Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part V. BOX OF RAIN
I’m a slow walker, but I never walk back.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
“The Summer Day”
15. BOX OF RAIN
I woke in the darkness on my second-to-last night in California to the sound of wind whipping the branches of the trees and the tap-tapping of rain against my tent. It had been so dry all summer long that I’d stopped putting the rain cover on, sleeping with only a wide pane of mesh between the sky and me. I scrambled barefoot into the dark to pull my rain cover over my tent, shivering, though it was early August. It had been in the nineties for weeks, sometimes even reaching a hundred, but with the wind and the rain, the weather had suddenly shifted. Back in my tent, I put on my fleece leggings and anorak, crawled into my sleeping bag, and zipped it all the way up to my chin, cinching its hood tight around my head. When I woke at six, the little thermometer on my backpack said that it was 37 degrees.
I hiked along a high ridgeline in the rain, dressed in most of what I had. Each time I stopped for more than a few minutes, I grew so chilled that my teeth chattered comically until I walked on and began to sweat again. On clear days, my guidebook claimed, Oregon was in view to the north, but I couldn’t see anything for the thick fog that obscured anything beyond ten feet. I didn’t need to see Oregon. I could feel it, huge before me. I would walk its entire length if I made it all the way to the Bridge of the Gods. Who would I be if I did? Who would I be if I didn’t?
Midmorning, Stacy appeared out of the mist, walking southbound on the trail. We’d hiked away from Seiad Valley together the day before, after spending a night with Rex and the couples. In the morning, Rex had caught a bus back to his real life, while the rest of us walked on, splitting up a few hours out. I was fairly certain I wouldn’t see the couples on the trail again, but Stacy and I had made plans to meet up in Ashland, where she was going to lay over for a few days waiting for her friend Dee to arrive before they began their hike through Oregon. Seeing her now startled me, as if she were part woman, part ghost.
“I’m heading back to Seiad Valley,” she said, and explained that she was cold, her feet were blistered, and her down sleeping bag had gotten drenched the night before and she had no hope of drying it out before nightfall. “I’m taking a bus to Ashland,” she said. “Come find me at the hostel when you get there.”
I hugged her before she walked away, the fog enveloping her again in seconds.
The next morning I woke earlier than normal, the sky the palest gray. It had stopped raining and the air had warmed up. I felt excited as I strapped on Monster and walked away from my camp: these were my last miles in California.
I was less than a mile away from the border when a branch that hung along the edge of the trail caught on my William J. Crockett bracelet and sent it flying off into the dense brush. I scanned the rocks and bushes and trees, panicky, knowing as I pushed into the weeds that it was a lost cause. I wouldn’t find the bracelet. I hadn’t seen where it had gone. It had only made the faintest ping as it flew away from me. It seemed absurd that I’d lose the bracelet at this very moment, a clear omen of trouble ahead. I tried to twist it around in my mind and make the loss represent something good—a symbol of things I didn’t need anymore, perhaps, of lightening the figurative load—but then that idea flattened out and I thought only of William J. Crockett himself, the man from Minnesota who’d been about my age when he died in Vietnam, whose remains had never been found, whose family no doubt still grieved him. My bracelet wasn’t anything but a symbol of the life he lost too young. The universe had simply taken it into its hungry, ruthless maw.
There was nothing to do but go on.
I reached the border only minutes later, stopping to take it in: California and Oregon, an end and a beginning pressed up against each other. For such a momentous spot, it didn’t look all that momentous. There was only a brown metal box that held a trail register and a sign that said WASHINGTON: 498 MILES—no mention of Oregon itself.
But I knew what those 498 miles were. I’d been in California two months, but it seemed like I’d aged years since I’d stood on Tehachapi Pass alone with my pack and imagined reaching this spot. I went to the metal box, pulled out the trail register, and paged through it, reading the entries from the previous weeks. There were notes from a few people whose names I’d never seen and others from people I hadn’t met, but whom I felt I knew because I’d been trailing them all summer. The most recent entries were from the couples—John and Sarah, Helen and Sam. Beneath their jubilant entries, I wrote my own, so overwhelmed with emotion that I opted to be concise: “I made it!”
Oregon. Oregon. Oregon.
I was here. I walked into it, catching views of the peaks of majestic Mount Shasta to the south and the lower but sterner Mount McLoughlin to the north. I hiked high on a ridgeline, coming to short icy patches of snow that I crossed with the help of my ski pole. I could see cows grazing in the high green meadows not far below me, their big square bells clanking as they moved. “Hello, Oregon cows,” I called to them.
That night I camped under a nearly full moon, the sky bright and cool. I opened J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, but read only a few pages because I couldn’t concentrate; my mind wandered to thoughts of Ashland instead. It was finally so close that I could bear to let myself think about it. In Ashland there would be food, music, and wine, and people who knew nothing of the PCT. And most important, there’d be money, and not just my usual twenty bucks. I’d put $250 in traveler’s checks into my Ashland box, originally believing that it would be the box that greeted me at the very end of my trip. It didn’t contain food or resupplies. It had only traveler’s checks and a “real world” outfit to wear—my favorite faded blue Levi’s and a slim-fitting black T-shirt; a brand-new black lace bra and matching underwear. It was in these things that months before I thought I’d celebrate the end of my trip and catch a ride back to Portland. When I’d changed my itinerary, I’d asked Lisa to put that small box into another of the boxes I’d loaded down with food and supplies and readdress it to Ashland, instead of one of the stops I wasn’t going to make in the Sierra Nevada. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it—that box within the box—and spend the weekend wearing nontrail clothes.
I arrived in Ashland the next day around lunchtime, after hitching a ride from the trail with a group of AmeriCorps volunteers.
“Did you hear the big news?” one of them had asked after I’d climbed into their van.
I shook my head without explaining that I’d heard little news, big or small, for two months.
“You know the Grateful Dead?” he asked, and I nodded. “Jerry Garcia is dead.”
