The men were in a staggered line behind me. I saw white sun hats weaving in and out of the scrub. Everyone but Amy was making good time since it was a town day. Amy appeared to have disappeared into the desert.
I could feel sweat-soaked bandages slipping around on my raw feet and had settled amongst some scrub to dry out my socks and apply fresh dressings. Each rock and bush, within reach and in the sun, had a sock or shoe laid out as I attempted to keep them out of the dirt while they dried.
“Good signal! I’m not sure if I saw or smelled them first,” said Mr. K, grinning as he walked up.
“I’m sure it was the vultures circling,” I said, glancing at him with a quick smile.
“I don’t know how you walk on those things,” he said grimly.
“They get numb after a few minutes. That’s why I keep moving and don’t stop walking. Stopping and starting is brutal.”
Mr. K shook his head and raised his hand to cover his eyes as he peered through the hot haze behind him.
“I see Robbie thrashing his way in our direction,” said Mr. K with a chuckle. Robbie always hiked on the edge of desperation. Desperate for water. Desperate to get out of the sun. Desperate to stop. He usually seemed to be in the final frantic throws of some desperate hiking plight. Once settled, rested, and “saved,” though, he was quite jolly with his wide grin and shiny bald head. Robbie was about to get his “trail name.” We had started calling him “Mood Ring.” His head color indicated his state of being. The more desperate he became, the redder his head glowed. Granted, some of this could be attributed to the sun, but most of it was blood pressure.
“Holy crap! I hope we are stopping!” Robbie gasped out as he slowed to a stop. He glanced at me sitting in the bushes, promptly dropped his pack, and collapsed on it. Mr. K was still trying to clear a level, rock-free spot to settle. Several days into the hike, we were dry, scorched, and filthy, and Mr. K still appeared neat and dapper. He was cool with his tan cargo pants, muted yellow button-up shirt, and still-white sun hat.
“I see movement.” Mr. K said as he paused, peering out from under his hand again.
I stood slowly, just enough to crouch and peek over the bushes. Sure enough, I saw a small white blob weaving in and out of the bushes in the distance. It had to be a half mile away, over by a dry windmill we had passed earlier.
“Sit! Sit!” I hissed through clenched teeth. Mr. K immediately crouched behind a bush.
“Why?” he said, whispering now.
“In one week, we have seen illegals, a desert witch, and had a gun pointed at us. We are so close to town. I want to live long enough for a Pepsi. We are just so close.” I said with a wistful expression in my voice. “We can only roll the dice so many times,” I whispered.
Nobody wanted to admit it, but we had also finally lost Amy. She was not a bad person, but the questions were endless! How do I use my GPS? Where is there, water? What are you eating? It was like I had a child in the back seat on my road trip. I knew I was not being nice, and everyone else probably felt the same. We were supposed to help our fellow man/woman, not hide amidst the bushes, cringing each time they came near.
I slowly settled back to the ground to continue salvaging my feet.
“I want a steak with a huge loaded potato and a giant ice cream Sunday when I get to town,” I said with a sigh. This was a fun game we played.
“I would like a nice big, crispy salad and lots of veggies,” said Mr. K.
“Freak! Days in the desert, and you want cow food!” I hissed at him with a grin.
“Beer, an ice, damn cold beer,” said Robbie as he leaned back and rolled off his pack, cursing softly in the dirt.
“There you are!” I knew I would find you!
That voice forced its way under my skin, and I felt my blood heat instantly! How had she found us? We were on the ground in the bushes, and she would have had to make a 180-degree turn and head our way. I had seen bird dogs with less ability to track – not to mention the speed at which she had covered that half mile!
“Oh good,” said Robbie, with a weak smile. It was then I noticed the glasses on his head. It was his fault! She must have seen the glint, but that was hard to believe, I thought, as I looked over at her giant prescription sunglasses.
I had finished bandaging my feet and quickly crammed my socks and shoes over the layers of bandages. I glanced over to see Mr. K smirking at me. I think he was enjoying my irritation. I really did need to work on my self-control. He was my idol, damn it.
We were about two miles out of Lordsburg, and I hobbled quickly for the first ten minutes until my feet became numb, and I could increase my speed. The others fanned out behind me. As we got closer to town, I saw piles of junk – old metal was strewn across the sand. There were car parts, washing machines, dryers, and sinks. Clearly, we were entering the town through a junkyard. I could also hear deep, menacing barks and veered away from the old rusted barbed wire fence off to my left.
I hissed through my teeth as I stumbled over a metal bar and then grunted in pain as I bent over, pulling my shorts across my new sore. Yesterday, I hiked with duct tape over a rather large hole in the back of my shorts. After stopping last night, I pulled down my shorts to put on my sleeping shorts and yelped in pain as a hunk of skin had been torn from my ass. Apparently, the adhesive from the duct tape had melded with my skin over the course of the day, taking off the first three layers of skin when I removed my shorts. I was now hiking with the giant hole open and covering it when anyone came near me or I had to sit.
I tried hard to stay to what seemed public property, but as I ducked under barbed wire and crouched to jog around small shacks with large dusty dogs on ropes and chains, I’m sure I was lucky I did not get a butt load of metal. I did not even glance behind me. I just increased speed as the buildings became less dilapidated, and the dirt on the roads became more compact. Civilization and food were close!
Practically running down what appeared to be the main street – at least it was asphalt, I stopped at the first restaurant I came upon. I stepped into air-conditioned bliss and grinned at the hostess staring at me in horrified fascination. On the other trails, I always checked into a hotel and cleaned up first, but I was thirsty.
“I’m sorry I’m a little dusty,” I said with a closed mouth smile. I had not gotten a chance to check my teeth yet.
“No problem,” she said with a slight crook at the edge of her lips. Maybe a smirk or maybe a grimace. I was not sure.
She guided me to the last table at the back of the restaurant. I would have done the same. I could see a filthy, homeless person plastered to her face. I had learned to recognize this expression years earlier. As long as I was fed and watered, I did not mind the discrimination. Besides, she would soften when I explained the hike.
I had been seated for about five minutes, been served a pitcher of soda, and was trying to clear the tears from my eyes, as I gazed at the menu with bright, colorful pictures when I saw the guys pass the window to my right. As expected, they veered inside immediately. The hostess did not even pause as they entered the door. She just grabbed menus and headed towards my table.
“Will there be more?” she said with a frown.
The men slid into the booth across from me, and one grabbed my Pepsi while the other snatched up my ice water. No questions were asked. We had known each other for one week, and already everything was communal.
“There will only be one other small dirty person,” I said, smiling.
“We are hikers on the Continental divide trail.” The guys did not even glance our way. They just chugged liquid as they tried to read the menus over the tops of the large, plastic glasses and grunted a little, with rivulets of water dripping off Robbie’s chin.
“Back away. They may bite.” I said with a solemn expression.
The hostess just turned and walked away with a small frown still affixed to her face. I watched as she glanced back and paused to whisper with what appeared to be a manager, who looked our way with a frown.
This was probably the first time I realized this trail was different. This hostess dealt with travelers daily but had never heard of the CDT. This was the first restaurant encountered when entering the town and one of the very few restaurants in town, and she had never heard of the hundreds of people she met, even mentioning the Continental Divide Trail. Long-distance hikers were practically celebrities on some of the other trails. On this trail, where daily life was often a struggle, and people worked hard for everything they had, it was hard to relate to hikers that could, or even desired, drop everything and walk. Of all the places I’ve hiked, I would learn that these people of the west were some of the toughest and most pragmatic.