Sunday June 12th, 2011
I was camping on the lawn of the YMCA, the best ten dollars I may have ever spent. Despite being woken by the high pitched squeal of steel on steel as the trains rolled by, I slept quite comfortably; in time the noise even gave me comfort. The lawn upon which I slept felt safe. The community center across the street gave me a sense of a security. I only could have been more comfortable sleeping in the familiar bed I had at home. And the ground had cushion to it, facilitating my recuperation. Even the train rumbling by, that sent me vibrations through the earth, somehow gave a sense of familiarity like a paternal watchman guarding the peace of the night.
I was content to sleep through the morning. I was taking the day off to rest an overworn ankle. I waited well into the sun’s growing light, past hearing the first rising athletes coming to use the gym for a early morning routine.
When I was certain I could sleep no longer, I held my eyes open to a now familiar yellow glow produced by the sun’s light filtering through the vinyl of my tent. I turned my head resting upon my hiking pack and buried my nose into its canvas. I slowly remembered where I was and where I had come from. I wanted the comfort and the peace to last forever.
But as I came to, I reached above my head and unzipped the tent just enough to peek out the entrance. Two elderly women walked by staring at my tent. They were talking to themselves, moving along in their tights and fleece pullovers. Just an eye peeking out between fabric, I watched them go by.
I thought about how I might spend my day while I stretched my sore ankle and rotated that foot in a circle. Perhaps it was a feeling of idleness that got me to crawl out of my sleeping bag. Or it could have been the rising afternoon heat that felt stifling. But most likely, it was the underlying loneliness in which peace felt isolating.
I fully unzipped the entrance to my tent and poked my arms and head out as I crawled from the tent like a moth emerging from a cocoon.
In time, after sitting at picnic table and staring blankly with my dull waking mind, I set to making my breakfast. In the nearby brushline beside the rails, I gathered some firewood and small twigs to get the fire going. I kindled the flame, boiled some water, and made several packets of apple and cinnamon oatmeal. I ate like a mountain man perfumed in woodsmoke as I watched people come and go. I had no manner to my gaze. I watched without averting my eyes. I might have been waiting for someone to meet my gaze and break the morning’s loneliness. However, these people had no time for greeting a stranger during their morning routine.
Searching for a connection, I packed up my bag, kept the tent pitched upon the lawn, and left the YMCA for town. I wandered down concrete. I walked through a city with many doors shut to me. Looking to make use of the day, I went to a nearby laundromat to wash several days of sweat from my clothing and sleeping bag.
Laundromats are like wal-mart, way too many people in sweatpants. Aside from that, they do have necessary function. And while we all tended to those functions, I called my family to hear their voices and share the many stories I had lived upon the trail. Hanging up the phone left me absent.
I shuffled back to camp at the Y.
Trying to save money, I skipped the dryer at the laundromat. So I took over the pavillion as if it were my home. I strung a clothesline between two posts and hung my unmentionables out for the public to see, a proud display of freedom.
As I engorged myself on my last package of noodles warmed by the fire, a couple wandered over from the Y.
“Hope they’re charging you rent,” the man joked.
“Cheapest in town,” I said.
“My name’s Basil, this is Angeline. Mind if we join you for lunch?”
“I sure don’t.”
They had some sandwiches they packed.
“Where you from?”
“Buffalo,” I said. “Yourself?”
“I grew up out west, but settled here into Cumberland a few years ago. Angeline’s from Russia.”
“No kiddin’. What brought you here?”
She smiled sincerely, perhaps out of happiness of being addressed directly. I could see she was hiding something underneath her expression. “Why love of course,” she said looking at Basil, forcing the corners of her lips back up to a grin.
“What brings you here?” Basil asked.
“I’m hiking the trail.”
“I wish I did more of that stuff when I was young.”
“It’s never too late to start,” I said.
“You know what you should do?” Basil said, chewing with his mouth open. “You should go check out the mission. They have all sorts of free stuff for you to take. They’ve got food and snacks, little bottles of shampoo.”
“I don’t think I need any of that.”
“I’m telling you man, it’s all free. Can’t pass that up.”
