** Jay **
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Cades Cove, Tennessee
“Yo, bro.” Jenni’s chirpy voice greets me when I answer my phone and I am immediately wary.
“Hey.” I drawl the word out to stall the inevitability of finding out why she’s calling me in the middle of a Tuesday morning. “What’s up?”
“Mom call you yet?”
“No, why?” As soon as I ask, I know. “Ah, thanks for the heads-up.”
“Jay.” Mimicking my drawl, she stretches out my name like she always does when she wants something from me. When we were little and she couldn’t really pronounce her J’s, my name was one never-ending A. It was adorable and annoying. My older sister is still both.
“Why not?” she whines.
“I have to work,” I grumble.
“Six months is plenty of notice to ask for time off.”
“April is when the AT hikers begin coming through the park and it’s the start of the busy season with campers and school visits. Plus, all the spring bird migrations will be happening, not to mention, fawning season for the local deer. And the bears will be out of hibernation.”
Muffled laughter reaches my ear.
“What’s so funny? I’m presenting facts.”
She mumbles something I can’t understand and more laughter follows.
“Your facts are excuses. The birds and fawns will all be fine if you aren’t there. Nature doesn’t need you to babysit. The birds and the bees have been perfectly all right for many years without your help. Obaasan isn’t getting any younger, and the trip from Kyoto to Nashville is too long for her.”
Ah, there it is—the guilt. My mother and sister are masters. If guilt were a martial art, they’d both have a black belt.
She continues, unabated and building steam. “It would mean a lot to both Mom and Obaasan for us to both be there next year. You know how much Mom loves it when her family is all together, and she can show off her son, the doctor.”
My laugh gets caught in my throat. “Always fun to remind them I’m not the right kind of doctor.”
“You’ve saved lives before as a ranger. Kind of the same thing.”
We both know it isn’t, not in a family of lawyers and corporate titans.
“You’re the favorite,” I remind her. “Everyone loves and dotes on you. Meanwhile, Uncle Ken pretends to pat the top of my head and I hear the cousins calling me hāfu or gaijin like I don’t know what they mean.”
“They’re just teasing you.”
“Right.” I sigh. “Then why don’t they call you hāfu?”
“How do you know they never do?” Her loud snort reverberates against my ear.
She makes a good point, but it doesn’t sway me.
“I’m sure the aunties place bets on my marriage prospects and the fertility of my uterus. I’m thirty-two.” She switches her voice to sound like an old woman, or a witch, saying, “Well past my prime. What man will want a shriveled-up, old prune?”
I groan. “Ugh. Can you not put that image in my head, please?”
“Which part? My anatomy or the dried, raisin-like quality of my over-the-hill womb?” She barely contains her giggling.
“The latter. And you’re not old.”
“Mom was twenty-two when she married Dad, twenty-three when she had me, twenty-five when you were born. Widowed at thirty-five.” Her voice trails off the way it always does when she brings up our father, wistful and apologetic.
My brain flips through flashes of the day he died, but I tamp down the memories.
In four years, I’ll be the same age. No wife or kids, no family of my own. I have a neat stack of diplomas and a closet full of uniforms to show for my life. Maudlin isn’t an emotion I enjoy, so I switch the subject back to visiting our grandmother in Japan.
Clearing my throat, I say, “I’ll think about it.”
“Ask for the time off,” Jenni implores. “It will be fun. We can escape the disapproving glances together, take the fast train to Tokyo for a night of okonomiyaki and karaoke. Who can say no to either of those?”
She knows my weakness for good street food. Why does putting something on a stick make it taste better? Same goes for fair food. My stomach rumbles at the thought of a corn dog. I skipped breakfast and am now regretting it.
“I’ll think about it,” I repeat, not making promises I don’t plan on keeping.
“Fine. I’ll tell Mom you’re ninety percent sure you’ll make it. She’ll be thrilled. Gotta go. Bye.”
She doesn’t hear me because she’s already ended the call.
Shaking my phone in frustration, I curse under my breath.
“What about time off in April?” Gaia asks from behind me. “Sorry—it’s hard to not listen to your conversation in this tiny office.”
“Nothing.” I spin my chair to face her, my knees barely avoiding bumping hers in the tight space between our desks. “My sister is bugging me about a family reunion.”
“Are you close with your family?”
“Not outside of my mom and sister. Mom’s family lives far away, and we don’t see them much. I barely know them.” I never talk about personal stuff at work. Not sure if it’s a matter of being private or avoiding the awkward questions and comments.
“Yeah, I get that. At least you have your sister. My parents each have four siblings. Big families are like living inside a circus run by the monkeys.”
The image makes me chuckle.
“Sure, laugh, but I have three cousins named Bobby. Not Robert or Bob. Bobby. They all go by Bobby. Grown men, too, which should tell you everything you need to know about my family.” She rolls her hazel eyes toward the ceiling. “Speaking of annoying idiots, Griffin is telling people it’s skunk season again.”
