by Brigs Larson
They have been walking since the world grew grass and the sky changed from black to blue. At least, it feels that way. Croc only started last year when he left Florida with a crocodile and a backpack. That crocodile’s dead now—couldn’t take the cold—but Croc’s still walking. Took his pet’s name to honor it. Then you have folks like Jockey, who’ve been riding the trails for years and years and years. There are hikers on their deathbeds who remember Jockey. Real cool guy, they’d say, got us weed even in the Maine wilderness, when we were at our lowest. Almost died that time, from the cold. He likes it when the old ones remembered him. Makes him feel important.
I came upon them by accident, really. Took me five years and five attempts at the Appalachian Trail, and I found myself wandering. They tell you stories before you head out into the trees, about missing people found just yards off the trail, decomposing because they wanted to find some water. Don’t walk off, kid, the ranger said every time I passed through his station in the Rockies. For five years I hadn’t.
This time, I walked off.
I can’t remember why. Looking back on life is weird like that—I can remember the color of Jockey’s hat when I found him shitting in the woods, but I don’t remember the reason I walked off the trail in the first place. Could’ve been water. Could’ve been curiosity. Could’ve been that the gods of the trail were pulling my strings towards them, tugging on the straps of my bag and the cords of my rain shell.
But I found Jockey, oldest of them all with the everlasting face of a 20-year-old, squatting behind a tree. Inelegant, for an immortal. I swear to him I didn’t see anything, but that’s a lie. Hell, I averted my eyes and did my little stumbling number, but it only brought me into a clearing crowded with hiking gear and people and the smell of oatmeal burning. Jockey followed me, zipping up his pants and wiping his hands on his sides.
“Who the hell d’you think you are?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know.
“Jack Hepburn?” I said it like a question more than anything.
“This is our camp.” He was wearing what he’s always worn: shorts and a sweater hidden under a yellow hardshell. “You’ve disturbed our camp.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Are you fine with dying, Jack?”
Nobody expects that question. I don’t think anyone expects death either, not until it’s riding them into the ground. Jockey squinted at me, and I could see the sickle in his eyes.
“I guess I am now.”
“What’s your name then, kid?”
It wasn’t Jack anymore, that much was sure. The trail angels were in perfect repose around me, lounging in sleeping bags tinged with growing moss, fiddling with the faded ribbons in the trees, folding their clothes and refolding them. All of them staring at me, like I’d intruded on some sacred ritual that required a messy campsite and dirtbag judgement.
“Dunno. Guess I’ll find one.”
“I don’t like doing this, kid,” Jockey said. “Never have, never will.”
“I get it,” I said, and went to set up my sleeping bag.
He’s said nobody’s accepted it as easy as me, in all his years. I don’t believe him, but I nod my head and chew my cheek when he brings it up. As it all goes on, I forget more—the face of my sister, my middle name, the name of the town I grew up in. I know it was in New England, for now, so when Jockey has me walk the White Mountains, I give myself a few seconds to stare out at the blue landscape and hope it comes back to me. It never does. Those mountains keep me busy enough, anyway. I’d call it recruitment if they had any choice in the matter.
Hops, they call me, for my tendency to bring hikers six-packs of Sam Adams before I tell them they’re dead. Makes it all go down smoother. Then I bring them back to the campsite, let them set up their sleeping bags for forever, introduce them to Jockey. They cry. They accept it. They learn how to walk the trails, then Jockey sends them off somewhere else to walk among the living. And there we’ll remain, new angels always coming in, the clearing always getting bigger. We will never die. We will never live, either, until the world ends. And then we’ll walk into the sun and let it swallow us.