I followed Rambler and Dutch over the rocks, and after a half-hour of walking, we stopped to pull out our headlights. We continued in the black night, listening to the knocking of the unstable stones under our feet.
Even though both men had full packs and I was wearing a simple daypack, I struggled to keep up with their bright lithium beams. I kept diverting my headlight from the stones below to the hikers outpacing me up ahead. Their footwork was unbelievably nimble considering we were hiking over loose rocks in the dark.
Finally, when the rocks grew less frequent and more stable, we could relax enough to carry on a conversation.
Because I was somewhat acquainted with Rambler, I spent most of my time asking questions of Dutch. I wanted to know about his home and his family, and I wanted to know about his thru-hike.
Dutch’s answers were thoughtful and soft-spoken. My initial impression was that he was much more interesting and mature than most twenty-one-year-olds in the United States. And he was certainly more conscientious and wise than I had been when I first hiked the trail.
After responding to my surface-level questions, it was Dutch’s turn to drive the conversation. The lanky European, whose height and headlamp made it possible to mistake him for a distant radio tower, decided to skip the small talk and ask me exactly what was on his mind.
“Trying to set the record—do you have fun?”
It was a simple question, but recently it had consumed me.
I answered immediately, “No. I am not having fun.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“Because it’s worthwhile.” Saying this clearly and confidently served as personal reminder, as well as an answer.
I continued, “I may not be having fun, but I feel a sense of joy and purpose. When things are this difficult, it causes you to change and grow. And I am learning a lot out here. Sometimes I am too tired to process it all. But even though this hike isn’t easy, it is fulfilling—and increasingly rewarding. I guess, in the end, it is better than fun.”
I didn’t think that what I had just said made sense. After all it was getting late and I had hiked over forty-seven miles that day. But I figured something was favorably misunderstood in translation because Dutch accepted my answer and nodded in agreement.
That night after walking for an hour in the dark, we came to a place that was level and soft enough to set up camp. Dutch and Rambler took off their packs. Rambler reached inside his and pulled out a bag of food that Brew had given him then he brought out a large unopened bottle of Gatorade that he’d brought from home. He handed them to me with outstretched arms.
“You need to eat and drink,” he told me. “Dutch and I will have your tent set up in about ten minutes.”
Dutch pulled out my one-person tent from his rucksack, and with Rambler’s help, he quickly set it up before pitching his own. As soon as my shelter was staked in the ground, I thanked the men for their help and crawled inside to go to bed.
But as I unzipped my flap, I noticed something was out of place.
"Hey guys, one of you left a blow-up Thermarest in my tent.”
“That’s for you,” said Rambler.
“But my foam pad is in here, too,” I responded, a bit confused.
“I know, but I thought that you could use two mattresses on this rocky terrain,” Rambler offered.
I smiled. This morning I thought I would be stuck at a roadside or camping out alone. Instead, I was sleeping on an air mattress on top of a foam pad, drinking lemon-lime Gatorade that I didn’t have to carry. I felt like a hiker princess.
When Dutch asked me whether or not I was having fun, I had sincerely answered no. However, after he and Rambler joined us on the trail, I began to enjoy small moments of laughter and tiny glimmers of lightheartedness that almost felt, well, fun.
Developing a friendship with the two new crew members was effortless and natural. Immediately, their presence began to make the hike more enjoyable. I realized that one reason why my relationships with Warren, Melissa, and Steve had been strained was because their motivation for joining us had been rooted in friendship. They had been out there to support me, and I had not been the “me” that they liked or remembered.
But Dutch and Rambler weren’t just there for me; they were also there because of their devotion to the trail. They loved to hike and they didn’t have any expectations of me as a person or friend; they just wanted to join in our adventure, pass by places they remembered from their hikes, and to experience the trail in a new and different way.
Both men could walk all day, and at night, they expected to camp on the trail. They appreciated every ounce of food and drink that was offered to them. In brief, they were thru-hikers. And I realized that the best support I could have would come not from family or friends or runners—but from thru-hikers.
Excerpted from Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis (Beaufort Books, 2013).