Wild meets Endless Love in this multilayered story of love, survival, and self-discovery
McKenna Berney is a lucky girl. She has a loving family and has been accepted to college for the fall. But McKenna has a different goal in mind: much to the chagrin of her parents, she defers her college acceptance to hike the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia with her best friend. And when her friend backs out, McKenna is determined to go through with the dangerous trip on her own. While on the Trail, she meets Sam. Having skipped out on an abusive dad and quit school, Sam has found a brief respite on the Trail, where everyone’s a drifter, at least temporarily.
Despite lives headed in opposite directions, McKenna and Sam fall in love on an emotionally charged journey of dizzying highs and devastating lows. When their punch-drunk love leads them off the trail, McKenna has to persevere in a way she never thought possible to beat the odds or risk both their lives.
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Marina Gessner (www.ninadegramont.com) is the pen name of Nina de Gramont. Nina is a writer, teacher, and mom, not necessarily in that order. Her work has appeared in Redbook, Harvard Review, Nerve, and Seventeen. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Twitter: @NinadeGramontExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Marina Gessner
McKenna couldn’t believe it. Maybe her ears were malfunctioning. Or her brain was playing tricks on her. Either option—deafness or insanity—seemed better than believing the words coming out of her best friend’s mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Courtney said. She started to cry and put her head down on the table.
McKenna knew this was the moment to reach over and pat Courtney’s head, say something comforting. But she couldn’t. Not yet. Because not only was Courtney getting back together with Jay, she was also backing out of their trip.
McKenna and Courtney had been planning this trip for over a year—a two-thousand-mile hike down the Appalachian Trail—and they were supposed to leave in less than a week. They’d deferred their college acceptances. They’d spent their life savings on camping gear and trail guides—McKenna had, anyway; Courtney’s father had footed the bill for hers. Hardest of all, they’d talked their parents into agreeing to the plan: two girls hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia.
And now Courtney was changing her mind. For the lamest possible reason: a guy. And not just any guy, but a guy they’d spent the last four months ripping to shreds. Honestly, Mc- Kenna was so sick of talking about him, she could barely get his name out.
All around them, the Whitworth College Student Union buzzed with conversations and clanking silverware. McKenna’s parents were both professors here, and she had been eating lunch in this cafeteria since before she could remember, the surrounding tables as familiar as her own living room. It was a bright day in early June, sunlight pouring in through the atrium windows, and McKenna knew that Courtney must feel the same urge she did, to get away from the places they’d seen a million times, to go out in the world and live under that sun. “But Courtney,” McKenna said, keeping both hands firmly
in her lap. “Jay?”
“I know,” Courtney mumbled, her face still buried in her arms.
This trip, this plan, had been McKenna’s dream for as long as she could remember. And now, so close to when they should have been leaving, Courtney was bringing the whole thing crashing down.
“Courtney,” McKenna said again. Even if it weren’t for the hike, this would be terrible news. She couldn’t stand the thought of Jay breaking her friend’s heart. Again.
“Don’t say it,” Courtney said, finally sitting up. “I know, I
know all of it. And I forgive him. I love him, McKenna.”
What could McKenna say to that?
“I’m sorry,” Courtney said again, her voice calmer after the declaration of love. “I know how much you wanted to do this.”
“I thought you wanted to do it, too.”
“I do. I mean I did. But it’s just too long to be away from him right now. You know?”
McKenna didn’t know, not at all. Even with her eyes red and her face puffy, Courtney looked beautiful. She was the last person who needed to change her life for a guy, let alone Jay. Courtney had shiny blond hair that McKenna—being the only brunette in her family—envied. Both girls were on the track team, but Courtney was the star, running the mile in under six minutes. Both girls took riding lessons, but Courtney was the one who usually won ribbons when they showed. Most import- ant, Courtney was a loyal friend. In other words, she was worth a thousand Jays, ten thousand Jays, a million.
“Courtney,” McKenna said, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Jay will still be here when we get back. You can text or call him from the trail, send him postcards. It’s only a few months.”
“Not a few. Five months, maybe even six. Things are frag- ile right now, McKenna, we’re only just back together. I can’t march off into the woods and leave him. Not right now.” She sounded like she’d practiced her argument, as if she’d antici- pated everything McKenna would say.
Because he’d probably spend the whole six months hooking up with other girls, McKenna thought.
“You’ll be leaving him if you go to Wesleyan,” McKenna
pointed out. Jay was going to Whitworth, here in Abelard, the most boring and predictable of all choices. What was the point of even going to college if you weren’t going to leave your hometown?
