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Miles of Earth and Sky

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The roots, grass, and pine needles were starting to blur together as Owen Franklin slogged on the winding, muddy trail in the woods. His breath steamed his glasses as the rain splattered on the hood of his navy blue rain gear. His hiking boots landed with thuds and squelches on the damp ground, his trekking poles finding divots in the stone and earth to push him along. At the beginning of his hike a few hours ago in Damascus, Virginia, he couldn’t go five seconds without thinking of why he was alone. But monotonous momentum was wiping away all his thoughts. He lost track of time in the trickle of sweat on his neck, the click of his poles, in the ache of his muscles, in the sound of his own breathing, in the rush of trees and leaves and light rain that swirled past him. 

He almost did not see the wooden sign, which blended in with the trees, that marked the path that turned off the Appalachian Trail. He stopped and back tracked so he could read it. It was as sign leading him to Saunders Shelter on top of Straight Mountain. At first, he couldn’t tell in the rain where the trail for the shelter was. Then he remembered that his AT guidebook mentioned that trails leading to shelters were always marked with blue blazes. The AT, in contrast, was always marked by the white blazes. Once he found the trail, he continued his hike. 

Saunders Shelter turned out to be a simple wooden structure, raised above the ground at each corner by cinder blocks. The front was open to the elements while the back was closed. It was completely covered by a small dark green roof. A picnic table sat right in front of the shelter. Owen stepped into the shelter and stood in silence as he listened to the patter of rain slow to a trickle, then a stop. He did a double take at the word “TITS” scrawled in white on the right wall of the shelter. “Really?” he muttered. He had thought he had left graffiti behind him in civilization. 

Owen struggled out of his heavy backpack and set it on the floorboards with a groan. He stared for a moment longer at the empty and lonely shelter before he peered outside to see if anyone was approaching. Then he ducked back inside and peeled himself out of his rain gear and damp clothes. The change in temperature was immediate and he shivered. He partially unpacked his bag to retrieve the tightly packed bag of warm clothes he planned to sleep in. Once he was done dressing in dry clothes, he shuddered, rubbing his hands up and down his arms and then up through his red curls to push them off his forehead as he stared out at the mountains. 

Owen was not new to hiking, or camping, yet nothing in his experience had prepared him for sleeping in a tiny shelter on a mountain top by himself without Eve.

There was a flash of lightning. Owen turned his pale, freckled face to the sky. He counted out the seconds.

One one thousand, two one thousand, three—

Owen felt the rumble of thunder in the soles of his bare feet, in his chest, in his bones as it swept over the mountain like a giant ocean wave. The wind blew his curls off his forehead. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he watched the horizon-wide wall of rain that was sweeping across the vast valleys and mountains towards him and the tiny shelter. 

When it arrived, the squall of rain pounded against the roof so hard that the shelter shook. The sound of a voice broke through the cacophony. Owen peered through his silver glasses into the heavy sheets of rain. With each second, the voice became clearer and louder. It was a man’s voice, and whoever it belonged to had a southern accent. 

And he was bellowing Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” 

“The fuck?” Owen said quietly. 

In the downpour, Owen caught sight of the singing hiker hoofing it over dead leaves, dirt, and mud towards the shelter. He was wearing a bright yellow poncho and had a black trash bag instead of a rain cover over his backpack. His shoes were completely covered in mud and he had one pink trekking pole and one black trekking pole. “Holy-holy-shhhhh-it! Hooooo-ly-shit!” yelled the hiker as he waved to Owen, still religiously singing the notes of “Paparazzi.” “May-I-get-in, please?! Pa-Paaaa! Pa-Paaaa-Ra-Ziiiiii?!”

“Yes!” Owen shouted over the downpour. “Get in!”

The hiker hurried over to the shelter and stretched his leg up over the puddle surrounding the shelter. He sputtered and yelped as the cascade of water pouring down from the roof hit him square in the face and he started to fall backwards towards the mud. Owen lunged forward, grabbed the hiker’s hand, and hauled him into the shelter. Another flash of lightning split the sky and Owen got a glimpse of wide blue eyes under the hood of the bright yellow poncho. “I’m soooo glad y’all didn’t say ‘no!’” the hiker shouted over the roar of thunder as he let go of Owen’s hand and knocked his muddy boots against the wooden side of the shelter. 

“Why would I do that?” Owen shouted back. 

“I don’t know, man!” the stranger shouted with a choked laugh and a cough. The hiker doubled over, his hands braced on his knees, and gasped for breath. “I’m Gaudet!” he called. “Trail name’s ‘Secondhand!’ This rain’s insane! ‘Scuse me, think I’ll go pass out now in Tits corner!” he laughed breathlessly and walked to the side of the room where the immature chalk vandalism marked the wall. He dropped his trash bag covered backpack to the floor. He pushed back his bright yellow hood, revealing an uneven and wet buzzcut and a small, scruffy beard.

