When I first saw him, I had just finished making camp beside a small spring; the water gurgled from the rock as I screwed the cap onto my water bottle. I straightened up as he came down the trail. His eyebrows were strung together like sutures, drawing his face tight across his temples and cheeks; but the ghost of a smile licked at his lips as if he enjoyed it. He stopped abruptly in front of me, inches from my face. Drops of sweat clung to his curly dark hair and his teeth were nearly as brown as his skin.
“Hey, you got any water?” He pointed with a lame arm at the water bottle that I held in front of me, the only buffer between us.
I glanced sideways at the spring beside us. “Yeah, right there’s a spring,” I said as I turned toward my tent, hoping to create a bit of personal space between us.
“Well do I like need to treat it or anything?” he asked as he moved closer, his feet pattering at the dusty ground.
I looked at his pack; it bulged with gear that I couldn’t quite place. The pack itself wasn’t so much a pack as it was a lopsided duffle bag—the two handles acting as shoulder straps that cut into his oddly bulky shoulders. A long, black case dangled from the bottom of his pack, striking in dancing steps upon the ground as he moved in place. His eyes were wide, as though his eyelids were sucked back into his brain, and the pupils stood large and dark against the tight, tan skin.
“I mean,” I hesitated to answer. “You could drink it straight out of the rock. It’s probably fine. It’s coming right out. But I’d treat it if I were you.”
His neck jerked sideways with a convulsive tick, then his eyes shot toward the trees above us. The branches and leaves stood out harsh and green against the slanting rays of fading light.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I took a short step away from him, momentarily aware of the fleeting feeling that something was watching me. I looked quickly up at him, but his eyes were lost in the foliage above us, absorbed into a state of nothingness where the greens and yellows combined into something sublime.
“I was hoping I could get some of yours,” he quickly returned to the topic of water as his head snapped to my level and his eyes closed in frightening meditation. It was quiet for a moment except for the tinkling of the spring beside us. His eyes opened slowly, and as they did, I extended my water bottle toward him. I shuddered as his lips met the rim.
“Thanks,” he said. He shuffled around me, brushing shoulders in an intimate, sorry sort of way. As he retreated down the trail, I could see a pistol secured to the outside of his pack alongside a large hunting knife. Both hung loosely in the webbing of a makeshift pocket of paracord, jostling against each other like a junk box full of violence. The mysterious black case swung like a hanged corpse from the bottom of his pack; it clattered against a rock and opened. He stopped quickly, carefully reinserted the violin into its housing, and continued walking. I realized then that my hands were sweating, and that I was holding my empty water bottle.
Two hikers camped near me that night. I asked if they had met the curly haired man. They had; they called him the Pilgrim. Through sympathetic smirks and frightened laughs, they told me that no one really knew where he came from or how long he’d been on the trail. The story goes that he came out after some vaguely described family tragedy, but others contend he simply saw a documentary about long distance hiking, picked up a duffle bag and some hiking gear, and set out on the trail. They say he fell out of a tree while hanging his bear bag in a highly unorthodox manner, injuring his arm. At one shelter, he apparently offered magic berries to anyone who would take them. The next night at 2am, he boiled his magic berries on the second level of a shelter. He knocked the pot over, sending scalding hot liquid down upon those sleeping below. His bulky shoulders were supposedly due to the fact that he wore women’s shoulder pads to protect himself from the straps of his pack. And he carried with him what he called his Medicine Chest, apparently full of all manner of things besides medicine. I laughed with the two hikers during these stories, but at night, I had trouble sleeping. It wasn’t exactly fear—it was something more intimate than that.
In the morning, I packed up and set out on a twenty-four mile day. The clouds accompanied me as I walked, eager to shed their heavy rains for the earth. Around noon, it rained for an hour; I had lunch under the protection of a shelter. I pushed on harder after the storm, determined to hit my twenty-four mile mark at Blackbird Gorge, a few miles short of Wharton Road. Clouds still held in the sky, but they had lost their maliciousness and the sweet smell of rain-soaked earth rose upward: half life, half decay.
I was behind schedule as the first signs of dusk came on: that time when everything gets both louder and quieter, brighter and darker. I had the feeling of being watched again, and as I rounded a bend in the trail, a single gun shot range out. I wasn’t afraid; I somehow knew what had happened. Ahead of me on the trail, the Medicine Chest was cracked open, exposing its myriad contents of mind altering pills and liquids. Down feathers swam in the air as I stepped into a small clearing at my right. A violin stood against one of the saplings that grew within the shortly grassed circle. And there, his face draped in a sleeping bag and his legs caught up beneath him, was the Pilgrim. I lifted the thin sleeping bag away from his face. I saw the halo of red that stained the green grass; and at the halo’s source, crimson liquid glowed like quenched fire. Crests of broken skull, perfect in their whiteness, peered through the carnage of grey matter.
The clearing contained too much to be left alone that night. I staked my tent right outside of the clearing and kept vigil over the Pilgrim’s body, keeping the birds and nocturnal creatures from disturbing him as night came on. I tried not to, but I must have slept for a while. I dreamed of a world that we were all happy in; it was a world where white reminded me only of the clouds and the snow and things that were pure and good.
In the morning, the sun was out, throwing the canopy’s greens and yellows across his body. The Pilgrim seemed to reach back toward it with his outstretched arms, so that I couldn’t tell where the sun’s light ended and he began. I hiked out to Wharton Road to flag down a car. I left a note beside the Pilgrim’s body: Gone to get help. It’s too late. He’s dead.
But I wanted to write so much more.