“Wesleyan is barely an hour away,” Courtney said. “And anyway, I’m not going till next year. I deferred, remember?”
“You deferred to go on our trip,” McKenna said, finally let- ting herself sound as petulant as she felt. “Not to date Jay.”
“I know,” Courtney admitted.
“Well, what are you going to do next year, then? Bag your first-choice college for a guy? Stay here and go to Whitworth?” McKenna glanced around the Student Union meaningfully. Going to Whitworth would be like going to college in her own house.
“Jay is not just ‘a guy.’ And a camping trip isn’t college, either.”
“A camping trip?” How could she reduce their plan to those two words, make them sound so trivial? McKenna drew in a strengthening breath and said, “Maybe being apart will make your relationship stronger. Like with Brendan and me . . .”
“You can’t compare you and Brendan to me and Jay.”
Well, that was true. Brendan would never cheat on Mc- Kenna. He just wasn’t that kind of person, not a player, but sweet and honest and serious. They’d been together three months, and Brendan was headed to Harvard in the fall. Would McKenna ever try to stop him from going to the school of his dreams so they could be together? Of course not—not
any more than he would stop her from hiking the Appalachian Trail. They had a mature relationship and they supported each other. McKenna said as much to Courtney, who rolled her eyes. “McKenna,” Courtney said, “you guys are about as roman-
tic as a trail map.”
McKenna ripped her chopsticks apart with a splintery crin- kle. Their sushi sat untouched between them. McKenna poked at the spicy tuna roll but didn’t pick it up. If romance meant giving up your dreams for some undeserving guy, Courtney was welcome to it.
“There are different ways to be romantic,” McKenna coun- tered. “Maybe to you romance is a candlelight dinner. But to me—” She broke off, afraid she might cry if she said it aloud.
To McKenna, romance was a night under the stars. She didn’t need a boyfriend with her to make it romantic. She just needed clean air, the scent of pine. No sounds except crickets and spring peepers and the wind in the trees.
Courtney reached out and touched McKenna’s hand. “I know how much this trip meant to you,” she said. “And I’m sorry. I don’t know how many times I can say it to make you understand that I really am.”
A hundred arguments still swirled in McKenna’s head. Forget Jay. She could remind Courtney of the forms for the two-thousand-miler certificate they’d pinned on their bulle- tin boards next to their badges from Ridgefield Prep hiking club. They’d also ordered AT Passports—green booklets to have stamped at hostels and landmarks along the way to document
their journey. They’d planned their itinerary so they could bring Norton, Courtney’s huge, snarly shepherd mix, tracking all the campgrounds that allowed dogs. They’d spent hours poring over maps and guidebooks. They’d climbed Bear Moun- tain with full packs, training with heavy weight on their backs. They were ready to go.
But instead of reminding Courtney of all this, McKenna kept quiet, because something in Courtney’s voice was telling her that no matter how she begged, the answer would be the same.
“Well,” McKenna said, finally popping the spicy tuna into her mouth, “if you can’t come, I’ll just go by myself.”
Courtney’s eyes widened. Then she laughed.
“No, really,” McKenna said. She sat up a little straighter. Saying it again would strengthen her resolve. “I’ll go by myself.” “You can’t spend six months in the woods by yourself,”
Courtney said. “Why not?”
Six months in the woods by herself. A minute ago, McKenna had felt deflated. Now, under every inch of her skin, excite- ment was gathering, tingling.
“Well,” Courtney said, “it’s not safe, for one thing.” “I’m not going on this trip to be safe.”
She bit off the last word with distaste. Safe was doing what was expected of you. Safe was following the rules, getting good grades, going to college. Safe, in other words, was everything McKenna had done every minute of her whole entire life.
“Seriously, McKenna,” Courtney said, her face scrunching into worry. “You can’t do it alone.”
Of course Courtney didn’t think she should do it alone— nobody would. But the images were already forming in Mc- Kenna’s mind: all those miles of fabulous solitude, her body getting stronger, her mind growing wider. In preparation for this hike she’d read a mountain of books—wilderness guides, memoirs, novels. One of her favorites was by a woman who’d hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone without even a debit card, and before iPhones and GPS. If she could do it, why not McKenna?
“Your parents will never let you,” Courtney pointed out. McKenna threw down her chopsticks. “That’s why we’re not
going to tell them,” she said.
