It’s about noon, my eleventh day on the trail. My feet hurt, and the blisters have begot more blisters. So much for the overpriced, cushioned socks I thought I had to have. I’m tempted to walk barefoot, but that would last maybe a quarter mile and then I’d have to put these blasted boots on again.
I’m tired of the crowds. I stopped counting this morning after logging twenty other hikers. The one person I wish was here can’t be—ever again. Josh would have found a way to love this. Yet his absence is the reason I’m hiking, to prove that I can make it solo from here on out.
Actually, I’m not positive it’s noon. I’m not wearing a watch and my phone is turned off—I’m doing the back-to-nature thing. But it’s July, and the sun is overhead. And I’m hungry—although I seem to be perpetually hungry on this trek. It’s an emptiness I just can’t fill.
Ahead lies a boulder field. Whoever said the AT was a walk in the woods was lying. At least in Pennsylvania, it’s loaded with rocks. Behind me, before me, I’m alone with the boulders, not a soul around for once, and I see a snake. Timber rattler; I’ve done my research. It’s coiled in a pocket of rock. I look at it, and it looks at me. I am about 1,500 feet up the mountain—glorious view if I wasn’t so frozen with fear.
Don’t look down, the snake says.
I’m not imagining this, as ridiculous as it seems. The snake spoke to me. Not out loud; in my head. And sarcastically.
“I’m not afraid of heights,” I shoot back. “But I am terrified of you.”
Its unblinking eyes hold me. Don’t rattle me, and I’ll leave you alone.
Who knew snakes were comedians? But, I think, you don’t know why I’m panicked.
When I was growing up, a boy named Robert lived next door. One day, with a crazy giggle, he threw a milk snake around my neck. I was nine, and he was the bully of the block. That innocent, orange-and-white snake gave me nightmares for months afterward.
And each old Western I watched where a character dies from snakebite increased my ophidiophobia. I am deathly afraid of any snake. And this one is a pit viper.
If I could persuade my feet to move, I would backpedal my way back down the mountain. But minutes tick past. Sweat dampens my shirt and drips from my forehead.
If only I were Harry Potter, I think. He was most unafraid of snakes, even giant basilisks.
What would Josh do? The snake’s tongue flickers.
“Leave Josh out of this,” I shout. My eyes smart, but I will not cry in front of a smart-ass snake.
Still, part of me calls out to my partner. His ashes are scattered to the winds, but I want desperately to believe that I still have his ear—wherever cosmically it now is. So, I think, what would Josh have counseled?
Wait out the snake. The answer seems to rise on the breeze. He’s right: I’m not in any hurry, no deadline to meet, and the valley below is breathtaking.
And so I sit on a chunk of granite overlooking a leafy wilderness in the Poconos. I focus on the scent of pine and the kettle of vultures spiraling in an afternoon thermal, and I feel myself relax.
It may be five minutes or fifteen when I glance back to the rattler.
You’re tougher than you look. The snake uncoils and slips out of its rocky hollow. The trail’s all yours. It vanishes into another crevice.
Hoisting my pack, I set off once again over the rocks. But my feet hurt a bit less and there is a spring in my step.
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