We sat in the basement office of the coffee shop on a rainy October night. We hadn’t talked in many months—maybe years—but it seemed we picked up right where we left off. Emma and I will always be like family to one another. Sometimes I’m embarrassed at how bad I am with the facts.
“So, how long have you been back?”
“I got back from Australia like two years ago, mate.”
How is it that two years in the life of Emma has escaped me? I instantly feel ashamed for being so self absorbed and make up some excuse for my oblivion—I was thinking of one of her holiday trips, I knew it was around that time, gosh how time flies.
She had been spinning all day, and it seemed she was quite used to spinning all day every day.
“So when are you free this week?” I asked.
“I’ve got shifts on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, but I get off around 5. And I have school two nights a week on Saturday and Monday. I’m shooting a film in the West Village every other Wednesday afternoon, but other than that, I’m free.”
My head was spinning. I spent the last four months without a watch, looking at the sun to gauge the amount of daylight left before I had to find shelter. I remember how funny Sissy and I thought our existence had become as we lost track of the days of the week. At one point we walked up to a stranger on the trail and asked, “Excuse me sir, but do you know what day of the week it is?” We filmed this interaction just to prove it really happened. What kinds of people in today’s world are totally unaware of the date and the day of the week? People committed to institutions, ascetic monks and thru-hikers. It was kind of nice actually. I didn’t carry a watch or a phone. I had no need for these things. My life was simple. But now, I had to get re-accustomed to time, if only for the simple task of hanging out with friends.
Although my losing track of time necessitated my escaping time, I learned this is not the only way. I asked Emma what time she got off of work and she said, “Five”.
In my effort to calculate the time I had to kill I said, “Okay, so that’s like three hours”. Her face instantly contorted and in her endearing Australian accent she said, “Oh nauo, nauo, down’t tell me, mate, I down’t woun’t to kneau.”
Oh no! I had placed the concept of time in her head, a concept she was trying all day to forget. A concept that made every movement seem slower, every pleasure farther away. In alerting her to the number of minutes she still owed to this coffee shop I had unintentionally made vivid an idea purposely forgotten. It seems that time is something none of us is really comfortable with. Whether we live in the city or the forest we try to find a way to exist apart from the awareness of the beginning and the end, perhaps for the purpose of existing in the middle.
I became nauseous staring at the passing trees from the window of the train from Hartford to New York City. I’ve often wondered what would happen if you put a person from the fifteenth century in a car on the highway: Would they be comfortable or fearful, astounded or suspicious? Could their bodies handle such velocity if they and their ancestors had lived their whole lives at a quarter the speed (at the most)? I think I now know the answers to these questions; they would be sick and terrified. After only four months away from the speed of modern traveling, my body was shocked and traumatized. I hadn’t gone more than 2 miles per hour and now, suddenly, I was moving through space at 60 or more miles per hour. It’s amazing to me how quickly the body adapts to its environment and how the mind struggles to keep its little head above the turbulent waves of change. But somehow, life accepts, is flexible, amiable.
None of it seemed real–all of the faces, too many to take in. People so interested in each other and yet forced by constant proximity to pretend like they don’t give a damn. Everyone acting like they are their own free agent, like the most pressing concerns concern them and them alone. Life imitating T.V. I know these people are not like this deep down.
In reality we are all suppressing questions we feel we shouldn’t ask, substituting stares of admiration for aloof glances that won’t go too deep. I wanted to look at all the beautiful women in every detail of their hair and clothes, but I had to pretend that I didn’t care. I had to imagine that we were all essentially the same, that American means an absence of place, of belonging to anything that could possibly entrap. Freedom. Freedom from history, context and custom. For the first time in eight years, New York City felt like a very sad place.
We are all so nervous of the exterior. We are all looking through eyes we saw in the mirror this morning, eyes changed by long ago. It doesn’t seem real. And yet we adjust.
Amazingly, we adjust.
