Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part III. RANGE OF LIGHT
10. RANGE OF LIGHT
The mere sight of Packer Lake Lodge felt like a blow. It was a restaurant. With food. And I might as well have been a German shepherd. I could smell it as soon as I got out of the car. I thanked the couple who’d given me a ride and walked toward the little building anyway, leaving Monster on the porch before I went inside. The place was crowded with tourists, most of them people who’d rented one of the rustic cabins that surrounded the restaurant. They didn’t seem to notice the way I stared at their plates as I made my way to the counter, stacks of pancakes skirted by bacon, eggs in exquisitely scrambled heaps, or—most painful of all—cheeseburgers buried by jagged mounds of French fries. I was devastated by the sight of them.
“What have you heard about the snow levels up north of here?” I asked the woman who worked the cash register. I could tell that she was the boss by the way her eyes followed the waitress as she moved about the room with a coffeepot in hand. I’d never met this woman, but I’d worked for her a thousand times. It occurred to me that I could ask her for a job for the summer and quit the PCT.
“It’s socked in pretty much everywhere above here,” she replied. “All the thru-hikers have come down off the trail this year. They’re all walking along the Gold Lake Highway instead.”
“The Gold Lake Highway?” I asked, bewildered. “Was there a man here in the past few days? His name is Greg. He’s fortyish? With brown hair and a beard.”
She shook her head, but the waitress chimed that she’d talked to a PCT hiker who met that description, though she didn’t know his name.
“You can take a seat, if you’d like to eat,” the woman said.
A menu sat on the counter and I picked it up just to see. “Do you have anything that costs sixty cents or less?” I asked her in a jesting tone, so quiet my voice barely rose above the din.
“Seventy-five cents will get you a cup of coffee. Free refills,” she replied.
“I’ve got lunch in my pack, actually,” I said, and walked toward the door, past pushed-aside plates that were piled with perfectly edible scraps of food that no one but me and the bears and raccoons would have been willing to eat. I continued out to the porch and sat beside Monster. I pulled my sixty cents from my pocket and stared at the silver coins in my palm as if they would multiply if I stared at them hard enough. I thought of the box waiting for me in Belden Town with the twenty-dollar bill inside. I was starving and it was true I had lunch in my pack, but I was too disheartened to eat it. I paged through my guidebook instead, trying yet again to hatch a new plan.
“I overheard you inside talking about the Pacific Crest Trail,” a woman said. She was middle-aged and slim, her frosted blonde hair cut in a stylish bob. In each ear she wore a single diamond stud.
“I’m hiking it for a few months,” I said.
“I think that’s so neat.” She smiled. “I always wondered about the people who do that. I know the trail is up there,” she said, waving her hand westward, “but I’ve never been on it.” She came closer and for a moment I thought she’d try to give me a hug, but she only patted my arm. “You’re not alone, are you?” When I nodded, she laughed and put a hand to her chest. “And what on earth does your mother have to say about that?”
“She’s dead,” I said, too discouraged and hungry to soften it with a note of apology, the way I usually did.
“My goodness. That’s terrible.” Her sunglasses sat against her chest, dangling from a string of glittery pastel beads. She reached for them and put them on. Her name was Christine, she told me, and she and her husband and their two teenaged daughters were staying in a cabin nearby. “Would you like to come back there with me and take a shower?” she asked.
Christine’s husband, Jeff, made me a sandwich while I showered. When I emerged from the bathroom, it was sitting on a plate, sliced diagonally and rimmed by blue corn tortilla chips and a pickle.
“If you’d like to add more meat to it, feel free,” Jeff said, pushing a platter of cold cuts toward me from his seat across the table. He was handsome and chubby, his dark hair wavy and gray at the temples. An attorney, Christine had told me during the short walk from the restaurant to their cabin. They lived in San Francisco, but they spent the first week of July here each year.
“Maybe just a few more slices, thanks,” I said, reaching for the turkey with fake nonchalance.
“It’s organic, in case that matters to you,” said Christine. “And humanely raised. We’ve gone in that direction as much as we possibly can. You forgot the cheese,” she scolded Jeff, and went to the refrigerator to retrieve it. “Would you like some dill Havarti on your sandwich, Cheryl?”
“I’m fine. Thanks,” I said to be polite, but she sliced some anyway and brought it to me, and I ate it so fast she went back to the counter and sliced more without saying anything about it. She reached into the chip bag and put another handful on my plate, then cracked open a can of root beer and set it before me. If she’d emptied the contents of the entire refrigerator, I’d have eaten every last thing. “Thank you,” I said every time she placed another item on the table.
Beyond the kitchen, I could see Jeff and Christine’s two daughters through the sliding-glass door. They were sitting on the deck in twin Adirondack chairs, browsing copies of Seventeen and People with their headphones in their ears.
“How old are they?” I asked, nodding in their direction.
“Sixteen and almost eighteen,” said Christine. “They’re going into their sophomore and senior years.”
They sensed us looking at them and glanced up. I waved, and they waved shyly back at me before returning to their magazines.
“I’d love it if they did something like you’re doing. If they could be as brave and strong as you,” said Christine. “But maybe not that brave, actually. I think it would scare me to have one of them out there like you are. Aren’t you scared, all by yourself?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “But not as much as you’d think.” My wet hair dripped onto my dirty shirt at the shoulders. I was conscious that my clothes stank, though beneath them I felt cleaner than I’d ever been. The shower had been an almost holy experience after days of sweating in the cold beneath my clothes, the hot water and soap scorching me clean. I noticed a few books scattered on the far end of the table—Norman Rush’s Mating, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. They were books I’d read and loved, their covers like familiar faces to me, the mere sight of them making me feel as if I was somewhere like home. Perhaps Jeff and Christine would let me stay here with them, I thought nonsensically. I could be like one of their daughters, reading magazines while getting a tan on the deck. If they’d offered, I’d have said yes.
“Do you like to read?” Christine asked. “That’s what we do when we come up here. That’s our idea of relaxation.”
“Reading’s my reward at the end of the day,” I said. “The book I have right now is Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories.” I still had the entire book in my pack. I’d not burned it page by page as I went along, mindful that with the snow and the changes in my itinerary I didn’t know how long it’d be before I reached my next resupply box. I’d already read the whole thing and started back in on page one the night before.
“Well, you’re welcome to one of these,” said Jeff, rising to take Mating in his hand. “We’re done with them. Or if that’s not your taste, you could probably take this one,” he said, and disappeared into the bedroom off the kitchen. He returned a moment later with a fat paperback by James Michener that he set near my now-empty plate.
I looked at the book. It was called The Novel, which I’d never heard of or read, though James Michener had been my mother’s favorite author. It wasn’t until I’d gone off to college that I learned there was anything wrong with that. An entertainer for the masses, one of my professors had scoffed after inquiring what books I’d read. Michener, he advised me, was not the kind of writer I should bother with if I truly wanted to be a writer myself. I felt like a fool. All those years as a teen, I’d thought myself sophisticated when I’d been absorbed in Poland and The Drifters, Space and Sayonara. In my first month at college, I quickly learned that I knew nothing about who was important and who was not.
“You know that isn’t a real book,” I’d said disdainfully to my mother when someone had given her Michener’s Texas as a Christmas gift later that year.
