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.
* * *