Once again I am an outsider at home—a felt wool flapper hat with a curled brim and flat back, earrings, eye-make up and lip pencil. Jeans. Boobs. Am I something else now? Does anyone here know that I can build a campfire, pluck a hawk or hang a bear-bag? People who do these things don’t also wear make-up, right?
Sitting at the same table by the exposed brick wall where Angela and I talked about Sartre six year ago, maybe six year ago today, who knows? There would be no way of knowing. Our lives proceed always in the same slow way—day in, day out; and we are always the same and slightly different.
Who are we when we create our own environment and who are we when we submit to the environment and allow it to create us? How can we know what or who we are until we get out of our comfort zones and learn the extent to which our habits are not our selves? We exist by time in some way or another and yet each of us tries also to forget time in one-way or another. It is a matter of surviving.
(*Credit Lindsay Mound. From http://aesthetichandymaam-blog.tumblr.com/)
I need to find him again, ask him if I can write down the sounds he spoke when he raised his hand to the sky, and I knelt there looking up into the sun…
THE SOUNDS OF KILLINGTON
A mouse is a wee morning monster
A fly passing by is a semi
Sudden flapping like machine guns
A wet leaf the nose of a ghost dog at my feet
A tree bending about to fall,
but held up by the living is
a squeaky door
a metal sign
a rocking chair
old woman groaning
a cat’s meow.
sqeaking its way to the end with every
Fall is here.
ckrk-ck-ck-ck-ck-ck-k-k-k-k-k–crrrrrAAAAck! BtchAM!! Thump!
You never know when a tree or a branch will fall. And they come fast, out of nowhere. The way an apple falls; as if the earth has been pulling them to itself ever since its life began.
When I’m alone in the woods and these sounds are all I hear the mind fills in the blanks. It’s hard to feel alone with all this racket! It’s hard to feel at peace with all this fear so easily stirred up. I’m learning that things often aren’t as scary as they seem, it’s the fear that’s terrifying.
We walked into Vermont after the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It was like a dream: Soft trail, few–if any–rocks, paths through meadows filled with wild-flowers and sometimes cows. But something shifted when we started climbing Killington. There was a stillness in the air, although the trees were moving. The hills seemed densely covered with new birch trees, and yet you could almost see right though them to the sky above. I noticed the strangeness of this place even before she screamed.
After staying with a Christian hippy commune (called The Twelve Tribes) in Rutland, Vermont we got back on the trail and walked a few short miles to the Churchill Shelter, the first one after the road. It was a typical AT shelter: Three-sided log structure with one large platform big enough for about seven people. We stayed up much later than usual, talking about food and music and politics. And we were the only people in the shelter that night, three girls and one dog.
I snapped my eyes open in blackness to the sound of the most terrifying scream I have ever heard, the kind of scream you only hear in movies, the kind of scream that wants to turn back time to say “it” isn’t so. It was a sound only suited for someone who has just been cut in half. It came from the other side of the shelter and lasted the length of her breath. Immediately I asked, “What is it?” That was all I needed to know. Give me understanding. Tell me the cause of what is happening, then I will know how to respond. At first I thought, “It could be an animal of some kind that maybe startled her in her sleep. If not that maybe we are under attack! A terrible person is in the shelter with us. But the dog isn’t barking and there are no other sounds. Maybe it is an evil spirit! A monster of some kind has got Sissy Hankshaw and any minute it is going to do to me whatever it is doing to her!” Again, I asked simply, “What?” In response she screamed again. The same terrible, raw, energetic scream. You could hear her vocal chords cracking. Two screams, no words. This was most terrifying. Whatever had her also had her words. It had to be really bad. This was the end. I was next. Not wanting to attract the attention of the eviscerating monster, I curled into a ball in the dark and waited for it–whatever it was–to end.
