I watched in the rearview mirror as Zach disappeared onto the trail, blinking the residual moisture out of my eyes. Leah was passed out on the passenger seat next to me, oblivious. I pointed Cecile’s tires back towards Gunnison.
The half-hour drive went by painfully slowly, giving me all the time in the world to process. Saying goodbye was so hard, yet I knew it was right. The trail will always be there, and I can always come back.
I absently pet my dog’s head as I drove, torn between her and a dirt pathway that would take me over spectacular mountains, through incredible valleys, all the way to Denver. She snoozed, oblivious to my sacrifice, knowing only that she was going to get the rest she needed. She wouldn’t have to spend another night outside, in the pitch blackness that scared her. She wouldn’t have to carry the pack that chaffed her belly. She wouldn’t have to walk and walk and walk until the only thing she wanted to do was sleep. She’d always have enough water. Her appetite would come back. She’d have the energy to play tug again.
The truth is, that Leah was not having a good time. Sure, she would have gotten stronger, she was adjusting to sleeping in a tent, we fixed the chaffing issue with her pack, we made her food more appetizing, I could increase my water carrying capacity, and we could do fewer miles. Even if we did all those things, would she start having a good time? How long would it take? Would we just keep making her more unhappy? I didn’t want to find out. I made a choice to take my dog, and myself, off the trail.
We had known this might happen. Having the bus was part of our fallback plan for her. I would simply live in the bus with Leah while Zach continued to hike. We would bounce up the trail with Zach, picking him up as he got to each town. We would essentially become his support crew.
Despite having planned for this, I don’t think either of us was mentally prepared to actually do it. Zach’s hike went from being with me and my dog to being solo. I went from attempting a thru-hike to essentially quitting. Even though I know it was the right choice, the “what ifs” still keep me up at night. I envy those of you that can make a choice like that and never second guess yourself.
I said goodbye that day, to the trail and to my partner as he embarked on his own journey. I know both of those things are temporary. I know I’ll see Zach again in each and every town. I know the trail will always be there, and I have a long life ahead of me to come back and finish it.