I’m sitting in our tent right now, camped outside of Devil’s Backbone Brewery in Virginia. They let hikers set up in the woods near their...well, I guess it’s a campus really. They have this huge brewpub and an outdoor stage with outdoor bars, small stone bonfires, and cornhole and horseshoe sets. There’s a “Royal Flush” pinball machine like the one you used to play at Mountain Fire Pizza, before they got rid of it..
After the past few days of hiking it was such a huge relief to hitchhike down here. There’s no shower, but I did give myself a towel bath in one of their outdoor bathrooms. The beer was great and I’ve never eaten fries so fast in my life. Some of my trail friends are camped around me. We wandered back here with our headlamps, fairly drunk (or at least tipsy), and crawled into our tents. One of them, See-More, just sleeps under his rain fly--he doesn’t even use the tent itself. I couldn’t do that. The thought of ants and frogs and stuff crawling on me at night gives me the creeps.
I was long overdue in writing this. To tell you the truth, I have been so busy hiking North that I’ve rarely thought about you. That’s one of two things I hoped might happen with this trip; I would either obsess over you, or I would “forget” you. Of course I can’t forget you. It’s been over a year. There was a long time where I cried myself to sleep every night in our apartment. I don’t really know when that stopped. Months. Judy and Amos finally talked me into seeing a therapist. I know you aren’t haunting me, but I have been haunting myself. I felt like a ghost in our apartment. Around our friends. Around town. I clinged onto every scrap of you that remained. I miss your dark hair and how you would smile more with your eyes than your mouth. I always wanted to know what you were thinking--what was going on behind that hint of a smirk.
I did leave my customer service job. That’s good, right? You hated how much I hated that job. I’ve been making ends meet by substitute teaching, dog walking/sitting, and a lot of freelance work. None of it pays particularly well by itself, but together it’s not a bad living and I rarely have time to be bored. What am I saying; “have?” Had. I guess I got ahead of myself. I’m on the Appalachian Trail right now! It just felt like the right time to do it, you know? We always wanted to go and I’m not chained down to my work, so. I thanked the landlord and broke the lease. Used our, well, mostly my at this point, savings to buy gear. Did the research. Talked to Cara about it. Your sister has been so supportive in general. She gave me her maps, loaned me her stove, and some other things that didn’t get trashed during her hike. I haven’t really used the maps because everybody out here uses this phone app called Guthook’s, but I still carry them anyway. I like to pretend they’re a protective totem or juju or something.
Every single day out here is beautiful. Hard, but beautiful. Each step feels like a small triumph, in a way, and it seems like the most successful hikers (or, at least, the ones most likely to complete the trail) have the mantra that; “There’s one way out of this, and that’s to finish. One foot in front of the other, keep walking north.” I’ve relied on that, and them, a lot. We all have trail names at this point, if we’re going to. There’s See-More, of course, which is a play on his name (Seymore) and the fact that he frequently struts through camp in his underwear. I have become pretty close friends with Way. She carries a copy of the Tao Te Ching and talks about this trail being her Way, and “infinite mysteries this” and “unknowing that.” You would have gotten a kick out of her, if her woo-woo talk didn’t annoy you too much. Camped across from me are Ted and Young Ted. They’re brothers. The older one’s name is Ted, and I don’t actually know Young Ted’s name but somebody called him that and it stuck. I cheated and gave myself a trail name. It’s not really a big deal if you give yourself one, but I didn’t like a lot of the names people were suggesting for me. I thought a lot about it through the Smoky Mountains and decided it should be Hummingbird. I hum, you liked when they’d migrate through our backyard, I don’t know. It works. And there hasn’t been another Hummingbird this year yet, so people know it’s me (if they know me). My gear is too drab to really stand out. You know at least half the guys hiking out here wear girl’s shorts in the most ridiculous colors? I’m talking hot pink booty shorts. Nobody really cares. It’s obvious who the hikers are, and when I go into town it’s impossible to blend in even after a shower and stowing my pack somewhere.
