Trail Angel

Submitted into Contest #149 in response to: Start your story with the flickering of a light.... view prompt

2 comments

American Coming of Age Teens & Young Adult

I took the headlamp off and whacked it against my thigh, cursing under my breath as the light flickered again before fading out completely. At least I had already placed the bear cannister at least fifty yards away from the tent and made it back into the tent before the light died. After fumbling around on the floor of the tent for my cell phone, I hit the side button and was surprised to see it was already 9:15pm. Knowing I still had two full days on the trail and couldn’t waste my cell phone, I reluctantly powered it off. 

For at least the fifth time that day, I questioned if I was capable of finishing what I had set out to do that weekend. Earlier, six miles into my forty-mile hike on the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, I had stopped to chat with a day hiker, feeling smugly superior with my brand-new backpack towering above my head. As I walked away from him, he called out to me to make sure I knew the Timberline Trail was to the left after the next curve, and not the left I had just taken. Of course, I pretended I had intentionally gone off the trail to pee, as my ears burned with embarrassment. Less than two miles later, I had almost slipped into ice cold water after stepping on a loose rock while crossing the Sandy River. Even if I didn’t finish the loop, I was at least proud of myself for making it to Ramona Falls, my planned stop for the first night, with enough daylight left to set up my tent.

Wiggling into my sleeping back, my tense, tired muscles started to relax, and I reflected on how I had ended up out here in the woods. It started when Bowdoin College connected the incoming freshman with their dorm roommates in early July. Mine was a girl named Ava from Vermont who had talked about the backpacking and kayaking trips she had planned for the summer. On a whim, I had mentioned the Timberline Trail to her in a text message, and therefor unwittingly committed myself to actually doing it. I had lived in Oregon, one of the most beautiful states in the country, for my whole life but had only been camping once or twice with my father and younger brothers, and then twice in the last year with a big coed group of friends to escape parental oversight.  Even though this was by far my most wholesome camping trip, I had lied to my parents, saying I had a soccer retreat, because they never would have let me out into the wilderness alone.  My best friend Kayla was my emergency contact, and the only person who knew what I was doing.

Although I didn’t remember drifting off to sleep, I suddenly jolted awake when I heard the rustling of a large creature approaching. The bear spray was in my backpack, and I was petrified with fear, unable to reach for the pack at the foot of my sleeping bag. Instead, I rapidly cycled through the list of scented items I was carrying and whether I had remembered to put them in the bear-proof cannister away from the tent, or whether I may have kept one close to me as unintentional bear bait. I expected the rustling continue moving away from my tent but it didn’t, the noise instead changed timber and continued, sounding like it was only a few feet away. When I thought I saw a shadow looming, I couldn’t stand the uncertainty and unzipped the edge of the tent door.

The evening clouds had dissipated and the nearly full moon was bright and clear. A scoff of relief escaped when I saw the source of the noise – a petite woman with a perky ponytail in hiking shorts and a sleeveless shirt laying out a sleeping bag in the clearing. Not a bear, or a cougar, or a serial killer. A wave of relief crashed over me as the adrenaline filtered from my bloodstream. 

Looking up, she said, “Oh damn I’m sorry, I saw your tent and was trying to be quiet.”

I realized how creepy I must have looked peeking out of the edge of the tent door to stare at her so I unzipped it enough to fold my legs out. “Oh no it’s ok, I’m just really happy you’re not a bear. Or a murder,” I said sheepishly.

The pitch of her laugh nearly blended with the tinkling of the nearby waterfall. “Nope, neither of those things.” She started setting up a small camp stove and pouring water into the top. “Now that I woke you up, want to keep me company while I make dinner?”

I nodded. I was still pulsing with relief that she was not a threat, and it didn’t even cross my mind that my whole motivation to do this trip was to prove to myself that I could do something hard independently, not to make new friends. 

She introduced herself as Luna, her “trail name”, and even though I hadn’t yet done any long-haul backpacking or earned my own trail name, I instinctively knew better than to brush this off or ask for her real name.  We settled into an easy rhythm of conversation as I sat perched on a rock and she sat on her heels in the cool dirt, eating an identifiable rehydrated food-like substance out of a foil pouch. We chatted about my first day on the Timberline Trail, and her disappointment that the Timberline Lodge brunch buffet – a legendary feast among Pacific Crest Trail through hikers - had been another casualty of COVID. When she made a comment about missing fresh fruit the most, I realized I had a Ziploc bag of grapes in my food cannister. 

“Can I borrow your headlamp?” I asked. “The battery on mine died and I’m trying to save my cell phone battery.”

Luna passed it over to me and I scampered to the bear cannister and retrieved the grapes, presenting them to her triumphantly. Her eyes widened like a kindergartener being presented with an ice cream cone.

“Are you sure?” she exclaimed. “These look so good!”

“All yours,” I replied. 

“You are a Trail Angel,” she said, playfully bowing to me. 

We spent another half an hour sitting in the clearing next to the waterfall as she told me about her adventures on the trail in California – the snowfall in the Sierras, the sketchy river crossings, the days of chocking wildfire smoke. Finally, we both admitted to getting sleepy, and she lay down on her sleeping bag out in the open while I zipped myself back into the false security of my tent to toss and turn on the thin foam sleeping pad until I fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up stiff, sore, and sweaty on top of my sleeping bag. I yawned and stretched before unzipping the tent door. Disappointed to see that Luna was gone, my eyes caught a glint of silver directly in front of the opening. There were three AAA batteries, exactly what my headlight needed.

June 09, 2022 03:49

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2 comments

Kay Border
21:05 Jun 16, 2022

I loved the exposition and how you fleshed out the character and provided a small mystery in a short story! Love it!

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Sam Wilson
23:41 Jun 15, 2022

This story was so delightful! I love the personal triumph of doing something independently and meeting great people along the way. Thanks for sharing!

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