A long overdue update.
I go to Florida and it is not what I expect: the alligators are there, in great numbers, as I have hoped, and the palm trees, and the short warm days and damp, cool nights, and the enchanted swamp. All of these things are there but mostly, what is there, is the Road- the Swamp, for the most part, has been drained to make way for this Road, and the creatures driven into canals along the Road or into the crowded underbrush next to the Road, and it is on this Road that I walk, cars blowing by, and the pavement was achingly hot and it stretched on into forever, day after boring day, and this sunk my battleship. There are beautiful parts of the Florida rail, yes, but these are distant islands connected by long expanses of this Road.
Florida is beautiful and enchanting; I will return, someday, with a boat. Water, I think, that is the way to see Florida. I want to paddle the everglades and explore the beaches and pick wild citrus. No roadwalking.
After I decide to quit the Florida trail Track Meat, who I hiked with on the PCT in 2013, picks me up in his parents’ sports car outside the library in Okeechobee.
“Your beard is kind of epic,” I say. “Have you cut it since the PCT?”
“No,” says Track Meat. He takes me to his parents’ house in Tallahassee, where I am enveloped in the warm embrace of split-level middle class suburban Christmastime; Christmas tree twinkling, holiday music playing, cakes baking, siblings and cousins visiting from far-away locations. Track Meat’s mother, a brilliant, lively woman with a beautiful sleeve of tattoos themed on the childhoods of her three sons, makes me feel right at home. The holiday is wonderful and also very awkward for me- I know no-one and feel like an extra in a play whose script I haven’t had time to read. Don’t swear, don’t swear, don’t swear, I repeat to myself over and over, as I make small talk with cousins between bites of roast beast and some sort of small, delicious onions. Track Meat’s mother is a professional baker and makes both desserts gluten-free for my sake, and it is the best red-velvet cake and flourless chocolate cake that I have ever eaten. For days I eat this leftover cake while an unseasonable tropical storm rages outside and water pounds the windows. When the weather clears Track Meat and I rent a canoe and paddle slowly down the Wakulla river, talking about every adventure that could ever happen, and how, and when, and what that might be like, and would it be any fun. I think of what a shame it is that there is only one North American summer per year. How many seasons does each person live?
Then it is time to go. I’ve decided to use this time allotted for the FT to visit Instigate in Cleveland, where I have never been, and then see my family in Colorado. Jess and Lia, who have been in Daytona Beach, Florida, also doing the family thing, are driving north to New York and they swoop me up in Jacksonville and I spend a cramped couple of days in the small jump seat of Jess’ tiny red pickup (I share this jump seat with KC, Jess’ black lab) as we make our way through Georgia, North Carolina and then north, the air growing more wintry as we go. I subsisted on nacho-cheese doritos and gas station cappuccino and say goodbye to my dear friends in the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania, where MeHap and NoDay, who I hiked with in 2013, are visiting MeHap’s parents and just happen to be driving to Cleveland the next day. More suburban family Christmastime special- a big spaghetti dinner followed by a rousing cardgame, plates of coconut macaroons. I sleep on the cool leather sofa in front of the Christmas tree and the next day we are off, into the wintry Ohio morning, past the bare trees and the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room Amish schoolhouses with their cyclones of black-clad children running around in the bare yard.
In the evening we arrive in bitter-cold Cleveland, which, if you do not know it, is a very enchanted place. Instigate lives very close-in, in a dense neighborhood of beautiful old houses, none of them remodeled, sidewalks just dusted with snow, people shuffling about, lamps glowing merrily in the windows. She shares her warm house with three other housemates. The living room is edged in comfortable sofas, draped in blankets, the shelves are piled with books, and all of the art on the walls is homemade as the direct result of some inside joke or another. I feel immediately at home. As far as I can tell, Instigate and her housemates have been subsisting on leftover Christmas candy, oatmeal with cinnamon, and long grain jasmine white rice. Although we do make a big coconut curry one night, and a pot of lentil stew another.
Instigate’s room is just a touch larger than her full-size bed, with hardwood floors and a large window that looks out on the neighbors’ snowy eaves. In this room, besides the bed, she has several giant houseplants that she tends with great intensity, a small bookcase made from a single wooden fruit crate, and her clothes- a warm coat, a few layers, and two separate outfits- skirt/tights/sweater or jeans/sweater. This is all that Instigate owns. During the day she piles the remaining clothes she is not wearing on the bed and so is able to use the small bit of floor space for a pair of shoes or maybe a takeout carton. I am just able to wedge my backpack under the hanging leaves of the philodendron- this makes it so that we can both be in the room at the same time so long as we move around each other with a sort of careful choreography.
