The first part of the journey was muddy and wet.
I almost turned back when I accidentally stepped ankle deep into the mud.
Soaked through literally five minutes into my hike, I felt discouraged. I was already nervous and wondered to myself why I was doing this thing. Really? I should just get to a hotel and take a long bath—and then ahead of me on the trail there was a person keeping a pace that drew me in. He was focused, strong, muddy.
I had already determined before leaving that fear of other people on this trail was not an option. I had pepper spray for protection, but I had decided to be willing to converse with anyone who crossed my path this trip. Watching the hiker ahead I thought, if they were going to keep going—wet and muddy—so would I.
We walked for what seemed like about an hour, with me several hundred feet behind in the rainy mist, my determined partner moving forward like his goal was just above the next ridge and his life depended on it.
Why is he walking?
Why so focused?
Exercise or hobby?
On the run?
Or bucket list?
Maybe, like me, for clarity, peace, direction, or the feeling of freedom I get in the woods?
The more I walked behind this stranger, struggling now to keep up with him, the more questions I had running through my mind.
Why is he alone? Am I in danger?
Does he know or feel me pacing behind?
I found myself weirdly comforted, following him while having this conversation with him in my head.
Before I knew it, the five-mile marker was in sight and the trail would most likely have a crossroad. My heart sank a little when I realized I could lose my phantom trail leader at the split. He was a great help distracting my fear of being alone and exhaustion from the steady incline.
I would be alone in the rain once more—but a break from the pace was certainly needed. I resolved that my next five miles or so would most probably be alone.
The marker was up on a ridge just as the trail turned. When I finally reached it, a fallen log suited as my mossy, insect-ridden couch for tying my loosened, muddy shoestrings. The rain stopped and the sun peeked through the thick pines, which swayed with heavy, soaked boughs. I sat carefully, inspecting each crevice, remembering that once, during a different hike, I almost perched on a snake while stopping for a rest.
It was quiet—just the sound of birds and dripping branches. When I looked back down from my treetop scoping, there he was looking back at me.
He had been sitting about 15 feet from the fallen tree and I didn’t see or hear him when I stopped. Lesson learned: check your surroundings, even if you don’t hear noise. My heart seized up in my chest and I couldn’t breathe as he began to walk toward me. I had pepper spray in my bag but there wasn’t time to reach for it.
He spoke. “I could feel you behind me,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been out here for a few days so it was nice to have the company. I am trying to finish out my hike today.”
My breathing returned to an easy pace. His conversation seem comfortable and unthreatening. I thought it best to reply and put myself at ease while still deciding if I would get my spray in hand. I asked him if he wanted an apple or needed some water. He proceeded to sit across from me, so as not to enter my personal space most certainly, and began to unwrap his meal. Now his meal was a real meal. Not like my lame apple and water. He had packed a serious Dagwood sandwich, yogurt with granola and fruit, and tea, delicious sweet tea.
I wanted that tea.
Everything in me was dying to ask my questions. So instead of spraying his face with Diablo peppers, I began my interview.
We talked for at least 30 minutes, me asking the short laundry list of questions I had formulated while walking behind him. He was gracious and answered each one with thought and perspective. I learned that he was walking alone because his wife had recently passed away. He spoke of her with a cocktail of love and sadness. His eyes lit up when he said her name out loud. He told me how this trail was the place they came each spring and camped. How she complained the entire time they were there but asked immediately upon leaving when their next trip would be to the woods.
He misses her. It made me terribly sad to see the expression on his face when he talked about how much he missed her. He told me about his kids and how proud they make him. He sat silently for a few seconds, peeling bark from a twig. Then he looked directly into my eyes and said something that pierced me.
“Listen, when you get to a place in your life that you feel great sadness, and you are confused as to why you are where you are, and why things happen, remember that everything happens for a reason. I know that sounds f*cking cliché,” he said chuckling, then apologized for swearing. “Great sadness and great joy go hand in hand. They change you. They’re meant to change you. Remember to feel it all. Don’t let a day pass by that you don’t feel exactly what’s happening in your life because we only have this one time around. You can’t get any of it back once it’s gone.”
He said it like he was sending me back into life with a charge to live it fully.
I saw regret mixed with joy flicker in his eyes, like remembering the best-ever Christmas morning and wanting to be there again—and knowing the impossibility. He wanted to save me from the same. People who have felt great pain are strange comrades in life almost immediately upon meeting. He saw my pain. I felt it.
When we had finished our meals, his being the only one worth eating, we got to our feet and carefully placed our backpacks in the walking position.
This man had entered my life unexpectedly and made an impression I will not forget. I don’t know his name, nor he mine, but never will I forget his face, his words, or his eyes when he said his wife’s name out loud.
He said goodbye without a hug, handshake, or touch—just a smile. I said how nice it was to talk to him and thanked him for answering my questions.
He turned west along the path.
I went east, my heart strangely comforted, and with new breath for the next miles.
He was gone.