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

Part II. TRACKS

6. A BULL IN BOTH DIRECTIONS

I devoured a good six feet of Frank’s red licorice as he drove, and I’d have eaten a good six feet more if it had been available.

“You wait here,” he told me once we pulled up in the little dirt driveway that ran alongside his house—a trailer in a small encampment of trailers in the desert brush. “I’ll go in and tell Annette who you are.”

A few minutes later they emerged together. Annette was plump and gray-haired, the expression on her face unwelcoming and suspicious. “Is that all you got?” she grouched as Frank pulled my pack from his truck. I followed them inside, where Frank immediately disappeared into the bathroom.

“Make yourself at home,” said Annette, which I took to mean that I should sit at the dining table that bordered the kitchen while she made me a plate of food. A small blaring television sat on the far corner of the table, the volume so loud it was almost hard to hear. Another story about the O. J. Simpson trial. I watched it until Annette came and set the plate down before me, then turned off the TV.

“It’s all you hear about. O.J. this and O.J. that,” she said. “You wouldn’t think there were children starving in Africa. You go on and start,” she said, gesturing to my food.

“I’ll wait,” I said in a casual tone that belied the desperation I felt. I gazed down at my plate. It was piled high with barbecued ribs, canned corn, and potato salad. I thought to rise and wash my hands, but I feared doing so might delay dinner. It didn’t matter. The notion of whether it was necessary to wash one’s hands before eating was now as distant to me as the news report on the TV.

“Eat!” Annette commanded, setting a plastic cup of cherry Kool-Aid before me.

I lifted a forkful of potato salad to my mouth. It was so good I almost fell out of my chair.

“You a college girl?”

“Yes,” I said, oddly flattered that I appeared that way to her, in spite of my filth and stench. “Or I used to be. I graduated four years ago,” I said, and then took another bite of food, realizing it was technically a lie. Though I’d promised my mother in the last days of her life that I would finish my BA, I hadn’t. My mother had died on the Monday of our spring break and I’d returned to school the following Monday. I’d staggered my way through a full load of classes that last quarter, half blind with grief, but I did not receive my degree because I’d failed to do one thing. I had not written a five-page paper for an intermediate-level English class. It should have been a breeze, but when I tried to start writing, I could only stare at my blank computer screen. I walked across the stage in a cap and gown and accepted the little document baton that was handed to me, but when I unrolled it, it said what I knew it would: that until I finished that paper, I would not have my bachelor’s degree. I had only my college loans, which, by my calculations, I’d be paying off until I was forty-three.

The next morning Frank left me at a convenience store on the highway after instructing me to catch a ride to a town called Ridgecrest. I sat on the front porch of the store until a guy who distributed chips came along and said yes when I asked him for a ride, in spite of the fact that it was against company rules to pick up a hitchhiker. His name was Troy, he told me once I’d climbed into his big truck. He drove around southern California five days a week, delivering bags of chips of all varieties. He’d been married to his high school sweetheart for seventeen years, since he was seventeen.

“Seventeen years out of the cage, and seventeen years in,” he joked, though his voice was raw with regret. “I’d do anything to trade places with you,” he said as we drove. “I’m a free spirit who never had the balls to be free.”

He left me at Todd’s Outdoor Supply Store, where Mr. Todd himself dismantled my stove, cleaned it, installed a new filter, sold me the correct gas, and then led me through a stove-lighting trial run just to be sure. I bought more duct tape and 2nd Skin for my wounded flesh and went to a restaurant and ordered a chocolate malt and a cheeseburger with fries, feeling as I had at dinner the evening before: shattered by each delicious bite. Afterwards, I walked through town as cars whizzed by, the faces of the drivers and passengers turning to look at me with cold curiosity. I passed fast-food joints and car dealerships, unsure of whether I should stick out my thumb for a ride or spend a night in Ridgecrest and head back to the PCT the next day. As I stood near an intersection, trying to figure out which direction to go, a scruffy-looking man rode up beside me on a bicycle. He held a wrinkled paper bag.

“You heading out of town?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said. His bike was too small for him—made for a boy instead of a man—with garish flames painted along the sides.

“Which direction you headed?” he asked. His body odor was so strong I almost coughed, though I guessed I smelled almost as bad as he did. In spite of the bath I’d taken the night before at Frank and Annette’s after dinner, I was still dressed in my dirty clothes.

“I might stay in a motel for the night,” I told him.

“Don’t do that!” he bellowed. “I did that and they put me in jail.”

I nodded, realizing that he thought that I was like him. A drifter. An outlaw. Not a so-called college girl, or even a former one. I didn’t even try to explain about the PCT.

“You can have this,” he said, holding the paper bag out to me. “It’s bread and bologna. You can make sandwiches.”

“No, thanks,” I said, both repulsed and touched by his offer.

“Where you from?” he asked, reluctant to ride away.

“Minnesota.”

“Hey!” he cried, a smile spreading across his grubby face. “You’re my sister. I’m from Illinois. Illinois and Minnesota are like neighbors.”

“Well, almost neighbors—there’s Wisconsin in between,” I said, and instantly regretted it, not wanting to hurt his feelings.

“But that’s still neighbors,” he said, and held his open palm down low so I would give him five.

I gave him five.

“Good luck,” I said to him as he pedaled away.

I walked to a grocery store and wandered up and down the aisles before touching anything, dazzled by the mountains of food. I bought a few things to replace the food I’d eaten when I hadn’t been able to make my dehydrated dinners and walked along a busy thruway until I found what looked like the cheapest motel in town.

“My name’s Bud,” the man behind the counter said when I asked for a room. He had a hangdog expression and a smoker’s cough. Tan jowls hung off the sides of his wrinkled face. When I told him about hiking the PCT, he insisted on washing my clothes. “I can just throw them in with the sheets and towels, darling. It ain’t nothing at all,” he said when I protested.

I went to my room, stripped, and put on my rainpants and raincoat, though it was a hot June day; then I walked back to the office and handed my little pile of dirty clothes shyly over to Bud, thanking him again.

