The house feels empty without her things. All of our shared spaces, with all of our shared things, is cut in half now. Where all of our hiking gear once took up this entire shelf, it now looks vacant, like someone got halfway through packing up their things and decided to leave a few items behind.
On the wall are two hooks. My backpack hangs on one and the other’s empty. I save my backpack from its loneliness and grab my pair of boots from the shelf below. I catch myself in a hallway mirror as I walk away. It’s a simple day hike, Rachel, you can do this. You have to do this. You have to move on.
I fill up my water bottle, grab some energy bars, then collect together pita bread, peanut butter, and jelly for lunch. I check to make sure my backpack still has the first aid kit (it does), map (yes), my headlamp (yep), and my comically high visability rain jacket (can’t miss it). Okay then. No excuses, time to roll out.
It’s still dark outside when I leave the apartment. It’s a nostalgic feeling to pack into the car before dawn.
As I wait for the car to warm up, I sit with the memories of the family road trips where I’d lay sleepily in the backseat as my parents loaded everything into the trunk.
I start driving. When I get to the trailhead I realize I’d been driving in complete silence. My memories providing the only entertainment I needed, as a respite.
There’s one car at the trailhead with an older couple still getting ready to leave. The man has his hiking poles hooked onto his wrists but attempts to wave hello anyway, flinging the poles into his companion’s face as she tries to tie her boots. I smile and return the wave before setting out ahead of them.
This was one of our favorite hikes to go on together. It’s near the city, but two minutes into the forest and you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Nine miles, with about 2,500 feet of elevation climbing. Strenuous, but not “wipe you out for a week stenuous,” she’d always say. I’d always “beg to differ.” It was one of those loops you get into when you’re close with someone, where no matter what the circumstances, you’d play out your responses to each other.
I’ve never done this hike without her, but I tell myself I feel good about it right now. In the distance, the sun finally starts making its ascent. The trees cast confusing shadows onto the ground. The sun hits something far off the trail that reflects light into my eyes. It must be a bit of trash. As I walk, the light follows me no matter how I divert my eyes.
I reach back to grab my water bottle, but can’t seem to grab hold, so I stop to take my bag off. The light continues to focus itself into my eyes. I take a sip of water and grab a Cliff bar. As I take a bite, I realize it’s Chocolate Brownie, the worst flavor. She must have bought this. I force myself to swallow the bite, rewrap the bar, and bury it into my bag. No matter which way I turn, the light finds a way into my eyes. I reload by bag, flip it back onto my back, and carry on.
The light continues to follow me.
I look back for the older couple, but they’re nowhere to be seen. They’ll be a while, I bet. I wonder if they can see the light.
As I follow the winding single track trail through the forest, the light follows me. I begin to grow accustomed to it. I start to wonder where it’s coming from. It’s not usually in my nature to wonder about the origin of things. Or how they work. That was always her role in the relationship. I could assess things as they were. She’d figure out why they were. We were a good team in that way. But now I find myself wondering.
They always say you’re not supposed to leave the trail. There’s two reasons for this. One, it can ruin the natural land and two, you can get lost. But I want to find where this light comes from.
I can see the origin, I think. It’s not that far away.
I lay my backpack down and pull out a few items looking for my bright rain jacket. This will do. I hang it up on a tree like a homing beacon. Between this and the old couple who are certainly coming along shortly, I’ll find my way back. But just to be safe, I’ll leave other items along the way. I tap the button on my headlamp several times to set it to the blinking red option and hang it on a branch when I think I’m halfway to the light. As I get closer to the light, but still in view of the headlamp, I take my backpack off and hang it high on a tree branch. These breadcrumbs leading back to the trail will be plenty, I tell myself.
I expect the light to get more intense as I get closer, but that’s not the case. It does the opposite. I wonder if I’m foolish, like trying to find the source of a rainbow. As I close in, I realize it’s not growing fainter. It’s diverting. The light comes from two sources, not one.
It’s in a small clearing where I come to them. Two discs, about the size of CDs but without the hole in the middle, hovering about three feet from the ground, spinning. They’re not glowing outwardly, instead, the light feels like it’s coming from the back of my head: outwardly making its way from the back of my eyes. I sit down to rest and the light overtakes me. The forest begins to disappear as my whole world turns white. It’s peaceful here, in this moment. So I decide to stay.