Wren sat up straight and put on her light and I peeked my head out of the bag. Someone asked me, “Where are you?” “I’m right here. What the hell is going on?” Sissy said it was just a nightmare and she was sorry. She didn’t know what had happened, but suddenly felt herself wake up in total blackness (but still within her dream) not knowing where she was. She heard someone (herself) screaming and screamed again in fright. The dog was sitting clear outside of the shelter shaking from fear. Anyone (or anything) within a few miles of the shelter would have heard those screams echoing off the rocks; and that scared me too. The sound of her screams played again and again in my head until her scream became my scream and I forgot what it sounded like to begin with. Even now I can’t really recall the sound, perhaps because I’ve never heard anything like it before and I hope I never do again.
The next day was just as eerie. At the top of Killington Peak was an old lodge with boarded up windows and pictures of young, dead men on the walls.
After the night before, we obviously weren’t sleeping here. So we made lunch. Just as soon as we boiled the water there was a BABABABABABABAAAAAA!!!! outside and Mable-the-Dog started barking ferociously. I said I would be the brave one to go investigate. I followed the dog as she pursued something and barked the hair on her back straight up. I looked and saw a huge bird puffing itself up about twenty feet away. I thought it was a turkey. In my sternest voice possible I said, “Mayble, SIT”. Because she’s a good dog, she obeyed and I held her to let the birds pass. I said, “coooo coooo coooo cooo. It’s okay little birdie, you can go. coooo cooooo coooo”. Did I mention I speak birdie. Anyway, the bird de-puffed itselfand walked cautiously on. As did its bird-wife and bird-son-in-law and bird-daughter. The whole bird-family walked by, maybe returning from the bird-grocery store. Twenty-seven birds in all–grouse as I later learned–passed us, grey and mauve with blue and white-tipped feathers and long beaks. Mayble and I sat and watched, astonished.
Had those birds come in the night, I would certainly have reasoned they were mountain-demons that cared only to disembowel me. My mind could not assume they were a family of beautiful creatures trying to make a decent living. And how could it? This kind of thinking couldn’t save me from mountain-demons or monsters or beasts, no matter how unlikely they are. The animal-mind is alive and well, here to shield me from possible danger! But which is worse, living with the constant fear of attack or (not likely) being attacked? I can’t change it with philosophy; but I have learned that sometimes the sounds of Killington aren’t what they seem.
The Slowest Roller Coaster
I was standing on the subway platform last night—it must have been on the A, C, E line at Penn Station, because I had just come from Hartford, and before that Springfield, and before that the mountains– when a blue balloon floated past my leg toward the tracks, and running after it a little boy. I had a big backpack on at the time, and so I used my foot to kick the balloon back to the platform, before I realized there was someone chasing it. The blue balloon bounced off of the little boy so quickly that he kept on running toward it. It’s hard to catch a balloon. Keeping the yellow line at the edge of the platform in view, so as not to lose my balance, I grabbed the little boy by the shoulder with my right hand, and scooped the balloon toward us with my left. It all happened very quickly. At that point, he looked me in the eye and I saw him for the first time: He must have been about four, Asian, short, dark hair, and a big smile. He had no idea. He was just happy to have his balloon back.
I believe every action I’ve ever done led up to this point, for this reason. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t been standing on that platform at that exact moment. I believe I hiked 700 miles from Maine through Massachusetts for this boy and his balloon—and for his mother, and his ancestors, and his future children, and the innocence of everyone around us. I suppose that makes me a fatalist. And some would say that means I have to deny free will. I wish I could deny free will; life would be much easier that way.
I feel my will like a fire in my throat. Often it seems to consume me and I find myself lost in cities I can’t pronounce, or throwing up in train privies, or beating on animal skin drums behind used car dealerships. Some of my friends really do think I’m crazy, and I can see their eyebrows furrow a little as they try to understand why I do the things I do. They say words like “extreme” and “unpredictable”. And a few–who do not like these words and their possibilities–have decided it’s safer to not be my friend, and honestly, I can’t blame them. I can’t blame anyone. I am at the mercy of a will that is bigger than my mind, and somehow connected to my heart.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Donnie Darko” you can see what I’m trying to convey: A fluid and invisible force that emanates from our center and pulls us toward our desires, whether we wish to go or not. Sometimes mine splits into a dozen different streams: Appalachia, New York, New Mexico, California, France, South America, Montana, Canada. I want to be everywhere at once. It is motion that I crave, and stillness that I fear.