“Someone needs to take away his press privileges,” I suggest.
“He’s forbidden from speaking to journalists or writing releases, but found a way around the ban by calling into Cletus Winston’s podcast.”
“Thought Cletus banned him after he showed up at the studio uninvited back when Dr. Runous was out of town.”
Gaia rubs her temples as if she might be able to erase The Great Skunk Makeup fiasco from memory.
“Send him into the backcountry to check on the Appalachian Trail hikers. Keep him out of cell phone range.” I tug on my beard to fight my laughter.
The dark, coarse hair is in need of a trim and I could use a haircut soon. No one is complaining, though probably because there’s no one in my life who cares if my whiskers are too long or my hair brushes my collar. Rangers have a dress code when it comes to our uniforms, but as long as we’re not scaring the kids, personal grooming is left up to us.
“Trying to get out of your turn?” She gives me a knowing arch of her eyebrow.
“Nah. I love escaping the confines of this cage.”
I’m not cut out to spend my life working in an office, lab, or classroom. Anything with four walls, a floor, and a ceiling is a box. No, thanks. I’m much happier with the sky overhead and dirt beneath my boots.
“Guess we’ll find out at the staff meeting. You ready?” Gaia stands and picks up a clipboard.
We all call her Guy out of laziness and because she’s the only female ranger amongst our motley crew. It’s become a lame inside joke. She’s the most senior staff member, right after our boss Ed.
We join the others in the staff lounge and go over the week’s schedule.
“We’re getting reports of a sizable storm heading this way from the Gulf. Could bring some nasty rain and wind. The last of the hikers should be coming through soon and we’ll need to set up patrols of the trail to make sure everyone is safe and healthy.” Ranger Ed pushes his glasses up his nose. In his late fifties, he still has the air of the high school biology teacher he was for twenty years before joining the Park Service.
I refill my thermos of coffee. “Thank goodness. Feels like this year’s been cursed with accidents and weird idiosyncrasies. Will be nice when the snow comes and we don’t have to worry about the ATs until spring.”
Guy nods. “Still have the day hikers and leaf peepers to worry about, at least for another month or so. Of course, if the snow shows up early, people will lose interest in finding themselves in nature.”
After a busy summer and September, we’re tired. The college kids who work with us during their break have left, and so we’re down to full-time staff only. Burned out, all five of us are ready for the quiet of the coming winter and a much-deserved break.
“Who wants to take the first patrol?” Griffin asks from his spot on the hideous plaid that has been in headquarters longer than any of us. Totally possible the sofa is original to the building.
“I will. I could use some time in the mountains.” I sip the semi-burnt coffee before adding half-and-half from the carton in the fridge. It’s godawful, but it’s still better than the concoction involving molasses and vinegar Cletus Winston used to drink when he visited his brother Jethro.
Since Ranger Winston’s retired, we rarely see either brother unless they’re visiting Dr. Runous, who’s married to their sister. Green Valley’s a small town, and there are enough Winstons around the area to make it practically impossible to not know at least one or two of them. Despite what the local gossips say, they’re good people.
Ed’s still talking and I realize he’s focused on me. Having no idea what he’s said, I sip my coffee and nod as I pretend to know what I’m agreeing with.
He gives me a pointed look. “Plan for an overnight trip, but bring enough supplies for a couple of days in case the storm hits early. Head north toward Clingmans Dome.”
“Roger that. I’ll pack up tonight and start tomorrow.” Looking forward to the time outdoors, I begin a mental list of supplies I’ll need to restock before heading out.
“Don’t forget a bear can.” Griffin reminds me. “Cooler weather means they’ll be more active. Whatever you do, don’t pack honey. Or a picnic basket.”
Then he laughs at his lame joke. At least one person finds him funny.
“I don’t get it,” Guy says.
Griffin’s grin falters. “Are you kidding? Yogi Bear? Come on. It’s only the greatest cartoon about rangers ever. Jay? Ed? Help me out here.”
Ignoring Griffin, I nod at Ed. “Gotcha. I’ll grab a canister from here in the morning.”
* * *
Next day, I’m packed and ready. The bear can and my bivy tent take up most of the space in my bag, but I don’t need a change of clothes for the quick trip. Bedroll strapped to the bottom of my day pack, food and water, warm socks and a fleece, and I’m set to go.
After checking in with the team, I verify my radio is charged and working before heading into the woods.
For the first few hours of the hike, I’m alone on the trail. No signs of bear tracks. Birds chirp in the colorful canopy of leaves and wind whistles through the mountains under a blue sky.
This is why I love being a ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains: peace, quiet, and an endless vista of nothing but trees and mountains. No houses, businesses, or even a church steeple. This feels like America before the settlers and colonies. I can lose myself in the idea that I’ve traveled back in time to a land without McDonald’s and Walmart. There’s no such thing as a strip mall, let alone strip-mining to mar the perfect landscape.
I climb up through the dense woods to an elevation that affords me a view of the surrounding valleys. Pausing to drink from my water bottle, I hear the sound of human voices approaching from around a bend in the trail.
