Five minutes since leaving the car in the parking lot and tramping through wild grass, Callie’s best friend, Sarah, was already breaking the Alaskan calm and screaming into the wild.
“Two years he walks the earth!”
Her voice bounced between the trees, the echoes reverberating so far that they might have reached Bus 142 itself. Saying anything out loud tended to embarrass Callie, but it was just the three of them in a grassy expanse, so she let loose and joined Sarah in her resonate quotation.
“No phone, no pool—”
“No pets, no cigarettes!” The words were familiar and loose in their mouths, and the end-syllable of “cigarettes” whipped off their tongues like a snap of elastic and multiplied through the cool air. Sarah galloped ahead, her large backpack lurching up and down with every step. Callie shot a quick glance at Brodie, the third wheel of their hiking party, before bounding ahead herself. Brodie’s unshaven chin appeared compressed, an expression of falling outside of a joke. Perhaps he hadn’t read the book. Brodie kept walking at a lazy gait as Callie caught up with her best friend. Sarah had dropped her backpack now, switching from a rapturous exaltation to theatrical performance, acting the out the words by imitating the large steps of the rustic pioneers who explored this land hundreds of years before.
“Ultimate freedom, an aesthetic voyager whose home is the ROAD.” Sarah declared, tracing the horizon with the palm of her hand.
The parking lot was out of sight, and nothing but wild fields, mossy trees, and cerulean sky stood between Callie and the legendary Bus 142. The crispness of the air and the excitement of the journey ahead were invigorating. Blood danced in Callie’s veins, not with anxiety or nerves but with an unadulterated thrill she hadn’t experienced in over a year. She wanted to get away, and as Callie’s curly hair swayed in the wind in harmony with wild reeds, she decided that ‘away’ was a beautiful place to be.
The scent of pine and fresh rain was well worth the meticulous travel itineraries. After flying from Baltimore to Anchorage and driving four hours to Denali, they stayed the night at a cheap motel whose sole Yelp review consisted of one word—“stench.” Callie was attracted to its cheapness. Her parents offered to pay for a nicer hotel, but what was the point of this trip if she didn’t rough it a little? Callie shared the bed with Sarah and Brodie slept alone on a tweed couch. Before setting out, they ate at a dirty pizza joint called Lynx Pizza. “Might as well enjoy civilization while we can” Sarah said. “It’s just dehydrated food and beef jerky from here.” That a dive/pizza place could fall under ‘civilization’ spoke volumes about Denali’s lack of allure to anyone who wasn’t already planning to abandon it for the Stampede.
Callie first conceived the idea of a hiking the legendary Stampede Trail and making a pilgrimage to Chris McCandless’ bus during the casual rebellion of high school back. Ever since her stubby toddler legs learned to run earlier than her peers, evidence of Callie’s transcendent destiny simply fell into place. She was the first identified as a candidate for her elementary school’s Gifted and Talented program (euphemized as the ‘Great Thinkers’ program) and began taking accelerated algebra. Middle school involved the acquisition of honors and foreign language courses, all of which she took to get further ahead of her peers with minimal effort. Callie’s advantage, she realized later, was her ability to impress her teachers without trying, without staying up until 2 a.m. studying calculus or spending hours taking text notes. By her seventeenth birthday Callie was the belle of the bell curve, miles ahead of her rivals without even breaking into a sprint.
It was during this academic marathon that Callie and Sarah were assigned Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer as summer reading. An upper-class college grad with a trust fund burns everything he owns and sets off into the wild to find freedom and self-purpose. At first, McCandless seemed insane, the antithesis of everything Callie and her friends were raised to believe in. Why would a well-off kid in the golden ‘90s rough it like some prehistoric hunter-gatherer in an abandoned bus? To protest materialism? The shroud of philosophy McCandless fashioned for himself seemed full of holes even then, and his unceremonious death by starvation (or possibly, Krakauer speculates, dysentery) made him an even more absurd and contemptible figure. But as her peers berated Into the Wild for being stupid, a celebration of naiveté, or simply boring, McCandless’ rejection of what others demanded of him and strength to pursue his dreams in his way resonated with Callie. Disillusionment with the endless parade of scantrons, bullshit resume padding, and maddening conversations about a future she couldn’t envision left Callie daydreaming about McCandless, about abandoning her life and roughing it in the Yukon wild as he had 20 years before.