“I’m Owen,” Owen said. 

“Good to meet you!” Gaudet reached out and gave him a handshake with a rough hand and a firm nod. He was half a foot shorter than Owen’s 6 feet and 4 inches. Gaudet’s bright blue eyes looked up into Owen’s face with awe. “Lord, you’re tall.” 

“Oh,” Owen said dumbly as he stared right back. 

Gaudet laughed and walked back to his corner of the shelter and rummaged around in his backpack. Then he pulled out a tightly packed plastic bag and looped a rope through it with a small weight at the end. Despite the lightning and thunder, Gaudet hurried out into the rain again and threw the weight up in the air over a tree branch. Then he hoisted the bag up so it dangled high above the ground and he lashed the rope to the tree. At Owen’s wide-eyed look, Gaudet looked over at him. “This is to keep the bears away from my food!” Gaudet shouted. 

Owen had no idea why he’d forgotten about bears.

After Gaudet helped Owen suspend his food bag up into the trees, the two of them returned back to the shelter. Gaudet pulled off his yellow poncho and, without warning, began to take off everything else. Owen looked away abruptly. Owen shook out his wet rain gear and laid it out on the picnic table, which was half shielded from the rain. “That’ll blow away if you don’t put rocks on it. Plus, it will never dry there in this squall,” Gaudet warned. “And it’s going to be cold. You might want to lay it on top of you later.” Owen glanced over at Gaudet. The Southern hiker was pulling up a pair of sweatpants. He was bare from the waist up. He looked startlingly thin. Is that what I’m going to look like soon? Owen thought with alarm. Gaudet grinned at him. “Sorry. Don’t mean to be bossy. Don’t want you to lose your stuff.” Gaudet was in the middle of sticking his thin arms into a long sleeved t-shirt when he stared out into the rain. Owen looked where he was staring. Another hiker was approaching the shelter at a steady pace, looking completely unfazed by the rain, wind, and rumble of thunder. They had bright orange raingear and bright orange hiking boots. Even their trekking poles were orange. “Get in! There’s room!” Gaudet shouted over the rain. 

The hiker in the distance sped up only a little, and easily maneuvered over the puddles and fallen tree branches. They stepped into the shelter and pulled back their hood. Their jet black hair was about as long as a finger length. It was difficult to know how old they were, or what pronouns they went by. While Gaudet was a half a foot shorter than Owen, this newcomer was a whole foot shorter. Most of their bulk seemed to come from the backpack they had on, but they handled it as if it weighed only a few pounds as they hefted it onto the floor one-armed. “Hey,” they said in greeting. “I’m Gill.” 

“Owen,” Owen said. 

“Gaudet,” Gaudet said. “Trail name’s ‘Secondhand.’” Gill gave both of them handshakes while Gaudet asked, “What’s your trail name?” 

Gill smiled and pointed to their bright orange shoes and rain gear. “‘Orange.’” 

“Northbound?” Gaudet asked, pointing at Gill.

Gill pointed to themself. “Northbound. You?”

Gaudet gave Gill a high five. “Team Northbound! What about you, Owen? You Northbound?”

“Uh, yeah,” Owen said. Gaudet also gave him a high five. 

Gill walked back out into the rain in their raingear to suspend their food bag into the trees. Then they walked back into the shelter and froze when they saw the vandalism on the wall. “Oh, that’s mature,” Gill muttered very quietly.

“That was like that when we got here,” Owen insisted while Gaudet added nearly at the same time, “Yeah, man, that was here before us.” 

Gill shot a look at Gaudet at the word “man” with their angular black eyes. After a moment’s pause, Gill grinned and Owen suspected, judging by Gill’s smile after they were called “man,” that Gill preferred masculine pronouns. “I’ll take your word for it,” Gill said and looked up at Owen. “Do you have a trail name yet?” 

“Yet?” Owen asked. 

Gaudet grinned and rubbed his own scruffy beard. “You’re new. You got no trail beard yet,” he said. Gill shifted from one bright orange hiking boot to the other. “Plus,” Gaudet continued obliviously, “your backpack looks like you got your kitchen sink in it.” 

Several emotions warred inside Owen. One was anger. Another was embarrassment. The last one was humor. Gaudet wasn’t hostile about his teasing. Maybe Owen had packed too much. Finally, Owen allowed himself a sheepish smile. “I thought I would need the sink,” Owen said and patted his backpack. “It’s chrome too.”

