Love Gap. A perfect name. After hiking hundreds of miles on the Appalachian Trail, it was a place to contemplate both their love and those miles.

But Jon and Kelly didn’t really know it yet. In fact, they wouldn’t really know it, in the deepest sense, for years. Because one lesson that the Appalachian Trail had taught them was that life is this moment. They had focused on the next step—this dehydrated meal, this camping spot, this weather. Contemplation only lay in the sublime moments of complete silence at the end of each exhausting day, when they would remove their boots, allowing the smell of their toxic socks to waft in the air and, finally, sit and relax.

Today was no different.

They had been hiking southbound now for over a month. Normally thru-hikers went northbound, as the 2,000 miles of the Trail were “easier” (if that’s a word that could ever be applied to hiking the AT) going northbound. Moving north, hikers were more likely to avoid devastating weather, as well as the black flies that swarmed in the early summer months in the Middle States. Their choice to move southbound was just more evidence of the duo’s unpreparedness. Or their innocence.

But they’d made it this far.

Along the way, they’d run into hikers passing them in both directions. Seasoned hikers who moved with alacrity, even as Jon and Kelly moved with a fatigued languidness. And as they’d met some seasoned hikers—particularly Low Gear and Caboose—they’d heard stories of places they “had” to visit. All-you-can-eat ice cream shops just off the trail. Crab Tree Falls. And they’d also heard warnings of upcoming hurdles, such as The Priest, a mountain that sloped relatively easily from the southern side, but which was famously difficult moving from the north. The Priest haunted their dreams.

Low Gear and Caboose, though, were among the chorus of hikers who’d suggested, cajoled, and even demanded they stop at Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow.

Low Gear and Caboose, of course, were not their real names. Every hiker eventually earned a nickname, a trail name. Low Gear and Caboose were a married couple—Bob and Dorlyn. Bob had recently retired from the Navy at age 40, and the couple were realizing their dream, now that they had the time, of hiking the AT. Low Gear was Dorlyn, so named because, though she moved very slowly, she never stopped, like a truck in low gear. And Bob was named Caboose because he always followed Low Gear.

Meeting the two in one of the shelters along the trail, Jon and Kelly were once again struck by the professional level of hikers they’d encountered. Low Gear and Caboose got to the shelter, dropped their packs, and immediately went to work, their labors honed by months of hiking. Low Gear inflated the air mattresses and lit the camp stove, boiling water and beans in minutes, while Caboose found a tree to hang their bear bag and gathered wood for the campfire. The fire was unnecessary, of course. The camp stove would cook their beans, and the evening was not very cold. But they always made a fire, as Low Gear explained, “for the love of the woodsmoke—for ceremony.”

Jon and Kelly were once again secretly ashamed by the amateur nature of their hike in comparison.

It should be noted that all of these characters were dirty. They all stank to high heaven. Such is the nature of people on a trail for months with rare access to showers. Caboose had a full beard, his military hairstyle long since grown to almost hippie dimensions. And Low Gear had her blond Swedish tresses fixed into permanent pigtails. Jon’s blond hair was long as well, and for the first time in his young life, he had begun to grow a spotty and jagged beard. Kelly, thin and waifish, had brown hair that, after a month in the heat, seemed permanently greasy. Their ragged clothes had acquired permanent sweat stains.

But this meeting of the two thru-hiking couples was typical. They chatted, they learned about each other and, as with almost everyone each met on the Trail, they learned to like and respect each other. What made this meeting different was that it happened only twenty miles or so north of Love Gap, the mile marker leading to Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow. Jon and Kelly had not yet been convinced to stop there, but Low Gear and Caboose had sung its praises.

“Trail magic,” said Low Gear, as the dusk settled and the four crawled into their sleeping bags. “I laid out on the back porch and watched the sunset, and I was never more alive.”

“And Rusty,” added Caboose, “is one of the strangest and most wonderful trail angels we met.”

