“Whose brilliant idea was it to go hiking?” Mary Elizabeth had not worn sensible shoes to make the nine-mile hike.
She bent over and used her walking stick to pluck the rocks from the soles of her tennis shoes, which were meant for concrete, not walking over muddy paths, fallen leaves, or damp ground.
But her clothes were on point as were her nails, even though the fall rainstorm we’d just had in the region had blown the leaves off the trees, and they stuck to the muddy path, making a mosaic on the ground.
“I told you to wear some hiking boots.” I couldn’t help but smile at the pair of designer khaki pants, white buttoned-down blouse, and the red bandana she had stylishly tied around her neck though not too tight so the pearl necklace would show. The red cardigan knotted around her waist was the perfect shade to match her bandana.
Since I was on the National Park Committee, I’d signed us up to explore the new trail opening. There was no doubt in my mind that as soon as I told her, she’d gotten online and ordered the outfit because there was a little red linen around the tennis shoes that also matched perfectly. There weren’t any stores in Normal, Kentucky that would match Mary Elizabeth Moberly’s hiking style.
“Things your mother does for you.” She stood back up and dug her walking stick into the damp ground. She ran her hand down her blouse then reached up to skim her fingers along her pearls to make sure they were still there.
I’d asked her to consider leaving the pearls at The Milkery, the dairy and bed-and-breakfast she owned with Dawn Gentry. She lived there too.
“A true southern woman is always seen with lipstick and her pearls,” she’d told me and quickly followed up with how I should apply a little color to my lips too.
“And I thank you for coming. It’s just a few more miles,” I said, happy we’d gotten really close since she’d come to see me then decided to live in Normal.
I’d been adopted by Mary Elizabeth as a teenager after a fire engulfed my family home, leaving me an orphan. Even after treating Mary Elizabeth poorly and hightailing it out of her house in the middle of the night on my eighteenth birthday, she was still eager to treat me like a daughter and continued to love me unconditionally. It wasn’t until now, in the early years of my thirties, that I truly appreciated all she’d done for me, and I’d spent the last couple of years making up for it.
“From what I understand, there’s going to be a series of cascades where Cat Camp Creek and Tear Trace Trail meet.” From what I’d heard, the new trail was going to be one of the prettiest, and it started at the Old Train Station Motel.
Coke Ogden, the owner, had been trying for the past year to get a new trail for her guests, one that wasn’t just woods, and she’d been making her own tracks to get to the cascades. The cascades from her motel were about six or so miles away then another two miles to make it to the shelter she’d paid the national park to install, which was the reward for her guests at the end. I was eager to see if it truly was the spectacular view Coke had claimed it to be, and since I wasn’t on that particular board of the committee, I had no idea what to truly expect once we hiked there.
If we made it there.
“Plus, I heard there was some good trout fishing once we make it to the shelter.” I knew that would get her goat. I pointed to the small flowing stream that’d run along the entire trail. “Coke said she knew when she found the stream that it had to lead to a bigger body of water. She kept hiking deeper and deeper. That’s when she found the cascades.”
“Great. Smelly fish and wet the entire hike.” She groaned and straightened her shoulders. “Let’s get on with it so this excursion can be over.”
Instead of coddling her, I decided to forge ahead, even if she truly wanted me to continue to ask her if she wanted to go back, turn around, or sit down.
Every step I took, I couldn’t believe how gorgeous the trail was and what a gem Coke had happened upon. Granted, the park committee had come in and made the trail nice and clean for the hikers, and safe, but none of the amazing foliage was touched.
“It’s like entering a different world.” Mary Elizabeth looked around, taking in the mountain laurels in full bloom with their hot-pink and pale-pink flowers, soon to be long gone as the winter set in.
She reached out and touched it.
“Gorgeous.” I stopped behind her and scanned the various cliffs and rock formations.
Some hung over our heads, making a nice canopy, while others were off in the distance. The trail was partially covered in the golden, red, orange, and yellow leaves that had organically started to fall off the trees. When I looked above my head, the canopy of the same colors was a visual fall explosion as fireworks were on a warm summer night.
These were the sights I took for granted and didn’t appreciate about Kentucky or the state park when I was a child. Now I didn’t take anything for granted.
“Oh my, Mae.” Mary Elizabeth was a few feet in front of me when she stopped, her mouth wide open as she stared off into the distance. “You aren’t going to believe this view.” She lifted her walking stick and pointed it in front of her.
Before I could even get close enough to catch her, her feet slipped right out from underneath her, and down she went.
“Are you okay?” I rushed over in my hiking boots with the good-grip soles and stared down at her.
It looked like she’d slipped on a pile of wet leaves and landed right in the middle of a mud puddle left behind from the fall rains we’d been getting.
“Well, hell.” Mary Elizabeth let out a rare curse word, making me laugh. “What’s so funny?” She put her hands out for me to grab in order to help her up.
“You.” I couldn’t stop laughing. “You were so cute walking out of the bed-and-breakfast this morning and I asked you to change your shoes.”
“Are you trying to say I deserve this?” There was some anger spewing from her eyes.
