When the dog started following me, it was still early in the journey, before we’d all gotten rid of everything. At the shelter, as everyone started getting in their sleeping bags, I tried to figure out what I was going to do with the dog. I considered letting him sleep in the shelter with me, but I was worried that he wouldn’t stay still, or worse, that he could attack me or someone else. So I left the dog tied to the tree. In my sleeping bag that night, I read through The Appalachian Trail Companion with my headlamp on, looking up the nearest veterinary clinic and hostels that allowed dogs where you could do work-for-stay. I fell asleep in the shelter surrounded by weird men. I woke up in the middle of that night, and it was snowing.
The next morning, the water in my Nalgene bottles was frozen solid in three icy cylinders, the rope was chewed through, and the dog was gone.
The following are the things I thought about the most for all those hours walking alone in the woods. I thought about them and thought about them until I had spent so many hours thinking about them that I never wanted to think about them again and so, in an odd way, they became solved.
I thought about the boy back at school who I was in love with, who I thought acted like he loved me, but only when he was drunk, which was frequently, or when his girlfriend was out of town, or when both of us were on some vigorous adventure together, and about how this was his third girlfriend since I’d known him, and about how I should just stop being in love with him already.
I thought about the fact that I was addicted to cigarettes. About how tobacco was even better so far from the real world because it was so light and packed such a punch if you only smoked a few rollies a day, like we all did. I didn’t quit smoking then, or even for a few years, but on the trail I realized that it was something I wanted to do, and would do. For the rest of my life, when I would explain to someone what fundamentally sucks about being a smoker, I would use the scenario I found myself in time and again on the trail. If you are a true smoker, and you hike to the top of a beautiful mountain, you feel exhilarated and happy, but you also feel bad, unless you know you have a cigarette to smoke when you get to the top, because you know it will make it better. That also pretty much also sums up what is so sad about how and why smokers like to smoke after sex.
I thought about my body, so unaccessorized in my unflattering minimalist daily uniform of a sport tank and running shorts, so critical to the feat I was attempting to accomplish. I came to terms with the fact that if hiking 8-25 miles a day for six months and living on a diet of mostly grain, peanut butter, and dried fruit had not made me into a willowy vision, nothing would.
I thought about how I could hitch a ride to a city, any city, with an airport, and use the money I’d saved for my hike to get on a plane to anywhere, and how it wouldn’t make much difference where, because I was alone, and I was nowhere, and it would take a long time for anyone to even begin to look for me, and by that time I could be somewhere even farther away from everything and everyone I’d ever known, and how I was already far enough along to sense that something was wrong with me, but not far enough to know what, and so the only thing to do seemed to be to just keep walking until I got to the end.
I thought about how the end I was walking toward was actually just a spot on a map that I would immediately have to leave to start over again somewhere else, and I hoped by the time I got to that spot I would know where that next place I was headed would be.
My last day in the Smokies, I’d been out for over a week, and I was low on food and looking forward to stopping at a hostel called “Mountain Momma’s” the next day to re-supply and get a shower and a hot meal. Just as I reached the flat top of a bald, a cold, white fog rolled in and the visibility became so bad that I couldn’t see the wooden stakes with white blazes that marked the trail. In every direction were a few feet of grass and thick, wet, white air, and that was it. I wanted to keep moving, partly because of the cold, but mostly because I had so far left to go until the next shelter. I walked a hundred steps in a straight line, and when I didn’t come to a pole with one of the white blazes that marked the trail, I turned around and retraced the same steps and then started off in another direction. I did this for a couple of hours with no luck. I was dizzy and lost and cold.
I remember hearing a howl first, then the sound of four feet pounding fast, and seeing a big black blur flash past. I followed the noise, and in twenty steps I was at a trail marker. The fog cleared soon after, and I was back on the trail.
Hiking through the afternoon, I considered the likelihood of seeing the same dog a second time, so many miles from where we had first met. There was a small part of me that was afraid the dog had died and his ghost had come back to haunt me for tying him up on such a cold night. As the hours passed and the dog didn’t come back around, I convinced myself that I’d imagined the whole thing. It wasn’t the idea of a dog hiking hundreds of miles that I couldn’t wrap my head around. I’ve never been an expert on dogs, but they seemed to be able to walk long distances. There were a few thru-hikers who brought their dogs with them, but all those animals carried little dog-packs with their food inside. It was possible that the dog had spent each day mooching off a different thru-hiker and then moving on to the next one. Even so, the trail is not an unbroken line. Despite all of my maps and guidebooks, I still got lost once every couple of days. Occasionally, I would even get turned around. I’d sit down in the middle of the trail to eat lunch, then accidentally start going south instead of north when I stood up again. There were horse trails, dirt roads, farmers’ driveways, and cow fences that crossed the trail multiple times a day. It went through the main streets of many towns, over bridges, along the sides of highways, and across dams.
