I met her feet first, just north of the Great Smoky Mountains. I was sitting on a spruce log next to the trail, scowling down at my filthy socks when her boots slid into my field of vision. Listening to the gold finch and the wind in the trees, I’d assumed I was the only person for miles. And I needed to be alone, feeling bruised and exhausted after years of medical training. The trail had battered her boots, and like mine, they were covered with scuffs and mud. Her gingham skirt fluttered gently around her calves, pulling my eyes up from the earth. I watched her hemline, unwilling to look up and officially surrender my solitude. Who walks in a dress out here? I barely had time to wonder.
“Hephzibah,” her voice slashed through the murmur of leaves as she offered her trail name. She stuck out her hand and I noticed the grime on her knuckles and under her nails. We shook. Eventually I met her eyes, a jarring blue.
“Violet,” I said, offering my trail name. Pushing my sunglasses up my nose, I stole a look up and down. I rarely encountered women alone on the Appalachian Trail. And the ones I’d met had mostly been in a group, or the reluctant member of a couple. Within a hundred miles of the start on Springer Mountain, the bears seemed to outnumber the women three to one.
“Where’d you start today?” Hephzibah asked.
“Painter Branch campsite,” I said, looking back down at my socks.
“I stealth-camped just before there,” she said.
“Ah,” I nodded without looking up, and hoisted my pack up to my shoulders. Stealth camping was setting up on your own between the official shelters and campsites. I had always been too nervous to do it. Bear-bait, I called myself, although the only bears I’d seen had scampered away from me as if I were the danger. While the shelter sites were remote and isolated─just three-sided structures standing forlornly among the trees─they were distinctly human turf in the wilderness, lending a sense of security.
I abruptly stood, launching myself onto the path. “See you along the way!” I called back, waving a hiking pole in the air. “Happy trails!” It took me a few steps to realize what I’d done. For the next mile I forgot my damp, disgusting socks, my fatigue and the aches and pains, the whining mosquitoes, and my sticky skin. My mind spun over how I’d brushed Hephzibah off, and my stomach tied and untied itself. Just breathe, I thought, shaking my head and shoulders. I wondered if she suspected who I was as she came upon me, especially given the violet bandana I wore as a do-rag over my curls. The trail-gossip travelled like smoke, a hundred miles in either direction. I knew this because I had heard about myself─the lady-doctor walking alone─several times already; maybe Hephzibah had heard, too, and had something to prove. But what did it matter if she was showing off or competing? I was walking the Appalachian Trail to escape from all that. I struggled to shift my thoughts back to the bird calls and the burbling water; this wasn’t the rat race, or any other kind of race, especially not with other hikers.
When I entered medicine, I never viewed myself as competitive. Personally ambitious, and dedicated to skills development, but rarely inclined to compare myself to anyone else. In college, I exhausted myself studying and then fretting over the one point that made my score a “99.” I continued my compulsive patterns into medical school classes, despite the pass-fail grading system. Insecurity drove me; I knew I wasn’t smart enough to be there. I needed the “A’s” as part of my costume, and wore them like a tiara when I gazed into the mirror. When I started my hospital training, I fervidly read about each condition we encountered, hunched over books during quiet moments at nurses’ station, or in the cafeteria during meals.
In the medical student call room one evening, my classmate Keiko and I were preparing to sleep. She was brushing her teeth, and I sat on the bed, brushing my hair, surrounded by notes and open books. I yawned and explained I would be up for at least another hour, practicing my patient presentations for the supervising physician. “I can’t get them right,” I said, putting down my hair brush. “They need to be more organized. I hate sounding like such an idiot.” The room suddenly felt quiet and tense.
“You know what I hate,” Keiko sputtered around her toothbrush.
“What?” I asked.
Keiko ripped off a string of dental floss. “I can’t stand cutthroat med students who read up on surgeries before they scrub in,” she looked at me in the mirror. “Or the ones who look up research studies to spew during rounds. I hate being on teams with them,” she shook her head and spit into the sink. “They’re just trying to make everyone else look bad.” I heard the edge in her voice, but it never occurred to me that she was making an oblique reference to me─that I was the person no one wanted to work with─since I never thought about looking better than my fellow students. I only thought about how much I didn’t know; how much I needed to know; how impossible it was to become a good doctor. I never viewed myself as competent enough for anyone to compare themselves to. And solitary by nature, I never noticed the lunch tables where no one saved me a seat, or the subtle shifts of shoulders and backs that excluded me as I walked by groups of my peers.
