Cicadas buzz in unison; as I float into consciousness, I hear their chorus, the crescendos and decrescendos, like a symphony. I open my eyes and stretch my arms above my head as I take in the comforting sounds of the bugs. I’ve always loved their buzz.
I swing my legs out of my cozy bed and walk to a window, grabbing the strings and pulling the curtain up. Bright sunlight streams through the clear blue skies and into my window, activating the bubble gum pink walls of my bedroom. A little white butterfly flutters past the window, and beyond the butterfly, the two trees in the yard stand in all of their green, leafy glory.
I inhale deeply, taking in the beauty of this warm summer day – a perfect day to take a walk. I turn around and walk towards my closet, passing a painting of two kittens sitting in a flower garden, watching their own little white butterfly. I smile for a moment, reminded of my grandmother who gave that picture to me.
I change out of my pajamas and put on some shorts, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes. I fill up my water bottle, eat a banana with some peanut butter, and set out for the local park. The sun is bright and intense, filling the car with a pleasant warmth (which is balanced by the wonderful invention that is air conditioning), and the radio plays some of my favorite songs.
I turn into the park entrance and find a parking spot under the shade of a tree. I open the door and step out of my car. I put my water bottle in my fanny pack, along with my phone and keys, and almost fasten it around my waist – I stop when I notice an ice cream truck near the trail start. I grab a couple of ones out of my pack before snapping the belt into place. I walk up to the truck, grab a chocolate-vanilla swirl cone, and head out for my walk.
I enter the trail under the canopy of the trees, into the paradoxically bright shade. I hear the cicadas again, although this time, they are joined by the chattering of squirrels, the tweeting of birds, and the rustling of leaves – and, of course, the crunch of my shoes on the gravel path. Yet somehow all of these sounds create a quiet, peaceful melody.
I walk along the trail, looking around at the trees and plant life, licking my ice cream before it melts down the cone and onto my hand – taking in the beauty of the day. Not minutes into my hike, I see someone walking towards me. They seem to be struggling to carry something in their arms, but I can’t quite see what.
Dressed in cargo shorts and a grey t-shirt, the stranger comes closer and closer, bringing themself into greater focus. The mass in their clutches looks organic and heavy – perhaps a large backpack? But the texture looks too smooth to be fabric. I continue licking my ice cream while I watch them with curiosity.
I lift my hand to wave at them and I realize, with an admitted sense of confusion, that they are carrying a pile of rocks.
“Oh. Oh! Hello, hi. How are ya? Oh wow, that’s a nice-looking ice cream cone you’ve got there – I bet that’s hitting the spot on a hot day like today.”
I smile, and look inquisitively at the small mountain of rocks they hold in their hands.
“Oh these? Well, I didn’t start my walk with all of these rocks, you see. In fact, I didn’t start my walk with any of them! But I saw this one,” they awkwardly point to a rock in their pile, “laying on the ground and it just looked like the perfect rock to add to my garden, so I picked it up. And then, a few minutes later, I found another rock that looked equally as perfect, but I couldn’t decide which one I wanted, so I held onto both of them. Well, then, I found yet another rock, and picked that one up, and it just kind of snowballed from there! Now, I know what you’re thinking, how many rocks could I possibly need? It’s just that I don’t want to make the wrong decision so I’m going to take all of them home and try out each one so that I can be sure that I’m making the perfect choice!”
I can see the stranger sweating profusely under the weight of the rocks – and yet their face holds a strong determination not to let any of them go. Their eyes no longer meet mine, but stare intently at my ice cream cone.
“Say, um, I know we only just met, but these rocks are really heavy, and I’m in desperate need of rest. My car is just over in that parking lot there – would you mind, perhaps, carrying my rocks for me the short distance back to my car? I’ll hold your ice cream for you.”
I hesitate for a moment, but in the beauty of this particular day, I’m feeling generous, and I agree to help them out. They start loading rocks one by one into my arms – and continue piling them on even past the point of ‘too many.’ They take my ice cream cone, and I wonder how they’ve managed to carry all of these for as long as they have.
We start walking back towards the parking lot.
“Oh, shoot – your ice cream is melting! Um, hmm…I’m just going to eat this, since it will be melted before I can give it back to you anyways, and I’ll just buy you a new one. That okay with you?”
I nodded my head, concentrating more on keeping the rocks in my arms and off my feet than on what they just said.
We make it to their car, and they open the trunk. They grab the rocks one by one back out of my arms and place them into the car. Covered in sweat and massaging my sore arms, I watch as they close the trunk and make their way to the driver’s side door. They turn and look at me, as if confused at my lingering presence.
“Oh!” The light bulb turns on. “Yes, the ice cream.”
I let out a small laugh.
“Hang on one second, let me find my wallet…ohhhh shoot.”
They pop their head back out of the car and point towards where the ice cream truck had stood.
“It looks like the ice cream truck’s left. Sorry about that – karma owes you one! Thanks for your help! I’ve got to get home to test all these rocks!”
And with that, they back out and zoom away, leaving me with the newfound pain in my arms…and no ice cream.