“You could trade something to make it lighter,” Gill suggested. “People do that on the trail all the time. How far are you hiking?”

“Massachusetts, hopefully,” Owen said. “What about you two?”

Gill smiled. “As far as I can go.” 

“Same,” Gaudet said. “I’m not really concerned with the destination, but the journey.” He held his hand over his head as he said “journey” and waved it around, as if the word “journey” was a mystical word. “Where did you start?”

“I started in Damascus,” Owen said. “Today.” Gill and Gaudet grinned. “Yes. I’m that new,” Owen added with a roll of his eyes and a smile of his own. “What about you, Gill?”

Gill cleared his throat. “I started on Springer Mountain. Georgia.” 

Gaudet’s eyes widened in surprise “Holy shit,” Gaudet said in awe. “How long have you been on the trail?”

“47 days,” Gill said.

“You’re a thru-hiker!” Gaudet praised. “You look good for someone who‘s been hiking that long!” Then Gaudet’s face whitened and he laughed uncomfortably and scratched the back of his neck with a slightly shaking hand. “I, uh, I started at Hot Springs, North Carolina. I’m from there. The AT goes right through town.” 

“Why is it called Hot Springs?” Owen asked.

“Mineral water,” Gill said. “They have hot springs there, hence the name.”

“Did you try out any hot tubs there?” Gaudet asked excitedly.  

Gill shrugged. “Of course I tried them out.”

“When?” Gaudet asked.

Gill frowned and his eyes slightly narrowed. “Why?”

Gaudet shrugged. “I, uh, worked at one of the resorts there about a month ago. I was just curious whether you were there or not while I was.”

“I’m not sure.” 

“Where are you from?” Gaudet asked. 

“New York.”

“From New York, New York?” Gaudet asked. 

Gill laughed. “Yeah. East Village in Manhattan.” 

Gaudet threw his arms out to indicate the mountains, the dirt, the earth, and the sky, which was split apart at that particular second by a wicked forked tongue of lightning. “And you’re out here?” Gaudet asked as thunder cracked so loud Owen covered his ears in pain. 

Gill shrugged. “It’s not the first time I’ve backpacked,” he said, but he didn’t say anything else as he turned to Owen. “What about you, Owen? Where are you from?”

“Rhode Island,” Owen said. “Warren.”

“Where’s that?” Gaudet asked. 

“What, Warren or Rhode Island?” 

Gaudet laughed. “Warren. But I’ve heard some people call Rhode Island an Island, so maybe I’m not sure about either of them.” 

Owen grinned. “Think of the smallest town in the smallest county in the smallest state. That’s Warren.” 

With the rain pounding down on the roof, and the sky darkening around them, Owen set up his blow-up mat and sleeping bag on the floor and laid out his damp clothes. His skin itched. He needed a shower, and knew he probably wouldn’t get one in days. 

Gaudet laid out a thin mat and an old blue sleeping bag next to Owen’s, right there beside the scrawled vandalism on the wall. Some of the down feathers were escaping from the sleeping bag. Then Gaudet inflated a little blow-up pillow. Gaudet laid down in the sleeping bag and closed his eyes with the blow-up pillow under his head, his fingers knitted together over his sleeping bag, and fell asleep like that, his thin chest rising and falling steadily under his battered sleeping bag and slender hands. Owen tried not to stare at the gauntness of his face.

Gill pulled off his poncho and laid it out to dry. He got his mat and sleeping bag out on the other side of Owen’s. Then Gill stared off at the mountains that were half obscured by the fog in the distance, his angular eyes faraway. 

When the thunder let up while the rain continued to pour, the three of them were joined by seven more hikers by the time the daylight faded, and Owen and Gill moved their sleeping bags closer to Gaudet’s. Gaudet only woke up long enough to shift his gear closer to the wall before he rolled over towards the wall and kept sleeping despite the pounding of the rain and the quiet talking of the other hikers. It was a tight fit, and Owen ended up with his mat right up against Gaudet’s and Gill’s. Owen wasn’t prepared for the smell of everyone and everything crammed into that space. 

Owen drank from his water bottle, got into his sleeping bag, set down his glasses, and closed his eyes. The smell kept him awake, and the quiet talking kept him alert. If it wasn’t pouring, he would have set up his tent outside the shelter.

Slowly, steadily, Owen finally fell asleep when darkness fell and everyone settled down to sleep. 

Owen dreamt about Eve. He was at a petting zoo feeding goats, and she was standing nearby on the pine needle covered ground. When she looked at him, all that was in her widening eyes was hate and anger. 