It wasn’t until years later when I complained to my husband about the way a colleague was treating me that I understood. He blurted out, “You may not be competing with her, but she is competing with you.” He set down his fork and touched my arm. “The way you go about things─throwing yourself into them and catapulting yourself forward─it gets attention. And it irks people who are competitive. Most people judge themselves by how they do compared to everyone else.” He looked at me with kindness that seemed too much like pity. “You really have a blind spot there.” My face flushed and I couldn’t meet his eyes.
The next time I saw Hephzibah, she was at a road crossing, sprawled in a lawn chair next to an RV. She was enjoying some trail magic, gobbling pancakes prepared by a thru-hiker’s parents. The couple had parked where the trail crossed the road, cooking breakfast for passersby, hoping to catch their son hiking through. “Trail magic” is kindness offered by family, or friends, or neighbors to the AT hikers. I thought of it like alms offered to pilgrims: grain doled out to trekkers on the camino de Compostela, or water poured for the Hajj caravans enroute to Mecca. On the AT, trail magic might be food like a Tupperware of cookies at a lean-to, or a free meal in a trailside town. At the Blue Mountain shelter, a local pot-bellied chef had lumbered in one night and roasted russets in the fire, making potato salad for the hikers. At one remote dirt road crossing, an ex-thru-hiker had taped a sign with an arrow indicating clean, cold water would be available from the spigot at his nearby house. Or it might be other support, like a ride to or from town, or an offer to fix your boots or a broken strap on your pack in a garage workshop. More than once, encountering these special gifts, I had reflected on my journey through medical school and residency, wondering if such kindnesses had been more common during the long days and nights, would I have felt so battered? Would I still have fled to this remote and solitary pilgrimage among the trees?
As I emerged at the road crossing, I caught Hephzibah deftly stuffing a syrup-soaked wad into her mouth. She quickly focused on her plate. Her fork was down to three tines, but her disabled cutlery didn’t deter her; like the rest of us, she’d gotten efficient at eating by now, walking so many miles with a heavy pack and limited food. I smelled the cakes and grease from the griddle, acutely aware of my pants sagging low on my hips. But I charged through, forcing my nose and my eyes straight ahead, and searching for the white blaze marking the AT on the other side of the road.
Over the next hundred miles I encountered Hephzibah several times. We walked at different speeds: I marched forward to achieve my daily goal as quickly as possible, and she moved slowly and deliberately, spending more hours walking, and unperturbed by the time or the terrain. I’d come up behind her on a climb, her substantial boots and socks in sharp contrast to her dress swishing with her stride, or she’d pass me resting at a spring. The way we’d pass each other, I called it “pulling taffy”: first one, then the other in front. Other than a terse greeting, we didn’t really acknowledge each other. It wasn’t her fault; she was nice enough, especially in the beginning. It was me. Once I‘d decided she was competing with me, the walls went up, hard as steel, impenetrable after years of medical education. After that I was stubborn, resolute in my assessment of her motivation…Unwilling to admit I’d overreacted, or to acknowledge that I might have read her wrong.
One day, at a shelter, I watched Hephzibah stumble in and sink down to the floor. She let her pack slide off, not caring that it tumbled out onto the dirt. She didn’t notice me resting against my jacket, tucked further back in the shadows. Rubbing her shoulder, she stared straight ahead into the trees. My own shoulder ached as I watched. I considered pretending I was asleep.
“Hi,” I said, almost too softly to hear.
“Hi,” she said, without turning.
“I didn’t want to startle you,” I said.
“I knew you were there,” she said.
“Oh, please,” I snorted.
“I could smell you,” Hepzibah said, and I could tell she was smiling.
“It’s not me. It’s my socks,” I smiled, too.
She turned her head so that I could just see her nose in silhouette, and asked, “So where you from, Violet?”
“Originally?” I asked, sliding the shelter register toward me, hoping for somewhere to look as we spoke. “I was born in upstate New York,” I said, flipping through the pages. “What about you?”
Hephzibah, I found out, was born in Illinois and was called Emily by the rest of the world. As implied by her choice of trail names, taken from the Bible’s Second Book of Kings, her journey was a spiritual retreat, and she used the long days walking for prayer and silent contemplation. Contrary to the compulsion most hikers felt to get one step closer each day to Mount Katahdin in Maine, Hephzibah stayed put every Saturday, in observance of the Seventh Day Adventist Sabbath. But I found her devotion most evident in her willingness to carry a heavy, hardback bible in her pack.
