never been in a mountain storm. I’m not afraid, I reminded myself as I crawled into my tent without eating dinner, feeling too vulnerable outside, though I knew my tent offered little protection. I sat in expectant wonder and fear, bracing for a mighty storm that never came.

An hour after dark, the air went still again and I heard coyotes yipping in the distance, as if they were celebrating the fact that the coast was clear. August had turned to September; the temperatures at night were almost always bitingly cold. I got out of my tent to pee, wearing my hat and gloves. When I scanned the trees with my headlamp, they caught on something, and I froze as the reflection of two bright pairs of eyes gazed back at me.

I never found out whose they were. An instant later they were gone.

The next day was hot and sunny, as if the strange storm the night before had been only a dream. I missed a fork in the trail and later discovered that I was no longer on the PCT but on the Oregon Skyline Trail, which paralleled the PCT roughly a mile to the west. It was an alternate route my guidebook detailed adequately, so I continued on, unworried. The trail would lead back to the PCT the next day. The day after that I’d be at Olallie Lake.

Hop, skip, jump, done.

I walked in a dense forest all afternoon, once rounding a bend to come upon a trio of enormous elks, who ran into the trees with a thunderous clamor of hooves. That evening, only moments after I stopped to make camp near a trailside pond, two bow hunters appeared, walking southbound down the trail.

“You got any water?” one of them burst out immediately.

“We can’t drink the pond water, can we?” asked the other, the desperation apparent on his face.

They both looked to be in their midthirties. One man was sandy-haired and wiry, though he had a little belly; the other was a redhead tall and meaty enough to be a linebacker. They both wore jeans with big buck knives hitched onto their belts and enormous backpacks that had bows and arrows slung across them.

“You can drink the pond water, but you need to filter it first,” I said.

“We don’t have a filter,” said the sandy-haired man, taking his pack off and setting it near a boulder that sat in the small clear area between the pond and the trail where I’d planned to camp. I’d only just set down my own pack when they’d appeared.

“You can use mine, if you’d like,” I said. I unzipped Monster’s pocket, took out my water purifier, and handed it to the sandy-haired man, who took it, walked to the mucky shore of the pond, and squatted down.

“How do you use this thing?” he called to me.

I showed him how to put the intake tube in the water with the float and how to pump the handle against the cartridge. “You’ll need your water bottle,” I added, but he and his big red-haired friend looked at each other regretfully and told me they didn’t have one. They were only up for the day hunting. Their truck was parked on a forest road about three miles away, down a side trail I’d recently crossed. They thought they’d have reached it by now.

“Have you gone all day without drinking?” I asked.

“We brought Pepsi,” the sandy-haired man answered. “We each had a six-pack.”

“We’re headed down to our truck after this, so we only need enough water to get us another bit, but we’re both dying of thirst,” the red-haired man said.

“Here,” I said, going to my pack to pull out the water I had left—about a quarter of one of my bottles. I handed it to the red-haired man and he took a long sip and handed it to his friend, who drank the rest. I felt sorry for them, but I was sorrier that they were here with me. I was exhausted. I ached to take off my boots and change out of my sweaty clothes, pitch my tent, and make my dinner so I could lose myself in The Ten Thousand Things. Plus, I got a funny feeling from these men, with their Pepsi and their bows and their big buck knives and the way they’d stormed right up to me. Something that gave me the kind of pause I’d felt way back in that first week on the trail, when I’d been sitting in Frank’s truck and I thought that perhaps he meant me harm, only to have him pull out licorice instead. I let my mind settle on that licorice.

“We’ve got the empty Pepsi cans,” said the red-haired man. “We can pump water into your bottle and then pour it into two of those.”

The sandy-haired man squatted at the pond’s shore with my empty water bottle and my purifier, and the red-haired man took his pack off and dug through it to get a couple of empty Pepsi cans. I stood watching them with my arms wrapped around myself, growing more chilled by the minute. The wet backs of my shorts and T-shirt and bra were now icy cold against my skin.

“It’s really hard to pump,” the sandy-haired man said after a while.

“You have to give it some muscle,” I said. “That’s just how my filter is.”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “There’s nothing coming out.”

I went to him and saw that the float was all the way up near the cartridge and the open end of the intake tube had sunk into the muck at the shallow bottom of the pond. I took the purifier from him, pulled the tube up into the clear water, and tried to pump. It was entirely locked, jammed solid with muck.

“You weren’t supposed to let the tube go into the mud like that,” I said. “You were supposed to keep it up in the water.”

“Shit,” he said without apology.

“What are we going to do?” his friend asked. “I’ve got to get something to drink.”

I went to my pack, took out my first aid kit, and pulled out the little bottle of iodine pills I carried. I hadn’t used them since I was at that frog-ridden reservoir on Hat Creek Rim and half out of my head with dehydration myself.

“We can use these,” I said, grimly understanding that I’d be drinking iodine water until I managed to repair my purifier, if it was even repairable.

“What are they?” asked the sandy-haired man.

“Iodine. You put them in and wait thirty minutes and then the water is safe to drink.” I went to the lake and submerged my two bottles in the clearest-looking spot I could reach and put iodine pills in each of them, the men followed suit with their Pepsi cans, and I put a pill in each.

“Okay,” I said, looking at my watch. “The water will be good to go at seven ten.” I hoped that with that they’d hike away, but they only sat down, settling in.

“So what are you doing out here all by yourself?” asked the sandy-haired man.

“I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail,” I said, and instantly wished I hadn’t. I didn’t like the way he was looking me, openly appraising my body.

“All by yourself?”

“Yeah,” I said reluctantly, equal parts leery of telling the truth and afraid to concoct a lie that would only make me feel more jangled than I suddenly did.