At the time Callie never imagined that she would actually pursue this fantasy—the view from the top was too gratifying to start again at the grimy roots. Instead she began protesting against the hollowness of academia while remaining its loyal participant, skipping class during the day and faithfully completing homework into the late hours of the night. During lunch Callie stole away to McDonald’s with Sarah to eat chicken nuggets and talk about McCandless’ magic bus. They were a Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn type of duo, though their criminal absences and disregard for authority were too petty to earn a supervillain reputation. Sarah pulled off the femme fatale more honestly than Callie. She was the more attractive of the two, with golden brown skin and the long lean body of an athlete; she was a runner in high school, a skier in college. She exuded a confidence and unabashed extroversion in her gestures, her velvety voice, and her eyes the color of light shining through a glass of whisky. Callie’s eyes were also brown, but they were too honest to be intoxicating. It was her eyes, drained of color and light, that always betrayed her tumultuous panic.
Sarah connected with McCandless too, but more for the adventurous thrill he inspired than any philosophical connection. When Callie transferred out Brown and suggested making the road trip to Chris McCandless’ bus a reality, Sarah was immediately on board.
Brodie ended up accompanying the girls all the way to Alaska because their parents focused far too much on McCandless’ death and far too little on his adventure and freedom. The Stampede Trail was twenty miles to the bus and twenty miles back, and took most hikers three days to traverse. Ten miles down the trail lay the Teklanika River, the same wide and swift-running river that prevented McCandless from returning to civilization. To keep their daughters from dying a la McCandless, the parents demanded that they bring along third party, preferably a tall, trustworthy young man. Both girls were between boyfriends, so Sarah invited her closest friend from college, a slick and serene guy who went by Brodie. Sarah met Brodie on her college ski team, and she introduced him to Callie shortly after she transferred.
“Brodie, tell Callie about the time that guy tried to mug you and you beat the shit out of him with your brass knuckles,” Sarah said. One corner of Brodie’s mouth shot up in a crooked grin.
“Nah you have it wrong,” he said. “That was the day I forgot my brass knuckles at the house.” Brodie wasn’t the Boy Scout her parents envisioned, but he had the muscle and survivalist experience to successfully navigate the country and intimidate potentially dangerous guys along the way. That day he wore a grungy plaid shirt over a black top, and his ears were pierced with clunky black gauges that, to Callie’s relief, covered the gaping holes in his ears. She looked at him like a deer caught in a truck’s deadly headlights. Brodie actually turned out to be a friendly guy but when they shook hands, his meaty hand tenderly handling hers as if too much pressure would leave her shattered on the pavement, Callie sensed they would never be close.
Brodie said he was in it for the high, but Sarah was not so sure.
“We hooked up once,” Sarah admitted. A few weeks before the spring semester finals, they were lying on the quad in their bikinis and sipping out of soda bottles filled with liquor. Sarah insisted Callie take a brief reprieve from anything school related by day drinking for once. Callie was lying on her back, and she turned her head towards her friend. “It’s weird because we act like it never happened. We just hang out like normal. We’ve literally never talked about it. Is that weird?”
“That’s pretty weird,” Callie said. She did not have many friends who also happened to be boys, so hooking up with a “guy friend” was new territory. But Callie had long been the advice-giver and Sarah the advice-receiver, so Callie aired her thoughts on the matter regardless of her experience. “Do you think that’s why he is doing Alaska? Because he’s into you?”
