The trail turned uphill again, the "M" blazed in the bark of the tree leading her on. Julie cupped water from the mountain stream and drank before picking up her walking stick and moving on. She could feel her hair dragging across the back of her neck. It had been too long since she had last cropped it back.
An eagle shrieked across the mountain valley, and a sudden movement caught her eye. Off in the distance, far up the pass where her trail led, she could see someone move quickly across the ridge. Who is that?
Her heartbeat picked up. The trail she was following was a lonely one. What were the chances she would meet someone up here, so far from the main road?
She leaned into her walking stick. The stranger had been moving fast–could she catch up?
A "T" marked ancient gnarled juniper, pointing the way past the pass, but she paused and looked back up where the trees thinned out near the peak. There was definitely a trail there, well worn among the rocks, circling the peak like a dusty halo. She couldn't tell where it went, but it appeared flat on this side.
She grit her teeth, and stepped off her trail.
Stepping from rock to rock, occasionally feeling the mush of high altitude tundra, she approached the spot where she had seen the other hiker.
Footprints, man-sized in the dust. Lots of them. It looked like a hundred men, all wearing the same size and style of shoe had passed this way.
She looked off to the west, in the direction the toes pointed. Something was definitely wrong here. Where are the trail markers? Her own route just a few hundred feet down the hill called to her. Could she dare follow this rut? Was it that important to see another person?
A noise snapped her around. Back the other way, just coming around a bend in the trail, another man approached.
He looks the same. At least the jacket was the same color. Maybe he had just looped the peak.
"Hello!" she called.
He paused in his steps, just now noticing her in his path. "Hi." He closed the distance, a smile on his face.
Julie couldn't help smiling back. Other than the beard, she thought he looked good.
"My name is Dan." He held out a hand and she shook it.
"Julie. I didn't expect to see anyone out here."
He nodded. "Me neither. I've never seen another soul on these ridges."
She pointed down hill. "My trail goes that way. Where are your markers? I can't see any."
He looked puzzled. "Markers? I just follow the footprints."
Julie knew that was wrong. "How long have you been here?"
"How long?" The glaze in Dan's eyes told her the answer before he said, "I dunno. Forever I guess."
The dusty trail, with endlessly repeating footprints unnerved her. "Come with me. My trail is marked."
He followed, trusting her, even as he had a hard time stepping outside the boundaries of the dusty path. He stumbled on the rocks, and she had to help him maintain his balance on the uneven terrain at first.
She spotted the "T" with relief, afraid that it might have vanished. He noticed it too and pointed it out, to her relief. He wasn't stupid–just dulled by being caught in an endless loop.
They passed "W" and "Th" before he pointed out the Jeep.
"Hey, look at this." He ran over and examined the vehicle caught among a cluster of pines.
Dan cautiously wedged his way though the door, and after a labored crank, and a cloud of black smoke sputtering out the tail pipe, the engine finally started.
Dan shifted the gears and tried to move it. The rear tires smoked on the rocks. He shifted into four wheel drive, and with a squeal of rubber, he edged cautiously out of its trap.
"Get in. I can make out an old trail here. It heads down. I bet it joins the highway before too long." He tossed his backpack into the back seat. "I've always wanted a Jeep."
Julie was amazed at the find. It would be nice to get back to civilization, and it would be nice to ride along with Dan for a while.
She reached for the door latch and sat down on the cushioned chair. Dan closed his door and revved the engine.
Julie shouted, "Wait!"
She was shaking her head. "I can't do this."
"What do you mean?"
"Something is wrong here." With a turn, she was out on her feet again. Her arms were shaking. Less than a memory, it was a conviction that driving off would cost her soul. "I feel ... twisted in there."
Dan shook his head. "There is nothing wrong with a car. Millions of people drive them every day. Do you want to drive? I'll let you drive."
"It's not that. I can't go that way. I don't know why, but I can't." She pointed over to the footpath. "That's the way I must go."
Dan sat there, his foot on the pedal, hands on the wheel. The Jeep was his dream car. The road ahead was clear.
Julie stepped back, and turned toward her trail. A feeling of wrongness lanced through his chest. A whisper–not this time–echoed in his head.
"Hey, wait up." He turned off the key, pulled the hand brake, and grabbed his backpack. "We'd better stick together."