Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part III. RANGE OF LIGHT
We are now in the mountains
and they are in us …
My First Summer in the Sierra
If your Nerve, deny you -
Go above your Nerve -
Kennedy Meadows is called the gateway to the High Sierra, and early the next morning I walked through that gate. Doug and Tom accompanied me for the first quarter mile, but then I stopped, telling them to go on ahead because I had to get something from my pack. We embraced and wished one another well, saying goodbye forever or for fifteen minutes, we didn’t know. I leaned against a boulder to lift some of Monster’s weight from my back, watching them go.
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 the 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 was beheld at walking speed. And yet there was also its opposite, the strange intimacy I’d come to have with the trail, the way the piñon 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.
I walked in the cool of the morning to the rhythm of my new white ski pole clicking against the trail, feeling the lightened-but-still-ridiculously-heavy weight of Monster shift and settle in. When I’d set off that morning, I thought that it would feel different to be on the trail, that the hiking would be easier. My pack was lighter, after all, not only thanks to Albert’s purge but because I no longer needed to carry more than a couple of bottles of water at a time, now that I’d reached a less arid stretch of the trail. But an hour and a half into the day I stopped for a break, feeling the familiar aches and pains. At the same time, I could ever so slightly feel my body toughening up, just as Greg had promised would happen.
It was day 1 of week 3, officially summer—the last week of June—and I was not only in a different season now, but in different country too, ascending higher in the South Sierra Wilderness. In the forty miles between Kennedy Meadows and Trail Pass, I’d climb from an elevation of just over 6,100 feet to nearly 11,000. Even in the heat of that first afternoon back on the trail, I could feel an edge of cool in the air that would no doubt envelop me at night. There was no question I was in the Sierra now—Muir’s beloved Range of Light. I walked beneath great dark trees that put the smaller plants beneath in almost complete shadow and past wide grassy meadows of wildflowers; I scrambled over snowmelt streams by stepping from one unsteady rock to another, aided by my ski pole. At foot speed, the Sierra Nevada seemed just barely surmountable. I could always take another step. It was only when I rounded a bend and glimpsed the white peaks ahead that I doubted my abilities, only when I thought how far I had yet to go that I lost faith that I would get there.
Doug’s and Tom’s tracks periodically appeared on the alternately muddy and dusty trail, and by midafternoon I came upon them as they sat near a stream, their faces registering surprise when I walked up. I sat next to them and pumped water and we chatted for a while.
“You should camp with us tonight if you catch up with us,” said Tom before they hiked on.
“I already have caught up to you,” I replied, and we laughed.
That evening I strolled into the small clearing where they’d pitched their tents. After dinner, they shared the two beers they’d brought from Kennedy Meadows, giving me swigs as we sat in the dirt bundled in our clothes. As we drank, I wondered which one of them had taken the eleven ultrathin nonlubricated Trojan condoms I’d purchased in Portland a few weeks before. It seemed it had to be one of them.
The next day when I was hiking alone I came to a wide swath of snow on a steep incline, a giant ice-crusted sheath that obliterated the trail. It was like the rockslide, only scarier, a river of ice instead of stones. If I slipped while attempting to cross it, I would slide down the side of the mountain and crash into the boulders far below, or worse, fall farther into who knew what. Air, it seemed, from my vantage point. If I didn’t attempt to cross it, I’d have to go back to Kennedy Meadows. That didn’t seem like an altogether bad idea. And yet here I was.
Hell, I thought. Bloody hell. I took out my ice ax and studied my course, which really only meant standing there for several minutes working up the nerve. I could see that Doug and Tom had made it across, their tracks a series of potholes in the snow. I held my ice ax the way Greg had taught me and stepped into one of the potholes. Its existence made my life both harder and easier. I didn’t have to chip my own steps, but those of the men were awkwardly placed and slippery and sometimes so deep that my boot got trapped inside and I’d lose my balance and fall, my ice ax so unwieldy it felt more like a burden than an aid. Arrest, I kept thinking, imagining what I’d do with the ax if I started to slide down the slope. The snow was different from the snow in Minnesota. In some places it was more ice than flake, so densely packed it reminded me of the hard layer of ice in a freezer that needs defrosting. In other places it gave way, slushier than it first appeared.
I didn’t look at the bank of boulders below until I’d reached the other side of the snow and was standing on the muddy trail, trembling but glad. I knew that little jaunt was only a sample of what lay ahead. If I didn’t opt to get off the trail at Trail Pass to bypass the snow, I’d soon reach Forester Pass, at 13,160 feet the highest point on the PCT. And if I didn’t slip off the side of the mountain while going over that pass, I’d spend the next several weeks crossing nothing but snow. It would be snow far more treacherous than the patch I’d just crossed, but having crossed even this much made what lay ahead more real to me. It told me that I had no choice but to bypass. I wasn’t rightly prepared to be on the PCT in a regular year, let alone a year in which the snow depth measurements were double and triple what they’d been the year before. There hadn’t been a winter as snowy as the previous one since 1983, and there wouldn’t be another for more than a dozen years.
Plus, there wasn’t only the snow to consider. There were also the things related to the snow: the dangerously high rivers and streams I’d need to ford alone, the temperatures that would put me at risk of hypothermia, the reality that I’d have to rely exclusively on my map and compass for long stretches when the trail was concealed by the snow—all of those made more grave by the fact that I was alone. I didn’t have the gear I needed; I didn’t have the knowledge and experience. And because I was solo, I didn’t have a margin for error either. By bailing out like most of the other PCT hikers had, I’d miss the glory of the High Sierra. But if I stayed on the trail, I’d risk my life.
