The next morning we wake early to catch a bus to Medford. From there, Energizer Bunny and Mermaid head off to Ashland to continue hiking on the PCT. Dexter and I are headed to Portland – Dexter to head home, and me to take some time to figure out what I want to do next.
I hear that another hiker, Tree, a woman I met on my fourth day, has died in the Sierra. How did we let someone be alone out there? How did we let Tree be alone? I am angry and sad.
On the bus to Portland, there’s another PCT hiker. He and Dexter had met before. He had to get off trail because he’s being deployed. He talks about the miles he’s done, how 30 mile days had become no sweat, that he’d left his group of 800 miles because they were too slow. The only thing he asks Dexter is: So did you do the Sierra? I put in my headphones and feel frustrated and exhausted and glad, really, that I am not going back to the PCT today.
In Portland, Dexter and I go our separate ways. I take the train and a bus to my hostel. The first time I visited Portland it felt sweet and small, that night it feels like New York City, dirty and smelling of urine and overwhelming. Did it change, or did I?
I spend a couple of days wandering Portland. I go to the book store and buy a book of poetry and a dystopian novel about space and Antarctica. I get my hair cut and colored. I get a new bra. I get a tank top and a hair brush. I visit Scissors and have dinner with her and her girlfriend and they walk me around a rose garden. The next night I stay with Twerk and we eat delicious pizza and chat about the trail.
The next day I take a bus to Seattle. Maybe I can just hike Washington, I’ve been saying to myself. I could start at Cascade Locks. I’d be ahead of the thruhiker crowd…
In Seattle I spend hours by myself in my friend Natalie’s apartment and it’s glorious. I read. I write. I watch YouTube. I make food for Natalie and her boyfriend, Loomis. I do laundry and tidy the kitchen. “We could go backpacking this weekend,” they say. So we do. I’ll get to backpack with people I like, who like me, who I’m not trying to impress – maybe it will make me want to go back to trail.
But it doesn’t. My body is desperately grateful for the physical movement, for a pounding heart. Hiking feels like an incredible physical relief. But it’s also clear to me that I don’t want to be here anymore. We set up camp and play Heads Up and I laugh and laugh and laugh. The PCT is only a mile or so away and there’s supposed to be a view of Mt. Rainier, so we hike to it. It’s steep, and I’m amused – the Crest trail. One has to get to the crest. Along the way, I am trying to think of how to say goodbye to the PCT. A beautiful, impossible trail stretching from one end of the country to the other. How to say thank you. How to let go. We’re passing thousands of wildflowers, and I find myself picking one. When we reach the PCT, I hold the flower out to the sign. I think: goodbye, sweet trail. The mosquitos are attacking my hands and arms and ankles. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
The next day we hike out. I guess I’ll just take a flight back home, I think. It doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t know what else to do – I don’t feel like hiking, I don’t feel like traveling, I don’t feel like flying home. I’m scrolling Facebook when I see my friend say he’s thinking about taking a road trip and it occurs to me: I could drive home instead.
I manage to find an awesome deal on a rental car (thanks to AutoSlasher.com) and plan a loose itinerary of places I want to see and Monday morning, I head out.
Meanwhile, I’m lying to my husband. It’s his birthday in a week and I want to surprise him. I’m in Canada, I tell him. I’m exploring Vancouver. I may go to Victoria. I tell him the hotel room I’m in is a hostel. I’m vague about the details of my days.
But the reality of my days is driving and beauty. I stop in Spokane and get Thai food. I spend the night in Plains, MT and wonder how I could manage to live there. I drive through Glacier National Park and say wow, wow, wow over and over again. I sleep in the lawn at an RV park. I buy fruits and vegetables and snacks and sandwiches at grocery stores. I get out at rest stops near rivers and stretch and breathe. I go to Missoula, MT and chat with a couple who’d planned to bike for several weeks who had to stop because of the heavy smoke. I spend the night in a queen sized bed at a hostel outside of Boise after a dinner of burgers and fancy fries. I see Old Faithful at Yellowstone. I wander a farmer’s market in Salt Lake City.
And then I come home. I’m early, so I sleep at my brother’s apartment. I tell Mark I’ve taken the ferry to Victoria, that I’ll be getting back on the PCT. Instead, I return my rental car and take an Uber to where he’s having dinner with friends. I tell the Uber driver my goal is to make Mark cry. The Uber driver says he’d have to be missing a soul not to cry. He cries, and hugs me, and looks at me like I might be a hologram, a ghost, a disappearing girl.
The truth is that in Arizona, everything feels uncentered. It’s familiar but different somehow, or maybe I am. The life that is my life but also hasn’t been for the last four months. It feels impossible that both can be true: A me that slept on the ground, walked for hundreds of miles, met dozens of new people, walked into each day not having any idea what it might present to her… and the me climbing into the shower, commanding the dogs to behave, knowing where all the utensils are in the drawer, driving to the grocery store without thinking. I have been gone and not-gone. I am here and not-here. I am the same and somebody different entirely, starting at the very beginning, trying to figure out how to make the ground beneath her a home.