“It’s ’cause I like your bracelet. That’s why I offered,” said Bud. I pulled up the sleeve of my raincoat and we looked at it. It was a faded silver cuff, a POW/MIA bracelet my friend Aimee had clamped onto my wrist as we said goodbye on a street in Minneapolis weeks before.

“Let me see who you got there.” He reached across the counter and took my wrist and turned it so he could read the words. “William J. Crockett,” he said, and let go. Aimee had done some research and told me who William J. Crockett was: an air force pilot who’d been two months shy of his twenty-sixth birthday when his plane was shot down in Vietnam. She’d worn the bracelet for years without ever taking it off. Since the moment she’d given it to me, neither had I. “I’m a Vietnam vet myself, so I keep my eyes out for that sort of thing. That’s also why I gave you the only room we got that has a tub,” said Bud. “I was there in ’63, when I was barely eighteen. But now I’m against war. All kinds of war. One hundred percent against it. Except in certain cases.” There was a cigarette burning in a plastic ashtray nearby that Bud picked up but didn’t bring to his lips. “So I’m gonna assume you know there’s a lot of snow up there on the Sierra Nevada this year.”

“Snow?” I asked.

“It’s been a record year. Entirely socked in. There’s a BLM office here in town if you want to call them and ask about conditions,” he said, and took a drag. “I’ll have your clothes ready in an hour or two.”

I returned to my room and took a shower and then a bath. Afterwards, I pulled back the bedspread and lay on the bedsheets. My room didn’t have an air conditioner, but I felt cool anyway. I felt better than I’d ever felt in all of my life, now that the trail had taught me how horrible I could feel. I got up, rummaged through my pack, then reclined on the bed and read As I Lay Dying while Bud’s words about the snow thrummed through me.

I knew snow. I had grown up in Minnesota, after all. I’d shoveled it, driven in it, and balled it up in my hands to throw. I’d watched it through windows for days as it fell into piles that stayed frozen for months on the ground. But this snow was different. It was snow that covered the Sierra Nevada so indomitably that the mountains had been named for it—in Spanish, Sierra Nevada means “the snowy range.”

It seemed absurd to me that I’d been hiking in that snowy range all along—that the arid mountains I’d traversed since the moment I set foot on the PCT were technically part of the Sierra Nevada. But they weren’t the High Sierras—the formidable range of granite peaks and cliffs beyond Kennedy Meadows that mountaineer and writer John Muir had famously explored and adored more than a hundred years before. I hadn’t read Muir’s books about the Sierra Nevada before I hiked the PCT, but I knew he was the founder of the Sierra Club. Saving the Sierra Nevada from sheepherders, mining operations, tourist development, and other encroachments of the modern age had been his lifelong passion. It’s thanks to him and those who supported his cause that most of the Sierra Nevada is still wilderness today. Wilderness that was now apparently snowbound.

I wasn’t entirely taken by surprise. The authors of my guidebook had warned me about the snow I might encounter in the High Sierras, and I’d come prepared. Or at least the version of prepared I’d believed was sufficient before I began hiking the PCT: I’d purchased an ice ax and mailed it to myself in the box I would collect at Kennedy Meadows. It had been my assumption when I purchased the ice ax that I’d need it only occasionally, for the highest stretches of trail. The guidebook assured me that in a regular year most of the snow would be melted by the time I hiked the High Sierras in late June and July. It hadn’t occurred to me to investigate whether this had been a regular year.

I found a phone book in the bedside table and paged through it, then dialed the number for the local office of the Bureau of Land Management.

“Oh, yes, there’s lots of snow up there,” said the woman who answered. She didn’t know the specifics, she told me, but she knew for certain it had been a record year for snowfall in the Sierras. When I told her I was hiking the PCT, she offered to give me a ride to the trail. I hung up the phone feeling more relieved that I didn’t have to hitchhike than worried about the snow. It simply seemed so far away, so impossible.

The kind woman from the BLM brought me back to the trail at a place called Walker Pass the next afternoon. As I watched her drive away, I felt both chastened and slightly more confident than I had nine days before when I’d begun my hike. In the previous days, I’d been charged by a Texas longhorn bull, torn and bruised by falls and mishaps, and had navigated my way down a remote road past a mountain that was soon to be blown up. I’d made it through miles of desert, ascended and descended countless mountains, and gone days without seeing another person. I’d worn my feet raw, chafed my body until it bled, and carried not only myself over miles of rugged wilderness, but also a pack that weighed more than half of what I did. And I’d done it alone.

That was worth something, right? I thought as I walked through the rustic campground near Walker Pass and found a place to camp. It was late but still light, June in the last week of spring. I pitched my tent and cooked my first hot meal on the trail on my newly functioning stove—dried beans and rice—and watched the sky’s light fade in a brilliant show of colors over the mountains, feeling like the luckiest person alive. It was fifty-two miles to Kennedy Meadows, sixteen to my first water on the trail.

In the morning, I loaded my pack with another full supply of water and crossed Highway 178. The next road that crossed the Sierra Nevada was 150 as-the-crow-flies miles north, near Tuolumne Meadows. I followed the PCT along its rocky, ascendant course in the hot morning sun, catching views of the mountains in all directions, distant and close—the Scodies to the near south, the El Paso Mountains far off to the east, the Dome Land Wilderness to the northwest, which I’d reach in a few days. They all looked the same to me, though each was subtly different. I’d become used to having mountains constantly in sight; my vision had changed over the past week. I’d adjusted to the endless miles-long panoramas; become familiar with the perception that I was walking on the land in the very place where it met the sky. The crest.

But mostly I didn’t look up. Step by step, my eyes were on the sandy and pebbly trail, my feet sometimes slipping beneath me as I climbed up and switched back. My pack squeaked annoyingly with each step, the sound still emanating from that spot only a few inches from my ear.

