He’s been driving trail shuttle for nine years, ever since his wife took her kitchen appliances and smoking habit and left. Their dog had howled after her for a week or so, then he’d forgotten about her, curling up on her rocking chair like it’d always been vacant.
His sons check in once in a while, but it’s mostly just him and the dog now. It’s not a bad life, maintaining the trail during the day, picking up hikers when need be, getting home in time to watch the sun set over Lake Jocassee.
The couple called three days ago, having found his number on the Trail Angels website. The boy asked about getting picked up at the end of the hike. I mapped it out, the boy said, and we should get to the end seven days after starting. But Trip has been around the Foothills for a while and so he says no to that plan, because nobody finishes when they think they will, and many don’t even finish.
He picks the couple up at the trail’s end, where they’re standing next to their car and holding paper coffee cups, the girl leaning her head against the boy’s arm. The boy is skinny with a wide frame that he’ll eventually grow into. The girl is small, barely to his shoulder, her hair brushed neatly into a ponytail and her hiking boots stiff and new. She’s wearing makeup. Just looking at her, Trip knows she won’t make it.
“I’m Trip,” he introduces himself.
“Squint,” the boy offers. “Forgot my glasses on a hike a few years ago.”
The girl shrugs. “I don’t have a trail name yet,” she says.
“We’ll get you one,” says the boy.
Trip drives them to the trailhead, winding along the edge of ridges and stopping occasionally at lookouts. He tells stories of mid-hike pickups, like he usually does, because he figures it’ll make people more willing to call him if they need help. This couple, he tells them about the group of women he had to get last month because of blisters. “Blisters are about the most painful things,” he says, “and once they split, there’s no healing them unless you stop walking.” He glances in the rearview mirror at the girl in the backseat, but she’s looking out the window.
The boy, in the passenger seat beside him, nods. “I had some blisters at the beginning of the PCT,” he says, then proceeds to highlight his PCT hike. The girl is quiet, still watching the trees.
When they get to the trailhead, Trip pulls off in front of an outhouse. “Last bathroom for seven days,” he says, like it’s a punch line. The girl goes to use it while Trip and the boy unload the packs from the truck bed. Once she’s gone the boy turns to Trip.
“Wanna know a secret?” he asks. He digs into the brain of his pack and pulls a gold ring from a small cardboard box. “Had to use cardboard because of the weight,” he says. “I’m proposing at the end. We’ve been dating four years, since high school.”
“It’s a pretty thing.” Trip closes the box. “But she might not make it. I’ve seen more experienced hikers than her not make it.”
“She will.” The boy stuffs the box back into his pack. “She’ll be fine. It’ll be a great moment, ending the hike and getting engaged. She’ll love it.”
Trip starts to shake his head again, but the girl is walking back toward them. Trip reminds himself it’s not his business. The boy wraps the girl in a hug, his arms reaching around her body and her pack, and she smiles into his chest.
The girl turns to look up at Trip. “Thank for all the advice,” she says. “And for waking up early to get us.”
He goes through his usual routine: weighing the packs (the girl’s pack is ten pounds lighter than the boy’s, but she sinks under its weight), pointing out road crossings on the map, making sure they have his phone number and telling them where cell service is best. “The last road crossing is on the third day,” he says. “After that, you’re on your own. Trails go too far for roads to reach you.” Trip has never had a hiker who didn’t return, at least not that he knows of, but it keeps him up at night sometimes—imagining someone getting injured two days, both ways, from help.
The boy starts the trail enthusiastically, his pack bouncing as he makes long strides. The girl turns around once and waves to Trip. She smiles quickly, then turns to follow the boy.
The next afternoon, Trip has just dropped a group of middle-aged men off at the trail head when he notices a tube of lip balm in the backseat of his truck. He thinks immediately of the girl, because it’s scented lip balm and none of the men would have had it with them. Maybe the girl is out there getting chapped lips, but at least she’s not carrying around something scented during bear season.
The sunset that night is muted and grey, the air cold.
The following morning is cloudy. He tries working on the picket fence he’s been building, but he’s distracted and soon rain drops start to splat against his skin. He gets in the truck and drives to the road crossing, the last one the boy and girl will pass through before heading away from the road for the next four days.
He parks on the side of the road and watches the rain pelt sideways. Drops hit the pavement and splash high into the air.
Trip unbuckles his seatbelt and rolls his neck to the left, then the right. He scans the floor of his truck. There’s a stove he made out of the bottom of a beer can, holes poked in the sides to let the gas siphon out properly. There are leaves and dirt from his early-spring hikes in Maine, discarded Band-aids from hikers he’s picked up, and a granola bar wrapper. Trip wonders if the boy and girl passed through ahead of schedule, but that’d be nearly impossible with the pace she’d be able to keep. He’s never done this before, waiting around for someone who hasn’t decided yet that they need him, but he’s uneasy about the boy and girl. It’s not a good combination when only one out of two wants to stick it out.
He waits until three o’clock, then four, then five. He waits until he can barely see the trail for the lack of light.
photo by Rebecca Rajchgot, 2017