Late one afternoon I encountered Hephzibah walking up Tennessee’s Nolichucky Gorge. The sun had sunk low, vanishing behind black and angry clouds when I caught sight of her ahead. I had begun to feel the familiar anxiety that haunted me late each day. Tennessee was my third state, and by now I had discovered what I liked and didn’t like. I liked to be in camp by midafternoon, to set up, read, and maybe nap, even when the weather was beautiful. And these days weren’t so beautiful. The high Tennessee peaks beckoned the thunderheads. Looking up, I felt edgier than just the usual tired and hungry. And I felt small. Like an ant. Determined, I tightened the shoulder straps on my rubber tree plant and charged forward. Rounding a switchback and spying Hephzibah’s blue-flowered skirt, I felt an unexpected surge of relief. She trudged along undeterred as the wind generated a tumult of leaves around her. I climbed a little faster to catch up.
I should have felt more refreshed, having spent the night before at a motel in Erwin. I had caught an easy lift to town, legs dangling off the back of a white Tennessee Gas and Electric truck. The motel held a supply box I’d mailed to myself, and also a chance for a shower and a rest. Jumping at the chance to wash my clothes, I held each piece out in front of me with two finger tips, as I dropped it into the machine. Pushing the hot water button, I realized how much I wanted my clothes to look clean and fresh again when I took them from the dryer. Really, I wanted them to smell fresh again. Pulling them on each morning, the sour and stale scent enveloped me, almost forcing me out of my tent.
At first light, starting up and out of Erwin, I had felt buoyant, boots heels hitting the dirt, racing the chipmunks and butterflies for first glimpse of the new day. New spider webs stretched across the path and trailed behind me like veils. As usual, the miles had seemed more do-able as I took my first steps. Sixteen to Cherry Gap shelter? No problem! I almost tripped over the little Igloo cooler on the trail in front of me. The loose leaf sign taped to the handle announced, “Trail Magic for Thru-Hikers,” in thick blue marker. The anonymous Good Samaritan had stuffed the cooler with ice, and fresh orange juice and sodas. If I hadn’t just come from town, I would have likely plunked down on the dirt and gulped at least one. But feeling recharged, I blazed by, the sign fluttering in my wake. As the day stretched out, fatigue crowded out my enthusiasm. My hips creaked and groaned as I walked, and the miles felt deceptively long. I looked up too often, trying to gauge time by the sun, and noting the dark clouds instead.
Approaching Hephzibah, I called out to avoid startling her. Without turning, Hephzibah lifted a hand in acknowledgment. I caught her and we walked in company for a while. We were both headed for Cherry Gap. She had bypassed Erwin and stealth camped the night before, stumbling on a little creek that she called “a gift from God.”
“Because as usual,” she sighed, “I was walking too slowly, and scared that I wouldn’t make it to the campsite by dark.”
“That’s why you stealth camp so much?” I asked, flushing, keeping my eyes on the trail.
“I’m so slow. I think I won’t make it, so if I see water, I cut my losses. And now─” she looked down at her legs.
“Ouch,” I said. “Shit.” I stopped and stared, but Hephzibah kept walking, so I hurried after her. She had the worst case of shin splints that I had ever seen. The medical term for shin splints is tibialis tendonitis, or tibial stress syndrome, which are fancy words for “the tendons attached to your shin bone are irritated and inflamed.” This condition results from overuse, like jogging too much too soon, or say, walking several hundred miles with forty pounds on your back. Most people just feel pain with stepping, and maybe a little tenderness if you press, but Hephzibah’s shins were boggy and swollen. If I had pushed with my finger, it would have left a dent. I wasn’t sure what to do. Was she asking my opinion? I’d spent so much time watching doctors be arrogant and entitled, taking charge of every situation, and looking for an opportunity to establish superiority, that I was afraid she would misinterpret my interest. I wasn’t out here supervising Hephzibah─the last thing I wanted to do was act like I knew something she didn’t…If she wanted my advice she would ask for it.
But I did know something she didn’t, right? This uncertainty felt familiar. I had been in medicine so long that I had lost perspective on what non-medical people knew. Whenever I spoke about medical issues I felt trapped between talking “over” people─using terms and concepts that I took for granted, but that lay people didn’t comprehend─and sounding condescending by over explaining the simplest ideas.
“How long have you been walking with so much pain?” I asked. “You don’t have to answer that. It’s none of my business,” I added quickly.
“They’ve hurt for a while. But they’ve gotten worse in the last few days,” she said. We walked a few steps in silence.
“Have you tried anything?”
“I’ve been praying,” she said.
“Oh, ok,” I said, “Has that worked?”