I stand for a few moments, before sighing in slight disappointment and turning back towards the trail to start my walk again. I look up and notice that some clouds have formed in the once-clear sky, but the sun still pokes its rays through.
I continue stretching and massaging my arms as I walk, swinging them this way and that, trying to relieve them of the dull aches left by all of those rocks. I can see the outline of a bruise forming where one pressed into the skin of my forearm. It stings when I poke it.
I reach the point where I had encountered the rock-carrier and continue past it, focusing back on the beauty and vastness of that little slice of nature. The buzzing and chirping and rustling come back into my awareness, and I rediscover the excitement and serenity that I had entered with.
I forge ahead, one foot in front of the other, through a sea of greens and browns. I catch a flicker of bright red as a cardinal lands briefly on a tree branch and then flies off again. I turn my head the other direction to see a deer and her fawn a few hundred feet off the trail, munching on some grass. I smile and return my gaze to the trail to see another person in the distance. This person, though, appears to be walking the same direction as me, but very slowly, with a seemingly heavy gait.
It takes me several minutes to catch up with them, and when I’m about thirty feet behind them, I can see that they are carrying a backpack of absurd proportions. It is a camping pack, nearly bursting at the seams with clothing, pots, pans, snack bars, and a host of other things that I’m sure I cannot see. They appear to be dragging their feet under the weight of it all.
As I approach them, they stop and nearly fall into a tree in exhaustion. Although I was originally going to pass them, I decide to stop and see if they need any help.
“Hello, yes, hello,” they breathe heavily. “You’re so kind to stop and pay attention to me. Everyone else seem to pass me by without a second glance.”
I offer a hand, and help them stand back upright. Looking at them from the front, I notice that they’re wearing a long black winter coat and grey pants – an odd outfit for such a hot day. Much like the first stranger and their fixation with my ice cream cone, this stranger locks eyes with my water bottle. I look down at it.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to stare or be rude. I’m just so hot, and I’ve run out of water. I’ve been carrying this heavy pack for days, and I have to wear this coat and these long pants because they won’t fit into the pack.”
Instinctively, I remove the water bottle from my fanny pack and hold it out to this new stranger. I pop the lid off as they reach their arm out and grab it.
“Oh my goodness, thank you so much! I’m sorry to even ask, I know it’s such a hot day and you probably need this for yourself, but I truly appreciate your kindness. I only need a few sips.”
They throw their head back and start guzzling the water, and it’s completely gone in seconds. As they tilt their head upright again, they look sheepishly at the now-empty bottle before offering an embarrassed half-grin to me.
“I…I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to drink it all, it’s just…well…once I started, I couldn’t stop. I just, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
They hold the bottle out towards me, and I put it back in my fanny pack, feeling slightly irritated that I now have no water left for myself – but that annoyance is quickly replaced by compassion for the obviously overheated and overworked individual standing before me.
I look towards their backpack, and, as if they read my mind, they ask, “I’m embarrassed to ask, but…well…would you…maybe…perhaps…would you mind, potentially, carrying my backpack for just a few minutes? I know I could take it off and rest for a while, but I’m trying to meet someone at a campsite a few miles away on this path by five o’clock, and it would just be, well, it would just be really helpful if I could keep moving because I know if I stop, I won’t want to get back up.”
I nod, extending my arms to help them take the enormous pack off of their back. I nearly drop the whole thing from the sheer weight, but somehow manage to hoist it over one shoulder and then the other. I can feel my knees nearly buckling under the weight, and I cannot help but wonder how this stranger has managed to travel so far with such a heavy load.
We start walking, and I huff and puff from the onset of our journey. I can already feel that I’m damp everywhere on my body from sweat. Thankfully, even with the pack off, my new friend walks slowly.
We walk together in silence for five minutes.
Oof, this is heavy.
I want to say something, but I look over at the person lumbering next to me silently – they just seem so tired and worn down.
Okie dokie…I could really stand to take this off right about now. I can feel the aching in my spine.
I don’t think my back is supposed to bend like this.
I wonder how much longer I should keep going…and I keep hoping they offer to take it back soon.
Nope, can’t deny it anymore, my back is screaming, I’m definitely going to be feeling this in the morning.
And when we reach thirty, my knees give out, and I fall to the ground, letting the pack slide down my arms and off my back.
“This seems like a good stopping point. Thanks for carrying that for me. I do feel a bit better, although I may need to rest anyways before carrying onward. There’s a bench right here, so I’ll just sit here with my backpack and regain some strength…I hope.”
Still breathing heavily, I give them a weak thumbs-up. Taking a minute or two for myself, I finally crawl over to the bench they mentioned to pull myself off the ground and back to standing. My back absolutely aches.
After a few more deep breaths as I muster the will to continue on my way, I finally convince my feet to start taking steps. They’re slow steps, but they’re steps nonetheless. I know if I can get myself moving, I can keep myself moving.
As I begin staggering away, I hear the individual behind me: “Thank you. Really. I hope your back doesn’t hurt too much...”