Every September of my childhood my dad and I went to the New Mexico State Fair. He would give me a few tickets, and wait for me as I went on the rides. I loved the ones that strapped you in, turned you upside down and whirled around. I loved screaming at the top of my lungs on these rides, ever though I was never really scared. The best ones took you inches from the pavement at top-speed, and yanked you back up to the sky where you could see, for a brief moment, the Sandia mountains miles away. My father close one minute, and looking up at me, ant-like the next. My dad would only ride the bumper cars and Ferris wheel with me.
I hated the Ferris wheel: The pause at the top, the gentle tilting of the chair, the slow rotating up, and descending down. It made me sick. The motion felt more intense, perhaps because each motion demanded more attention, contrasted with the stillness, taunted me because I couldn’t ignore it. I passionately dreaded the moment when my dad looked at me imploringly, wanting us to ride the Ferris wheel together. Each and every time I got so scared that I had to ask the operator to let me off. When I was older I even tried to ride the kiddie Ferris wheel. I couldn’t do it. I remember how the operator’s eyes rolled and he laughed as he let me, at fifteen years old, off the ride. Luckily, I never had to see him again, nor did I have to sit up there and tilt, slowly back and forth.
This roller coaster is rapidly aging me. Lately it feels like I live an entire lifetime in one day. I find myself saying to myself, “I wonder where I will sleep tonight?” This morning I found myself saying “Good morning” to everyone I passed on Broadway—not the Broadway of Manhattan, but the Broadway of Brooklyn: The Broadway of elevated trains, automobile bass and chicken bones cracking underfoot. The Broadway with no birch trees. The Broadway that doesn’t smell like campfire. The Broadway I expected to never see again.
“Mornin’ dah-ling. You have a nice day.”
“Well, good afternoon!
“Is it that late already?!
This is how you don’t get destroyed in Brooklyn. You say good morning. You say “good morning” and hope the people of these streets remember you in the evening. Manners are very important. I know. I’ve talked to kids who have mugged someone more “cause she was a stuck-up bitch” than for any other reason. As I greeted the five or six people I passed on the street this morning, their faces looked as surprised as I felt to be there.
This morning I woke up in Brooklyn; yesterday morning I woke up in a seedy hotel room in Agawam; the morning before that I snapped my eyes open on the floor of a pottery studio in Great Barrington. It goes on like this for the last three months. Every morning a new home.
Every day a new ride. Always praying I won’t break down.
* * *
I couldn’t look at my backpack anymore. The words “foodbag”, “shelter”, and “powerbar” made me want to scream. I wanted to wake up in the morning not freezing or wet. I wanted to wear a pair of jeans. I wanted to know that I would live tomorrow saying more than a few “hellos” and “goodbyes” to more than a few people. I lost all my motivation. I didn’t care anymore. I would live here, in Great Barrington, the last town I had traveled through after walking almost 700 miles. My invisible force did not go the direction of the Appalachian Trail. It didn’t go anywhere. It was still and that was terrifying. So, I asked the operator of my lofty goals to let me off.
I found myself in a hair salon, wearing a pair of jeans, drinking a latte. Staring into the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself, but reason that this is okay, right? Because who are we anyway? There is no self. That is what the Buddha taught. So, I will speed around changing myself in deference to this truth until I get dizzy and fall down. But this is just an escape. This is not exactly what Buddha meant. We can at first only see the no-self in stillness. The truth we see in stillness can indeed be terrifying.
