Six things happen on the Fourth of July.
1. The first thing is really two things, but they happen all at once. It’s my second day on the trail and I notice strawberries. I bend down to pluck one and I eat it–tart, cool against my tongue. I close my eyes. I open them again and on the trail ahead of me strut two baby birds.
“DUCKS!” I squeal.
They are not ducks. They couldn’t be ducks. There’s no water nearby, and anyhow I can recognize that they are not ducks. They waddle, tiny and round and fluffy, with a level of arrogance all out of proportion to their cuteness. An adult, presumably their mother, pops from the grass to the left of the trail. Her tail arches, ruffled like a tiny turkey. She’s mad, mad, mad at me. Her neck feathers stick out in an irregular fin, like forehead veins. She stomps toward me and thrusts her beak and clucks. She’s a grouse, I’m pretty sure.
“Duck!” I say to her again, delighted.
She raises her wings and fluffs out all her feathers and if she had teeth they would be bared. I inch past her, stepping gingerly and sideways. “Sorry, mama,” I tell her. Once I’m past I grin.
Strawberries and grouse, all at once! What a trail!
2. I come to my first view.
3. The Colorado Trail is divided into 28 segments. On average they’re each about 15 miles long, but some are longer (the longest is about 32 miles) and some are shorter (closer to 10).
Today I finish Segment 1 around midday and stop for water at the South Platte River. It’s got white water here this time of year; it hustles along its bed like it’s got someplace really urgent to be. I find a spot in the shade and dip my water bottles in, again and again, to fill all of them. Segment 2 is 13 miles of no reliable water. I’ll need to dry camp tonight.
The Kentuckians appear–Adam, the twentysomething I’d met on the road yesterday, and his father and younger brother. I’d assumed I was the slowest hiker on the whole trail. I figured they had left me behind ages ago. They seem stoic and fit and more able, emotionally and phsyically, than I feel. I feel mercurial on the trail–strawberries and grouse one moment, deep frustration at myself about my aching body and slow pace the next.
Papa Kentucky comes and stands near me where I sit filling my water bottles. He points. “That poison ivy?”
I glance at the plant a few feet behind me. “Maybe,” I say.
He sits down. “Think it is,” he says. “Can’t hike anyplace in Kentucky for all the damn poison ivy. Fact, spring is the only time you can do anything. Summer’s too much poison ivy and fall you’re liable to get shot. Winter, you can hike, but no water stuff.”
I’m surprised he’s talking to me. The day before, as he’d hiked past me, he’d seemed unsmiling and grim, a hiker who gets it done.
It turns out he’s a downright chatterbox.
“I’m not allergic to poison ivy,” I tell him. Once, in fifth grade Appalachian church camp, me and my punk friend Alicia rubbed the stuff all over our arms to test whether we were allergic. Neither of us broke out in a rash. We then felt secretly superior to everyone else whenever counselors warned kids of poison ivy.
It’s possible, looking back, that we had misidentified the plant. It’s not like we were botanists.
Now, Papa Kentucky tells me his name is Tim, and that his father-in-law isn’t allergic to poison ivy, and as a result is able to play lots of golf. “He’s terrible at golf,” Tim says. “He hits it into the rough and most of us can’t go get it because of the poison ivy, but he just tromps on in and hits it back onto the green. I can’t even play with him.”
After talking to nearly no one but myself all day, this golf conversation feels surreal.
“Huh,” I say.
Tim stands. “Better go,” he says. “See you down the trail. Nice to meet you, Erin.”
I smile at him. “Nice to meet y’all, too.” It is. It’s heartening to see them, to know that they’re not that far ahead of me, that I’m not alone in my ineptitude. I assume, though, still, that I won’t see them again. They’ll be miles ahead of me.
4. Four miles later, I’ve come to the heart of a burned-out area. The fire, less than ten years ago, it looks like, burned so hot it had incinerated the ponderosas. No shade is left, anywhere.
Spiky plants straggle here. They clutch onto the soil. I follow the trail wearily. It’s so, so hot. My pack feels so, so heavy. I can feel myself sunburning, my hips twinging, a blister starting hotly on my left foot. Clouds pass without interrupting the burning stream of sunlight. The trail, at this moment, heads toward trees. I tell myself I’ll take a break in the shade when I reach the trees. I trudge, reluctantly. Then, twenty yards before the trail reaches the trees, it turns sharply to the left, avoiding the shade.
“Uuuuuunnnggggh!” I moan. I have to stop. I drop my pack heavily to the ground, shade or no shade. If I were a regular person, I think, I would just walk over to the trees. I am not a regular person. It will not be possible for me to walk anyplace that is not the trail. I sit where I’m standing.
Insects saw. I take off my boots and flies land on my feet. Maybe they think I’m dead, I think indifferently. Aloud, I say, ” Do you think I’m dead?” I lie back. I look at the sky through my sunglasses. A cloud inches toward the sun. “Yes,” I say to it. “Cover the sun.” I point a finger at the cloud to direct it. I try to think of the type of soil that I’m sitting in, the mineral soil here that does not easily invite plants to take root. It’s tough to walk in, tough to bike on, tough to build trail in. It slides under your feet, your tires, crumbles under your pick. What is it called?
At the last moment, the cloud shifts shape, so that it curves around the sun without covering it. “No!” I tell it, outraged. “No.” As if the cloud is my erstwhile employee. I lie on the ground and the sun beats on me and flies land on my salty skin and I think about how I won’t have much water for the next nine miles. I don’t move.
Suddenly I sit straight up. “Pea gravel!” I shout. I look around imperiously at the insects buzzing near me. “It’s called pea gravel,” I tell them.
I put on my boots. I hike on.
5. I come to a flat rock next to the trail. On it are two new light trail running shoes and a pair of clean Carhartts. I look around. “Hello?” I call. Nothing. I remember the socks from my campsite the night before, and sunglasses I’d seen on a branch next to the trail earlier. I wonder if I am following a naked person.
6. I set my tent on the side of the trail. I write in my journal. Thorn, I write. Comparing myself to everybody else in the whole world.
Thorn, I write. Everyone’s pack is lighter and everyone is walking faster.
Thorn, I write. My body hurts and I’m slow.
Rose, I write. Baby grouse. Strawberries.
Rose, I write. I seem to be following a naked person.
I think for a minute. Rose, I write. Nice Kentuckians.
I close my journal and slip deeper into my sleeping back. I hear faraway bangs. Denver fireworks, for Independence Day.
I get my journal out again. Transformation hurts, I write.