The Appalachian Trail, like most endeavors, has its own semiotics, its own language and customs. Everyone knew, once they’d hiked for at least a few weeks, about “toxic socks” and trail names. So “trail magic” and “trail angel” were not random terms. They meant something. “Trail magic” referred to those rare moments when, in the midst of the pain and slog that was the AT, something happened that could not be explained in any other way except to say, “It was wonderful, and it happened on the AT and would not have happened the same way otherwise.” Hikers instinctively smiled and nodded when other hikers talked about moments of trail magic. It made sense. Trail magic could be finding ripe blueberry bushes, seeing falling stars when least expected, or even getting your tent set up just before it rained. And “trail angels” referred to people who were not hikers, but who lived along or visited the trail and helped hikers, expecting nothing in return. Trail angels often offered rides to grocery stores or promise to mail home something heavy that you no longer wanted to carry—an old woman at a gift shop in Shenandoah had mailed Jon’s guitar, which he’d grown tired of carrying (it was an additional sixteen pounds) home for him.

Trail angels often provided trail magic.

Indeed, Jon and Kelly had recently experienced both as they’d gotten to the Pine Mountain Shelter and found cold cans of Coke in the cool spring, left there by a visiting trail angel. As Jon had cracked open the can and poured the sugary liquid down his throat, he’d felt his eyes tearing up at how delicious it was (how he’d missed Coke) and how sublime something so banal could feel in that moment, at that place. Trail magic, trail angel.

So, when Low Gear and Caboose attested to the magic of the Hard Time Hollow and the angel that was Rusty, they’d decided they had to stop.

A few days later then (they moved slowly, remember), they followed the directions given to them. They got off the trail at mile marker sixteen on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Love Gap. Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow was two miles south of the Gap.

They looked at the sign for Love Gap. Kelly got out her camera, and they posed in front of the sign and kissed as she snapped. It was about noon and the sun was high in the sky. As usual, the two had woken with the sun, had a quick breakfast of Rice Krispies Treats and peanut butter, and gotten moving. Now, at Love Gap, they decided it was lunchtime.

Their stores were low. Lunch today consisted of their last two pieces of rye bread (rye held together better than most breads in their backpacks, they’d learned, and had become their staple) and two Snickers bars. Kelly used her plastic spoon to slather the bread in the last of the peanut butter and handed Jon his slice. His hand shook, and he immediately dropped it on the ground. Topside down. In the dirt and gravel.

“Fuck,” Jon said as he watched it fall in slow motion.

At home, this would have been amusing. On the AT, it was a disaster. No food could be wasted, and Jon fantasized daily about fast-food restaurants. He grabbed the bread as quickly as he could, trying desperately to clean the gravel off the peanut butter. It was a lost cause. He looked up at Kelly, who shrugged. 

“We’ll be at Rusty’s soon. There should be food there. And Bob and Dorlyn said he gives rides to Waynesboro for groceries—which we are depending on anyway. We are just about out of food.”

She ripped her bread in half and handed one half to Jon. This was love at Love Gap. She glanced at the gravel-encrusted piece that Jon still held resolutely. “Chunky peanut butter.” She laughed.

After lunch, they continued their hike, as unknowing cars occasionally and unconsciously flew by. Kelly wondered about those cars, the speed with which they passed, and how much beauty the people in the cars missed because they tried to see so much so fast. The hikers, by comparison, moved at a snail’s pace, seeing both less and more at the same time. They were enmeshed in the beauty in a way that the drivers or passengers could not grasp. What drivers merely saw as colors on a moving canvas as they sped by in a passing moment, Kelly and Jon instead felt, experienced, and lived. It was three dimensions instead of two.

Jon, meanwhile, daydreamed of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The Virginia trees around them swirled in the light breeze. The leaves had begun to change colors. Autumn was approaching, and with it, colder weather. They realized their time on the Trail was limited by the oncoming seasons. Still, between the occasional passing car, the trees whispered in the enduring silence. It was enchanting. To the left side, the trees sloped downward into the hollow; to the right, they rose up the mountain.

Shortly, they came to the mile marker that indicated the entrance to the hollow. A white single-armed gate blocked the entrance to what seemed to be a long, winding dirt driveway into the depths. Next to the gate were signs—several signs, all warning of no trespassing. “Private Property,” they screamed. “No trespassing for any reason.”

Jon and Kelly looked at each other.

“Is this it?” he asked.

“It has to be,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem too welcoming.”

They studied the trepidation on each other’s faces.

Hiking the AT had renewed, to some extent, their faith in human nature and the kindness and trust of strangers. But every time they had wandered off the Trail, they discovered that human nature was not always as kind. Thru-hikers were always kind. Day-hikers were generally kind. But Jon and Kelly had had their moments of fear.

