Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 13, This Is Forty
Start: May 2, Mile 527.1
End: May 3, Mile 558.4
I wake up early, and remember how much I enjoy cowboy camping. It feels like I am already ready to go, and even though not having to take down a tent only saves a few minutes, it eliminates that transition from inside to out, and makes getting up feel a lot easier, just a matter of standing up.
I make good hiking time all morning, eager to get to the shelter early in the day to have time to hitch into town and back. The terrain is gentle and I make the 17 miles before 1pm.
I set up my tent, the Portrait Palace Prototype -- or as Time Snake likes to call it, the Triple P -- anxious to secure a spot before more hikers show up, and as I do I spot three different four-leafed clovers in the grass nearby. Four leaves for four decades, I think to myself, hoping that these will bring me luck.
I walk to the road to hitchhike into town for birthday supplies, and see that another hiker is attempting to hitch as well. I have just reached the road when a pickup truck stops for her, and I hurry over to try to get in on her ride. The cab is full so the driver has us climb in the back. The young woman sits by the tailgate, and I take the more experienced hitchhikers' choice up by the cab, protected from the wind. "Is it okay if I take your photo on the way down?" I ask her, holding up my camera. "Sure," she tells me, then, turning, "hold on," as she connects a phone call, trying to reach her friend, sick with norovirus in town.
As we speed down the mountain she quickly loses cell phone service and I take pictures, her hair whipping in the wind, the trees a streaked blur behind her. "Were you just taking pictures of me?" she asks, having to shout above the wind. "Yes," I shout back, flustered, "that's what I was asking you about before -- is that okay?" "Sure, it's fine," she says, but I can tell she is mildly creeped out, and I put the camera away.
She's in her 20s, pretty, and speaks with the same speech impediment that my ex-girlfriend of 6 years did, the Rs almost completely swallowed, like you might hear from a young girl. She reminds me of a younger, happier version of my ex, how she might have been, perhaps, on her first thru-hike, before I knew her. Throughout the ride I ask her questions and she tolerates my attempts at conversation over the wind and road noise with polite disinterest, but I can't help myself from persisting, longing to hear more.
When we reach the shopping center she hops out of the truck and walks away, intent on connecting with her friends, and I head in to Walmart to buy my party supplies. I try to buy noro-conscious treats, 3 6-packs of 20oz sodas instead of the cheaper 2L bottles, a box of 24 assorted small bags of chips and 16 individually wrapped cupcakes. Along with my full pack -- I realize too late that I should have emptied it into my tent -- I can't quite carry it all at once, and have to leave it in the cart to transport out of the store.
I'm charging my battery bank outside of Walmart when a disheveled man in his 50s walks up to me. He looks simultaneously similar to and nothing like a hiker. His gray stubble beard is too short, and his dirty clothes are cotton and denim, and his slight stagger is closer to a drunk's then the distinctive tight muscled hiker hobble.
"I haven't seen you in so long," he tells me, looking into my eyes, the rest of my face covered by my face mask and visor. "Well, it's good to see you again," I tell him cheerily. He stares at me. "Will you call me sometime?" he asks. "Sure," I lie, nodding my head. He leans toward me just a bit, and I can tell that he has to restrain himself from reaching out to touch me, maybe because he can see my slight flinch. "I love you," he tells me softly. I don't say anything to this, and he steps back, turning to look at me one more time before leaving. As he walks away I can see that he has a tattoo of a swastika on his right arm, simple green geometric lines that look like they were made by hand.
It takes a couple of hours to leave Marion. Hitching is impossible with my load, the buses don't run on weekends, neither Uber nor Lyft have drivers nearby and the taxi company I call is closed. Eventually I'm able to contact a shuttle driver who picks me up but waits for another hiker to finish shopping before heading back to the trail. I head inside Walmart to find the other hiker, but he tells me he's not headed back anytime soon, so we end up leaving without him.
