You were the Whore and the Beast of Babylon,
I was Rin Tin Tin.
During the summer of 2012, my brother, Seth, and my father began what would become an Appalachian Trail section hike tradition. They would pack their backpacks and trekking poles into my father’s Prius and drive from Indianapolis, Indiana to Vermont, or Pennsylvania or West Virginia, or whatever state they had not yet walked. The section hikes were not done in order, north to south or south to north, but their goal was to use their summer vacations to hike the entire trail over the next ten years. It seemed that this was their time to bond as father and son; to feel like ragged men, tough and wild; to connect with nature; to voluntarily eat freeze-dried food; to be uncomfortable in the company of many trees; but mostly—to stare at the ground and at their shoes, while thinking about their swollen feet.
I was not part of this tradition.
I laughed when they came home, hardly able to walk, and asked why they would submit themselves to such misery. They told me I didn’t understand. And I didn’t. So they never invited me.
To my surprise and everyone else’s, I invited myself in 2017 when I was twenty-four, after a breakup with my boyfriend of four years, whom I’ll call Leo. I was in desperate need of some soul-searching. The pain was appealing to me. Maybe body pain would erase or at least numb my heart pain. I figured I wanted to reinvent myself—to become a person who took long hikes, owned trekking poles, and wore her hair in French braids and a bandana. Yes, this was the person I thought I should become.
Like Lorelai Gilmore in the Netflix reboot of Gilmore Girls, like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, like any woman who has lost herself, I needed something to change. More importantly, I needed time with myself, and away from the Indianapolis apartment I used to share with my ex.
At nineteen I planned on being married by twenty-five. It was part of my midwestern playbook. Living in Indianapolis and going to school in the suburbs, north of downtown, I had been conditioned, not through any direct teachings, but by observation and subtle comments here and there, to believe that marriage was a stepping stone, a rite of passage—just like getting my ears pierced at nine or being baptized at ten. It felt that it was important whether I was dating and how serious my relationships were. It wasn’t uncommon for my friends to get married right after high school, or immediately following college. I came to believe it was essential to my becoming, and to my happiness. My sister, Rachael, had been married at twenty-five, and my parents even younger. At Rachael’s wedding, people met Leo and told me I was next. It almost felt like a warning.
The idea of marriage, of a soulmate, of spending the rest of my life with someone other than myself had been implanted in my subconscious and weaved into my life plan.
I didn’t question it until my heart had been broken. The plan unraveled.
After several weeks of talking to friends and my family about the possibility of my joining the summer hike, I had completely talked myself into it. I would be hiking an average of about eight miles a day, on a mountain, for five days, while carrying thirty pounds on my back. I wasn’t met with as much shock as I’d assumed I would, so I figured if they thought I could do it, I probably could.
I spent around $1300 on my gear which included a new backpack, a lightweight sleeping bag and a blow-up air mat, a water filter, freeze-dried food, electrolyte tablets, hiking pants, a head lamp, trekking poles, and a poop shovel.
I realized that it was only once I bought the gear that the same people who told me I should go began to take it seriously. My dad started meticulously planning our location, mileage and even booked the hotel rooms: one for the two of them, one for me. I was locked in. There was no turning back now.
My dad decided on the Virginia Triple Crown, which includes three well-known vistas: Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob and Tinker Cliffs. The Triple Crown totals 37 miles, and we were going to complete it within five days. The most popular of the vistas is McAfee Knob, a cliff on Catawba mountain in Virginia, and a prime AT destination—perhaps due in part to Bill Bryson’s bestseller, A Walk in The Woods, and the Robert Redford film that followed. The McAfee Knob hike begins at 1,740’ (530 m) and rises to a height of 3,197’ (974 m) above sea level. It is approximately 4.4 miles to the top and takes from four to six hours. The parking lot is usually packed full of SUVs, Hybrids with bike racks, and Jeeps. The Knob has become so popular, it may be close to impossible to experience the 270° view in solitude.
Before I set off on this grand adventure, I trained. I went with my dad to the gym almost every day with a backpack I filled with play sand from our garage. I power-walked on a treadmill, incline seven, to work on the steeps. I took on the Stairmaster but never mastered it. I even lifted weights. All of this was fueled by my rebound boyfriend, whom I’ll call Jessie, who is ten years my senior and a man of many identities: math professor, motorcyclist, housebuilder, HGTV acolyte, and motto collector. One such motto was: deadlift and squat, body gonna pop.
After having briefly mentioned the possibility that I might get off the trail if it proved too difficult, or my father and brother went too fast, Jessie offered me this warning: “If you get off the trail, I won’t be able to date you.” He claimed to be joking later, but it always seems that jokes reveal some truth.