By the time I arrived at the path to the shelter, I’d decided that it was a different dog that had run past me, more likely a small black bear or large raccoon. But then I rounded the bend, and there he was, lying by the fire with a whole summer sausage in his mouth. It was definitely the same dog. He was skinnier, and his coat had gotten matted and greasy, but he still had the abscess on the left side of his neck, and his right eye seemed to have an unlimited amount of pink and white pus to pour out.
Captain was sitting on a rock between the black dog and a golden mutt that was in much better shape. “You know him?” he said, and pointed at the black hound. I told Captain the whole story of how the black dog had followed me into the woods from Hiawassee.
“But I found this flyer at a hostel in Gatlinburg.” He handed me a crinkled-up Xerox. On it there was a child’s drawing of the dog, by a kid who cared about him enough to draw a cute picture of such an ugly animal, abscess and all, squiggly lines smiling a silly puppy-dog smile. In the same child’s handwriting it said to call with any information about the dog’s whereabouts. Captain said he’d already called, and they’d arranged for the kid’s dad to pick up the dog at Mountain Momma’s the next night.
We both started assembling our stoves and instant dinners. Captain offered me some paprika, garlic salt, and dried basil for my couscous, and I gave him some sesame oil, peanut butter, and dried wasabi peas for his ramen.
After dinner, we both stayed by the fire. I drew a little, read a little, and wrote in my journal.
There were lots of people who were on the trail to find themselves, or transform themselves in some way or another. Jesus freaks, ex-drug addicts, alcoholics, old hippies, old soldiers, people who’d just retired or been laid off, men in the middle of messy divorces, rich businessmen who were trying to prove they were just regular folks, and hicks (like Captain) who were trying to prove they were better than everyone else. I wasn’t one of them. But then again I’ve never been anywhere where I truly felt like I fit in, and perhaps that was the appeal of going so far off the grid in the first place. The fact that even the most extreme and lonely activities have their own conventions and rules of belonging was both a relief (because I wasn’t lonely with so much company at night) and a disappointment. I just wanted everything to slow down, for the thoughts in my head to become as steady and straightforward as the movement of my feet day after day. I wanted a re-start, and this was the closest thing I had stumbled upon as a way to do it.
The shelter was packed that night. There were almost twenty of us piled into the small wooden structure. Everyone was in a hurry to get to Mountain Momma’s the next morning, and this shelter was only a mile away from the road to the hostel. There was much talk of cheeseburgers and pancakes, and supposedly Momma had some weird kind of counting disorder that caused her to put about ten eggs in each of her “Three-Egg Omelets.” You heard about things like Momma’s omelets for days before you got to them. The trail was worse than a small town when it came to how quickly gossip traveled. If a thru-hiker got shin splints three states away from you, you heard about it in three days. It was like a fourteen-state-long game of Telephone on steroids.
We all woke up around five, about an hour earlier than usual, because Mountain Momma’s was five miles down the road. Some people were planning to spend the night at the hostel, but most of us weren’t, and with ten extra road miles to cover to get there and back that didn’t count for anything, we wanted to get started. Making it to the hostel before the end of breakfast was also a major concern. There was a shiny red SUV parked at the road, next to a young guy with spiky orange hair. He offered to drive all twenty of us down to Mountain Momma’s in shifts, saying something about waiting to pick up his best friend who was a thru-hiker, who he somehow knew was going to be very late.
Hitchhiking was common on the trail. Everyone did it to re-supply and to get into town. But this was unusual, because we were on a secluded dirt road as opposed to a highway, and this guy didn’t seem to be the type of person to have a thru-hiker best friend. He didn’t even know his friend’s trail name. But we got in the car. People who walk all day, every day, are the laziest people in the world when it comes to extra miles. Captain, the dog and I went first. I sat up front. Captain was in the backseat with the dog.
The road was rocky and unpaved. The driver asked if I wanted to hear the song he had just written, said it was the story of his life. I said sure, and he put on the CD. The song was called “Movin’ On,” and it was the story of a man whose wife had cheated on him, divorced him, and left him with nothing, but in the end he perseveres and moves on. It was a real country hit. I would recognize it on the radio on my walkman and in many a diner during the rest of my trip. I told the man with the spiky hair that it was a sad story, and I was sorry for his loss. He said it was all right; he had gone to Atlantic City with the little bit of money he made from the sale of the song, had won big at the Black Jack table, and spent all his winnings, all fifty thousand dollars of them, on this brand new SUV. He talked a lot about the SUV and how much it cost.
At Mountain Momma’s the driver asked if Captain and I would mind getting him an omelet, a pack of cigarettes, and a Dr. Pepper for his troubles, and we obliged. He ate half the omelet (the ten egg rumor turned out to be true) and headed out to pick up more hikers and see whether his friend had arrived yet. Captain told him about the dog, and explained that even though he would’ve liked to get back on the trail that day, he was going to have to spend the night and wait for its owner. The driver of the SUV (he still hadn’t told us his name) said he was headed down past Hiawassee anyway, and would be happy to drop the dog off in exchange for a couple more packs of cigarettes. So Captain called the number from the flyer, and it was all arranged.