I stood on a sidewalk in the center of town and bent to see an image of Garcia’s face in psychedelic colors on the front page of the local paper, reading what I could through the newspaper box’s clear plastic window, too broke to spring for a copy. I’d liked several of the Grateful Dead’s songs, but I’d never collected tapes of their live shows or followed them around the country like some of my Deadhead friends had. Kurt Cobain’s death the year before had felt closer to me—his sad and violent end a cautionary tale not only of my generation’s excesses, but of my own as well. And yet Garcia’s death felt bigger, as if it was the end of not just a moment, but an era that had lasted all of my life.
I walked with Monster on my back a few blocks to the post office, passing homemade signs propped in store windows that said: WE LOVE YOU, JERRY, RIP. The streets were alive with a mix of well-dressed tourists pouring in for the weekend and the radical youth of the lower Pacific Northwest, who congregated in clumps along the sidewalks emitting a more intense vibe than usual because of the news. “Hey,” several of them said to me as I passed, some adding “sister” to the end. They ranged in age from teenager to senior citizen, clad in clothing that placed them somewhere along the hippy/anarchist/punk rock/funked-out artist continuum. I looked just like one of them—hairy, tan, and tattooed; weighed down by all of my possessions—and I smelled like one of them too, only worse, no doubt, since I hadn’t had a proper bath since I’d showered at that campground in Castle Crags when I’d been hungover a couple of weeks before. And yet I felt so outside of them, of everyone, as if I’d landed here from another place and time.
“Hey!” I exclaimed with surprise when I passed one of the quiet men who’d been in the truck that had pulled up at Toad Lake, where Stacy and I had been searching for the Rainbow Gathering, but he replied with a stony nod, not seeming to remember me.
I reached the post office and pushed its doors open, grinning with anticipation, but when I gave the woman behind the counter my name, she returned with only a small padded envelope addressed to me. No box. No box within the box. No Levi’s or black lace bra or $250 in traveler’s checks or the food I needed to hike to my next stop at Crater Lake National Park.
“There should be a box for me,” I said, holding the little padded envelope.
“You’ll have to check back tomorrow,” the woman said without concern.
“Are you sure?” I stammered. “I mean … It should definitely be there.”
The woman only shook her head unsympathetically. She cared nothing for me. I was a dirty, smelly radical youth of the lower Pacific Northwest. “Next,” she said, signaling to the man standing at the head of the line.
I staggered outside, half blind with panic and rage. I was in Ashland, Oregon, and I had only $2.29. I needed to pay for a room at the hostel that night. I needed my food before I hiked on. But more than anything—after sixty days of walking beneath my pack, eating dehydrated foods that tasted like warmed-up cardboard, and being utterly without human contact for sometimes weeklong stretches while hiking up and down mountains in an astonishing range of temperatures and terrains—I needed things to be easy. Just for a few days. Please.
I went to a pay phone nearby, took Monster off and set it down, and shut myself into the phone booth. It felt incredibly good to be inside, like I didn’t ever want to leave this tiny transparent room. I looked at the padded envelope. It was from my friend Laura in Minneapolis. I opened the envelope and pulled its contents out: a letter folded around a necklace she’d made for me in honor of my new name. STRAYED it said in blocky silver letters on a ball-link chain. At first glance it looked like it said STARVED because the Y was slightly different from all the other letters—fatter and squatter and cast from a different mold, and my mind scrambled the letters into a familiar word. I put the necklace on and looked at the distorted reflection of my chest in the telephone’s glossy metal face. It hung beneath the one I’d been wearing since Kennedy Meadows—the turquoise-and-silver earring that used to belong to my mother.
I picked up the phone and attempted to make a collect call to Lisa to inquire about my box, but there was no answer.
I strolled the streets miserably, trying not to want anything. Not lunch, not the muffins and cookies that sat on display in the windows, not the lattes in the paper cups that the tourists held in their spotless hands. I walked to the hostel to see if I could find Stacy. She wasn’t there, the man who worked the desk told me, but she’d be back later—she’d already checked in for that night. “Would you like to check in too?” he asked me, but I only shook my head.
I walked to the natural food cooperative, the front of which the radical youth of the lower Pacific Northwest had made into something of a daytime encampment, gathering on the grass and sidewalks in front of the store. Almost immediately, I spotted another of the men I’d seen up at Toad Lake—the headband man, the leader of the pack who, like Jimi Hendrix, called everybody baby. He sat on the sidewalk near the entrance to the store holding a little cardboard sign that had a request for money scrawled in marker across it. In front of him there was an empty coffee can with a smattering of coins.
“Hi,” I said, pausing before him, feeling buoyed to see a familiar face, even if it was his. He still wore his strange grubby headband.
“Howdy,” he replied, obviously not remembering me. He didn’t ask me for money. Apparently, I exuded the fact that I had none. “You traveling around?” he asked.
“I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail,” I said to jog his memory.
He nodded without recognition. “A lot of people from out of town are showing up for the Dead festivities.”
“Are there festivities?” I asked.
“Tonight there’s something.”
I wondered if he’d convened a mini–Rainbow Gathering at Crater Lake, like he’d said he’d do, but not enough to ask him. “Take it easy,” I said, walking away.
I went into the co-op, the air-conditioned air so strange on my bare limbs. I’d been in convenience stores and small tourist-oriented general stores in a few of my resupply stops along the PCT, but I hadn’t been in a store like this since I’d begun my trip. I walked up and down the aisles looking at things I couldn’t have, stupefied by their offhand plenitude. How was it that I had ever taken these things for granted? Jars of pickles and baguettes so fresh they were packed in paper bags, bottles of orange juice and cartons of sorbet, and, most of all, the produce, which sat so brightly in bins I felt almost blinded by it. I lingered, smelling things—tomatoes and heads of butter lettuce, nectarines and limes. It was all I could do not to slip something into my pocket.