About twice a week I would meet Jessie at Marian University where he taught advanced mathematics, and we would walk from his office to the gym and spend an hour lifting. He became my trainer. He admitted that he did it because of the view of my ass. He was always a little too honest.
During these months of training, I learned that my white-washed high-tops made better lifting shoes than my running sneakers. I learned that I needed to roll the deadlift bar up my legs and under no circumstances arch my back. I learned that I shouldn’t fear the squat bar tumbling on top of me as long as I had my safety bars at the right height and balanced the bar below my neck, but above my shoulders. I learned that I could learn these things. I learned that I could be strong.
I also learned that once Jessie noticed my butt getting stronger and less squishy, he stopped inviting me to his university gym. Eww, it is getting hard. Don’t lose the jiggle.
Men have always been vocal about their preferences for my appearance. I can first remember really noticing it in my junior year of high school when the first real boyfriend I ever had asked me how much I weighed right after I had demolished a burrito at the Chipotle across from our high school. Up until this point in my life, I’d felt perfectly comfortable with my weight and height, 5’4’’.
125, I told him.
He scanned me up and down, Okay, well don’t go past 130…oh and stop biting your nails. That’s not an attractive habit.
From then on, it continued with each consecutive boyfriend, and eventually I just accepted that I needed to look a certain way in order to be loved, or desired. I wore my hair straight when they liked it that way. I wore heels. I wore a lot of makeup for one boyfriend, and none for another who thought natural was best. I made myself up to meet the expectations of the guys I dated.
While training for the trail I found that I could distract myself from the sharp abdominal cramps I felt while running and the burning of my lungs by thinking about this trip with Leo and remembering how he, and so many others, made me question my own worth because of my weight, or my wavy undyed hair that curls a little too much on the inside, or my off-again-on-again acne, or my nail biting habits—all of the things they saw and didn’t like. These thoughts fueled my workouts and I felt, more than any pain, the immeasurable desire for revenge. My revenge would be to prove that I could climb a mountain, that I had determination and strength. I needed to prove to myself that I could do hard things, but mostly I felt I had to prove to my ex that I could do hard things. I wanted to make him regret breaking up with me—to feel like he’d made a mistake and that I was, in fact, the adventurous, in-shape, outdoorsy girl who wears cargo shorts with hiking boots to the farmer’s market even though she isn’t a farmer or someone who shops at Eddie Bauer.
I wanted to transfer my pain to him through means of one picture I planned to take atop McAfee’s ledge and then post to Facebook. I imagined that would do the trick.
As I huffed and puffed on the incline treadmill I was transported back to a hot day in Utah. Summer of 2015, one year before the breakup, Leo and I decided to take a trip to explore various cities and think about where our forever home might be. On our way to California, we drove through Utah and decided we had some extra time to stop and take a hike in the Arches National Park. It was mid-afternoon and hot—so hot that I imagined we could pop out some cookie dough and bake cookies on the dashboard.
We found the trailhead to Delicate Arch and stepped out into the desert. He didn’t think we needed water. He said that there was no need to carry it with us.
We walked over to where the trail began. The sign read, Moderate Difficulty. “See,” he said. “Not hard. Let’s go.”
At first, I believed Leo when he said I would be fine without water. The terrain was rather flat, and I found that we could stop occasionally for fun pictures of us peeking out from rock windows. It seemed like it would continue to be a simple jaunt to a giant rock arch.
And then I saw it—the slab of a rock floor that tiled skyward, as if welcoming us to heaven—a sign I was being summoned to my death.
With the incline came labored breathing. I tried to hide my heaving and muffle the sound, only making it worse. I played with my hair and focused my gaze on the ground. With a strong tendency to trip, fall, tumble, twist, crash, and topple, I had to be careful with each step placement.
Gradually, the rocks grew in size and number. My steps took even longer to plan, and I had to slow down as the hill steepened. My tortured breaths became obvious and my throat began to burn. Leo was already twenty feet in front of me and occasionally looked back to make sure I was still there.
“I think I need to stop for a second.”
“Really?” He asked. “We’re almost there.”
I decided that my best plan of action was to blame my exhaustion on the lack of water, which had more than likely been at least part of my problem. He didn’t buy it and tried to leave me behind so that I could just go at my own pace and he wouldn’t get bored waiting for me.
When I made it to the arch, we took some pictures, but I could tell he was embarrassed by my struggle through the hike.
