I recently submitted this piece into a contest but didn’t win, so you get to enjoy it instead. My brain is toast from lots of exciting new developments this week. I’m doing an abysmal job of two posts per week at the moment, but the ideas are here. I have a ton of recipes I need to post at the request of friends, and those will come (promise) but first, since it’s Valentine’s Day, here’s my favorite love story.
“Obie! Shhh! He’s nice!” I called out to my four-legged canine companion while he barked at an approaching fellow hiker.
“I am nice!” the young man grinned back to me. Looking up at him, I thought to myself, he is nice. He walked up to my hammock with a map in his hand. “Do you know where the nearest water is?”
“There’s a lake maybe half a mile up the yellow trail, but that’s the nearest water I know of. I have some whisky if you want!” I offered. I’d finished the majority of my four-day loop, leaving myself only about a mile to go back to my car tomorrow morning. I was celebrating my hard work by hanging in my hammock, barefoot, while my socks dried.
“No thanks. My map said there was a spring around here somewhere.” I hopped out of the hammock to grab my map and check it against his. Mine didn’t show a spring nearby, so I pulled out a PDF map I had on my phone. While we scoured the maps, the conversation flowed. His name was Travis, he was out just for one overnight, and he was hoping to tackle the AT in sections. We talked about where we lived – me in New York, him in Philadelphia – and where we’d traveled. I admitted Obie, the dog, wasn’t mine, and I was dog-sitting for a friend, but I couldn’t have chosen a better hiking buddy for my solo trip. After about fifteen minutes of conversation, no closer to finding the spring, Travis headed back to his site, and I climbed back into my hammock to watch the sunset.
I had come out to the woods this weekend alone to test myself. It had been over a year since my previous solo trip and the long northeastern winter had made me restless. I’d rather be outdoors than have a roof and four walls encircling me, and there’s something so strengthening about carrying your home and food on your back for miles as our ancestors did.
I lit a small campfire of collected downed wood in the fire ring as dusk set in. While I helped my little flame grow, Travis came back around the rocks.
“Did you find the water?” I asked him.
“Nah, but it’s all good.”
“I still have some whisky.”
“No thanks.” We talked a little more about what brought us both out this weekend as I stoked the fire. I felt like I could talk to him forever. I finally got up the nerve to ask him for his number.
“Let me get your number – I’ll send you that link to the PDF map I have to help you plan your next trip. I don’t have service here though, so I’ll text you tomorrow.” He gave me his number and I had him check to make sure I typed it in right, and I put my phone back in my pocket. A little while later, he went back to his site for the last time. Obie the dog and I hung out as dark descended, watching the fire burn, listening to the sounds of the forest and the caterpillars falling from the trees. I wondered if we would see Travis in the morning on our way out, but I was in no rush to wake up early. We had a short hike and a long drive, and I didn’t want to leave the woods.
Obie and I were among the last to leave the William O’Brien shelter area the next morning. Day hikers were beginning to come through the area while we packed up and hiked out to the car, past the lake I’d told Travis about.
At the car I changed into sandals and texted Travis to tell him we’d made it out and hoped he enjoyed his weekend. Then it was a two-hour drive back to Long Island, a huge burrito for dinner, airing out my gear, and a hot shower.
The next day I went back to work – back to the office, a computer, four walls, and a roof. I sent Travis another text in case the first hadn’t gone through – my service in Harriman was so spotty, I couldn’t be sure. That evening I finally got a response, but not the one I was hoping for: “My name is Kathy, I don’t know who you’re looking for, but please stop texting me.” By this point I’d told a few friends about Travis, and they all told me he must have given me the wrong number on purpose, or he was married and that was his wife, or something. I didn’t believe it. I’ve met lots of people during my travels, and there was something different about Travis and our conversations on the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t know what to do.
Two days later, I was sitting in a bar alone when one of my friends met up with me and asked me why I was sad. I told her about Travis and the wrong number and how I was at a loss as to how to find this guy. I hadn’t given him my number and I didn’t know his last name. All I knew was the general area where he grew up, where he lived now, he enjoyed hiking, he was in his mid-30s, and he had traveled extensively through Europe.
My friend asked to see my phone and the number as I’d typed it in. She took one look at the number, said, “I don’t like that 6 in the middle. Change that 6 to a 5.”
Skeptically, I did as she suggested, and sent another text. “Is this Travis?” Immediately, the little dots popped up on the screen that showed someone was typing back. I looked at my friend. No way.
“Who’s this?” came the message.
“Sarah from the woods?” I’d meant to type an exclamation point, but I was so excited I hit the question mark instead. I knew it was him.
“Where’s the map you were going to send me?” he replied.
“It’s him! It’s him!” I said to my friend. I couldn’t believe it.
Our conversation had started in the woods at a shelter on the Appalachian Trail in Harriman State Park. We lost each other for a few days, and found each other again with the help of my friend’s wacky idea about his phone number. That text conversation started around 7:30pm and we didn’t stop talking til past 10pm. Texting turned into phone calls, and, three weeks later, phone calls turned into visits. Travis drove what should have been just under three hours to visit me. Instead, with traffic, it took him nearly seven. He still walked in the door with a smile – the same smile that had crinkled the edges of his eyes and made his face light up in the woods.
Two weeks later, we headed back to the woods for our first backpacking trip together. Since then, we’ve continued to hike, backpack, and adventure as a team. Our first week-long vacation together included a thru-hike on the Presidential Traverse along the AT in the White Mountains – one of the most challenging hikes either of us have done. A year after we met, we went back to the O’Brien shelter and covered more miles on the AT in New York. We’ve also logged some miles on the AT/Long Trail in Vermont and are hoping to complete it as a thru-hike in 2017.
I moved in with Travis last year, and he proposed to me after we hiked (of course) down to a secluded black rock beach on the Big Island of Hawaii in November. We’re planning to elope on a hiking trail – just like how we met.
I’d taken that solo trip to challenge myself, to remind myself that I was capable of more than the daily grind, and to shake off the long, cold winter. I had no idea I would meet my adventure buddy, my soul mate, my sweetheart, while barefoot and sweaty, covered with dirt, with my socks hung on the hammock straps next to me. Perhaps I would have tried to clean up a bit, but I think there’s something to be said for how we met. We were doing what we both love: being outdoors, being self-sufficient, being active. There was no pretense about why were there. We had no need to impress anybody else – and thus, our solid friendship grew into a beautiful partnership.
And about his map, the little piece of paper that started this whole thing? We looked at it again. I noticed it didn’t specifically say there was “water” where I’d been sitting. It simply had a large blue W in the spot. I first joked it was for the whisky I’d offered him, but we both know now why his map had it and mine didn’t.
The W stood for Woman.