I went to the health and beauty section and pumped free samples of lotion into my palms, rubbing several kinds all over my body, their discrete fragrances making me swoon—peach and coconut, lavender and tangerine. I pondered the sample tubes of lipstick and applied one called Plum Haze with one of the natural, organic, made-from-recycled-material Q-tip knockoffs that sat nearby in a medicinal-looking glass jar with a silver lid. I blotted with a natural, organic, made-from-recycled-material tissue and gazed at myself in a round mirror that stood on a pedestal near the lipstick display. I’d chosen Plum Haze because its shade was similar to the lipstick I wore in my regular, pre-PCT life, but now, with it on, I seemed to look like a clown, my mouth showy and manic against my weathered face.
“Can I help you?” a woman with granny glasses and a nametag that said JEN G. asked me.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m just looking.”
“That shade is nice on you. It totally brings out the blue of your eyes.”
“Do you think so?” I asked, feeling suddenly shy. I looked at myself in the little round mirror, as if I were genuinely contemplating whether to purchase Plum Haze.
“I like your necklace too,” Jen G. said. “Starved. That’s funny.”
I put my hand to it. “It says Strayed, actually. That’s my last name.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jen G. said, stepping closer to see it. “I just looked at it wrong. It’s funny both ways.”
“It’s an optical illusion,” I said.
I walked down the aisles to the deli, where I pulled a coarse napkin from a dispenser and wiped the Plum Haze off my lips, and then perused the lemonade selection. They didn’t carry Snapple, much to my chagrin. I bought a natural, organic, fresh-squeezed, no-preservatives lemonade with the last money I had and returned with it to sit in front of the store. In my excitement to reach town, I hadn’t eaten lunch, so I got a protein bar and some stale nuts from my pack and ate them while forbidding myself to think about the meal I’d planned to have instead: a Caesar salad with a grilled chicken breast and a basket of crusty French bread that I’d dunk into olive oil and a Diet Coke to drink, with a banana split for dessert. I drank my lemonade and chatted with whoever approached: I spoke to a man from Michigan who’d moved to Ashland to attend the local college, and another who played the drums in a band; one woman who was a potter who specialized in goddess figures, and another who asked me in a European accent if I was going to the Jerry Garcia memorial celebration that night.
She handed me a flyer that said Remembering Jerry across the top.
“It’s at a club near the hostel, if that’s where you’re staying,” she told me. She was plump and pretty, her flaxen hair tied into a loose bun at the back of her head. “We’re traveling around too,” she added, gesturing to my pack. I didn’t understand who the “we” referred to until a man appeared by her side. He was her physical opposite—tall and almost painfully thin, dressed in a maroon wrap skirt that hung barely past his bony knees, his shortish hair bound into four or five pigtails scattered around his head.
“Did you hitchhike here?” asked the man. He was American.
I explained to them about hiking the PCT, about how I planned to lay over in Ashland for the weekend. The man was indifferent, but the woman was astounded.
“My name is Susanna and I am from Switzerland,” she said, taking my hand in hers. “We call what you’re doing the pilgrim way. If you’d like, I would rub your feet.”
“Oh, that’s sweet, but you don’t have to do that,” I said.
“I want to. It would be my honor. It is the Swiss way. I will return.” She turned and walked into the co-op, as I called after her telling her she was too kind. When she was gone, I looked at her boyfriend. He reminded me of a Kewpie doll, with his hair like that.
“She really likes to do this, so no worries,” he said, sitting down beside me.
When Susanna emerged a minute later, she held her hands cupped before her, a puddle of fragrant oil in her palms. “It’s peppermint,” she said, smiling at me. “Take off your boots and socks!”
“But my feet,” I hesitated. “They’re in pretty rough shape and dirty—”
“This is my calling!” she yelled, so I obeyed; soon she was slathering me with peppermint oil. “Your feet, they are very strong,” said Susanna. “Like those of an animal. I can feel their strength in my palms. And also how they are battered. I see you miss the toenails.”
“Yes,” I murmured, reclining on my elbows in the grass, my eyes fluttering shut.
“The spirits told me to do this,” she said as she pressed her thumbs into the soles of my feet.
“The spirits told you?”
“Yes. When I saw you, the spirits whispered that I had something to give you, so that is why I approached with the flyer, but then I understood there was something else. In Switzerland, we have great respect for people who travel the pilgrim way.” Rolling my toes one by one between her fingers, she looked up at me and asked, “What does this mean on your necklace—that you are starved?”
And so it went, for the next couple of hours, as I hung out in front of the co-op. I was starved. I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I felt only like a bucket of desire, a hungry, wilted thing. One person gave me a vegan muffin, another a quinoa salad that had grapes in it. Several approached to admire my horse tattoo or inquire about my backpack. Around four, Stacy came along and I told her my predicament; she offered to loan me money until my box arrived.
“Let me try at the post office again,” I said, loath to take her up on her offer, grateful as I was for it. I returned to the post office and stood in line, disappointed to see that the same woman who’d told me my box wasn’t there was still working the counter. When I approached her, I asked for my box as if I hadn’t been there only a few hours before. She went into a back room and returned holding it, pushing it across the counter to me without apology.
“So it was here all along,” I said, but she didn’t care, replying that she simply must not have seen it before.
I was too ecstatic to be angry as I walked with Stacy to the hostel, holding my box. I checked in and followed Stacy up the stairs and through the main women’s dorm room to a small, private alcove that sat under the eaves of the building. Inside, there were three single beds. Stacy had one, her friend Dee had another, and they’d saved the third for me. Stacy introduced me to Dee and we talked while I opened my box. There were my clean old jeans, my new bra and underwear, and more money than I’d had since I started my trip.
I went to the shower room and stood under the hot water scrubbing myself. I hadn’t showered for two weeks, during which the temperatures had ranged from the thirties to the low hundreds. I could feel the water washing the layers of sweat away, as if they were an actual layer of skin. When I was done, I gazed at myself naked in the mirror, my body leaner than the last time I’d looked, my hair lighter than it had been since I was a little girl. I put on the new black bra, underwear, and T-shirt and my faded Levi’s, which were loose on me now, though I hadn’t quite been able to fit into them three months before, and returned to the alcove and put on my boots. They were no longer new—dirty and hot, heavy and painful—but they were the only shoes I had.
