McKenna Berney is a lucky girl. She has a loving family and has been accepted to college for the fall. But McKenna has a different goal in mind: much to the chagrin of her parents, she defers her college acceptance to hike the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia with her best friend. And when her friend backs out, McKenna is determined to go through with the dangerous trip on her own. While on the Trail, she meets Sam. Having skipped out on an abusive dad and quit school, Sam has found a brief respite on the Trail, where everyone’s a drifter, at least temporarily.
Despite lives headed in opposite directions, McKenna and Sam fall in love on an emotionally charged journey of dizzying highs and devastating lows. When their punch-drunk love leads them off the trail, McKenna has to persevere in a way she never thought possible to beat the odds or risk both their lives.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||1 MB|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Marina Gessner
McKenna couldn’t believe it. Maybe her ears were malfunctioning. Or her brain was playing tricks on her. Either option—deafness or insanity—seemed better than believing the words coming out of her best friend’s mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Courtney said. She started to cry and put her head down on the table.
McKenna knew this was the moment to reach over and pat Courtney’s head, say something comforting. But she couldn’t. Not yet. Because not only was Courtney getting back together with Jay, she was also backing out of their trip.
McKenna and Courtney had been planning this trip for over a year—a two-thousand-mile hike down the Appalachian Trail—and they were supposed to leave in less than a week. They’d deferred their college acceptances. They’d spent their life savings on camping gear and trail guides—McKenna had, anyway; Courtney’s father had footed the bill for hers. Hardest of all, they’d talked their parents into agreeing to the plan: two girls hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia.
And now Courtney was changing her mind. For the lamest possible reason: a guy. And not just any guy, but a guy they’d spent the last four months ripping to shreds. Honestly, Mc- Kenna was so sick of talking about him, she could barely get his name out.
All around them, the Whitworth College Student Union buzzed with conversations and clanking silverware. McKenna’s parents were both professors here, and she had been eating lunch in this cafeteria since before she could remember, the surrounding tables as familiar as her own living room. It was a bright day in early June, sunlight pouring in through the atrium windows, and McKenna knew that Courtney must feel the same urge she did, to get away from the places they’d seen a million times, to go out in the world and live under that sun. “But Courtney,” McKenna said, keeping both hands firmly
in her lap. “Jay?”
“I know,” Courtney mumbled, her face still buried in her arms.
This trip, this plan, had been McKenna’s dream for as long as she could remember. And now, so close to when they should have been leaving, Courtney was bringing the whole thing crashing down.
“Courtney,” McKenna said again. Even if it weren’t for the hike, this would be terrible news. She couldn’t stand the thought of Jay breaking her friend’s heart. Again.
“Don’t say it,” Courtney said, finally sitting up. “I know, I
know all of it. And I forgive him. I love him, McKenna.”
What could McKenna say to that?
“I’m sorry,” Courtney said again, her voice calmer after the declaration of love. “I know how much you wanted to do this.”
“I thought you wanted to do it, too.”
“I do. I mean I did. But it’s just too long to be away from him right now. You know?”
McKenna didn’t know, not at all. Even with her eyes red and her face puffy, Courtney looked beautiful. She was the last person who needed to change her life for a guy, let alone Jay. Courtney had shiny blond hair that McKenna—being the only brunette in her family—envied. Both girls were on the track team, but Courtney was the star, running the mile in under six minutes. Both girls took riding lessons, but Courtney was the one who usually won ribbons when they showed. Most import- ant, Courtney was a loyal friend. In other words, she was worth a thousand Jays, ten thousand Jays, a million.
“Courtney,” McKenna said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Jay will still be here when we get back. You can text or call him from the trail, send him postcards. It’s only a few months.”
“Not a few. Five months, maybe even six. Things are frag- ile right now, McKenna, we’re only just back together. I can’t march off into the woods and leave him. Not right now.” She sounded like she’d practiced her argument, as if she’d antici- pated everything McKenna would say.
Because he’d probably spend the whole six months hooking up with other girls, McKenna thought.
“You’ll be leaving him if you go to Wesleyan,” McKenna
pointed out. Jay was going to Whitworth, here in Abelard, the most boring and predictable of all choices. What was the point of even going to college if you weren’t going to leave your hometown?
“Wesleyan is barely an hour away,” Courtney said. “And anyway, I’m not going till next year. I deferred, remember?”
“You deferred to go on our trip,” McKenna said, finally let- ting herself sound as petulant as she felt. “Not to date Jay.”
“I know,” Courtney admitted.
“Well, what are you going to do next year, then? Bag your first-choice college for a guy? Stay here and go to Whitworth?” McKenna glanced around the Student Union meaningfully. Going to Whitworth would be like going to college in her own house.
“Jay is not just ‘a guy.’ And a camping trip isn’t college, either.”
“A camping trip?” How could she reduce their plan to those two words, make them sound so trivial? McKenna drew in a strengthening breath and said, “Maybe being apart will make your relationship stronger. Like with Brendan and me . . .”
“You can’t compare you and Brendan to me and Jay.”
Well, that was true. Brendan would never cheat on Mc- Kenna. He just wasn’t that kind of person, not a player, but sweet and honest and serious. They’d been together three months, and Brendan was headed to Harvard in the fall. Would McKenna ever try to stop him from going to the school of his dreams so they could be together? Of course not—not
any more than he would stop her from hiking the Appalachian Trail. They had a mature relationship and they supported each other. McKenna said as much to Courtney, who rolled her eyes. “McKenna,” Courtney said, “you guys are about as roman-
tic as a trail map.”
