By 10 a.m. it was raining fiercely. I dragged myself up hill after hill, struggling to imagine a worse scenario for my second day on the Appalachian Trail. Around noon the torrential downpour broke for a brief moment, and I sat down on a damp log to rest my aching shoulders, which were responsible for carrying the 30-odd pounds of backpack, food, and supplies that were currently my home. Sitting in silence, watching the rainwater swell and pool on the thick leaves around me, the first insidious thought snuck into my brain and took root. I was miserable, the thought wheezed, I should go home. And it never quite left. Two months later, when my dog’s cancer was close to consuming him, I called it quits and got on the next flight to Boston.
But that’s depressing, so let’s rewind a bit.
On the eighth day of my journey, I became friends with Rose. We were both trying to stay at a motel for a night, and I, having risen early, had gotten the last room. On the shuttle back from a grocery store she cornered me in my seat and asked politely if she could pay for half the room so we could split it for the night. I was a little annoyed with her for giving me the trail name Whiz Kid the previous night, which had stuck, and I was loath to give up my night of watching TV and eating pizza in my underwear. But I begrudgingly agreed, and even told her to keep her money.
Of course, there was a happy ending. We stayed up late (and by late I mean 11 p.m., which is very late for hikers) and got to know each other over a few beers. We truthfully had very little in common, one of us being a Californian hippy and the other a Massachusetts prepster. I was still a little grumpy about being denied my private feast, so I didn’t really hold anything back. I talked openly about my now-long distance relationship, complained about school and family, and shamelessly told my admittedly dumb jokes and stories. She did the same, and by the end of the night we were hiking partners.
I read 15 books in e-format on my phone over the course of my journey, which proved to be welcome distractions from the miles and miles between myself and my friends, family, and dog. But while the literary world helped, I doubt I would have lasted more than two weeks out there if I had reluctantly given half my hotel room to a near-stranger for a night.
Weeks after our motel meeting, lounging on a lawn chair at a hostel on a zero-day (during which one hikes zero miles), another hiker commented on how it was nice that Rose and I had met and gotten together on the trail. “Oh, we’re not like, together,” I quickly corrected. “I’ve got a girlfriend back home. And Rose has a boyfriend.”
“Oh,” he shrugged. “Sorry. I thought you had found someone out here.”
I know what he meant, but I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive.
On the last night of my trip, our small gang of hikers ate out at a Chinese restaurant and then fit six people into a hotel room with two beds. At 2 in the morning, I rolled out of the bed that Rose and I were sharing, stomach churning. As a fitting punishment for deciding to abandon it, I had been cursed with food poisoning, and gradually expelled the entire contents of my gut into the toilet, covering myself in tiny hotel towels and shivering through the night.
The next morning, I said goodbye to everyone. Rose was last. We looked at each other a little awkwardly, and then she pulled me in for a hug. I realized that this was the first time this had ever happened. It was probably a terrible first hug. I smelled like shit, which is a term used literally after a night of frightening gastrointestinal distress. Still, hikers are used to adverse nasal conditions, and we held it a little longer.
As we pulled away, I realized that this might be our last hug as well. I hadn’t really dealt with the reality that I might not ever see someone again in my life before, and it was less shocking than anticipated. I think, in part, this was because the temporary nature of our relationship undercut our entire time together.
The conduct is loose on the trail, and people speak their minds and say fuck off to anyone who doesn’t get them. I could have told Rose to fuck off and find her own room, and then comfortably never have seen her again. And weeks later, despite the firm friendship we had built, I never felt afraid to speak exactly what was on my mind.
I think this was more than familiarity. Most people are there to hike, and there’s no pressure to make friends or shame in not being popular. It’s hard to be an outcast in a society full of them, so people are who they are, even if that person is a little rough around the edges.
In the real world, I snip and trim and tailor the rough edges off of each sentence, because there’s a time and a place for everything. Sometimes I want to be honest with the people I love, but if honesty means that they retreat and become less important parts of my life, I would rather I remain silent and hold onto them. This is how the real world works, and it’s an important part of what keeps us civil and together.
In truth, I hated most of the people I met on the trail. Many of the conversations left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. But it makes a stark contrast to my loose grasp of names and faces out here in the real world, where it takes six run-ins in the d-hall to progress a person past the “tall dude with brown hair” stage of identification. The people on the trail I met may have been eccentric, but they’re anything but forgettable. Honestly, who could forget the man who was hiking the trail because his wife sued him for child support and he needed a place to hide?
But the people who I did grow to love on the trail are people I still feel close to today. I think, or maybe hope, that if Ramblin’ Rose, Kenny, Squirrel, White Rabbit, and the Whiz Kid met tomorrow at a shelter, nothing would have changed. Despite the stretch of time that lies between my path last crossing theirs, I like to think that the fundamental level upon which we became friends would make the distance meaningless.
Then again, it turns out that wasn’t Rose’s and my last hug. Twice now her rambling path has crossed over Boston, and we’ve taken a walk through its streets together. And while it’s elating to see her again, it’s also distinctly different. Each conversation, while good by any standard, leaves me with the unsettling sensation that if we had met within the backdrop of a city we would not have become friends.
I write this down because I find myself beginning to forget things about the trail that I did not record on my blog. And the things I didn’t write because I felt ashamed of them—about burgeoning friendship, about doubts and sadness, and even about having too many beers with strangers on the trail before drunkenly stumbling through a hailstorm—those are the things that actually matter. Sometimes it’s hard to be honest in the real world, but I suspect the times that people stop worrying about wrong impressions will be the ones worth remembering.