I lug my birthday magic over to the shelter, shuttling armloads until another hiker sees me and offers to help. "Have you seen Time Snake," I ask the hikers around the shelter, and they tell me that he's over by the closed visitor's center, having ordered pizza.
I jog over the visitor's center and Time Snake is surprised to see me. "When'd you get here?" he asks. "A few hours ago, I just got back from town. You didn't see the Triple P?" He laughs. "I must have walked right by it. I thought I was so clever, I was going to have cheesy bread waiting when you got here. Anyway, happy birthday!" he says, handing me the box of cheesy bread.
I take the present back to shelter and encourage the consumption of the soda and cupcakes by anybody who wants them. I eat my cheesy bread and try to enjoy doing birthday trail magic, but I fail miserably. The group from the campfire last night arrives and I make myself smile and tell them to help themselves, but I wish I had hiked on, wish I were anywhere else. When the crowd grows even larger, the largest shelter crowd I've seen since the Smokies, I walk away from the shelter to the closed visitor's center and lie down on the concrete patio.
I'm filled with an existential nausea, a visceral revulsion to existence so intense that it obscures all else. I try to think of something uplifting but the effect is like trying to think of a favorite food when you're about to throw up -- serving only to sour the imagined treat rather than relieve the nausea -- so I lie still and wait for the wave to subside.
Eventually it passes, like nausea always does, and I'm left with the drained, empty relief that follows it. I continue to lie on the patio, my eyes closed, the sun-warmed concrete surprisingly comfortable under my head and back -- or maybe this is just what I tell myself so I won't have to move. I wonder if I could fall asleep this way, and I don't, quite, but my mind wanders in something close to dreams, strange narratives that bloom of their own accord before collapsing when the next noise or breeze brings me back to my surroundings.
I walk slowly back over to the shelter, and stop by Time Snake, lounging in his tent. "Where you been?" he asks. I tell him I went off to get away from things for a bit, and he nods, thinks. "The Portrait Partnership Pizza Party," he tells me. "Yep," I say with a small smile, "the quadruple P."
I walk back to the picnic table to make sure that the last of the bags of chips are eaten. "These are up for grabs," I tell new hikers as they walk up to the shelter. "This is Portrait," Rod and Reel adds, "it's his birthday today and he brought us all these treats!"
The young woman from the pickup truck returns from town, her sick friend in a different town after all, and she chats with a young beardless hiker who is entering Harvard for premed. When he hears Rod and Reel announce that it's my birthday, he says, "Hey, it's my birthday too!" He's turning 20, exactly half my age, and his name is Babyface, fittingly enough. Rod and Reel tells him about the treats I brought and Babyface says, "I thought other people were supposed to bring ME things for my birthday."
I dream of plane crashes, of not being able to find a legal campsite in a crowded park. I wake up hot, and my sweat has the acrid oder of stress to it.
I eat two cinnamon rolls, my final birthday magic, and when I'm done I put the rest on the table. I offer them to the two hikers who are nearby, most of the other hikers still sleeping, but the hikers I ask are both already making breakfast. I tell them that I'm just going to leave them on the table and trust that the hikers will do the right thing. "I'll make sure that they don't go to waste," one assures me, nodding.
As I'm hiking out I see the woman from the pickup truck walk back from the road with her phone, presumably trying to get service. I tell her there are cinnamon rolls at the shelter. "Oh, cool!" she says, heading back toward the shelter. She stops, asks me, "Did you bring them?" I tell her I did, then wave goodbye, crossing the road and heading up the trail.
I've barely begun hiking when the grief hits, suddenly, arriving late, the way the pain of some injuries isn't apparent until the next day. I can't see the trail but I keep hiking anyway, needing to move forward, until eventually this wave too passes.
It is a warm day and the rain comes and goes. I stop multiple times an hour to take on and off my rain jacket, tempted just to leave it off but knowing that a short shower can soak me in minutes.