As I hiked, I tried to force myself not to think about the things that hurt—my shoulders and upper back, my feet and hips—but I succeeded for only short bursts of time. As I traversed the eastern flank of Mount Jenkins, I paused several times to take in vast views of the desert that spread east below me to the vanishing point. By afternoon I had come to a rockslide and stopped. I looked up the mountain and followed the slide with my eyes all the way down. There was a great river of angular fist-sized metamorphic rocks—in place of the once-flat two-foot-wide trail that any human could walk through. And I wasn’t even a normal human. I was a human with a god-awful load on my back and without even a trekking pole to balance myself. Why I had neglected to bring a trekking pole, while not failing to bring a foldable saw, I did not know. Finding a stick was impossible—the sparse low and scraggly trees around me were of no use. There was nothing to do but to push on.

My legs trembled as I stepped onto the rockslide in a half squat, fearful that my usual hunching in a remotely upright position would upset the rocks and cause them to slide en masse farther down the mountain, carrying me with them. I fell once, landing hard on my knee, and then I rose to pick my way even more tediously across, the water in the giant dromedary bag on my back sloshing with each step. When I reached the other side of the slide, I was so relieved it didn’t matter that my knee was pulsing in pain and bleeding. That’s behind me, I thought with gratitude, but I was mistaken.

I had to cross three more rockslides that afternoon.

I camped that night on a high saddle between Mount Jenkins and Mount Owens, my body traumatized by what it had taken to get there, though I’d covered only 8.5 miles. I had silently lambasted myself for not hiking more quickly, but now, as I sat in my camp chair catatonically spooning my dinner into my mouth from the hot pot that sat in the dirt between my feet, I was only thankful that I’d made it this far. I was at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the sky everywhere around me. To the west I could see the sun fading over the undulating land in a display of ten shades of orange and pink; to the east the seemingly endless desert valley stretched out of sight.

The Sierra Nevada is a single uptilted block of the earth’s crust. Its western slope comprises 90 percent of the range, the peaks gradually descending to the fertile valleys that eventually give way to the California coast—which parallels the PCT roughly two hundred miles to the west for most of the way. The eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada is entirely different: a sharp escarpment that drops abruptly down to a great flat plain of desert that runs all the way to the Great Basin in Nevada. I’d seen the Sierra Nevada only once before, when I’d come west with Paul a few months after we left New York. We’d camped in Death Valley and the next day drove for hours across a landscape so desolate it seemed not of this earth. By midday the Sierra Nevada appeared on the western horizon, a great white impenetrable wall rising from the land. It was nearly impossible for me to conjure that image now as I sat on the high mountain saddle. I wasn’t standing back from that wall anymore. I was on its spine. I stared out over the land in a demolished rapture, too tired to even rise and walk to my tent, watching the sky darken. Above me, the moon rose bright, and below me, far in the distance, the lights in the towns of Inyokern and Ridgecrest twinkled on. The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight. This is what I came for, I thought. This is what I got.

When at last I stood and readied my camp for bed, I realized that for the first time on the trail, I hadn’t put on my fleece anorak as the sun went down. I hadn’t even put on a long-sleeved shirt. There wasn’t the slightest chill in the air, even 7,000 feet up. That night I was grateful for the soft warm air on my bare arms, but by ten the next morning my gratitude was gone.

It was seared off of me by the relentless, magnificent heat.

By noon the heat was so merciless and the trail so exposed to the sun I wondered honestly if I would survive. It was so hot the only way I could keep going was by stopping every ten minutes to rest for five, when I would chug water from my bottle that was hot as tea. As I hiked, I moaned again and again, as if that would provide some cooling relief, but nothing changed. The sun still stared ruthlessly down on me, not caring one iota whether I lived or died. The parched scrub and scraggly trees still stood indifferently resolute, as they always had and always would.

I was a pebble. I was a leaf. I was the jagged branch of a tree. I was nothing to them and they were everything to me.

I rested in what shade I could find, fantasizing in intricate detail about cold water. The heat was so intense that my memory of it is not so much a sensation as a sound, a whine that rose to a dissonant keen with my head at its very center. Despite the things I’d endured so far on the trail, I’d never once considered quitting. But now, only ten days out, I was done. I wanted off.

I staggered north toward Kennedy Meadows, furious with myself for having come up with this inane idea. Elsewhere, people were having barbecues and days of ease, lounging by lakes and taking naps. They had access to ice cubes and lemonade and rooms whose temperature was 70 degrees. I knew those people. I loved those people. I hated them too, for how far away they were from me, near death on a trail few had ever even heard of. I was going to quit. Quit, quit, quit, I chanted to myself as I moaned and hiked and rested (ten, five, ten, five). I was going to get to Kennedy Meadows, retrieve my resupply box, eat every candy bar I’d packed into it, and then hitch a ride to whatever town the driver who picked me up was going to. I would get myself to a bus station and from there go anywhere.

Alaska, I decided instantly. Because in Alaska there was most definitely ice.

As the notion of quitting settled in, I came up with another reason to bolster my belief that this whole PCT hike had been an outlandishly stupid idea. I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind. Why, oh why, had my good mother died and how is it I could live and flourish without her? How could my family, once so close and strong, have fallen apart so swiftly and soundly in the wake of her death? What had I done when I’d squandered my marriage with Paul—the solid, sweet husband who’d loved me so steadfastly? Why had I gotten myself in a sad tangle with heroin and Joe and sex with men I hardly knew?

These were the questions I’d held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones I’d wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trail—when spring was on the very cusp of turning officially to summer—because I was so hot I thought my head would explode.

When I wasn’t internally grumbling about my physical state, I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head. Up against the silence, my brain answered back with fragmented lines from tunes I’d heard over the course of my life—bits from songs I loved and clear renditions of jingles from commercials that almost drove me mad. I spent hours trying to push ads for Doublemint Gum and Burger King out of my head, an afternoon trying to recall the next line to an Uncle Tupelo song that went “Falling out the window. Tripping on a wrinkle in the rug.…” An entire day was spent trying to piece together all the words of Lucinda Williams’s “Something About What Happens When We Talk.”

