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

Part II. TRACKS

5. TRACKS

I am technically fifteen days older than the Pacific Crest Trail. I was born in 1968, on September 17, and the trail was officially designated by an act of Congress on October 2 of that same year. The trail existed in various forms long before that—sections of it having been forged and pieced together since the 1930s, when a band of hikers and wilderness enthusiasts first took interest in creating a Mexico-to-Canada trail—but it wasn’t until 1968 that the PCT was designated and not until 1993 that it was complete. It was officially dedicated almost exactly two years before I woke that first morning among the Joshua trees that had stabbed me. The trail didn’t feel two years old to me. It didn’t even feel like it was about my age. It felt ancient. Knowing. Utterly and profoundly indifferent to me.

I woke at dawn but couldn’t bring myself to so much as sit up for an hour, lingering instead in my sleeping bag while reading my guidebook, still drowsy, though I’d slept for twelve hours—or at least I’d been reclining that long. The wind had awakened me repeatedly throughout the night, smacking against my tent in great bursts, sometimes hard enough so the walls whipped up against my head. It died down a few hours before dawn, but then it was something else that woke me: the silence. The irrefutable proof that I was out here in the great alone.

I crawled out of my tent and stood slowly, my muscles stiff from yesterday’s hike, my bare feet tender on the rocky dirt. I still wasn’t hungry, but I forced myself to eat breakfast, scooping two spoonfuls of a powdered soy substance called Better Than Milk into one of my pots and stirring water into it before adding granola. It didn’t taste better than milk to me. Or worse. It didn’t taste like anything. I might as well have been eating grass. My taste buds had seemingly gone numb. I continued to press the spoon into my mouth anyway. I’d need the nutrition for the long day ahead. I drank the last of the water in my bottles and awkwardly refilled them from my dromedary bag, which flopped heavily in my hands. According to The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, I was thirteen miles away from my first water source: Golden Oak Springs, which, in spite of yesterday’s poor showing, I expected to reach by day’s end.

I loaded my pack the way I had the day before in the motel, cramming and wedging things in until nothing more would fit, then attaching the rest by bungee cords to the outside. It took me an hour to break camp and set off. Almost immediately I stepped over a small pile of scat on the trail, a few feet from where I’d been sleeping. It was black as tar. A coyote, I hoped. Or was it a mountain lion? I searched the dirt for tracks, but saw none. I scanned the landscape, ready to see a large feline face among the sagebrush and rocks.

I began to walk, feeling experienced in a way I hadn’t the day before, less cautious with each step in spite of the scat, stronger beneath my pack. That strength crumbled within fifteen minutes, as I ascended and then ascended some more, pushing into the rocky mountains, walking switchback after switchback. My pack’s frame creaked behind me with each step, straining from the weight. The muscles of my upper back and shoulders were bound in tense, hot knots. Every so often, I stopped and bent over to brace my hands against my knees and shift the pack’s weight off my shoulders for a moment of relief before staggering on.

By noon I was up over 6,000 feet and the air had cooled, the sun suddenly disappearing behind clouds. Yesterday it had been hot in the desert, but now I shivered as I ate my lunch of a protein bar and dried apricots, my sweat-drenched T-shirt growing cold on my back. I dug the fleece jacket out of my clothing bag and put it on. Afterwards, I lay down on my tarp to rest for a few minutes and, without meaning to, fell asleep.

I woke to raindrops falling on my face and looked at my watch. I’d slept for nearly two hours. I hadn’t dreamed of anything, hadn’t had any awareness that I’d been sleeping at all, as if instead someone had come up behind me and knocked me unconscious with a rock. When I sat up I saw that I was engulfed in a cloud, the mist so impenetrable I couldn’t see beyond a few feet. I cinched on my pack and continued hiking through the light rain, though my whole body felt as if it were pushing through deep water with each step. I bunched up my T-shirt and shorts to cushion the spots on my hips and back and shoulders that were being rubbed raw by my pack, but that only made it worse.