Crossing the campus quad, McKenna bounced in her hiking boots, which she wore even though everyone around her was in flip-flops and canvas sneakers. She had worn her boots every day for two months, determined that they be perfectly broken in by the time she hit the trail. She was so used to the heavy shoes that she had no problem jumping out of the way as a skateboarder nearly crashed into the student beside her, his nose buried in his phone. McKenna rolled her eyes. On this perfect day, the breeze tinged with the scent of honeysuckle, the sun shining steadily, almost every single student walked across campus with eyes glued to a phone.
At home, McKenna’s stack of trail reading material was
heavily populated by Thoreau, and she thought of one of her favorite quotes. In fact she’d used it as the epigraph to her college entrance essay: We must learn to reawaken and keep our- selves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expecta- tion of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
Every day, McKenna saw people who’d given up real life for Instagram and Facebook. If she had her way, she wouldn’t be bringing her phone at all. Now that she was going alone, though, she knew it would be crazy to give up that lifeline. But McKenna was determined to keep it in her pack and only use it in case of emergency. She wouldn’t talk or text, not to her parents or Brendan or even her little sister, Lucy.
That would be harder, of course, now that she was going to be on her own.
On her own. She knew the phrase should scare her, but in- stead it brought on a smile. After finally convincing Courtney that her mind was made up, they had worked out the details of their ruse. For one thing, Whitworth would be off-limits, Courtney could not risk running into McKenna’s parents while she was supposed to be on the trail. Courtney offered Norton, but McKenna decided against it. She wanted as few reasons as possible for Courtney’s parents to try to get in touch with hers. Everything had to look like it was going according to their original plan, the one McKenna’s parents had agreed to, albeit reluctantly.
She unlocked the car door with an electronic beep. Soon
her life would be gloriously free from such noises, nothing but birds and bugs and rustling leaves.
It couldn’t come soon enough.
Her boyfriend, Brendan, was only slightly more enthusiastic about the solo plan than her parents would have been.
“It’s not like some amusement park where all the danger is pretend,” Brendan said. “It’s the wilderness. With bears and bobcats. And guys named Cletus who keep stills in the woods.”
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my,” McKenna said.
They were driving to the movies after burgers at the Abelard Diner. In this last week of civilization, McKenna was determined to indulge as much as possible—hot baths, TV binge-watching, and especially food. Despite the huge meal, she fully intended to get a tub of popcorn, dripping with fake butter.
“I’m serious, McKenna,” he said.
Even in the darkish car, she could tell his face looked very concerned. Brendan was not an obviously handsome guy, like Jay. He wasn’t much taller than McKenna, with unruly dark hair. But McKenna loved his face, which was brown-eyed and dimpled and crazy intelligent. Brendan was very practical. One of only two Ridgefield Prep graduates to get into Har- vard this year, he had his whole future mapped out. Harvard undergrad to Harvard Law School to lobbying in Washington, DC, to eventually starting his own firm. No doubt there was a wife and 2.3 children somewhere in those plans, but he and
McKenna had never talked about that. He wasn’t the kind of guy to marry his high school girlfriend. Practical.
Now, as Brendan listed reasons why she shouldn’t go on the hike alone, McKenna reminded herself that he was only being discouraging because he cared about her.
“It’s called the wild for a reason,” he said. “There aren’t any safety nets. It’s not a joke. There are a thousand ways a person could die out there.”
“Not a person who knows what she’s doing,” McKenna said. “Accidents happen all the time. I’m not saying you’re not
prepared, but especially for a girl—”
“Why ‘especially for a girl’?” Nothing he said could have made her more determined to go ahead with her plan. Brendan should’ve known better. His mom had raised him on her own, and was also one of the best surgeons in Connecticut.
“McKenna,” he said, his eyes barely flitting away from the road. “I don’t think you need me to spell it out for you.”
“Look,” she said. “It’s not like college is the safest place in the world. Statistically, I’ll be safer on the trail than I would be at Reed. No cars. No keg parties. No date-raping college boys.” They passed under a streetlight, and McKenna could see he
“I’m a smart person,” she went on. “I’m not going to take unnecessary risks. I’m going to camp in designated spots, stay on the trail. I won’t camp within a mile of any road crossings. I know what I’m doing, Brendan.”
Brendan reached out and took her hand. “I wish you’d let
me call you, though,” he said. “It’s going to be so weird, not talking to you.”
“Just think how happy you’ll be to see me at Christmas break,” McKenna said, “when all that absence has made your heart grow fond...
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