McKenna ripped her chopsticks apart with a splintery crin- kle. Their sushi sat untouched between them. McKenna poked at the spicy tuna roll but didn’t pick it up. If romance meant giving up your dreams for some undeserving guy, Courtney was welcome to it.
“There are different ways to be romantic,” McKenna coun- tered. “Maybe to you romance is a candlelight dinner. But to me—” She broke off, afraid she might cry if she said it aloud.
To McKenna, romance was a night under the stars. She didn’t need a boyfriend with her to make it romantic. She just needed clean air, the scent of pine. No sounds except crickets and spring peepers and the wind in the trees.
Courtney reached out and touched McKenna’s hand. “I know how much this trip meant to you,” she said. “And I’m sorry. I don’t know how many times I can say it to make you understand that I really am.”
A hundred arguments still swirled in McKenna’s head. Forget Jay. She could remind Courtney of the forms for the two-thousand-miler certificate they’d pinned on their bulle- tin boards next to their badges from Ridgefield Prep hiking club. They’d also ordered AT Passports—green booklets to have stamped at hostels and landmarks along the way to document
their journey. They’d planned their itinerary so they could bring Norton, Courtney’s huge, snarly shepherd mix, tracking all the campgrounds that allowed dogs. They’d spent hours poring over maps and guidebooks. They’d climbed Bear Moun- tain with full packs, training with heavy weight on their backs. They were ready to go.
But instead of reminding Courtney of all this, McKenna kept quiet, because something in Courtney’s voice was telling her that no matter how she begged, the answer would be the same.
“Well,” McKenna said, finally popping the spicy tuna into her mouth, “if you can’t come, I’ll just go by myself.”
Courtney’s eyes widened. Then she laughed.
“No, really,” McKenna said. She sat up a little straighter. Saying it again would strengthen her resolve. “I’ll go by myself.” “You can’t spend six months in the woods by yourself,”
Courtney said. “Why not?”
Six months in the woods by herself. A minute ago, McKenna had felt deflated. Now, under every inch of her skin, excite- ment was gathering, tingling.
“Well,” Courtney said, “it’s not safe, for one thing.” “I’m not going on this trip to be safe.”
She bit off the last word with distaste. Safe was doing what was expected of you. Safe was following the rules, getting good grades, going to college. Safe, in other words, was everything McKenna had done every minute of her whole entire life.
“Seriously, McKenna,” Courtney said, her face scrunching into worry. “You can’t do it alone.”
Of course Courtney didn’t think she should do it alone— nobody would. But the images were already forming in Mc- Kenna’s mind: all those miles of fabulous solitude, her body getting stronger, her mind growing wider. In preparation for this hike she’d read a mountain of books—wilderness guides, memoirs, novels. One of her favorites was by a woman who’d hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone without even a debit card, and before iPhones and GPS. If she could do it, why not McKenna?
“Your parents will never let you,” Courtney pointed out. McKenna threw down her chopsticks. “That’s why we’re not
going to tell them,” she said.
Crossing the campus quad, McKenna bounced in her hiking boots, which she wore even though everyone around her was in flip-flops and canvas sneakers. She had worn her boots every day for two months, determined that they be perfectly broken in by the time she hit the trail. She was so used to the heavy shoes that she had no problem jumping out of the way as a skateboarder nearly crashed into the student beside her, his nose buried in his phone. McKenna rolled her eyes. On this perfect day, the breeze tinged with the scent of honeysuckle, the sun shining steadily, almost every single student walked across campus with eyes glued to a phone.
At home, McKenna’s stack of trail reading material was
heavily populated by Thoreau, and she thought of one of her favorite quotes. In fact she’d used it as the epigraph to her college entrance essay: We must learn to reawaken and keep our- selves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expecta- tion of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
Every day, McKenna saw people who’d given up real life for Instagram and Facebook. If she had her way, she wouldn’t be bringing her phone at all. Now that she was going alone, though, she knew it would be crazy to give up that lifeline. But McKenna was determined to keep it in her pack and only use it in case of emergency. She wouldn’t talk or text, not to her parents or Brendan or even her little sister, Lucy.
That would be harder, of course, now that she was going to be on her own.
On her own. She knew the phrase should scare her, but in- stead it brought on a smile. After finally convincing Courtney that her mind was made up, they had worked out the details of their ruse. For one thing, Whitworth would be off-limits, Courtney could not risk running into McKenna’s parents while she was supposed to be on the trail. Courtney offered Norton, but McKenna decided against it. She wanted as few reasons as possible for Courtney’s parents to try to get in touch with hers. Everything had to look like it was going according to their original plan, the one McKenna’s parents had agreed to, albeit reluctantly.
She unlocked the car door with an electronic beep. Soon
her life would be gloriously free from such noises, nothing but birds and bugs and rustling leaves.
It couldn’t come soon enough.
Her boyfriend, Brendan, was only slightly more enthusiastic about the solo plan than her parents would have been.
“It’s not like some amusement park where all the danger is pretend,” Brendan said. “It’s the wilderness. With bears and bobcats. And guys named Cletus who keep stills in the woods.”
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” McKenna said.
They were driving to the movies after burgers at the Abelard Diner. In this last week of civilization, McKenna was determined to indulge as much as possible—hot baths, TV binge-watching, and especially food. Despite the huge meal, she fully intended to get a tub of popcorn, dripping with fake butter.