The Appalachian Trail hikers have a certain look to them at this point in their journey. Unlike the fresh and eager spring starters, the southbound summer hikers have almost two thousand miles behind them. They’re in the home stretch by the time they hit Tennessee and can practically taste the victory awaiting them just over a hundred miles from here in Georgia at the official end of the trail.
Two thin, wiry, young guys with long, scraggly beards and shaggy, dark hair come into view. Large packs and gear strapped to their backs, they both use hiking poles to navigate the uneven surface of the trail.
“Morning.” I greet them with a friendly smile.
“Ah, a sight for sore thighs.” One of them chuckles at his joke. “A ranger by any other name wouldn’t smell so sweet.”
Did I mention these hikers get a little odd after months of walking?
“How are you gentlemen doing? Need any assistance?” Scanning for any visible signs of injuries, I note neither appears to have a limp or obvious bandages, nor are they too thin or visibly disoriented. No sign of illness either.
Before saying more, both take long drinks from the straws of their camel-style water bags.
“We’re doing good.” The younger of the two gives me a thumbs-up.
“Where’d you start?” I ask.
“Katahdin in May,” he replies, subtly shifting his shoulders to adjust his pack.
I catch the flash of the red thru-hikers tag.
“Whoa. You’re hardcore.” Hiking in either direction isn’t easy, but beginning in the snow-covered mountains of Maine in spring is considered the more challenging route.
“First time hiking the AT?” I ask, using the abbreviation favored by most hikers.
The one with a red bandana holding his hair back answers. “Yep. We graduated from Bowdoin College and headed out the next week.”
“You’ve made good time,” I tell them, the compliment sincere. Given it takes most hikers five months or more to complete the trail, this is impressive.
“Once we decided to do the AT, we trained with hikes in the White Mountains for a year,” his friend explains, removing his baseball cap to swipe his brow with the back of his hand.
The morning started off cool, but the sun is stronger at this altitude and heats up the day, despite the tree cover.
We chat for a minute or two more before they get restless, eager to continue with their trek.
As we part, I ask, “Pass any other hikers today?”
“We stayed at a hut north of Clingmans Dome night before last with three others. You’ll probably encounter them at some point. Two older men and a woman,” Baseball Cap replies.
“Everyone healthy?” The more information I can get from these two, the better prepared I’ll be if there’s an issue up ahead.
I’m hopeful the three hikers behind these two will be down from the highest elevation before the storm hits. It’s rare, but snow isn’t out of the question below five thousand feet. The Park Service would all feel better if the AT folks spent a night or two off the trail if the storm’s going to be as bad as predicted.
“For the most part. One of them has a cough, but doesn’t seem serious,” Bandana tells me.
“Good to know. Thanks.” I twist the cap back on my bottle and tuck it in the side pocket of my pack. “Ranger station is about eight miles ahead. If you need anything, stop in and we can assist you. You’re welcome to weather the storm in the valley with us.”
After a quick goodbye, we head in opposite directions.
I don’t encounter any more hikers for another couple of hours. Turns out, the guy with the cough is a man in his fifties with buzzed, silver hair and the thin physique of someone who’s been on the trail for months.
He’s happy to chat for a few minutes and I get the sense he’s a real talker. He hacks a few times and I’m concerned he’s on the verge of bronchitis or pneumonia, especially given how common respiratory infections are among hikers once the weather cools.
“You might want to check in at the station for your cough. We’re not far from Green Valley and you can see a doc in town,” I suggest. “Storm’s coming in and you don’t want to get caught in the bad weather.”
He thanks me and promises he’ll think about seeing the doctor. “By the way, there’s a young woman hiking solo. She said she was taking an extra day back at Clingmans Dome. Be sure you find her. She’s not traveling with a cell phone and won’t get the weather warning unless she hears it from another hiker or ranger.”
Great. Nothing like being at the highest altitude of the whole damn trail when there’s a major storm blowing up the east coast and we’re the bull’s-eye.
For the record, I’m not being a sexist asshole about a woman hiking the AT solo. Plenty of women complete the trail every year, but I’ve met enough of the male hikers to know it isn’t easy to be a woman on the AT.
What annoys me is the lack of cell phone in case of emergency, especially this late in the season when other thru-hikers are few and far between. Unless she runs into day visitors, she’s not going to meet up with anyone heading in the opposite direction.
Rescuing a damsel in distress is something best left to fairy tales.
I’m a national park ranger, not some Prince Charming, who swoops in on his noble steed to save the princess and falls in love at first sight.
** Olive **
Love makes us do crazy things.
For his thirtieth birthday, my boyfriend Tye decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. For the record, that’s over two thousand miles. Two hundred miles would be a lot. Honestly, twenty would’ve been inconceivable for me prior to this year.
He promised it would be an “epic adventure.”
I said yes.
Mostly because I’d watched part of Wild on a flight once.
In hindsight, I should’ve read the book.