Unable to twist around to bid them farewell, I offer a small wave behind me and keep walking. I can’t stop again, lest I want to get stuck in a tree somewhere with achy arms and a stiff back.
As I walk, I try stretching my back out, along with my arms that are still slightly sore. I notice that the sky seems to have gotten darker; I look up to see a blanket of clouds. Now I really have to keep moving so I don’t get stuck in the rain.
I turn my attention to the forest around me once more, hoping less to take in the beauty of nature and more to distract me from the physical pain dimly pulsing through my body.
Paying attention to the world around me proves to be much more difficult than it had been, although not entirely impossible. I notice some cute little white and purple wildflowers growing along the edge of the path, and the noises of a babbling little creek that I cannot see waft through the trees. The crunch of the gravel under my feet is heavier than before, and the path begins a small incline. I’m heading towards a pretty overlook above the river, and despite that my body is somewhat dreading the ascent, the memories of the view brighten my gait and keep me motivated to continue.
With about a quarter mile left to the overlook, I come upon a third stranger. This person sits on the side of the path, holding their leg and rocking back and forth slowly. After several seconds of them not getting up, I pick up my pace and approach them quickly, wanting to see if they’re okay and if they need help.
I jog over to them and they look up.
“Hello? Yes, hello! I’ve never been so happy to see another person in my life! I’ve been sitting here for what feels like ages – I saw a little hummingbird and I tried standing on top of this log to get a picture of it, but klutzy me!” They laugh, “I lost my footing and fell, and I heard my ankle pop…I tried standing up, but I think it might be broken.”
I unfortunately don’t have any bandages or aid equipment on me, and my puzzled expression must have showed them my lack of first aid knowledge.
“Oh, don’t worry! My partner is on the way with an ice pack and towel and stuff, but, would you mind maybe helping me while they’re still en route?”
I nod my head, knowing that the next person they are likely to encounter would be my exhausted backpack friend, and I wasn’t entirely confident that they had the capacity to be of much service…although they might have a bandage, or even a full brace, somewhere in that enormous pack of theirs.
“Would you mind carrying me up to the top of the hill, just up to the entrance of the overlook? I think that will be the easiest spot for my partner to find me, and I know it’s a pretty big hill, but it would really help me out, since I can’t walk at all.”
I gaze up at the hill – it’s certainly a doozy, but nothing I couldn’t manage, I suppose. I offer my hand to help them up, then stand up straight and turn around so they can hop on my back for a piggyback ride up the hill.
“Oh my gosh, thank you so much, I’ll definitely owe you one,” they said as they hop onto my back.
I wrap my arms firmly around their thighs as they wrap their legs squarely around my abdomen, and we set off. Thankfully, they are holding their body weight well for me, so this somehow feels easier than the backpack.
And yet, no sooner do we begin our ascent that I once again start huffing and puffing and sweating profusely. It’s not a long ways up, but it’s decently steep.
As I keep walking, my new friend keeps talking. Incessantly. They seem to say anything and everything that is on their mind. I don’t catch much of it because I’m concentrating my hardest on not tripping and sending us both rolling back down the hill.
I stare down at my feet, carefully avoiding tree roots, slippery leaves, deer poop, and any bugs or debris in my path. I add an occasional grunt or nod in acknowledgement of my piggyback friend’s stories. I can feel my feet moving slower with each step.
It must have only been ten, maybe fifteen minutes, but it felt like an actual eternity.
“This is perfect! You can drop me off at this bench right here – I’ll let my partner know that this is where I am. You’re awesome, thank you so much!”
I turn and nod, mustering a smile as best I can and wanting to make sure they don’t need anything else before I leave. But they’ve already whipped their cell phone out of their pocket and have their face buried in it. I stare for a moment, mostly out of exhaustion and a lack of readiness to move.
Finally, I bid them farewell (although I do not know if they actually hear me), and I turn toward the entrance of the overlook, having at last made it.
I try to take a step, but my legs feel like jello. I take a wobbly step, followed by another, and somehow manage to noodle walk my way down the little boardwalk path to the overlook.
I reach the end, right as I feel the first drops of rain hit my cheeks. The sky is dark, and the river down below looks foggy and bleak. I collapse onto a bench, my arms and back and legs throbbing from the events of the day.
I sit in a heap on that bench for I don’t know how long, so exhausted and drained that I cannot even take in the coolness of the rain and the misty beauty of the lake or the glimmering rainbow that appears as the sun sneaks a kiss from behind a cloud. I don’t have the capacity to revel in it; I barely have the wherewithal to see it.
So I sit.
And I sit.
And I sit.
My tender bones rest. They rest until I will myself to get up and start my journey again.
My muscles scream as I stand myself up. I roll my neck side to side and twist my back, although I know these stretches are futile. But I do them anyways.
And then, I put one foot in front of the other, and begin my noodle walk back to my car, having enjoyed none of this, the climax of my journey.
As I walk back down the path, my clothes are soaked and I am chilled to the bone.
I hear the rain hitting leaves, both alive and dead.
I hear the sloshy, crunchy shuffle of my feet.
I don’t pass a single soul on my way home.
Not even a cicada.
… … …
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