“I’m serious, McKenna,” he said.
Even in the darkish car, she could tell his face looked very concerned. Brendan was not an obviously handsome guy, like Jay. He wasn’t much taller than McKenna, with unruly dark hair. But McKenna loved his face, which was brown-eyed and dimpled and crazy intelligent. Brendan was very practical. One of only two Ridgefield Prep graduates to get into Har- vard this year, he had his whole future mapped out. Harvard undergrad to Harvard Law School to lobbying in Washington, DC, to eventually starting his own firm. No doubt there was a wife and 2.3 children somewhere in those plans, but he and
McKenna had never talked about that. He wasn’t the kind of guy to marry his high school girlfriend. Practical.
Now, as Brendan listed reasons why she shouldn’t go on the hike alone, McKenna reminded herself that he was only being discouraging because he cared about her.
“It’s called the wild for a reason,” he said. “There aren’t any safety nets. It’s not a joke. There are a thousand ways a person could die out there.”
“Not a person who knows what she’s doing,” McKenna said. “Accidents happen all the time. I’m not saying you’re not
prepared, but especially for a girl—”
“Why ‘especially for a girl’?” Nothing he said could have made her more determined to go ahead with her plan. Brendan should’ve known better. His mom had raised him on her own, and was also one of the best surgeons in Connecticut.
“McKenna,” he said, his eyes barely flitting away from the road. “I don’t think you need me to spell it out for you.”
“Look,” she said. “It’s not like college is the safest place in the world. Statistically, I’ll be safer on the trail than I would be at Reed. No cars. No keg parties. No date-raping college boys.” They passed under a streetlight, and McKenna could see he
“I’m a smart person,” she went on. “I’m not going to take unnecessary risks. I’m going to camp in designated spots, stay on the trail. I won’t camp within a mile of any road crossings. I know what I’m doing, Brendan.”
Brendan reached out and took her hand. “I wish you’d let
me call you, though,” he said. “It’s going to be so weird, not talking to you.”
“Just think how happy you’ll be to see me at Christmas break,” McKenna said, “when all that absence has made your heart grow fonder.” He looked dubious, but McKenna pressed on. “So you’ll help? You won’t tell my parents?”
“I won’t tell your parents,” Brendan said. “But that doesn’t mean I like this. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea.”
She picked up his hand and kissed it. Maybe he wasn’t in total agreement. But she knew he wouldn’t do anything to stop her. For now that was all she needed.
The next day, McKenna got home from her last day of work for the summer. For three years, she’d been waiting tables at the Yankee Clipper, a breakfast and lunch place. During the school year she just worked weekends, but summers she worked six days a week, and this summer she worked right up to three days before her big departure. Not many Ridgefield Prep students had a job like this. Most of them had parents who were hot- shot lawyers, or hotshot stockbrokers, or hotshot surgeons. The Burneys could afford Ridgefield thanks to Whitworth’s tuition reciprocity program. Because Whitworth would pay McKenna’s tuition at any participating university, her parents didn’t have to save money for college, but could use the money for Ridge- field instead. Not that the Burneys were poor—far from it. Her mother picked up extra money consulting for an architectural firm, her father wrote a blog for a national political magazine
(“Just the Facts,” by Jerry Burney), and both of them pulled in decent salaries as tenured professors. McKenna knew she was lucky. She didn’t envy her classmates, at least not much, for their trips to Europe or their Marc Jacobs handbags. For one thing, she liked working. And material things didn’t particu- larly matter to her. At home, her ancient, thumbed-over copy of Walden was underlined and asterisked to the point where the pages were bloated, warped from overuse. Like Thoreau, she knew possessions were only “pretty toys.” McKenna was interested in the deeper things life had to offer.
She had been hiking most afternoons to get in shape, and today her dad was going to try to make it home in time to join her. He was her original inspiration for hiking the AT. Her whole life, she’d heard the story of how he and his best friend, Krosky, hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail the summer after they graduated high school. Of course, that was part of the reason he’d agreed to let her go. How could he say no after he’d always told her it was the greatest experience he’d ever had?
“Dad?” McKenna called, opening the front door.
Her sister, Lucy, would be at day camp, but at 3:30 both her parents should be home—one of the perks of their jobs as professors was having summers off. Plenty of time to spend with your eldest child before she embarked on a long journey.
“Mom?” McKenna called, making her way upstairs.
She already knew there wouldn’t be a response. Mom was probably at the architectural firm, giving her opinion on the latest blueprints.
Dad probably got held up at his office meeting with an am- bitious poli-sci student. Even in summer, he kept office hours, holding court with adoring students, often bringing gaggles of them home for dinner. Sometimes McKenna wished he was still just an assistant professor with plenty of time to go hiking.
McKenna banged into her bedroom and flopped across her bed, staring at the ceiling. She heard a jangling sound and pushed up on one elbow to see Buddy, the family’s arthritic chocolate Lab, amble into the room. He walked over to where she was lying, licked her face, and put his two front paws on her bed. These days he could only climb up if McKenna gave him a boost.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she whispered, “but I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail all by myself.” She stroked his head. “I’m going to miss you, Buddy.”
Later that evening after hiking Flat Rock Brook by herself, McKenna found her dad in the kitchen, opening a beer.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said. “Back from a hike?”
