Shelter coffee stop. Companions on the Trail, with Trail names and Trail tales. Good kids, decent hikers, they had been passing each other at the shelters and scenic outlooks for a few days now. And one good woman he had not seen before. Almost his age. She was quiet without seeming standoffish, listening to everyone’s stories. Not his, of course. The kids had more than enough stories to go around.
After a few hours, the kids moved on, leaving only the two of them in the shelter.
“Feels like I know you from somewhere,” he said, knowing what a terrible cliche it was.
“Feels like it, doesn’t it?” Her gray eyes sparkled. She knew something he hadn’t guessed yet.
Where could he know her from? It was getting hard to remember faces lately. He had met so many people in his wanderings, the vast majority of them were lost in his memories. He shook his head in frustration.
“Thumper said you were quite a walker,” she smiled. “Where you from?”
It was a question he never answered. But there seemed no way to avoid it this time.
“Lots of places,” he tried. “Nowhere in particular.” He wasn’t even sure himself anymore.
“I know what you mean.”
Impossible. Nobody knew what he meant.
“Show me.” She pulled a map from her backpack. He was already starting to explain that he wasn’t from anywhere near here. But it was a map of the Americas. From coast to coast, from ice to ice. Why would anyone carry a huge map of both North and South America on the Trail? People who made serious attempts at finishing the Trail did everything they could to shave grams off their pack weights. She didn’t seem like one of the frivolous ones. What practical purpose could such a large-scale map have?
Then he saw the lines covering the map. All over the land, thin lines were drawn in black magic marker, circling and criss-crossing the continents from end to end. From California down into Mexico, meandering up to Indiana, spiralling outwards and veering towards Connecticut. Back and forth, North and South, returning to a few select points time after time to form intricate patterns like crop circles. Down to Venezuela twisting like a snake. Straight as an arrow up to the exact center of Canada.
At first he couldn’t remember what the patterns reminded him of. Crop circles were the only thing he could think of. They were oddly familiar, but somehow incomplete, as if he was looking at a passage from one of his favourite books with every third letter missing.
It hit him just as she started to talk.
“Is this –?”
“This is where I’ve been,” she told him plainly, her finger tracing the squiggles that moved from Key West to the beginning of the Trail in Georgia.
“You?” Wrong question. “All of that?”
Not him. Of course. For a minute he thought she had mapped out his own travels. But he had never, as far as he could remember, been to Venezuela. Or Indiana, for that matter. He had skirted around the state several times, but never crossed the border. He wondered briefly what was in Indiana. The Indy 500, of course. Corn in the south, steel in the north. Nothing he wanted to see.
She had been there. She had been to Graceland and New Orleans, and the Grand Canyon. He had been to the Canyon a couple of times. Had they met there?
“I like to walk,” she answered his unspoken question. “I started when George died. My husband. Died in a car accident, a mile from home. Never went anywhere before that, my George. Except Europe, of course. The War. Doesn’t really count, does it?”
He stared at her, not quite believing his ears. She caught him looking.
“Oh, I’m older than I look,” she said with a smile. That was a hell of an understatement. She had to be at least twenty years older than he had first thought. “What about you? You’ve walked a few miles yourself, I can tell. Tell me about it.”
Would she understand? He had never met anyone that he felt he could share his journey with. How could he tell people where he had been, when nobody even understood why he walked?
His brow wrinkled with doubts, he pulled the big map onto his lap. Carefully avoiding her gaze, he put a finger down on a hilltop overlooking a great tarn of brilliant blue.
“I’ve been here.”
“Oh?” she looked at it as if she could see his memory in the map. “Never been that way myself. I hear it’s nice.”
He nodded. “Here,” he pointed, finding an old farmhouse where a young German couple had given him shelter from howling winds.
“Here,” he said hesitantly. Riots. Bad memories.
“Here.” A roadhouse, a fight, a poem he could almost remember.
“Here.” The ghost of a forest.
She nodded as he pointed, and marked off each spot with a little tick of the magic marker. He kept finding places, and with each black mark new memories crowded his head, begging to be released. He saw marches and celebrations. Soup lines and a ritzy hotel suite. Mining towns, steel towns, software towns. Suburbs full of skateboarders and cabins on lonely mountaintops.
And people. People stood in throngs, waiting for him to remember them. Some of them were old friends. Some of them were casual acquaintances, travelling companions, drinking buddies, a girl who had stolen his wallet. Faces swam up out of the mist, some with names, others with nothing but half-remembered afternoons in places that had vanished years ago.
Every face was a dot on the map. Every dot was a memory long buried. He had been here, and here, and here. And here, the house under the elm tree. A woman had lived there, and her man, a nice guy whose name he could not remember. They were happy. That was it, as far as he could go.
End of the line.
“George says you should keep the map.”
He looked at her, and for a moment her face was blurred and he thought it was the woman who had lived under the elm tree. He squinted, trying to see her more clearly, then wiped away the tear. It wasn’t her. It was only another travelling companion. He could see the woman’s age now, although she still seemed too young for it.
“Keep it? No, it’s yours. All your travels. I couldn’t.” He started to fold it up, but she put out a fragile hand to stop him.
“No, it’s not. I’ve just started it for you. You keep it.”
He looked at her hand on the map, seeing for the first time all the places where she had put black ticks. They sprawled across the land, almost connecting to the lines she had put there before, and for a second he thought he could almost see something else in the constellations they had made. Something bigger than everything, something that was not quite there, or not quite finished.
“I got to get going if I’m going to finish this damn Trail. Started it three times already, you know. Got pulled away every time. But I’ve got a feeling I’m going to finish it this time. You keep that map.” She was already on her feet, stooping to tighten her laces and close the loose straps on her backpack.
He asked her a question he had never asked anyone before.
“Oh, no doubt. You’ve got a different Trail to walk for now. But I’ll be out there. I want to see that map when you’re finished.”
He was bursting with questions. Questions nobody else could answer. But he knew that she wouldn’t answer them, even if she could. She had given him the map, and seemed to think that was all the answer he needed.
Might even be the truth.
He laced up and stuffed the map carefully into his pack. Standing up, he felt stronger than he had in months. He looked North. She was already gone.
Memories – Signposts – Portents