“I don’t know,” Sarah said. “It’s been too long for it to be that. Plus he’s the type to back his friends up just because. He just wants to be my back up.”
“Back up for what?” Rather than answering Callie’s question, Sarah held a yellow straw between two fingers and sipped up the last of her drink.
Sarah, Callie understood then, had briefed Brodie on the details of her anxiety. Details not even her parents were fully briefed on. Sarah never acknowledged Callie’s anxiety in so many words, but her need for back up “just in case” something happened was evidence enough. Likewise, Brodie remained two steps away from her at all times. It was a startling, even embarrassing realization that Brodie’s words and gestures were coached. Was Sarah’s unauthorized sharing of Callie’s situation a breach of trust or a preemptive measure to protect Callie from suffering a preventable panic attack? Callie thoughts obsessively wandered back to this question often, but on the Stampede Trail she suppressed them to preserve her buoyant mood. While Brodie’s tentative friendship left her thoughts, the fear they had sparked remained. The first day of hiking was only a ten mile trek to the Teklanika River. The plan was to set up camp after crossing the river, so their shoes and pants could lie next to the fire and dry out by the next morning. While Callie begrudgingly came to terms with the fact that her clothes would be water-logged and caked with mud by sunset, it was Sarah’s sworn mission to avoid that watery fate.
“I’m not getting my feet wet,” Sarah said. Their pace remained steady even after covering a few miles, and between strides Sarah stuck out her feet. “Watertight boots, three pairs of wool socks, same as I do on the slopes. I can spend all day tramping around in the snow, but when I take off my shoes my feet will be warm and snuggly.”
“Not if I push you in,” Callie said.
“Callie, you get blown over by the wind sometimes,” Sarah responded. “We should tag team Brodie.”
“I could just pick you girls up,” Brodie said. He wiggled his eyebrows at Sarah. “Like puppies, one under each arm.” The actual crossing of the river was carefully rehearsed several weeks earlier in a wide, but less strong river. The three would link arms and cross together, with Brodie in the front to bear the brunt of the river’s ferocious current. Callie was to be the caboose, trailing at the back as the others pulled her across.
The terrain of the Stampede Trail alternated between fielded expanse and rocky forest. They left the car around noon. With cellphones turned off and tucked away to save battery life and ensure their survival, time became nebulous, unrolling itself at a velocity only the stars were privy too. It felt similar to taking an exam, when the seconds steadily elongated themselves before violently shrinking into nothing, a reverse big bang. Callie brought two watches to all tests because she preferred the anchor of standardized time, but in the flurry of her writing hand and beating heart Callie would always lose track. In Alaska, losing her grip on time was beginning to make her lungs feel trapped in a too-small ribcage. She considered digging her phone out of her backpack, just to have something to hold on to for a while, when Sarah’s voice caught her attention
“Last girl you ate out and what it was like,” Sarah asked Brodie. Callie had long dropped out of the group’s light-hearted banter, and now Sarah and Brodie dominated the conversation by asking what Callie considered to be intrusive questions. Brodie was not fazed by Sarah. He only looked to the side and laughed.
“No fucking way! What the hell was that even like?” Sarah was blown away and disgusted by this revelation, so Callie articulated her own “Whoah!” though she had never heard of Katrina Heinz. Brodie just shrugged.
“It all tastes the same to be honest. Like, plain bagels.” The girls fell silent.
“Dicks too,” Callie said. Both Sarah and Brodie nodded approvingly and laughed at this pithy statement.
They were eight miles deep into the Alaskan wilderness when they came upon two German guys running the opposite direction. They wore what appeared to be state-of-the-art hiking boots, streamlined windbreakers, and packs that towered above them like silver smokestacks. Their English was advanced, but Callie believed they misspoke when they said they were running the entire trail in one day. “No,” one of the Germans said in his guttural voice. “We run most trails in one day. This one is slower because of the river, but the water’s not high.” The river was another two miles down the path, and their boots were still wet.
