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  • My teenage sister was sitting at the picnic table Sunday morning, hunched over and staring at the ground with a blank face.

    “I feel sick,” she finally mumbled. She stood, walked 15 feet, and then bent over and started heaving. Nothing much came up.

    “I knew you wouldn’t be ready for this,” my brother said. “You don’t just start backpacking seven miles a day like it’s nothing. You have to be in shape.”

    My sister, gulping down Tylenol, didn’t respond.

    We were the only group left that morning at the campground deep in the woods. A mile-long access road off the highway split East Camp in two, but the car was still some four miles away at the parking lot next to the staff office.

    Slowly, she shuffled back to the tent and crawled into a sleeping bag.

    * * *

    You see the signs in hindsight. Exhaustion had silenced her cheerful chattering by Saturday afternoon, and she hiked the last few miles red-faced and hunched-over. She pestered us during water breaks to press on; we thought she just wanted to prove herself to us. And she did want that, like she always has. But then you think back, and you see the dazed eyes and feigned smile in the pictures, and you know what she really wanted — for the ordeal to end. She didn’t eat much that night.

    Maybe she didn’t drink enough water. She probably wasn’t prepared for the rigor of a trail that always seemed to be ascending. But whatever it was, on Sunday morning she couldn’t continue.

    I conferred with my Dad and brother, and we decided Dad would stay behind with my sister and tear down the camp. My brother and I would hike back to the car, and then drive down the highway to the access road and East Camp.

    So we ran.

    We knew there was little chance that my sister was sick with anything but exhaustion — she admitted as much — but still we ran the trail, plastic garbage bags keeping the light rain off our backs, of course we ran, because she’s a friend, a foil, a sister who looks up to me, and I’d never be the same if I lost any of my four siblings so early in their lives.

    * * *

    “I feel like I’m in a movie,” I told my brother as we hopped over a stream. “Like I’m Rambo or something, running through the woods on a mission.”

    My brother, with a very large knife strapped to his leg, laughed and hurdled a log.

    “Oh, she’s never going to live this one down,” he said.

    Levity keeps you sane sometimes, eases the biting unease and fear of the unknown, because if you can joke about it right then in the middle of the storm and spit in the eye of tragedy, then things can’t be all that bad, can they?

    * * *

    We ran the four miles of trail, in and out of slick, muddy ravines, in less than an hour. Another group of backpackers had just finished — I recognized one of the hikers; he’d taken a photo of the four of us the day before — and they were loading gear at the other end of the parking lot. They stared at us quizzically as my brother and I strolled up to the car, minus packs and companions, and drove away. “Yeah, the knife doesn’t really help things, either,” my brother said, chuckling. I kept waiting for the sheriff to come screaming down the road.

    The access road was blocked by a locked fence, so we parked on the side of the road and hiked in to the campground. Dad waved in the distance.

    * * *

    Relief is all I felt. At camp, my sister had mostly recovered her strength, and within hours she was gobbling down a burger and fries at a Culver’s in Urbana.

    She carried her own pack down the road to the car, waving off our ribbing. “We’re doing this again next year, you know. All of it.”
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