When I told him how soon I am leaving to begin my hike, Patrick said that the roller coaster’s going up the hill. It sure is: the tickets are printed, the bag is packed. There’s no getting off this ride now.
I could be ready in five minutes, but there’s always a little more that could be done. J. and I made a wind screen for my tiny Hornet stove out of a flattened, cut-up aluminum cookie sheet. I snipped squares of moleskin into a miniature Ziploc. I shipped a box to my future self at Tuolumne Meadows, California. Heave-ho, into the big metal mouth of the US Postal Service. Now I have to go get it, and eat what’s inside, while walking toward the next one, and the next.
I’m at once eager to get away from people, and eager to get closer to them. I’m eager to get away from talking with people who– I can see in their eyes– are actually somewhere else, or wish they were. Perhaps this indicates my lack of confidence, but I sense they don’t really want to be talking with me. Small talk. I don’t know how to do anything else, how to shoehorn a connection into something deeper. How do you, when one or both has thirty seconds and a list of errands? I smile and say hello, but behind it, my main concern is not inconveniencing the other person. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
On the trail, however, I inconvenience other people regularly. On Sunday I went on a practice hike and discovered that the trail on the CalTopo map did not exist in the real world, just a jumble of hostile signs about trespassing and prosecution and staying away. The trail that did exist was a mile to the south, and not on the map.
So there I was, with the wrong map, hiking up a dry ravine instead of a creek. How far to Stuart Peak? How far to more water? I wasn’t in peril, but to improve my lot I had to ask people about things that actually mattered. Four miles up, a mountain bike leaned against a tree. Next to it, a middle-aged woman sat in the dirt, gently pulling old fur off her dog, who was focusing on mouth breathing. I said hi, and asked about the trail ahead. We talked about trickles of water to be found, and about flies that might find me. She told me about learning that menstrual blood isn’t bear bait, nor is an underwire bra lightning bait– myths that keep some women out of the woods. We might never meet again (is it easier when you won’t?), but we exchanged names and a few honest thoughts. She urged me to siphon water from her pouch, as she was not far from her car. I pulled out my bottle, and the water flowed from hers to mine. When I passed the little patch of dog fur on the way down a couple hours later, I thought again of her kindness.
How can a person infuse regular life with this urgency? How can you create a conversation not about mundane summer updates, but the delicious specificity of the best things to leave in the car for yourself after a tramp through the woods? (Water, a juicy apple, and flip-flops, FYI.) How do you become open like that?
I met a couple other vulnerable people this week. They’d come to church, and Susan was going to take them to Target afterward for some fresh clothes, because while the rest of us were glad for the last night’s rainstorm, smelling ozone and listening to the water quenching the earth, they were sleeping in it, without shelter. They were almost dried out, and the sun had warmed them, but they smelled to high heaven. She had had a hard time in Missoula, the woman said. She was heading back to Butte. Others’ kindnesses don’t work out all the time. It doesn’t seem fair. I felt sheepish telling them I was going to sleep outside on purpose for three weeks. I didn’t mention my nice tent; I’m sure they figured. The woman’s eyes lit up when I said California: her home. She recommended a grocery store in Mammoth. The man wished me luck on my journey. Who knows: maybe they’d be glad for the privilege of small talk, for appearing to need nothing.
Soon Patty is going to take me to the airport. I hope to entice her to drink a cup of tea with me first, to thank her, maybe to have some good, real words together. After that, I hope to write often, but am not sure how often I’ll be able to get online. So don’t fret if there aren’t any posts for a while. If I don’t publish during the trip, I’ll release the writing afterwards, bit by bit. Kindnesses aplenty to you!