“Real?” My mother looked at me, quizzical and amused.
“I mean serious. Like actual literature worth your time,” I replied.
“Well, my time has never been worth all that much, you might like to know, since I’ve never made more than minimum wage and more often than not, I’ve slaved away for free.” She laughed lightly and swatted my arm with her hand, slipping effortlessly away from my judgment, the way she always did.
When my mother died and the woman Eddie eventually married moved in, I took all the books I wanted from my mother’s shelf. I took the ones she’d bought in the early 1980s, when we’d first moved onto our land: The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and Double Yoga. Northland Wildflowers and Quilts to Wear. Songs for the Dulcimer and Bread Baking Basics. Using Plants for Healing and I Always Look Up the Word Egregious. I took the books she’d read to me, chapter by chapter, before I could read to myself: the unabridged Bambi and Black Beauty and Little House in the Big Woods. I took the books that she’d acquired as a college student in the years right before she died: Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But I did not take the books by James Michener, the ones my mother loved the most.
“Thank you,” I said now to Jeff, holding The Novel. “I’ll trade this for the Flannery O’Connor if you’d like. It’s an incredible book.” I stopped short of mentioning that I’d have to burn it that night in the woods if he said no.
“Absolutely,” he replied, laughing. “But I think I’m getting the better deal.”
After lunch, Christine drove me to the ranger station in Quincy, but when we got there, the ranger I spoke to seemed only dimly aware of the PCT. He hadn’t been on it this year, he told me, because it was still covered with snow. He was surprised to learn I had. I returned to Christine’s car and studied my guidebook to get my bearings. The only reasonable place to get back on the PCT was where it crossed a road fourteen miles west of where we were.
“Those girls look like they might know something,” said Christine. She pointed across the parking lot to a gas station, where two young women stood next to a van with the name of a camp painted on its side.
I introduced myself to them, and a few minutes later I was hugging Christine goodbye and clambering into the back of their van. The women were college students who worked at a summer camp; they were going right past the place where the PCT crossed the road. They said they’d be happy to give me a ride, so long as I was willing to wait while they did their errands. I sat in the shade of their lumbering camp van, reading The Novel in the parking lot of a grocery store as they shopped. It was hot and humid—summertime in a way that it hadn’t been up in the snow just that morning. As I read, I could feel my mother’s presence so acutely, her absence so profoundly, that it was hard to focus on the words. Why had I mocked her for loving Michener? The fact is, I’d loved Michener too—when I was fifteen I’d read The Drifters four times. One of the worst things about losing my mother at the age I did was how very much there was to regret. Small things that stung now: all the times I’d scorned her kindness by rolling my eyes or physically recoiled in response to her touch; the time I’d said, “Aren’t you amazed to see how much more sophisticated I am at twenty-one than you were?” The thought of my youthful lack of humility made me nauseous now. I had been an arrogant asshole and, in the midst of that, my mother died. Yes, I’d been a loving daughter and yes, I’d been there for her when it mattered, but I could have been better. I could have been what I’d begged her to say I was: the best daughter in the world.
I shut The Novel and sat almost paralyzed with regret until the women reappeared, rolling a cart. Together we loaded their bags into the van. The women were four or five years younger than me, their hair and faces shiny and clean. Both wore sporty shorts and tank tops and colorful strands of braided yarn around their ankles and wrists.
“So we were talking. It’s pretty intense you’re hiking alone,” said one of them after we’d finished with the bags.
“What do your parents think of you doing it?” asked the other.
“They don’t. I mean—I don’t have parents. My mom’s dead and I don’t have a father—or I do, technically, but he’s not in my life.” I climbed into the van and tucked The Novel into Monster so I wouldn’t have to see the discomfort sweep across their sunny faces.
“Wow,” said one of them.
“Yeah,” said the other.
“The upside is that I’m free. I get to do whatever I want to do.”
“Yeah,” said the one who’d said wow.
“Wow,” said the one who’d said yeah.
They got into the front and we drove. I looked out the window, at the towering trees whipping past, thinking of Eddie. I felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t mentioned him when the women asked about my parents. He’d become like someone I used to know. I loved him still and I’d loved him instantly, from the very first night that I met him when I was ten. He wasn’t like any of the men my mother dated in the years after she divorced my father. Most of those men had lasted only a few weeks, each scared off, I quickly understood, by the fact that allying himself with my mother meant also allying himself with me, Karen, and Leif. But Eddie loved all four of us from the start. He worked at an auto parts factory at the time, though he was a carpenter by trade. He had soft blue eyes and a sharp German nose and brown hair that he kept in a ponytail that draped halfway down his back.
The first night I met him, he came for dinner at Tree Loft, the apartment complex where we lived. It was the third such apartment complex we’d lived in since my parents’ divorce. All of the apartment buildings were located within a half-mile radius of one another in Chaska, a town about an hour outside of Minneapolis. We moved whenever my mom could find a cheaper place. When Eddie arrived, my mother was still making dinner, so he played with Karen, Leif, and me out on the little patch of grass in front of our building. He chased us and caught us and held us upside down and shook us to see if any coins would fall from our pockets; if they did, he would take them from the grass and run, and we would run after him, shrieking with a particular joy that had been denied us all of our lives because we’d never been loved right by a man. He tickled us and watched as we performed dance routines and cartwheels. He taught us whimsical songs and complicated hand jives. He stole our noses and ears and then showed them to us with his thumb tucked between his fingers, eventually giving them back while we laughed. By the time my mother called us in to dinner, I was so besotted with him that I’d lost my appetite.
We didn’t have a dining room in our apartment. There were two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a living room with a little alcove in one corner where there was a countertop, a stove, a refrigerator, and some cabinets. In the center of the room was a big round wooden table whose legs had been cut off so it was only knee-high. My mother had purchased it for ten dollars from the people who’d lived in our apartment before us. We sat on the floor around this table to eat. We said we were Chinese, unaware that it was actually the Japanese who ate meals seated on the floor before low tables. We weren’t allowed to have pets at Tree Loft, but we did anyway, a dog named Kizzy and a canary named Canary, who flew free throughout the apartment.
He was a mannerly bird. He shat on a square of newspaper in a cat-litter pan in the corner. Whether he’d been trained to do it by my mother or did it of his own volition, I don’t know. A few minutes after we all sat down on the floor around the table, Canary landed on Eddie’s head. Usually when he landed on us, he’d perch there for only a moment and then fly away, but on top of Eddie’s head, Canary stayed. We giggled. He turned to us and asked, with false obliviousness, what we were laughing at.
“There’s a canary on your head,” we told him.
“What?” he said, looking around the room in pretend surprise.
“There’s a canary on your head,” we yelled.
“Where?” he asked.
“There’s a canary on your head!” we yelled, now in delighted hysterics.
There was a canary on his head and, miraculously, the canary stayed there, all through dinner, all through afterwards, falling asleep, nestling in.
So did Eddie.
