“Do you want some apple wine made right here in the fine state of North Carolina?” Riley asks, handing me a jug. We are hanging out up at the Herb Shop at the end of a hazy, hot day.
“Tastes like candy,” I say, making a face. “But still, not too bad.”
“Try this one,” Riley hands me a mason jar filled with foggy yellow liquid. “It’s apple wine with hot water and anise star root.”
I sip cautiously but am pleasantly surprised. The invention is much milder and quite enjoyable.
“Better, isn’t it?” says Riley with a proud smile.
“Yeah. You ready?” We have agreed to go on a hike even though it is already 8:00 p.m. and dusk is closing in. Riley grabs long sleeves and a backpack, stuffing a raincoat and water bottle inside. I consider the sky, the air temperature, and the likelihood of rain and chuckle a little to myself – I have no backpack, no additional layers, no water. Hiking around here still feels like just hanging out in the backyard so I am not concerned.
We cross the river and park my car at the boarding school, then head on foot up the old road towards Wildflower Cove. By the time we cross Ballew fields and greet the horses, hike past the abandoned house and into the Cove it is nearly dark. I point out some flowers for him but without the sunlight to illuminate the Cove most of the flower names I list sound empty. But as the Cove narrows I am struck with a desire to keep hiking. This afternoon my energy level dropped, sending me unexplainably home from the job early and straight into bed. After a nap and a good meal, and now in the company of Riley, my energy picks up again.
“Yeah, I’m game,” Riley says through the dark, following close behind me on the trail. “That’s why I brought some water, in case we went far. Do you want some?”
We pass the bottle back and forth in the dark, breathing silently and listening to the creek. I lead Riley to the end of the Cove, we cross the creek holding hands for balance, a gesture that is repeated numerous times throughout the hike. We have to guess our way up the opposite bank and try to find the other trail, laughing as branches slap our faces.
“Where are we?” he wonders aloud.
“We just crossed onto the game lands, near an old forest road, and we’re going to head downstream now back towards the community land,” I explain, pointing as I talk even though it is useless without light. I have been on this long loop before but never in the dark and never in the denseness of spring. Secretly, I am pleased with my navigational skills but glad not to be hiking in the dark alone with all the recent bear activity.
After two hours, we have hiked four miles, looped around on the old Doug Road, spit back out onto to the back end of Hannah Branch, then skirted over near the Ohle’s pond trail and out onto Firefly Lane where our pace quickened with the ease of the gravel road. And about ten feet before the thick cable wire runs a barrier across the road at someone’s driveway, I remember not to trip and tell Riley to lift up his legs and step over the wire, which is completely invisible in the pitch black.
“What? Where?” He says, waving his arms.
“Just step high, here, feel this,” I say, guiding his hands to the cable.
“Oh my God, that would have put us flat on our faces if we’d walked into that,” he says maneuvering over the wire. By now I am beaming, not because of the good company, not because of the perfect weather, but really because I have passed a personal test and proven to myself that I have learned a lot about these woods and dare I say it, even know my way around a bit.
When we get to the field we lie on our backs and notice the Big Dipper, which is nothing compared to the mass of fireflies on all sides of us.
“The first time I noticed fireflies was actually in New York City,” I say, knowing he will understand this since he also grew up west of the Rockies (where there are no fireflies).
“You’re kidding!” Riley says, almost loudly into the night. “Me too. It was in Queens, it was the strangest experience.”
“Get out! I was in Manhattan, looking down into a courtyard from a 13th story apartment building.”
And it goes on and on like this for quite some time. He tells hitchhiking stories and I explain the writing life. He describes a volunteer job with the Park Service in the Grand Canyon and I explain backpacking digging trail with AmeriCorps in the Adirondacks. Half a mile further down the gravel road and we are back at my car where we sit for a while and finish off the water. Riley finishes the apple wine invention with a satisfying gulp and lets out a sigh.
“What a walk, Katey. Wow,” Riley says. I smile in the dark and start the car, turning it around slowly and heading back across the river towards Joe’s farm. I park in the driveway to drop Riley off. “When will I see you again?” he says.
“This week sometime, probably when the herbs come in the mail. I’ll be up to finish work for Joe before I leave.”
“I’m back June 22nd,” I say. “Soon, really.”
And I don’t know why, but I am surprised how soft his skin is when he takes off his hat and gives me a hug. A bit intrigued by the gentle out-of-the-corner-of-his-eyes look he gives me when the car light comes on and he slips back into the night. Surprised further still when I notice that the scent of his body odor mixed with soil that lingers in my car after he leaves is still appealing to me.