At dinner with Stacy and Dee, I ordered everything I desired. Afterwards, I went to a shoe store and bought a black and blue pair of Merrell sports sandals, the kind I should’ve sprung for before my trip. We returned to the hostel, but within minutes Stacy and I were out again, headed for the Jerry Garcia memorial celebration at a nearby club, leaving Dee behind to sleep. We sat at a table in a little roped-off area that bordered the dance floor, drinking white wine and watching women of all ages, shapes, and sizes and an occasional man spinning to the Grateful Dead songs that played one after another. Behind the dancers, there was a screen upon which a series of images were projected, some abstract, psychedelic swirls, others literal, drawn renditions of Jerry and his band.
“We love you, Jerry!” a woman at the next table belted out when an image of him appeared.
“Are you going to dance?” I asked Stacy.
She shook her head. “I’ve got to get back to the hostel. We’re heading out early in the morning.”
“I think I’m going to stay for a bit,” I said. “Wake me up to say goodbye if I’m still sleeping tomorrow.” After she left, I ordered another glass of wine and sat listening to the music, watching people, feeling a profound happiness to simply be in a room among others on a summer evening with music playing. When I rose to leave half an hour later, the song “Box of Rain” came on. It was one of my favorite Dead songs and I was a bit buzzed, so I impulsively shot out to the dance floor and began to dance, and then regretted it almost as quickly. My knees felt stiff and creaky from all the hiking, my hips strangely inflexible, but just as I was about to leave, the man from Michigan, whom I’d met earlier in the day, was suddenly upon me, seemingly dancing with me, spinning in and out of my orbit like a hippy gyroscope, drawing an imaginary box in the air with his fingers while nodding at me, as if I knew what the hell that meant, and so it seemed rude to leave.
“I always think of Oregon when I hear this song,” he shouted over the music as I moved my body in a faux boogie. “Get it?” he asked. “Box of rain? Like Oregon is a box of rain too?”
I nodded and laughed, attempting to seem as if I were having a fun time, but the moment the song ended, I bolted away to stand near a low wall that ran alongside the bar.
“Hey,” a man said to me after a while, and I turned. He stood on the other side of the waist-high wall holding a marker and a flashlight—an employee of the club, apparently manning the territory in which you could drink—though I hadn’t noticed him there before.
“Hey,” I said back. He was handsome and looked a bit older than me, his dark curls skimming the tops of his shoulders. WILCO it said across the front of his T-shirt. “I love that band,” I said, gesturing to his shirt.
“You know them?” he asked.
“Of course I know them,” I said.
His brown eyes crinkled into a smile. “Rad,” he said, “I’m Jonathan,” and he shook my hand. The music started up before I could tell him my name, but he leaned into my ear to ask in a delicate shout where I was from. He seemed to know I wasn’t from Ashland. I shouted back at him, explaining as concisely as I could about the PCT, and then he leaned toward my ear again and yelled a long sentence that I couldn’t make out over the music, but I didn’t mind because of the wonderful way his lips brushed against my hair and his breath tickled my neck so I could feel it all the way down my body.
“What?” I yelled back at him when he was done, and so he did it again, talking slower and louder this time, and I understood that he was telling me that he worked late tonight, but that tomorrow night he’d be off at eleven and would I like to come see the band that was performing and then go out with him afterwards?
“Sure!” I shouted, though I half wanted to make him repeat what he’d said so his mouth would do that thing to my hair and my neck again. He handed the marker to me and mimed that I should write my name on his palm so he’d be able to put me on the guest list. Cheryl Strayed, I wrote as neatly as I could, my hands shaking. When I was done, he looked at it and gave me a thumbs-up, and I waved and walked out the door feeling ecstatic.
I had a date.
Did I have a date? I walked the warm streets second-guessing myself. Maybe my name wouldn’t be on the list, after all. Maybe I’d misheard him. Maybe it was ridiculous to go on a date with someone I’d barely spoken to and whose main appeal was that he was good-looking and he liked Wilco. I’d certainly done such things with men based on far less, but this was different. I was different. Wasn’t I?
I went back to the hostel and walked quietly past the beds where women unknown to me lay sleeping and into the little alcove under the eaves, where Dee and Stacy slept too, and I took off my clothes and got into the real actual bed that was astoundingly mine for the night. I lay awake for an hour, running my hands over my body, imagining what it would feel like to Jonathan if he touched it the next night: the mounds of my breasts and the plain of my abdomen, the muscles of my legs and the coarse hair on my pudenda—all of that seemed passably okay—but when I got to the palm-sized patches on my hips that felt like a cross between tree bark and a plucked dead chicken, I realized that under no circumstances while on my date tomorrow could I take off my pants. It was probably just as well. God knows I’d taken off my pants too many times to count, certainly more than was good for me.
I spent the next day talking myself out of seeing Jonathan that night. All the time that I was doing my laundry, feasting at restaurants, and wandering the streets watching people, I asked myself, Who is this good-looking Wilco fan to me anyway? And yet all the while, my mind kept imagining the things we might do.
With my pants still on.
That evening I showered, dressed, and walked to the co-op to put on some Plum Haze lipstick and ylang-ylang oil from the free samples before strolling up to the woman who staffed the door at the club where Jonathan worked. “I might be on the list,” I said casually, and gave her my name, ready to be rebuffed.
Without a word, she stamped my hand with red ink.
