Reviers by Jessewave says: "I can promise you that reading Sex & Sourdough is an adventure." Read more...
On Top Down Under says: "The story is good and the characters are all very entertaining." Read more...
M/M Good Book reviews says: "This is a great read that blends great visual scenery, social studies, ecological conservationism, heat, passion and a touching love story." Read more...
Anders sat down in the dirt, four hundred miles from home, with nothing but a backpack and basic camping gear, and stared at the black screen of his cell phone. He had been staring at it for over an hour, and he’d turned the damn thing on and off again three times just to replay the angry voice mails. He didn’t want to listen to them again, since it would just waste the battery on his phone, but the furious messages his lover had left him the night before made him feel like getting sick rather than hiking.
The Amicalola Falls Visitor’s Center parking lot was quiet, since it was a Tuesday morning. Most of the other hikers who had come up on the shuttle from Atlanta had already gotten started. After listening to his lover rage and belittle him until his voice mail cut off the recording, Anders still managed to check in at the ranger station, signing his name and address in the logbook for hikers and backcountry campers in the park. He even made it back across the parking lot and as far as the stone arch that would eventually lead him to the start of the Appalachian Trail.
That was where he’d choked.
And where he’d stayed, replaying his lover’s messages like an idiot. The first message was an insulting rant about how stupid it was for Anders to take off hiking on his own, and it continued until the message time cut off Joel’s rant. The second message was Joel screaming about how he planned to punish Anders for not keeping his phone turned on. The third, which he really didn’t want to listen to again, was a slurred, hissing series of insults in which Joel accused him of taking this trip without him just so he could fuck around behind Joel’s back. Since they were recordings, there was no way for Anders to remind Joel that the only reason he was out here alone was because Joel had decided to sign up for a summer class two days before they were supposed to begin this hike together. That was probably for the best, since arguing with him would just make Joel angrier.
He turned his phone on and drew circles in the dirt, waiting for it to connect to the weak cellular signal. He got as far as entering his voice mail pin number before he came to his senses. With trembling fingers, he deleted the first three messages as they began to play.
Then his phone announced that he had one new voice mail. “Anders, baby, I’m so sorry that I got upset last night,” Joel’s recorded voice—sweet, calm, and sober this time—said through the phone. “You know how crazy I get when I think about us being apart. So, there’s a little store near Neels Gap, about thirty miles from the start of the trail. I’ve still got two weeks before my class starts, and I can drive down and meet you there on Friday. You should be able to get there in four days to meet me, and we’ll talk about how you’re going to make this up to me when I get there. Love you, baby.”
Anders looked down at the phone after the message ended and deleted it too.
Just so he didn’t feel stupid for wasting more of his phone’s battery, he snapped a picture of the sign next to the arch, and then turned the phone off again. Once the phone was back in his pocket, he climbed to his feet and looked down the trail beyond the stone arch. It was just dirt, the same as on the parking lot side.
“You all right there, Butch?”
Anders looked around. The only hiker near him was a large, scruffy man with a full brown beard, a thick baby-blue down coat and heavy gloves. He looked like he was ready for a mountaineering expedition instead of a Spring hike on what promised to be a sunny day. Anders himself already felt warm in a light fleece, and he hadn’t even started moving yet. Between the man’s beard, sunglasses, and layers of clothes, Anders wasn’t sure if he was a hiker or a transient.. He had a faded old backpack on, and a set of scratched and dented hiking poles, so he had to be a hiker.
Anders looked around again, trying to figure out who the stranger was talking to. Anders was anything but butch. He was only five foot seven, and at a hundred and sixty pounds, he was so skinny he was often mistaken for a teenager, even at twenty-three.
Anders recalled all of the warnings his parents had issued about psychopaths roaming this trail, then banished the thoughts immediately. Dressing for sub-zero temperatures during the last week of April and calling Anders’ butch might mean the man was out of touch with reality, but that wasn’t always the same thing as dangerous.
“Most people don’t start having second thoughts until two days in,” the man continued.
“I’m not having second thoughts.”
“You sure about that?”
“My hiking partner decided to ditch me, and I’m just not sure it’s a good idea to go through with this.”
“Ditched you? How far were you planning on going?”