“The dog is dying,” Captain said.
“The dog’s not dying.” I said. “It’s just an abscess. Only costs a few hundred bucks and one trip to the vet to take care of.”
“Okay, so someone is too lame to tell their kid he’s too cheap to take care of the abscess. Or maybe too lazy to have it checked out, and thinks it’s a tumor or something. So he dumps the dog on the trail and says he ran off. He even lets the kid make flyers and everything, thinking he’ll never hear about it again.”
“But he heard about it again.”
“Yeah, so he’s caught. He either has to take the dog back or admit he dumped it and left it for dead.”
“Sounds like a real winner. Maybe we shouldn’t send him back.”
“Too late. Anyway, don’t you want this kid to get his dog back?”
“I guess so.”
The guy with the SUV returned with Runaway, Stoner Mike, Weezie, and Polish Ninja. They bought him a double cheeseburger, another Dr. Pepper, and another pack of cigarettes. Captain headed back to the trail with him. When he came back a third time, he had Roadrunner, Yeti, Stud, and Dr. Bug with him. They got him an ice cream, another Dr. Pepper, and another pack of cigarettes. He had a cooler where he was putting all the Dr. Peppers, along with the uneaten portion of the omelet and the double cheeseburger. He asked me if I was ready to get back on the trail, and I asked him if he could wait a few minutes while I folded my laundry and packed up my groceries. He said he would.
I was alone in the front seat with him and something about the way he was talking and moving seemed off. Not necessarily scary, but off. He moved his hands a lot, and I thought maybe I was being paranoid, but they were too close to me, especially since he was driving a large vehicle and had to make such an effort to get them all the way over to my space in the passenger seat. We passed Gorilla and Avalanche walking down the road to Mountain Momma’s, and I told him he should pick them up, because they were thru-hikers too. He didn’t stop, and warned me to stay away from old hippies; he thought they looked suspicious and would try to take advantage of a girl like me. I told him it was just the opposite; they were my friends, and they would kick anyone’s ass who tried to take advantage of me. Strange men who warn you to stay away from strange men are officially dangerous. I told him to drop me off. I stared straight out the window and avoided eye contact. He let me out of the car.
I didn’t see anyone I recognized for a few weeks. I hiked alone during the day and met new people in the shelters at night. I finally caught up with Captain on my first 25-mile day. It was dark when I walked up to the shelter, because I’d been stung by a wasp at lunchtime and had lost a couple of hours soaking my swollen arm in a stream and searching for someone with Benadryl in their pack. Captain was sitting by the fire with Mako and two guys I would later know as Falcon and Rainbird. We said our hellos, and I sat down and started setting up my stove.
Captain looked at me, “Wild what happened to that dog,” he said.
When I thought about the dog I felt guilty for sending him back.
Captain said he’d run into Stoner Mike and Weezie’s crew. They’d skipped ahead from Newport and were slack-packing back. Weezie told Captain that Momma had called the cops on the guy with the SUV because he wouldn’t stop shuttling her customers in and out of her hostel so fast, and many more of us would have spent the night if we’d had to walk all the way there and back in the same day. The guy with the SUV was literally driving her business away. When the guy heard what she’d done, he sped out of the hostel in the SUV with the dog, who’d been sleeping lazily on the soft upholstery in the back of the car the whole time. Turned out the driver of the SUV was wanted in seven states. He and his partner had robbed a bunch of gas station convenience stores. His friend that he was waiting for by the side of the road to Mountain Momma’s that day was his partner in crime, who never showed up because he had already been arrested. The guy was driving us back and forth so he could keep searching the road for his missing partner without causing too much suspicion.
“I still don’t get it,” I said. “What would he want with that sick dog?”
“Polish Ninja thought maybe he was hoping to make the owner give him some money to get him back, like ransom.”
I laughed at the suggestion. “As if that would’ve happened. Is the dog okay?”
“Nah. Runaway said they didn’t catch the SUV guy until he crashed in a ditch. Weezie said that Stray Cat was hiking past and saw the whole thing. He said that dog shot out of that car after the doors busted open.”
“So he got away.” I smiled. I liked thinking of the dog escaping and getting back on the trail, as if he had somehow engineered the whole police chase as a ploy for his freedom, as a way to complete his own thru-hike. Even at the very end, on the very last day, when I climbed Mount Katahdin in Maine, I almost expected him to meet me at the peak.
Sara Faye Lieber has published essays in Guernica, Gigantic, Narrative, PANK, Paste, The Rumpus, and other places. She’s working on a book about animals that live indoors.