I call the hostel that Time Snake is staying at and reserve a bunk, hoping to keep my tent and quilt dry another night. The trail follows meadows with long stretches of clover, and I find my first ever six-leafed clover, which I have to triple check to make sure isn't really two separate clovers. After the four-leafed clovers of my birthday, I wonder what this six-leafed clover could possibly portend.
I keep my pants dry all day through the light showers, but then get them soaked along with the rest of me in the last 15 minutes of hiking when the rain intensifies, only to stop just as I'm arriving at the hostel. I stand in the doorway of the bunkhouse, dripping, and open the screen door to greet the hikers there. "Do you have a reservation?" one asks. "I do," I say. She tells me to press the doorbell to summon the proprietors, which I do and then wait, looking for a place to put my wet pack. "Are you sure you have a reservation? I know they're full tonight," another hiker says. Then Time Snake walks up, arms spread, smiling. "Portrait! I'll give you the tour. I confirmed that you're on the list -- there's some space in the loft here, but you should stay over in the small bunkhouse with me."
I shower, wash my clothes and meet the new hikers lounging here. The skies clear, the rain a distant memory. Mayday and Big Agnes sit on the lawn, talking and laughing together. They call hello as I walk over to the bunkhouse and I stop to talk. They're both undergrads in Boston and met on the trail. They set each other off in giggle fits, and when I join them they laugh at all of my jokes. Mayday says she never set out to hike the whole trail. "We'll see how far I get. I've met some hikers who say it'll take two broken legs to keep them from Katahdin. Me, I'm just out for a walk," she says. I tell them I'm not one of the hikers dead set on finishing at all costs either. "If I get so much as a sprained toe, I'm out," I say. They giggle. "Sprained toe," Mayday says, "that's really funny."
I tell them that I have a phone interview tomorrow at 11:30 and plan to leave early so that I can be on the summit of Chestnut Knob by then, where there's cell service. "I feel like that's such a power move, taking a job interview from a mountaintop," says Big Agnes. " 'I'm going to have to wrap this up, I have a ramen bomb at noon', " says Mayday. I talk to them for 30 minutes, embarrassed by how much I like the attention.
In the small bunkhouse I talk with Penguin, in her mid 30s, who worked in mental health for the Air Force and is going back to school after the trail to get her PsyD. I ask her if I can take a picture of her. "Sure," she says, "should I pretend that I'm not using my phone?" I show her the picture I take, her sitting cross-legged on her plywood bunk, laughing and looking to the side, phone held down by her lap. "I love it," she says. "I think that may be the first picture that someone else has taken of me on trail."
She says that mostly this trip she has just met people in their 20s and 60s, whom she has a hard time relating to. She says that this is the first time she's hung out in a group of other hikers in their 30s. I tell her that I am no longer in my 30s as of yesterday. "Wow, happy birthday," she says. "Do you feel any different?" I tell her that I wasn't expecting to feel anything, taking the event no more seriously than astrological signs, but that I was surprised by how strong of a reaction I had. "Definitely something of a psychological break," I tell her. "Well, I won't make you relive it. Have you been processing it today as you hiked?" I tell her that I've written about it already, my primary means of processing things. I tell her that it might just be a coincidence that it happened on my 40th birthday. "Right," she says, "like it might be a coincidence that I happen to have been born in September as a Libra and have this personality."
I describe the encounter with the troubled man in Marion. "Yikes," she says, grimacing. "It's strange," I tell her, softly. "Of this whole trip, that was the only encounter I've had where I was the most important person in the world to someone, and I didn't know how to react." "And you didn't even tell him you loved him," she jokes, tsking and shaking her head. "Well," I say, "at least now I can still answer that question about whether I've ever told someone I've loved them when I didn't really mean it."
As the world darkens and hiker midnight descends, conversation peters out and we settle into our bunks and turn out the lights.
* * *
And of course, of course I love you, my poor, swastika-tattooed friend. And the world is impossibly sad, but all is forgiven, and everything is okay now, come here to me, everything will be okay.