I don’t come from outdoorsy stock. The Perrys aren’t hiking people. We don’t even march in parades, should we be required to attend. We’re the people waving from floats or the back seat of a classic convertible, and in my grandfather’s case, behind bulletproof glass in an armored limo.
My mother sometimes walks on a treadmill while watching The Today Show or strolls down Madison Avenue to shop and have lunch with friends. Dad is known to occasionally decline a cart on the golf course. That’s about it.
Hiking wasn’t exactly on brand for Tye either.
We’d met at a young patrons night at the Guggenheim. Surrounded by contemporary art and the babbling blah blah blah conversations of New York’s elite, our eyes locked. Sutton Wallingford III, known to everyone as Tye, was recently single and the hottest bachelor in the city. Barely back on the market after breaking off my engagement, I was available and interested. His family was thrilled about their son’s connection with the Perrys. My parents remained tepidly optimistic that this relationship would stick. In other words, we were perfect for each other. At least on paper.
At a cocktail party for the latest YouTuber’s book launch, someone asked how we were training for hiking the Appalachian Trail. I joked I’d been walking for almost thirty years and was more than adept at putting one foot in front of the other, especially in four-inch heels.
After the laughter subsided, two people simultaneously asked, “No, seriously, how are you training?”
And then the enormity of hiking every single day for months hit me.
This wouldn’t be a walk in Central Park.
Tye found my panic “adorable” and only reluctantly agreed to attend wilderness preparedness classes and spend Saturday afternoons tromping up the hills of Fort Tyron park on the northern tip of Manhattan, wearing backpacks stuffed with canned goods to simulate carrying all of our belongings on our person.
“This gives new meaning to the term pack rat,” I complained, flushed and out of breath while sitting on a curb next to a suspicious stain from either an animal or a human. Hard to tell without getting closer and I was already close enough.
“Darling,” he reassured me, “we’re not ordinary hikers. I’ve hired a travel concierge to plan our route and make all the reservations and accommodations.”
“We need reservations to sleep on the ground?” I asked, naïve to the world of camping.
I mourn for that girl, the one who’d only ever gone to the bathroom in toilets. Sweet, innocent Olive no more. I’ve seen and done things I never imagined possible for myself.
Months later, I could still hear Tye’s laughter at my questions. “No, at hotels, and if necessary, the occasional bed and breakfast along the way.”
“Feels like cheating.” I don’t know why I protested the idea of a mattress instead of sleeping on sticks and rocks.
He scoffed. “Says who? We’re not beholden to some sort of rulebook. Most thru-hikers stay at hostels whenever they can. If you want to share a room filled with bunk beds and strangers, I can call Mina and amend our itinerary.”
Unlike the majority of hikers, we wouldn’t be starting in Georgia in April. Turned out, Tye had a strong aversion to the South, based solely on watching the movie Deliverance when he was nine during a sleepover with his older cousins. He also hated all banjo and fiddle music. Made me wonder if his cousins were also musical sadists.
“There isn’t an actual prize for completing all two thousand miles, you know,” he chided. “If we start in Pennsylvania right after Memorial Day, we’ll still hit Maine by the end of the summer. Labor Day in Kennebunkport will be glorious. I can already taste the lobster rolls.” He sighed a dreamy sigh, mentally enjoying the monstrous combination of shellfish and mayonnaise.
Give me butter or give me nothing was my motto when it came to cooked shellfish.
“You don’t get a trophy or medal for summiting Everest either, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t count if you start halfway up the mountain,” I replied, surly and already tired at the thought of hiking for weeks on end.
“Bragging rights and the endless, fascinating stories we’ll get to tell at dinner parties for the rest of our lives will be worth more than any trophy on a mantle,” he countered, revealing his true motivation for the hike.
I loathed dinner parties with his boring and even more pretentious friends. They’d all seen Riot Club and instead of taking it as a cautionary tale, modeled their lives after the morally doomed and pompously horrible characters.
Rules were always more suggestion than set in stone when it came to Tye.
In hindsight, I should’ve had my eyes checked for color blindness. I kept missing all the red flags.
* * *
Delaware Water Gap, border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Starting on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap, we’re setting off with our shiny, spanking-new, top-of-the-line gear, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like two spoiled children going to their exclusive summer camp in Maine. Which, essentially, we are. If kids chose to walk almost nine hundred miles to get there.
Dating a social media influencer has a few perks.
Once Tye informed his legion of followers he was thinking about hiking the “AT,” sponsorship deals flowed in like a fast-moving spring river full of snowmelt. All of our high-end equipment was gifted with the understanding that he’d post about it on his accounts.
Easy peasy. Done and done. The man lives his life for likes.
Our adventure has been clearly ordained by the universe—or at least by several multi-national companies and good-deed, environmentally conscious B corps.
Our very long walk is the hiking version of glamping. Gliking? Glaking? Glamking? Insert cool, new hashtag here. Whatever the social media catchphrase, we’re doing it.
