I wake in the night when my calves seize up and I jerk from my sleeping bag and stretch them in the dark room, trying to stop the cramp. I’ve been getting charlie horses every night for the last few weeks and now I’m still getting them, even though I’m no longer on the trail. I wonder when they’ll stop but at the same time, I understand- I’ve been exercising up to twelve hours a day for the last five months, without stretching. It’s amazing how un-injured I am.
I think about this some more in the morning, when we’re walking on the rain-fresh sidewalk to the coffee shop, a little sun spilling over the brightly-painted houses. I just walked 2,660 miles, and my feet don’t even hurt. This is probably due in part to my pace, which is actually pretty slow. Each day it took me an hour or two more than Instigate and Spark to “do the miles”. Instigate and Spark are both comfortable hiking at three miles an hour for most of the day, while my average was 2.5. And Instigate and Spark both ended the trail with considerable foot pain, pain that, in the end, will stay with them for months. When thru-hiking, speed and packweight are the two main factors that create the stress that can cause overuse injuries. I went to a talk about gait at kickoff, and the guy giving the talk had created some handy mathematical formula, like Stress = Speed + Packweight / Efficiency, and by efficiency I think he meant gait. He demonstrated his original gait, the gait he’d hiked the AT with- big striding stomping steps, like a cartoon hiker. He’d had horrible shin splints on the AT, and had reached Katahdin only with massive doses of ibuprofen. After the AT he’d done a bunch of research, changed his gait completely, and then he’d hiked the PCT without any pain at all. After the talk he demonstrated his new gait- like a ballroom dancer, gliding smoothly across the floor. Short steps, almost squatting a little, spine straight like a steel rod. I played around with my gait for weeks after that workshop, lifting my arms up sometimes, pretending I was two-stepping.
“You have the next two thousand miles,” he’d said, “to do nothing but experiment with your gait.”
So I was relatively slow- is that why I had no foot pain? But Raho was no faster than me, and he’d had the worst foot pain of our whole group- plantar fasciitis, he’ll discover later, when he’s home in North Dakota.
The mysterious world of overuse injuries, I think, as I drink my tea in the coffeeshop. The tea is weak, not very hot, and in a cup the size of a soup bowl. Behind the counter the bearded baristas argue about comics conventions. I had more hypothermia and water-borne illness than anyone in my group, more fevers and diarrhea and nights where I couldn’t get warm, but otherwise I’d emerged in Canada relatively unscathed. Like magic!
After the coffeeshop I get a call from the woman who owns the house where my trailer is parked- they just got a call from the city, and I need to move my trailer, now. These are not people I really know- my dogsitter Cooper, bless his heart, moved my trailer to this house when the other house where my trailer was been parked, the driveway where I’d lived for the last year and a half, had been evicted. Portland is gentrifying at the speed of light right now and evictions happen all the time, suddenly, and as if from nowhere, especially in the rundown houses where my friends live. The property owners, off in Mexico or whatever, suddenly realize what a gold mine they’ve been sitting on- a derelict craftsman with hardwood floors, one block from fifteenth and Alberta, or Skidmore and Mississippi, or whatever. No matter that the house is very, very moldy. And so, everyone out, so the house can be flipped! Even if you have children and have lived in the house for five years, as my housemate Sweethome had.
So now my trailer is sitting at this other place, and the people there don’t really know me, nor do they understand where I am exactly or what it is that I’m doing, and they need me to move my trailer, now. I’d tried to explain the PCT to them when we talked in July, after Cooper had moved my trailer into their big yard, wild with bamboo, but their eyes had glazed over in that special way that signals the complete end of comprehension of any of the sentences coming out of your mouth. It’ll happen to me again and again, after the trail, mostly with strangers-
“I hiked 2,660 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail!” I’ll say to my ride who picks me up hitchhiking. “I walked from Mexico to Canada!”
“So you hitchhiked,” They’ll say, staring dully out at the road. “Or you drove?”
“No, I walked!” I’ll say. “Over the mountains!”
“I used to be in the Army,” they’ll say, changing the subject. “You want a burger?”
Back at Slick’s apartment I make toad in a hole from the dense GF loaf I bought at the co-op yesterday, cutting little circles out of the bread and dropping eggs into the sizzling pan, and think about how lucky it is that I must move my trailer now, as opposed to a week ago, when I was still on the trail. I only just got off the trail two days ago and now, suddenly, I am needed in Portland, pronto. I made it just under the wire with that one. But it also sucks, because these people originally agreed to let me rent space for my trailer in their backyard for the month of October, and that would’ve given me a place to return to, and a home for a month with my dogs while I figured out what the fuck I was doing, or where I was going to go. So now I have no home, nowhere to park my trailer, and no way to pick up my dogs. And no money, either.
Why don’t they talk about this in Yogi’s guide? I think, as I eat my toad in a hole. The importance of having some sort of safety net for after the trail? I am raw, empty, and more than a little bit exhausted. I need to rest- dear god, I just need a quiet place to come home to. A soft bed, a friend or two, very little stimulation. I am not yet ready to think about the strange, abstract logistics of making one’s way in the urban jungle. I feel completely exposed, as though I’ve been turned inside out. As though I have no skin. I’ve been sleeping in the woods for five months, listening almost exclusively to birdsong. Eating dinner with the same two or three people in the same filthy patagonia, filling my hours with quiet, contemplative walking. Money? Capitalism? Housing logistics? What the fuck is that?