The trepidation they felt right now, however, was different. They’d been assured this was Rusty’s. It had to be. But what if they were at the wrong place? They’ve been assured Rusty was friendly. But what if he wasn’t? And Rusty welcomed hikers. But what if he took one look at this ragtag duo and decided that they weren’t “real hikers”? And the signs did not make them comfortable. But they were out of food, anyway. They either had to descend or hitchhike. Either choice seemed perilous.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Jon noted wryly as he squeezed his wiry body and his backpack past the gate. Kelly followed.

The trees, beautiful in the sun next to the road, slowly became ominous, as their branches reached across the half-lane driveway, covering the two in shadow. Entering the driveway was like entering a tunnel, an abyss. Ahead of them, it snaked down into deeper shadows.

Jon sighed. Downhill. The AT was never flat—you were always moving up or down (indeed, hiking the entire AT was, in terms of elevation change, the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest from sea level to top. Sixteen times). Jon had found he preferred uphill climbs to downhill. While uphill was certainly more exhausting, downhill was like a dull knife in his knees. While he was only twenty-six, his knees felt at least twice that age walking downhill with 60 pounds on his back.

The two glanced back and forth, studying the forest around them. They moved slowly now, not simply because of fatigue, but because of that trepidation. Every few feet, another sign sprung up on a tree. “If you’re found here in the evening, you won’t be found here in the morning.” “Protected by Smith and Wesson.” “Stop! Turn back!” It was not encouraging, to say the least.

After nearly a mile, the driveway began to level out and the trees opened up, inviting in the afternoon sunlight. Jon peered ahead. Sprawling in front of him was a rustic scene from days long past. The driveway snaked in between what seemed to be two rickety wooden barns, the one on the left side two stories, the one on the right a single story. A rusted gold pickup truck sat next to an old white van. Beyond the vehicles was a seemingly ancient stone building, again covered in various signs, though unreadable from this distance. Beyond that, the hollow opened wide and reached the bottom where there seemed to be a flimsy fence around a garden next to a huge pile of firewood.

And between them and the vehicles was a man, in his fifties or so, with a pudgy belly, dressed in a white T-shirt and jean overalls, both splotched with dirt and grease. On the left thigh of the overalls was an old brown paint stain. The man had short hair and a Mennonite beard flecked with gray. He wore a filthy stars-and-bars baseball cap. His eyes, blue and deep, seemed to betray distrust, as they considered the pair of hikers over his glasses. A moment passed. Jon could smell woodsmoke.

“What’re yer handles?” the man asked in a Southern drawl, frowning.

Another moment passed. Kelly listened to her own heartbeat.

“Um,” said Jon, unsure of exactly how to answer. He decided to trust his instincts. “I’m, um, Tigger. And this,” he waved a hand to indicate Kelly, “is Roo.”

Jon had earned the trail name Tigger because of how both he and his backpack bounced when he hiked. Kelly had then earned the name Roo, as Tigger’s best friend and conscience.

Another moment passed. Jon heard a bird cawing far away.

Then a smile grew on the man’s face. It reminded Kelly of when the Grinch’s heart grows three times too big in the TV Christmas special.

“Ah knew it!” he cried. “They said you warn’t comin’, but I knew you’d show up. Ah’m Rusty. Yer welcome here—that’s the bunkhouse—” (he pointed to the two-story structure) “—you kin put yer stuff in there. Then c’mon down and meet the others and get some grub.”

Both Tigger and Roo looked at the bunkhouse. It was the sort of place that, a few months ago, they’d never have visited, let alone slept in. But after miles and miles on the Trail, they’d gotten used to sleeping in places they’d never have slept in before. It looked like a four-star hotel. Both of them smiled tentatively as Rusty turned and trudged toward the ancient shelter beyond where, apparently, “grub” awaited. Then he stopped and turned and pointed to Tigger.

“Oh, an’ I gotta gee-tar fer you to play!”

He continued his trek.

Jon and Kelly, or Tigger and Roo, looked at each other in muted triumph.

“How does he know you play guitar?”

Jon shrugged. “Trail magic?”