* * *
Oh, New Jersey. You’re a lot prettier than I ever knew.
Ten miles took us all day. All. Day.
Why am I doing this?
At this rate, we’ll barely make Kennebunkport by Labor Day.
My feet hurt. My toes hurt. My back hurts. My knees hurt. A spot right below my hip hurts. My boobs hurt from my pack’s straps digging into my shoulders and across my chest.
I’ve never been happier for a hot shower, mediocre pizza, and a real bed.
Tye is so exhausted, he hasn’t even complained about the low thread count on the sheets.
Our mutual love of the finer things is what brought us together. No one ever expected us to carry our belongings on our backs and hike for months.
Yet here we are.
Ten miles down and almost nine hundred to go.
* * *
Who am I?
Apparently, a woman who’s walked one hundred and six miles.
I’d give myself a high five if I could easily move my arms without pain.
Over the past week, there’s been a lot of bickering, more crying than I ever anticipated, and several times I’ve sat down on the ground and declared myself insane for ever agreeing to go on this hike.
All in all, I’d say it’s going about as well as can be expected.
Today, we took a zero day (hey, look at me using the trail lingo!) and picked up a new pair of fancy walking poles for me. I broke one of mine yesterday on the boulders I was heaving myself up and over. Imagine a salmon jumping and flopping itself upstream, only less graceful.
After breakfast in bed, we spent the afternoon at the spa. I decided to skip the mud treatment since I’ve basically been covered in it every day this week. Sadly, my skin isn’t softer and most definitely isn’t glowing—unless sweat counts as highlighter.
At this rate, we might make it to Maine for Thanksgiving.
* * *
Three summers ago, I visited Paris and walked thirteen miles around the city in wedge sandals and then went out to dinner in heels.
Those same miles on the trail in practical shoes are exponentially harder.
Today there was no going out to dinner. I crawled into bed and ate French fries Tye hand-fed me like I was a baby bird, dropping them into my open mouth from above.
I hate my past self and everyone who knows me for not recognizing an episode of temporary insanity when I said I’d do this. Any reasonable person should’ve had me committed. I could be resting comfortably in a padded cell, enjoying a cup of pudding right now.
Shockingly, I don’t hate Tye for being the reason for my current situation. Mostly because he also ordered not one but two brownie sundaes with extra hot fudge sauce for dessert.
* * *
Met some guys on the trail who are hiking from Georgia to Maine in one hundred days. According to my calculations, they’re walking close to a marathon a day.
Puts things in perspective for me.
Tye and I are sloths in comparison to their pace. Smelly, cranky, slow sloths who make questionable life decisions.
When they saw our light packs, they asked if we were day hikers. I took the question as a mild insult. Did they miss the myriad of bruises, scrapes, and mosquito bites covering my exposed skin? The slightly crazed “what the hell am I doing” look on my face? Come on. I’m obviously walking the walk.
While sharing some jerky by a waterfall, Speed Racer (obviously not his given name) enlightened us about life on the trail.
Turns out they have a name for people like us. Tye and I are slackpackers.
Our people are the ones who don’t carry their lives on their backs in heavy packs and get picked up at the end of the day to sleep in a hotel or even at home if they’re close enough. Like hiking is their day job.
I’m a little disappointed by the title. Glamking has a nicer ring to it.
The knowledge that we’re not alone in taking the easy way is both comforting and a confirmation of my sense of imposter syndrome.
* * *
We crossed the two-hundred-mile mark today and still have feet.
I’m down to one hiking pole.
Chatted with more northbound AT hikers during the day.
Apparently, most people use a trail name. Some choose their own, but most people earn a nickname from other AT folks. Hence the name Speed Racer for the guy on his way to completing the hundred-day hike.
No one told me I’d get an alias. I’ve always wanted a nickname.
Squeaky, so named because he had a pair of noisy boots when he started, assumed Tye and Olive were our trail noms de guerre.
When asked why, he said Tye looked like he’d be more comfortable in a suit and I was small and round but obviously salty.
I took it as a compliment.
Now I want to earn a real trail name.
It’s good to have goals that don’t involve the number of miles hiked and not peeing on my boots.
* * *
Berkshire Mountains, Massachusetts
I stopped keeping a daily journal because every entry for the past week would be the same.
My body ached.
Things bit me.
The pope might not poop in the woods, but Olive Perry has.
I still regret my decision to do this while dreaming of institutional pudding.
Long-distance hiking can get a little tedious and more than a little painful.
Not for Tye, though. His days have gone mostly like this:
Look at a tree. Snap a picture. Post it to the ’Gram. #deeproots
Look at a cool boulder. Snap a pic. Post it. #thisrocks.
Look at deer poop. Snap. Post. #everybodypoops
Look at a view. #howisthisreal
Keep walking. #miles
Everything is a photo op or a chance for a quick, ten-second story to share the experience with his loyal minions.
Two bowls of bland oatmeal is an #ad for the cooking gear. Doesn’t matter that we eat room service at hotels most mornings.