At least he did until my mother died. Her illness had initially brought the two of us closer than we’d ever been. We’d become comrades in the weeks that she was sick—playing tag team at the hospital, consulting each other about medical decisions, weeping together when we knew the end was near, meeting with the funeral home director together after she died. But soon after that, Eddie pulled away from my siblings and me. He acted like he was our friend instead of our father. Quickly, he fell in love with another woman and soon she moved into our house with her children. By the time the first anniversary of my mother’s death rolled around, Karen, Leif, and I were essentially on our own; most of my mother’s things were in boxes I’d packed up and stored. He loved us, Eddie said, but life moved on. He was still our father, he claimed, but he did nothing to demonstrate that. I railed against it, but eventually had no choice but to accept what my family had become: not a family at all.
You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, my mother had often said.
By the time the young women pulled their van over to the side of the narrow highway, the tall trees that lined the road almost entirely blotted out the setting sun. I thanked them for the ride and looked around as they drove away. I was standing next to a forest service sign that said WHITEHORSE CAMPGROUND. The PCT was just beyond it, the women had told me as I’d climbed out of their van. I hadn’t bothered to look at my map as we drove. After days of constant vigilance, I was tired of checking the guidebook and checking again. I’d simply enjoyed the ride, lulled by the women’s confidence that they knew where they were going. From the campground they said I could hike a short trail that would take me up to the PCT. I read the fresh pages that I’d ripped from my guidebook as I walked the paved loops of the campground, straining to see the words in the dying light. My heart leapt with relief when I came across the words WHITEHORSE CAMPGROUND, then it fell when I read on and realized I was nearly two miles away from the PCT. The words “just beyond it” had meant something different to the women in the van than they did to me.
I looked around at the water spigots, the sets of brown outhouses, and the big sign that explained how one should go about paying for a spot for the night by leaving money in an envelope that should then be deposited through a slot in a wooden box. Aside from a few RVs and a smattering of tents, the campground was eerily empty. I walked another paved loop, wondering what to do. I didn’t have money to pay to camp, but it was too dark to walk into the woods. I came to a campsite on the very edge of the campground, the one that was farthest away from the sign detailing how to pay. Who would even see me?
I set up my tent and cooked and ate my dinner in luxury on the picnic table with only my headlamp to light my way and peed in perfect comfort in the pit toilet, and then got into my tent and opened up The Novel. I’d read perhaps three pages when my tent was flooded with light. I unzipped my door and stepped out to greet the elderly couple who stood in the blinding headlights of a pickup truck.
“Hi,” I said tentatively.
“You need to pay for this spot,” the woman barked in response.
“I need to pay?” I said, with false innocence and surprise. “I thought only people who had cars had to pay the fee. I’m on foot. I just have my backpack.” The couple listened in silence, their wrinkled faces indignant. “I’ll be leaving first thing in the morning. By six at the latest.”
“If you’re going to stay here, you need to pay,” the woman repeated.
“It’s twelve dollars for the night,” the man added in a gasping voice.
“The thing is,” I said, “I don’t happen to have any cash on me. I’m on this big trip. I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—the PCT?—and there’s all this snow up in the mountains—it’s a record year—and anyway, I got off the trail and I didn’t plan to be here because these women who gave me a ride accidentally dropped me off in the wrong place and it was—”
“None of that changes the fact you have to pay, young lady,” the man bellowed with surprising power, his voice silencing me like a great horn from the fog.
“If you can’t pay, you’ve got to pack up and leave,” said the woman. She wore a sweatshirt that had a pair of baby raccoons peeping coyly from a burrow in a tree on her chest.
“There’s no one even here! It’s the middle of the night! What harm would it do if I simply—”
“Them are the rules,” heaved the man. He turned away and got back into the truck, done with me.
“We’re sorry, miss, but we’re the camp hosts and keeping everyone to the rules is what we’re here to do,” said the woman. Her face softened for a moment in apology before she pursed her lips and added, “We’d hate to have to call the police.”
I lowered my eyes and addressed her raccoons. “I just—I can’t believe that I’m doing any harm. I mean, no one would even be using this site if I weren’t here,” I said quietly, trying to make one last appeal, woman to woman.
“We’re not saying you have to leave,” she shouted, as if she were scolding a dog to hush up. “We’re saying you’ve got to pay.”
“Well, I can’t.”
“There’s a trail to the PCT that starts up just past the bathrooms,” the woman said, gesturing behind her. “Or you can walk on the side of the road, about a mile or so up. I think the road’s more direct than the trail. We’ll keep the lights on while you pack,” she said, and got back into the truck beside her husband, their faces now invisible to me behind the headlights.
I turned to my tent, stunned. I’d yet to meet a stranger on my trip who’d been anything but kind. I scrambled inside, put on my headlamp with shaking hands, and shoved everything I’d unpacked back into my pack without the usual orderly care for what went where. I didn’t know what I should do. It was full dark by now, the half moon in the sky. The only thing scarier than the thought of hiking along an unknown trail in the dark was walking along an unknown road in the dark. I put on Monster and waved to the couple in the truck, unable to see whether they waved back.
I walked with my headlamp in my hand. It barely lit the way for each step; the batteries were dying. I followed the pavement to the bathrooms and saw the trail the woman had mentioned leading off behind it. I took a few tentative steps onto it. I’d become used to feeling safe in the woods, safe even through all the nights, but walking in the woods in the dark felt like a different matter altogether because I couldn’t see. I could run into nocturnal animals or trip over a root. I could miss a turn and continue on where I didn’t plan to go. I walked slowly, nervously, as I had the very first day of my hike, when I’d been braced for a rattlesnake to lunge at me any second.
After a while, the outlines of the landscape revealed themselves dimly to me. I was in a forest of tall pines and spruces, their limbless straight trunks culminating in clusters of dense branches high above me. I could hear a stream gurgling off to my left and feel the soft blanket of dry pine needles crackling beneath my boots. I walked with a kind of concentration I’d never had before, and because of it I could feel the trail and my body more acutely, as if I were walking barefoot and naked. It reminded me of being a child and learning how to ride a horse. My mother had taught me on her horse, Lady, letting me sit in the saddle while she stood holding a lead rope attached to Lady’s bridle. I clutched Lady’s mane with my hands at first, scared even when she walked, but eventually I relaxed and my mother implored me to close my eyes so I could feel the way the horse moved beneath me and the way my body moved with the horse. Later, I did the same thing with my arms held out wide on either side, going round and round, my body surrendering to Lady’s as we moved.
I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction and the late-night hike.
I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. Lady wasn’t her real name—it was only what we called her. She was a registered American Saddlebred, her official name spelled out in grandiose glory on the breeder’s association certificate that came with her: Stonewall’s Highland Nancy, sired by Stonewall Sensation and foaled by Mack’s Golden Queen. My mother had managed, against all reason, to buy Lady in the horrible winter when she and my father were finally and forever breaking up. My mother had met a couple at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. They wanted to sell their purebred twelve-year-old mare for cheap, and even though my mother couldn’t afford even cheap, she went to see the horse and struck a deal with the couple to pay them three hundred dollars over the course of six months, and then she struck another deal with another couple who owned a stable nearby, doing work in exchange for Lady’s board.
“She’s breathtaking,” my mother said each time she described Lady, and she was. Over sixteen hands tall, lean and long-limbed, high-stepping and elegant as a queen. She had a white star on her forehead, but the rest of her coat was the same red chestnut as the fox I’d seen in the snow.