I’m realizing now that most people go home to their parents after the trail. Spark is flying out of the little Bellingham airport, tomorrow, to Georgia, where his parents will be waiting with a cake. In Georgia he can hide in his parent’s cabin for as long as he needs to, playing video games and nursing his existential despair. Instigate will travel down the west coast, visiting friends and relatives, after which she’ll meet up with her family in Maryland, and stay with them through the holidays. The upside of this is that she’ll pass through Portland, in a couple of weeks, after I’ve found a place to live. The thought of Instigate, who I would trust with my life and who understands all of it with a wisdom well beyond her years, visiting me in Portland, and staying with me in my tiny trailer, is immensely reassuring to me right now.
We’re all supposed to be packing but instead we’re crumpled on the couch, watching youtube videos about ants building houses out of ice. It’s only a four hour drive down I-5 to Portland but I’m hitching, and so I need to get on the road soon. Finally I shoulder my pack and the three of us walk to the co-op, where I force Instigate and Spark to pose for one last, awkward group photo. Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry, I say to myself as I walk away, towards the I-5 onramp, and then stand waiting at the crosswalk, punching the metal button with my fist. Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry, not right now.
Instead of doing a good job hitching (standing upright, looking at cars, maybe smiling) I slouch against the guardrail and read PCT blogs on my phone. The battery is almost dead but I feel fidgety and sort of agitated, and I can’t get myself to focus. The next thing I know almost two hours have passed, and still no-one has stopped. This is, at least partly, because I look like a boy. I put my phone away and try and use my hitch-hiking brain, which is a little rusty these days. When people won’t stop after this long, there’s almost always a reason. I walk up the shoulder of the onramp, trying to see it from a car’s point of view. Maybe the guardrail? Maybe they don’t want to pull off where there’s a guardrail?
As soon as I have walked out past the guardrail a pickup truck pulls off for me, and stops. It’s Dude In A Pickup Truck, the patron saint of hitchhikers, per usual. He’s a 25 year-old electrician and he takes me to Renton, where I wait at a very busy intersection and watch as rush-hour traffic speeds by and the sun sinks slowly in the sky. At last, just after dusk, when I am about to give up and scout around for a place to sleep, another Dude in a Pickup Truck stops and offers me a ride to Kent. I don’t know where Kent is but I assume, since I told the man I was going to Portland, that Kent is on I-5. It is not, and I only realize this once the man has driven me fifteen minutes down some narrow, country road and dropped me at a dark intersection with no traffic, kitty-corner to a gas station.
At the gas station I push open the jangling door and the clerk looks up at me, fluorescents making him appear more zombie-like than he actually is.
“Do you have outlets?” I say. “I need to charge my phone.”
“Out front,” he says. “You have to go out front.”
Outside I sit on the cold sidewalk in front of the store, plug my phone into the outlet there, and shiver. What the fuck am I going to do? People pull in, slam their car doors, come out with a pack of cigarettes and some red bull, speed away. Behind the gas station is a set of railroad tracks, and now and then a train rolls by. I feel impossibly lonely. I’ll find a place to camp by the tracks, I decide, in the blackberry brambles. And then, in the morning, I’ll get back to the highway somehow.
My phone bleeps to life and I pull up craigslist, scrolling through the Seattle rideshare board. Thank god for smartphones, I think. Back when I used to ride trains, I didn’t even have a cellphone. Or GPS, or reliable railmaps. Often I didn’t even know where I was. But then, wasn’t that the point? Just knowing I was going East. Watching the land change, steeling myself for whatever might come. Snow in Glacier National park, the stars hard and bitter. North Dakota, the prairie bent beneath the wind, old farmhouses crumbling into the earth.
There’s a woman leaving Seattle for Portland right now, and I call her. Not only does she still have room, she says, but she’ll come pick me up here, at this god-forsaken gas station, three miles off of I-5. And forty-five minutes later she appears, like a fucking miracle, with a little dog on her lap. I open the passenger door and good car-heat blasts out, enveloping me like a hug.
The woman’s name is Carter, she’s my age, and she works as a tour guide in Seattle. She opens a sleeve of oreos and offers them to me. Her fluffy white dog sits on my lap. Finally, at 11 p.m. I arrive in Portland, at the quiet house where my friend Seamus lives. I thank Carter and drag myself inside, dropping my bags in the kitchen. My friend Sam is there, just returned from New York, and she talks to me while I make toad in a hole, round two, and eat it quickly, as though I am starving. Afterward I crawl upstairs to Seamus’ room, feeling strange and disoriented, and brush my teeth in the warm, beautifully tiled bathroom. Seamus is staying at his boyfriend’s house tonight and has left me his bed, which is maybe the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. The mattress is that expensive foam stuff, and laying on it is not like laying on the ground at all, in the very best way. And there are hundreds of blankets, all piled on top of me, and the world is absolutely still. Outside, it rains a little. Oh Portland, I think. And then I am asleep.