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I wake at 6:30, tangled in the scratchy comforter, hotel room walls washed in pale morning light, and realize that I feel awesome. My crying the night before, my emotional hemorrhaging all over the place, everything coming out of me all at once- Maybe that’s it, I think. The trail’s over, I got real sad about it, I cried a bunch… maybe now I’ll be fine. Before my hike I’d read plenty of accounts of post-thru-hike depression- sadnesses that came on all at once, bottomless pits of meaninglessness with no known cure, bouts of melancholy that lingered for weeks, for months, for years.
I doubt that will happen to me, I think now, as I lie in the hotel bed waiting for the others to wake, watching MIA videos on my phone. I feel fantastic. And besides, I’m tough, right? Emotionally resilient, prone to crippling anxiety, on occasion, in cities, but never really depression. And the people who write about being bummed after the trail are probably exaggerating, at least a little bit. Romanticizing their post-trail experience for the sheer poetry of it, the same way we romanticize our suffering on the trail- I thru-hiked and afterward life was never the same! Everything was empty and suffused with meaninglessness! Much like- Look at these blisters! Whoa how I have suffered!
I mean, I’ll be fine. Right?
The others wake and we drink cups of cheap hotel coffee and scavenge breakfast from our food bags- we all brought more than enough food this last section, after our period of starvation hiking into Stehekin, and we are all three of us, at this point, very, very broke. It’s something I’m trying not to think about- Where will money come from once I’m back in Portland? I don’t have a job to return to, and I really want to move out of the city. It’s a promise I made to myself while hiking, while walking through the sun-dappled forest, while lying on the sandy desert floor. It can be hard to leave the place you live, even when you’re only there, after so many years, out of habit. When you have a relationship with a place, when you’ve watched it grow and change, when you know its history like you know yourself. I realized, several years ago, that Portland is no longer the city I came of age in, the city that taught me how to be myself, the city I fell in love with when I was nineteen, naïve, and so, so lost- and yet I continue to go back, winter after winter, looking for something that I will likely never find there. And the truth of it is, I want to live in the Nature. Not just in the summers, but all the time. Like, me and the Nature, we want to be together. So on the trail I sat in the dark on a hillside and stared up at the Milky Way and promised myself- you don’t have to live in Portland anymore. You can leave. For good.
Now I sit on the hotel bed, mussed sheets all around me, and eat handfuls of gingersnap granola and think about this promise. I will return to Portland, I decide, reunite with my dogs, tie up various loose ends, and leave before I get trapped again in some barely-satisfying routine. Before I talk myself out of it, before the rains return. I don’t know how, or to where I will go, or how I will pay for all of it, but I know, for a fact, that the ball has been set in motion, that I am going to leave the city and that I am never, ever, ever coming back.
Spark has a gallon bag of miniature raw chocolate energy bars, scored from Lotus and Hermes, and he tosses them across the bed to me. Lotus and Hermes were sponsored by this company, and they had some insane quantity of these bars in their resupply boxes- maybe a thousand? And by the time they got to the border they were very, very sick of them. I think the bars are delicious and before I know it I have eaten a dozen of them, made a mound of shiny wrappers on the bedside table. My stomach is still an empty pit inside of me that feels as though it can never be filled, my metabolism a white-hot furnace that vaporizes calories on impact. And yet, I’m no longer hiking- how much longer will I feel this way?
I decide to take another shower before checkout, taking advantage of the beautiful, warm, brightly-tiled bathroom that I just barely appreciated yesterday through the haze of my tears. I take off my clothes and startle at my image in the mirror- I am so, so thin. I haven’t been this thin, in fact, since I had an eating disorder as a teenager. I am this thin because I was starving in Washington, because I had tonsillitis and couldn’t eat, because I didn’t pack enough food. I am so thin, now, that the belt of my pack leaves bruises on my hips, that it’s painful to lay on my back AND my side. I am so thin that, instead of continuing to grow stronger, I actually became weaker in Washington, and slower, and my calves, which, by Oregon, had become wooden six-packs of glorious wonder, actually began to shrink. My body was, in effect, eating itself. Eating the very muscles it needed to hike. And so I had nothing left to pad me when I slept, to help keep me warm, to consume in moments of hardship.
I look at my body in the mirror and think, I am too thin. And the next thought follows as naturally as the first- I wish I could stay this way forever.