“No. I’m hoping you’re okay, because there isn’t any cell phone service out here.” I hadn’t told her that little fact because she liked to have her cell on her in case Dawn needed her for something about The Milkery.
I wanted her to enjoy the few hours it took to walk the trail and back. She’d been working so hard the last few months at the dairy farm, which included the cows, that I’d not been able to spend any more than a few minutes with her.
Right then, I was rethinking how we should spend our time together.
I reached my arms out, crossing them at the forearm so I could get better stability to pull her to her feet.
“Dear me.” She looked down at herself once she was on solid footing. “I’m a mess.”
We dropped hands, and she tried to brush off the dirt, which made it spread since it was mud.
“You’re not going to get that off by just a damp washcloth,” I teased, knowing that was how she’d handled me getting dirty when I was a child after I’d come in from playing outside.
“Are you mocking me now?” Her brows lowered. The lines around her mouth creased.
“No. I’m not. I’m just thinking we should turn back around and go on home.” I shrugged. “I’m hungry anyways.” I turned around to go back. “Besides, I forgot my camera, and the board asked me to take photos on the hike.”
I looked over my shoulder to see if she was coming.
“Oh no.” She’d taken a step and stopped. Her hand immediately planted on her lower back.
“What?” I walked the few feet back.
“I can’t move.” She groaned and rubbed her back with her hand. She was slightly bent at the waist. “This feels better. We can go.”
“You can’t walk all humped over with your face to the ground.” I put my hands on my knees. “We’ve got a few miles to walk back.”
“I can do it.” She took one step. “No, I can’t.”
“What if you sit down against the tree, and I go get some help?” I asked.
“We can just wait for a hiker to come by, and maybe they can go get help while you stay with me.” I could hear the fear of me leaving her side in her voice.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any hikers because the trail isn’t open yet, remember?” I jogged her memory to the reason why we were here.
“I guess I can put an arm around your shoulder, and you can let me gimp alongside you.” She wasn’t about to let me go get help.
I tried to reason with her. “I can go much quicker alone.”
“May-bell-ine Grant.” She said my entire name. “I will not stay here, deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest, alone. Don’t you know there are bears in here? Wildcats and savage raccoons?”
“Fine.” I adjusted my backpack to one shoulder so it wouldn’t be bulky for her arm to go around my neck. I reached around for the water bottle and quickly unzipped the front pocket to get her some ibuprofen.
I went to her side and butted my hip up against her hip. “Here. Take these.” I handed the pills to her free hand, giving her the water bottle to wash them down after she popped them in.
With a lot of grunting and groaning, she began to straighten, barely getting her arm around my neck.
“Okay. Small steps.”
She nodded and looked forward.
The trail was obviously not made for two people hiking side by side, but somehow, we did it, even when the rock formations got so narrow, we moved sideways together.
About every half mile, we’d stop and rest against a tree because sitting was too hard to take a little drink and eat a nibble of something we’d brought.
“How’s the pain?” I asked, knowing we still had a far piece to go.
“Fair to middlin’.” She used an old southern saying to let me know she wasn’t so good but didn’t want to fully complain.
A few branches in the woods snapped, making her jittery as all get-out.
“Is that a bear?” she asked. “I didn’t bring my gun. I knew I should’ve brought my gun, but Dawn took it from me as I was walking out the door.”
“I’ve got bear spray.” I patted the dangling backpack, silently thanking Dawn Gentry for stopping Mary Elizabeth from bringing the gun.
Who knew what would’ve happened by now if she had brought it?
“I’m telling you, something big is out there. And hungry.” Her eyes widened.
Her adrenaline from the fear must’ve kicked in better than the ibuprofen. She pushed off that tree trunk and moved along the trail at a snail’s pace, without putting her arm around my neck.
A woman with long red hair, olive skin, and gray eyes jerked back after she practically ran into us as she emerged from the woods. “Whoa!”
“We don’t have nothing.” Mary Elizabeth put her arms up. “Do we, Mae? But we do have a backpack with food. You can have that.” Mary Elizabeth held out her hand. “Give it to her, Mae.” She winced in pain.
“I’m sorry for my mother’s behavior. She fell and hurt her back. She’s a wee bit on the irritable side.” Not that explaining to the hippy was going to make up for Mary Elizabeth’s poor judge of character, but at least it made me feel better trying.
“Mae West?” The woman was vaguely familiar.
“Yes.” I vaguely recognized her, but there were so many people who came in and out of Happy Trails Campground, the campground I owned, that I couldn’t remember them all.
“It’s me. Glenda Russel. Jay Russel’s daughter.” She jogged my memory.
“You’re pulling my leg.” Mary Elizabeth’s southern twang was even more so when she just couldn’t believe it was Glenda.
Truth of the matter, I would’ve never pegged the woman to be her either.
“I know it’s been a year or two, but I embraced the life.” She put her hands out. “But it’s really me.”
“Good Lord.” Mary Elizabeth put her hand to her head. “If this happens to you living out like this”—She pointed to Glenda—“you’ll be orphaned again.”