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The trees swallowed us up as we hiked deeper into George Washington National Forest toward Kennedy’s Peak.  As we walked, I watched the trail mostly, avoiding roots and uneven ground.  I can’t remember what we talked about exactly.  We talked about so many things.  The conversation consumed him just as it consumed me, diminishing all the nuisances that go along with being outdoors.  Mosquitos and gnat swarms became invisible and the heat from a July sun warmed our skin rather than scorching it.  For awhile, our simple hike to Kennedy’s Peak became more than just an overnight camping trip.  It was an important event in our relationship.  One where we shared intimate details about ourselves, our beliefs, our dreams.   

As I listened to him revealing a new layer of himself, I was struck by the deliberate intention of a cropping of rocks.  I opened my mouth to say something about how unnatural it looked, but stayed quiet, not wanting to interrupt him.  A few minutes later I was pushing low hanging branches out of my face and stepping over and around rocks, bushes, and tall weeds.  Still staring at the ground as I hiked, I almost walked right into him.  He had stopped without warning and looked around.  He was quiet, then, “I think we lost the trail.”

My eyes darted from the ground to the world around me as I tried to make sense of what he said.  I soon realized he was right.  We had gone from a well-cut, cleared trail to maneuvering around dense foliage and tall grass.  I wasn’t an experienced hiker so I looked at him with expectation.  He was a Boy Scout, worked at a camp, mountaineered on a glacier in Alaska.  He met my eyes and calmly said, “I think we can regain the trail.  We probably lost it just a few yards back.”

I nodded, trusting his experience, and followed him back the way we had come, hopeful that the trail would be just where he said.  It became apparent that the trail had been lost many more words ago than we thought.  If he was panicking, I didn’t pick up on it.  My feelings were uncharacteristically calm and I felt myself trusting every step he took even though we seemed to be walking in circles.  Almost half an hour passed as we tried to find the trail again.  Just as the trail had slipped away from us, so was the sun, as the sky began to turn to dusk. 

He looked at me then and I thought maybe he was starting to panic.  Instead, he walked toward me, brushed his lips against mine in a kiss and said, “I love you.” 

“What?” I asked, stunned by the deep revelation he had just shared with me for the first time.  It was not what I expected to hear at that moment.

“I love you,” he repeated, with more emphasis this time, his eyes bright in the darkening forest.  I smiled and said it back.  This moment seemed to renew his hope that we’d figure out where we were and which way we should go, so he turned and walked out in front of me again. 

We walked a while longer, still trying to find the trail we’d lost so long ago.  His steps were hesitant now as he shuffled a few paces to what I could only guess was the north, stopped and looked around, then shuffled a few paces to the west.  After a few more minutes, I asked what he thought we should do.  “I don’t know,” he said, after a long time.  I knew it was hard for him to admit but it made me smile and my trust in him grew even more.   In those moments as we trudged through the woods I remembered other relationships I’d had before him.  I’d been lost in the car with boyfriends before, and calm trust was not anywhere close to my reaction then.  I marveled at my ability to feel at peace with him while I was lost in strange woods and night fell closer and closer. 

Finally he stopped and with defeated breath said, “We need to set up a place to sleep before it gets too dark.  This spot is flat enough, don’t you think?”  I shrugged and nodded, dropping my pack from my shoulders and stretched my arms above my head.

“What should I do?” I asked.

He began listing tasks for me to complete as he dug the tarp out of his pack and began stringing it up into a makeshift shelter.  Kennedy’s Peak had a wooden shelter so there was no need to pack a tent.  Now the tarp would serve as our shelter.  I watched in admiration as he finished putting a makeshift roof over my head and began building a fire.  Once the flames were large enough to warm us, he went to work on dinner.  He pulled a small gas burner and pot out of his pack along with a plastic bag filled with cooked chicken, peas, and carrots.  Then he fished a box of couscous and proceeded to cook.  As grateful as I was for his industrious abilities, I grimaced at the couscous.  It was something I had never eaten and at that moment I was starving.  Forcing down food I didn’t like was not appealing even though I knew I needed the fuel. 

He didn’t say much as he prepared the meal and handed me a small tupperware container of the mixture of couscous, chicken, and vegetables.  I smiled at him and fluffed the new food with the spork I’d pulled out of my bag.  He filled his own container with food and began eating.  I pushed the food around a bit more before scooping a small amount onto my spork.  The tiny bite of food wasn’t enough to fairly judge couscous so I took a bigger bite.  Despite the fact that I really do not like peas, I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty the couscous was. 

That night as I laid under the tarp on a rock in the middle of the woods, I thought about the adventure we were on and hoped it would last a long time.  I felt comfortable and safe with him despite not knowing where we were in the world and how we would get back.  He had provided for me, taken care of me and, just as important, he had introduced me to new experiences, experiences as big as sleeping under a tarp in the woods and as small as eating couscous.   

The next morning we were able to find our way back to the trail with help from the director of the camp he worked at that summer.  After listening to the director give him a hard time for getting lost on an easy trail, I asked how far we were from the Peak.  “We’re actually really close now,” he told me.  I suggested we finish the hike we’d started yesterday.  He looked at me in disbelief and after assuring him I was serious, we thanked his boss for rescuing us and took off on the trail again determined to reach Kennedy’s Peak, or perhaps just determined to finish what we had started together.

The views from Kenney’s Peak were beautiful, but the large covered shelter was swarming with gnats, mosquitos, and moths.  I was secretly glad we hadn’t slept there.

On the hike back down to the car, we came across the same rock cropping I had found so curious the day before.  He stopped in front of it and turned around to face me.  “This is a trail marker,” he said.  “We shouldn’t have walked over this.”  We laughed and I took a picture of him pointing at the small, ankle-high wall of rocks that had failed to lead us in the intended direction.  I couldn’t help but think that maybe it had led us in the right direction instead.