Snack time is a pic of a different protein bar or trail mix. #healthysnax
He even has his assistant upload staged photos for future non-photo-ready moments.
I thought the worst part of walking for hours upon hours would be the blisters and unwanted chafing in delicate areas.
Unbeknownst to me, I’ve signed up to be a model, camera operator, human tripod, and equipment schlepper.
Sure, I’ve been featured on Tye’s accounts many times before this. Early on, I thought that it was sweet he proudly showed me off as his girlfriend. His Instagram is an online highlight reel of our happy life together.
Tye’s face is what his followers want to see in their feed. Makes them feel like they’re on this adventure with us while scrolling on their phones from the comfort of their own bathrooms.
I miss modern plumbing.
** Olive **
Berkshire Mountains, Massachusetts
When Tye suggested we sleep in a tent last night, I should’ve known something was amiss.
I agreed because the Berkshires have always been some of my favorite mountains. Picturesque white church steeples dot rolling green hills and valleys sprinkled with forests and farms. I love visiting in the fall when the foliage is at its peak and pumpkin spice laces the air, a fact Tye knows because he went leaf peeping with me last year.
In hindsight, he probably thought such a tidbit made his grand gesture more romantic. It promoted the lie that his actions were in any way about me.
He woke me before sunrise, hustling me out of the tent. Only a third conscious, with sleep in my eyes and flakes of drool on my chin, I shuffled after him, up a hill to a craggy outcrop of rock.
Below us, undulating green waves of trees stretched to the horizon. Pale pinks and hazy lavender lit the eastern sky. Mount Greylock poked her head above the other hills to our north.
After he handed me his phone and told me to go live on Instagram, I figured he was going to show off some sun salutations like he’d done a dozen times on the trip already. #yogaislife #onlyonetoday
Glancing around, I realized the view probably wasn’t the only reason Tye chose this spot. Leave it to him to find a location with a strong signal.
I was grateful not to be on camera. The mosquitoes had held their last supper on my forehead two days earlier. Clusters of swollen bumps near my hairline felt like horns about to sprout from my skull.
The trail was not kind to my vanity. Luckily, I hadn’t packed a mirror and had learned to resist using my phone to check on the latest downfall in my appearance. I avoided my reflection in our nightly hotel bathroom mirrors with dubious lighting.
This morning, Tye didn’t assume his usual mountain pose.
While I held his iPhone and hit live on the app as commanded, Tye flashed me his most dazzling grin as he got down on one knee.
Honestly, at first, I thought he was mixing up his routine with a crescent lunge.
Until he pulled out a red box.
The kind from Cartier.
My hand shook. I casually noticed the number of people watching had hit ten thousand and was quickly growing. White text flowed up the screen with each new comment. Hearts popped across the image like colorful bubbles when Tye began speaking.
Rushing blood roared in my ears. I must’ve been in shock because I couldn’t process his words. Eyes trained on the red box like it was a venomous snake, I actually jumped when he extended his arm toward me.
Out of range of a possible deadly attack, I blinked at the sparkling stone centered in the white silk of the box. Threatening images of the open jaws of a viper came to mind, causing me to recoil.
“Olive?” His voice cut through the din of my rapid heartbeat and a new unsteady, asthmatic wheezing in my lungs. My body was in full fight-or-flight response and it took everything I had not to run away or punch something. Given Tye was the only thing close enough to make contact with, it’s a miracle I didn’t hit him.
“O love,” he said gently, calling by his favorite pet name. “You haven’t said anything.”
“Sorry.” I shook my head, trying to make sense of the moment. “Can you repeat what you said?”
He laughed and shifted his eyes from mine to the phone I was still holding. “Isn’t she the cutest? Can you understand why I want her to be my wife? She’s absolute perfection.”
Something clicked in that moment—or snapped might be the better word. He’d used those exact words the night we met…when he didn’t know me. Over the last year, he had also used the same words to describe a hideous painting he bought at a Chelsea gallery, a yacht in Sag Harbor, and a bowl of cacio e pepe at Luce.
“Are you proposing?” I whispered as quietly as possible, knowing all seventy-five thousand—wait, eighty thousand people watching this on live stream could hear me.
“Was it the five-carat, flawless, radiant cut diamond in a platinum setting that gave it away?” He lifted the ring closer to the camera.
Two sensations occurred simultaneously.
My stomach bottomed out near my knees at the same time bile rose in my throat. I thought I might pass out or vomit. It was possible I might do both.
“Is this a paid sponsorship?” My throat constricted around the words. What was he thinking?
A brief flash of confusion clouded Tye’s eyes and his perfect smile (#thankslaserwhitening #drkrausisthebestdentist) faltered for a second before he recovered. “Olive, darling, you haven’t said yes.”
Had he actually asked me to marry him and I’d missed it?
In my silence, he stood and closed the distance between us. His touch on my wrist made me realize I’d dropped my hand. The camera was now recording my bug-bite-covered-legs, filthy socks, mud-caked boots, and the granite boulder beneath them.