It’s more terrifying than putting your life in the hands of a stranger who says, “I’ve never done this before. I can’t see what I’m doing.”
This is exactly what the grey-haired man in the orange vest told my friend and me as we sat, stranded in the rain on the side of the road. I had only owned that car for seven hours and this was the second time it broke down. In an effort to escape the beautiful monotony of hiking, I bought a car from a used car dealership for four thousand dollars, which happened to be a quarter of my entire life-savings.
“Hello, Car Kraft, this is Mike, how can I help you.”
“Hi, I’m passing through Great Barrington and I’m trying to get back to New York City. I’m interested in the Jetta, but I don’t have a car to come see you. Can you drive the Jetta to me so I can test-drive it?”
I knew at the time that this was an absurdly unreasonable request, but hey, you never know, some people are kind and accommodating. Some people are also hear things differently.
“Hello, Car Kraft, this is Mike, how can I help you.”
“Hi, I’m in Great Barrington right now. I don’t know anyone here so no one will know if you screw me over. I need a car right now; I don’t care if it’s a piece of shit because I just want to drive to New York City as soon as possible. Can you drive the Jetta to me so I can test-drive it?”
“Hi, well, normally we don’t do things like this, but we want to help you out and we have to bring some titles over to Pittsfield anyway, so maybe we can have Miranda swing through Great Barrington so you can see the car.”
Hey, I’m nobody’s fool. I’m from New York City, baby. I’m gonna be smart about this. I tell Miranda that we’re going to drive to Stockbridge to have “my mechanic” look at the car. I sense some tension in her voice, since she didn’t expect this. But we drive there and talk about mundane things like the weather, and our favorite drinks, and where I’m from and where she’s from. Tony fits us in about twenty minutes after we arrive. He concludes that the engine is sound, the car needs two new wheel bearings (whatever those are), an axel something-or-other and new tires. He also mentions that the muffler is rusted and will need to be addressed “sometime in the future”.
“But overall, it’s a good little car for the price.”
Great, just what I wanted to hear. We drive an hour back to Car Kraft (why do they have to misspell Craft?) and I deliver my mechanic’s report. They say it will take a day to fix all these things. “Sinz ju in taon a natha night, lez go ow fo drinks”. Miranda has a beautiful accent. She is from Guatemala, a soothing mixture of fire and earth. Total Woman.
After a couple drinks at the local pub, we drive back to Car Kraft. There is a full deck with Tiki torches in the back, and a river down below. This is where the people of Car Kraft come to party. A few minutes later the owners–two young dudes–show up, each with a case of Stella Artois in their hands. I only plan on having one or two, at most.
Fast-forward two hours.
“Heeeeyy!!! Looka her!! She got rhythm!”
Yeah baby! I can shake the Native-American rain-stick like no other gringa! I can also play a few chords on the guitar, even though it’s missing a string! I can sing backup on the Karaoke machine to songs I don’t know and I can dance! This is what the Appalachian Trail is all about: Going with the flow. Meeting people in strange places, partying by the river, buying used cars. Bonding.
It starts raining, so we go inside. Rolling across the floor in leather swivel chairs, toasting to “the journey”, breaking up the weed on at-a-glance desk calendars. Here’s to new cars and to new friends. Suddenly Mike says, “Hey, you guys wanna go in the other room and just feel the energy flow through us.” Now normally I would say, “No, I don’t want to go in the other room and just feel the energy flow through us. I can feel the energy just fine right here, thankyouverymuch”. But we’re all wearing cowboy hats and he is clearly married, as I can see by the thick gold wedding band on your his ring finger. And as for the other guy, he’s practically sexless. Plus, there are two other women with me, so the two are outnumbered. So, considering these conditions, “Yes, I do want to go in the other room and feel the energy flow through us”.
Things suddenly felt very critical. We’re getting spiritual. Do we bring the beer? Do we keep our cowboy hats on or off? Do we take off our shoes? Yes, let’s take off our shoes. Bring the beer and keep the hats on if you want to.