Jonathan and I spotted each other the moment I entered; he waved at me from his unreachable place on a raised platform, working the lights. I got a glass of wine and stood sipping it in what I hoped was an elegant way, listening to the band near the low wall where I’d met Jonathan the night before. They were a fairly famous bluegrass band from the Bay Area. They dedicated a song to Jerry Garcia. The music was good, but I couldn’t focus on it because I was trying so hard to seem content and perfectly at ease, as if I would be at this very club listening to this very band whether Jonathan had invited me to or not, and, most of all, to be neither looking nor not looking at Jonathan, who was looking at me every time I looked at him, which then made me worry that he thought I was always looking at him because what if it was only a coincidence that every time I looked at him he was looking at me and he wasn’t actually looking at me always, but only in the moments that I looked at him, which would compel him to wonder, Why is this woman always looking at me? So then I didn’t look at him for three whole long bluegrass songs, one of which featured an improvisational, seemingly endless fiddle solo until the audience clapped in appreciation and I couldn’t take it anymore and I looked and not only was he looking at me, but he also waved again.
I waved back.
I turned away and stood extra still and upright, acutely aware of myself as an object of hot and exquisite beauty, feeling Jonathan’s eyes on my 100-percent-muscle ass and thighs, my breasts held high by the sweet bra beneath my slim-fitting shirt, my extra-light hair and bronze skin, my blue eyes made even bluer by the Plum Haze lipstick—a feeling which lasted for about the length of one song, at which point it reversed itself and I realized that I was a hideous beast with tree-bark-plucked-dead-chicken flesh on my hips and a too-tan, chawed-up face and weather-beaten hair and a lower abdomen that—in spite of all the exercise and deprivation and the backpack strap that for two months had squeezed it into what you’d guess would be oblivion—still had an indisputably rounded shape unless I was lying down or holding it in. In profile, my nose was so prominent a friend had once observed that I was reminiscent of a shark. And my lips—my ludicrous and ostentatious lips! Discreetly, I pressed them to the back of my hand to obliterate the Plum Haze while the music bleated on.
There was, thank God, an intermission. Jonathan materialized by my side, squeezing my hand solicitously, saying he was glad I’d come, asking if I wanted another glass of wine.
I did not. I only wanted it to be eleven o’clock so he’d leave with me and I could stop wondering whether I was a babe or a gargoyle and whether he was looking at me or he thought I was looking at him.
We still had an hour and a half to go.
“So what should we do, afterwards?” he asked. “Have you had dinner?”
I told him I had, but that I was up for anything. I didn’t mention I was currently capable of eating approximately four dinners in a row.
“I live on an organic farm about fifteen miles from here. It’s pretty cool at night, to walk around. We could go out there and I’ll drive you back when you’re ready.”
“Okay,” I said, running my little turquoise-and-silver earring necklace along its delicate chain. I’d opted not to wear my Strayed/Starved necklace, in case Jonathan thought it was the latter. “Actually, I think I’m going to step out for some air,” I said. “But I’ll be back at eleven.”
“Rad,” he said, reaching over to give my hand another squeeze before he returned to his station and the band started up.
I walked giddily out into the night, the tiny red nylon bag that normally held my stove swinging on its cord from my wrist. I’d ditched most such bags and containers back in Kennedy Meadows, unwilling to carry the extra weight, but this bag I’d held on to, believing the stove needed its protection. I’d changed it into a purse for my days in Ashland, though it smelled faintly of gasoline. The things inside it were all secured in a ziplock bag that served as a very unfancy inner purse—my money, my driver’s license, lip balm and a comb, and the card that the workers at the hostel had given me so I could get Monster and my ski pole and my box of food out of their storage area.
“Howdy,” said a man who stood on the sidewalk outside the bar. “You like the band?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Yeah.” I smiled at him politely. He looked to be in his late forties, dressed in jeans and suspenders and a frayed T-shirt. He had a long frizzy beard that went to his chest and a straight rim of graying hair that reached his shoulders from beneath the bald dome on top of his head.
“I came down here from the mountains. I like to come and hear music sometimes,” the man said.
“I did too. Came down from the mountains, I mean.”
“Where do you live?”
“I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.”
“Oh, sure.” He nodded. “The PCT. I’ve been up on it before. My place is in the other direction. I’ve got a tepee up there that I live in about four or five months out of the year.”
“You live in a tepee?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yep. Just me. I like it, but it gets lonely sometimes. My name’s Clyde, by the way.” He held out his hand.
“I’m Cheryl,” I said, shaking it.
“You want to come and have a cup of tea with me?”
“Actually, thanks, but I’m waiting for a friend to get off work.” I glanced at the club’s door, as if Jonathan would emerge from it any moment.
“Well, my truck’s right here, so we wouldn’t be going anywhere,” he said, gesturing to an old milk truck in the parking lot. “That’s where I live when I’m not in my tepee. I’ve been experimenting with being a hermit for years, but sometimes it’s nice to come to town and hear a band.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. I liked him and his gentle way. He reminded me of a few of the men I knew in northern Minnesota. Guys who’d been friends with my mom and Eddie, searching and open-hearted, solidly outside the mainstream. I’d rarely seen any of them since my mom died. It felt now as if I’d never known them and I couldn’t know them again. It seemed to me that whatever had existed back in the place where I’d grown up was so far away now, impossible to retrieve.
“Well, nice to meet you, Cheryl,” Clyde said. “I’m going to go put my kettle on for tea. You’re welcome to join me, like I say.”
“Sure,” I said immediately. “I’ll take a cup of tea.”
I’ve never seen a house inside a truck that failed to strike me as the coolest thing in the world and Clyde’s was no different. Orderly and efficient, elegant and artful, funky and utilitarian. There was a woodstove and a tiny kitchen, a row of candles and a string of Christmas lights that cast enchanting shadows around the room. A shelf lined with books wound around three sides of the truck, with a wide bed tucked against it. I kicked off my new sandals and lay across the bed, pulling books off the shelf as Clyde put the kettle on. There were books about being a monk and others about people who lived in caves; about people who lived in the Arctic and the Amazon forest and on an island off the coast of Washington State.
“It’s chamomile that I grew myself,” Clyde said, pouring the hot water into a pot once it boiled. While it steeped, he lit a few of the candles and came over and sat next to me on the bed, where I lay belly-down and propped up on my elbows, paging through an illustrated book about Hindu gods and goddesses.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” I asked as we looked together at the intricate drawings, reading bits about them in the paragraph of text on each page.