This was not how I’d imagined Tye—or anyone—proposing. I was a dirty, smelly mess. There was nothing romantic about this moment. In fact, I could’ve listed five other more romantic proposals than this one, ones I’d personally experienced.
“I think she’s in shock.” Gently slipping the phone from my fingers, he laughed into the camera, speaking to the tens of thousands of random people witnessing our big moment. “Guess we blew her mind.”
He held up the camera, practically in my face. “O, everyone is waiting for your answer. Don’t leave us hanging.”
With my mouth hanging open and brows scrunched together, I processed the moment. This had to be a joke, a weird, not-funny prank with me as the punchline. Knowing my reputation as the girl who always says yes, Tye had to be punking me.
“Are you serious?” My voice broke with laughter, which quickly escalated into full-blown cackling. I was certain I sounded as crazy as I looked, a former socialite turned deranged mountain woman. I could imagine the gossip mongers circling like hyenas. Inside my head, I heard my mother’s disapproving sigh.
“She has the best laugh, doesn’t she?” Tye asked. His kiss came out of nowhere.
Now? He’s kissing me now?
Finally recovering myself enough to act, I slapped the phone out of my face, harder than I intended. It went flying, landing with a sickening crunch of glass meeting stone a few feet away, dangerously close to the edge of the cliff.
“Why would you propose to me live on social media?” I stared at the phone and then him.
“You were supposed to say yes!” he shouted. “Who asks so many stupid questions when the man they love gets down on his knee with a ridiculously expensive ring in his hand?”
“You surprised me!” My voice rose to match his. Internally, I asked why the cost of the diamond mattered if the love was true.
“That was the point.” Grumbling, he shoved the box into my hand and walked over to his phone. Holding up the shattered, black screen, he cursed. “Just great. It’s fucked. Just like this relationship.”
Reeling and still trying to understand the events of the past ten minutes, I stood quietly, slack-jawed and bewildered.
Maybe I was still asleep in the tent and this was a weird dream, a nightmare. We’d eaten weird, packet food the previous night for dinner. Probably some preservative caused me to hallucinate this scene. Must be it. My wild imagination was infamous in my family.
“Shit.” He pulled on his messy-yet-still-stylish blond hair. “Shitfuckshitfuck. Fuck.”
I slipped into people-pleasing mode to quell his frustration. “We can get you a new phone. I’ll call Mina as soon as we have service. She’s the best assistant you’ve ever had. We’re not far from Williamstown and they probably have an Apple store. She’ll have a new phone ready to go by our meet-up this afternoon.”
He shook his phone at me. “You don’t get it. My. Phone. Is. Broken.”
I stared at him. “Obviously. That’s why we’ll have Mina buy you a new one.”
Ignoring my attempted problem-solving, he continued, “Which means I can’t delete the train wreck of a live video.”
“Oh shit,” I whispered. My stomach clenched and I was certain my heart stopped. “I forgot we were live.”
“You were the one filming, Olive—how could you forget? How many people watched me be humiliated?” He fumed as he shoved his phone into his back pocket.
“I wasn’t really paying attention. Maybe a hundred thousand?” When he didn’t respond, I continued, “Was that a rhetorical question?”
“Give me your phone so I can log in to my account.” Palm up, he flexed and curled his fingers, demanding.
My phone hadn’t been charged since New Jersey, two states ago. Cringing, I admitted, “It’s still dead.”
Casting his eyes to the beautiful sunrise that lit sky, he sighed deeply. Without answering, he snapped the box closed and then tossed it at me.
Instinctively, I ducked. I’d always hated balls and other objects hurtling toward my head.
Much to my family’s disappointment, I was a complete failure at tennis and badminton. Even more embarrassing, I giggled every time someone said shuttlecock.
The box landed behind me, bounced once, skittered off the boulder, and disappeared.
His scoffed, the sound cold and brittle. “Great. I literally just threw away fifty k.”
“It can’t have gone far.” I tiptoed close to the edge and spotted a dot of red. “There it is, only a few feet down.”
Without a word, he lowered himself to collect the box. Once he scrambled back to the top, he shoved it into my hand.
I wanted to tell him I hadn’t said yes and he should keep the ring, but he didn’t give me the chance. Silently, I watched as he stomped off in the direction of our tent. I allowed him a head start, figuring he would need the extra space to calm down, maybe lick his wounds. I knew I did.
I scratched one of the bites in the middle of my forehead before realizing what I was doing. Damn itch was driving me crazy.
Curious, I peeked at the ring again. It was lovely. No one had ever given me a radiant cut diamond before. Tye, or whoever picked out the ring for him, had good taste.
Shame I couldn’t keep it. I never did—bad luck. No amount of smudging or crystals could erase the bad vibes of a rejected proposal. Although, technically, I hadn’t said no. Or yes. Nor would I. I didn’t want to marry a man who proposed to me as part of a social media stunt.
It was a pretty ring, though. Damn.