Anders tried to shrug, not that he could with a forty-pound pack weighing his shoulders down. They had been planning on going however far they could get before the beginning of September. Anders had rushed through his finals and skipped his own commencement ceremony so they would have a full four months to complete the hike. But now, when Anders had only ever set up his new tent in Joel’s living room for practice, even hiking the thirty miles to the hostel where Joel had said he’d be waiting seemed daunting. Hiking the thousand miles they’d planned, to finish half of the Appalachian Trail, was definitely not going to happen.
“We were just going to hike, see how far we could get this summer. We were aiming for Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He said he’d try to meet me at some place called Neels Gap in four days….” Anders shrugged again. “I’m just not sure what to do.”
The bearded man looked him up and down, then smirked.. “Seriously? This isn’t the most complicated hobby in the world, but I guess I could give you a hand, if you really need it.”
“Trust me. First, turn your body about thirty degrees to the right.”
“You’ll have to trust me.”
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 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 Armor 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?” he 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, came south from Maine. I wanted to finish the trail going north this year, but I’m off to a late start. Most people start in March, but I hate the cold.”
Anders knew that was true. He’d rearranged finals exams, done extra papers, and skipped his own graduation ceremonyto get out here as fast as possible. It was only the last week of April, but it would be almost impossible to finish the entire trail before the park service closed Mount Katahdin, the last peak on the Appalachian Trail, in October. Or rather, it would have been impossible for him. The stranger in front of him had hiked up the trail like a mountain goat, as though he’d been born to it, so he would probably finish in time.
“But you’ve already finished the whole thing?”
“You’ve hiked the entire Appalachian Trail? The hard way?”
The man leaned close. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s the same trail, both directions. It’s no harder going south. There just aren’t as many people. After the hike I did before, doing the southbound hike wasn’t that difficult.”
“What did you hike before?
“The Pacific Crest Trail.”
Anders gaped. “Shit….” He’d heard Joel talk about the much longer, much harder Pacific Crest Trail with awe. The isolated, difficult trail ran from Mexico to Canada, and unlike the popular Appalachian Trail, there were very few towns nearby and none of the shelters and amenities that made the Appalachian Trail seem hospitable. On the Pacific Crest Trail, hikers had to rely on themselves and outside support for their survival. Anders hadn’t given it that much thought, since Joel had said hiking it would be a logistical nightmare.
Spending a lifetime hiking long-distance trails would explain those rigid, lean muscles, if nothing else. Not the shoulders, or the arms that looked like they could break Anders in half, but maybe the man had lifted weights before he started hiking.
“I’m from the West Coast,” he explained. “Yosemite was practically in my backyard growing up, so the Pacific Crest Trail was kind of familiar territory. I loved it by the end, so I thought I’d come out here and see what all the fuss was about. What about you?”
Anders looked around, honestly surprised he had even made it this far. “This has been sort of an obsession of mine for the last six months or so. There’s not a whole lot of outdoors stuff in Florida, and what there is, everybody ignores. There are miles of jogging trails on the University of North Florida campus, and there’s never anybody on them. People there would rather wait in line for an hour so they can hop on a treadmill. I was trying to get my partner to hike out to this really cool beach with me, and he started talking about hikes he’d done before. He said he had done a few big sections of the Appalachian Trail, and he wanted to do the whole thing, so….”
“And then he didn’t show up?”
Anders sighed. He didn’t need to tell a complete stranger about his issues with Joel. He had decided in his freshman year of high school that he was never going to live his life in the closet, but he had grown up a lot in the years since he defiantly told his family, and anyone else who would listen, that he was gay and proud. Most of the world, Anders had learned, was filled with decent people who responded to others with whatever attitude they were met with. So if Anders didn’t point out that he was gay, if he didn’t act like it was a big deal, no one else acted like it was a big deal either.
“Just because he had something come up doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the hike.” The man smiled.
“He didn’t have something come up. He found an excuse not to come with me. The day before we were both supposed to get on the bus to Atlanta, he petitioned to get into a summer class instead”
“Hm. Bad timing, or did he just not want to go?”
“Really bad timing,” Anders lied. “I spent all this money buying stuff”—he gestured to his pack—“and saving up so I could afford to not work this summer, and he’s the one who couldn’t make it. But this is all I’ve been able to think about for weeks, so I figured I’d give it a try, at least.”
“Give it a try?”
The man leaned forward, staring with his mouth open. “You’ve never been hiking before?”