Cue sitar music. Seriously, that’s what Mike put on.
“Okay”, sexless guy says, “Do we want to separate the boys from the girls?”
“Nah”, Mike says, “Let’s just be natural”
We sat in a circle on the rug.
Mike: “Okay, let’s put our hands out, but not touching.”
A few “oohs” and “ahs” escaped someone’s lips. I felt nothing, but thought the whole thing was rather sweet.
“Okay, now let’s all put our hands in the middle one on top of the other”, Mike-the-conductor” says, “and just lift them up a little so they’re not touching.”
“Waouw! Iz like the enerjee eez jus flowink through me!”
I still felt nothing and hoped it would be over soon. And thankfully, after everyone got a head massage, it was. Now we could all relax. The official spiritual event had happened. Where did I leave my beer?
* * *
I slept in my cowboy hat. Miranda came to get us in our “new” car at eleven the next morning. All the repairs had been done and we just had to go back to the dealership, aka party-central, to sign the papers. An hour or so later I was on the road in my new ride! Soon I could pack up my things in the City and then drive home to the Land of Enchantment! An hour or so after that I was back at my mechanic.
“Well, it looks like your exhaust blew. You better drive back to the dealer and have them fix it.”
I wasn’t mad or angry. This is probably just a fluke. After all, we had a spiritual experience together. We jammed out, we held hands; these people wouldn’t try to jip me. But I had to put on my angry face nonetheless, lest they think I’m some kind of softie.
“Hey, I’m so sorry this happened”, sexless guy said, “follow me over to the muffler guy and we’ll get this fixed”.
I did. We waited together as he fixed the muffler.
“eez jus a little piece een tha middle. I cut it out an poot a new peez een. Half-hour.”
Sexless guy apologized to me over and over again. He said he was embarrassed and that this just happens sometimes. “Hey, cars break, ya know”. I tried my best to be stern and tough, but we ended up hugging it out and a half-hour later I was back on the road. Six o’clock: Time to start driving back to the city so I can get there before it’s too late.
Wooga wooga, rattle, Boom!
This cannot be hugged out! This is fucked up! I’m shaking. I can’t believe this is happening.
A few expletive-filled phone calls later, my friend Sissy Hankshaw and I are speaking with the old man driving the tow-truck who states, “I can’t really see what I’m doing. I’ve never done this before”. Awesome. I’ve never ridden in a car as it’s being towed! This is a first for both of us. How sweet. Should I call you in the morning?
We rode back to the dealership, my fourth time there in less than 24 hours, staring at the back of a tow truck with a bumper sticker that read: “It’s ok to have too much fun”. This was not my idea of fun, yet I tried my best to observe it all as part of the shooting-star will. Officially made an idiot of myself, by myself.
This ride might be going too fast. I can feel the bile in my stomach, my chest tensing, my head spinning. Now, in a strange city without a car, I wonder where I will sleep tonight.
* * *
Mike–CEO, CarKraft Inc.–picked us up in the lot. It was raining and dark. He refunded my money and drove us to a hotel, which in addition to a rental car for one day, he paid for. Staring through the window of the rental car, I found myself crying like a baby as I watched them walk away. Sissy Hankshaw and her/our dog Mable were back on the trail—the beautiful Appalachian Trail. Mable had her little blue backpack on, and through tears I saw her looking back at me, as she always does, waiting for me to catch up. I waved my hand and told her to go on. I got in the car and watched them disappear.
“I should get back on the trail. But I have to return this rental by noon. Maybe I’ll go back to Great Barrington. I made friends there. They told me they need a roommate–artist types. No, I’ll get a train to New York City. I miss the trail. I love the trail. Why am I here? Where am I going?”