“Did you see the bus?” Sarah asked.
“Of course,” the other German said. “It was, well it is hard to describe. Stark. We didn’t stay long.” After sparing only a minute to talk, the German duo started running down the trail again, leaving the amateurs in their dust.
“Those guys are machines,” Sarah said. The encounter excited her. “They must go all over the world doing this kind of thing. How awesome is that?”
“Sounds perfect.” Callie said. Her words implied a level of wistfulness, but her tone was blunt and dry.
“I dunno,” Brodie said. He was keeping pace with the girls now, with his hands clasping the straps of his backpack and his eyes squinting forward. “You just can’t hike all the time. I just think there’s more to life than just running around the woods.”
“You must not be impressed with Chris McCandless then,” Callie said.
“I guess not,” Brodie responded.
Brodie’s casual dismissal of Callie’s favorite book and icon was bereaving. It was offhanded, but if felt intentional and subversive, a calculated personal attack. It was only when Callie sensed a another type of attack forming—her traitorous eyes were on the verge of spilling over—at the back of her throat that she considered that maybe Brodie’s remark was benign all along.
At first, Callie did not realize she was having panic attacks. Anxiety was something that happened to other people, not someone who got into Brown and was described as ‘promising’ and ‘well-rounded’ by even her kindergarten teachers. In her first semester at college there was a fault line, a crack in the mirror that split her reflection into two jagged halves. The attacks started as small containable events that occurred at midnight in her dorm room, alone in the deserted dining hall, and sometimes in the empty bathroom of an academic building. Her breath, frayed like ribbon and coarse like burlap, would burst out of her throat in shallow gasps. Sweat stains would form at the small of her back and arm pits, and she would cry until she no longer felt crushed beneath the pile of deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. She was slipping. In a moment of spontaneous honesty, Callie confided in Sarah over fall break.
“You should see someone,” Sarah had said to Callie. “Get checked out. You can’t bottle this up.”
“It’s just stress,” Callie said. “This is normal at my school.”
When people see a panting dog, they say it’s smiling. Callie was like that. Her parents and teachers saw a brilliant young woman whose meteoric rise would one day sweep through the professional world like a thunderstorm, leaving awe-stricken witnesses in her wake. What they didn’t see was the exhausted Callie, the burnt-out Callie, the Callie who could feel her talents plateauing just beneath prodigiousness. In December, Callie slept through her alarm and woke up at 8:30—30 minutes into her Urban Politics final. She did not remember making it from the dorm to her classroom, but she did remember collapsing to the ground and dissolving into rib-wracking sobs while a befuddled professor tried to calm her in the hallway. The worst part was that she wasn’t even in trouble. Her professor, an aging adjunct who taught for the sake of teaching instead of tenure, allowed her to start the test late, but Callie was far too shaken, too distressed, too embarrassed to even enter the classroom. When she told her parents that she wanted to transfer out of Brown, they blamed the professor, but what else could he do but fail the student who couldn’t bear to sit her own final?
Callie filled out her transfer application to the same school as Sarah shortly after finals ended, and was able to get her credits transferred and class registered in time for the fall. James Madison University had a larger student body, but didn’t have the same stellar academic record. Her parents were supportive—becoming “a big fish in a small pond,” they said, would allow her to shine more brightly. Though she successfully completed the spring semester, the academic accolades Callie and her parents expected at this new school had yet to materialize. There was no pond, just an endless ocean.