“I don’t,” he said. “I believe we’re here once and what we do matters. What do you believe?”
“I’m still trying to figure out what I believe,” I answered, taking the hot mug he held out to me.
“I have something else for us, if you’d like, a little something I harvested up in the woods.” He pulled a gnarly root that looked like ginger from his pocket and showed it to me in his palm. “It’s chewable opium.”
“Opium?” I asked.
“Except it’s way more mellow. It just gives you a relaxed high. You want some?”
“Sure,” I said reflexively, and watched as he sliced off a piece and handed it to me, sliced another piece off for himself and put it in his mouth.
“You chew it?” I asked, and he nodded. I put it into my mouth and chewed. It was like eating wood. It took a moment for me to realize that maybe it would be best to steer entirely clear of opium, or any root that a strange man gave me, for that matter, regardless of how nice and non-threatening he seemed. I spit it into my hand.
“You don’t like it?” he said, laughing and lifting a small trash can so I could toss it in.
I sat talking to Clyde in his truck until eleven, when he walked me to the front door of the club. “Good luck up there in the woods,” he said, and we embraced.
A moment later, Jonathan appeared and led me to his car, an old Buick Skylark he called Beatrice.
“So how was work?” I asked. Sitting beside him at last, I didn’t feel nervous the way I had when I’d been in the bar and he’d been watching me.
“Good,” he said. As we drove into the darkness beyond Ashland, he told me about living on the organic farm, which was owned by friends of his. He lived there free in exchange for some work, he explained, glancing over at me, his face softly lit by the glow of the dash. He turned down one road and another until I had absolutely no sense of where I was in relation to Ashland, which for me really meant where I was in relation to Monster. I regretted not having brought it. I hadn’t been so far from my pack since I began the PCT, and it felt strange. Jonathan turned in to a driveway, drove past an unlit house where a dog barked, and followed a rutted dirt road that took us back among rows of corn and flowers until finally the headlights swooped across a large boxy tent that was erected on a wooden platform and he parked.
“That’s my place,” he said, and we got out. The air was cooler than it had been in Ashland. I shivered and Jonathan put his arm around me so casually it felt like he’d done it a hundred times before. We walked among the corn and the flowers under the full moon, discussing the various bands and musicians one or the other or both of us loved, recounting stories from shows we’d seen.
“I’ve seen Michelle Shocked live three times,” Jonathan said.
“One time I drove through a snowstorm for the show. There were only like ten people in the audience.”
“Wow,” I said, realizing there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times, no matter how repulsive the flesh on my hips was.
“Wow,” he said back to me, his brown eyes finding mine in the dark.
“Wow,” I said.
“Wow,” he repeated.
We’d said only one word, but I felt suddenly confused. We didn’t seem to be talking about Michelle Shocked anymore.
“What kind of flowers are these?” I asked, pointing to the stalks that blossomed all around us, suddenly terrified that he was going to kiss me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to kiss him. It was that I hadn’t kissed anyone since I’d kissed Joe more than two months before, and every time I’d gone that long without kissing, I’d become sure that I’d forgotten how to do it. To delay the kiss, I asked him about his job at the farm and his job at the club, and about where he was from and who his family was, and who his last girlfriend was and how long they’d been together and why they’d broken up, and all the while he barely answered me and asked me nothing in return.
It didn’t matter much to me. His hand around my shoulder felt good, and then it felt even better when he moved it to my waist and by the time we’d circled back to his tent on the platform and he turned to kiss me and I realized I still did, indeed, know how to kiss, all the things he hadn’t exactly answered or asked me fell away.
“This has been really cool,” he said, and we smiled at each other in that daffy way two people who just kissed each other for the first time do. “I’m glad you came out here.”
“Me too,” I said. I was intensely aware of his hands on my waist, so warm through the thin fabric of my T-shirt, skimming the top edge of my jeans. We were standing in the space between Jonathan’s car and his tent. They were the two directions I could go: either back to my bed under the eaves in the hostel in Ashland alone, or into his bed with him.
“Look at the sky,” he said. “All the stars.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said, though I didn’t look at the sky. Instead, I scanned the dark land, punctuated by tiny dots of light, houses and farms spread out over the valley. I thought of Clyde, all alone under this same sky, reading good books in his truck. I wondered where the PCT was. It seemed far away. I realized that I hadn’t said anything to Jonathan about it other than the bit I’d shouted into his ear over the music the night before. He hadn’t asked.
“I don’t know what it was,” Jonathan said. “The minute I saw you, I knew I had to come over and talk to you. I knew you’d be totally rad.”
“You’re rad too,” I said, though I never used the word rad.
He leaned forward and kissed me again and I kissed him back with more fervor than I had before, and we stood there kissing and kissing between his tent and his car with the corn and the flowers and the stars and the moon all around us, and it felt like the nicest thing in the world, my hands running slowly up into his curly hair and down over his thick shoulders and along his strong arms and around to his brawny back, holding his gorgeous male body against mine. There hasn’t ever been a time that I’ve done that that I haven’t remembered all over again how much I love men.
“Do you want to go inside?” Jonathan asked.
I nodded and he told me to wait so he could go in and turn on the lights and the heat, then he returned a moment later, holding the door flaps of the tent open for me, and I stepped inside.
It wasn’t a tent like the sort of tent I’d spent any time in. It was a luxury suite. Warmed by a tiny heater and tall enough to stand up in, with room to walk around in the area that wasn’t consumed by the double bed that sat in the center. On either side of the bed there were little cardboard dressers on top of which sat two battery-operated lights that looked like candles.
“Sweet,” I said, standing next to him in the small space between the door and the end of his bed, then he pulled me toward him and we kissed again.