My feet on fire, my flesh rubbed raw, my muscles and joints aching, the finger that had been denuded of its skin when the bull charged me throbbing with a mild infection, my head broiling and abuzz with random bits of music, at the end of the blistering tenth day of my hike I practically crawled into a shady grove of cottonwoods and willows that my guidebook identified as Spanish Needle Creek. Unlike many of the places my guidebook listed that had falsely promising names that included the word creek, Spanish Needle Creek truly was one, or at least it was good enough for me—a few inches of water shimmered over the rocks on the creek’s shaded bed. Immediately, I shed my pack and my boots and my clothes and sat naked in the cool, shallow water, splashing it over my face and head. In my ten days on the trail, I’d yet to see another human, so I lounged without concern for anyone coming along, dizzy with ecstasy as I laboriously pumped the cold water through my water purifier and guzzled bottle after bottle.

When I woke the next morning to the soft sound of Spanish Needle Creek, I dallied in my tent, watching the sky brighten through the mesh ceiling. I ate a granola bar and read my guidebook, bracing myself for the trail ahead. I rose finally and went to the creek and bathed in it one last time, savoring the luxury. It was only nine in the morning, but it was hot already, and I dreaded leaving the shady patch along the creek. As I soaked in the four-inch-deep water, I decided I wasn’t going to hike to Kennedy Meadows. Even that was too far at the rate I was going. My guidebook listed a road the trail would cross in twelve miles. On it, I’d do what I’d done before: walk down it until I found a ride. Only this time I wasn’t going to come back.

As I prepared to depart, I heard a noise to the south. I turned and saw a bearded man wearing a backpack coming up the trail. His trekking pole made a sharp clicking sound against the packed dirt with each step.

“Hello!” he called out to me with a smile. “You must be Cheryl Strayed.”

“Yes,” I said in a faltering voice, every bit as stunned to see another human being as I was to hear him speak my name.

“I saw you on the trail register,” he explained when he saw my expression. “I’ve been following your tracks for days.” I’d soon become used to people approaching me in the wilderness with such familiarity; the trail register served as a kind of social newsletter all summer long. “I’m Greg,” he said, shaking my hand before he gestured to my pack: “Are you actually carrying that thing?”

We sat in the shade talking about where we were going and where we’d been. He was forty, an accountant from Tacoma, Washington, with a straitlaced, methodical accountant’s air. He’d been on the PCT since early May, having started where the trail begins at the Mexican border, and he planned to hike all the way to Canada. He was the first person I’d met who was doing essentially what I was doing, though he was hiking much farther. He didn’t need me to explain what I was doing out here. He understood.

As we spoke, I felt both elated to be in his company and flattened by my growing awareness that he was an entirely different breed: as thoroughly prepared as I was not; versed in trail matters I didn’t even know existed. He’d been planning his hike for years, gathering information by corresponding with others who’d hiked the PCT in summers before, and attending what he referred to as “long-trail” hiking conferences. He rattled off distances and elevations and talked in great detail about the pros and cons of internal versus external pack frames. He repeatedly mentioned a man I’d never heard of named Ray Jardine—a legendary long-distance hiker, Greg told me in a reverent tone. Jardine was an expert and indisputable guru on all things PCT, especially on how to hike it without carrying a heavy load. He asked me about my water purifier, my daily protein intake, and the brand of the socks I was wearing. He wanted to know how I treated my blisters and how many miles I was averaging a day. Greg was averaging twenty-two. That very morning he’d hiked the seven miles I had agonized over the entire previous day.

“It’s been harder than I thought it would be,” I confessed, my heart heavy with the knowledge that I was even more of a big fat idiot than I’d initially reckoned. “It’s all I can do to cover eleven or twelve,” I lied, as if I’d even done that.

“Oh, sure,” Greg said, unsurprised. “That’s how it was for me at the beginning too, Cheryl. Don’t worry about it. I’d go fourteen or fifteen miles if I was lucky and then I’d be beat. And that was with me training ahead of time, taking weekend trips with my pack fully loaded and so on. Being out here is different. It takes your body a couple of weeks to get conditioned enough to do the big miles.”

I nodded, feeling enormously consoled, less by his answer than by his very presence. Despite his clear superiority, he was my kin. I wasn’t sure if he felt the same way about me. “What have you been doing with your food at night?” I asked meekly, afraid of his answer.

“Usually I sleep with it.”

“Me too,” I gushed with relief. Before my trip I’d had notions of diligently hanging my food from trees each night, as every good backpacker is advised to do. So far I’d been too exhausted to even consider it. Instead, I’d kept my food bag inside my tent with me—the very place one is warned not to put it—using it as a pillow upon which to prop my swollen feet.

“I pull it right into my tent,” said Greg, and a little something inside of me flared to life. “That’s what the backcountry rangers do. They just don’t tell anyone about it, because they’d catch hell if some bear came along and mauled someone because of it. I’ll be hanging my food in the more touristy parts of the trail, where the bears have become habituated, but until then I wouldn’t worry about it.”

I nodded confidently, hoping to communicate the false notion that I knew how to correctly hang a food bag from a tree in such a way that would thwart a bear.

“But then of course we might not even make it up into those areas,” said Greg.

“We might not make it?” I said, blushing with the irrational thought that he’d somehow divined my plan to quit.

“Because of the snow.”

“Right. The snow. I heard there was some snow.” In the heat I’d forgotten about it entirely. Bud and the woman from the BLM and Mr. Todd and the man who tried to give me the bag of bread and bologna seemed like nothing now but a far-off dream.

“The Sierra’s completely socked in,” Greg said, echoing Bud’s words. “Lots of hikers have given up entirely because there was a record snow-pack this year. It’s going to be tough to get through.”

“Wow,” I said, feeling a mix of both terror and relief—now I’d have both an excuse and the language for quitting. I wanted to hike the PCT, but I couldn’t! It was socked in!

“In Kennedy Meadows we’re going to have to make a plan,” Greg said. “I’ll be laying over there a few days to regroup, so I’ll be there when you arrive and we can figure it out.”

“Great,” I said lightly, not quite willing to tell him that by the time he got to Kennedy Meadows I would be on a bus to Anchorage.