“I’m still walking,” she said. Was she defensive? Was she anti-medicine? I checked in with myself: Seventh Day Adventist, not Christian Scientist. I peeked at her, she was staring at the trail ahead of us.
“Ice?” that sounded safe, “Have you tried ice?”
“No. I have some Advil. Will that help?” she asked.
“I meant in town. The ice, I mean. But maybe you could soak them in cold water. A stream,” I babbled. “And yes, the Advil might help. Do you know how take that? I mean, with food, and plenty of water. It can hurt your stomach. And your kidneys…”
“I’ll take a break in the next town. Rest there, it’ll be Saturday soon,” she said. She was looking away.
“If you want something stronger, in camp, I have something. I won’t bring it up again. You just ask me. To help you sleep, or whatever,” I said it all too quickly. We were like two porcupines, waddling next to each other on the Appalachian Trail.
“Thank you,” Hephzibah said, “I’ll be ok.” Her face was red. She glanced briefly at me and then away, as if she was trying to be respectful by meeting my eyes, but the effort looked hard on her.
“You’re walking faster than I am,” Hephzibah said suddenly. “I’m holding you up.” She shoo-ed me forward. As I walked away I had glanced back and she called out, “I’ll get there. I have faith.”
I stopped dead, smelling the wood smoke. Hard to mistake that. I argued with myself that the shelter couldn’t be so near, and it was unwise to underestimate the distance. I’d just be frustrated and upset if I had to walk further than I expected. The last mile was always the longest, stretching out in front of me like a rubber band. At first the scent came and went, and I could convince myself that I imagined it, but soon it was clear and steady. I instinctively turned my head to the right, slightly off the direction of the trail. The smell seemed too faint to pinpoint; some ancient instinct had tugged at my nose. I listened for voices, but heard only the wind through the trees, the patter of rain drops on the leaves, and my own footsteps. Occasionally the thunder rolled.
I turned the corner, and there it was: the sign. Cherry Gap Shelter, 0.1 miles, with an arrow to the right. The weathered wooden sign, although spattered with rain drops, looked unperturbed, having seen bigger storms than this. Soon I heard the campfire and saw the wooden wall of the shelter. Flames roared up at the storm from a fire ring on the open side. The heat reduced the raindrops to pathetic hisses on the stones, and five male figures posed in supplication around the blaze. I guessed that these were local buddies in the woods for a week, getting in touch with their manhood. There’d be a bottle of Wild Turkey or Jack Daniels in the shelter, and some chewing tobacco, along with beef jerky and cans of meat. I waved at their surprised faces, noting dropped jaws under graying facial hair. I felt glad for the company, but gladder that I had my own sleeping quarters. Tossing my pack in the shelter, I unhooked my tent and pulled out my rain gear and water bag. A kind, round-faced man with a moustache, who introduced himself as Walrus, came over to move their supplies and make room for one more. I said I would be tenting, but told them about Hephzibah coming in, in case she might want the roof in the storm. Hephzibah. I paused, staring at the boards, worn to a shine at the edge of the shelter’s floor. I shook my head and busied myself with camp preparations. First task: fetch water from the marked source. Second task: set up tent before the rain really starts coming down.
Picking up my water bag, I turned to my camp-mates. Walrus pointed to the sign on a tree. My shoulders sagged. The sign read, “Spring 0.4 miles.” The arrow pointed to a narrow trail heading down a bluff. And then back up, I thought, lugging the awkward, sloshing water bag. That would add another mile before I could even set up and cook dinner.
“Yup, it’s really far down there.” Walrus nodded before I could ask.
“The water’s practically back in Erwin?” I asked, hands on my hips.
“Mebbe you can pick up a pizza when you’re down there,” a man called Bearbelly called out. I forced a laugh, cut short by a flash of lightning and an intimidating roll of thunder. Looking up at the sky, I changed my mind about fetching water. I tucked my water bag under my pack so it wouldn’t be swept away by one of the gusts. Pulling on my rain jacket and rain pants, I grabbed a bag of M&M’s and headed back toward the Appalachian Trail. I walked quickly without weight, and swung my water bottle on my index finger by the loop on its neck. I hoped that I didn’t look uncertain or scared to the men, whom I could feel watching me as I walked in the unexpected direction. When I was confident that I was out of earshot, I started to sing. First, “Good Day, Sunshine…dah, dah, dah,” and then by the time I had gone about a half mile south of the shelter, I resorted to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
I had no idea when I would see Hephzibah, or if I would at all. Maybe she had stopped and stealth camped again. I was struggling with how much further I should walk when I saw her. Dress flapping up in the gusts, she reminded me of a hillbilly Marilyn Monroe. At least she had the sense to wear leggings underneath. Hephzibah saw me, and I squelched my criticism. She was near tears, but determined. I waved and trotted forward.