After the two had set their sleeping bags on a pair of dirty mattresses on the second floor of the bunkhouse, weaving between the walls, mousetraps, and a warped ping-pong table on the first floor, and moving up the narrow wooden steps, they made their way down to the front of the main building, where a group of hikers (all dirty, all stinking to high heaven) sat in various lawn chairs or picnic tables. There was a round of introductions: Hike-a-Holic (who’d hiked the AT five times); Peanut (a young girl with massive calves formed by daily 20-milers); Maine-iac (who’d reportedly hiked the Trail in 55 days); Eagle, clearly stoned (whom they’d met earlier on the Trail); The Canucks (a couple, separately, from Canada, who’d met and fallen in love on the Trail); Saxman (who, unlike Tigger, had ditched his instrument but still carried his saxophone after a thousand miles); Pacemaker (so named because he’d had heart failure on the Trail due to Lyme’s Disease, and had been on a temporary pacemaker while he recovered—before returning to the AT); Daisy (a young hippie flower girl); and one or two others lost in the overwhelming introductions. Some had been here for a day. Eagle and a couple others had been here for over a week. As Rusty would say later, “Sometimes thru-hikers stop here an’ become through hikers. If ya know what I mean.”

And then there was Rusty, who pulled out a camera and snapped a quick Polaroid of Tigger and Roo, which he proudly taped to the inside porch ceiling in the main house. The ceiling was covered with hundreds of such Polaroids, each a hiker who’d stayed at Rusty’s this season. Other parts of the shack were covered with such photos too from former seasons, each a moment, a memory, part of one person’s journey, a veritable wallpaper of humanity. Rusty had lived here now for almost ten years—he did some occasional work for the Park Service in Shenandoah National Park but otherwise lived off the land and from the kindness of the hikers who visited.

Then Hike-a-Holic did what he was, apparently, wont to do—talked.

“Nice to meetcha,” he said. “Welcome to Rusty’s Hard Time Hollow. It’s the only private place in the US surrounded on all sides by national forest…”

Maine-iac interrupted him before the monologue turned into an avalanche.

“Y’all want a drink? I’m headed to the spring.”

“Sure,” said Jon, as Hike-a-Holic continued without missing a beat.

“This buildin’ is antebellum, built before the Civil War. Rusty himself added the solar shower and bunk houses an’ made it bigger.” He pointed to a set of steps leading to a solitary wooden phone booth. “That’s the privy, if ya need it. There’s no running water or electricity here, but I’m sure yer used ta that by now. Behind there’s a nice porch that overlooks the land, twenty-five acres, and down below there’s the fire pit—” (so that’s what the woodpile was—preparation for a huge campfire, thought Jon) “—an’ a garden with potatoes. And down further is the wood-fueled hot tub, though it takes a while ta heat up…”

Hike-a-Holic was interrupted by Maine-iac again, or he’d likely have continued without breathing, thought Kelly. Maine-iac just said, “Here,” and handed Hike-a-Holic a Coors Light can, then turned to Jon and Kelly and offered them each one too.

“Sometimes he don’t ever stop talking,” he said. “We keep the beers in the spring to keep ’em cold. Enjoy.” And he opened his own can.

Tigger and Roo looked at each other in disbelief. They’d expected spring water, of course.

“Thanks,” said Tigger, as he exultantly pulled the tab on his own can.

Several cans later, Rusty dragged a tractor across the garden, digging up the dirt, as the group of misfits followed after, digging in the dirt for potatoes. Others among the group climbed a rickety ladder, pulling apples from the apple trees that randomly dotted the land. Jon and Kelly took part in this ritual, Kelly dirtying herself more (if such a thing was possible), her hands bobbing for potatoes in the dirt, while Jon caught apples thrown down by Eagle.

A can or two later, everyone was downing Rusty’s baked potatoes and apple crisp, Kelly and Jon inside the antebellum shack, on the old, smelly couch next to the raging woodstove. After months of mostly dehydrated food, ramen, and peanut butter, Kelly merely whispered, “Heavenly.” Clean-up commenced and conversation flowed.

At one point, Peanut drunkenly approached the newcomers.

“You guys wanna play beer pong?”

“Sure!” said Jon. He’d played beer pong in college and felt certain he and Kelly could compete. But they were dragged to the bunkhouse. This wasn’t the beer pong he knew.

Instead, all the players (seven, as it turns out) surrounded the ping pong table, each holding a beer. The rules were simple. The person at one end of the table served, dropped the paddle on the table and moved rightward around the table. The next person picked up the paddle and waited for the return from the other side. That person returned, dropped the paddle, and moved on as well, allowing the person behind them to pick it up for the next return. In this way, the crowd moved around the table with drunken alacrity. If you missed, you drank. You had three chances. Three strikes and you were out.