I continued up, into the late afternoon and evening, unable to see anything except what was immediately before me. I wasn’t thinking of snakes, as I’d been the day before. I wasn’t thinking, I’m hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wasn’t even thinking, What have I gotten myself into? I was thinking only of moving myself forward. My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite: a bag of broken glass. Every time I moved, it hurt. I counted my steps to take my mind off the pain, silently ticking the numbers off in my head to one hundred before starting over again. The blocks of numbers made the walk slightly more bearable, as if I only had to go to the end of each one.

As I ascended, I realized I didn’t understand what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together. I’d not grown up around mountains. I’d walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. They’d seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing. Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top of the mountain or the series of mountains glommed together, I was wrong. There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down. So up I went until I reached what really was the top. I knew it was the top because there was snow. Not on the ground, but falling from the sky, in thin flakes that swirled in mad patterns, pushed by the wind.

I hadn’t expected it to rain in the desert, and I certainly hadn’t expected it to snow. As with the mountains, there’d been no deserts where I grew up, and though I’d gone on day hikes in a couple of them, I didn’t really understand what deserts were. I’d taken them to be dry, hot, and sandy places full of snakes, scorpions, and cactuses. They were not that. They were that and also a bunch of other things. They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing. My new existence was beyond analogy, I realized on that second day on the trail.

I was in entirely new terrain.

What a mountain was and what a desert was were not the only things I had not expected. I hadn’t expected the flesh on my tailbone and hips and the fronts of my shoulders to bleed. I hadn’t expected to average a bit less than a mile an hour, which is what, by my calculations—made possible by the highly descriptive guidebook—I’d been covering so far, lumping my many breaks in with the time I actually spent walking. Back when my hike on the PCT had been nothing but an idea, I’d planned to average fourteen miles a day over the course of my trip, though most days I’d actually walk farther than that because my anticipated average included the rest days I’d take every week or two, when I wouldn’t hike at all. But I hadn’t factored in my lack of fitness, nor the genuine rigors of the trail, until I was on it.

I descended in a mild panic until the snow turned back into mist and the mist to clear views of the muted greens and browns of the mountains that surrounded me near and far, their alternately sloping and jagged profiles a stark contrast to the pale sky. As I walked, the only sound was that of my boots crunching against the gravelly trail and the squeaky creak of my pack that was slowly driving me insane. I stopped and took my pack off and swabbed its frame with my lip balm in the place where I thought the squeak might live, but when I hiked on I realized that it had made no difference. I said a few words out loud to distract myself. It had been only a little more than forty-eight hours since I’d said goodbye to the men who’d given me a ride to the trail, but it felt like it had been a week and my voice sounded strange all by itself in the air. It seemed to me that I’d run into another hiker soon. I was surprised I hadn’t seen anyone yet, though my solitude came in handy an hour later, when suddenly I had the urge to do what I called in my mind use the bathroom, though out here using the bathroom meant maintaining an unsupported squat so I could shit in a hole of my own making. It was for this reason I’d brought the stainless-steel trowel that was looped through my backpack’s waistband in its own black nylon sheath with U-Dig-It printed on the front.

I didn’t dig it, but it was the backpacker way, so there was nothing else to do. I hiked until I found what seemed a reasonable spot to venture a few steps off the trail. I took my pack off, pulled my trowel from its sheath, and darted behind a sage bush to dig. The ground was a rocky, reddish beige and seemingly solid. Digging a hole in it was like attempting to penetrate a granite kitchen counter sprinkled with sand and pebbles. Only a jackhammer could’ve done the job. Or a man, I thought furiously, stabbing at the dirt with the tip of my trowel until I thought my wrists would break. I chipped and chipped uselessly, my body shimmering into a crampy cold sweat. I finally had to stand up just so I wouldn’t shit my pants. I had no choice but to pull them off—by then I’d abandoned underwear because they only exacerbated my raw hips situation—and simply squat down and go. I was so weak with relief when I was done that I almost toppled over into the pile of my own hot dung.

