Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It took me a couple of days, but I finally figured out a way into the hills. I spent several days in town, sleeping in the seat of my truck during nights so that I could scour the city by day, buying food and anything else I thought I might need.
My first night in the depths of the Black Hills was one of my worst. Not the ultimate worst, for that night was the night that sent me running, but it certainly wasn’t anything to brag about. Not long after I had stuffed my food, clothes, keys and money in my backpack and headed off into the wilderness, leaving my truck hidden from passersby on the road, it began to downpour. The rain was torrential. Every drop felt like a bullet piercing my jacket, and the wind shoved the wet right into my face. I debated just going back to the car and leaving my backpacking excursion for tomorrow, but I wouldn’t let myself be a quitter like that. Besides, it might rain in the future while I was out there, and I’d have to deal with it then, anyway.
I sought refuge in a thicket of bushes. I sat hunched over and shivering like a pitiful rabbit lost in the wilderness, watching in horror as the world around me was immersed in a storm brought from hell. The trees that surrounded me bent and swayed, threatening to crush me and all that was around me. The branches of the bushes I cowered in beat me like whips, and the clouds in the sky erupted thunder so horrendous I was nearly brought to tears.
And the storm went on for what felt like centuries. My stomach grumbled as it begged me for some food, and my skin wrinkled before my very eyes. Just when I was about to give up and start back to my truck so that I could drive straight back home and go crying to my mother, I drifted off into a restless sleep.
And just like that South Dakota was beautiful again. The morning came with sunshine and melodious chirping, awakening me gently to the sweet smell of dew and flowers. To my surprise, all of the trees were still standing tall, and I was very much alive.
And thus started my life in the Black Hills.
I had never been alone as much as I had been for those months. I would spend weeks on end without seeing another living being. Hiking throughout the hills with only my backpack and the clothes I wore, I would find myself every evening staring off into the sunset as I leaned against some tree, murmuring to myself what I would say to somebody if somebody were there.
One may think that I was lonely, but I was far from it. I was at peace. At that time in my life, that was all I needed. I needed peace and the sweet taste of freedom that came with it. I relished in the tranquility that I was immersed in, and I constantly acknowledged the serenity of all that surrounded me.
There were evenings in those hills that I completely and entirely lost myself. Sitting upon a rock, a tree stump, or even just the dirt of the earth, I would free myself of my worldly constraints entirely and enter into a state of limbo. The glorious silence of the undisturbed nature would contort into harps and strings playing for me Amazing Grace, and the endless waves of green and brown that filled the emptiness would change into a pure white mist that would lift me off my feet and take me into the sky where I could see myself from above. The pine trees swayed gently in the soft breeze, the cry of a distant mountain goat would wash over me in a wave of peace, and the grass in between my fingers would soothe me with its quaint embrace, bringing me to a state of being that I had never experienced before.
Allowing me to understand fully not only myself, but the entire world around me, the tranquility of solitude did more for me than anything else has throughout the rest of my life. At one point I had scoffed at the stupidity of Christopher McCandless and his idiotic desire to rid himself of all possessions and be immersed in the deathly confines of nature, but allowing myself to experience the isolation that he too had come to understand bid me to see the reasoning behind his desire. I came to understand Christopher’s yearning for seclusion from the corruption from society, and Thoreau’s love of independence from the dishonesty of other men. There was something absolutely calming and relaxing about knowing that there would be no one to hurt you, lie to you, or to hinder your journey towards your dream. And never have I ever been happier than when I was alone in those hills.
Nights were cold, wet, and uncomfortable for me. I would find myself curled up like a bug in my thin sleeping bag, swatting at the mosquitoes that circled my head and flinching at every nighttime sound. When I was awakened by a wolf or a bear off in the distance, I would hurry to build a fire, and I would sit in the dim light of the crackling wood with a pocket knife held firmly in my hand. I tried to be as brave as one could, and tried to convince myself that no bear or wolf could ever scare me off, but even I knew that, if faced by one, I would crumble into nothing more than a gutless coward.
After two months in those hills, having gone back to the town of Custer only twice for supplies, I was calloused to the way of nature, and was used to the life of an animal. My skin was covered in a layer of bug bites, scratches, and scars, and my hair was pulled back in a messy ball of grease and dirt. The bones of my shoulders and hips stuck out more prominently than they ever had before, and my fingernails were caked and filled to the brim with wet, black grime. My clothes were becoming ragged, my shoes were worn down past repair, and my entire demeanor conveyed me to be nearing a point of being purely animalistic.
And that was when I met a man named Ed.