It was dusk when they reached the Teklanika River, and the trees became black silhouettes against a purple sky. The river was colossal, wider than most streets in Callie and Sarah’s hometown. Callie read that a couple years ago a Swiss woman was crossing the river with a friend when the water swept her away like a piece of deadwood. This happened during the summer when the glaciers had melted and the Teklanika was at its peak, but it could happen to anybody. Brodie dug through the bush and fished out a long sturdy stick—for keeping balance against the current. They all removed their pants. One of the most vital pieces of advice for crossing the Teklanika was to not wear pants because they weighed down the legs and increased the chances of getting hyperthermia. Callie, more embarrassed by the act of taking of her pants than the state of not wearing them, ripped them off and stuffed them into her bag. Brodie, clad in a hoodie and boxers, held the stick above his head with two hands. Though they had to haul their backpacks across the river, they unsnapped the chest straps just in case the current was too rough. Letting a backpack of supplies go was better than getting swept away.
“Let’s do this!” Brodie said. They linked arms and grabbed hold of the stick, a horizontal lifeline. Brodie approached the bank and plunged one foot into the water, steadied, and then put his other foot in the water. He started breathing through his teeth.
“Come on!” Sarah said. She jumped into river, landing on two feet. She lost her balance almost immediately, causing Callie to lurch forward and enter the river in one clumsy movement. The cold ran up through her legs like icy lightning, every hair on her body springing to attention. The water, as high as her upper thighs, battered away at her legs. Every step was a struggle, a struggle surmounted through the silent cooperation of three shivering bodies. Sometimes Sarah would look back and saying something to Callie, but she could not hear anything but the coursing river. Her lungs constricted, and her breath became shallow. Her hands, wet already from the water, began to sweat and tremble. As they moved forward, the omnipresent din of water beating against rock and bond overwhelmed their senses. The stinging numbness in Callie’s legs felt so unbearable and endless that it was a shock when she was heaved onto the muddy bank. Callie shrugged offer her backpack immediately and lay on her back. She was still shivering and clammy from the frozen water, and limbs began to prickling as the numbness faded. Callie looked to the side to see Sarah and Brodie laughing at something a few feet away. Irritated, she sighed, rolled off her back, and called for the others to start setting up camp.
They set down their bags in a small clearing. Sarah and Brodie walked off on their own to make the fire string their food store up in a tree. Bears were not likely to come snooping if food was eaten and stored out of reach and away from camp. Meanwhile, Callie wrestled with a large olive tarp that was supposed to be a tent. She expected the others to finish up with the fire and help her, but Callie managed to pitch a structurally sound, if not slightly lopsided, tent after a thirty minute struggle. She finally found Sarah and Brodie sitting by a modest fire with their back to her.
“I finished the tent,” Callie said. Her face felt hot. “But I could, I could have used some help, though.”
“Sorry Cal,” Sarah said. “We got the fire going and just decided to start cooking. Doesn’t this stuff look gross?” They were cooking a pouch of dehydrated chicken alfredo by pouring powdery chunks into boiled water. The water thickened into a sauce and whitish lumps inflated into pieces of chicken. The sight didn’t make Callie feel hungry, but she swallowed her irritation to sit down beside Sarah all the same.
“This is nothing,” Brodie said. “Last summer I traveled to Nepal with my folks. We did high altitude hiking for six or eight hours at a time, and we just ate plants. Everyone is vegetarian up there. You order food and they just pull it out of the ground and cook it for you.”
The chicken alfredo didn’t look appetizing, but it turned out that everyone was too hungry to be picky. When Sarah and Callie put the fire out after dinner, it sizzled shrilly and stung their eyes with smoke. Coughing and rubbing their eyes, the three crawled into their massive tent and slept.
The enthusiasm of the first day dried up overnight. Callie, who felt so relieved to finally sleep her eight hours, dreamt of an endless plain of grass. She was running—at first careless and free, but then frenzied and panicked. Callie was awakened by an excruciating charlie horse in her right calf. She often kicked around in her sleep, but this time her muscles seized so sharply that it shocked her right out of unconsciousness. Callie clutched her calf and rolled around in her sleeping bag as pain rippled through her leg, whimpering softly like an injured animal. In the morning, her head throbbed with fatigue and her legs were sore. She thought of McCandless living like this all the time, constantly wearing down his body and living in the dirt without complaint. Aesthetic voyagers simply didn’t shower often.