Afterwards, I limped around gathering rocks and built a small crap cairn, burying the evidence before hiking on.

I believed I was going to Golden Oak Springs, but by seven o’clock it was still nowhere in sight. I didn’t care. Too tired to be hungry, I skipped dinner again, thus saving the water I’d have used to make it, and found a spot flat enough to pitch my tent. The tiny thermometer that dangled from the side of my pack said it was 42 degrees. I peeled off my sweaty clothes and draped them over a bush to dry before I crawled into my tent.

In the morning, I had to force them on. Rigid as boards, they’d frozen overnight.

I reached Golden Oak Springs a few hours into my third day on the trail. The sight of the square concrete pool lifted my spirits enormously, not only because at the springs there was water, but also because humans had so clearly constructed it. I put my hands in the water, disturbing a few bugs that swam across its surface. I took out my purifier and placed its intake tube into the water and began to pump the way I’d practiced in my kitchen sink in Minneapolis. It was harder to do than I remembered it being, perhaps because when I’d practiced I’d only pumped a few times. Now it seemed to take more muscle to compress the pump. And when I did manage to pump, the intake tube floated up to the surface, so it took in only air. I pumped and pumped until I couldn’t pump anymore and I had to take a break; then I pumped again, finally refilling both my bottles and the dromedary bag. It took me nearly an hour, but it had to be done. My next water source was a daunting nineteen miles away.

I had every intention of hiking on that day, but instead I sat in my camp chair near the spring. It had warmed up at last, the sun shining on my bare arms and legs. I took off my shirt, pulled my shorts down low, and lay with my eyes closed, hoping the sun would soothe the patches of skin on my torso that had been worn raw by my pack. When I opened my eyes, I saw a small lizard on a nearby rock. He seemed to be doing push-ups.

“Hello, lizard,” I said, and he stopped his push-ups and held perfectly still before disappearing in a flash.

I needed to make time. I was already behind what I considered my schedule, but I could not force myself to leave the small verdant patch of live oaks that surrounded Golden Oak Springs that day. In addition to the raw patches of flesh, my muscles and bones ached from hiking, and my feet were dotted with an ever-increasing number of blisters. I sat in the dirt examining them, knowing there was little I could do to prevent the blisters from going from bad to worse. I ran my finger delicately over them and then up to the black bruise the size of a silver dollar that bloomed on my ankle—not a PCT injury, but rather evidence of my pre-PCT idiocy.

It was because of this bruise that I’d opted not to call Paul when I’d been so lonely at that motel back in Mojave; this bruise at the center of the story I knew he’d hear hiding in my voice. How I’d intended to stay away from Joe in the two days I spent in Portland before catching my flight to LA, but hadn’t. How I’d ended up shooting heroin with him in spite of the fact that I hadn’t touched it since that time he’d come to visit me in Minneapolis six months before.

“My turn,” I’d said urgently after watching him shoot up back in Portland. The PCT suddenly seeming so far in my future, though it was only forty-eight hours away.

“Give me your ankle,” Joe had said when he couldn’t find a vein in my arm.

I spent the day at Golden Oak Springs with my compass in hand, reading Staying Found. I found north, south, east, and west. I walked jubilantly without my pack down a jeep road that came up to the springs to see what I could see. It was spectacular to walk without my pack on, even in the state my feet were in, sore as my muscles were. I felt not only upright, but lifted, as if two elastic bands were attached to my shoulders from above. Each step was a leap, light as air.

When I reached an overlook, I stopped and gazed across the expanse. It was only more desert mountains, beautiful and austere, and more rows of white angular wind turbines in the distance. I returned to my camp, set up my stove, and attempted to make myself a hot meal, my first on the trail, but I couldn’t get my stove to sustain a flame, no matter what I tried. I pulled the little instruction book out, read the troubleshooting section, and learned that I’d filled the stove’s canister with the wrong kind of gas. I’d filled it with unleaded fuel instead of the special white gas that it was meant to have, and now the generator was clogged, its tiny pan blackened with soot by my efforts.