I had been eating a supper of baked beans and corn when I had suddenly heard something approaching me from the darkness. Slowly chewing the beans that were still in my mouth, I lowered my spoon and reached for the knife that sat by my side. The pace of the one approaching my campsite did not slow down, and my heart began to race as the thought of a bear or a wolf jumping out to eat me became more and more real.
Then I saw the face of a distressed and terrified young man staring at me from across the flickering flames of my fire. His starkly green eyes quickly darted from me to the can of baked beans that sat next to the campfire, and before I could say anything he pounced on the food and began shoveling it into his mouth without any concern for me.
I watched curiously as he licked the can clean and started for the can of corn. His shaking hands scooped as many kernels as he could manage into his mouth, and he picked up each piece that fell on the ground and popped them into his mouth without a care. I slowly closed my pocket knife and put it away before I started to walk towards him with my hand outstretched, cautiously.
“Do you have any water?” He demanded suddenly, tossing the empty can of corn to the ground and stumbling to his feet. “Please? I’m thirsty as hell.”
“Y-Yeah,” I stammered, hurrying to my backpack where I pulled out a canteen and tossed it to him.
I watched in horror as he guzzled every last drop of my water and stared into the emptiness that was left. “Sorry,” he finally whimpered, shooting me a guilty look as he tossed the canteen back to me.
“Its fine,” I grumbled, holding the canteen in dismay before finally chucking it back towards my backpack. “I don’t have to drink anything tomorrow morning. I’ll be fine.”
The man was breathing heavily as he lowered himself down to sit on the ground beside the fire. “I’m sorry if I scared you,” he finally stated, taking off the backpack he carried and setting it at his side. “I saw the smoke in the distance, and I needed help.”
The man looked at me with a furrowed brow. “Why do you think? I’m lost as hell out here! I got separated from my friends a day and a half ago, and I’ve been wandering around these damned hills ever since. I thought I was going to die out here. Seriously, I really did.”
“You don’t have a cellphone or anything?” I asked, tentatively taking a seat across from him.
“Oh, you mean this?” He pulled out his small, silver phone. “You think this gets any signal out here in the middle of God damn nowhere? It’s a worthless piece of shit.” He threw the phone the fire and watched it burn without evening flinching. “I don’t even know how I could lose them so easily. I didn’t think I walked that far, and aren’t there supposed to be trails all over this place? How could I go so far without finding another trail?”
“You’re not supposed to deviate from the trails in the first place,” I pointed out.
“Then what the hell are you doing?” He snapped.
“I never started on the trail.”
“So, what, you’re just wandering around these forests without knowing where the hell you are? How do you ever get back to where you started from?”
“I have a compass.”
The man just stared at me in confusion for a second before he just shook his head and looked at the ground. “Whatever you say, lady. Whatever you say.”
“Listen,” I snapped back at him. “If you think you can just come in here, eat all my food and drink all my damned water, then you got another thing coming for you-”
“No, I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to offend, really, I didn’t. I’m just… Well, believe it or not I’m really stressed out right now, and that doesn’t help much with my mood or my manners.” There was a brief pause as he let out a deep breath and ran his fingers through his dark hair. “Here, let me start over.” He thrust out a hand and looked me square in the eye. “Hi, I’m Ed.”
I furrowed my brow and shook my head. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Why not?” He demanded.
“You can barge into my campsite, eat my entire dinner for me, and introduce yourself like an idiot. It just doesn’t work for me. It’s too fake.”
Ed let out a sigh and lowered his hand. “Then how do you want me to do it?”
“Well, you could start off by apologizing-”
“I already did!”
“-For eating my food.”
Ed rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry for eating your food. It was my bad that my stomach was on the verge of digesting itself and that I subconsciously let my animalistic instincts control me. Really, it was my bad.”
I smiled and nodded my head. “Good. Apology accepted.”
He faked a smile back as he stretched out his feet and rubbed his neck. “So, I’m Ed.”
“Beatrice,” I grumbled back.
“What’s so funny?”
“Then why’d you laugh?”
“I just haven’t heard a name like that since I was a kid. You ever read those Junie B. Jones books?”
He just shrugged his shoulders. “Never mind, then.”
I ignored him and placed my forehead in my hands as I closed my eyes.
“Listen, I really didn’t mean to offend you or anything,” Ed stated suddenly. I opened my eyes and saw him staring back at me. “I really didn’t, I swear. I’m just a little shook up is all. I’m normally a nice guy.”
“I’m sure you are.”
“I am, really.” I could still feel his eyes on me as I refused to converse anymore. “So, why are you out here?” He asked suddenly.
I shrugged my shoulders and began poking the fire with a stick. “I just wanted to be out here, I guess. I wanted to see what it was like to be out here for days on end.”
“You know it’s illegal to camp here?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not hurting anything, and what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
Ed nodded slowly. “So how long have you been out here?”