By the time I returned to the tent, Tye and his backpack were gone.
Grumbling to myself about his stupid stunt and childish pouting, I gathered the rest of my things, collapsed the tent, and cleared our campsite.
Naïvely, I reminded myself he often walked ahead of me. Hiking at different paces, we’d meet up for lunch or at the designated stop for the day.
Sure, I ruined his proposal, broke his phone, and we fought, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to abandon me in the literal middle of nowhere. Chivalry ran strong in his blood.
I wasn’t devastated because I was in shock.
If he loved me like he said he did, there was no way he would dump me in the woods like an old tire or discarded mattress.
* * *
Berkshire Mountains, Massachusetts
There was no sign of Tye at midday. Carrying the tent and the rest of the extra gear slowed my pace, but I felt legit when I encountered other thru-hikers. They would chat with me as we walked or give a friendly greeting as they passed.
For the first time, I felt like I was a real hiker. Not a phony.
When darkness fell, I set up the tent by myself, and after giving myself a high five and then having a dance party of one, I ate a smooshed protein bar for dinner. Besides my chewing, the only sounds were a distant owl and the treetops swaying and creaking in the wind. I didn’t allow myself to cry or be afraid.
Definitely still in shock, maybe moving into the denial stage.
The next morning, I asked any southbound hikers if they’d seen him. An older man in his sixties remembered Tye, said he’d spotted a guy matching his description tossing his pack into the backseat of a black SUV with tinted windows, the kind celebrities and assholes ride around in. His words, not mine.
Sounded like my boyfriend.
I was pretty sure I’d been dumped.
Welcome to the angry stage.
Another one bites the dust.
A horrible mistake.
An unfortunate incident.
My mother’s descriptions of my last three failed relationships. I wondered what she’d call this one. Misguided? Doomed from the beginning? A matter of miscommunication? My own fault?
No, she’d used those descriptions already.
A blip. A bad year.
I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. A mere blip. Nothing to settle in and worry about. No one will remember it once the social season is in full swing again in the fall.
When I arrived in Williamstown, I found a coffee shop where I charged my phone. No messages from Tye. I tried calling him. Went straight to voicemail with a full inbox.
Next, I called my best friend, Campbell. Designating herself as my emergency contact, she’d made me promise to check in with her as often as possible. Our daily texting and the occasional FaceTime annoyed Tye, but I didn’t care. I’d known Campbell since we were in preschool, long before he or any other boy was on my radar.
She didn’t answer either. I sent a quick text with a selfie as proof of life.
Curious, I peeked at my other texts. Even if Tye hadn’t managed to take it down, the app wouldn’t show the video after twenty-four hours. Apparently, that had still been long enough for it to have gone viral.
From the previews, I could tell way too many people knew about the proposal. I opened my email, skimming the names and subject lines, which gave more evidence that his little stunt had been seen by more than a few random strangers. My stomach sank when I saw Buzzfeed and PopSugar asking for interviews.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If a scandal happens but you’re not online to follow it, does it exist?
If I didn’t read the texts and emails, if I avoided all social media, I could pretend none of it mattered.
I couldn’t face my family’s disapproval yet again.
Turning off my phone, I shoved it and my charging cord deep into the bowels of my pack and set off to find real food.
Over a bowl of pad Thai, I realized I could stop hiking. A phone call or a long Uber ride back to the city could end this whole farce. No more sore feet and aching legs. No more bug bites. No more trying to figure out if the strange sounds in the woods were a warning of imminent death by animal, snake, or insect.
And yet, as I sat there, among summer students from local colleges, tourists, and regulars, I felt like an outsider. None of them gave me a high five or asked me about my time on the trail.
In fact, most of my fellow patrons avoided eye contact with me. A table of young moms scooted their table farther away from me. Couldn’t blame them. It’d been a few days since I’d showered or washed my face with more than water. I probably scared their babies.
As I silently enjoyed my late lunch, I eavesdropped on conversations between the waitstaff and watched people stare at their phones instead of engaging with the humans at the same table.
I hadn’t missed this life. Sitting there, I knew I wouldn’t be going back to the city any time soon.
Waving over a waitress a few years younger than me, I asked where the nearest outdoor store was.
“Are you a thru-hiker?” she asked, glancing at the pack on the chair opposite me. “Wait, are you hiking it solo?”
Instead of telling her my woeful tale, I simply nodded. “Heading north to Katahdin.”
“Wow. So cool. You’re way more brave than I am.” Awe filled her voice. “I could never do it.”
I understood. “I never thought I could either. Turns out, if we think we can’t, we’re right.”
Reaching for my wallet, I pulled out my credit card to pay.
She waved me off. “It’s on the house. The owner hiked the whole thing back in the nineties and hikers eat for free. The outdoor store is three blocks down on Main. Take your first right. You can’t miss the orange awnings.”
I thanked her and left a twenty on the table.
Fake it till you make it, I told myself.
I could do this.
** END SNEAK PEEK **
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