“I can’t believe a girl like you would be all alone up here. You’re way too pretty to be out here alone, if you ask me. How long of a trip are you on?” he asked.

“A longish one,” I answered.

“I don’t believe that a young thing like her could be out here by herself, do you?” he said to his red-haired friend, as if I weren’t even there.

“No,” I said before the red-haired man could answer him. “Anyone can do it. I mean, it’s just—”

“I wouldn’t let you come out here if you were my girlfriend, that’s for shit shock sure,” the red-headed man said.

“She’s got a really nice figure, don’t she?” the sandy-haired man said. “Healthy, with some soft curves. Just the kind I like.”

I made a complacent little sound, a sort of half laugh, though my throat was clotted suddenly with fear. “Well, nice to meet you guys,” I said, moving toward Monster. “I’m hiking on a bit farther,” I lied, “so I’d better get going.”

“We’re heading out too. We don’t want to run out of light,” said the red-haired man, pulling on his pack, and the sandy-haired man did too. I watched them in a fake posture of readying myself to leave, though I didn’t want to have to leave. I was tired and thirsty, hungry and chilled. It was heading toward dark and I’d chosen to camp on this pond because my guidebook—which only loosely described this section of the trail because it was not in fact the PCT—implied that this was the last place for a stretch where it was possible to pitch a tent.

When they left, I stood for a while, letting the knot in my throat unclench. I was fine. I was in the clear. I was being a little bit silly. They’d been obnoxious and sexist and they’d ruined my water purifier, but they hadn’t done anything to me. They hadn’t meant harm. Some guys just didn’t know any better. I dumped the things out of my pack, filled my cooking pot with pond water, lit my stove, and set the water to boil. I peeled off my sweaty clothes, pulled out my red fleece leggings and long-sleeved shirt, and dressed in them. I laid out my tarp and was shaking my tent out of its bag when the sandy-haired man reappeared. At the sight of him I knew that everything I’d felt before was correct. That I’d had a reason to be afraid. That he’d come back for me.

“What’s going on?” I asked in a falsely relaxed tone, though the sight of him there without his friend terrified me. It was as if I’d finally come across a mountain lion and I’d remembered, against all instinct, not to run. Not to incite him with my fast motions or antagonize him with my anger or arouse him with my fear.

“I thought you were heading on,” he said.

“I changed my mind,” I said.

“You tried to trick us.”

“No, I didn’t. I just changed my—”

“You changed your clothes too,” he said suggestively, and his words expanded in my gut like a spray of gunshot. My entire body flushed with the knowledge that when I’d taken off my clothes, he’d been nearby, watching me.

“I like your pants,” he said with a little smirk. He took off his backpack and set it down. “Or leggings, if that’s what they’re called.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said numbly, though I could hardly hear my own words for what felt like a great clanging in my head, which was the realization that my whole hike on the PCT could come to this. That no matter how tough or strong or brave I’d been, how comfortable I’d come to be with being alone, I’d also been lucky, and that if my luck ran out now, it would be as if nothing before it had ever existed, that this one evening would annihilate all those brave days.

“I’m talking about liking your pants,” the man said with a touch of irritation. “They look good on you. They show off your hips and legs.”

“Please don’t say that,” I said as unfalteringly as I could.

“What? I’m complimenting you! Can’t a guy give a girl a compliment anymore? You should be flattered.”

“Thank you,” I said in an attempt to pacify him, hating myself for it. My mind went to the Three Young Bucks, who perhaps weren’t even back on the trail yet. It went to the world’s loudest whistle that no one but the red-haired man would hear. It went to the Swiss army knife too far away in the upper-left-side pocket of my pack. It went to the not-yet-boiling water in the handleless pot on my little stove. And then it landed on the arrows that rose from the top of the sandy-haired man’s pack. I could feel the invisible line between those arrows and me like a hot thread. If he tried to do anything to me, I’d get to one of those arrows and stab him in the throat.

“I think you’d better get going,” I said evenly. “It’ll be getting dark soon.” I crossed my arms hard against my chest, acutely aware of the fact that I wasn’t wearing a bra.

“It’s a free country,” he said. “I’ll go when I’m ready. I got a right, you know.” He picked up his Pepsi can and gently swirled around the water inside.

“What the hell are you doing?” a man’s voice called, and a moment later the red-haired man appeared. “I had to hike all the way back up here to find you. I thought you got lost.” He looked at me accusingly, as if I were to blame, as if I’d conspired with the sandy-haired man to get him to stay. “We got to go now if we’re going to make it back to the truck before dark.”

“You be careful out here,” the sandy-haired man said to me, pulling on his pack.

“Bye,” I said very quietly, wanting neither to answer him nor to rile him by not answering.

“Hey. It’s seven ten,” he said. “It’s safe to drink the water now.” He lifted his Pepsi can in my direction and made a toast. “Here’s to a young girl all alone in the woods,” he said, and took a sip and then turned to follow his friend down the trail.

I stood for a while the way I had the first time they left, letting all the knots of fear unclench. Nothing had happened, I told myself. I am perfectly okay. He was just a creepy, horny, not-nice man, and now he’s gone.

But then I shoved my tent back into my pack, turned off my stove, dumped the almost-boiling water out into the grass, and swished the pot in the pond so it cooled. I took a swig of my iodine water and crammed my water bottle and my damp T-shirt, bra, and shorts back into my pack. I lifted Monster, buckled it on, stepped onto the trail, and started walking northward in the fading light. I walked and I walked, my mind shifting into a primal gear that was void of anything but forward motion, and I walked until walking became unbearable, until I believed I couldn’t walk even one more step.

And then I ran.