“It’s like when you stayed with me in my trailer in Portland,” I say.
“Yes,” says Instigate. “Only smaller.” She picks something up off the bed- it’s a tank top I recognize from the PCT. Black originally but faded, from the sun, to gray-brown with patches of umber. The straps have been sewn several times. “I still wear this every day,” she says.
The bed itself is an old futon, hard and uneven, spread on a busted frame and clothed in stained sheets smelling of earth, and sleep, and time. There are pillows piled everywhere, cool heavy blankets.
“Do you ever wash these sheets?” I say.
“Ah,” says Instigate, by way of explanation. “I was learning to build a house this summer. I would come home covered in dirt.”
I have a feeling that I will sleep better here on this good hard futon with my dear friend Instigate than I have, anywhere, in ages.
And I do.
In the afternoons I walk for miles around the bitter-cold city, exploring the interesting neighborhoods, the towering steel mills, the derelict mansions built so close together, the dark stone schools that look like prisons. Many of the streets remind me of Portland pre-gentrification and indeed I can see just the beginnings of gentrification here- there is a bar, packed with beardos, where one can buy hot dogs with a variety of strange toppings- fruit loops, chunky peanut butter, kim-chi. There is a coffee shop with impossibly high ceilings where everything is brewed in beakers and the neighborhood store sells fair-trade chocolate. But the city hasn’t changed much, not yet.
“I feel like I’m living in the good ol’ days,” says Instigate, as we walk home from the produce market with our haul of avocados and cauliflower, past the once-glorious houses with their peeling paint. “And I’m grateful that I have the perspective to be able to see that.”
“Everything we touch turns to white,” I say.
I settle into Instigate’s house until I feel as though I live there and then, suddenly, it’s time to go. In the wee hours of the morning I walk in the falling snow to the train, my footsteps the only ones breaking the smooth white surface, and take the train to the airport, where I catch my flight to Denver, on which I promptly fall asleep, to wake in another world.
Denver International Airport is everything that Cleveland is not- sterile, modern, sprawling, flooded with blinding sunshine. I’ve forgotten about this sunshine and the way it beats painfully down on the high plateau. I am greeted at the baggage claim by my cousin Amy, who I haven’t seen in four years.
Amy and I are the same age, and have always gotten along awesomely- our family doesn’t make many girls, and until we were teenagers we were the only two girl cousins in a sea of boys. I grew up in Alaska, and Amy and I didn’t have a chance to see each other often until my grandparents adopted me at fourteen and I moved to Colorado for highschool. Even then, we mostly saw each other on church holidays and the times I drove to Denver as a teenager. Still, we worked hard to cause mischief whenever we were together. These days Amy works, in the summer, as head gardener for the town of Winter Park, and in winter she’s their snowplow driver/mechanic, getting up at four a.m. to clear the snow from the streets and maintaining the local police cruisers on the side. She owns a home in nearby Granby, a small mountain town that sits at 9,300 feet, and she shares this home with her two sweet cats. Amy has been a snowboarder for as long as I can remember- as a teenager she rode competitively, but at 19 she was in an accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury that still affects her, in subtle ways, to this day- her short term memory, she tells me on the drive from the airport, is fucked.
The air in the mountains is thin and cold and bright and we pass through a string of little towns, each one blanketed in snow and bustling with people and looking like the absolute best place to live anywhere, ever. I look out the windows, excited. What wonderful places these small mountain towns are. My family, apparently, has been in Colorado for five generations- I have a series of black and white photographs, scanned by my brother, that I know nothing about. Men on horseback in a canyon, men leaning against a log fence. My parents absconded to Alaska when they were married, I did not grow up here. I moved to Colorado as a traumatized teenager, lived for three years with my grandparents in a little town near the Utah border, and then got out as fast as I could. And yet I have aunts, uncles, cousins all over the state.
Later, in my grandparents’ bright house on the fire-scarred mesa, I’ll show my grandpa the photographs on my phone while he’s standing in the hallway in his socks and he’ll point at them and shout-
“That’s my brother Ralph, on the homestead in Arvada. With the muskrats that he got that year. Boy, that was a good year for muskrats. We made a thousand dollars!”