“We’ll hit snow just north of there and then the trail’s buried for several hundred miles.” He stood and swung his pack on with ease. His hairy legs were like the poles of a dock on a Minnesota lake. “We picked the wrong year to hike the PCT.”

“I guess so,” I said as I attempted to lift my pack and lace my arms casually through its straps, the way Greg had just done, as if by sheer desire to avoid humiliation I’d suddenly sprout muscles twice the strength of the ones I had, but my pack was too heavy and I still couldn’t get it an inch off the ground.

He stepped forward to help me lift it on. “That’s one heavy pack,” he said as we struggled it onto my back. “Much heavier than mine.”

“It’s so good to see you,” I said once I had it on, attempting to not seem to be hunching in a remotely upright position because I had to, but rather leaning forward with purpose and intention. “I haven’t seen anyone on the trail so far. I thought there’d be more—hikers.”

“Not many people hike the PCT. And certainly not this year, with the record snow. A lot of people saw that and postponed their trips until next year.”

“I wonder if that’s what we should do?” I asked, hoping he’d say he thought that was a great idea, coming back next year.

“You’re the only solo woman I’ve met so far out here and the only one I’ve seen on the register too. It’s kind of neat.”

I replied with a tiny whimper of a smile.

“You all ready to go?” he asked.

“Ready!” I said, with more vigor than I had. I followed him up the trail, walking as fast as I could to keep up, matching my steps with the click of his trekking pole. When we reached a set of switchbacks fifteen minutes later, I paused to take a sip of water.

“Greg,” I called to him as he continued on. “Nice to meet you.”

He stopped and turned. “Only about thirty miles to Kennedy Meadows.”

“Yeah,” I said, giving him a weak nod. He’d be there the next morning. If I continued on, it would take me three days.

“It’ll be cooler up there,” Greg said. “It’s a thousand feet higher than this.”

“Good,” I replied wanly.

“You’re doing fine, Cheryl,” he said. “Don’t worry about it too much. You’re green, but you’re tough. And tough is what matters the most out here. Not just anyone could do what you’re doing.”

“Thanks,” I said, so buoyed by his words that my throat constricted with emotion.

“I’ll see you up in Kennedy Meadows,” he said, and began to hike away.

“Kennedy Meadows,” I called after him with more clarity than I felt.

“We’ll make a plan about the snow,” he said before disappearing from sight.

I hiked in the heat of that day with a new determination. Inspired by Greg’s faith in me, I didn’t give quitting another thought. As I hiked, I pondered the ice ax that would be in my resupply box. The ice ax that allegedly belonged to me. It was black and silver and dangerous-looking, an approximately two-foot-long metal dagger with a shorter, sharper dagger that ran crosswise at the end. I bought it, brought it home, and placed it in the box labeled Kennedy Meadows, assuming that by the time I actually reached Kennedy Meadows I would know how to use it—having by then been inexplicably transformed into an expert mountaineer.

By now, I knew better. The trail had humbled me. Without some kind of ice ax training, there wasn’t any question that I was far more likely to impale myself with it than I was to use it to prevent myself from sliding off the side of a mountain. On my trailside breaks that day, in the hundred-plus-degree heat, I flipped through the pages of my guidebook to see if it said anything about how to use an ice ax. It did not. But of hiking over snow-covered ground it said that both crampons and an ice ax were necessary, as well as a firm grasp of how to use a compass, “an informed respect for avalanches,” and “a lot of mountaineering sense.”

I slammed the book shut and hiked on through the heat into the Dome Land Wilderness, heading toward what I hoped would be an ice ax crash course taught by Greg in Kennedy Meadows. I hardly knew him and yet he had become a beacon for me, my guiding star to the north. If he could do this, I could, I thought furiously. He wasn’t tougher than me. No one was, I told myself, without believing it. I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me?

The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth it was true, I said it anyway: No one.

As I hiked, the terrain slowly shifted from desert to forest, the trees grew taller and more lush, the shallow streambeds more likely to have a seep of water, the meadows dense with wildflowers. There had been flowers in the desert too, but they’d been less abundant, more exotic, preciously and grandiosely festooned. The wildflowers I encountered now were a more common bunch, growing as they did in bright blankets or rimming the shaded edges of the trail. Many of them were familiar to me, being the same species as or close cousins to those that prospered in Minnesota summers. As I passed them, I felt the presence of my mother so acutely that I had the sensation that she was there; once I even paused to look around for her before I could go on.

On the afternoon of the day I met Greg, I saw my first bear on the trail, though technically I heard it first, an unmistakably muscular snort that stopped me in my tracks. When I looked up, I saw an animal as big as a refrigerator standing on all fours on the trail twenty feet away from me. The instant our eyes met, the same startled expression swept across both of our faces.

“BEAR!” I yelped, and reached for my whistle the moment after he turned and ran, his thick rump rippling in the sun as my whistle peeped its murderously loud peep.

It took me a few minutes to work up the courage to continue on. In addition to the reality that I now had to walk in the very direction in which the bear had run, my mind was reeling with the fact that he didn’t seem to be a black bear. I’d seen lots of black bears before; the woods of northern Minnesota were thick with them. Often, I’d startled them in this very manner while walking or running on the gravel road I grew up on. But those black bears were different from the one I’d just seen. They were black. Black as tar. Black as planting soil you bought in big bags from the garden store. This bear hadn’t been like any of them. Its coat was cinnamon brown, almost blond in places.

I began to walk tentatively, attempting to make myself believe that surely the bear was not a grizzly or a brown bear—the black bear’s more predatory ursine cousins. Of course it was not. I knew it could not be. Those bears didn’t live in California any longer; they’d all been killed off years ago. And yet why was the bear I’d seen so very, very, indisputably … not black?

I held my whistle for an hour, preparing to blow it while also singing songs so as not to take the refrigerator-sized whatever sort of bear it was by surprise should I come upon him again. I belted out my old fallback tunes—the ones I’d used when I’d become convinced the week before that a mountain lion was stalking me—singing Twinkle, twinkle, little star … and Country roads, take me home … in artificially brave tones, then letting the mix-tape radio station in my head take over so I simply sang fragments of songs I longed to hear. “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido. YEAHH!”

