But if I don't manage to persevere, I'll probably never finish.
Arriving at the turnoff towards the Wildcat Shelter, I collapse beside the trail in a heap, arms and legs akimbo.
My carefully laid plans unravel before me, fraying like so many pages of my tattered Thru-Hiker's Handbook. That I desperately cleave to, and repeatedly scour for some vague sign of hope. Sadly, its dirtied and torn, nigh unrecognizable covers conceal no hidden wisdom. Dejected, I toss it in the dirt at my feet. And weep.
I was supposed to go 26.3 miles today. That was too ambitious. My muscles still ache, my thighs chafed raw, from the blistering 58 miles I've gone in the past two days. Nearly 30 miles a day. Incredible. Punishing. Stupid. Pointless.
After a few minutes, my sobbing subsides. Regaining some semblance of composure, I manage to wriggle free of my pack, and retrieve my phone. It's nearly one in the afternoon. Somehow, I've only gone twelve miles. At that rate, I know I won't reach the Fingerboard Shelter until after eight o'clock. By which time, the sun will be down, or nearly down. Which means I can forget about making or enjoying a camp fire, or socializing with my fellow hikers. I'll barely have enough time and energy to put up my tent and eat dinner before exhaustion takes me, and I end up on my back, in my sleeping bag, alone with my pain and my grief. And then, tomorrow, all I'll have to look forward to is more of the same. Repeating this grim, joyless process all over again. When all I really want to do is...
A distant peal of thunder pulls me from my reverie. I remember I have two calls to make: one to Megan—mostly for moral support, but also to see if she can come pick me up, if I truly need rescuing—and the other to my dad, telling him I might not be able to make it home in time for his surgery after all. And that I'm a massive failure. And that I'm sorry.
"I don't know if I can do this anymore," I whine, choking back tears.
An uneasy silence follows. Do you hesitate because you're carefully choosing your words? Or are you merely withholding some bitter remark, trying to conceal your frustration and annoyance? Whatever the case may be, this isn't what I wanted to hear.
I wanted to hear your mellifluous voice reassuring me, telling me that I can do this. That I'm being silly. That I'm overreacting. And that you're proud of me; that you do believe in me, even if I don't. And that I should just relax. A reminder that this isn't the end of the world.
"What do you want from me?" you finally grumble.
Is that petulance? Exasperation? Or am I projecting? And assuming the worst.
"What do you need me to do?" you ask, resigned.
"Come get me," I say. The words are difficult. Keeping my breathing steady is even harder. "If I need getting."
"Maybe," you sigh. "We'll see. I mean, I have work, and class."
I know you're an important, busy person. I get it. You're beautiful. You're a goddess. Your time is extremely valuable. And I already owe you so much. But think about what it would mean to me, how grateful I would be if you came!
Of course I say none of that, but bite down on my knuckle. Inhale. Exhale. Trying to keep it together. I don't want you to know that I've been crying.
"I'm afraid, Megan," I blurt at last. "I'm afraid if I stop now, if I get off the trail again, so soon, I won't be able to come back."
You think I'm being ridiculous. I don't care. I miss you. I think about you constantly, in my every waking moment. I mean, in every waking moment that isn't otherwise occupied by pressing bodily functions. My memories of you hang around me like a fog, so thick I sometimes can't see the trail in front of me. I have to continuously push you aside, put you from my mind, or I wouldn't be able to make any progress. It's pathetic, really. Isn't it?
"You chose to be out there!" I can hear you reminding me. "Don't forget that!"
I whimper involuntarily, sinking into this fantasy.
"What about me? Did you ever stop to think about how I feel? About how this would affect me? You disappearing for so long?"
"What? But I didn't know what else to do!"
"That's a terrible excuse. Maybe that's because you have no ambition. You could be great, but you're all too willing to settle for mediocre. You'd rather just do the bare minimum to get by than actually try to be somebody, to do something with your life."
"That's not fair! Look at where I am!"
"Lost in the woods, miserable and alone? Alienating yourself from your friends and your family, from humanity? Only succeeding in annoying and antagonizing everybody you meet? All you're doing is hurting yourself. And why? For what?"
I don't know.
"Also, why are you trying so hard to be some kind of enlightened, post-feminist 'sensitive' man? Do you think that's attractive? Because it's not! You're just being selfish. Like a poor little baby who cries so his mommy will come comfort him in his crib, and bring him things. Stop acting like a little boy. I'm not attracted to boys, or babies. I want a man! Be a man!"
Easier said than done. The back of my neck burns with embarrassment. I sputter to talk.
"Also, I'm a better writer than you," you interject, as if I needed the cherry on top. "Your prose is mediocre, and you lack imagination. And you can't sing. You think you can, but you really can't. You're always out of tune, it's--"
But now you've gone too far. And the open wound from where you've stabbed me in the heart closes and scabs over. And I grit my teeth and yank off the scab and tear it in half and ball it up and shove it in my ears so I can't hear any more of your crass, insulting prattle.
"I'm gonna prove you wrong, all you doubters and haters!" I scream defiantly, at nobody in particular. "Nobody believes in me but me! I can do this!"
And then a vaguely middle-aged rock band emerges out of the woods, and I know they must be Survivor because they start playing "Eye of the Tiger" just for me. And it's awesome. Immediately pumped, I leap to my feet and practically run the next 14 miles to the next shelter.
Except for not at all.
The slick pitter-patter of rainfall drags me out of my stupor. And I'm still sitting in the dust, my back against a tree. And I tell you I have to run, to get out of the rain. And you dutifully promise to come get me, if that's what I really need. And I choke up, about to cry again, because you don't know what that means, or how it feels. I'm grateful.
And then I'm racing to the Wildcat Shelter, where I call my dad. The thunderstorm has made my decision easier. I'm staying, and getting my rest, regaining my strength. My dad is far too understanding, and accommodating. And, again, I feel a twinge of guilt, and sadness, that I won't be able to be there for him.
But then, hanging up, I close my eyes and breath in the smell of the rain, hearing the rush of water on the tin roof, and I feel immediately better.
Sonic and a couple of others eventually join me at the shelter, where I've found a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that someone left behind. I talk with the others for a little while, but then spend the rest of the afternoon reading the book, cover-to-cover. With a break in the storm, I risk running out to set up my tent, and manage not to get drenched.
The storm doesn't last forever, though, but I try not to regret not pushing on. I know this was good for me, resting, allowing my body to heal. And I take solace in the fact that at least my fellow hikers were as lazy as I was.
Later that night, I lie in my tent, avoiding the bugs, listening to the steady drip of water off the leaves. Sonic has gone with the others to watch the sunset on a nearby rock outcropping, but I have no desire to join them. I made a small fire, difficult with all the recent rain, and watch it die through my bug netting. I wish I had better food, or any food that I considered remotely appetizing. Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts®. I feel nauseous just thinking about them. I silently vow never to buy crap like that again. Only fruit flavored toaster pastries from now on, I promise myself.
And, when I eventually do get to sleep, long after the sun has gone down behind the ridge, I am at peace.