The plane touches down in Missoula, cold, drizzling, dark. The headlights of the Mazda pull around to the curb, spotted by rain, J. inside the warm car, and I climb in. Climb back into a past life, but full of experience, stories, confusion about the next steps after three weeks of knowing exactly which direction to walk.
The first days blur, shot through with echoes of the John Muir Trail, my new reference point for everything. It’s like the bells:
One evening, I walked past a dozen mules and two beautiful horses grazing in the Lyell Meadows of Yosemite National Park. Their guardian was unseen, so they seemed native, except for bells tied around their necks, bells that sang with every step. As the moon paced the sky, the mules’ melancholy chord glided down-canyon, then returned near dawn. I climbed right up Donohue Pass the next morning, quickly out of earshot, but the bell song had entered my dreams, and lingered in my ears for days.
So while I go back to work, do the laundry, do the dishes, and am again bombarded with hundreds of people per day, the song of the trail follows me around. I start writing, everything at once, not chronologically. Memories bump into each other, crowded, impatient. Spinning them out is reassuring, renewing. This really happened. It is delicious to live it all again, looking closer this time, harvesting each bit, leaving nothing in the field.
J. and I spend as much time outdoors as possible, knowing what’s ahead: we run the Sam Braxton Trail, Blue Mountain, Waterworks Hill in the rapidly shortening afternoons, clouds racing above us. The large empty spaces are precious, spaces that tell me Trail and Now are still one. It’s fall, and I’m trying to hang on.
I had imagined, back in the California summer when winter seemed so far away, that I would keep my wild animal alive, the hiking organism, the outside girl. I would fight to merge trail life with the everyday. But as November draws down, the wild animal senses change, and crawls into the cave tended by the domesticated self. The wild falls asleep and stays asleep, as the brisk other moves about the dwelling, a person of brooms and Netflix, of drying herbs and making beds. She draws the line between indoors and out with a bold line, and she fears the out. It’s the inevitable townsfolk apprehension. Even after living outside and loving it for three weeks, it sounds foreign, chaotic, uncontrollable to me now. Under her rule, I watercolor arrangements of gourds and apples, and kestrels landing over and over, at the kitchen table in the basement apartment. Tamed symbols of the outside. The ringing of the bells is gone. Is this defeat?
Well. Really, if I lived in the wild all the time, I’d have to exist much differently than a hiker on a sunny trail, here at this latitude where daylight dwindles to a mere glow and the world ices over. Northerners are meant to partially hibernate. How surprisingly easy it was: to buy the green, woolen, made-in-Minnesota blanket that appeared at the thrift store, to cover our sleeping selves through long nights. To bake and bake and bake, warming the apartment with calories: hot pepper cornbread for our neighbors at the plant nursery, crackers for a friend at tea, bread and stuffed pumpkin for dinner guests, squash for soups.
Surrendered to this other reality, the wild inside gives nothing, requires nothing, its pulse slow, barely perceptible. As the rituals spin forth, heaping layers over the slumbering wild, I discover that there is no more to write, either. The whole story told, the drive to write evaporates, awaiting the next adventure, the next spring. It feels like a door softly closing. The latch clicks and I walk away in my slippers.
Because we are not static beings, rather each of us is many, ever changing, taking turns. Pete Seeger and whoever wrote Ecclesiastes know about this turning… so that is all for now.
(Except that there is a seed, underneath the Faribo blanket, deeper than the snow and freezing rain, far from weeks of work that fold in upon each other, buried below and kept warm by the sleeping creature. I don’t know how or when it will grow. But it’s kind of the color of the North Country Trail…)