“But why do you have to go alone?”
My fiance and I had been through this about a half dozen times already, but even as I was putting the finishing touches on my packing the night before I’d scheduled to set out she thought she’d try one more time to convince me this was a bad idea.
“I’m not sure what you think is going to happen, babe. I’ve hiked most of this trail before for years.”
“Sure, sure, but you’ve never done it all once and you’ve never done it alone and you’ve never done it when it was cold at night. I just don’t understand why you have to do this solitary mountain man thing during October when you’ve always avoided hiking up there.”
I’d been explaining to her since I’d started planning the excursion to New Hampshire’s Presidential Range that it was just about wanting to have days to myself with no one to depend on but me, but that was only half the truth. The other half was that I was getting married in a month and I knew that once that happened it’d be near impossible to ever have another adventure like this by myself. I also may have been having a minor panic attack about the entire wedding but at the time I told myself I wasn’t running away.
“It’s just something I feel like I’ve got to do.”
I zipped up the top of my pack loudly and started going down my list one more time. Everything was checked off and I’d double-checked that it was all packed away, enough food for eight days and extra layers for if there was a serious cold snap.
“But the weather up there is nuts. What if you get hurt and you get a freak blizzard or something?”
“Never going to happen,” I said. “Look, I know you’re worried but it’s not going to be a big deal. I’ll be gone for a week and change but I’ll be back before you know it with tons of photos to show you. Besides, I’ve got the disposable cell phone and I’m sure there will be other people out hiking too. Trust me, it’ll all go fine and I’ll be standing right in front of you in desperate need of a shower before you know it.”
“You’re a grown man. I know you can handle yourself and I know you’re familiar with the trails. I’m not nagging and I’m not being silly. I just want you to make it back safe and unhurt.”
“I get that, Jamie. I do.” I set my pack over next to the front door of our apartment. “I know what I’m doing. It’s all going to be fine.”
*** * ***
Jamie dropped me off at the trailhead the next morning as the sun was barely starting to come up. I said my goodbyes quickly because she’d been nearly silent the entire ride out and I just didn’t want to argue about things anymore. There’s nothing worse than wanting to get away from someone you love, for you and for them. I kissed her, told her I loved her, and then I was off down a wooded area of the trail alive with the yellows, reds, and browns of Fall. After about fifty feet I looked back to see her still standing there next to the car. She waved weakly like she was still lamenting my decision. I smiled but didn’t wave back. The trail took a wide turn to the left and then she was gone from sight, the trailhead completely obscured by trees.
The first day went great. The trail climbs up from the lowlands and across the thirteen peaks of the Presidential Range. It’s known for its terrible weather and record-holding wind speeds during the winter but I expected not to experience too much trouble overall. Maybe the odd snow toward the higher elevations but nothing much else. But down on the forest level you’re completely surrounded by trees for miles with leaves so thick that you can barely make out the sky most of the time.
Toward the evening, I ran into a young couple on their way back to the trailhead and gave them a wave and a “hello.” They didn’t wave back and they hiked right past me with barely more than a nod. I paused for a minute to drink some water and watched after them. The woman looked back at me as they moved away. She was wearing hiking shorts, and the entire backs of her legs were covered with what looked like bright red scratches. There’s lots of rocks and bramble along the trail. More than once I’d stumbled off the trail myself and ended up with cuts all over my arms. “No wonder they didn’t speak,” I thought, she just can’t wait to get home and into the bath. But still, they’d be extremely lucky to get back to the trailhead before night fell.
I yelled after them, “Hey, do you have a flashlight? It’s going to start getting dark soon!”
The couple had been hiking fast and either didn’t hear me or didn’t care to reply. The woman with the scratches looked back for a second with a worried look on her face then turned back around.
“Unprepared people go out into the wilderness all the time,” I thought. “They’ll be stumbling along the trail by 7pm with all this forest cover.”
Still, you can’t make people listen. I shrugged and hiked about another mile before I found a place off the trail to camp. It was nice and flat and after hanging my food up and away from my tent to keep the bears away I slept like a log through the entire night.
*** * ***
The next morning, the trail started to incline greatly as it climbed toward the peaks and there were a number of trees that had fallen across the path which I had to navigate over and under that made it harder work than it might have been.
Around noon, starving, I stopped to eat at a bend in the trail. I was halfway through when I noticed an entire backpack just a few yards off the trail. Walking over to it I could see that the pack was brand new and inside was an entire mess kit and even an entire bottle of propane. I was trying to figure out just who might have left a full pack like this when I saw something eerie on the back, something I’d seen just the day before, scratches.
They were right through the material which was odd since even the cheapest of hiking packs resists the tearing of thorns and the odd tree branch. And it wasn’t just a couple of scratches, it was a lot of scratches and tears clean through. Maybe some rich person just decided to ditch it? I didn’t know but I did yell out in case maybe someone had gotten hurt nearby or was just taking a piss and their pack had rolled off the trail.
“Hello?! Is anyone there?”