John Muir, who I believe hitchhiked less than us, wrote, "A proper wilderness experience requires at least two weeks of backpacking." That amount of time seems to be the difference between visiting the wilderness and actually living in it, between crapping in the woods and marking one's territory. On day 10, Rob finally asks me for space: "Ten yards, please." Knowing the feeling, I oblige.
A few miles pass, and we arrive at an outcrop with wide views of Emerald Bay. We sit, sharing a Snickers. We have only two days left, and I'm not going to mar them by asking Rob more career questions. How could I under this sky, with this view? On a long hike, at some point, the outside world recedes; you know it's there, waiting, but you can't muster the energy to care much. It dawns on me that my brother is a born thru-hiker: always inspired by the moment, rarely concerned about the future.
We break camp on the final day, walking by nine in the morning with 17.5 miles to go. Our packs are light, our stench heavy. We cross a meadow to reach Round Lake, where a father and son are fishing. Rob sees a hulking boulder perfect for the climbing shoes and chalk bag he's carried the previous 155 miles. He creates a route and names it "Speedini Squeeze."
We walk through more meadows, up rocky hills, past a sign marking the Pacific Crest Trail, which we decide to hike some future summer. We eat our last pepperoni and honey sandwiches in a grove of aspens.
I wonder what I will tell my parents. There was a moment earlier in the long walk, when we crossed a road and encountered a weatherworn woman named Rita who was working as a flagger for a highway crew. She warned us about the bears "up there," then went about duct-taping her car trunk shut. Rob stopped to help, then hugged her before heading on. This is what I like most about long hikes: They reveal who we are, and what we need, without our protective walls and routines. He may be authority averse and oddly dressed, but my brother is kind.
This, I realize, is all my parents need to know: Rob is fine. And so am I.
Writer Charles Bethea brought the Silver Surfer home to Atlanta. Rob got a job teaching English in Japan, where he "rages off-trail with local monks."