We got back to the car after dark and decided to find food in the town nearby. We parked and walked to the first restaurant we saw. During dinner we brainstormed our next day’s activities and driving route and then he asked “So, that was really hard for you, huh?”
I said, “I guess but it would have been easier with water.”
We got into the car and began the drive to our Airbnb. We rolled down the windows, opened the sunroof and blasted Enya. The wind was cool and sticky.
After the song was over and the silence between us crept again to the foreground, he said softly, looking ahead at the road, “Maybe you should start trying to lose weight.”
When I didn’t say anything, he continued, “Look, I don’t want to be mean, but I’m not really attracted to you right now. I think you need to lose like thirty pounds.” He looked over at me. I could see his gaze from the corner of my eye. He placed his hand gently on my thigh. “Lose thirty pounds by next year, or we may need to break up.” At that moment, a sensation rose within me to open the car door and jump.
Some say that a woman can be seen along the edge of McAfee Knob, staring down into the foliage beneath the cliff, beckoning to an unwitting hiker to fall. When we camped after our hike to Dragon’s Tooth we were joined by a group of through-hikers—the hikers who brave the entire 2,200-mile trail all in one go. They told us the story of a young woman from the 1700s with auburn hair and a dress and cape of red. The story goes that she leapt off McAfee Knob from a broken heart. It is said that her ghost comes back to the mountain each year on July 23rd, presumably the day she jumped to her death, searching for men she can lure into jumping off with her. If they refuse or resist, she’ll push them off and follow them down.
“Don’t let her get’cha,” the hikers teased Seth. It was July 21st. Our plan was to get to the top of McAfee on July 23rd –right on time to see the ghost of the Scarlet Woman.
After what seemed like a full day of hiking, we reached the McAfee Knob trailhead. Seth sprinted ahead. “You’re too slow for me,” he taunted. Seth, like my father, is a dedicated distance runner. I don’t know how I missed this gene.
There were other groups on the trail that day, some through-hikers, some families who’d driven their cars to the trailhead, and Seth was determined to stay ahead of all of them. My dad stayed behind with me, coaching me up the mountain. “Just lean in, Beks. Look at the ground and walk.”
I had trained hard for this. I was in better shape than I’d ever been. Even in high school gym I couldn’t run a mile without counting stars by the end.
I broke into a cold sweat and told my dad I needed to find a sitting rock. I got out my trail mix and filtered water and focused on controlling my breath. My mom had insisted that we each bring electrolyte tablets for our water, and as usual, it was a good suggestion. I felt a little better after a few minutes and my father, anxious to get to the famous knob, urged me to buck up and start moving. I gritted my teeth, hauled my heavy backpack over my shoulders, plugged in my playlist and started upward over the mountain, Iron & Wine in my ears.
Music distracted me for a while, but all I wanted to do was cry. I hadn’t pooped for days, I was bloated, my knees were popping, and my shoulders were forming noticeable strap burns. I broke one of my trekking poles the first day between two rocks climbing up Dragon’s Tooth, and my feet had already blistered.
I looked at the happy families around me, enjoying their day hike—nothing but water in their hands and car keys in their pockets.
A young girl, maybe four, skipped up the mountain with a Barbie in one hand and a lollipop in the other. I wished I was that young girl and could put my hands up in the air and demand to be held or hop along finding magic in the smallest of places without the weight on my back which ultimately seemed to weigh less than the weight of male expectations I carried. Was I really doing this for me, or for these men who told me how I should shape myself and made me feel like I had to prove my worth? I had become a mold to them. Something that could be chipped away at, shaped, manipulated, improved.
A few months after Leo and I broke up, I was dating Jessie—the math professor, who decided, after he heard my plan to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail, that he wanted not only to help me weight train for the hike, but also to buy my hiking boots. His sister came with us to R.E.I. and whispered: “You know he is buying these so when you look at the ground, you’ll think of him.” He heard her say this and winked at me.
I couldn’t help but smile.
We browsed the boots and found two pairs that I really liked.
“Let’s get you the cute ones,” he told me.
“But they don’t have as much arch or ankle support,” I countered. “I think I need to get the other pair because I have flat feet.”
My boot choice was green and blue; he liked the pink and maroon—more fitting for his Pretty Young Thing, as he called me.
When I made my choice, he scrunched his face and slowly worked himself into a nod, “Okay, if that’s what you really want. But just know that people on my team don’t have flat feet.” He shook his finger at me, did a little dance, and directed me to the socks.
I let him buy the hiking boots, two pairs of wool socks, and arched inserts. His sister was right; I did end up thinking a lot about him while struggling up the mountain.