These two contradictory thoughts bump gently against each other and then disappear as I turn on the water in the shower. Female socialization means that I have been taught, since I was very young, that I should be, above all things, thin. I have received this message from television, from magazines, from advertisements, from the internet, and from all the humans around me for the last thirty-one years. As a teenager it was an obsession that consumed me, and after much personal growth and education about my own, internalized oppression and the nature of the patriarchy the message of thinness = desirability = love has subsided to a sort of white noise that I can almost, but not quite, tune out. And yet here it is, rising triumphant from some deep part of me, that person inside of me that wants, above all else, to be thin. No matter that I just walked from Mexico to Canada, no matter that I braved hunger, tonsillitis, hypothermia, and snow in Washington and emerged triumphant. I’m fucking thin! And not just a little thin, but thin enough that no-one, from any angle or at any time of the month, even my own hyper-critical self, would call me not-thin. So far on the side of thin that I am safe here, protected on all sides from sudden bouts of fatness. That place I loved so much as a teenager, that place I starved myself daily in order to go. That place of safety, of comfort, of security. I’m fucking emaciated.
Of course I know, on a logical level, how delusional these thoughts are. That I should’ve loved my body as much in Northern California, where I first found my stride and did my first thirty mile days, and felt strong and fast and full of life and energy, as I do now, after dragging my way through Washington with no energy left in my body.
But I don’t.
Instigate, Spark and I pack up our things and look sadly around us at our hotel room, the last hotel room we’ll have the opportunity to trash together. The trail is over but I have at least a few more days with these fools and right now I am so, so grateful for that. Outside the hotel the sky is overcast and the air is cold; we sit on the concrete stoop and look up at the passes, draped in clouds, where the snow is still falling. Our plan today is to hitch back across the border, but we’re not sure how. Manning Park lodge is an end-of-the-road kind of place, this is the shoulder season, and there isn’t any traffic. So we sit and look at the internet on my phone while Instigate makes a sign from a piece of cardboard from the trash.
“Have you seen Sarah?” says a young man in his pajamas, backwards ballcap on his head, eyes bloodshot a deep pink.
“Who’s Sarah?” I say. Behind the young man a dented sedan is idling.
“She’s a friend of a friend. I was supposed to give her a ride to Vancouver today. She was going to give me gas money. It’s my day off.”
Instigate looks up from her cardboard sign. Spark puts down his gatorade bottle of instant coffee/whey protein.
“I don’t know where Sarah is,” I say, “but we need a ride towards Vancouver. And we will give you gas money.”
After some haggling the young man agrees on a forty-dollar fee for a ride to the closest border crossing and we pile in the car, packs on our laps. The young man revs the sedan and pulls onto the highway, going the wrong direction- there is a gas station down the road, the only one in the area, and the car is almost out of gas. The young man is pale, looks to be about eighteen, and the floor of his car is littered in trash. The song Beasts of Burden is playing on the stereo and it’s nice to hear. I stare out the window as the young man lights up a joint, offers it to us and then smokes the whole thing himself. After Beasts of Burden ends another song comes on- Beasts of Burden. And then Beasts of Burden again.
“Is this the only song you have on this CD?” I say. The young man laughs and punches a button on the stereo. Yellow Submarine begins to play, and then Yellow Submarine, again. I realize that the stereo must be broken, stuck on repeat. I don’t say anything else about it.
At the gas station I discover that, in Canada, they have snack foods flavored like dill pickles. This pleases me immensely and I buy a bag of dill pickle rice cakes and eat them all in a couple of minutes. The young man is on the ground, looking at the underside of his car. Apparently he backed into something, and now the hose to the gas tank is in a funny place.
“It’s probably fine,” he says, as we pile back into the car and take off down the road.
We swing by the Manning Park Lodge employee housing on our way back to the highway. The young man wants to pick up his laundry and his toothbrush.
“I’m going to visit my girlfriend,” he says. “I should probably bring something besides pajamas.” The employee housing consists of a series of rundown, moldy-looking houses on a narrow dirt road. Then the young man has his basket of laundry and we are finally underway, Yellow Submarine playing over, and over, and over on the stereo.
The young man drops us in Abbotsford, at an intersection, crowded with bright box stores, from which it’s a two-mile walk to the border crossing. We are all hungry but anxious to get across the border, so we decide to wait for lunch until after we cross. It’s fun to walk, on foot, down the highway and then past the long lines of waiting cars, trekking poles poking like spears from the sides of our packs. I feel as though we’re Gypsy travelers, returned home after some long overland quest.
The customs agent peers at my passport. “Are you bringing anything into the US that you acquired in Canada?”