“Yeah,” McKenna said. “Remember you were maybe going to go with me?”
A shadow passed over his face, but he quickly recovered. “Sorry about that,” he said. “An incoming grad student came by my office and I couldn’t get away.”
It annoyed McKenna that he wasn’t admitting what she could tell from his face—he had totally forgotten.
“It’s okay,” she said, pouring herself a glass of ice water.
“I spoke to Al Hill this morning,” her dad said. “He’s get- ting his research organized and is really excited that he’ll have your help.”
As part of the bargaining to go on her hike, McKenna had agreed to work for her father’s friend, cataloging his bird re- search up at Cornell. McKenna’s Yankee Clipper money had covered all the gear for her trip. But while out hiking, she’d be using her parents’ credit card, and this job would be a way, at least in part, of paying them back. It was also something McKenna was truly excited about, working with one of the top ornithologists in the country.
“Great,” McKenna said. “Are you home for dinner tonight?” “No, your mom and I are having dinner with a new lecturer.
You can get something together for you and Lucy, right?”
“You bet,” McKenna said, and gave him an encouraging little smile, as if nothing he’d done—or not done—had ever bothered her.
The night before McKenna was supposed to leave, Buddy lay on the floor in a forlorn heap. McKenna’s bed was covered with everything she planned to pile into her pack, plus Lucy, who sat on the pillows, her scrawny ten-year-old legs crossed as she examined the equipment.
“I don’t think it’s going to fit,” she said.
A couple weeks ago Lucy had chopped off her long white- blond hair, and McKenna was still getting used to it. The cut was shaggy and uneven, which somehow made her look like even more of a wild child than when it hung halfway down her back.
“It’ll fit,” McKenna called from her bathroom, where she was washing her face. For the next several months it would be nothing but Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap, so she was doing her best to luxuriate in the warm water and take full advantage of the mirror.
Their mom poked her head into the bedroom. “Dad has a couple students coming to dinner,” she told them.
“Mom,” McKenna objected, coming out of the bathroom, her face still soapy. “It’s my last night. I was really hoping it could just be us.”
“Sorry, honey, one’s a new TA. He’s going to be helping out with research and this was the only night we could make it work.”
McKenna walked back into the bathroom and splashed her face, giving up her last hopes of having her family to herself for a real good-bye. It was just as well, she thought, grabbing a towel. With guests at the table, there’d be less of a chance for her to let something slip about hiking the trail alone, since there’d be no chance for her to speak at all.
Her mom stood in the bathroom doorway. “I know it’s short notice, but do you want to invite Courtney?”
“No,” McKenna said. “Her parents are having a special good- bye dinner for her, with her favorite meal. Just the family.”
“Well,” her mom said, apology creeping into her voice, “I
did make enchiladas.” “Thanks, Mom.”
After their mom left, Lucy picked up the giant, collapsible water jug. “This is going to take up half your pack when it’s full,” she said. “How much do you think it’ll weigh?”
They filled it to the brim in McKenna’s bathroom and saw that Lucy was right. It was so heavy, McKenna could barely haul it out of the sink by its plastic handle.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Lucy said.
According to McKenna’s thru hiker’s guide, there were enough shelters on the AT, spaced close enough together, that some people didn’t even bother carrying a tent. McKenna had no interest in that—she wanted the choice of camping on her own rather than bunking with strangers. But generally there were freshwater sources wherever there were shelters. And if not, McKenna also had a water filter, plus an impressive supply of iodine tablets in case the filter broke.
“Forget the jug, then,” McKenna said. “The smaller water bottles should be fine.”
Lucy picked up the two thirty-four-ounce bottles and slid them into their holders on the exterior of McKenna’s pack.
“Sporty,” Lucy said, shaking a shock of hair out of her eyes. “Sporty,” McKenna agreed.
The doorbell rang and the sound of their father’s enthusias- tic voice carried up the stairs. He was ready to hold court.
Lucy sighed and said, “I’m really going to miss you.” McKenna sat down on the bed. She was dying to tell Lucy
that Courtney wasn’t coming with her, that she’d be going the trail alone. But she couldn’t risk it, and anyway it wouldn’t be fair to make a ten-year-old shoulder that kind of secret. Both girls were rule followers, and Lucy had always been more of a worrier than McKenna.
“Hey,” McKenna said. “Maybe you can do the same hike after you graduate. We could do it together.”
“You mean it?” Lucy asked, her blue eyes widening.
“Of course I mean it,” McKenna said. “By then I’ll know all the tricks.”
Lucy picked up the key ring lying next to McKenna’s col- lapsible pot and cookstove, and blew the whistle. The ring also had a small canister of pepper spray attached. “Is this one of the tricks?” she asked. “To keep away murderers?”
“Well, I got it in case of bears,” McKenna said. “But I’m guessing it would work on murderers, too.”
Lucy nodded. McKenna thought she looked like she might be fighting tears.
“I’ll be fine,” McKenna told her. “And I’ll be back before you know it.”
“I know,” Lucy said quickly. “I’m just going to miss you. That’s all.”
McKenna pulled her sister into her arms, all sixty-three pounds of her. Lucy felt lighter than air and twice as bony.
Their mother’s voice traveled up the stairs, calling them down to their guests, but McKenna ignored her, at least for a minute. She hoped her parents would remember to pay plenty of attention to Lucy while she was gone. It could get lonely in this house with everyone so busy, everyone always on the way to somewhere else.
