The hardest part about thru-hiking this trail isn’t going days without showering or eating mac ‘n cheese every night or carrying everything on my back. The hardest part is sleeping in a different place every night. It’s funny because I came out here to find a new home, a place with fresh air and community where I might want to put roots down. I’m still looking for that, but it means I have to go every night feeling homeless and unknown. Well, not every night. There have been people along the way who have offered me everything I need without asking anything in return. They have invited me into their homes and called me family, they’ve offered me jobs, they’ve folded my underwear. It’s truly amazing to discover that there are so many people in the world who just want to offer support and comfort. Of course it’s important to watch out for the crazies; I’m not stupid. But it’s also crucial never to underestimate a person’s potential for goodness, thru and through.
Chet West runs a hiker hostel called “One Step at a Time” in Lincoln, New Hampshire. He’s a fire sign, an Aires. He was a firefighter, as was his father before him. He was until he got blown up by a camping stove. As he was pumping the fuel canister, friction built up inside and caused a spark that ignited the fuel. He burnt his lungs to a crisp as he inhaled the fire. Now he is in a wheelchair and can’t walk more than a few steps at a time while leaning against a wall. He is also legally blind, so he can’t read or see people’s faces in detail. That was nine years ago, in September of 2001. The doctor’s had to decide whether or not to keep him on life-support, as the victims of the terrorist attack in New York City inundated the hospital. He flatlined seven times and they revived him seven times, more than any other patient in the history of that hospital.
After the accident he opened his home to hikers on the Appalachian Trail. He provides bunks, showers, laundry, phone and bicycles for free. All he asks is that people help him maintain the house by cleaning up things he can’t see, taking out the garbage, etc. He is one of the most generous, peaceful and kind individuals I have ever met. I must admit that I developed a bit of a crush on him, despite his disability. The doctors were amazed that he survived, let alone that he recovered so much so quickly. He still plans on walking again someday. So far he has taken 36 unsupported steps. Watching him walk the little that he can I have no doubt that he will walk again. For now he gives everything he can to support people who make walking their six-month mission. I know that as we walk we send our steps to him.
As I stepped into Dalton, Massachusetts I read a sign tacked to a message board that said: “Sobos, go to the Shell gas station and ask for Rob Bird. Laundry, showers, beds! Free!” On the other side of the message board I read this:
Hmmmmm…what to do, what to do? This is the state of our existence: Either we trust the sign that tells us there is a stranger who really wants to offer you free showers, laundry and beds, or we trust the other sign that says, “We eat people!”. It’s really a matter of what you want to believe. I believe that generosity is greater than cannibalism.
When I walked into the gas station I started to speak, but the attendant just nodded his head and picked up the phone.
“Hi. Yeah, we got another one down here. Okay, bye.”
Apparently, this guy is used to random people walking into the station looking for free amenities. I waited no more than five minutes. An older man rolled up to the station in a blue minivan, cigarette blazing in his hand.
“I heard you were coming. Where is the other girl?”
Just as someone on the trail told me about Rob, someone told Rob about me and my friend Sissy. Who needs a cell-phone with connections like these?
We drove up the road and picked up Sissy (and Mable-the-Dog), where she was just coming off the trail and into town. He told us that he owns the Shell station, his second career after being a policeman in Dalton for thirty-five years. We soon arrived at his house–known as “The Birdcage”–only a short distance from the station. He showed us around the house and then he said, “If you have any laundry, I’ll take it.” Shocked and amazed, Sissy and I handed this kind man our dirty laundry. The next morning our laundry–thanks to Nancy–was arranged thusly:
After we showered he showed us the guest book for this year: A photo album with pictures of every single hiker that came through the house that year, with their name, address, and start date in the bottom, right-hand corner and a note of gratitude on a post-it beside the photo. There must have been seventy people in that album. He has nine other albums for every year he has been supporting hikers. We sat around the kitchen table with him and his good-friend-since-first-grade, Nancy. The two weren’t married; they had been through their share of marriages and funerals for a lifetime, as they put it. But it felt like sitting with mom and dad nonetheless. These two smoked like chimneys and emphasized that (in a raspy, years of chain-smoking voice), “Whether we liked it or not we were family”.
“If you ever need anything from here to Kent, you just call us up and we’ll come and get you! Now, I mean it. Don’t think I’m just saying that. Don’t take no shit from nobody, darling, or you’re gonna have to answer to me. Got it?”
This is the tough-love Massachusetts is best at. I came to love Massachusetts after this, if for no other reason than you can scream “Fuck you!” at the top of your voice in a crowded bar and no one even turns their head. They are full of love and a little rough around the edges. A few hours later, Rob came out to the yard and snapped my photo. After that, I was in the family photo album–no longer a stranger.
There have been so many others along the way. An old woman named Rita invited me into her home for a piece of chocolate cake.
Don drove me around for an hour looking for a gear shop. Arla and Chris let us stay in their garage/game room for two nights. Kim Post and her family took us on a road trip to Brattleboro, VT. Brian drove us to the general store and gave us a handle of whiskey “for those chilly nights”. Amy lent us her car for the day while she and a friend went to the movies. Mike let us pick vegetables from his garden and then use his kitchen to cook dinner while sipping one of his finest wines. The list goes on and on. Even now, I write this blog from Cindy’s home in Great Barrington, while Sissy makes dinner and brings me cocktails. I feel so fortunate to be given so much so freely. It’s difficult because I know that tomorrow I will have to leave this beautiful home
and get back on the trail not knowing where I will sleep tomorrow night or the next. Coupled with the amazement at and gratitude for all the beautiful homes I’ve stayed in is a little bit of sadness at none of them being mine. It’s sort of hard to thoroughly enjoy these luxuries knowing how impermanent they are. But to me, everyday things like dinner and a bath is a luxury. It seems that when I deprive myself of things–good food, showers, a bed, a house–the experience of them becomes that much richer. Rather than renouncing worldly things by retreating into the woods, I want worldly things now more than ever. I think that when I get back to regular living I’m going to wax my legs, wear makeup everyday and become totally indulgent. Whether this turns out to be true or not doesn’t matter. Whatever I do, I will know that I am blessed just to have running water and electricity. Well, enough staring at this big-screen, brand new Macintosh computer, I’m going to go eat a homemade dinner with vegetables from the garden and then take a hot jacuzzi with a vodka tonic and a cigarette. 🙂 Here’s to roughing it! Cheers!