Their leaving made me melancholy, though I also felt something like relief when they disappeared into the dark trees. I hadn't needed to get anything from my pack; I'd only wanted to be alone. Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of teh PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn't a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn't truly understood the world's vastness - hadn't even understood how vast a mile could be - until each mile wasd beheld at walking spped. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy I'd come to have with the trail, the way the pinon pines and monkey flowers I passed that morning, the shallow streams I crossed, felt familiar and known, though I'd never passed them or crossed them before.
It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, strems and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way. That's what Montgomery knew, I supposed. It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me.
It was wrong It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn't even hate her properly. I didn't get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I wished she'd done differently and then get older and unerstand that she had done the best she could and relalize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we'd left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be empty bowl that no one could fill. I'd have to fill it myself again and agian and again.
There's no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course. But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn't been for Eddie, I wouldn't have found myself on the PCT. And thouight it was true that everything I felt for him sat like a boulder in my throat, this realization made the boulder sit ever so much lighter. He hadn't loved me well in the end, but he'd loved me well when it mattered.
I didn't know how I'd reach back through the years and look for and find some of the people I'd met on the trail and that I'd look for and not find others. Or how in one case I'd find something I didn't expect: an obituary. Doug's. I didn't know I'd read that he'd died nine years after we'd said goodbye on the PCT - killed in a kite-sailing accident in New Zealand. Or how, after I'd cried remembering what a golden boy he'd been, I'd go to the farthest corner of my basement, to the place where Monster hung on a pair of rusty nails, and I'd see that the raven feather Dough had given me was broken and frayed now, but still there - wedged into my pack's frame, where I placed it years ago.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn't need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life - like all ives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.
Books Burned on the PCT
The Pacific Crest Trails, Volume I
Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook, June Fleming
The Dream of a Common Language
As I Lay Dying
The Complete Stories, Flannery O'Connor
The Novel James Michener
A Summer Bird-Cage, Margaret Drabble
Waiting for the Barbarians
The Pacific Crest Trails, Volume 2: Oregon and Washington
The Best American Essays 1991
The Ten Thousand Things
In the wake of my mother's death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognized. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.
It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been. A world that measured two feet wide and 2,663 miles long.
Each day I felt as if i were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I'd been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A belowed daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiver and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men. I was teh graddaughter of a Pennsylvania coal miner, the daughter of a steelworker turned salesman. After my parents split up, I lived with my mother, brother and sister in apartment complexes populated by single mothers and their kids. As a teen, I lived back-to-the-land style in the Minnesota northwood in a house that didn't have an indoor toilet, electricity, or running water. In spite of this, I'd become a highschool cheerleader and homecoming queen, and then I went off to college and became a left-wing feminist campus radical.
But a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? I'd never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.