Her dad’s new TA, a skinny guy who had a two-year-old daugh- ter, couldn’t believe McKenna’s parents were letting her and a friend hike all alone. If he only knew, McKenna thought, smiling to herself.
“The summer I was eighteen I hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail,” her dad said. “Now, that’s wilderness. We barely saw another soul all summer. Packed in every bite of food we ate. Krosky and I lost sixty pounds between us.”
Both grad students nodded. McKenna had seen a million of them, all hanging on her dad’s every word.
“Compared to the PNT,” her dad said, “the Appalachian
Trail will be like a parking lot.”
McKenna frowned and speared a piece of lettuce. “Maybe we should drive out West tomorrow,” she said. “Do the PNT instead.”
“No, no, no,” her mom said. “The Appalachian Trail is plenty wilderness enough.” She turned to the TA. “McKenna’s always been like that. Don’t ever challenge or dare her. Ridiculously brave, even when she was little. Never had a single nightmare. She watched every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she was ten.”
Across the table, Lucy, who was prone to nightmares and couldn’t stand to watch anything scary, shifted uncomfort- ably. Her mother took another sip of wine and launched into stories they’d all heard a hundred times about McKenna’s childhood.
Listening to her mom, McKenna smiled at Lucy in a way she hoped told her she didn’t have to be as brave as she was. At the same time, she had to admit, now that her mind was on the trail, she liked hearing about her own fearlessness, her own
McKenna had no doubts at all; she would be just fine on the trail.
The next morning, McKenna stood in the driveway with her parents and Lucy, waiting for Courtney and Brendan. Orig- inally, Brendan was going to drive the girls up to Maine and drop them off at Baxter State Park, so they had to make it look like that was still the plan.
“You sure you have everything?” McKenna’s dad asked. “Did you use your checklist when you packed?”
McKenna nodded, not meeting his eye. All she had to do was get in the car and drive away, and she’d have made it. She’d be free.
“Listen,” her mom said. “I was thinking you could text us every morning. Just to let us know you’re all right. You know, just, ‘Good morning, I’m alive.’ Something like that. Before nine?”
“Mom,” McKenna said, “I’m only bringing the phone in case of emergency. I don’t want to be texting every day, or looking to see what time it is. And please remember not to call me, because I won’t answer, and I won’t check voice mail. I want this experience to be authentic.”
“I can appreciate that,” her dad said, in the hyper-reasonable tone that usually preceded a contradiction. “But you need to appreciate, your mother will be worried.” Her mom shot him
a look that demanded solidarity, and he added, “I will be, too.
How about twice a week? Let’s say Wednesday and Friday you’ll send us a text by ten a.m.”
“I really don’t want to be looking at the time. Didn’t you always say that was one of the best parts of your hike, never knowing what time it was?” McKenna argued.
“Before dark, then,” her mom conceded. “Text us Wednes- day and Friday before dark, telling us where you are. That’s just safety, right, to let someone know where you are?”
She sounded so pleading, McKenna felt guilty. “Fine,” she said.
And then, finally, there it was, Brendan’s mom’s minivan, rounding the corner. McKenna stood on her toes and waved fu- riously, as if they might drive past if she didn’t flag them down.
Her dad picked up her pack. “Sheesh,” he said, hoisting it onto his shoulder. “Are you going to be able to carry this thing?” “Dad,” McKenna said, reaching for the pack. The last thing
she needed was for him to see the back of the van empty where
Courtney’s camping gear should be. “I can do it.”
“No, no,” he insisted. He headed to the back door of the van and opened it while McKenna battled a heart attack. But there lay Courtney’s backpack, bulging almost as much as McKenna’s. Any anger McKenna felt toward Courtney evapo- rated in a moment of pure love.
“You ready?” her mom asked Courtney.
“I’m ready,” Courtney said. Her voice sounded high and nervous.
McKenna hugged her dad, and Lucy. Her mom hugged her a little too long, and whispered in her ear, “Be safe out there. Be careful.”
“I will, Mom,” McKenna said, and kissed her cheek.
Then she climbed into the backseat and didn’t turn around to see her mom and dad standing in the driveway, waving good-bye.
McKenna would have been surprised to know just how long her parents stood there after the minivan pulled away.
“I can’t believe it,” McKenna’s mom said when the van was completely out of sight. “I can’t believe we’re letting her do this.”
“Don’t worry,” her dad said. “They’ll be back in a week.” Her mom nodded, still waving, clinging to the sight of Mc-
Kenna until the van rounded the corner.
“I hope you’re right,” she said, hugging herself and rubbing her arms as if she were cold, though the outside thermometer read eighty-eight degrees. “I really do.”
McKenna leaned forward from the backseat, placing one hand on Courtney’s shoulder and one hand on Brendan’s. “I almost died when my dad opened the hatch. You were so smart to put your pack there! Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, I have a dad, too,” Courtney said.
McKenna sat back as Brendan drove down Broad Avenue. She let out a long breath of relief. All this past week, and espe- cially last night, she’d had trouble sleeping because she’d been so worried about her parents putting a stop to her solo trip. So she’d barely had a chance to worry about the solo hike itself. Finally on the road now, Courtney dressed convincingly in hik- ing boots, she could almost believe they were going together as originally planned. But then Brendan pulled into the parking lot at Flat Rock Brook, where Jay sat waiting, and McKenna had to face the reality. Courtney was staying here in Abelard.