I wasn’t hungry anyway. My hunger was a numb finger, barely prodding. I ate a handful of tuna jerky flakes and fell asleep by 6:15.

Before I set out on the fourth day, I doctored my wounds. An REI worker had encouraged me to buy a box of Spenco 2nd Skin—gel patches meant to treat burns that also happened to be great for blisters. I plastered them in all the places my skin was bleeding or blistered or red with rash—on the tips of my toes and the backs of my heels, over my hip bones and across the front of my shoulders and lower back. When I was done, I shook my socks out, trying to soften them before I put them on. I had two pair, but each had become stiff with dirt and dried sweat. It seemed they were made of cardboard rather than cloth, though I switched them out every few hours, wearing one pair while the other air-dried, dangling from the bungee cords on my pack.

After I hiked away from the springs that morning, fully loaded down with 24.5 pounds of water again, I realized I was having a kind of strange, abstract, retrospective fun. In moments among my various agonies, I noticed the beauty that surrounded me, the wonder of things both small and large: the color of a desert flower that brushed against me on the trail or the grand sweep of the sky as the sun faded over the mountains. I was in the midst of such a reverie when I skidded on pebbles and fell, landing on the hard trail facedown with a force that took my breath away. I lay unmoving for a good minute, from both the searing pain in my leg and the colossal weight on my back, which pinned me to the ground. When I crawled out from beneath my pack and assessed the damage, I saw that a gash in my shin was seeping copious blood, a knot the size of a fist already forming beneath the gash. I poured a tiny bit of my precious water over it, flicking the dirt and pebbles out the best I could, then pressed a lump of gauze against it until the bleeding slowed and I limped on.

I walked the rest of the afternoon with my eyes fixed on the trail immediately in front of me, afraid I’d lose my footing again and fall. It was then that I spotted what I’d searched for days before: mountain lion tracks. It had walked along the trail not long before me in the same direction as I was walking—its paw prints clearly legible in the dirt for a quarter mile. I stopped every few minutes to look around. Aside from small patches of green, the landscape was mostly a range of blonds and browns, the same colors as a mountain lion. I walked on, thinking about the newspaper article I’d recently come across about three women in California—each one had been killed by a mountain lion on separate occasions over the past year—and about all those nature shows I’d watched as a kid in which the predators go after the one they judge to be the weakest in the pack. There was no question that was me: the one most likely to be ripped limb from limb. I sang aloud the little songs that came into my head—“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”—hoping that my terrified voice would scare the lion away, while at the same time fearing it would alert her to my presence, as if the blood crusted on my leg and the days-old stench of my body weren’t enough to lure her.

As I scrutinized the land, I realized that I’d come far enough by now that the terrain had begun to change. The landscape around me was still arid, dominated by the same chaparral and sagebrush as it had been all along, but now the Joshua trees that defined the Mojave Desert appeared only sporadically. More common were the juniper trees, piñon pines, and scrub oaks. Occasionally, I passed through shady meadows thick with grass. The grass and the reasonably large trees were a comfort to me. They suggested water and life. They intimated that I could do this.

Until, that is, a tree stopped me in my path. It had fallen across the trail, its thick trunk held aloft by branches just low enough that I couldn’t pass beneath, yet so high that climbing over it was impossible, especially given the weight of my pack. Walking around it was also out of the question: the trail dropped off too steeply on one side and the brush was too dense on the other. I stood for a long while, trying to map out a way past the tree. I had to do it, no matter how impossible it seemed. It was either that or turn around and go back to the motel in Mojave. I thought of my little eighteen-dollar room with a deep swooning desire, the yearning to return to it flooding my body. I backed up to the tree, unbuckled my pack, and pushed it up and over its rough trunk, doing my best to drop it over the other side without letting it fall so hard on the ground that my dromedary bag would pop from the impact. Then I climbed over the tree after it, scraping my hands that were already tender from my fall. In the next mile I encountered three other blown-down trees. By the time I made it past them all, the scab on my shin had torn open and was bleeding anew.

