Eddie sat in the molded orange plastic chair. He pulled out his netbook and logged into the Laundromat’s WiFi. He only came into Bland every 7 or 8 days. This was his chance to check email for messages from his mom and dad and the few people he still kept in touch with.
Bland, Virginia, wasn’t much, a wide spot at the intersection of I71 and State Highway 52. The post office, small grocery, Laundromat and tiny hiker store supported the hikers going to the Appalachian Trail through the local Blue Ridge Mountains.
The email from his mother was upbeat. Everyone and everything was fine. Did he want anything sent?
The only other email was from Vickie. He remembered hiking with her along the Appalachian Trail the year he left the Army. Three months after his discharge, the idea of walking 2300 miles through the quiet of the woods sounded like the thing to do. He spent the last of his saved pay on backpacking gear and headed for the southern terminus of the trail, Dahlonega, Georgia.
It was tougher than boot camp and Afghanistan combined, minus the shooting. He caught up to Vickie, trail name, Mountain Mama, in North Carolina. She didn’t talk much and was easy to talk to. He camped in his own tent. His nightmares didn’t allow him in the close confines of the shelters found along the trail.
Four months later, in Millinocket, Maine, they traded emails. She went back to her family’s farm in Vermont. He went back to his parents. That last month at home with his parents was awful. He couldn’t sleep, nightmares about Afghanistan kept him a nervous wreck. They wanted him to see a shrink, take drugs. Eddie couldn’t do it. The first trip to the VA shrink was his last. The wrecks wandering the halls of the hospital were more than he could take. He told them he had to get away for longer.
Now he camped along the trail, moving from shelter to shelter every few days to keep the Trail Runners happy. They didn’t want people setting up permanent home in any shelter. It was fine by him. He could talk to the day hikers about his through hike. He could talk to through hikers about what they’d find up ahead. He could sit in the quiet of the woods and listen to the birds and watch the deer pass by. It was enough. Until now.
Vickie was going to the hiker festival, Trail Days, in Damascus, Virginia. Did he want to meet there? He looked at the date on the computer. The festival was two days away. No way he could hike halfway down Virginia in two days. He wanted to see her again. He hadn’t had a nightmare in three months. Without thinking he hit reply and typed, “Would love to meet up. Same campground. See you there,” and hit send. He wondered afterward what he was thinking. He hadn’t had a car since he started camping here a year ago. He finished his laundry and hitched a ride back up highway 52 to the trailhead. It took four hours to hike to his tent. He stuffed it all in his pack and headed back down the mountain. It was 6pm when he got back to the highway and stuck out his thumb.
A guy heading south picked him up. “I’m going to Broadford, you goin’ that far?” he asked the driver.
“Sure. Hop in.” The driver saw a thin, dirty, long-haired, bearded guy as they headed down the highway. “Been living rough for awhile?”
Eddie nodded. “Been backpacking. There’s a hiker festival in Damascus I’m going to.”
The driver nodded. “Big adventure. I always wanted to do something like that, but, you know. Wife, kids, job. There’s never any time.”
Eddie nodded. He heard that a lot from the weekend hikers. The guy let him off at a small truck stop. “Good luck, getting to Damascus.”
Luckily a trucker was headed down 91, the Saltville Highway. He looked Eddie over before he decided. “You ain’t no junkie are ya?”
“No, sir. Hiker, headed to Damascus.”
“I can drop you at Glade Spring.”
“I’ll take it.”
They left the truck stop at 10pm. The trucker turned on his Sirius radio and they listened to classic country until he reached Glade Spring. It was late when the trucker pulled into a gas station there. “Stay out of trouble, son.” He advised.
“Yes, sir.” Eddie dragged his pack down. “Thank you for the ride.”
It was too late to hitch. There was hardly any traffic on the road. He found a patch of woods and set up a camp. The next morning he was on highway 609, headed for Abingdon. He slid his pack on his back and started walking. It was mid-morning before he caught a break. “Where ya heading?” the young guy asked. Eddie hesitated. The car reeked of pot. “Abingdon.”
“Yeah, I’m going there. Get in.”
He decided the short ride was worth the risk and tossed his pack in the back seat. They no more than started when the guy offered Eddie a joint.
“Thanks, man, but, I’m allergic.”
The driver stared. “No shit, man. That sucks.” He lit up anyway.
Eddie rolled the window down a little, letting some of the warm May air into the car. The driver cranked the radio up on some headbanger station. By the time they got to Abingdon, Eddie had a headache. “Thanks man,” he told the driver when he left the car.
In Abingdon, Eddie caught the hiker shuttle to Damascus. They dropped him at the huge campground southeast of town where most of the hikers stayed. He hurried to his old spot. Vickie recognized him immediately. “War Dog!” she yelled and ran right to him. She gave him a bear hug then looked him over. “You’re not eating enough. Come on over, I’ve got stew.”
Eddie felt like he’d come home.
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