Chapter 2: First meetings

As the plane slices through the clouds, Rhiannon struggles with getting comfortable in her seat. Even before takeoff, the person next to her had started dozing off and they're sawing logs well before the aircraft reaches maximum altitude. Rhiannon envies people who can fall asleep so easily on flights.

I've been on so many flights for work, but I just can't get used to them. She sighs. I don't think I'm scared of flying, but the wind makes the whole cabin shake and I just can't relax. She's not sure if this is rationalization at work, but it's the explanation she settles on.

Ultimately, Rhiannon decides to review the tour group materials she saved on her phone. After her registration was confirmed, the group immediately sent her multiple PDF files to read. She's familiarized herself with the particulars by now, but she figures it doesn't hurt to be as thorough as possible. That's the philosophy that's gotten her through life: study, agonize, worry, and then make plans. Do it over until your plans are air-tight. Rhiannon is sure that this experience will be no different.

The Self-Discovery Tour Group.

Meant to be for those who feel as if something is missing in their lives. Who wish to "awaken their latent potential." Who want to find their calling. Though the girl power group was tempting, Rhiannon felt the theme of this group pull her and before she knew it, she'd already chosen and clicked submit.

After reading for a while, she sets her phone down and takes a sharp breath. "I'm about to spend two whole weeks with complete strangers! I can't believe I did something so bold," she mutters, though the person to her left would not have minded even if she'd yelled it. I hope there aren't any creepers, but it seems like everyone's properly vetted. Indeed, her own application had taken a couple of days to be approved.

Anticipating the exciting but unfamiliar adventures ahead, Rhiannon pores over the documents on her phone. She tries, in vain, not to think about how many hours she must yet endure on the plane. Many hours ooze by.

The plane lands not a moment too soon. Rhiannon stands up as tall as she can and stretches, relishing the sound of her cracking joints. The bustle through the maze of an unfamiliar airport does nothing to soothe her nerves, but it's a quick taxi ride to the hotel after that.


(Photo by Drew Coffman / Unsplash)

The hotel lobby is fairly packed with people, more than Rhiannon anticipated. "The website made these tours sound so intimate. Then again, not everyone here is here for the same thing." As she makes her way to the check-in table labeled THE WILDS TOURS, Rhiannon hears bits and pieces of introductions and conversations, fascinating notes in a song she will never fully hear. She's so distracted while trying to find the end of the line that she collides directly with the person standing in front of her.

"Ow!"

Startled, Rhiannon gently puts her hand on the other woman's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, are you okay?"

The other woman is petite, with bubblegum pink hair cut into a wavy bob. "I'm fine! No worries, I've bumped into, like, four people, myself."

Rhiannon is immediately at ease. It helps that the other woman seems to be about the same age as her. More than that, however, something about her is calming—like a familiar fragrance from long ago. "Is this where the check-in line ends?"

The pink-haired woman shrugs. "I guess. It's complete chaos, so who can say?"

"Why don't we stick together then? It's easier to push through a crowd with two people."

"Hehe, sure, sounds good. Oh, I'm Caroline!" she extends a hand and Rhiannon shakes it with her own.

"I'm Rhiannon. Nice to meet you."

"That's a pretty name. How often do you get people trying to talk to you about Fleetwood Mac after hearing it, though?"

"Probably as often as people call you 'Sweet Caroline' as a joke. Or sang it to you trying to get a prom date."

"Aww man, that's a lot. Sorry."

"Nah, I like Fleetwood Mac. It's fine."

Caroline makes a face. "Lucky. I can't stand 'Sweet Caroline.'"

"But did you go to prom with him?"

A grin. "What do you think?"

They share a smile and then continue pushing their way up until they reach the check-in table at last.

"Self-Discovery," both of them say at once when asked which tour group they're in. Rhiannon and Caroline both look up in surprise at the same time.

"I'm glad I'll know at least one person." Caroline laughs. Rhiannon agrees heartily but is surprised that they're in the same group.

"She doesn't seem like the type that needs to 'find herself.' But then again, maybe I don't, either." she thinks, but does not have time to dwell on that bit of introspection for long.

The designated meeting room for their group is significantly quieter than the room next door. A glance at the placards reveals the possible reason.

"I guess more people want to find a date than themselves," Rhiannon comments dryly.

"Can't say I blame them. But I need to work on myself before I think about dating anybody again."

"You seem cool enough to me."

"You're sweet. But my last couple relationships crashed and burned. I'm way too neurotic to handle commitment."

The two of them sit down at a table together. "And two weeks in the middle of the woods is going to fix that?"

"God, I hope so! Otherwise, this will have been a huge waste of money."

"What're we talkin' about here, ladies?"

Rhiannon looks up to see a young man peering down at them curiously. Tall, dark, handsome... She can't help but wonder why he came to their table out of all the others, but her professional life has defaulted her to polite civility. "Money. Or lack of money, maybe. Turns out finding yourself's pretty expensive."

"Come on, we're about to go explore that!" he gestures grandly to the window. The view of the forest and mountains outside it is breathtaking. A low, dense fog rolls through the trees, making the woods look ever more mysterious. This is the scenery Rhiannon was so excited to see and experience. "It's priceless, isn't it?"

"You're right. Besides, we came here to leave our mundane lives behind." Caroline laughs, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"River, by the way." the young man says with a Cheshire cat smile.

"What river?"

"No no, my name. I'm River."

"Huh. That's...an interesting name." Rhiannon raises an eyebrow.

"My parents were hippies. I have a brother named Rain and my sisters are Prairie and Peninsula."

"You're kidding!"

"I wish."

