Off His Back

Nov. 23, 2022

By Rue McKenrick

 It was 2003. I was a younger man in those days, in more ways than one. I was driven but naive about what lay ahead. I was cavalier but afraid of the world. I was mostly feral but I still tried to keep up appearances. I was romantic in my notions but practical in my actions. I frowned beneath a smile and I looked up even when I was feeling down. I was a backpacking poet heading for the limelight as long as no one would stare. Mostly, I was happy even content. I spent almost all of my time alone. I guess many things don’t change with age. 

The days were spent backpacking through the Appalachians and drinking from springs. They were called Rattlesnake, Poplar, and Conococheague. For me? They called me Gruevy and dang I was. Being in the mountains was the time when I felt the most at peace. It may have been the only time I felt like it was safe enough to just be me. I felt as if I could really let my hair down and I rarely wore a shirt. I spoke softly but freely. I traveled fast but with a light step. I didn’t bother with what time it was or even what day it was. I missed Donna and I missed the sun but I knew I would have both when I completed The Appalachian Trail. 

I was halfway to Maine and halfway from Georgia. I met myself halfway at the bargaining table as well. I begged, made wagers, and promises. My feet felt broken and my knee, whom I choose to call Dirty Frank, were barking at me. I figured I had come a thousand miles and I could do another thousand on some bum body parts. I promised if I made to the end I would do something good in this world as recompense. What? I had no idea.

It was on a hot day in July that I started running low. There was still a little money in my pocket, no water in my bottle, and zero food in my pack.  I was constantly seeking what was around the next corner with bright eyes. There was absolutely nothing going on but to me it was the best show on Earth. Just witnessing the bugs crawl, the horizon change, and the rocks speak were of the greatest pleasures. I imagined what I would do when I finished. Maybe Donna and I would run off to El Salvador just because we could. A record player. I think I was going to require a new record player. But for now I needed food and water. It was time to thumb a ride and resupply in town. 

No shoes, no shirt, no problem. Hold on, wait a minute, that is a problem. Shoot where is my shirt? In fact I had not seen my shirt in a couple days. Oh no. I began rewinding the tape and thinking about where I must have left it. I settled on a spot where I had taken lunch a few days ago. Idiot. I remember coming to a spot with a view, removing my shirt and spreading it out on some rocks to dry. Yep, the rocks at the lookout. That is where the shirt now lives. Blast. Oh no, “kettle of fish” a  real “catch 22.”  

Well I can’t spend money on a new shirt and even if I could I can’t go into a store to buy a shirt if I am not already wearing a shirt. Double Blast! And no one is going to pick up some dirty, stinking, macho, yahoo for a ride who can’t even put on a damn shirt. Triple Blast!

I didn’t have anything to cover myself with. I didn’t have a fleece or a rain jacket or long sleeve or anything. All I had was an umbrella and a smile. I sat on rock by the side of the road and collected my thoughts. I tried to hitch a few times but to no avail. People just drove by, honked their horn and yelled something funny out the window. I couldn’t blame them at all. I was getting really thirsty so I was considering plan B when a Backpacker came walking up. 

This guy was doing some distance just like me but we had never met before. I said hello and asked if he was going to resupply. He replied that he had enough for the time being and was going to continue on. Then he asked,”You?” I felt self conscious and didn’t want to bother him with my mishaps. I just replied,”Well I am not sure yet.” “Not sure, he asked?” ” Yeah see I left my damn shirt a few days back and well….forget about it, I lamented.” The stranger looked excitedly at me and said, “Do you need a shirt?” Before I could answer he was pulling off his t-shirt and handed it to me. I was shocked, I couldn’t even say yes or no. He told me I could give it back to him if we crossed paths but to not worry about it. The amazing thing is he appeared happier than I was about the exchange. He thanked me! He told me I had just made his week. He gave me the shirt off his back and he was the one who was over the moon about it. 

Then unceremoniously we said goodbyes and he turned and walked away into the forest. Shirtless. We never saw each other again.

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