McKenna’s stomach did an uncomfortable roll, full of jit- tery air, and she reminded herself that anxiety and exhilaration were close cousins. It was up to you what you wanted to call it.
It took seven hours to drive from Abelard, Connecticut, to Pis- cataquis County, Maine. As she and Brendan made their way, McKenna kept her eyes on the woods by the highway, think- ing about how long it would take to walk this same distance. By the time McKenna’s hike brought her back to Connecticut, she’d wouldn’t even be halfway done with the trail.
As they drove along the coastal route in southern Maine, Mc- Kenna buzzed down the window so the sea air could waft in.
“Hey,” Brendan said. “I forgot to tell you, I booked a hotel.” “You did?” McKenna’s hair escaped its ponytail and flut-
tered in her face.
They’d never worked out what the structure of their good- bye would be. McKenna had assumed they’d spend the night together, but figured it would be in sleeping bags in the back of his mom’s van. Brendan’s dad was head of neurology at a hospital in New Haven, and he had six children from two dif- ferent marriages. Lots of resources, but they were spread thin. It wasn’t like Brendan to splurge on a hotel.
“I thought you’d want one more night in a bed before you hit the trail,” he said.
“Sounds great,” McKenna said. In the three months she and Brendan had been together, they’d never slept in the same bed, and both were still virgins, although they’d come pretty close to changing that a couple times.
When they got to the Katahdin Inn and Suites, McKenna
let Brendan hoist her pack out of the back of the van.
“Wow,” he said. “You’re sure you can carry this thing?” “I can,” she told him, trying not to sound defensive.
They checked in and headed to the room. There it was, one queen-sized bed. McKenna had never spent the night with a guy.
Brendan reached out and clasped her hand. “Hungry?” he asked.
“Definitely,” she said.
River Driver’s Restaurant was full of outdoorsy-looking people in various degrees of un-wash. Some still had wet hair after what might have been their first shower in days or even weeks. Others looked like they’d just come directly from the trail to the table. McKenna wondered if there were any thru hikers about to embark on the journey south. Most likely not, as thru hikers made up a small percentage of AT hikers, and most of the ones headed to Georgia would have started, wisely, at the beginning of June.
Brendan ordered a steak and McKenna ordered the summer- vegetable pasta.
“Carbo load,” Brendan noted when her plate of pasta arrived, but McKenna had ordered it mostly because it would be a while before she saw fresh vegetables again. She’d packed her stove, but she wasn’t much of a cook. Originally they’d decided Courtney would be the one in charge of cooking, but since she’d be eating alone, McKenna figured she could sustain her-
self on minimal trail meals and then splurge when she got to a
town. Along with freeze-dried camping meals of various sorts of noodles, she’d packed a hefty supply of turkey jerky, dried fruit, and granola bars.
About halfway through dinner, the waiter stopped by to ask if everything was okay.
“Great,” Brendan said. “Could I get a Molson?” “Sure. Got an ID on you?”
“Oh.” Brendan fumbled a little. “I think I left it in the hotel room.”
“Sorry, bud,” the waiter said, and retreated.
McKenna looked at him suspiciously. Usually Brendan said no to beer even at parties. She wondered again if he was plan- ning something momentous for tonight.
Brendan shrugged, just embarrassed enough that it was endearing. She watched him dig back into his steak, his dark hair flopping across his forehead, his cheeks still pink from the waiter’s rejection. It was so sweet and considerate of Brendan to drive her up here, stay with her, keep her secret. Really, he was the perfect boyfriend. Maybe tonight should be the night, whether Brendan had planned it or not. She was almost eigh- teen. Maybe it was time.
She reached across the table and touched his forearm. “I’m really glad you’re here with me,” she said.
Brendan looked up. “Me, too.” He nodded toward her half- eaten meal. “You better finish that. Might be the last hot meal you see for a while.”
Just then two college-aged guys of the just-off-the-trail
variety slid into their booth, one beside McKenna and one be- side Brendan. Before McKenna could open her mouth, the one next to her held up a silver flask.
“We heard the waiter turn you down,” he said, grinning through many days’ worth of stubble. He carried the distinct odor of accumulated sweat and camp smoke, but both guys looked so friendly that McKenna couldn’t help smiling. He hovered the flask over her Coke and she found herself nodding. “Rum?” she asked, a little too late, after a liberal amount
had been added to her soda.
“Bourbon,” he said, doing the same to Brendan’s drink. “I’m
Stewart and this is Jackson. We just rolled in from Georgia.” “No way!” McKenna said. “You’re thru hikers? And you just
“Yep,” Jackson said. “Started in February. Did some serious winter camping.”
“Wow,” McKenna said. “Congratulations. And you made great time.”
Brendan sipped his drink, looking grateful for the alcohol but ready for their new friends to get lost.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Stewart said. “The record is forty-six days.”
“I know!” McKenna said. “Jennifer Pharr Davis. I read her book.”
She looked over at Brendan triumphantly, wondering if she’d remembered to tell him that the speed record for the AT
was held by a woman.
“Of course, she had a team meeting her at intervals,” Stew- art said, “so she didn’t have to carry much. Not like us.”
“Or me,” McKenna said. “I’m starting my thru hike to- morrow.”
“Yeah. We are,” Brendan added quickly. McKenna started to flash him an indignant look, but had to admit he was probably right to chime in. No sense advertising that she was heading out on her own.