The group is interrupted by the shrill feedback noise of a microphone. "Ahem, ahem!! So sorry. Hello! Thank you for your patience, everyone! Looks like everyone in the Self-Discovery tour group is here. If you're not here for that group, please go back to the lobby to find your designated area!"

A few people wander off, hearing that, and everyone else stays seated and turns in their seats towards the front. River takes a seat at their table next to Caroline.

"Thank you so much for being here today! We're going to have an awesome time together. First things first, I need you all to get into groups of four—no more, no less."

Caroline and Rhiannon exchange glances and nod with a smile.

"Choose carefully...! You're going to be with these people for the next week. We're having you split off into smaller groups to explore the Wilds and yourselves together. Then we'll meet back here for the second week. Think of these people as your new family!"

"Perfect, I can't stand my real family." River smirks. "You guys don't mind me tagging along, do you?"

"If you're okay with us, then sure. I mean, no, we don't mind. Right, Rhiannon?"

There's no reason not to, though truth be told, she finds his forwardness a bit unnerving.

"Cool! We just need to find one more person then."

As several minutes go by, people shift until there's only four to a table. Trios pull in stragglers with nervous, open arms. A long-haired young woman with a noticeable pregnancy bump soon joins them.

"Are you sure you're okay to be hiking in the woods in your...condition?" Caroline tries to be delicate in her line of questioning as the girl sits down, but she takes no offense and waves the question off.

"Oh, sure! This trip's been okayed by my doctor and I've brought extra supplements and stuff to make sure my baby and me are healthy while we're out here."

Sophia, as the woman is called, certainly looks fit and hardy. "She might be the most in-shape person in the group," Rhiannon thinks. No one opposes her further.

Each group of four is given survival packs with supplies and tools. They are each given a map of the area and a solar-powered satellite phone with GPS. Items deemed "unnecessary for self-discovery" are confiscated for the week. River looks extremely reluctant to give up his phone, desperately texting maudlin farewells in a mad rush, but eventually hands it over. "Millennials," Rhiannon mutters, eliciting a quiet snicker from Caroline.

"What was that?" River frowns.

"Nothing."

The speaker continues. "You are to traverse the areas and reach the checkpoints designated on your route. Each group has a different home base cabin—hell, each group has a different map! This week will have a solitude level of 4. You won't be bumping into other groups much and there'll be plenty of time and opportunity to get to know one other!"

"What about our tour guides? Does each group get one?" someone asks.

"Your tour guides will meet you first thing in the morning tomorrow at your cabins!"

"So we have to get to our cabins by ourselves? That doesn't exactly sound safe," Rhiannon complains to her group.

"It'll be fine!" Sophia returns brightly, looking up from her map. "It's not that far and we've got GPS. We won't get lost."

"One more thing..." the representative clears their throat. "From here on, forget the names you go by now! During this week in the wilderness, we want you to each discover your 'true name.'"

A murmur of discontent over this spreads across the room. Rhiannon and Caroline look at each other dubiously.

"Now, now! You embarked on this journey to find yourself. Your name was given to you before you were truly a person. When you're surrounded by nature and the energy of the cosmos, you will discover the name you are meant to be called." This speech is followed by a sagely nod. "If it's the same as your old name, then so be it, but we've found that that rarely ever happens."

"This sounds like some woo-woo shit if I ever heard it," River whispers.

"If you didn't already know that this trip would be totally 'woo-woo', you need to work on your reading comprehension," Caroline hisses back at him.

"...Fair point."

With the intrepid Sophia leading the way, the four of them leave the hotel and hike towards their home base cabin. It's a mere taste of the week to come.

"Still, we can't...exactly...just call each other 'hey you' for a whole week..." Rhiannon says between huffs of air as they go up a hill.

"Yeah...it's kinda weird...considering we all introduced ourselves...already." Caroline agrees, sounding just as winded.

River only laughs. "Big Brother's not watching us or anything. Who cares if we use our real names?"

"Doesn't that defeat the whole point of this trip?"

"Hey, I didn't say that I didn't want to find my 'true name' or whatever! I'll search high and low for it. But in the meantime, why not call a spade a spade and a Sophia a Sophia?"

"I guess that is more convenient."

"Come on... We wanna get there before...the sun sets..."

Their home base is a log cabin with a keypad locking the front door. Sophia enters the code given in their welcome pamphlet and they go inside. There's four beds and just enough space to stow their luggage. The beds are divvied up without a word and Rhiannon collapses onto hers, a layer of dust flying up as she does so.

"Looks like we won't be staying here the whole time," River calls out to the women. "The guidebook says this is our base, but we'll be going pretty far out and pitching tents and stuff."

Rhiannon sits up. She sees River sitting on the floor, reading through the pamphlets and organizing his things. This prompts Rhiannon to grab her bag and join him. The other two soon follow and the four of them form a neat circle in the center of the cabin.

"But we will be back here, right?" Caroline frowns as she makes note of the sleeping bag inside her pack. "I don't want to sleep on the ground all week."

"We'll probably be back here every two days or so. I mean, I haven't taken a hard look at the itinerary yet, but that's what I figure." Sophia shrugs.

"You sound like you're talking from experience."

"Oh, I've been on a hike or two, yeah! Never for this long, though. I'm so excited to challenge myself!"

The itinerary reveals that they'll be hiking about 5-8 miles a day. "This is gonna be rough..."

"No kidding," Caroline sighs, pulling her knees towards her chest until she's practically compressed herself into a ball.

"Maybe we should call it a night early," River suggests once everyone seems done unpacking. "The tour guide's supposed to be here early in the morning."

"I'm pretty tired from my flight, too," Rhiannon admits.

The group agrees on this and they each retreat to their own corner of the cabin—out of sight of each other, at least, if not out of mind.