I was six when my mother bought her. We were living on the basement level of an apartment complex called Barbary Knoll. My mother had just left my father for the last time. We barely had enough money to live, but my mother had to have that horse. I knew instinctively, even as a child, that it was Lady who saved my mother’s life. Lady who made it possible for her not only to walk away from my father, but also to keep going. Horses were my mother’s religion. It was with them she’d wanted to be on all those Sundays as a child, when she’d been made to put on dresses to go to mass. The stories she told me about horses were a counterpoint to the other stories she’d told me about her Catholic upbringing. She did anything she could to ride them. She raked stalls and polished tack, hauled hay and spread straw, any kind of odd job that came her way, so that she would be allowed to hang out at whatever stable happened to be nearest and ride someone’s horse.
Images of her past cowgirl life came to me from time to time, captured in freeze-frame moments, as clear and concise to me as if I’d read them in a book. The overnight backcountry rides she’d done in New Mexico with her father. The daredevil rodeo tricks she’d practiced and performed with her girlfriends. At sixteen she got her own horse, a palomino named Pal, whom she rode in horse shows and rodeos in Colorado. She still had the ribbons when she died. I packed them in a box that was now in Lisa’s basement in Portland. A yellow third for barrel racing, a pink fifth for walk, trot, canter; green for showmanship and participation; and a single blue ribbon for riding her horse through all of the gaits smoothly over a course lined with mud pits and tight corners, laughing clowns and blaring horns, while she balanced an egg on a silver spoon in her outstretched hand for longer than anyone else could or did.
In the stable where Lady first lived when she became ours, my mother did the same work she’d done as a kid, cleaning stalls and spreading hay, hauling things to and fro in a wheelbarrow. Often, she brought Karen, Leif, and me with her. We played in the barn while she did her chores. Afterwards, we watched her ride Lady around and around the ring, each of us getting a turn when she was done. By the time we moved to our land in northern Minnesota, we had a second horse, a mixed-breed gelding named Roger, whom my mother had bought because I’d fallen in love with him and his owner was willing to let him go for next to nothing. We hauled them both up north in a borrowed trailer. Their pasture was a quarter of our forty acres.
When I went home one day to visit Eddie in early December nearly three years after my mother died, I was shocked by how thin and weak Lady had become. She was nearly thirty-one, old for a horse, and even if nursing her back to health had been possible, no one was around enough to do it. Eddie and his girlfriend had begun splitting their time between the house where I’d grown up and a trailer in a small town outside the Twin Cities. The two dogs, two cats, and four hens we’d had when my mother died had either died themselves or been given away to new homes. Only our two horses, Roger and Lady, remained. Often, they were cared for in the most cursory way by a neighbor whom Eddie had enlisted to feed them.
When I visited that early December, I talked to Eddie about Lady’s condition. He was belligerent at first, telling me that he didn’t know why the horses were his problem. I didn’t have the heart to argue with him about why, as my mother’s widower, he was responsible for her horses. I spoke only about Lady, persistent about making a plan, and after a while he softened his tone and we agreed that Lady should be put down. She was old and sickly; she’d lost an alarming amount of weight; the light in her eyes had faded. I’d consulted with the veterinarian already, I told him. The vet could come to our place and euthanize Lady with an injection. That, or we could shoot her ourselves.
Eddie thought we should do the latter. We were both flat broke. It was how horses had been put down for generations. It seemed to both of us a strangely more humane thing to do—that she’d die at the hands of someone she knew and trusted, rather than a stranger. Eddie said he’d do it before Paul and I returned for Christmas in a few weeks. We wouldn’t be coming for a family occasion: Paul and I would be in the house alone. Eddie planned to spend Christmas at his girlfriend’s place with her and her kids. Karen and Leif had plans of their own too—Leif would be in St. Paul with his girlfriend and her family, and Karen with the husband she’d met and married within the span of a few weeks earlier that year.
I felt ill as Paul and I pulled into the driveway a few weeks later, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Over and over again, I’d been imagining how it would feel to look out to the pasture and see only Roger. But when I got out of the car, Lady was still there, shivering in her stall, her flesh hanging from her skeletal frame. It hurt to even look at her. The weather had turned brutally cold, breaking records with lows that hovered around 25 degrees below zero, with the wind chill plunging the temperature colder still.
I didn’t call Eddie to ask why he hadn’t followed through on what we’d decided. I called my mother’s father in Alabama instead. He’d been a horseman all his life. We talked for an hour about Lady. He asked me one question after another, and by the end of our conversation he was adamant that it was time to put her down. I told him I’d sleep on it. The next morning the phone rang shortly after dawn.
It wasn’t my grandfather calling to wish me a merry Christmas. It was my grandfather calling to implore me to act now. To let Lady die naturally was cruel and inhumane, he insisted, and I knew he was right. I also knew that it was up to me to make sure it was done. I didn’t have money to pay for the veterinarian to come out and give her an injection, and even if I did, it was Christmas and I doubted he would come. My grandfather described to me in specific detail how to shoot a horse. When I expressed trepidation, he assured me this was the way it had been done for years. I also worried about what to do with Lady’s corpse. The ground was so deeply frozen that burial was impossible.
“Leave her,” he instructed. “The coyotes will drag her away.”
“What should I do?” I cried to Paul after I hung up the phone. We didn’t know it, but it was our last Christmas together. A couple of months later, I’d tell him about my infidelities and he’d move out. By the time Christmas came again we were discussing divorce.
“Do what you think is right,” he said on that Christmas morning. We were sitting at the kitchen table—its every crack and groove familiar to me, and yet it seemed as if I were as far as I could be from home, alone on an ice floe.
“I don’t know what’s right,” I said, though I did. I knew exactly what I had to do. It was what I’d had to do so many times now: choose the best of two horrible things. But I couldn’t do it without my brother. Paul and I had shot a gun before—Leif had taught us both the previous winter—but neither of us could do it with any confidence. Leif wasn’t an avid hunter, but at least he’d done it often enough that he knew what he was doing. When I called him, he agreed to drive home that evening.
In the morning, we discussed in detail what we’d do. I told him everything our grandfather had told me.
“Okay,” he said. “Get her ready.”
Outside, the sun was bright, the sky crystal blue. By eleven it had warmed to 17 degrees below zero. We bundled ourselves in layers of clothes. It was so cold the trees were cracking open, freezing and exploding in great bursts that I’d heard from my bed the sleepless night before.
I whispered to Lady as I put her halter on, telling her how much I loved her as I led her out of her stall. Paul shut the gate behind us, trapping Roger inside so he couldn’t follow. I led her across the icy snow, turning back to watch her walk one last time. She still moved with an unspeakable grace and power, striding with the long, grand high-stepping gait that always took my mother’s breath away. I led her to a birch tree that Paul and I had chosen the previous afternoon and tied her to it by her lead rope. The tree was on the very edge of the pasture, beyond which the woods thickened in earnest, far enough away from the house that I hoped the coyotes would approach and take her body that night. I spoke to her and ran my hands over her chestnut coat, murmuring my love and sorrow, begging her forgiveness and understanding.
When I looked up, my brother was standing there with his rifle.