Brodie was testy. Alaskan mosquitoes were so vicious and numerous, they could pick up and carry a hiker away if they didn’t bring bug spray. Brodie swatted his legs and waved his hand in front of his face to stop bugs from flying into his eyes. His frustration was audible through the slap of his skin and muttered cursing. Maybe bugs were smaller in Nepal. Their original plan was to leave most of camp intact so they could sleep there again after visiting Bus 142, but when Brodie went to retrieve his backpack from the tree he cried out angrily, “Fucking animals got into it!” Brodie’s faded red backpack somehow fell during the night, and the zipper was ripped apart by tooth and claw. The dehydrated food pouches were torn, spilling their contents over his extra clothes. His socks and cellphone were protected by dry bags and plastic, but his backpack was down for good.
“It’s alright” Callie said. “I have plenty of food in my backpack. Plus, this means you don’t need to carry as much. That’s good right?” She tried to touch his arm, and he swatted her away as if she was another mosquito. Callie was startled by the violence of this small movement.
“Brodie! Jesus!” Sarah yelled. She turned to Callie. “Give me a sec with him. He’s not pissed at you, I promise.” They sat down by the remains of last night’s fire. Callie packed up her things, suppressing the lump threatening to crawl up her throat. When she saw the others again Brodie had calmed down. He muttered an apology before deconstructing the tent and packing it back up into its nylon travel bag. Rather than travel sans backpack, Brodie decided to sling the tent bag across his chest and protect it from other wild animals.
They only had a few hours of walking before finding the bus, but the time oozed much more slowly than the day before. There was no banter or buoyant screaming, just the crinkle of leaves, snap of twigs, and the occasional spritz of bug spray. Callie replayed the scene from that morning in her head and rewrote it so she told Brodie off for being rude to her instead of cowering like a shivery Chihuahua, though she knew if she faced any hostility from him again she would probably act the same way. She also imagined a confrontation with Sarah, a scene where she demanded why Sarah was sticking so close around Brodie as if he was the one who needed support, why a single man tantrum deserved more attention than the constant threat of Callie’s panic attacks.
After a couple hours of silent walking, the terrain grew rockier and uneven. The group got a more spring in its step, but this too was smothered after Sarah suddenly rolled her left ankle and fell to the ground.
“My feet have been fucked up since cross country in high school,” Sarah said. She threw an arm around Brodie’s shoulder and stood. “My ankle will be fine in a couple hours. I can keep going, promise.”
“Fine, but we’ll have to go slower,” Brodie said. “I’ll carry your stuff.” They limped on.
After walking for another hour and not finding the bus, they stopped to rest and consult some maps. According to the guide books the Bus was close, but that could still mean walking several miles. They sat down in a muddy field, but the horizon was too obscured by trees to see farther ahead.
“No wonder McCandless never got out of here,” Sarah said. She was sitting and rubbing her injured ankle. “This trail is brutal. And isolated. I’m amazed he even found the bus.”
“Is the bus even worth it?” Brodie asked. He was sitting beside Sarah. “We’re down some food, Sarah’s ankle is fucked, maybe we should just call it now. Nothing on that bus is worth getting hurt or worse.” Whatever anger was simmering in Callie’s stomach bubbled up all at once. She leapt to her feet.
“We have to get there,” Callie said. The others looked up at her, wide-eyed. “We came all this way to see that bus. I’m not going back.”
“Callie, chill,” Sarah said. “He was just making a suggestion. Honestly, I kind of agree. Who knows how much farther we have to go.”
“You don’t understand,” Callie said. One of the things she liked least about herself, apart from the anxiety of course, was that Callie could not express anger without starting to cry. It was an infantilizing and embarrassing, but she made no effort to hold it in now. “I want to go there. Sarah, we’ve been talking about this for ages, we can’t just turn back now. If we don’t get there today, we’ll never come back to try again.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea Cal,” Sarah said. “Maybe going back will be better for you too. You don’t always handle stuff so well, you know? Why push yourself?”