“Actually, do you know where the nearest grocery store is, I need to resupply now that you mention it.”
“There’s the Wise, a few blocks from here,” Angeline said.
“I’m telling you. You should check out the mission first.”
“The Wise sounds perfect.”
For whatever reason, Basil looked dejected. I guess it was because I didn’t wish to go down the road he was leading me.
“I am not,” are much easier words to find than “I am.”
“Tell me about Russia. What was it like?”
I smiled at her simplicity. “I can imagine it is.”
“And it’s just tough. You know? It’s tough to make it and…”
I had the sense that Angeline was defining her own story with “I am not.” But she had to journey around the earth into a man’s arms in her search for answers.
“What’s the food like?” I asked.
“Nothing like what you eat here. The food here is very rich. You might find it plain.”
“Maybe not. I’ve never had Russian food. I might like it.”
“Would you like to try it? I could make you some and bring it back later.”
“I certainly wouldn’t say no if it were here in front of me. But I wouldn’t want you to go through all that trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” she said.
“She’d be happy to,” Basil said.
I sighed. “This trip couldn’t be more perfect.”
“I’d appreciate that greatly.”
“Well that settles it. Do you want to get going dear? We can come back later just before sunset and bring this kid some dinner. You look like you tuck some food away in that stomach. I’m sure you must be starving. Can’t do this kind of trip on nothing but those noodles you’re eating.”
“If you have the will, you sure can.”
“We’ll see you later this evening?” Basil asked.
“That would be great.”
And then they got up and left. I watched them walk down the sidewalk into town. They walked hand in hand while Basil talked and Angeline laughed.
I packed up my stuff to go into town, but I left my campsite set up for the night.
On the way into town, there was a homeless man asleep on the sidewalk. Anyone else would have used the word “undignified” to describe him. He was curled up against a concrete wall asleep in a blanket. I didn’t have a word to describe him. But I had so many questions. In many ways what I was doing, spending my summer drifting from town to town, wasn’t much different from the homeless man asleep on the walk. How could I ask the man what was his value without questioning my own value? Maybe he was just a hiker who never finished his journey.
As I wandered down the main street, the heritage festival was in full swing. Several booths of assorted crafts had been set up. Antique cars were on display. Wandering tourists passively drifted while munching on kettle corn. As I passed one tent, someone caught my attention.
“Can you give us a hand real quick?”
Four of us at each corner of the tent, we extended the legs.
“Appreciate it,” said the man who approached me with a button down shirt and a tie. “I’m the mayor of this town.”
I smiled. “Jake, currently a drifter by profession.”
“You’re hiking the trail?”
“Most days I’m walking, but I’m staying at the Y for a rest.”
“Enjoy your time here in town. Perfect time to see it with the festival. Well hey, good luck to you. Safe travels.”
He shook my hand and turned to talk to the woman next to him. He didn’t put up a show or give me the key to the city like they do in the movies. He just went about his business as I did mine.
I went to the grocery store and filled up on food: animal crackers, peanut butter, mixed nuts, raisins, even a can of spam. I drooled all over myself looking at the steaks as I dodged the secretive glances of curious people looking at my hiking pack, or perhaps they were interested in the spectacle I made as I slobbered and cried while I imagined grilled meats and loaded baked potatoes.
I went back to town, and went in some of the quaint shops. I picked up some postcards at a used book store, trying not to load my arms with books.
While I was in the shop, I gave Melissa a call. I had met her the day before on the trail. Over the phone she said meet downtown at the festival in half an hour.
So I killed some time. I got an ice cream and sat on the curb people watching. Their conversations were shopping lists:
“That’s a nice painting, it would look nice in the kitchen.”
“Ooo, look at these little jams.”
“Dad can I get a rubber band gun?”
“I don’t see how they charge money. I could make those shirts.”
There was a teenage couple across the street, flirting and give each other a quick peck upon the lips. They hadn’t found bank accounts to distract them from life and the truths that are more easily felt than defined.
Melissa stepped out of the car adorned in flowers that swayed upon her dress.
“You look wonderful,” I said.
It was a genuine smile she gave, but after just a moment she dipped her head and looked away. “Thanks.”