Paul took my arm and together we stumbled through the snow to stand behind Leif. We were only six feet away from Lady. Her warm breath was like a silk cloud. The frozen crust of the snow held us for a moment, then collapsed so we all sank up to our knees.
“Right between her eyes,” I said to Leif, repeating yet again the words our grandfather had said to me. If we did that, he promised, we’d kill her in one clean shot.
Leif crouched, kneeling on one knee. Lady pranced and scraped her front hooves on the ice and then lowered her head and looked at us. I inhaled sharply and Leif fired the gun. The bullet hit Lady right between her eyes, in the middle of her white star, exactly where we hoped it would. She bolted so hard her leather halter snapped into pieces and fell away from her face, and then she stood unmoving, looking at us with a stunned expression.
“Shoot her again,” I gasped, and immediately Leif did, firing three more bullets into her head in quick succession. She stumbled and jerked, but she didn’t fall and she didn’t run, though she was no longer tied to the tree. Her eyes were wild upon us, shocked by what we’d done, her face a constellation of bloodless holes. In an instant I knew we’d done the wrong thing, not in killing her, but in thinking that we should be the ones to do it. I should have insisted Eddie do this one thing, or paid for the veterinarian to come out. I’d had the wrong idea of what it takes to kill an animal. There is no such thing as one clean shot.
“Shoot her! Shoot her!” I pleaded in a guttural wail I didn’t know was mine.
“I’m out of bullets,” Leif yelled.
“Lady!” I shrieked. Paul grabbed my shoulders to pull me toward him and I batted him away, panting and whimpering as if someone were beating me to death.
Lady took one wobbling step and then fell onto her front knees, her body tilting hideously forward as if she were a great ship slowly sinking into the sea. Her head swayed and she let out a deep moan. Blood gushed from her soft nostrils in a sudden, great torrent, hitting the snow so hot it hissed. She coughed and coughed, tremendous buckets of blood coming each time, her back legs buckling in excruciating slow motion beneath her. She hovered there, struggling to stay grotesquely up, before she finally toppled over onto her side, where she kicked her legs and flailed and twisted her neck and fought to rise again.
“Lady!” I howled. “Lady!”
Leif grabbed me. “Look away!” he shouted, and together we turned away.
“LOOK AWAY!” he hollered to Paul, and Paul obeyed.
“Please come take her,” Leif chanted, as tears streaked down his face. “Come take her. Come take her. Come take her.”
When I turned, Lady had dropped her head to the ground at last, though her sides still heaved and her legs twitched. The three of us staggered closer, breaking through the snow’s crust to sink miserably to our knees again. We watched as she breathed enormous slow breaths and then finally she sighed and her body went still.
Our mother’s horse. Lady. Stonewall’s Highland Nancy was dead.
Whether it had taken five minutes or an hour, I didn’t know. My mittens and hat had fallen off, but I could not bring myself to retrieve them. My eyelashes had frozen into clumps. Strands of hair that had blown onto my tear- and snot-drenched face had frozen into icicles that clinked when I moved. I pushed them numbly away, unable even to register the cold. I knelt beside Lady’s belly and ran my hands along her blood-speckled body one last time. She was still warm, just as my mother had been when I’d come into the room at the hospital and seen that she’d died without me. I looked at Leif and wondered if he was remembering the same thing. I crawled to her head and touched her cold ears, soft as velvet. I put my hands over the black bullet holes in her white star. The deep tunnels of blood that had burned through the snow around her were already beginning to freeze.
Paul and I watched as Leif took out his knife and cut bundles of reddish-blonde hair from Lady’s mane and tail. He handed one to me.
“Mom can go to the other side now,” he said, looking into my eyes as if it were only the two of us in the entire world. “That’s what the Indians believe—that when a great warrior dies you’ve got to kill their horse so he can cross over to the other side of the river. It’s a way of showing respect. Maybe Mom can ride away now.”
I imagined our mother crossing a great river on Lady’s strong back, finally leaving us nearly three years after she died. I wanted it to be true. It was the thing I wished for when I had a wish to make. Not that my mother would ride back to me—though, of course, I wanted that—but that she and Lady would ride away together. That the worst thing I’d ever done had been a healing instead of a massacre.
I slept finally that night in the woods somewhere outside the Whitehorse Campground. And when I did, I dreamed of snow. Not the snow in which my brother and I had killed Lady, but the snow I’d just passed through up in the mountains, the memory of it more frightening than the experience of it had been. All night long, I dreamed of the things that could have happened but didn’t. Skidding and sliding down a treacherous slope and off the side of a cliff or crashing into rocks below. Walking and never coming to that road, but wandering lost and starving instead.
I studied my guidebook as I ate my breakfast the next morning. If I walked up to the PCT as planned, I’d be walking into more snow. The idea of that spooked me, and as I gazed at my map I saw that I didn’t have to do it. I could walk back to the Whitehorse Campground and west farther still to Bucks Lake. From there I could follow a jeep road that wended its way north, ascending to the PCT at a place called Three Lakes. The alternate route was about the same distance as the PCT, approximately fifteen miles, but it was at a low enough elevation that it had a chance of being snow-free. I packed up my camp, walked back down the trail I’d come on the night before, and strode defiantly through the Whitehorse Campground.
All morning, as I walked west to Bucks Lake, then north and west again along its shore before coming to the rugged jeep road that would take me back up to the PCT, I thought of the resupply box that waited for me in Belden Town. Not so much the box, but the twenty-dollar bill that would be inside. And not so much the twenty-dollar bill, but the food and beverages I could buy with it. I spent hours in a half-ecstatic, half-tortured reverie, fantasizing about cake and cheeseburgers, chocolate and bananas, apples and mixed-green salads, and, more than anything, about Snapple lemonade. This did not make sense. I’d had only a few Snapple lemonades in my pre-PCT life and liked them well enough, but they hadn’t stood out in any particular way. It had not been my drink. But now it haunted me. Pink or yellow, it didn’t matter. Not a day passed that I didn’t imagine in vivid detail what it would be like to hold one in my hand and bring it to my mouth. Some days I forbade myself to think about it, lest I go entirely insane.
I could see that the road to Three Lakes had only recently become free of snow. Great gashes had split open in places across it and streams of melting snow flowed in wide gaping gullies along its sides. I followed it up beneath a dense canopy of trees without seeing anyone. Midafternoon, I felt a familiar tug inside me. I was getting my period, I realized. My first on the trail. I’d almost forgotten it could come. The new way I’d been aware of my body since beginning my hike had blunted the old ways. No longer was I concerned about the delicate intricacies of whether I felt infinitesimally fatter or thinner than I had the day before. There was no such thing as a bad hair day. The smallest inner reverberations were obliterated by the frank pain I always felt in the form of my aching feet or the muscles of my shoulders and upper back that knotted and burned so hard and hot that I had to pause several times an hour to do a series of moves that would offer a moment of relief. I took off my pack, dug through my first aid kit, and found the jagged hunk of natural sponge I’d put in a small ziplock bag before my trip began. I’d used it only a few times experimentally before I took it on the PCT. Back in Minneapolis, the sponge had seemed like a sensible way to deal with my period given my circumstances on the trail, but now that I held it, I was less than sure. I attempted to wash my hands with water from my bottle, dousing the sponge as I did so, and then squeezed it out, pulled down my shorts, squatted on the road, and pushed the sponge into my vagina as far as I could, wedging it against my cervix.