On the afternoon of the fifth day, as I made my way along a narrow and steep stretch of trail, I looked up to see an enormous brown horned animal charging at me.

“Moose!” I hollered, though I knew that it wasn’t a moose. In the panic of the moment, my mind couldn’t wrap around what I was seeing and a moose was the closest thing to it. “Moose!” I hollered more desperately as it neared. I scrambled into the manzanitas and scrub oaks that bordered the trail, pulling myself into their sharp branches as best I could, stymied by the weight of my pack.

As I did this, the species of the beast came to me and I understood that I was about to be mauled by a Texas longhorn bull.

“Mooooose!” I shouted louder as I grabbed for the yellow cord tied to the frame of my pack that held the world’s loudest whistle. I found it, brought it to my lips, closed my eyes, and blew with all my might, until I had to stop to get a breath of air.

When I opened my eyes, the bull was gone.

So was all the skin on the top of my right index finger, scraped off on the manzanitas’ jagged branches in my frenzy.

The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go. The bull, I acknowledged grimly, could be in either direction, since I hadn’t seen where he’d run once I closed my eyes. I could only choose between the bull that would take me back and the bull that would take me forward.

And so I walked on.

It took all I had to cover nine miles a day. To cover nine miles a day was a physical achievement far beyond anything I’d ever done. Every part of my body hurt. Except my heart. I saw no one, but, strange as it was, I missed no one. I longed for nothing but food and water and to be able to put my backpack down. I kept carrying my backpack anyway. Up and down and around the dry mountains, where Jeffrey pines and black oaks lined the trail, crossing jeep roads that bore the tracks of big trucks, though none were in sight.

On the morning of the eighth day I got hungry and dumped all my food out on the ground to assess the situation, my desire for a hot meal suddenly fierce. Even in my exhausted, appetite-suppressed state, by then I’d eaten most of what I didn’t have to cook—my granola and nuts, my dried fruit and turkey and tuna jerky, my protein bars and chocolate and Better Than Milk powder. Most of the food I had left needed to be cooked and I had no working stove. I didn’t have a resupply box waiting for me until I reached Kennedy Meadows, 135 trail miles into my journey. A well-seasoned hiker would have traversed those 135 miles in the time I’d been on the trail. At the rate I was moving, I wasn’t even halfway there. And even if I did make it through to Kennedy Meadows on the food I had, I still needed to have my stove repaired and filled with the proper fuel—and Kennedy Meadows, being more of a high-elevation base for hunters and hikers and fishers than a town, was no place to do it. As I sat in the dirt, ziplock bags of dehydrated food that I couldn’t cook scattered all around me, I decided to veer off the trail. Not far from where I sat, the PCT crossed a network of jeep roads that ran in various directions.

I began walking down one, reasoning that I’d eventually find civilization in the form of a highway that paralleled the trail approximately twenty miles to the east. I walked not knowing exactly what road I was on, going only on faith that I would find something, walking and walking in the bright hot sun. I could smell myself as I moved. I’d packed deodorant and each morning I’d swabbed it under my arms, but it made no difference anymore. I hadn’t bathed in over a week. My body was covered with dirt and blood, my hair, dense with dust and dried sweat, plastered to my head underneath my hat. I could feel the muscles in my body growing stronger by the day and at the same time, in equal measure, my tendons and joints breaking down. My feet hurt both inside and out, their flesh rubbed raw with blisters, their bones and muscles fatigued from the miles. The road was blissfully level or gently descending, a welcome break from the relentless up and down of the trail, but still I suffered. For long stretches I tried to imagine that I didn’t actually have feet, that instead my legs ended in two impervious stumps that could endure anything.