“Wow.” Jackson whistled, low and impressed. “Southbound. That’s hard-core. Hope you have cold-weather gear for the last legs. Trust us, it gets cold in those southern mountains.”
“I do,” McKenna said. “I mean, we do.”
“Katahdin’s the hardest stretch of the whole trail. You better not have too much more of this,” Stewart said, adding just the smallest bit more bourbon to each of their glasses. “Consider it your first dose of trail magic.”
“Trail magic?” Brendan asked.
McKenna answered before Stewart or Jackson had a chance. “When hikers do things for each other, little surprises and kindnesses along the way.”
“Good thing you brought this one with you,” Stewart said to Brendan, putting his arm around McKenna in a brotherly way. “Sounds like she did all your research.” And then he and Jack- son launched into stories of home-cooked meals delivered to shelters by nearby residents, and ice-cold bottles of Coca-Cola waiting in streams.
McKenna smiled at Brendan over the rim of her glass. See?
she hoped her eyes said to him. I won’t really be alone at all. There would be people every step of the way, looking out for her and keeping her company. Trail magic.
By the time they got back to the room, McKenna’s belly was so bloated she had to unbutton her shorts before collapsing onto the bed, the bourbon throbbing dully behind her eyes. Last night she’d hardly slept at all, and today in the car she’d still been too excited and nervous to so much as close her eyes. Now the heavy food, the many hours without rest, and the al- cohol started to take their toll. She willed herself to stay awake, but the sound of rushing water from the bathroom as Bren- dan got ready for bed made her eyelids close as effectively as a sleeping pill.
McKenna started. Brendan was leaning over her, shaking her shoulders gently. “Don’t you want to brush your teeth?” he asked, his eyes slightly imploring, his voice just the tiniest bit slurred.
That particular look, full of questions, made McKenna feel surer than ever of his plan for how to say good-bye. Well, what the hell. She was no prude. As long as he had protection— something McKenna had certainly not thought to pack with her compass, trowel shovel, and camping rope. She slipped off the bed and grabbed her toiletry kit.
After brushing her teeth, she splashed water on her face and
studied her reflection in the mirror: the smattering of freckles
across her nose, the blue eyes. She searched for any trace of innocence that would be gone the next time she looked, but couldn’t find any.
When she came out of the bathroom Brendan was already in bed. He was bare from the waist up, but knowing him, she was sure he wore something underneath that coverlet. Mc- Kenna had packed a pair of sweats for sleeping, nothing at all suited to this activity. As another wave of exhaustion came over her, she decided to leave the sweats in her pack.
She flopped onto her back next to Brendan, above the covers, her head on the spongy hotel pillow. Brendan propped himself up on one elbow, looking down at her.
“McKenna,” he said. “I’ve been thinking. We’re going to be apart so long. And you know I love you. And here we are. And I was thinking . . .”
“I know,” McKenna said. “I could tell.”
“Is it all right with you? Because if it’s not—”
“It is,” she said. “It’s totally all right. But let’s not talk about it.”
She waited a minute, and when Brendan did not kiss her, she pulled his face down to hers and kissed him. Brendan was a good kisser, gentle and tender, and they kissed for a while. Finally, he moved his hand from her neck to her waist, and closed it around the hem of her T-shirt.
“Is this okay?” he asked, tugging it with more question than
purpose. It wasn’t like he’d never taken her shirt off before. It
must have been nerves over what they were about to do that made him keep asking.
“Yes,” McKenna said. She half sat up, to help him get it over her head. Both shirtless now, they kissed a while longer, until Brendan moved his hands to the buttons on her shorts.
“Is this okay?”
“Yes, it’s fine, it’s all fine, you don’t have to ask.”
McKenna appreciated the sentiment behind asking. She also liked the bourbon taste in his mouth when he kissed her. And for a while her breathing was appropriately heavy, and her sighs shuddery and involved. At the same time, her stomach was so bloated that it was a little uncomfortable when he leaned into her, and her head was foggy with the need for sleep. The litany of that question, “Is this okay? Is this okay?” became more lulling than seductive.
As if his voice were coming from another room, McKenna barely heard his last “Is this okay?” She couldn’t hold on a second longer and answered with a light snore. Just vaguely, she heard him move away, his head hitting the pillow in frus- tration. She meant to apologize but couldn’t manage it before
falling into a deep, dead sleep.
The first thing McKenna saw when her eyes fluttered open was the white ceiling of the hotel room. She felt the ti- niest flash of embarrassment over the night before, the barest remnant of bourbon left on her tongue, but it all disappeared in a second as she remembered: today was the day she would start her trek. She jumped out of bed. Lao-tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Well, so must a journey of two thousand miles, and McKenna couldn’t wait to take that first step.
Then she realized she was almost completely naked. She scooped her T-shirt off the floor and pulled it over her head.
Light hadn’t yet made its way through the curtains. She looked back toward the bed. Poor Brendan. He still lay sleep- ing, and she realized she had forgone her opportunity to wake up in his arms, to make up for last night.
She considered this for a minute. After all, Brendan didn’t know she had bounded out of bed immediately. She could take off her shirt and crawl back under the covers, wake him with a kiss, and see where things progressed from there.
Outside the window, birds had started their predawn racket, all different songs mingling together. Whatever desire she felt for Brendan was eclipsed by the desire to start her adventure.