As I pulled up my shorts, I heard the sound of an engine approaching, and a moment later a red pickup truck with an extended cab and oversized tires rounded a bend. The driver hit the brakes when he saw me, startled at the sight. I was startled too, and deeply grateful that I wasn’t still squatting and half naked with my hand jammed into my crotch. I waved nervously as the truck pulled up beside me.
“Howdy,” a man said, and reached through his open window. I took his hand and shook it, conscious of where mine had just been. There were two other men in the truck with him—one in the front and another in the back seat with two boys. The men looked to be in their thirties, the boys about eight.
“You headed up to Three Lakes?” the man asked.
He was handsome and clean-cut and white, like the man beside him and the boys in the back. The other man was Latino and long-haired, a hard round belly rising before him.
“We’re headed up there to do some fishing. We’d give you a ride, but we’re packed,” he said, pointing to the back of the truck, which was covered by a camper.
“That’s okay. I like to walk.”
“Well, we’re having Hawaiian screwdrivers tonight, so stop on by.”
“Thanks,” I said, and watched them drive off.
I hiked the rest of the afternoon thinking about Hawaiian screwdrivers. I didn’t know exactly what they were but they didn’t sound all that different from Snapple lemonade to me. When I reached the top of the road, the red pickup and the men’s camp came into view, perched above the westernmost of the Three Lakes. The PCT was just beyond it. I followed a scant trail east along the lake’s shore, finding a secluded spot among the boulders that were scattered around the lake. I set up my tent and ducked into the woods to squeeze out my sponge and put it in again. I walked down to the lake to filter water and wash my hands and face. I thought about diving in to bathe, but the water was ice-cold and I was already chilled in the mountain air. Before coming on the PCT, I’d imagined countless baths in lakes and rivers and streams, but in reality, only rarely did I plunge in. By the end of the day, I often ached with fatigue and shook with what felt like a fever but was only exhaustion and the chill of my drying sweat. The best I could do most days was splash my face and strip off my sweat-drenched T-shirt and shorts before swaddling myself in my fleece anorak and leggings for the night.
I removed my boots and pulled the duct tape and 2nd Skin off my feet and soaked them in the icy water. When I rubbed them, another blackened toenail came off in my hand, the second I’d lost so far. The lake was calm and clear, rimmed by towering trees and leafy bushes among the boulders. I saw a bright green lizard in the mud; it froze in place for a moment before scampering away at lightning speed. The men’s camp was not far beyond me along the lakeshore, but they hadn’t yet detected my presence. Before going to see them, I brushed my teeth, put on lip balm, and pulled a comb through my hair.
“There she is,” shouted the man who’d been in the passenger seat when I ambled up. “And just in time too.”
He handed me a red plastic cup full of a yellow liquid that I could only assume was a Hawaiian screwdriver. It had ice cubes. It had vodka. It had pineapple juice. When I sipped it I thought I would faint. Not from the alcohol hitting me, but from the sheer fabulousness of the combination of liquid sugar and booze.
The two white men were firefighters. The Latino man was a painter by passion but a carpenter by trade. His name was Francisco, though everyone called him Paco. He was the cousin of one of the white guys, visiting from Mexico City, though the three of them had grown up together on the same block in Sacramento, where the firefighters still lived. Paco had gone to visit his great-grandmother in Mexico ten years before, fallen in love with a Mexican woman while there, and stayed. The firefighters’ sons flitted past us, playing war while we sat around a fire ring filled with logs the men had yet to light, making intermittent shouts, gasps, and explosive sounds as they shot each other with plastic guns from behind the boulders.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! You’ve got to be kidding me!” the firefighters took turns exclaiming when I explained to them what I was doing and showed them my battered feet with their eight remaining toenails. They asked me question after question while marveling and shaking their heads and plying me with another Hawaiian screwdriver and tortilla chips.
“Women are the ones with the cojones,” said Paco as he made a bowl of guacamole. “We guys like to think we’re the ones, but we’re wrong.” His hair was like a snake down his back, a long thick ponytail bound in sections all the way down with plain rubber bands. After the fire was lit and after we had eaten the trout that one of them had caught in the lake and the stew made with venison from a deer one of them had shot last winter, it was only me and Paco sitting by the fire as the other men read to their sons in the tent.
“You want to smoke a joint with me?” he asked as he took one from his shirt pocket. He lit it up, took a hit, and handed it to me. “So this is the Sierras, eh?” he said, looking out over the dark lake. “All that time growing up I never made it up here before.”
“It’s the Range of Light,” I said, passing the joint back to him. “That’s what John Muir called it. I can see why. I’ve never seen light like I have out here. All the sunsets and sunrises against the mountains.”
“You’re on a spirit walk, aren’t you?” Paco said, staring into the fire.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you could call it that.”
“That’s what it is,” he said, looking at me intensely. He stood. “I’ve got something I want to give you.” He went to the back of the truck and returned with a T-shirt. He handed it to me and I held it up. On the front was a giant picture of Bob Marley, his dreadlocks surrounded by images of electric guitars and pre-Columbian effigies in profile. On the back was a picture of Haile Selassie, the man Rastafarians thought was God incarnate, rimmed by a red and green and gold swirl. “That is a sacred shirt,” Paco said as I studied it by the firelight. “I want you to have it because I can see that you walk with the spirits of the animals, with the spirits of the earth and the sky.”
I nodded, silenced by emotion and the half-drunk and entirely stoned certitude that the shirt really was sacred. “Thank you,” I said.
When I walked back to my camp, I stood gazing up at the stars with the shirt in my hand before crawling into my tent. Away from Paco, sobered by the cool air, I wondered about walking with the spirits. What did that even mean? Did I walk with the spirits? Did my mom? Where had she gone after she died? Where was Lady? Had they really ridden together across the river to the other side? Reason told me that all they’d done was die, though they’d both come to me repeatedly in my dreams. The Lady dreams were the opposite of those I’d had about my mother—the ones in which she’d ordered me to kill her over and over again. In the dreams of Lady, I didn’t have to kill anyone. I had only to accept a giant and fantastically colorful bouquet of flowers that she carried to me clenched in her soft mouth. She would nudge me with her nose until I took it, and in that offering, I knew that I was forgiven. But was I? Was that her spirit or was it only my subconscious working it out?
I wore the shirt from Paco the next morning as I hiked back to the PCT and on to Belden Town, catching glimpses of Lassen Peak as I went. It was about fifty miles to the north, a snowy volcanic mountain rising to 10,457 feet—a landmark to me not only because of its size and majesty, but because it was the first of the peaks I’d pass in the Cascade Range, which I’d enter just north of Belden Town. From Lassen northward, the mountains of the High Cascades lined up in a rough row among hundreds of other, less prominent mountains, each one marking the progress of my journey in the coming weeks. Each of those peaks seemed in my mind’s eye to be like a set of monkey bars I’d swung on as a child. Every time I got to one, the next would be just out of reach. From Lassen Peak to Mount Shasta to Mount McLoughlin to Mount Thielsen to the Three Sisters—South, Middle, and North—to Mount Washington to Three Fingered Jack to Mount Jefferson and finally to Mount Hood, which I’d traverse fifty-some miles before I reached the Bridge of the Gods. They were all volcanoes, ranging in elevation from a little under 8,000 to just over 14,000 feet. They were a small portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile-long series of volcanoes and oceanic trenches that rim the Pacific Ocean in a horseshoe shape from Chile, up along the western edge of Central and North America, across to Russia and Japan, and down through Indonesia and New Zealand, before culminating in Antarctica.