“Well, I think I’ve had my fill of the these booths and tourists, but I’d be happy to join you if you want to look around.”
“I wanted to find a new bag. Then, we could walk around. What do you think of the city?”
“It’s a bit of gem. I wasn’t expecting anything like this on my hike.”
“There’s more to come.”
“You’ve been hiking before?”
“I did a thru-hike on the AT back in 2003.”
“Do you think you’ll get on the AT?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll figure it out when I get there. It goes through Harper’s Ferry right?”
“Right through town. There’s blazes on the sidewalk. You should do it. I think you’d like it. Its far more beautiful than this. Have you gotten any trail magic yet?”
“I’ve never heard of that before.”
“You’ll find out if you hit the AT. You meet the nicest people and they just do things, leave coolers full of drinks, soda, beer, snacks, sometimes they give you rides to town. It’s totally cool.”
“You know, back in Elizabeth I stopped to ask for directions. But it turned out I was 20 miles off the trail. This guy called his son, had him come pick me up, and then when I was getting out of the car he gave me this bag full of snacks, cliff bars and trail mix, and ten bucks in cash. I didn’t ask for any of it.”
“That’s great isn’t it. You really find the nicest people when you’re hiking.”
“This world needs more of it.”
“So this one time, I was trying to hitch a ride into town. And this family stopped in a minivan. They pulled off the road and started unloading some hiking packs. It turned out that it was the little girl’s birthday. This girl was adorable. She wanted to walk the AT for her birthday. She knew everything about it because her parents had both done thru-hikes, and they were trail maintainers. So they stopped and had a picnic with the husband’s brother. And I was invited to join them while this girl who was old enough to be my daughter was telling me to have my cold gear ready for Mt. Washington. She was telling me what gear I needed, what to do if I saw a bear. It was adorable.”
“So you just joined them for her birthday picnic?”
“They encouraged it. They were happy to do some trail magic for one of the thru-hikers. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been there, but people you meet on the trail they feel like family.”
Melissa looked around a booth with tie-dye shirts and went to the bags hanging on a rail.
“Check this out, this is perfect,” she said.
“I met the mayor this morning.”
“Did you really?”
“Yeah, but that’s all there is to that story.”
Melissa and I walked around town, half into the deep conversation but also half distracted. Live music played around the corner. There was some rock band trying to make its name by playing to a small town’s back alley.
“You wanna beer?” Melissa asked.
Perhaps it was the writer in me, but I paused to think about what having a beer with Melissa might mean. “Sure,” I said.
While the rock music played and a dad danced with his little girl, I felt left out like I didn’t want to be thinking so much about what was going on around me. I wanted to be a part of it. I did what most guys tend to do. I nodded my head to the beat while I sipped my beer.
Melissa got into the music and started dancing with the little girl.
But then, we somehow gravitated to the back steps of shop. We sat and drank our beers, awkwardly in and out of silence.
“Do you want to see some of my hiking photos?” I engaged her by sharing some of my trail stories as I showed her the pictures. She took out her camera and showed a portrait of the moon.
In time, we got up and walked into town. It seemed as if our time together was about to end its long and awkward interval when I said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about how when I’m hiking the trail, I’m on a path that’s always progressing forward. Once you move on it’s like a single moment’s gone forever and I can never go back to redo it. I don’t want to have any regrets once this summer’s over.”
“Do you have any regrets?”
I thought for a moment.
“I do. Nothing real big. But there was something called the bone cavern several miles back. They had it all fenced off with do not enter printed on a huge sign, but I thought it would be cool to jump the fence and engage my curiosity. And the other one was when I was coming into Cumberland. They had this plaque describing the history of the lover’s leap and I could see those cliffs standing above the valley. I really wanted to go up there.”
“Do you still want to?” she asked.
“Heck yeah, I do.”
I was learning quickly that sometimes in order to manifest your desires, you simply need to express them.
We got into Melissa’s car and she drove through town, climbing the city streets as we went by people’s houses.
“You can tell what culture the people who built these houses came from by the architecture. That one’s Dutch.”
“I suppose it looks Dutch. Hm? Sure. Dutch.”