“I feel funny asking this,” he said after a while. “I don’t want to presume, because it’s fine with me if we just, you know, hang out—which would be totally rad—or if you want me to take you back to the hostel—right now, even, if that’s what you want to do, though I hope it isn’t what you want to do. But … before—I mean, not that we’re necessarily going to do this—but in case we … I mean, I don’t have anything, any diseases or anything, but if we … Do you happen to have a condom?”
“You don’t have a condom?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“I don’t have a condom,” I said, which seemed the most ridiculous thing ever, since in fact I had carried a condom over scorching deserts and icy slopes and across forests, mountains, and rivers, and through the most agonizing, tedious, and exhilarating days only to arrive here, in a heated luxury tent with a double bed and battery-operated candle lights, staring into the eyes of a hot, sweet, self-absorbed, brown-eyed, Michelle Shocked–loving man without that condom just because I had two palm-sized patches of mortifyingly rough skin on my hips and I’d vowed so fiercely not to take my pants off that I’d purposely left it behind in my first aid kit in my backpack in the town that was located in God-knows-what direction instead of doing the reasonable, rational, realistic thing and putting it in my little faux purse that smelled like white gasoline.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, taking both of my hands into his. “We can just hang out. There are a lot of things we can do, actually.”
And so we recommenced kissing. And kissing and kissing and kissing, his hands running everywhere over my clothes, my hands running everywhere over his.
“Do you want to take your shirt off?” he whispered after a while, pulling away from me, and I laughed because I did want to take my shirt off, so then I took it off and he stood there looking at me in the black lace bra I’d packed months before because I thought when I got to Ashland I might want to wear it and I laughed again, remembering that.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“Just … do you like my bra?” I waved my hands in a flourish, as if to model it. “It traveled a long way.”
“I’m glad it found its way here,” he said, and reached over and touched his finger very delicately to the edge of one of its straps, near my collarbone, but instead of pushing it down and off my shoulder as I thought he would, he ran his finger slowly along the upper edge of my bra in front and then traced it all the way down around the bottom. I watched his face while he did this. It seemed more intimate than kissing him had. By the time he’d finished outlining the whole thing, he’d barely touched me and yet I was so wet I could hardly stand up.
“Come here,” I said, pulling him to me and then down onto his bed, kicking off my sandals as we went. We were still in our jeans, but he whipped his shirt off and I undid my bra and tossed it into the corner of the tent and we kissed and rolled on top of each other at a feverish pitch until we grew languid and lay side by side kissing some more. His hands traveled all this while from my hair to my breasts to my waist and finally to unbutton the top button of my jeans, which is when I remembered about my hideous patches on my hips and rolled away from him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought you—”
“It isn’t that. It’s … There’s something I should tell you first.”
“No,” I said, though it took me a moment to realize I was telling the truth. Paul flashed into my mind. Paul. And suddenly, I sat up. “Are you married?” I asked, turning back to Jonathan, lying on the bed behind me.
“Not married. No kids,” he replied.
“How old are you?” I asked.
We sat contemplating this. It seemed exotic and perfect to me that he was thirty-four. Like in spite of the fact that he’d failed to ask me anything about myself, at least I was in bed with a man who wasn’t a boy anymore.
“What do you want to tell me?” he asked, and placed his hand on my naked back. When he did, I became aware that I was trembling. I wondered if he could feel that too.
“It’s something I feel self-conscious about. The skin on my hips … it’s kind of … Well, you know how last night I told you that I’m in the middle of hiking this trail called the PCT? So I have to wear my backpack all the time and where the hip belt of my pack rubs against my skin, it’s become”—I searched for a way to explain it that avoided the phrases tree bark and plucked dead chicken flesh—“roughened up. Sort of calloused from so much hiking. I just don’t want you to be shocked if …”
I trailed off, out of breath, my words absorbed entirely in the immaculate pleasure of his lips on the small of my back while his hands reached around the front to finish the task of unbuttoning my jeans. He sat up, his naked chest against me, pushing my hair aside to kiss my neck and shoulders until I turned and pulled him down onto me as I wriggled out of my pants while he kissed his way down my body from my ear to my throat to my collarbone to my breasts to my navel to the lace of my underwear, which he nudged down as he worked his way to the patches over my hip bones that I hoped he would never touch.
“Oh, baby,” he whispered, his mouth so soft against the roughest part of me. “You don’t have to worry about a thing.”
It was fun. It was more than fun. It was like a festival in that tent. We fell asleep at six and woke two hours later, exhausted, but awake, our bodies too out of whack to sleep any more.
“It’s my day off,” said Jonathan, sitting up. “You wanna go to the beach?”
I consented without knowing where exactly the beach might be. It was my day off too, my last one. Tomorrow I’d be back on the trail, headed for Crater Lake. We dressed and drove on a long arcing road that took us a couple of hours through the forest and up over the coastal mountains. We drank coffee and ate scones and listened to music as we drove, sticking to the same narrow conversation we’d had the night before: music, it seemed, was the one thing we had to discuss. By the time we pulled into the coastal town of Brookings, I half regretted agreeing to come and not only because my interest in Jonathan was waning, but because we’d been driving three hours. It seemed odd to be so far from the PCT, as if I were betraying it in a way.
The magnificence of the beach muted that feeling. As I walked along the ocean beside Jonathan, I realized that I’d been at this very beach before, with Paul. We’d camped in the nearby state park campground when we’d been on our long post-NYC road trip—the one on which we’d gone to the Grand Canyon and Vegas, Big Sur and San Francisco, and that had ultimately taken us to Portland. We’d stopped to camp at this beach along the way. We’d made a fire, cooked dinner, and played cards at a picnic table, then crawled into the back of my truck to make love on the futon that was there. I could feel the memory of it like a cloak on my skin. Who I’d been when I’d been here with Paul and what I’d thought would happen and what did and who I was now and how everything had changed.
Jonathan didn’t ask what I was thinking about, though I’d gone quiet. We only walked silently together, passing few people, though it was a Sunday afternoon, walking and walking until there was no one but us.
