It’s been awhile.
A month has passed since I got off the trail. Maybe a little over a month. Things happened. Life happened. I got home and immediately went back to Colorado for an event in Boulder. I came home again. Breathed for a moment. Opened my computer, on a rickety shelf. Above it, an over-watered aloe plant upturned, spilling onto my keyboard. The m key displayed j, the w was t. I took the computer to a local repair shop, which kept it four weeks, for mysterious reasons. I took a friend to get a medical procedure in Casper. Wyoming Public Radio obtained a grant to pay me part-time. School started.
And in all of that, somehow, I neglected to finish writing the trail. I think that at least part of this is due to my uncertainty on how to think about it, my smallness at grappling with being off the trail. And overwhelming. How do I describe everything that happened?
I was only there for two weeks. It feels like a different life, someone else, but it was my life and it was me.
One day, still early on, I hiked down the trail. I hadn’t seen anyone in hours. It rained. My hood was up and I hobbled. I was in a six-mile-long meadow, a wet one. I rounded a copse of pine trees. “Oh, hello,” said a female voice.
Two women huddled on a log, laughing their asses off. Both looked forty-something. One of them found her breath enough to ask, “Do you have a name yet?”
“A trail name? No.”
“Spook,” she said, pointing at me. “You’re Spook.”
The other woman grinned and nodded.
I sat down on a rock. “What are your names?”
“Mothership,” said the woman who’d given me the name. “And this is Stargazer.”
I never knew them by any other name.
“Are you guys hiking together?”
“We just met yesterday,” Stargazer said. She cocked her thumb at Mothership. “She’s with her husband.”
“He’s back there somewhere,” Mothership said.
“I came with a guy, but he’s a smoker,” Stargazer said. “And that first day, I had to spend more time waiting for him than hiking. I thought, man, I’m not doing this the whole trip.” She shrugged. “Don’t know where he is. Haven’t seen him since Day 2.”
Stargazer said she lived in Michigan, and Mothership was from Boone, North Carolina. Mothership’s accent sounded somehow both slow and staccato, emphasis on all syllables, round and pulled up short at the end of words. Sitting in freezing rain with these women felt warm, and the way Mothership talked reminded me of my family.
When the lightning eased we hiked on, and I outpaced them. This was unusual–I hadn’t outpaced anyone. I was a slow, hobbling hiker. I was in pain. My feet were still ragged. I hadn’t yet reached Breckenridge.
That night, I reached camp the same time as Stan. I set up my tent across the trail from his, near a stream. I started dinner. It failed to rain at that moment and that pleased me. I sat thoughtfully near a fire ring and spooned my dinner, rehydrated refried beans, into my mouth. The Kentuckians appeared, along the trail. We waved, and they found a spot across the stream. Then, as I was cleaning up, Stargazer and Mothership arrived. They plopped their packs down. “We’re camping with you,” Mothership announced.
“Cool,” I said, pleased. Friends! I had trail friends!
They circled, looking for flat places to pitch their tents. I finished cleaning up. “I’m out,” Mothership announced, when her tent was up. “Beat. See y’all in the morning.”
“Night,” Stargazer and I said in unison.
The sun emerged pink from behind a thick white cloud. Stargazer came to sit next to me. “Wow,” she said, nodding to the view across the forested canyon.
She had been laid off, she said. From a sports therapy job she’d loved. She was forty-five. And, a year ago, she’d divorced her husband. “He didn’t treat me very well,” she said. Three kids, middle one just graduated from high school.
She was seeing a man now who lived in Carlsbad, New Mexico. “My boy–my best friend,” she said. She sighed. “Not my boyfriend. We met on Christian Mingle.” She tilted her head at me. “I’m pretty spiritual.”
Stargazer was easy to talk to, bubbling over with stories and feelings. I asked more about the not-boyfriend. They’d known each other over the last year, chatting online and on the phone. He traveled for his job with the Department of Energy. “I don’t know exactly what he does. He has some kind of high-level classification status in the government so he can’t talk about it.” He traveled to places like Kansas and Minnesota and New York and one time in Reno she came out to meet him. “I flew out,” Stargazer said, hugging her middle against the chill. She wore soft-looking pink thermals and her bare toes were painted pink. “Hang on,” she said. She reached around behind the rock she sat on and emerged with a fuscia puffy jacket. Slipping it on, she said, “He asked me if I wanted to come out to Nevada, but he said we couldn’t be in a relationship, he’s not ready for one.” She hugged her middle again.
I sipped hot water from the mug cupped in my hands, steam curling up to my face. “Why not?”
She sighed again. “He’s divorced, too,” she said. “But he’s not over his ex-wife. I think he wants to try to get back together with her. She and the kids live in Arkansas.”
I waited, my fingers wrapped around the mug.
“So he asked if I wanted to fly out but that even though he really cares about me he wasn’t ready to be serious yet and I said, yes. Yes, I want to come to Nevada to see you. So, Spook, I went,” she said, looking at me. “And it was the best sex I ever had. Which,” she said, shaking her jacket sleeves down to cover her hands, “is sad, considering I was married for twenty-one years.”
We both watched a cloud uncurl across the sun, just before the mountain could reach it.
“And I haven’t seen him in person since. When I was driving out to Denver from Michigan, he called me. He said, I’m in Albuquerque, in a hotel. Come and see me. God, Spook, I wanted to. I was on the interstate in Nebraska. An exit was coming up. It would have been so easy to just turn the wheel south.” She stopped hugging herself and sat up straighter. “But the sign went on by and here I am. Anyhow, it wouldn’t have been good. We should wait till we can be in a relationship. But, God. The sex.”
“Why wouldn’t it have been good?”
She glanced at me. “Well, because God isn’t into all the sexual stuff.” She shrugged. “We’re Christians, you know?”
“I don’t know,” I said, grinning at her. “I disagree. I think God is very sexual. He’s the Creator. That’s inherently sexual.”
Stargazer laughed. “Well, anyhow,” she said. “I’m here and he’s somewhere.”
We both sat. The sun retreated into someplace we couldn’t reach. Clouds swirled. The night dimmed. I stood. “Good night,” I said to Stargazer.
“I think I’m going to stay out awhile, watch the clouds,” she said.
I crawled into my tent. Fourteen or forty-five, I thought. A crush is a crush.
Next morning, six-thirty, I huddled in my sleeping bag, looking vacantly out through my unzipped tent, watching Mothership buckle closed her pack. “Gonna try to catch up to hubby,” she said. “Think he’s only a couple miles ahead. See y’all down the trail.”
“Bye!” Stargazer called from inside her tent. I waved. Mothership padded away.
to be continued.