Rusty stood in the corner, kept score, and heckled. 

“Roo! Ya gotta be faster’n that!”

Eventually, only Tigger and Pacemaker were left.

“Now what?”

“Now,” said Rusty, and Jon couldn’t help but think Rusty was making this all up as it went along, “it’s just you two. So ya can’t go ’round the table. So Pacemaker serves, puts th’ paddle down, spins ’round, picks it up, an’ returns. Then you. Till someone misses three times.”

It was, of course, impossible. Even sober. Both Pacemaker and Tigger collapsed at least three times trying to spin around. Once Tigger set off a mousetrap as he fell. Inebriated laughter filled the room and the hollow space that the evening had woven around them.

Somewhere in there, time was lost. It ceased to move in a line like a river and became instead a lake, like the Hollow itself. It didn’t so much as slow down as much as it expanded outward, became liquid, and filled the space around them like water from a dammed stream. They found themselves swimming in it, soaking in it. And somewhere in there, someone lit the campfire, which raged a dozen feet high into the fall night air. Things happened, as it were, but they all happened simultaneously and lasted an eternity. It reminded Kelly of the difference between the hikers and the drivers she’d considered before—the drivers were obsessed with time while the hikers had been obsessed with space, with depth.

Back at the main shack, Jon and Kelly sat on the rickety wood floor of the back porch and watched the distant fire as it raged. Several hikers sat around it. Above, the stars became streaks in the sky, maps of where they’d been and where they were going, another sign that time submerged them. They could hear voices, but not words.

The world moved in waves.

One wave flowed between Jon and the fire, blocking the light. He shaded his eyes like he was looking at the sun rather than the full moon. Rusty towered above him, holding aloft an old Gibson acoustic guitar. Jon was compelled to reach out and take it, as Rusty slid behind him and sat in the dirt-covered reddish easy chair. Through a drunken haze, Jon managed to tune the thing. He played with the strings a bit, then tested out some chords. Confidence flowed through him and he forgot that other people were around and began to play slow blues in E major.

The music seemed, to him, languid, slow, like his and Kelly’s hike. And like their hike, it also seemed both full of purpose and aimless. The chords at first seemed underwater as well, drenched in the eerie waves of time and space. He played, but did not really hear what he played. But somewhere in there, sound drifted to him like an echo, and it occurred to him that the wailing he heard, distantly, did not sound like a guitar at all. Instead, it seemed otherworldly, somehow triumphant and melancholic, lamenting a pastiche of sublime timelessness that, ironically, could not last. It was a moment of drunken clarity, a moment when he knew that all his aches and pains, all his worldly problems, became insignificant. He knew he knew the meaning of it all, but he also knew that to name that meaning, to explain it, would be to instantly lose it, that, like a snowflake, it was beautiful and unique, and would melt at his touch.

And that’s when he realized that Saxman, sitting by the fire, now inexplicably dead down to embers, had joined him, soloing over his chords, a timeless duet. He wondered how long Saxman had been playing, and in that moment of wondering he became aware of the passage of time again, timelessness began to recede, like waves on the beach, and things began to have a chronology again. Kelly still sat next to him, her eyes moist with tears. Behind them, Rusty snored. Jon stopped playing, allowing Saxman to finish the coda of some unwritten melody. The full moon shone brightly over Hard Time Hollow. Somewhere, coyotes joined the chorus, and then, eventually silence reigned as sparks drifted toward the stars.

Kelly took Jon’s hand. Love at Love Gap.

“Trail magic,” she whispered.

And they still stunk to high heaven.

About the author:

Jim Speese holds a PhD in post-WWII American Literature from Lehigh University. He is a singer/songwriter with the band Cloud Party, and wrote a weekly column on music for the Reading Eagle for over a decade. Jim currently teaches writing at Albright College. He lived in and worked for Yellowstone National Park for four years and spent three months hiking the Appalachian Trail. His fiction is published in Brushfire, Penmen Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Potato Soup Journal, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and Wrath-Bearing Tree. His short story, The Confession of Monsignor Vorges, is published in Potato Soup Journal’s Best of 2021 anthology.

Feature image by Peter Olexa on Unsplash