I drove faster than I should have through winding route 20. First going east, then going west, the red and orange leaves fluttering out of the way as they do in car commercials, when zero miles-per-hour meets eighty. I really thought I might get back on the trail. My will kept turning the car around as it went in one direction and then another. At this moment I felt truly insane. Could I really abandon this endeavor after coming so far? How could I get back on the trail now that I had to return this rental car to the Connecticut airport? I was confused, and angry with myself.
“I’ll finish it up next year as a Northbounder, when there are more people on the trail, more daylight and more warmth. I wouldn’t have been able to finish this year anyway without doing 25 miles a day everyday. That’s no way to live. I want to enjoy it.”
These are the excuses I make for getting off the ride. It’s too slow, too terrifying. I’ll try again another time.
And maybe I truly will. I won’t do it to prove anything to myself or to tell people that I’ve done it. I’ll do it for the same reason I started doing it: For the trees. To see ‘Merica! That is, if I’m meant to do it. There might be another boy chasing a balloon who needs me somewhere. I’ll go to him.
By the way, my petite partner Sissy Hankshaw, whom I met in Maine, completed all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail, periodically in snowshoes.
Walking the trail taught me to let go of my preconceptions, to stop trying to control all of my experience. Life is much richer this way. Even though I’m now in the biggest city in the United States and far from the birch trees and limestone rock faces, I still feel like I’m on the trail, At the mercy of fate, blowing any which way. I’m still dizzy from this ride. I’m still homeless. Going from the woods to New York City can be traumatizing, but it’s no Ferris wheel, that’s for sure.
I sold my couch for twenty bucks. I got fifteen for the desk, and seventy-five for my dumbek. The process of putting my whole life in a bag less than fifty pounds started in New York City, on craigslist. After living in the City for eight years my inner wild cried out. The wilder-ness within me ordered: “Get out! Get out! Get out!”. I needed to be outside, I mean, real outside, not the outside of streetlamps and traffic sounds—not the outside that feels like inside even though it’s outside. I decided I would hike the Appalachian Trail: 2,175 miles from Maine to Georgia, alone.
Plato described vision as the light within our eyes meeting the light of sun outside our eyes. It was the process of attraction, even entropy that allowed humans to perceive. I always liked this explanation. Although medicine has come a long way in 2,400 years, this theory reassures me that like will find like, that the forces of nature are forever moving toward one another, and creating amazing things in the process. The wilderness within me had to be united with the wilderness outside of me. This could explain why I felt absolutely compelled. My friends said they would miss me. My boyfriend begged me not to go. And my family feared for my safety. I couldn’t apologize; I felt like I didn’t have a choice.
* * *
Rob Bird opens his home to hikers of the Appalachian Trail. He calls his home, “The Birdcage”. An older man of about 60, with wire-framed glasses and a cigarette perpetually glued between his fingers, he looks at you with the eyes of a father. An album of the hundreds and hundreds of hikers that pass through his house sits on his coffee table. He offers hikers anything and everything they need, for free. He considers you family once you enter his home, and to people away from their families for five to seven months hiking a trail 2,000 miles long from Georgia to Maine, this means a lot.
Between acoustic serenades and root-beer floats in his dream-catcher clad kitchen he told me that tradition is important. I nodded my head to offer my most enthusiastic agreement, “Oh yes, very important.” I assume he is referring to cultural, religious or family tradition in general. Not so. Rob Bird has a specific tradition in mind. “Don’t forget to moon the turnpike when you cross it. It’s tradition.” Not having mooned anybody since the Wendy’s drive-thru at least ten years ago, I’m not sure I still have it in me, but nevertheless, I promise him I will keep tradition alive.
* * *
And keep it alive I did. The Appalachian Trail crosses right over the Massachusetts turnpike. It’s an odd contrast. Nature vs. Civilization. In an effort to work up the nerve for this trick, I interpreted this tradition as a battle cry against everything the turnpike stands for: industrialization, the subjugation of nature for profit, urban sprawl. As I bared my white cheeks to the drivers passing by, an older woman with grey hair simply waved. I didn’t even get a semi-truck honk. I expected shocked faces and angry glares. Maybe these commuters were used to brazen hikers revealing themselves in broad daylight. I suppose this means the tradition is alive and well. Feeling I served my duty and thoroughly satisfied with myself, I continued on, Upper Goose Pond cabin was just a few miles away.