I thought about how much I believed that if I got off the trail and failed to walk the full 37 miles of The Triple Crown, he wouldn’t want me anymore. I thought about how much that scared me.
When my dad and I made it to the top of McAfee Knob, we found Seth dangling his legs from the cliff. “Woah be careful there,” I teased. “You don’t want to fall off—or be pushed.”
“Ha, I don’t think I’m the one we have to worry about falling,” he countered. I winked and then stuck out my tongue at him because I knew he was right. I am the clumsy one.
I did a quick scan around the Knob, paying close attention to the trees behind us.
I was looking for the Scarlet Woman.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to see her, even as I pushed my mind to begin believing in ghosts, because the legend says she appears only to men. But I still looked, despite this. I hoped that perhaps she’d appear to me because we felt some similar pain and she’d beckon me to join her in her revenge.
I stood near the edge of the cliff and looked out into the scene before me. There was significant foliage right beneath the cliff, and it almost looked like a fall would be softened by the bushes below. I raised my hands into the air like a bird preparing to take flight as a gust of wind propelled me forward. I was far enough from the edge of the cliff that my step forward was caught, and I regained my balance. Shaken, I moved backwards, and turned to walk from the cliff to where Seth and my dad sat, feasting on jerky and dried banana chips.
As we sat there on the rock, I remembered my own urge to jump, not off a cliff, but out of a car, and out of that life. I imagined the Scarlet Woman sitting on the edge, peering down into the pit of trees below, trying to assuage her sorrow. Did she really want to die, or just escape for a while and take temporary leave from the pain?
After completing our hike, I researched the Scarlet Woman, hoping to find something in her story to redeem the actions of her ghostly counterpart. I found almost nothing but links to biblical stories of Babylon. Of course, the name, Scarlet Woman, is not unique. The woman most known as the Scarlet Woman, or the Scarlet Beast, has no connection to the Appalachian Trail.
The only actual evidence that the story we heard wasn’t made up on the spot can be found in a blog called Alchetron, which borrows facts about the Knob and its history from Wikipedia—with the exception of one section called Folklore/ Legends, which reads:
The Scarlet Woman – It has been believed that on the 23rd of July, a very pretty woman with red hair, wearing an old-fashioned red dress sometimes appears on the knob. She is usually seen only by men and is said to be the spirit of a woman who had jumped to her death at the site on July 23 over a century ago. As the legend goes, the Scarlet Woman beckons men to join her in jumping off the edge and will sometimes attempt to push them off.
Although this is not what I would consider a totally credible source, it was the only trace of the story I could find outside of the trail. This internet account says she jumped, which matches the story we were told on the trail, but it doesn’t give any kind of backstory or motive for her falling to her death. One may conclude that her death was related to heartbreak as her revenge is targeted at men. Although hikers may occasionally get oral tidbits of her tale, her true story may never be pieced together.
I tried to imagine her story and to understand what might have caused her not only to jump, but to be compelled in the afterlife to haunt the cliff and the men who get too close to the edge.
As I lay in my tent that night of our Knob hike, I worked to drive my pain to the surface—to identify its source. I felt the muscles in my shoulders, sore from backpack straps; I felt my knees, heavy from carrying me for miles; I felt my feet, blistered and wet; I felt my lower back, aching from bending over on the steeps; I felt my body, alive and pulsing. Still, I couldn’t excavate the pain buried deep within my heart.
Nearing sleep, I imagined the Scarlet Woman’s heartbreak. I tried to piece her story together, but it kept conflating with my own, until her pain was my pain, and mine hers. But how could I really know her pain or compare it to mine?
I didn’t jump.
I stayed in the car and stayed with these men. I allowed them to mold me until they ran out of clay.
As a child I made up ghost stories—stories I didn’t believe and had no reason to believe. Ghosts are notorious for having unresolved pain, tasks or things left unsaid. The Scarlet Woman seems to seek revenge, remains bitter, unforgiving, and perhaps there is something about her story that may redeem this, but mine would not. I took her with me as a reminder that I must determine my own fate—that I can breathe through the pain, even on an incline with weight on my back, and that with each step, the weight seems to lighten a little.
I completed the hike and took the picture atop McAfee Knob and posted it to Facebook, but by then I had unfriended my ex. When I saw Jessie, he congratulated me on my completion of the hike and I made a point not to tell him that at the end of the hike, when my father and my brother determined they wanted to go a bit further, I determined I’d stay back, get myself an excellent fried chicken dinner, pop into Goodwill for some retail therapy, and settle into a hotel, freshly showered, feet throbbing, but happier and more satisfied than I’d never felt.
Image: by Chloe Muro, licensed under CC 2.0