“Why are you ganging up on me?” Callie’s armpits were sweating, and her voice had unpleasantly risen in pitch. Her arms shook. “I—I can’t believe you would hold that against me. I can’t—I’m done giving up.”
“Hey, calm down,” Brodie said.
“I am calm!” Callie took a step back. She unclipped the chest strap of her backpack. “You guys can go back, but I won’t.”
“Callie, what the fuck are you thinking?” Sarah said, but Callie had already dropped her backpack and took off across the plain. Sarah and Brodie leapt to their feet to chase after her, but Sarah quickly collapsed to the ground on her injured ankle. Brodie, caught between the urge to help Sarah and go after Callie, cursed and chose the former. By the time Sarah was back on her feet, Callie had already disappeared into the forest. Callie was not a great runner. She began to ache underneath her ribs and taste copper on her tongue as she weaved between trees. Her nose and chest felt constricted and clogged, so after a while she stopped to wheeze by a tree in the lonely forest. Ditching her bag helped her travel farther and faster, but the adrenaline wore off and Callie squandered most of her strength on a single sprint. She sat for a long time against the tree, hugging her knees and trying to steady her breathing. For the first time, someone else was fucking Callie over. She always thought it was less painful when her failures and problems could be attributed to someone other than herself, but Sarah’s betrayal cut deep. She got up and returned to the trail, walking forward in a complete daze.
Despite her impassioned dash towards the bus, the actual vehicle unceremoniously crept up on her. The Germans were right to describe the Bus as “stark.” It stood aloof and apart, a faded green bus framed by a few bushes and one tree. Though she had stared at plenty of photographs of the bus, seeing it in person gave her great pause. It was less imposing than she expected, and looked completely dwarfed by the expansive tundra spread around it. She wandered towards it. Up close, the bus’ green paint was covered with a light film of grime and rust. Past adventurers had carved messages into the Bus, a disgusting abused of this hallowed landmark. Callie placed her hand on the bus, and she walked her hand wiped away the grime and left a trail of pure green metal. With her dirtied hand, Callie opened the bus’ door and stepped inside.
It was tiny. She knew McCandless had died in this bus, on that cot, after eating something cooking on that stove, but it wasn’t the lingering aura of death that made the bus eerie. It was the loneliness. Inside was a wooden plaque carved by McCandless before his death. “Two years he walks the Earth,” it read. “No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes!” The quote that captured Callie and Sarah’s imagination was far more haunting in person. It spoke more of McCandless’ elusiveness than his resilience—a man who knew how to run away. A man who gave up on society and his family because he couldn’t endure. Callie lay on the cot and dozed off. She was slipping in and out of consciousness when she heard the bus door open.
“Thank fucking god.” Sarah was standing in the bus doorway, her chestnut hair plastered against her forehead and neck. She walked to the cot and hugged Callie. “I’m such a horrible friend.” Sarah’s velvety voice was cracking. “It wasn’t fair for me to—I knew this trip was important to you.” Callie scooted over and Sarah climbed onto the cot. They lay there side by side. In her position, Callie could see the crystalline sky through a skylight above the bed.
“I didn’t mean to freak out either,” Callie blurted out. “I was upset.”
“I know, but I knew better too.” Sarah shifted on the cot. “This bed sucks.”
“Doesn’t it?” Callie laughed. “I would hate to live here.”
“Right? But we made it.” Sarah laid her hand on her forehead. “Damn right we made it.”
They got up and hugged once more before heading outside the bus. Brodie was waiting, and handed Callie her backpack. She fished out her phone from its plastic bag. They each took pictures by the bus, reenacting McCandless’ iconic photograph. Callie sat in the dusty lawn chair, with one leg crossed over the other and the bus towering behind her, and smiled with her eyes.