“I’ve gone hiking before, just never overnight.”
“If I had known down at the parking lot, I’d have told you to go back to the visitor’s center. It’s still the fastest way back to civilization.”
“I don’t want to go back,” said Anders. The sooner he went back to Jacksonville, the sooner the rest of his life would start. He was willing to do whatever it took to steal a few more weeks of freedom, even if it meant making a fool of himself and inciting Joel’s wrath. “I haven’t done this before, but he walked me through the equipment and stuff. It’s camping. Walking and camping. Like you said, most of it is putting one foot in front of the other.”
“Look,” the man said as he fished out a clear plastic bottle filled with water, “your friend would be the first to tell you that you shouldn’t be out here. And if not, he’s an idiot. This might be Georgia, but it’s still the mountains. It’s going to get cold tonight; not below freezing, but cold. People die on hiking trails every year—the quickest way to become one of them is to jump into a situation you’re not prepared for.”
“Look, I know there are shelters where you can stay overnight, and I didn’t buy cheap gear. I think I’ll be just fine.”
“Do you have a map? A guide listing shelters, water sources, things like that? A water filter, lighter, and all that stuff?”
“Well, most of it. I mean, we had a map, but it was in his pack. I meant to buy one down at the visitor’s center, but I….” He’d been too stunned by Joel’s voice mail to walk, much less to think clearly. “I forgot.”
Anders didn’t think it was possible for the man’s mouth to drop open farther, but it did. The man didn’t have to look at Anders like he was a complete moron. He had read the guidebook; he just didn’t have his own copy. He had never tried to set up his tent except in Joel’s living room, but it was fairly simple. He had never slept in his sleeping bag, but it was rated to well below zero, and he had a good sleeping pad to go with it.
The stranger closed his mouth and tightened the cap on his water bottle. “Huh. You know, I like to get a slow start myself,” the man said carefully. “You can hike with me for a bit, just in case you run into trouble.”
“I’ll be fine,” Anders insisted.
“You probably will be. But meeting new people is part of the experience, isn’t it? Besides, I am a hell of a good cook.”
“Well,” the stranger said, looking sheepish. “I bake.”
“You bake?” Anders laughed. “Out here in the middle of the forest?”
The man smiled brightly. “I bake everywhere. Except hotels; they get a little touchy about smoke detectors.”
“You seriously bake?”
“Bread is cheaper than crack.”
“I mean that it’s addictive. It’s my addiction, anyway. That’s how I got my trail name. I’m Kevin, Kevin Winters, but folks call me Sourdough.”
“Your friend didn’t even mention that? Female hikers started it a long time ago, going by a pseudonym so hikers coming behind them wouldn’t be able to see they were a single woman from reading the shelter logs. Everybody uses one, at least for signing the logs and registers.”
“Oh.” Anders felt like an idiot. He might as well have tattooed the word NEWBIE across his forehead. “Was I supposed to do that down at the visitor’s center?”
“Nah, don’t worry about it. Someone will give you a nickname or two before long, you can bet on that. Or I’ll just keep calling you Butch.”
Kevin nodded with enthusiasm.
“Why Butch?” Anders gestured down at his skinny chest.
Kevin’s smile didn’t falter. “I’m not very creative.”
Anders sighed and nodded. “Okay, I’m game. I don’t want to be called Butch, though.”
That night, Anders followed Kevin to a shelter just past Springer Mountain. When he went toward the shelter, Kevin tugged on his shoulder, pulling him toward a couple of small tents set up about fifty yards away. “Toilets are great, a big fire pit is great, but the shelters aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”
“But what if it rains?”
“Unless you bought your tent at Walmart, it’ll keep you dry,” Kevin made a noncommittal grunt. “And there are mice and chipmunks in there.”
“Chipmunks?” Anders chuckled. “A guy your size is afraid of a few chipmunks?”
“Those mice and chipmunks will eat through your pack just for the salt that’s soaked into the fabric from your sweat. If you aren’t an active sleeper, they’ll eat through your sleeping bag too. They’re evil. Tents are better. You don’t have to put up with twelve other people snoring, no one trips over you in the middle of the night, and you can sleep naked. Tents are always better.” Kevin hesitated. “Unless there’s a flash flood, anyway. It’s hard to climb a tent.”
“You sleep naked?” Anders whispered before he could stop himself.