Mile 1927

lake reflection

“The Patriots are having a good season.”

The statement was total gibberish. Neither knew anything about football, let alone paid any attention to it in the last five months. Misfit and FancyFeast were hiking over Old Speck Mountain. The grade was easy, and the terrain was calm. The words spoken by Misfit were code for “the trail is nice.” Neither dared tempt the fates by saying such remarks out loud, fearing the trail would hear them and change course. FancyFeast feast agreed, “I love the Patriots.”

The two hikers had finally made it to Maine. The excitement was fueling their hasty descent to the Andover trailhead. Misfit was in the lead as her downhill game was a bit faster than FancyFeast’s. They were hustling to meet a shuttle, and Misfit was building some distance. As such, she made it to the trailhead well ahead of FancyFeast.

She dropped her pack, sat on a rock, and bellowed a “Ca-Caw” into the woods. A faint “Ca-Caw” echoed back. From that, she knew FancyFeast was just a little behind. She sat in the sun, excited about town food, and waited for her friend and shuttle to arrive.

FancyFeast and Misfit had become sisters of the trail. They kept each other motivated and entertained and, most importantly, ensured neither met a tragic end. Figuratively, of course… Well… Maybe just a little literal. Staying focused after this many miles is the greatest challenge, and both were struggling to keep their morale high and determination intact. That’s why they were hitting a hostel a day ahead of schedule and then planning on a slackpack the following day.

Their slower pace allowed the two hikers to recharge while staying on the move. Misfit, who up to this point was rapidly losing weight by the day, was gaining weight back and feeling energized. FancyFeast was happy to have time to enjoy the hike instead of pushing big miles. It was a beneficial arrangement. However, all good things must come to an end. They were fast approaching the moment neither wanted to acknowledge during their initial planning.

“I need to start moving faster again.” Misfit said, “If I am going to make my summit deadline.” FancyFeast had more time than Misfit, so she didn’t feel the same pressure. This meant only one thing. It was time for the two to part ways.

They started from the trailhead the day after the next, just as they always had for the last 400 miles. FancyFeast is in the lead, Misfit following close behind. FancyFeast’s uphill game was far superior, and the day always starts with an uphill. However, as they crested the hill this time, FancyFeast stepped aside to allow Misfit to pass. This was an unspoken movement. They both knew it was time. Hikers don’t say goodbye. Though they may hike at different speeds, take different paths, and follow their feet to unknown destinations, they also know what the trail provides. Goodbyes may last an hour or a month; therefore, hikers know better. Misfit passed FancyFeast without ceremony, without certainty that this would be their last day together, so she said what all hikers say at this juncture. “See you later.” They knew it was unlikely, but the trail always finds a way.

It was strange to be alone again. Only the sounds of the forest kept her company. She hiked at her own pace, stopped at her leisure, and fell into a familiar rhythm of hiking her hike. She quickly fell into her usual pattern of pushing that extra mile or going over just one more hill, resulting in her walking longer than expected. She’d been hiking for several hours when she realized it was time for a break. She dropped her pack near a stream, filled her water bottle, and ate a snack. She bellowed out a “Ca-Caw” like a reflex, but there was no echo this time. No reply. That’s when Misfit understood she was indeed on her own once again.

The trail has this funny way of connecting you to your community in ways that don’t exist off the trail. Yet, at the same time, there are moments when you feel like the last remaining soul on this planet. You might be surrounded by people just out of sight ahead or behind. Moving along at the same pace, stopping at the same time, and never crossing paths. This realization means that you simultaneously feel connected to all those that came before and those that follow after, but also alone. Alone, but not lonely.

She lifted her pack. It felt just a little heavier than before. Upon reaching the next junction, she was greeted by a large banner “The Patriot Salutes Thru-Hikers.” It had an arrow pointing down a short spur. There she found The Patriot, proud parent of a 2018 thru-hiker who has since dedicated his retirement to providing trail magic for thru-hikers. Usually, the trail is subtle when it talks to hikers. However, the coincidence of this trail angel’s name echoing the codeword used by FancyFeast and Misfit to talk about the trail secretly was not lost on Misfit. Coincidence to some, but she knew immediately that the trail was trying to tell her something; she just needed to listen.

“Would you like a cold drink!?” His voice boomed from the makeshift shelter as she approached. Misfit pulled up a chair, cracked a can of sugary soda, and sat with the Patriot for a spell.

The trail angel and Misfit shared their stories, her ending on a down note at the recent need to part ways with her friend. The Patriot sensing her sadness, offered these words in return “You have to hike your hike; nobody else is gonna do that for you.” Then with a Cheshire grin, he offered her another cold drink as if it would wash away her doubt. Misfit heard his words. She was reminded that she was part of something bigger than herself. She knew she needed to finish these miles on her own. She still had a few more lessons to learn. They toasted to the trail, and Misfit hiked up the hill, feeling a little lighter.

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