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Sex & Sourdough

By:A.J. Thomas

Anders smiled despite his mood and turned his body so he was facing the arch head-on.

“Now, pick up your left foot and take a step. And now your right foot. And the left again. See? Nothing to it.”

Anders laughed and stumbled forward. With the larger man shoving his backpack and nearly throwing him off balance, those three steps had taken him through the stone arch. “That’s not what I meant.”

“One foot after the other.” The man clapped him on the shoulder. “Everything else sorts itself out eventually. Oh, and Harpers Ferry? It’s near the Virginia border, but technically, it’s part of West Virginia.”

Anders looked back through the arch at the parking lot. An older couple with hiking poles hurried past them, smiling brightly. If he turned back now, he could still catch a shuttle back to town, catch the bus back to Atlanta, and fly home to Jacksonville. Joel wouldn’t be mad at him, but he’d be stuck doing volunteer work all summer, building his resume with the internship his father was so damn excited about. And afterward he would be stuck in law school, or at his father’s firm, or marrying one of the four daughters of his father’s business partners. If he went back now, he would never get another chance to do this. If Joel did show up in four days, there was a slim chance Anders would be able to persuade him to come along, or to meet him farther along the trail once his summer class was over. There was still a chance this summer would turn out the way Anders had hoped, but the only way that chance could become a reality was if he got moving.

“West Virginia?” Anders asked. Joel had told him it was in Virginia, but he hadn’t bothered to look it up. “It’s just nine miles, isn’t it?”

“To West Virginia? I’m pretty sure it’s more than nine miles. Once you get there, it’s awesome.” The larger man laughed. “I’ve only seen it coming south, but it’s beautiful.”

“I mean to the start of the trail.”

“Are you stopping at the trailhead?” The scruffy man in the blue down coat bobbed ahead of him, moving fast. “Come on, Butch, you can do it. Don’t think about miles. Just think about putting one foot in front of the other.”

Anders tried to keep up, but it soon became obvious he was not in the best of shape. The other man moved up Springer Mountain as though the pack and heavy clothing weighing him down didn’t exist. Anders lost sight of him within thirty seconds. Once he was alone, Anders settled into a comfortable, slow pace. Every time his thoughts wandered to Joel, he looked down at his new hiking boots and watched each step he took. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, of focusing on the physical world instead of the resentment and fear simmering inside of him, really did make the distance seem to melt away.

He stopped for lunch near a waterfall, wished he’d bought a point-and-shoot camera, and then continued up the mountain. The camera built into his phone had always been good enough, but now he didn’t want to risk running down the battery in case he actually needed to call for help. As the early morning chill faded and the world began to get warm, he stopped to strip off his fleece jacket, passed by the older couple where they were taking a break for lunch, and found himself returning their easy smiles.

Some of his confidence and excitement about this trip, which had evaporated when he realized how angry Joel was with him, began to come back.

Anders reached the southern end of the Appalachian Trail in the late afternoon. He turned his phone on long enough to take a picture of the plaque marking the beginning of the trail, commemorating the workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps who had built it, and then looked down the trail, where he could see a long series of the white rectangular blazes painted along the trail itself. Every year they were freshly painted—on trees, rocks, or wooden signs—to help hikers tell the Appalachian Trail from the thousands of side trails, game trails, and random paths that intersected its two-thousand-mile stretch. Joel had shown him maps of Georgia sections they would hike first, including the color-coded legends that labeled the side trails that would lead them to water, shelters, or to roads and eventually towns where they would be able to buy supplies.

If Anders had known that he was going to be trying to find those shelters and roads on his own, he would have paid more attention.

“You made it!”

Anders’s head shot up toward the sound. Fifty feet from the trail, free of the heavy blue coat, hat, and gloves, stood the man with the thick brown beard. He had also stripped off his pack and was leaning against it, eating a sandwich. Anders felt his breath catch as he took in the way the man’s tight Under Armour turtleneck clung to his body like a second skin, highlighting muscles that most amateur body builders would have killed for.

Anders dropped his gaze quickly. He had been with Joel for two years now, and just because the man had decided to take a summer class instead of going on the hike they had spent six months planning didn’t mean Anders could drool over random strangers. “One foot in front of the other.” Anders tried to shrug. A sharp pain shot through his shoulders as the weight of his pack shifted.

“That’s right. You should take a break and come sit down.” The man gestured to several cut logs set in a circle.

Anders was only too grateful to get the pack off, but he kept his eyes down while he unbuckled the hip and chest straps. Once the buckles were undone, he swung the heavy bag down to the ground and collapsed onto an empty log. He dug out his water bottle and drained it.

“So, are you doing this on your own?” Anders asked.

The man shoved the last of his sandwich into his mouth and nodded. “Yeah, I’m on my own. There are plenty of places to get food, towns at least once a week. It’s not bad.”

“Have you done this before?”

“I hiked it going the other direction last year, c