“That’s my brother Ralph and my brother Don, working as cowpokes. They were real cowboys!”
He’ll tell me about his mother, who claimed to talk to the angels, who ran off and about the woman, who they all called Toots, who raised them. He’ll tell me about his two brothers, who died decades ago, and their children and grandchildren, scattered on horse ranches across the state.
My family was horse people. Now they’re mechanics. Even my cousin Amy.
Staying with Amy is wonderful. We soak in some hotsprings, visit her parents in their cozy home next to Lake Granby (You can see the continental divide trail from here! says my aunt Christy), go snowshoeing.
In the evenings we watch trashy reality TV, make venison steak and kale salad (Amy is a hunter and has a freezer full of deer) and then I fall asleep in Amy’s guest room while the cat sticks its little paw under the door, trying to get in.
I even go running, one evening, in the cold- I’m slow at 9,300 feet but I haven’t been able to run much and this feels incredible, watching the sun set over the hills draping the mountains in alpenglow, my face and ears growing numb. Everything’s gonna be alright.
After visiting Amy I take the Amtrak west, along the Colorado River as it flows through the canyons towards Grand Junction, which is where my brother John lives, and where I went to highschool. It’s so peaceful on the train, rocking gently through the mountains, far from the interstate. It reminds me of what I used to love so much about riding freight trains. I listen to my audiobook and stare at the roiling water, the pines, the hills. We drop in elevation and soon the snow is gone and there’s just the red dirt, stretching on forever and the red rock, rising up into mesas. We’re in the real desert now. Desert. Desierto. I used to hate this place.
My brother meets me at the Amtrak station. He just got off work and he’s still in his shop clothes. His eyes are red and he looks tired but impossibly masculine, which is how I always think of him. Handsome face. Excellent posture. Impossibly square jar. But tired.
There’s a carseat in his pickup.
“You had a kid,” I say.
“Sawyer is everything,” says John. His hands on the steering wheel are dry and cracked with eczema. “You want to go eat somewhere?”
We end up at Applebee’s, the same Applebee’s where I worked when I was eighteen. While we eat our salmon and spinach John tells me about his life- he’s been working in Afghanistan for part of each year, as a heavy equipment mechanic for the military. Fixing military vehicles in a war zone. Military vehicles that’ve been blown up, their insides splattered with blood and brain matter. Getting shot at, shooting back. He tells me about how the work destroys him, how traumatized and fatigued he is every year after coming back. It takes him months to recover. He tells me about how much he loves the work- more than anything he’s ever done. The sense of urgency, the camaraderie, the simplicity of each day. He tells me about how empty everything seems when he returns, how regular life pales in comparison. Just a bunch of stupid drama. I look at him, and I think of him getting shot at, and it breaks my heart. But I know. I understand.
And now the thing happens, the thing that always happens when I am with John- I look at him and I see his hopes and dreams and struggles, the way he lives his life. I see the experiences of our childhood, I see the way those experiences affect him, the way they still affect him. I see in his eyes how real all of it was- how real it still is. How it still ripples through him, how it influences the choices that he makes. I realize suddenly how it still affects me. And then all the time and space and growth I’ve put between me and those experiences vanishes in an instant and I’m there again, in our dim low-income apartment in Anchorage, hungry and terrified, searching for an errant foodstamp dollar or a piece of clothing that doesn’t smell like mildew while our mother chainsmokes and talks to herself about the devil. It’s real, it’s more real than anything- it’s the realest thing there is.
I feel rattled the entire time I’m in Grand Junction.
At night my heart pounds as I imagine every awful thing that could happen. I can barely sleep. During the day my gut is a knot of anxiety. In spite of the fact that absolutely nothing bad is happening, the world seems an impossibly dark place, full of danger and ill intent. Why did I come back? Why did I come back.
To see my brother, who I care about more than I can even express. To see his son, Sawyer, who is the calmest two-year-old I think I’ve ever known- playing quietly with his toys, saying “please” and “thank you” and “will you read me a book Auntie Carrot?”. Part of this is due to John’s wife, Roxy, being a magician with children, and also to the fact that Sawyer is some sort of magical being who apparently never cries or fusses and has slept eight hours a night since day one. Sawyer also looks, almost eerily, like John when he was a baby, and as Sawyer sits next to me on the couch, patiently showing me how the little pop-up animals in his pop-up book work, I look into his serene blue eyes and I can see that his soul is approximately eleventy-billion years old.