Maybe it was ridiculous to take a shower before heading off on a grueling day of hiking the most difficult stretch of the trail. But who knew when she’d have the chance to linger under a stream of hot water, and emerge from a steaming bath- room smelling of shampoo and lilac-scented hotel soap?
When she did emerge: awkward. Brendan sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on his jeans. McKenna averted her eyes, and then thought that doing so only drew attention to everything that hadn’t happened last night.
McKenna pointed to her backpack. “I’m just going to grab my stuff,” she said.
“Sure. Yeah. Of course.”
She dragged the whole pack into the bathroom before de- ciding to put on the same shorts and T-shirt she’d worn the day before. What counted for dirty laundry in the real world prob- ably represented the cleanest clothes she’d see on the trail. Her favorite outfit—her pink Johnny Cash T-shirt and skort—she could save for later. She braided her wet hair and zipped her pack, then filled her two water bottles at the bathroom sink.
McKenna lowered her eyes as she stepped past Brendan, who was waiting just outside the bathroom door. He closed the door with a private click, and she felt a flurry of annoy- ance. As much as she cared about Brendan, and as much as she
was grateful to him for driving her all the way up here—and
now that she thought about it, he had paid for dinner and she hadn’t even thanked him—this wasn’t supposed to be a day spent worrying about other people’s feelings. Today was the beginning of total independence, selfishly focused on her own well-being. She would need all her strength for this first ascent and her first night alone on the trail.
Still, when Brendan emerged from the bathroom, his hair boyishly combed and his expression extremely uncomfortable, McKenna felt sad and responsible.
“Listen,” she said. “About last night—”
Brendan cut her off, putting his hands on her shoulders. He pressed his forehead against hers, looking relieved that she’d finally brought it up. “No,” he said. “You don’t have to say anything. I understand. You weren’t ready. I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
“You didn’t push me,” McKenna said. She could also have added that she was ready, or at least she thought she might be. But since his version let her off the hook, and also saved his pride, she just said, “Thank you for understanding.”
He kissed her. “Should we get breakfast?”
Truthfully she still felt full from the night before and she was anxious to hit the trail. But here was Brendan with his puppy dog eyes, needing to do something for her, needing closeness. Besides, she knew she could get the first passport stamp of her journey, Katahdin, at the AT café, which was known for its huge, cheap, and awesome breakfasts.
“Sure,” she said. “Something light.”
After breakfast, Brendan drove her to Abol Campground in Baxter State Park. The cool New England morning was starting to give way to mugginess. Most days on the trail, she would need to start earlier. Already she could feel a gathering sense of purpose, the need to start covering miles.
Brendan lifted the hatch at the back of the van and pulled out McKenna’s pack, staggering a tiny bit under its weight again. Then he looked up at the sky. “We should have checked the weather,” he said, reaching into his pocket for his phone.
“No, don’t,” McKenna said, touching his wrist. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to hike every day rain or shine.”
“Don’t you want to know? Whether you need to put your raincoat on or whatever?”
McKenna looked up at the sky, than toward the road as an SUV drove past, filled with a family, a little girl pressing her face to the window to stare at her and Brendan. McKenna smiled and waved at the girl. The park was bustling with people on vacation. She wondered how many of them had brought along their electronic devices—watching Netflix at night instead of the stars, checking weather.com instead of looking at the sky.
“There’s going to be a lot of places on the trail where I won’t even get reception,” she said to Brendan. “The last thing I want is to be dependent on my phone. Plus, I have to save the bat- teries in case of emergency.”
Brendan nodded and put his hands in his pockets. In an-
other eight weeks he would be headed to Harvard. McKenna
imagined what that would be like for him. Lots of new friends, new ideas, new everything, including plenty of new girls. She was struck with one of those rare moments of absolute aware- ness: the next time they saw each other, they would be differ- ent people.
“Good luck at school,” McKenna said. “I know you’ll do great.”
“Thanks,” Brendan said. “Be safe out there. Okay?” “You know I will be.”
They kissed. McKenna tried to revel in the hug the way she’d reveled in her last hot meals and showers. But mostly she was just antsy to get on the trail.
“Do you want me to stay until you’re on your way?” he asked.
She fought to keep from rolling her eyes. This was not like waiting in the car until she was safely inside her front door. This front door would lead her into the wild world, headed up a mountain. There was no getting safely inside. With every pass- ing second, McKenna became more eager to shed everything about her old life and embark on this new one.
Her first step onto the trail seemed momentous, and strangely private. Thoreau had climbed Katahdin in 1846 and you can bet he didn’t set off with anyone waving from a minivan.
“I’ll be okay,” McKenna said.
Brendan kissed her again. Then he got into his mom’s mini- van and drove away.
McKenna stood watching the cloud of dust rising from its wheels, until she was alone on the curb, just within sight of the trailhead.
Two thousand miles. All she had to do was put on her back- pack and take that first step. She reached down and closed her hand around one shoulder strap, and hoisted the whole enormous thing onto her back. McKenna had practiced hik- ing with this weight. It didn’t matter that it was crammed full to capacity, with enough food to last her till she got to the first outpost, plus her tent, her sleeping bag, her compass . . . everything on her necessities checklist, plus a few books. She had splurged on her pack, which was ergonomically designed to be carried on the back comfortably, no matter how many extras she’d crammed into it.
As she put a foot onto the trail, excitement made her light on her feet despite the thick straps cutting into her shoulders. She had planned, she had trained. She had prepared as much as she possibly could, both mentally and physically.
She was ready.