“Happiness,” I say. “A sense of purpose.” The customs agent frowns at me.
“I have a tangerine,” says Spark. The agent takes the tangerine and throws it in the trash.
On the other side of the border we find ourselves suddenly in a small, frontier-themed Washington town, economically depressed and weirdly devoid of residents. The false-fronted storefronts, complete with wagon wheels and statues of bulls, are mostly shuttered, and the parkinglots are empty. “Going Out of Business!” banners hang right next to the “Grand Opening!” signs. Even the gas stations and strip malls are closed, windows papered over, sandwich boards fading in the afternoon light.
“Whoa,” I say. “This place is weird.”
We find a Thai restaurant that is, somehow, open, and are ushered inside by a very friendly woman with beautiful, fresh-looking neck tattoos. She sits us a at a corner table and hands us menus the size of paperback novels. We are the only customers.
“We just opened four days ago!” She says.
Spark and instigate order coconut soup with noodles and chicken and I order a curry. A little while later, after we have eaten all the ice in our glasses, the woman brings out a small plate of curry for me and two huge, square bowls of broth for Instigate and Spark. A few slices of mushroom float on top of the broth. Instigate prods the broth with her spoon, but there is nothing else there.
Instigate and Spark have drunk almost all of their broth before we come to the collective agreement that what they actually ordered was something else entirely. Spark doesn’t want to say anything, maybe because he is from Georgia? But I think this is a travesty. I mean, the calories! Their lunch was supposed to have calories! We call the woman over, she summons the cook from the kitchen, and the cook looks out at us and frowns. No-one understands what happened or how and finally, as compensation, the woman brings us a little bowl of rice. We decide that the restaurant is, in fact, a front, and that we are not even supposed to be here. Probably the whole town is a front. For what, we don’t know.
We’ve only been standing on the highway for ten minutes when a concrete layer in a battered work van stops and offers us a ride to Bellingham. He’s in his mid thirties, rangy and handsome, and a picture of his three-year-old daughter swings from the rear-view mirror. Instigate and Spark crouch in back, among the buckets and tools, and I get the seat in front in exchange for the work of making smalltalk. In Bellingham the man drops us at the co-op where, to our happiness, we meet up with Lotus and Hermes. They’ve been to the thrift store and to the barber, and they’re wearing normal town clothes and have fresh new haircuts, which I find alarming. We also meet up with Slick, a trail angel who lives here, who’s offered to let us crash at his place. Slick is wearing hiking clothes, like he’s just on his way to the trail. Slick, Instigate, Spark and I walk to a nearby burrito place, where all the tables are painted black and hardcore metal rattles from the soundsystem. This makes Spark very happy, as he loves metal and even wrote his thesis in college on the anthropology of metal. Once, on the trail, when we were sitting next to a lake, Spark described each of the different kinds of metal to us, and played various songs from his phone as examples.
After much encouragement I order the biggest plate of nachos I have ever seen, and proceed to eat them until I feel like I’m going to vomit. Instigate and Spark each order burritos the size of their heads, which they are unable to finish. We wrap up our leftovers and stagger slowly down the damp, cool streets to Slick’s apartment building, where he leads us up a flight of stairs, lined in battered, vintage paintings, to a small apartment that consists of a bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a warm, cozy livingroom that looks out onto the street. There is an overstuffed couch in the livingroom and we collapse onto it, unable to move. Slick works early in the morning so he says goodnight, after which Spark discovers that Slick has an entire season of the animated X-Men series on DVD. I don’t want to watch this, like at all, but I am outnumbered and so I succumb. The plot of the show is terrible, nonsensical, and impossible to follow, which is how I remember it from my childhood. The one consolation is that all of the female superheroes in the show look like Instigate, which is cool.
“Will you dress up like an X-Men for Halloween?” I ask her. “Maybe Storm? You just need to make a shirt that is, like, a thong.”
“Yeah ok,” says Instigate.
A few hours later I am able to convince Spark that it is bedtime, although I have a feeling that, if he had his way, we would watch the show all night. We roll out our sleeping pads on the floor and I lay in my bag, sleepless, listening to all the little noises in the building. The trail may be over, but nothing really sucks. Not yet. Today felt just like a zero day- walking into town, hitching, eating all the things. Rolling out my bedroll on a hard floor next to my closest and dearest friends. I close my eyes. I want to pretend, at least for a little while longer, that this will last forever. I’m not ready for what comes next. Not yet.