It was because of this very singing that I almost stepped on a rattlesnake, having failed to absorb that the insistent rattling that increased in volume was actually a rattle. And not just any old rattle, but one attached to the tail end of a serpent as thick as my forearm.

“AH!” I shrieked when my eyes landed on the snake coiled up a few feet away from me. If I’d been able to jump, I would have. I jumped but my feet didn’t leave the trail. Instead, I scrambled away from the snake’s small blunt head, yowling in terror. It was a good ten minutes before I could work up the courage to step around it in a wide arc, my entire body quaking.

The rest of the day was a slow march, my eyes scanning both the ground and the horizon, terrified at every sound, while also chanting to myself: I am not afraid. Shaken as I was, I couldn’t help but feel grateful to glimpse a couple of the animals that shared this place that had begun to feel a tiny bit like mine. I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of the first leg of my journey, I’d begun to feel a blooming affection for the PCT. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel like my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle I’d painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster.

I meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear.

I hiked the final miles to the narrow flat where I made camp the night before I reached Kennedy Meadows in the familiar agony that had been my constant companion. I was relieved to see that a wide fallen tree bordered my campsite. It was long dead, its trunk worn gray and smooth, shorn of its bark ages ago. It formed a high smooth bench, where I sat and removed my pack with ease. As soon as I got my pack off, I lay on the tree as if it were a couch—a sweet respite from the ground. The tree was just wide enough that if I lay still, I could rest without rolling off either side. It felt spectacular. I was hot, thirsty, hungry, and tired, but all of those things were nothing in comparison to the burning pain that emanated from the knots in my upper back. I closed my eyes, sighing with relief.

A few minutes later, I felt something on my leg. I looked down and saw that I was covered with black ants, an entire army of them, making a conga line from a hole in the tree and swarming my body. I shot off the log, shouting louder than I had when I’d seen the bear and the rattlesnake, batting at the harmless ants, breathless with an unreasonable fear. And not just of the ants, but of everything. Of the fact that I wasn’t of this world, even if I insisted I was.

I cooked my dinner and retreated into my tent as soon as I could, well before dark, simply so I could be inside, even if inside only meant being surrounded by a thin sheet of nylon. Before I began hiking the PCT, I’d imagined that I’d sleep inside my tent only when it threatened to rain, that most nights I’d lay my sleeping bag on top of my tarp and sleep beneath the stars, but about this, like so much else, I’d been wrong. Each evening, I ached for the shelter of my tent, for the smallest sense that something was shielding me from the entire rest of the world, keeping me safe not from danger, but from vastness itself. I loved the dim, clammy dark of my tent, the cozy familiarity of the way I arranged my few belongings all around me each night.

I pulled out As I Lay Dying, put on my headlamp, and positioned my food bag beneath my calves while saying a little prayer that the bear I saw earlier in the day—the black bear, I emphasized—wouldn’t bust through my tent to steal it from me.

When I woke at eleven to the yipping of coyotes, the light from my headlamp had grown dim; the Faulkner novel was still open on my chest.

In the morning, I could barely stand up. It wasn’t just that morning, day 14. It had been happening for the past week, an ever-increasing array of problems and pains that made it impossible for me to stand or walk like a regular person when I first emerged from my tent. It was as if I were suddenly a very old woman, limping into the day. I’d managed to carry Monster more than a hundred miles over rough and sometimes steep terrain by then, but as each new day began, I couldn’t even tolerate my own weight; my feet tender and swollen from the previous day’s exertions; my knees too stiff to do what a normal gait required of them.

I’d finished ambling barefoot around my camp and was packed up and ready to go when two men appeared on the trail from the south. Like Greg, they greeted me by name before I’d even spoken a word. They were Albert and Matt, a father-and-son team from Georgia, hiking the entire trail. Albert was fifty-two; Matt, twenty-four. Both had been Eagle Scouts and they looked it. They had a clean-cut sincerity and a military precision that belied their grizzled beards, their dust-caked calves, and the five-foot stench cloud that surrounded their every move.

“Jiminy Cricket,” Albert drawled when he saw Monster. “What you got in there, girly-o? Looks like everything but the kitchen sink.”

“Just backpacking things,” I said, reddening with shame. Each of their packs was about half the size of mine.

“I’m just teasing you,” Albert said kindly. We chatted about the scorching trail behind us and the frozen one ahead. As we spoke, I felt just as I had when I’d met Greg: giddy to be with them, though being with them only underscored how insufficiently I’d prepared for my hike. I could feel their eyes on me, read them as they shifted from one thought to the next, as they registered my preposterous pack and my dubious grasp of the business at hand, while also acknowledging the moxie it had taken to make it this far on my own. Matt was a big lug of a guy, built like a linebacker, his reddish-brown hair curling softly over his ears and glinting golden on his gargantuan legs. He was only a couple of years younger than me, but so shy he struck me as a kid, letting his dad do most of the talking while he stood off to the side.

“Pardon my question,” asked Albert, “but how many times are you urinating a day in this heat?”

“Um … I haven’t been keeping track. Should I be?” I asked, feeling exposed yet again for the wilderness fraud that I was. I hoped they hadn’t been camped near enough to hear me shrieking about the ants the evening before.

“Ideally, it’s seven,” said Albert crisply. “That’s the old Boy Scout rule, though with this heat and the waterless conditions on the trail, combined with the extreme level of exertion, we’ve been lucky if it’s three.”

“Yeah. Me too,” I said, though in fact there’d been one twenty-four-hour period—in the midst of the most ferocious heat—that I hadn’t gone even once. “I saw a bear south of here,” I said to change the subject. “A brown bear, which was a black bear, of course. But it looked brown. In color, I mean, the black bear.”

“They’re just cinnamon-colored down in these parts,” said Albert. “Bleached by the California sun, I suppose.” He tapped the brim of his hat. “We’ll be seeing you up in Kennedy Meadows, miss. Pleasure to meet you.”