It made Owen wake up with a gasp. His heart hammered and he was covered with sweat. It was pitch black, quiet, and cold. He had no clue where he was. He fumbled frantically for a moment for something, anything, to tell him where he was. 

A light suddenly shined beside him and he jolted. “Y’all all right?” asked a groggy voice. A hand holding a flashlight nudged his arm and Owen stared up into tired but alert blue eyes in a thin and pale face. “Here’s a flashlight.” 

Then Owen remembered. He was out in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, somewhere in Virginia, in a AT Shelter surrounded by strangers he didn’t know. And one of them, Gaudet, “Secondhand,” was offering him a flashlight. Gill, “Orange,” was sitting up on Owen’s other side in his sleeping bag, watching silently. 

Owen took a deep breath. “Thanks,” he whispered, and accepted the flashlight. “Sorry.” 

“S’fine,” mumbled Gaudet. 

Owen rummaged around in his backpack and found his head lamp and crammed it on over his curls. “Thanks,” he whispered as he put Gaudet’s flashlight down beside the stranger. “I put your flashlight beside your sleeping bag.” 

“Thnkss,” Gaudet mumbled and fumbled around for his flashlight and tucked it in his sleeping bag. Owen put on his glasses and stared out into the darkness outside the Saunders Shelter. He needed to pee.

Owen carefully maneuvered himself out of his sleeping bag and stuffed his swollen feet into his shoes. It had stopped raining at some time during the night, but when he stepped off the shelter porch, his feet sunk into a large puddle of water. He swore silently and made his way to where the privy was. It was a simple wooden structure with a half door. Because of his height, anyone looking in his direction would be able to see nearly everything if he didn’t crouch. He was just beginning to understand what he had gotten himself into as he pulled his pants down and peed in a privy out in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, freaked out about the things he couldn’t see in the dark. If Eve was here, she would have walked with him to the privy, because the buddy system was important to her, and she would have joked, laughed, and whispered at him to pee more quietly so he didn’t wake up the deer.  

It took him a moment to find Saunders Shelter again in the shadows, but he could see Gill’s bright orange shoes and the little reflectors on the tags practically glowing in the dark. Now he completely understood why Gill wore so much orange. Owen nearly tripped getting back inside. Gill was clearly awake. He was sitting up in his sleeping bag. Gaudet was asleep again. Owen slipped back into his sleeping bag. After a moment, he heard Gill settle back down. 

Now that Owen had time to think, he couldn’t get Eve, or the last time they saw each other, out of his head. 

Owen’s stomach clenched. He shut his eyes tightly. Then he rolled himself up more in his sleeping bag with his thoughts still circling and racing until sleep finally took him. 

Owen woke up aching worse than when he fell asleep. He sat up with a wince. Gill was nowhere in sight, and neither were his belongings. Owen felt a moment of regret before he tapped it down. Gill was a thru-hiker and was probably already on the move. Gaudet was still asleep beside Owen. 

Two of the seven hikers that joined them the day before were sitting with their backs to the wooden wall of the shelter. They were hikers in their fifties, a woman and a man, either a couple or very good friends, and sitting together under a shared sleeping bag reading a book. There were three more hikers, women, each with their gear already packed, that were holding hands and standing in a circle with their eyes closed a few yards away from the shelter. They looked like they were either praying or meditating. The other two hikers, both about his age, were sound asleep on the other side of the shelter. They both looked exhausted. 

Owen put on his glasses and sat up. “I, uh, need to change,” he said awkwardly. 

The middle aged hikers looked up at him from their book and flipped the sleeping bag over their heads as they snuggled together. Owen swiftly changed back into his hiking clothes, even though they smelled terrible and were still damp. Then he put his relatively dry sleeping clothes away. 

Owen packed up his bag again. Then he attempted to swing his backpack over his shoulders. He groaned as his muscles protested. He thought he heard one of the hikers chuckle quietly. He sent a weak glare at the sleeping bag that covered them as he buckled the straps around his chest and waist. 

It took Owen a few tries to untie Gaudet’s knot so he could pull his food bag down from the trees. Then he began to make himself breakfast. He ate some granola, a tin of tuna, and a few dried apricots all washed down with water he had filtered and restocked at the shelter’s water source. Then he packed up. 

Owen took one glance back at Saunders Shelter and wondered if he should say goodbye to Gaudet. But he didn’t want to wake him up. Gaudet looked like he needed sleep. Also, Owen wasn’t really here to make friends. Even if he couldn’t boast that he hiked the whole trail, like Gill probably would be able to in a few months, Owen was here to prove that he could hike the trail, even if he had no one to hike it with. 

Owen set forth onto the path that led back to the AT.

Note: The image below was created with the help of Picrew.

Owen, Gaudet, and Gill