Saturday, June 4, 2011

Chapter 94: The Turnaround, Part II

On the morning of May 26th, 2010, I was a smelly, desperate, unclean, unshaven, uncivilized, disreputable mountain man, terrifying to behold, even scarier to contemplate. My future was bleak. I was only halfway done with my thru-hike, meaning I still had two or three months to go before I finished. Another eleven hundred sun-baked miles before I could relax and recuperate; reunite with my friends and family; finally shower thoroughly and frequently enough to rid myself of the rancid stench of so many weeks of accumulated sweat and burning muscle; drink unlimited amounts of juice; and never eat, look at, or think about overly-processed crap like Ramen, Knorr® Pasta Sides, and Instant Oatmeal ever again.

Meanwhile, all I had to look forward to was an endless series of long, exhausting days, spent entirely outside, amidst the sweeping majesty and forgotten natural beauty of America; the sporadic but blissful occasions when I might rapaciously devour other people's table scraps, or gleefully re-appropriate their serendipitously discovered garbage; setting my own agenda; getting up when I wanted; eating when I wanted; going to sleep when and wherever I wanted; and basically having unlimited personal freedom, albeit in the narrow confines of the trail. All with no bed but my sleeping bag, no roof but the tent in my pack, and no possessions but what I carried on my back. But with no cable TV to lull me to sleep. Or authority figure to harangue me, order me around, and constantly remind me just how little my time—and my life—was really worth. It was awful. And I felt awful. As if my life was meaningless, and that I was of no use to society, or to anything or anybody.

And then, not ten hours later, I was showered, presentable, relatively clean-smelling, and sitting in the upper deck at Camden Yards, enjoying a pizza, a Coke Zero, and—to a much lesser extent—a Baltimore Orioles game.

On June 15th, 2010, I experienced a similar if no-less life changing reversal.

That morning, I wandered around the Hiker Hostel at the Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvannia, saying goodbye to some old friends while waiting anxiously for others to arrive. I wore a pair of skimpy board shorts and a tie-dye tanktop I'd pilfered from a hiker box. The tanktop was a woman's, and a small. It fit me surprisingly well. I would find out later that P-Nut actually wore the very same shirt when the Nature Train rolled through town. In some small way, it would feel like I was maintaining his legacy, and I would feel honored by the connection. Still, I must have looked like hell.

My facial scruff resided somewhere in the uncomfortable no-man's-land between "suave French musketeer" and "convicted child rapist." My feet ached, and my Achilles tendons were wound tighter than a [insert gross, mind-blowing metaphor here]; I could barely walk without a severely pronounced limp. I wanted little more than to soak in a bathtub of Epsom salts, for about a week. While reading a book. And eating copious, possibly unending amounts of baked ziti, and possibly lasagna.

Some scant forty-eight hours later, I was in New York City, enjoying a riotous New Kids on the Block concert at Radio City Music Hall with Megan, Liana, and Rebecca. A day after that, I might have been lying in bed, watching movies from Blockbuster, while Megan—very tentatively and probably unwillingly—massaged my feet. Twenty four hours after that, I was eating Chinese food with Megan's parents and her sister Elizabeth; and stuffing my face with joyful, reckless abandon.

Somehow, a week passed, and the time came to head back to the trail. Megan, Elizabeth, and their childhood friend Steven accompanied me to the Delaware Water Gap, where we went tubing for the afternoon. Just the four of us, a twelve-pack of Bud Light Lime, and the river, with a beautiful cloudless sky above; the occasional hawk soaring overhead, past the sun; and only a handful of unbelievably pungent, mysteriously dead fish floating along beside us.

Our goodbyes later that afternoon were bittersweet, tinged with a melancholy longing. I knew I wouldn't see Megan again until I was done, one way or the other. It was hard to stomach, letting her go once again, but also exciting in a way. At the very least, we had made some happy memories that would help carry me through the trying days to come.

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