“There’s another guy up ahead named Greg,” I said. “I met him a couple of days ago and he said he’d still be there.” My insides leapt when I spoke Greg’s name, for no other reason than he was the only person I knew on the trail.

“We’ve been following him for a good stretch, so it’ll be nice to finally meet him,” said Albert. “There’s another couple a fellas behind us. Most likely they’ll be along any time,” he said, and turned to look down the trail in the direction that we’d come from. “Two kids named Doug and Tom, about the same age as y’all. They started not long before you did, a touch south.”

I waved Albert and Matt off and sat for a few minutes pondering the existence of Doug and Tom, and then I rose and spent the next several hours hiking harder than ever, with the single-minded goal that they would not catch up to me before I reached Kennedy Meadows. I was dying to meet them, of course—but I wanted to meet them as the woman who’d left them in her dust instead of the woman they’d overtaken. Like Greg, Albert and Matt had started hiking at the Mexican border and were by now well seasoned, logging twenty-some miles each day. But Doug and Tom were different. Like me, they’d started only recently on the PCT—not long before you did, Albert had said, and just a touch south. His words replayed themselves in my mind, as if replaying them would wring more meaning and specificity from them. As if by them I could discern how fast or slow I was traveling in comparison to Doug and Tom. As if the answer to that question held the key to my success or failure at this—the hardest thing I’d ever done.

I stopped in my tracks when that thought came into my mind, that hiking the PCT was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Immediately, I amended the thought. Watching my mother die and having to live without her, that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Leaving Paul and destroying our marriage and life as I knew it for the simple and inexplicable reason that I felt I had to—that had been hard as well. But hiking the PCT was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard. It was strange but true. And perhaps I’d known it in some way from the very beginning. Perhaps the impulse to purchase the PCT guidebook months before had been a primal grab for a cure, for the thread of my life that had been severed.

I could feel it unspooling behind me—the old thread I’d lost, the new one I was spinning—while I hiked that morning, the snowy peaks of the High Sierras coming into occasional view. As I walked, I didn’t think of those snowy peaks. Instead, I thought of what I would do once I arrived at the Kennedy Meadows General Store that afternoon, imagining in fantastic detail the things I would purchase to eat and drink—cold lemonade and candy bars and junk food I seldom ate in my regular life. I pictured the moment when I would lay hands on my first resupply box, which felt to me like a monumental milestone, the palpable proof that I’d made it at least that far. Hello, I said to myself in anticipation of what I’d say once I arrived at the store, I’m a PCT hiker here to pick up my box. My name is Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed—those two words together still rolled somewhat hesitantly off my tongue. Cheryl had been my name forever, but Strayed was a new addition—only officially my name since April, when Paul and I had filed for divorce. Paul and I had taken on each other’s last names when we married, and our two names became one long four-syllable name, connected by a hyphen. I never liked it. It was too complicated and cumbersome. Seldom did anyone manage to get it right, and even I stumbled over it a good portion of the time. Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, an old grumpy man I briefly worked for called me, flummoxed by my actual name, and I couldn’t help but see his point.

In that uncertain period when Paul and I had been separated for several months but were not yet sure we wanted to get divorced, we sat down together to scan a set of no-fault, do-it-yourself divorce documents we’d ordered over the phone, as if holding them in our hands would help us decide what to do. As we paged through the documents, we came across a question that asked the name we’d each have after the divorce. The line beneath the question was perfectly blank. On it, to my amazement, we could write anything. Be anyone. We laughed about it at the time, making up incongruous new names for ourselves—names of movie stars and cartoon characters and strange combinations of words that weren’t rightly names at all.

But later, alone in my apartment, that blank line stuck in my heart. There was no question that if I divorced Paul, I’d choose a new name for myself. I couldn’t continue to be Cheryl Hyphen-Hyphen, nor could I go back to having the name I had had in high school and be the girl I used to be. So in the months that Paul and I hung in marital limbo, unsure of which direction we’d move in, I pondered the question of my last name, mentally scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl and making lists of characters from novels I admired. Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress.

I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.

Cheryl Strayed I wrote repeatedly down a whole page of my journal, like a girl with a crush on a boy she hoped to marry. Only the boy didn’t exist. I was my own boy, planting a root in the very center of my rootlessness. Still, I had my doubts. To pick a word out of the dictionary and proclaim it mine felt a bit fraudulent to me, a bit childish or foolish, not to mention a touch hypocritical. For years I’d privately mocked the peers in my hippy, artsy, lefty circles who’d taken on names they’d invented for themselves. Jennifers and Michelles who became Sequoias and Lunas; Mikes and Jasons who became Oaks and Thistles. I pressed on anyway, confiding in a few friends about my decision, asking them to begin calling me by my new name to help me test it out. I took a road trip and each time I happened across a guest book I signed it Cheryl Strayed, my hand trembling slightly, feeling vaguely guilty, as if I were forging a check.

By the time Paul and I decided to file our divorce papers, I’d broken in my new name enough that I wrote it without hesitation on the blank line. It was the other lines that gave me pause, the endless lines demanding signatures that would dissolve our marriage. Those were the ones I completed with far more trepidation. I didn’t exactly want to get divorced. I didn’t exactly not want to. I believed in almost equal measure both that divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I had. By then my marriage had become like the trail in that moment when I realized there was a bull in both directions. I simply made a leap of faith and pushed on in the direction where I’d never been.

The day we signed our divorce papers, it was April in Minneapolis and snowing, the flakes coming down in thick swirls, enchanting the city. We sat across a table from a woman named Val who was an acquaintance of ours and also, as it happened, licensed as a notary public. We watched the snow from a wide window in her office downtown, making little jokes when we could. I’d met Val only a few times before; I knew glimmers of things about her that jumbled together in my mind. She was cute, blunt, and impossibly tiny; at least a decade older than us. Her hair was an inch long and bleached blonde except for a longer hank of it that was dyed pink and swooped down like a little wing over her eyes. Silver earrings rimmed her ears and a throng of multicolored tattoos etched her arms like sleeves.