After mooning the Massachusetts turnpike I found the bird, a hawk. It lay on the trail, one wing spread out and the other tucked underneath, it’s eyes open, it’s feathers untouched. Dark brown, light brown, white and black—so that it blends in with the dirt and leaves and rocks, but strangely off somehow, horizontal camouflage—no, not dead, not lying there like that. I almost missed it, almost walked on by. Yet my vision sensed that something was off. Your senses get heightened after a while among the trees.
I wasn’t sure how long it had been there or if it was even dead. Should I bury it? Should I move it off the trail? Should I take it and use every part of it so that nothing is wasted? I must have stood looking at it and photographing it for a half-hour. I walked away. I walked back. I walked away again. I walked back again.
At the crossroads of the Appalachian Trail and some side ski trail in Massachusetts, I gathered the hawk with a plastic bag that I then put in another trash bag normally used as an improvised waterproof backpack cover. These I tied to my blue backpack and hurried on, two-pounds heavier.
The caretaker sat on the porch of the red, wooden cabin completing a crossword puzzle as the sun set over the lake. Not wanting to disturb her, but needing a place to sleep that night, I introduced myself: “Hi, my name is Hope. How are you? I have a dead bird tied to my backpack. Is there a place I could cut it up and such that would be out of the way?”
Her eyebrows furrowed and a mixture of fear and confusion swept across her face. Surely she must have thought I was crazy. Crazy: maybe, insensitive: definitely not. To help ease her mind I offered up as an explanation: “I’m a biologist and I found a dead hawk on the trail, so I decided to take it with me to study it”. Although not exactly true, I am a student of life.
Her fear transformed itself into relief and later genuine intrigue. She’d never seen a dead hawk. Neither had I. She directed me to a tent platform a way off from the cabin and asked that I just make sure to clean up afterward. “My husband will be interested in this; do you mind if he comes around to look?” Of course I didn’t, although I had no idea what I was about to do.
Ideals are often much easier to flaunt than to actually live by. I had the idea to forsake every comfort of modern living for the experience of walking across the country. I had the idea to become one with nature. I had the idea to pluck a hawk. It turns out none of these things are easy.
In my mind a bird’s feathers are delicate things, so delicate that they sometimes even fall out, like the stray hairs on my jacket and floor. I didn’t think it could be that hard to pull each feather out one by one. But, as I discovered, there is no such thing as a “part” of an animal, the feathers are not separate from the muscles and bones of the wings, and the wings are not apart from the belly and back. And all of these things, of course, connect to the neck and head—the neck and head that moved toward me with every yank and pull. Although I knew this bird was not alive, there was some idea deep within me that felt as if the bird were not dead, was sensitive to what I did with its body. Can that be called superstition?
I burned a sage smudge I had with me—from another bizarre set of circumstances up in Maine—as I cut off its head. With the head off and buried, it was much easier to remove the feathers, which isn’t saying a lot for it was still difficult. Each feather had to be pulled at the same angle with the same degree of force in relation to its place on the hawk. Once I discovered this exact angle, the feathers did in fact come off more quickly. It was almost the same motion I used when harvesting cherry tomatoes in California. There is a little joint, a crook that allows for flexibility and quick release. They don’t teach you this kind of stuff in school.
The first thing I’d planned to do was make a dream catcher for Rob Bird, the man who had been so kind to hikers for so many years. I had a bag full of beautiful feathers and I wanted to share them with my friends; but my friends and my family remained hundreds and thousands of miles away from me. I had gone into the wilderness to look for home, when I knew where home was all along.
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