After four hours I began to regret my decision. I might starve to death out there or be killed by marauding longhorn bulls, but on the PCT at least I knew where I was. I reread my guidebook, uncertain by now that I was even on one of the roads they’d described in a cursory way. I took out my map and compass every hour to assess and reassess my position. I pulled out Staying Found to read again how exactly to use a map and compass. I studied the sun. I passed a small herd of cows that were unbound by a fence and my heart leapt at the sight of them, though none moved in my direction. They only stopped eating to lift their heads and watch me pass while I delicately chanted to them, “Cow, cow, cow.”

The land through which the road passed was surprisingly green in places, dry and rocky in others, and twice I passed tractors parked silent and eerie by the side of the road. I walked in a state of wonder at the beauty and the silence, but by late afternoon, apprehension rose in my throat.

I was on a road, but I had not seen a human being in eight days. This was civilization and yet, aside from the free-range cows and the two abandoned tractors, and the road itself, there was no sign of it. I felt as if I were starring in a science fiction movie, as if I were the only person left on the planet, and for the first time in my journey, I felt like I might cry. I took a deep breath to push away my tears and took off my pack and set it in the dirt to regroup. There was a bend in the road ahead and I walked around it without my pack to see what I could.

What I saw were three men sitting in the cab of a yellow pickup truck.

One was white. One was black. One was Latino.

It took perhaps sixty seconds for me to reach them on foot. They watched me with the same expression on their faces as I’d had when I saw the longhorn bull the day before. As if any moment they might yell “Moose!” My relief at the sight of them was enormous. Yet as I strode toward them my whole body tingled with the complicated knowledge that I was no longer the sole star in a film about a planet devoid of people. Now I was in a different kind of movie entirely: I was the sole woman with three men of unknown intent, character, and origin watching me from the shade of a yellow truck.

When I explained my situation to them through the open driver’s-side window, they gazed at me silently, their eyes shifting from startled to stunned to scoffing until they all burst out laughing.

“Do you know what you walked into, honey?” the white man asked me when he’d recovered, and I shook my head. He and the black man looked to be in their sixties, the Latino barely out of his teens.

“You see this here mountain?” he asked. He pointed straight ahead through the windshield from his position behind the wheel. “We’re getting ready to blow that mountain up.” He explained to me that a mining operation had bought rights to this patch of land and they were mining for decorative rock that people use in their yards. “My name’s Frank,” he said, tapping the brim of his cowboy hat. “And technically you’re trespassing, young lady, but we won’t hold that against you.” He looked at me and winked. “We’re just miners. We don’t own the land or else we’d have to shoot you.”

He laughed again and then gestured to the Latino in the middle and told me his name was Carlos.

“I’m Walter,” said the black man sitting by the passenger window.

They were the first people I’d seen since the two guys in the minivan with the Colorado plates who’d dropped me by the side of the road more than a week before. When I spoke, my voice sounded funny to me, seemed to be higher and faster than I’d remembered, as if it were something I couldn’t quite catch and hold on to, as if every word were a small bird fluttering away. They told me to get in the back of the truck, and we drove the short distance around the bend to retrieve my pack. Frank stopped and they all got out. Walter picked up my pack and was shocked by the weight.

“I was in Korea,” he said, hoisting it onto the truck’s metal bed with considerable effort. “And we ain’t never carried a pack that heavy. Or maybe once I carried one that heavy, but that was when I was being punished.”

Quickly, without my being much involved, it was decided I’d go home with Frank, where his wife would feed me dinner and I could bathe and sleep in a bed. In the morning, he’d help me get someplace where I could have my stove repaired.

“Now explain all this to me again?” Frank asked a few times, and each time all three of them listened with confused and rapt attention. They lived perhaps twenty miles from the Pacific Crest Trail and yet none of them had ever heard of it. None could fathom what business a woman had hiking it by herself, and Frank and Walter told me so, in jovial, gentlemanly terms.

“I think it’s kind of cool,” said Carlos after a while. He was eighteen, he told me, about to join the military.

“Maybe you should do this instead,” I suggested.

“Nah,” he said.

The men got into the truck again and I rode in the back for a couple of miles by myself, until we reached the spot where Walter had parked his truck. He and Carlos drove off in it and left me alone with Frank, who had another hour of work to do.