This, and yet she had an actual job in an actual office downtown with a big wide window and a notary public license to boot. We chose her to officiate our divorce because we wanted it to be easy. We wanted it to be cool. We wanted to believe that we were still gentle, good people in the world. That everything we’d said to each other six years before had been true. What was it we said? we’d asked each other a few weeks before, half drunk in my apartment, where we’d decided once and for all that we were going through with this.

“Here it is,” I’d yelled after riffling through some papers and finding the wedding vows we’d written ourselves, three faded pages stapled together. We’d given them a title: The Day the Daisies Bloomed. “The Day the Daisies Bloomed!” I hooted, and we laughed so hard at ourselves, at the people we used to be. And then I set the vows back on top of the pile where I’d found them, unable to read on.

We’d married so young, so uncharacteristically, even our parents asked why we couldn’t just live together. We couldn’t just live together, even though I was only nineteen and he twenty-one. We were too wildly in love and we believed we had to do something wild to demonstrate that, so we did the wildest thing we could think of and got married. But even married, we didn’t think of ourselves as married people—we were monogamous, but we had no intention of settling down. We packed our bicycles into boxes and flew with them to Ireland, where a month later, I turned twenty. We rented a flat in Galway and then changed our minds and moved to Dublin and got a matching pair of restaurant jobs—he in a pizza place, me in a vegetarian café. Four months later, we moved to London and walked the streets so destitute we searched for coins on the sidewalk. Eventually, we returned home, and not long after that my mother died and we did all the things that we did that led us here, to Val’s office.

Paul and I had clutched each other’s hands beneath the table, watching Val as she methodically examined our do-it-yourself no-fault divorce documents. She inspected one page and then the next, and on and on through fifty or sixty, making sure we’d gotten everything right. I felt a kind of loyalty rear up in me as she did this, unified with Paul against whatever contrary claim she might make, as if we were applying to be together for the rest of our lives instead of the opposite.

“It all looks good,” she said at last, giving us a reticent smile. And then she went back through the pages again, at a brisker clip this time, pressing her giant notary public stamp against some and sliding dozens of others across the table for us to sign.

“I love him,” I blurted when we were nearly through, my eyes filling with tears. I thought about pulling up my sleeve and showing her the square of gauze that covered my brand-new horse tattoo, as proof, but I only stammered on. “I mean, this is not for lack of love, just so you know. I love him and he loves me …” I looked at Paul, waiting for him to interject and agree and declare his love too, but he remained silent. “Just so you know,” I repeated. “So you won’t get the wrong idea.”

“I know,” Val said, and pushed the pink hank of her hair aside so I could see her eyes fluttering nervously from the papers up to me and then down to the papers again.

“And it’s all my fault,” I said, my voice swelling and shaking. “He didn’t do anything. I’m the one. I broke my own heart.”

Paul reached for me and squeezed my leg, consoling me. I couldn’t look at him. If I looked at him I would cry. We’d agreed to this together, but I knew that if I turned to him and proposed we forget about divorcing and get back together instead, he would agree. I didn’t turn. Something inside of me whirred like a machine that I had started but could not stop. I put my hand down and placed it on top of Paul’s hand on my leg.

Sometimes we wondered together if things would have turned out differently if one thing that was true hadn’t been true. If my mother hadn’t died, for example, would I still have cheated on him? Or if I hadn’t cheated on him, would he have cheated on me? And what if nothing had happened—no mother dying, no cheating on anyone—would we still be getting divorced anyway, having simply married too young? We couldn’t know, but we were open to knowing. As close as we’d been when we were together, we were closer in our unraveling, telling each other everything at last, words that seemed to us might never have been spoken between two human beings before, so deep we went, saying everything that was beautiful and ugly and true.

“Now that we’ve been through all this, we should stay together,” I half joked in the tender wake of our last heartrending, soul-baring discussion—the one we’d had to decide at last whether or not to get divorced. We were sitting on the couch in the dark of my apartment, having talked through the afternoon and into the evening, both of us too shattered by the time the sun set to get up and switch on a light.

“I hope you can do that someday with someone else,” I said when he didn’t reply, though the very thought of that someone else pierced my heart.

“I hope you can too,” he said.

I sat in the darkness beside him, wanting to believe that I was capable of finding the kind of love I had with him again, only without wrecking it the next time around. It felt impossible to me. I thought of my mother. Thought of how in the last days of her life so many horrible things had happened. Small, horrible things. My mother’s whimsical, delirious babblings. The blood pooling to blacken the backs of her bedridden arms. The way she begged for something that wasn’t even mercy. For whatever it is that is less than mercy; for what we don’t even have a word for. Those were the worst days, I believed at the time, and yet the moment she died I’d have given anything to have them back. One small, horrible, glorious day after the other. Maybe it would be that way with Paul as well, I thought, sitting beside him on the night we decided to divorce. Maybe once they were over, I’d want these horrible days back too.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, but I didn’t answer. I only leaned over and switched on the light.

It was up to us to mail the notarized divorce documents. Together Paul and I walked out of the building and into the snow and down the sidewalk until we found a mailbox. Afterwards, we leaned against the cold bricks of a building and kissed, crying and murmuring regrets, our tears mixing together on our faces.

“What are we doing?” Paul asked after a while.

“Saying goodbye,” I said. I thought of asking him to go back to my apartment with me, as we’d done a few times over the course of our yearlong separation, falling into bed together for a night or an afternoon, but I didn’t have the heart.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Bye,” I said.

We stood close together, face-to-face, my hands gripping the front of his coat. I could feel the dumb ferocity of the building on one side of me; the gray sky and the white streets like a giant slumbering beast on the other; and us between them, alone together in a tunnel. Snowflakes were melting onto his hair and I wanted to reach up and touch them, but I didn’t. We stood there without saying anything, looking into each other’s eyes as if it would be the last time.

“Cheryl Strayed,” he said after a long while, my new name so strange on his tongue.

I nodded and let go of his coat.