Down, down, down the trail went on my last full day of hiking in the Sierra Nevada. It was only seven miles to Belden from Three Lakes, but the trail descended a merciless 4,000 feet in the space of five of them. By the time I reached Belden, my feet were injured in an entirely new way: the tips of my toes were blistered. They’d slid forward with each step, pressed relentlessly against the toe ends of my boots. This was supposed to be my easy day, but I dragged into Belden Town limping in agony, observing that, in fact, it wasn’t a town. It was a rambling building near a railroad track. The building contained a bar and a small store, which also served as a post office, a tiny laundromat, and a shower house. I pulled off my boots on the store’s porch, put my camp sandals on, and hobbled inside to collect my box. Soon I had my envelope with twenty dollars, the sight of it such a tremendous relief that I forgot about my toes for a minute. I bought two bottles of Snapple lemonade and returned to the porch to drink them, one after the other.
“Cool shirt,” a woman said. She had short curly gray hair and a big white dog on a leash. “This is Odin.” She bent to scratch his neck, then stood and pushed her little round glasses back into place on her nose and fixed me in her curious gaze. “Are you, by chance, hiking the PCT?”
Her name was Trina. She was a fifty-year-old high school English teacher from Colorado who’d begun her hike only a couple of days before. She’d left Belden Town, hiking north on the PCT, only to be met by enough snow on the trail that she’d returned. Her report filled me with gloom. Would I ever escape the snow? As we talked, another hiker walked up—a woman named Stacy who had also begun her hike the day before, coming up the same road I had to reach Three Lakes.
At last I’d met some women on the trail! I was dumbfounded with relief as we exchanged in a flurry the quick details of our lives. Trina was an avid weekend backpacker, Stacy an experienced trekker who’d hiked the PCT with a friend from Mexico to Belden Town the previous summer. Stacy and I talked about the places on the trail we’d both been, about Ed in Kennedy Meadows, whom she’d met the summer before, and about her life in a desert town in southern California, where she worked as a bookkeeper for her father’s company and took her summers off to hike. She was thirty and from a big Irish family, pale, pretty, and black-haired.
“Let’s camp together for the night and make a plan,” said Trina. “There’s a spot over in that meadow.” She pointed to a place visible from the store. We walked there and pitched our tents. I unpacked my box while Trina and Stacy talked on the grass. Waves of pleasure came over me as I picked up each item and held it instinctively to my nose. The pristine packets of Lipton noodles or dehydrated beans and rice that I ate for dinner, the still shiny Clif bars and immaculate ziplock bags of dried fruit and nuts. I was sick to death of these things, but seeing them new and unsullied restored something in me. There was the fresh T-shirt I didn’t need now that I had my Bob Marley shirt, two brand-new pair of wool socks, and a copy of Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage, which I wasn’t quite ready for yet—I’d burned my way through only about half the pages of The Novel, tossing them that morning in Paco’s fire. And, most important, a fresh supply of 2nd Skin.
I took off my boots and sat down, doctoring my chawed-up feet. When Trina’s dog began to bark, I looked up and saw a young man, blond, blue-eyed, and lanky. I knew in an instant that he was a PCT hiker by the drag of his gait. His name was Brent, and once he introduced himself I greeted him like an old friend, though I’d never met him. I’d heard stories about him back in Kennedy Meadows. He’d grown up in a small town in Montana, Greg, Albert, and Matt had told me. He’d once gone into a deli in a town near the trail in southern California, ordered a sandwich with two pounds of roast beef in it, and eaten it in six bites. He laughed when I reminded him about it, and then he took his pack off and squatted down to get a closer look at my feet.
“Your boots are too small,” he said, echoing what Greg had told me back in Sierra City. I stared at him vacantly. My boots couldn’t be too small. They were the only boots I had.
“I think it was just all that descending from Three Lakes,” I said.
“But that’s the point,” replied Brent. “With the right size boots, you’d be able to descend without hashing up your feet. That’s what boots are for, so you can descend.”
I thought of the good people of REI. I remembered the man who made me walk up and down a small wooden ramp in the store for just this reason: to make sure my toes didn’t bang up against the ends of my boots when I went down and that my heels didn’t rub against the backs when I went up. They hadn’t seemed to in the store. There was no question now that I’d been wrong or that my feet had grown or that there was any denying that as long as I had these boots on my feet, I was in a living hell.
But there was nothing to be done. I didn’t have the money to buy a new pair or any place to do it if I did. I put on my camp sandals and walked back to the store, where I paid a dollar to take a shower and dressed in my rain gear while my clothes washed and dried in the two-machine laundromat. I called Lisa while I waited and was elated when she answered the phone. We talked about her life and I told her what I could convey of mine. Together we went over my new itinerary. After we hung up, I signed the PCT hiker register and scanned it to see when Greg had passed through. His name wasn’t there. It seemed impossible that he was behind me.
“Have you heard anything about Greg?” I asked Brent when I returned wearing my clean clothes.
“He dropped out because of the snow.”
I looked at him, stunned. “Are you sure?”
“That’s what the Australians told me. Did you ever meet them?”
I shook my head.
“They’re a married couple on their honeymoon. They decided to ditch the PCT too. They took off to go hike the AT instead.”
It was only once I’d decided to hike the PCT that I learned about the AT—the Appalachian Trail, the far more popular and developed cousin of the PCT. Both were designated national scenic trails in 1968. The AT is 2,175 miles long, approximately 500 miles shorter than the PCT, and follows the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine.
“Did Greg go to the AT too?” I squeaked.
“Nah. He didn’t want to keep missing so much of the trail, doing all these bypasses and taking alternate routes, so he’s coming back to hike it next year instead. That’s what the Australians told me, anyway.”
“Wow,” I said, feeling sick at the news. Greg had been a talisman for me since the day I met him in the very hour I’d decided to quit. He’d believed that if he could do this, I could too, and now he was gone. So were the Australians, a pair I’d never met, but a picture of them formed instantly in my mind anyway. I knew without knowing that they were buff and Amazonian, dazzlingly fit for the rugged outdoors by virtue of their Australian blood in ways I would never be. “Why aren’t you going to hike the AT instead?” I asked, worried he’d reveal that in fact he was.
He thought about it for a while. “Too much traffic,” he said. He continued looking at me, at Bob Marley’s face so big on my chest, as if he had more to say. “That’s a seriously awesome shirt, by the way.”
