Smoke poured into the valley, menacing and dark.
I closed the windows on the house and turned on the air conditioning.
What a thing. Air Conditioning.
Conditioning The Air.
I looked at my foot, still peeling from the swelling going down. From the beating the trail imposed. No feeling in my toe yet, but the doctor said it will for sure come back when it does, no sooner and no later.
My feet hurt so much for weeks. Both of them. I could barely put them on the floor. I’d wake up at night and seriously consider crawling to the bathroom. I could barely walk. Was this normal? Does every hiker go through this when they come off trail?
But it’s been three weeks and they finally don’t hurt much anymore, and I mostly stopped wearing the boot in the last couple of days. But it doesn’t take much walking to remember that it is still injured.
Being home is so normal and so weird. Everything is the same here. Did this whole thing really even happen? Did I make up the whole journey? Was it all a dream? Am I the same person?
The Trail brought me back to center, that’s for sure. It gave me the adventure I sorely needed. It provided me the solitude, the ability to sort out problems on my own. It kicked all weakness out of me, breathed strength into me, and left me standing shattered and whole and wild.
Gone was the loudness of my mind, replaced by the loudness of my spirit.
Since I came home, I’ve moved my gear around six times, wondering what I’d leave behind next time. What I could do without. What I could do differently. What level of deprivation with which I was comfortable. Wait…Next Time?
I looked at my sad stack of empty notebooks. They had so much more to tell.
Next Time I’ll start in Campo and not worry about the overcrowded trail. Because there would be People. And I will never again underestimate the power of having another human around. Someone to expect you in the evening. Someone to smile at you. Someone going through the same difficulties with whom to encourage and bond.
Next Time I’ll take different shoes. I’ll just get the stupid boots I’ve been railing against. I’ll cave because the trail runners I used this time Did Not Work For Me.
Next Time I’ll only have something like 1650 miles left to complete the whole thing, so I won’t push for 20+ mile days unless water is the issue. I’ll be happy with 15.
I had trouble sleeping in my bed when I came home. One midnight, I painfully made my way to the garage and got my sleeping bag and a car camping mat. I pulled them one aching step at a time out to the concrete pad in our back yard. I lay down in my familiar cocoon and watched the stars for a few hours.
So that’s what they look like.
Next Time I’ll stay up to take a look at them once a week.
Since I came home, I’ve had BBQ’s, movie nights, game nights, deep-cleaned the house, painted the spare room, watched the dusk settle over my beloved hills.
I’ve eaten fresh peaches from the tree and all-you-can-eat sushi and salsa made from scratch. Drank cold beer, taken the boys to the river, gone to the Monster Fish exhibit in a wheelchair at the museum with my Mom.
I went to watch Hillary Clinton speak, and they put me in the ADA line because of my boot so I got to sit in the third row right up front.
I learned that everyone wants to talk to you if you’re clearly only temporarily and minorly physically impaired. So there was a lot of talking and kindness in the ADA line.
Gurl, one lady said, I heard you fell in a gopher hole.
That’s right, I said.
You gotta come up with a better story than that, she said.
I’m a shitty liar, I told her.
Do I feel satisfied with my Trail experience? I can’t tell.
I know I’m excited about the Fall, and I’m hoping to do an overnight backpacking trip with my Mom next month.
I’m sick of the lack of exercise and am looking forward to going on a walk like regular people are wont to do.
Turtle texted me. He finished the trail. I’m so proud of him, and it makes my heart burst with happiness that he accomplished his dream.
How do I really feel about backpacking though?
When biking, I learned about each of the small communities I traveled through daily. The beauty and the people and the small-town-rituals and the dialect and the flavor of those lives.
When hiking, it seems I learned more about the hiking community and carried that through each town I would weekly inhabit.
So does that make me a cyclist who just happened to go hiking this one time? Do I like cycling better?
I just don’t know.
I don’t miss the exhaust and the wind from passing eighteen-wheelers blowing me off the road. I don’t miss the chicken trucks and the assholes flipping me off and throwing trash at me. I don’t miss worrying about slipping on the wet asphalt and having to ride on the paint itself when that was the only smooth surface available. I don’t miss road construction. I don’t miss tunnels.
I do miss the way the air changes when I ride near water. I do miss the climbing so slowly to the top of a mountain, and then getting the sweet reward of cruising really fast down the other side. I do miss small town events like the 4th of July Porcupine Races and the pie socials and the rodeos and the invitations to go alligator hunting. I miss the tiny little bike shops. I miss covering more ground each day. I miss how every valley smells a certain way, and I can remember that smell long after I’m gone.
I always said I like slow sports best, but maybe walking is just a little too slow.
But then again, I still dream about the trail almost every night. I dream I have a trail friend – a woman who is trans, named Jennifer. I dream that Jennifer carries red heels and matching lipstick in her backpack to wear when she gets into a town. I tell her she’s beautiful and she laughs and says she cleans up well, and then we curl our hair and we each eat a gallon of ice cream.
I dream that I walk around a bend in the trail and slip in a hot pile of bear shit and land on my side right in the pile and I freak out because I’m not near a stream and I don’t know what to do, and where is the bear?
I dream of the parts of the trail I didn’t get to see. I dream about storms I didn’t experience, and snow I never saw. I dream of fields of huckleberries and gloomy forests and hot dusty flowers and exposed ridge-lines. I dream of losing my footing and slipping off the side of a mountain. I dream of picking up handfuls of wet soil and smelling the earth.
Maybe I’ll shake the Trail from my bones.
But maybe I won’t.
I will keep my mind quieter, and my spirit louder and my notebooks ever ready for more stories.
Because whether it is cycling or hiking, I can say with certainty…
There Will Be A Next Time.