“How about here?” Jonathan asked when we came to a spot that was backed by a cove of dark boulders. I watched as he laid out a blanket, set the bag of lunch things he’d bought at Safeway on top of it, and sat down.
“I want to walk a bit farther, if you don’t mind,” I said, leaving my sandals near the blanket. It felt good to be alone, the wind in my hair, the sand soothing my feet. As I walked, I collected pretty rocks that I wouldn’t be able to take with me. When I’d gone so far that I couldn’t make out Jonathan in the distance, I bent and wrote Paul’s name in the sand.
I’d done that so many times before. I’d done it for years—every time I visited a beach after I fell in love with Paul when I was nineteen, whether we were together or not. But as I wrote his name now, I knew I was doing it for the last time. I didn’t want to hurt for him anymore, to wonder whether in leaving him I’d made a mistake, to torment myself with all the ways I’d wronged him. What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
“Do you want these?” I asked Jonathan when I returned to him, holding out the rocks I’d collected.
He smiled, shook his head, and watched as I let them fall back onto the sand.
I sat down beside him on the blanket, and he pulled things from the Safeway bag—bagels and cheese, a little plastic bear of honey, bananas and oranges, which he peeled for us. I ate them until he reached over with his finger full of honey, spread it on my lips, and kissed it off, biting me ever so gently at the end.
And so began a seaside honey fantasia. Him, me, the honey with some inevitable sand mixed in. My mouth, his mouth, and all the way up the tender side of my arm to my breasts. Across the broad plain of his bare shoulders and down to his nipples and navel and along the top edge of his shorts, until finally I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Wow,” I gasped because it seemed to be our word. It stood in for what I didn’t say, which was that for a guy who wasn’t much of a conversationalist, he was ass-kickingly good in bed. And I hadn’t even fucked him yet.
Without a word, he took a box of condoms from the Safeway bag and ripped it open. When he stood, he reached for my hand and pulled me up too. I let him lead me across the sand to the gathering of boulders that formed a cove and we circled back into it, to what passed for private on a public beach—a cranny among the dark rocks in the broad light of day. It wasn’t the kind of thing I was into, having sex outside. I’m sure there’s a woman on the planet who’d choose the outdoors over even the most slipshod and temporary quarters, but I haven’t met her, though I decided for this day that the protection of the rocks would suffice. After all, over the course of the past couple of months, I’d done everything else outside. We took each other’s clothes off and I reclined with my bare rump against a sloped boulder, wrapping my legs around Jonathan until he turned me over and I gripped the rock. Alongside the remnants of honey, there was the mineral scent of salt and sand and the reedy scent of moss and plankton. It wasn’t long before I forgot about being outside, before I couldn’t even remember the honey, or whether he’d asked me a single question or not.
There wasn’t much to say as we made the long drive back to Ashland. I was so tired from sex and lack of sleep, from sand and sun and honey, that I could hardly speak anyway. We were quiet and peaceful together, blasting Neil Young all the way to the hostel, where, without ceremony, we ended our twenty-two-hour date.
“Thanks for everything,” I said, kissing him. It was past dark already, nine o’clock on a Sunday night, the town quieter than it had been the night before, hunkered down and settled in, half the tourists gone home.
“Your address,” he said, handing me a scrap of paper and a pen. I wrote down Lisa’s, feeling a mounting sense of something that wasn’t quite sorrow, wasn’t quite regret, and wasn’t quite longing, but was a mix of them all. It had been an indisputably good time, but now I felt empty. Like there was something I didn’t even know I wanted until I didn’t get it.
I handed him the scrap of paper.
“Don’t forget your purse,” he said, picking up my little red stove bag.
“Bye,” I said, taking it from him and reaching for the door.
“Not so fast,” he said, pulling me toward him. He kissed me hard and I kissed him back harder, like it was the end of an era that had lasted all of my life.
The next morning I dressed in my hiking clothes—the same old stained sports bra and threadbare navy blue hiking shorts I’d been wearing since day 1, along with a new pair of wool socks and the last fresh T-shirt I’d have all the way to the end, a heather gray shirt that said UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY in yellow letters across the chest. I walked to the co-op with Monster on my back, my ski pole dangling from my wrist, and a box in my arms, taking over a table in the deli section of the store to organize my pack.
When I was done, Monster sat tidily loaded down next to the small box that held my jeans, bra, and underwear, which I was mailing back to Lisa, and a plastic grocery bag of meals I couldn’t bear to eat any longer, which I planned to leave in the PCT hiker free box at the post office on my way out of town. Crater Lake National Park was my next stop, about 110 trail miles away. I needed to get back on the PCT and yet I was reluctant to leave Ashland. I dug through my pack, found my Strayed necklace, and put it on. I reached over and touched the raven feather Doug had given me. It was still wedged into my pack in the place I’d first put it, though it was worn and straggly now. I unzipped the side pocket where I kept my first aid kit, pulled it out, and opened it up. The condom I’d carried all the way from Mojave was still there, still like new. I took it out and put it in the plastic grocery bag with the food I didn’t want, and then I hoisted Monster onto my back and left the co-op carrying the box and the plastic grocery bag.
I hadn’t gone far when I saw the headband man I’d met up at Toad Lake, sitting on the sidewalk where I’d seen him before, his coffee can and little cardboard sign in front of him. “I’m heading out,” I said, stopping before him.
He looked up at me and nodded. He still didn’t seem to remember me—either from our encounter at Toad Lake or from a couple of days before.
“I met you when you were looking for the Rainbow Gathering,” I said. “I was there with another woman named Stacy. We talked to you.”
He nodded again, shaking the change in his can.
“I’ve got some food here that I don’t need, if you want it,” I said, setting the plastic grocery bag down beside him.
“Thanks, baby,” he said as I began to walk away.
I stopped and turned.
“Hey,” I called. “Hey!” I shouted until he looked at me.
“Don’t call me baby,” I said.
He pressed his hands together, as if in prayer, and bowed his head.