“I am going to steal your child,” I say to John, while we’re eating at Chipotle. Sawyer is eating his taco carefully, doing his best not to make a mess. He’s not a picky eater- he simply eats what you give him. He also enjoys hot sauce. “I’m going to take him away to Oregon and raise him in, like, a converted schoolbus, or something.” While waiting in line for our food, approximately 98% of the women in the restaurant were staring at John, who had Sawyer on his hip. I thought this was hilarious.
John and I visit our grandparents. I see some more of my cousins, aunts and uncles. I go on a hike with my aunt Pat- Pat is in her late fifties, has a fused spine and a ruptured disk in her neck from scoliosis and yet she’s always been one of the most active people in the family and now, she says, walking is the thing that helps the pain more than anything. We hike twelve miles along the Gunnison river on an uncharacteristically foggy day as we talk about family, about history, about the CDT. I talk about hiking and Pat tells me about her cousins on their distant ranches, about the children of my grandfather’s two brothers. About family drama and death and heartache. I wish I had a notepad to write it all down, but I don’t. I’ll just have to come back.
I talk with John more about his job overseas. He shows me videos from his trips- firefights in the desert, far away and impossible to see, just gentle distant popping noises. And then a bullet whizzing by the camera.
“That one almost got me,” he says.
The insides of the armored vehicles that he repairs.
“In this one the driver lost both his arms. See? Blood everywhere.” John skips over the next video. “I don’t think you want to see that one.”
Videos of him hanging with the other guys, everyone in uniform. Everyone is laughing, my brother’s laugh unmistakable- it’s the unhinged laugh that we both share.
“It’s just different than anything else,” says John, bent over his kitchen countertop, skipping through the videos. “It’s just what feels most real to me.”
I understand, though.
I understand because we spent our childhoods in a war zone.
I cannot say that I am sad when it comes time to leave Grand Junction. I’m flying out in the wee hours of the morning and my last night in town I spend at my friend April’s house- April was one of my best (and only!) friends in highschool, an eccentric redhead who gave no fucks for what it meant, in what was then a sad, economically depressed methlab of a town, to be “cool”. April went away for medical school and two years ago, after her residency, she returned. She now works as a doctor at the same clinic where we went to get free birth control in highschool. Grand Junction has changed since then- it’s larger, more sprawling, no longer as poor. April is happy here, and she lives with her husband in a beautiful house with the most luxurious bathroom I’ve ever seen- it has a huge tub, two showers, and a sauna. I spend the evening collapsed on the dark leather couch in their high-ceilinged living room, feeling sleepy and lethargic. I’m overwhelmed by everything that’s happened. I’m ready to get back to southern Oregon, to make some sort of home. I just need to be home. I need time to think.
My return to Southern Oregon is jarring- I’ve only been back for two days when I wake up with a brutal respiratory infection/flu-like illness, so sick I can barely get off the couch. This is what I get, I think, covering my face with my hands. Too many planes. Too many feelings. Not enough fresh air. On the plus side, however, I’ve found the most wonderful place to live- a beautiful old house, within walking distance of everything, that I share with two other women around my age. My room is small, with hardwood floors, nice moulding, and a single window. I spend two days dragging myself around town in a borrowed car amassing cute old furniture- a hard futon, a desk, a chair, and two lamps, and then collapse in my new nest to convalesce. My housemate, Aga, makes grain-free banana muffins and chicken soup, which she fills with garlic and cayenne, “for healing”. This solidifies in my brain that this is, in fact, the best living situation I possibly could’ve hoped for.
So I’ve finally landed, for now. And I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I can rest, I can run, I can cook my own meals! For the next several months I’ll be putting the finishing touches on the book about my PCT 2013 thru-hike, which some of you have been waiting on for over a year. I’ll also be preparing for the CDT- although the book comes first. I might actually hike the CDT southbound, in order to give myself more time. We’ll see how things turn out.
Also! I have a bit of an announcement. I’m trying something new this year, in regards to hiking and blogging. Usually, when I’m hiking and people want to support me somehow, I direct them to the paypal button on my care packages page, where they can “buy me a burger”. I’ve recently discovered patreon, which is really, really cool re: bloggers and the like. When you pledge an amount on patreon (say, $1) I’ll get that amount each time I post. So it’s a direct incentive for every post. If you’re interested in supporting my work this way and also subtly pressuring me to post more via $, check it out. My patreon page is here.
As always, more photos of my adventures are on instagram.