“Hey! I had to get away from that shelter! It’s a boys’ club. Belching, farting, the whole deal,” I blurted out.
“Hey,” Hephzibah said. She kept walking; I fell in with her.
“And they’re drinking. You know,” I waved a hand in the air and rolled my eyes. I looked straight ahead. “I’m glad you’re staying at Cherry Gap. I need girl time.”
Hephzibah glanced at me. I felt my face burn. I pulled out the bag of M&M’s from my front pocket for us to share.
“You know,” Hephzibah said, looking down and then looking at me. “They most certainly do melt in your hands.” She held up her colorful palm. Conversation came easily as we walked the last half mile, the raindrops stinging our cheeks.
The men bellowed “hello” as we arrived. Despite their jocularity, I could feel them watching. Fatherly. I was too tired to decide how I felt about it. Standing by the fire just to appear unconcerned and unbothered by the rain, I still relished the warmth on my palms and fingertips. When I finally reached for my water bag, dreading the 0.4 mile trek down and then back up, it was missing. I looked under, around, and in my pack, feeling more and more upset, certain the wind had blown it away. Gritting my teeth, I closed my eyes, trying to hold in the tears. I would not ask to borrow water; everyone here had made the trek.
Hephzibah watched me silently.
“I left my water bag here,” I said, fighting to keep my voice steady. I pointed. “It’s gone; it must have blown away,” I shrugged, hoping my tears would blend with the rain on my cheeks.
Hephzibah spun slowly, looking around. Then she stopped and said, “Hey,” pointing to a wooden peg on the side of the shelter. My water bag hung there, not empty as I had left it, but tense and full, rocking gently. Condensation rolled down the sides, coalescing at the bottom and dripping into a puddle on the floorboards. I stared and stood still for a few moments, swaying in subtle sympathy with the bag. Then I looked over at the men huddled around the fire pit, their round backs like stones in a circle. The flames lit their faces and I caught a glint of the fire in Walrus’s eyes. I yelled a thank you…Ignored. Lifting the bag off the hook, I poured some water into my pan, asking if anyone would like cocoa while I boiled water for dinner, but the men just shook their heads and stared into the flames.
Crawling into my tent, I peeled off my clothes, and hung them from loops and straps along the seams. I was too exhausted to do much organizing or preparation for the next day. I tried to read, but the words blurred and my eyes forced themselves shut. I drifted off into an easy, deep sleep, aided by fatigue, and the steady patter of rain on my tent.
I woke the next morning to the appalling smell of my socks. Acrid. Cringing, I looked up at the close ceiling of my tent, sensing more than seeing that the sky was clear, and pondering the vicissitude of both the weather and my moods here in the mountains. I would have enjoyed relaxing and daydreaming a little more, but frankly, the smell was too much. Shimmying out of my bag, I pulled on my shorts and damp t-shirt; the shirt was cold on my back. Fishing into the bottom of my pack, I pulled out fresh socks from my wad of “town” clothes. Quietly, I took down my tent. I tossed my old socks into the surviving embers, and they hissed at me. A sacrifice for protection from the storm. No amount of trail magic was going to resurrect those. I sniffed the pungent steam and stepped back.
Heading out toward the Appalachian Trail, I paused, raising my hand to Hephzibah, who was bent over her camp stove. She looked up, and waved, signaling that she’d be fine. Then she looked up again.
“I tried to thank God last night for sending you to walk me in,” Hephzibah said. Then she added softly, “but He said I should thank you instead.”
My heart caught in my throat, and my tongue felt thick and stuck to my front teeth. Closing my eyes, I nodded again at Hephzibah, hitched up my pack, and hurried along to restart my journey north. The bright green birch leaves shook and waved in the breeze, while the sunlight pushed its way onto the trail in front of my feet.
JoDean Nicolette succumbed to the field of medicine for years. Still a physician and teacher, she has now dedicated herself to a career in writing. JoDean’s work has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Printers Row Journal, Sugared Water, and she was awarded the 2015 Grand Prize for Prose in The Maine Review’s Rocky Coast Contest. “Trail Magic” is from an unpublished book about JoDean’s development as a physician as she walked the Appalachian Trail. She currently lives in northern California with her dogs and horses, and her extremely patient husband, Ben.