I sat in the cab of the yellow truck watching Frank go back and forth on a tractor, grading the road. Each time he passed, he waved to me, and as he rode away I surreptitiously explored the contents of his truck. In the glove compartment there was a silver flask of whiskey. I took a shallow swig, and quickly put it back, my lips on fire. I reached under the seat and pulled out a slim black case and opened it up and saw a gun as silver as the whiskey flask and shut it again and shoved it beneath the seat. The keys to the truck dangled from the ignition, and I thought idly about what would happen if I started it up and drove away. I took off my boots and massaged my feet. The little bruise on my ankle that I’d gotten from shooting heroin in Portland was still there, but faded to a faint morose yellow now. I ran my finger over it, over the bump of the tiny track mark still detectable at its core, amazed at my own ludicrousness, and then put my socks back on so I wouldn’t have to see it anymore.

“What kind of woman are you?” Frank asked when he was done with his work and he’d climbed into the truck beside me.

“What kind?” I asked. Our eyes locked and something in his unveiled itself, and I looked away.

“Are you like Jane? Like the kind of woman Tarzan would like?”

“I guess so,” I said, and laughed, though I felt a creeping anxiety, wishing that Frank would start the truck and drive. He was a big man, rangy and chiseled and tan. A miner who looked to me like a cowboy. His hands reminded me of all the hands of the men I’d known growing up, men who worked their bodies for a living, men whose hands would never get clean no matter how hard they scrubbed. As I sat there with him, I felt the way I always do when alone in certain circumstances with certain men—that anything could happen. That he could go about his business, mannerly and kind, or he could grab me and change the course of things entirely in an instant. With Frank in his truck, I watched his hands, his every move, each cell in my body on high alert, though I appeared as relaxed as if I’d just woken from a nap.

“I’ve got a little something for us,” he said, reaching into the glove compartment to remove the flask of whiskey. “It’s my reward for a hard day’s work.” He unscrewed the cap and handed it to me. “Ladies first.”

I took it from him and held it to my lips and let the whiskey wash into my mouth.

“Yep. That’s the kind of woman you are. That’s what I’m going to call you: Jane.” He took the flask from me and had a long drink.

“You know I’m not actually out here completely alone,” I blurted, making up the lie as I spoke. “My husband—his name is Paul—he’s also hiking. He started at Kennedy Meadows. Do you know where that is? We each wanted the experience of hiking alone, so he’s hiking south and I’m hiking north and we’re meeting in the middle, and then we’ll go the rest of the summer together.”

Frank nodded and took another sip from the flask. “Well, then he’s crazier than you,” he said, after thinking about it for a while. “It’s one thing to be a woman crazy enough to do what you’re doing. Another thing to be a man letting his own wife go off and do this.”

“Yeah,” I said, as if I agreed with him. “So anyway. We’ll be reunited in a few days.” I said it with such conviction that I felt convinced of it myself—that Paul that very minute was making his way toward me. That in fact we hadn’t filed for divorce two months before, on a snowy day in April. That he was coming for me. Or that he would know if I didn’t make it any further down the trail. That my disappearance would be noted in a matter of days.

But the opposite was true. The people in my life were like the Band-Aids that had blown away in the desert wind that first day on the trail. They scattered and then they were gone. No one expected me to even so much as call when I reached my first stop. Or the second or third.

Frank leaned back against his seat and adjusted his big metal belt buckle. “There’s something else I like to reward myself with after a hard day’s work,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked, with a tentative smile, my heart hammering in my chest. My hands on my lap felt tingly. I was acutely aware of my backpack, too far away in the bed of the truck. In a flash, I decided I’d leave it behind if I had to push the truck door open and run.

Frank reached under the seat, where the gun resided in its little black case.

He came up with a clear plastic bag. Inside, there were long thin ropes of red licorice, each bunch wound like a lasso. He held the bag out to me and asked, “You want some, Miss Jane?”