I had been so focused on my own physical pain and struggle as I hiked through the cold southern states that I didn’t think about much. I either tried to push the thoughts out, or think about my next week of hiking and plan it out in my head. I’ve been snowed on three times, thought for certain I would freeze to death one night, and though I haven’t had any bear encounters yet, I have nearly stepped on two huge rattlesnakes since entering Virginia. The weather is hot now, and the trail is full of flowers and shady green leaves. The past couple days were really intense though. I came down off a mountain into a two-story shelter next to a waterfall. Spent the night there with Way and a few other fast hikers we had caught up with. Then, I had the long trek up The Priest, a mountain I’d been hearing about for weeks. The first 4k footer for a long time! When I got near the summit there was a shelter (also called The Priest shelter) where hikers confessed their “sins” to the mountain in the trail log. Some were funny, some were sarcastic, some were heartfelt and sad. A lot of confessions were about not burying poop properly or hanging bear bags right.
I picked up the pen to write something funny, but I just...started writing. I wrote an entire page of all my regrets, all my anger that you left me alone. My frustration of being unable to move on, and my disinterest in seeing other people while our friends would hint at; “how long it’s been,” in their loving but tone-deaf way. I wrote about how I just want you, and our future, back; and how I don’t want a new future without you. It came out very real, and very sudden. I lost myself in my writing.
Way hiked into the site and set her backpack down next to me on the picnic table. I realized I was crying and I tried to hide my face so she wouldn’t see; regardless, she could definitely see that my hand was trembling over the page. When I had finished writing, I moved to rip the page out. She placed her hand down on the log so I couldn’t lift it. “I had no idea,” she said. She had been reading over my shoulder. I hadn’t told anybody on the trail about you. I’d avoided talking too much about myself anyway, but I didn’t want to invite your ghost to follow me. You left for work one morning and there was a snowstorm and you never made it home. I was alone.
“It’s nothing,” I told Way. She nodded.
“Everything is Nothing,” she replied. Her matter-of-fact nature combined with the absurdity of everything she says is probably my favorite thing about her. She gently took the shelter log and pen from me to write her own confession. I sat there and ate a flavorless granola bar. The oats rolled around on my tongue and felt like lumps going down my throat. The more I thought about Nothing, the more hollow I felt inside. I wanted to shred that page up; not to prevent others from reading it, but to somehow get rid of all of those feelings that were tormenting me. Way’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Would you hike to Devil’s Backbone Brewery with me?”
“You know I hike slower than you.”
“That’s fine. The beer will wait for us and I’d like the company.”
So here we are. The hike down here was silent until we got to the road and hitched in with a friendly, local trail maintainer. We met up with the Teds and a few other members of our extended trail families, drank our beer, and ate fried foods and fresh salads. Everybody acted the same toward me because, of course, only Way knew now--but I felt different. That entry in the hiker log had been the first time I had opened up about my feelings. I hadn’t even done that with my therapist, really. I felt quiet and exhausted. Laying down in this tent--our tent--and writing this by headlamp has been the catharsis I’ve needed since you died. I’ve thought a lot about you, and why I’m hiking this trail, and what will come next for me. I think a part of you is all over this trail, but in that, “we are all made of starstuff,” way. I don’t think there’s life after death. Your brain stopped working, and “you” are gone, and you couldn’t possibly care about me or if I date again or move across the country or anything like that. If I go back to Gorham, I’ll just be haunting it as a surrogate for you. Maybe I can crash with my cousin out in Oregon for a while. I need a new start, something to let me get over this monumental sadness that I carry everywhere. I know, intellectually, it’s not what you would want for me. We had a great life together but it’s gone. Now, I hike every day, sometimes in excess of twenty miles, and eat noodles mixed with instant potatoes, and dig holes to poop in the woods. I hike like it’s my job, but I hike because it’s my life, and that’s enough for now. I think the only way forward, for me, is one footstep at a time. Ever northward. Katahdin awaits! After that, I’ll see what comes.
It felt good to get this all out. Maybe it’s the exhaustion or the booze or something else. Maybe I’m just ready to finally start talking about this. I feel like I should burn this letter, somehow, in some special place. Maybe when I hike through NH. I’ll stop by our old apartment, swing by the fire pit in the backyard, and light this on fire to send it to you. Everything is Nothing. I’ll say one last goodbye to our apartment, our town, and our life. Then, I’ll keep hiking.
I loved you, I still love you, and I will always love you. But you knew that.
by Joe Noel