“Two months?” He exclaimed. “Holy shit! How haven’t you died yet? I thought I was going to keel over after being alone for only an hour.”
“Well, I didn’t unintentionally get lost, so I suppose that helps.”
Ed laughed lightly. “Yeah, I suppose. So, what kind of job do you work that you can just take two months off to explore the wilderness, huh?”
“How about we don’t ask questions, huh?” I demanded, looking at him with stern eyes and a fake smile. “I don’t see any reason for you to know every little thing about me, do you?”
“Fine,” he replied, lowering himself further so that he was lying on the ground, facing the sky. “I was just trying to be friendly, but whatever.”
I watched him as he watched the sky. His chest heaved slightly with every breath, and strands of his brown hair tickled his face in the nighttime breeze. It was strange to me to be watching another person when I had gone so long without even seeing my own reflection, and for some unknown reason, this man who looked like no one I had ever seen before started to remind me of my older brother, Curtis.
After minutes passed by, Ed slowly hoisted himself back up into a sitting position and fished a box out from the side of his backpack. Flicking out a lone cigarette, he held it towards the fire while offering me one. At my refusal he simply shrugged his shoulders and leaned back, happily placing the cigarette in his mouth and blowing out puffs of smoke.
“So, you from around here?” He asked.
I answered with a glare.
“I know, I know,” He stated with a smirk. “No questions about you. Alright, alright. Well, what if I tell you things about me? Would that ease you up?”
“Well, I’m actually from New York City, I go to NYU; I came here with some of my friends for spring break. We thought we’d spend our break actually doing things instead of just getting wasted. Well, I mean, we still get wasted, but at least we do other things too, you know?”
My attention was fully transfixed on him once more. I watched him drag on his cigarette with my mouth open in awe. “Do you like it there?”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “In New York?”
“Yeah in New York. Where else would I be talking about?”
“Yeah, I like it,” he answered. “I can’t stay there forever, though. I need to get away to someplace like this every once and a while. I mean, hopefully I won’t end up getting lost every time I go on a vacation like this, but I still need it nonetheless.”
“Why do you need to get away?”
“It’s just too much for me. There are so many people, and so many buildings. You can’t see anything but the groggy sort of clouds that are right above you. After a while you just forget what the real world looks like. Some people can stand it. I can’t.”
I puckered my lips and looked off in the distance, dreaming of the world this man claimed to be from. A world I had done no more than dream of seeing.
“Please tell me where you’re from,” Ed urged with a small smile, tossing what was left of his cigarette in the fire. “It’s just one simple question, to make you real to me.”
“There’s no way in hell you’ve heard of the town I live in, so what’s it to you?”
“Just try me.”
I stared into the depths of his bright, green eyes for what felt like years before finally relinquishing a smile and looking away. “Freedhem. It’s a town in North Dakota. Ever heard of it?”
“No.” Ed laughed and crinkled his eyes, the eyes that he would not take off of me. “You like it there?”
I opened my mouth but couldn’t say anything as I thought of how to delicately describe the hatred I had for the place I had called home.
“Well, you obviously don’t, do you? I mean, you left it for this.” He threw his hands the air and laughed again. “You a city girl trapped in a country girl’s body?”
I chuckled and shrugged my shoulders, throwing my head back to look at the stars. “I don’t know what I am. I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“Well, that’s a way to do it, I guess.” Ed finally looked away from me and examined the forest that surrounded us. “I don’t suppose you just so happened to camp out near any road, did you?”
I shook my head.
He let out a sigh and lowered his head. “You know how to get back to them?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I suppose. I wasn’t planning on going back yet so soon, but I guess I could bring you back.”
“Well, you can always leave me here if you want. Hopefully the rangers will find me before I die.”
I laughed. “I don’t think the rangers here are really all that great. They haven’t found me yet, have they?”
“Yes, but you weren’t reported missing. I’m sure they have teams and helicopters and dogs and the whole damn mess out searching for me right now. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m kind of a big deal.” Ed threw back his head laughing and looked to me for approval.
I didn’t laugh, instead I simply stared at him in confusion. “What? Why are you a big deal?”
Ed furrowed his brow and tried to maintain his smile. “I… I’m not. It’s from… You don’t get out much, do you?”
“Well, I’m outside every second of the day, so I’d beg to differ.”
Ed chuckled and lowered himself to the ground, placing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. “Well, I’m gonna go to sleep now, if you don’t mind. I’m exhausted, and I want to get out of here as soon as possible tomorrow.”
I nodded in agreement as I unrolled my sleeping bag and crawled inside, pulling the covers close to keep out the bitter October chill. I gave one glance over to the body of the unmoving stranger that lay next to my fire before I drifted off into a sleep.