Melissa parked the car along the road. We had to walk up the street and around a gate still climbing the hill. At the top of the hill, we walked by a big industrial building. We traveled onward, Melissa guiding me to where the road ends.
After climbing over the boulders, the battlements of the lover’s leap, the view unfolded. The cumberland valley sprawled out before us. The willis creek, the CSX railway, the highway, and the GAP trail all threaded through the mountains. We sat atop the lover’s leap and stared out at the sunset.
“Isn’t it,” Melissa said. “This is why we go hiking.”
“It’s weird to say, but I could die contently at this very moment.”
“My parents just don’t get it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m going backpacking in Australia this summer. Like many trips I’ve taken before, my parents are worried. And they don’t understand. Have you ever been couch surfing?”
“There’s this website couchsurfing.org where you can connect with people all over the world and find places to stay. For some people, like my parents, it sounds crazy staying at a stranger’s house. It’s just not what you expect. My mom especially is worried that someone will hurt me. Why don’t you just travel like a normal person? Book a cruise, stay in hotels, stuff like that, that’s what she says. But you just can’t understand unless you’ve done it.”
“When I came hiking this summer. I got rid of most my stuff. What I have in this hiking pack is almost everything I own. My mom asked if I was coming home. I think she was worried I was going to wander off into the woods and do something to hurt myself.”
“You should call her.”
“I try to call as often as possible. Just to let them know that I’m still alive.”
“It’s a scary thing to think about. Especially if you’ve never done it. It’s easy to think about all of things that could go wrong, all of the ways you can get hurt.”
“That’s just the news. You hear stories about people getting attacked at gunpoint because they’re interesting. What they don’t say is that thousands of people walked down the sidewalk that very day without anything happening.”
“Have you ever had trouble?” I asked.
“Nothing serious. I meet strange people all the time, but you just walk away. Not to say nothing bad could ever happen. But I don’t worry myself thinking about it. You shouldn’t either. You should do the AT. You’re going to meet some cool folks.”
“Trail magic right.”
Melissa and I stayed at the top of the lover’s leap until the sun went down and we could see the stars. We connected in a way that I’ve learned only happens when you’re hiking. It’s like you look inside each and see past all of the bull that people show at their surface. You see the human inside of each other. Living. Breathing. Dying. And for the few moments that you have together you create something that can never be discarded.
Melissa took me back to ymca for the night. As we drove in front of the building I could see two people sitting in the pavilion and then I remembered.
Basil and Angeline came back to the campsite to bring me dinner. They must have waited for a while. I felt so bad that I had forgotten them.
Melissa and I said our goodbyes, glad to have met but knowing that we may not ever bump into each other again. I knew after meeting Melissa that I would be hiking the Appalachian Trail. She was a full-time teacher always guided by a wanderlust and that inspired me. I had to see the AT for myself. I wanted more moments like the ones I had that night.
Then, I went to the pavilion where Angeline looked tired and lonely, but Basil was smiling.
“I’m so sorry things ran late. I meant to be back here much earlier,” I said.
“You found a girl,” Basil said.
“It’s not like that.”
“It’s ok, we were not going to be here much longer,” Angeline said.
“I really hope you have not here too long.”
“It’s all good. You find a girl. I’m happy for you,” Basil said.
“We’ve been here an hour or so. We brought you some food.”
I wasn’t too hungry, but when Angeline put the food in front of me I tore into it like it was the best thing I ever ate.
“This is so good. You made this?”
Angeline smiled, “Now you can say you’ve eaten Russian food.”
It was rice with chunks of fish in it, lightly seasoned and very bland.
“Thank you so much, it’s delicious.” I smiled.
I didn’t know how to make-up for almost ditching them. I felt so bad. However, I didn’t regret spending the evening with Melissa.
We didn’t talk very much. It was late and Basil and Angeline wanted to get going. I thanked them again and then said goodbye.I crawled back into the tent and tried to keep my mind from wandering. I needed to get some sleep. After taking a day off, I wanted to get up early and put some miles on in the morning. It was easy to silence my thoughts, the day I spent with Melissa and the door she had opened to me to hike the Appalachian Trail.