I’d never set foot on the AT, but I’d heard much about it from the guys at Kennedy Meadows. It was the PCT’s closest kin and yet also its opposite in many ways. About two thousand people set out to thru-hike the AT each summer, and though only a couple hundred of them made it all the way, that was far more than the hundred or so who set out on the PCT each year. Hikers on the AT spent most nights camping in or near group shelters that existed along the trail. On the AT, resupply stops were closer together, and more of them were in real towns, unlike those along the PCT, which often consisted of nothing but a post office and a bar or tiny store. I imagined the Australian honeymooners on the AT now, eating cheeseburgers and guzzling beer in a pub a couple of miles from the trail, sleeping by night under a wooden roof. They’d probably been given trail names by their fellow hikers, another practice that was far more common on the AT than on the PCT, though we had a way of naming people too. Half the time that Greg, Matt, and Albert had talked about Brent they’d referred to him as the Kid, though he was only a few years younger than me. Greg had been occasionally called the Statistician because he knew so many facts and figures about the trail and he worked as an accountant. Matt and Albert were the Eagle Scouts, and Doug and Tom the Preppies. I didn’t think I’d been dubbed anything, but I got the sinking feeling that if I had, I didn’t want to know what it was.
Trina, Stacy, Brent, and I ate dinner in the bar that adjoined the Belden store that evening. After paying for a shower, laundry, the Snapple, and a few snacks and incidentals, I had about fourteen bucks left. I ordered a green salad and a plate of fries, the two items on the menu that both were cheap and satisfied my deepest cravings, which veered in opposite directions: fresh and deep-fried. Together they cost me five dollars, so now I had nine left to get me all the way to my next box. It was 134 miles away at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, which had a concessionaire’s store that allowed PCT hikers to use it as a resupply stop. I drank my ice water miserably while the others sipped their beers. As we ate, we discussed the section ahead. By all reports, long stretches of it were socked in. The handsome bartender overheard our conversation and approached to tell us that rumor had it that Lassen Volcanic National Park was still buried under seventeen feet of snow. They were dynamiting the roads so they could open it for even a short tourist season this year.
“You want a drink?” he said to me, catching my eye. “On the house,” he added when he saw my hesitation.
He brought me a glass of cold pinot gris, filled to the rim. When I sipped it I felt instantly dizzy with pleasure, just as I had when I drank the Hawaiian screwdriver the night before. By the time we paid our bill, we’d decided that when we hiked away from Belden in the morning, we’d follow a combination of lower-elevation jeep roads and the PCT for about fifty miles before hitchhiking a bypass of a socked-in section of the trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park, catching the PCT again at a place called Old Station.
After we returned to our camp, I sat in my chair writing a letter to Joe on a piece of paper I’d torn from my journal. His birthday was approaching and the wine had made me nostalgic for him. I remembered walking with him one night a year before with a miniskirt on and nothing underneath and having sex with him against a stone wall in a private cove of a public park. I remembered the giddy surge of emotion I’d felt every time we scored another bit of heroin and how the dye from his hair had stained my pillowcase blue. I didn’t let myself write those things in the letter. I sat holding my pen, only thinking of them and also of the things I could tell him about my time on the PCT. It seemed impossible to make him understand all that had happened in the month since I’d seen him in Portland. My memories of last summer felt as foreign to me as my description of this summer would likely seem to him, so instead I mostly asked him a long list of questions, wondering how he was, what he was doing, who he was spending time with, and if he’d yet made the escape he’d alluded to in the postcard he’d sent me at Kennedy Meadows and gotten clean. I hoped he had. Not for me, but for him. I folded the letter and put it into an envelope that Trina had given me. I picked a few wildflowers from the meadow and pressed them inside before sealing the envelope shut.
“I’m going to mail this,” I said to the others, and followed the light of my headlamp over the grass and along the dirt path to the mailbox outside the shuttered store.
“Hey, good-looking,” a man’s voice called to me after I put the letter in the box. I saw only the burning end of a cigarette on the dark porch.
“Hi,” I answered uncertainly.
“It’s me. The bartender,” the man said, stepping forward into the faint light so I could see his face. “How’d you like your wine?” he asked.
“Oh. Hi. Yeah. That was really nice of you. Thanks.”
“I’m still working,” he said, flicking the ash of his cigarette into a planter. “But I’ll be off in a bit. My trailer’s just across the way, if you wanna come over and party. I can get a whole bottle of that pinot gris you liked.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But I’ve got to get up early and hike in the morning.”
He took another drag of his cigarette, the end burning brightly. I’d watched him a bit after he’d brought me the wine. I guessed he was thirty. He looked good in his jeans. Why shouldn’t I go with him?
“Well, you’ve got time to think about it, if you change your mind,” he said.
“I’ve got to hike nineteen miles tomorrow,” I replied, as if that meant anything to him.
“You could sleep at my place,” he said. “I’d give you my bed. I could sleep on the couch, if you wanted. I bet a bed would feel good after you’ve been sleeping on the ground.”
“I’m all set up over there.” I gestured toward the meadow.
I walked back to my camp feeling queasy, equal parts flustered and flattered by his interest, a shot of bald desire quaking through me. The women had zipped themselves into their tents for the night by the time I returned, but Brent was still awake, standing in the dark, gazing up at the stars.
“Beautiful, huh?” I whispered, gazing up with him. As I did so, it occurred to me that I’d not cried once since I’d set foot on the trail. How could that be? After all the crying I’d done, it seemed impossible that it was true, but it was. I almost burst into tears with the realization, but I laughed instead.
“What’s so funny?” Brent asked.
“Nothing.” I looked at my watch. It was 10:15. “I’m usually sound asleep by now.”
“Me too,” said Brent.
“But I’m wide awake tonight.”
“It’s ’cause we’re so excited to be in town,” he said.
We both laughed. I’d been savoring the company of the women all day, grateful for the kinds of conversation that I’d seldom had since starting the PCT, but it was Brent I felt oddly the closest to, if only because he felt familiar. As I stood next to him, I realized he reminded me of my brother, who, in spite of our distance, I loved more than anyone.
“We should make a wish,” I said to Brent.
“Don’t you have to wait till you see a shooting star?” he asked.
“Traditionally, yes. But we can make up new rules,” I said. “Like, I want boots that don’t hurt my feet.”
“You’re not supposed to say it out loud!” he said, exasperated. “It’s like blowing out your birthday candles. You can’t tell anyone what your wish is. Now it’s not going to come true. Your feet are totally fucked.”
“Not necessarily,” I said indignantly, though I felt sick with the knowledge that he was right.
“Okay, I made mine. Now it’s your turn,” he said.
I stared at a star, but my mind only went from one thing to the next. “How early are you taking off tomorrow?” I asked.
“At first light.”
“Me too,” I said. I didn’t want to say goodbye to him the next morning. Trina, Stacy, and I had decided to hike and camp together the next couple of days, but Brent hiked faster than us, which meant he’d go on alone.
“So did you make your wish?” he asked.
“I’m still thinking.”
“It’s a good time to make one,” he said. “It’s our last night in the Sierra Nevada.”
“Goodbye, Range of Light,” I said to the sky.
“You could wish for a horse,” Brent said. “Then you wouldn’t have to worry about your feet.”
I looked at him in the dark. It was true—the PCT was open to both hikers and pack animals, though I hadn’t yet encountered any horseback riders on the trail. “I used to have a horse,” I said, turning my gaze back to the sky. “I had two, actually.”
“Well then, you’re lucky,” he said. “Not everyone gets a horse.”
We were silent together for several moments.
I made my wish.