“I’m getting off at Trail Pass,” I told Doug and Tom as we ate dinner that night. I’d hiked all day alone—logging my second fifteen-plus-mile day—but caught up with them again as they made camp. “I’m going to go up to Sierra City and get back on the trail there.”
“We decided to push on,” said Doug.
“We talked about it and we think you should join us,” said Tom.
“Join you?” I asked, peering out from the tunnel of my dark fleece hood. I was wearing all the clothes I’d brought, the temperature down near freezing. Patches of snow surrounded us beneath the trees in spots shaded from the sun.
“It’s not safe for you to go alone,” Doug said.
“Neither one of us would go alone,” said Tom.
“But it’s not safe for any of us to go into the snow. Together or alone,” I said.
“We want to try it,” said Tom.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m touched you’d offer, but I can’t.”
“Why can’t you?” Doug asked.
“Because the point of my trip is that I’m out here to do it alone.”
We were silent for a while then, eating our dinners, each of us cradling a warm pot full of rice or beans or noodles in our gloved hands. I felt sad to say no. Not only because I knew it meant I was opting to bypass the High Sierra, but because as much as I said I wanted to do this trip alone, I was soothed by their company. Being near Tom and Doug at night kept me from having to say to myself I am not afraid whenever I heard a branch snap in the dark or the wind shook so fiercely it seemed something bad was bound to happen. But I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid. I’d come, I realized, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really—all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me. I couldn’t do that while tagging along with someone else.
After dinner, I lay in my tent with Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories on my chest, too exhausted to hold the book aloft. It wasn’t only that I was cold and tired from the day’s hike: at this elevation, the air was thinner. And yet I couldn’t exactly fall asleep. In what seemed a fugue state, I thought about what it meant to bypass the High Sierra. It basically ruined everything. All the planning I’d done, the way I’d mapped out the whole summer down to each box and meal. Now I’d be leapfrogging over 450 miles of the trail I’d intended to hike. I’d reach Ashland in early August instead of the middle of September.
“Doug?” I called into the darkness, his tent only an arm’s length from mine.
“I was thinking, if I bypass, I could hike all of Oregon instead.” I rolled onto my side to face in the direction of his tent, half wishing he would come lie next to me in mine—that anyone would. It was that same hungry, empty feeling I’d had back in that Mojave motel when I’d wished I had a companion. Not someone to love. Just someone to press my body against. “Do you happen to know how long the trail is in Oregon?”
“About five hundred miles,” he answered.
“That’s perfect,” I said, my heartbeat quickening with the idea before I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
The next afternoon Greg caught up to me just before I reached Trail Pass Trail, my route off the PCT.
“I’m bypassing,” I said to him reluctantly.
“I am too,” he said.
“You are?” I asked with relief and delight.
“It’s way too socked-in up here,” he said, and we looked around at the wind-twisted foxtail pines among the trailside boulders; the mountains and ridges visible miles away under the pure blue sky. The highest point of the trail was only thirty-five trail miles farther on. The summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, was closer still, a short detour off the PCT.
Together we descended Trail Pass Trail two miles down to a picnic area and campground at Horseshoe Meadows, where we met up with Doug and Tom and hitched a ride into Lone Pine. I hadn’t planned to go there. Some PCT hikers had resupply boxes sent to Lone Pine, but I’d planned to push through to the town of Independence, another fifty trail miles to the north. I still had a few days’ worth of food in my bag, but when we reached town I went immediately to a grocery store to replenish my stock. I needed enough to last for the ninety-six-mile section I’d be hiking once I made the bypass, from Sierra City to Belden Town. Afterwards, I found a pay phone and called Lisa and left a message on her answering machine, explaining my new plan as quickly as I could, asking her to send my box addressed to Belden Town immediately and hold all the others until I gave her the details of my new itinerary.
I felt dislocated and melancholy when I hung up the phone, less excited about being in town than I thought I’d be. I walked along the main street until I found the men.
“We’re heading back up,” said Doug, his eyes meeting mine. My chest felt tight as I hugged him and Tom goodbye. I’d come to feel a sort of love for them, but on top of that, I was worried.
“Are you sure you want to go up into the snow?” I asked.
“Are you sure you don’t?” Tom replied.
“You still have your good luck charm,” said Doug, pointing to the black feather he’d given me back in Kennedy Meadows. I’d wedged it into Monster’s frame, up over my right shoulder.
“Something to remember you by,” I said, and we laughed.
After they left, I walked with Greg to the convenience store that doubled as the town’s Greyhound bus station. We passed bars that billed themselves as Old West saloons and shops that had cowboy hats and framed paintings of men astride bucking broncos displayed in their front windows.
“You ever see High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart?” Greg asked.
I shook my head.
“That was made here. Plus lots of other movies. Westerns.”
I nodded, unsurprised. The landscape did in fact look straight out of Hollywood—a high sage-covered flat that was more barren than not, rocky and treeless with a view that went on for miles. The white peaks of the Sierra Nevada to the west cut so dramatically up into the blue sky that they seemed almost unreal to me, a gorgeous façade.
“There’s our ride,” Greg said, pointing to a big Greyhound bus in a parking lot of the store as we approached.
But he was wrong. There were no buses that went all the way to Sierra City, we learned. We’d have to catch a bus that evening and ride seven hours to Reno, Nevada, then take another one for an hour to Truckee, California. From there we’d have no option but to hitchhike the final forty-five miles to Sierra City. We bought two one-way tickets and an armful of snacks and sat on the warm pavement at the edge of the convenience store parking lot waiting for the bus to come. We polished off whole bags of chips and cans of soda while talking. We ran through the Pacific Crest Trail as a conversational topic, through backpacking gear and the record snowpack one more time, through the “ultralight” theories and practices of Ray Jardine and of his followers—who may or may not have misinterpreted the spirit behind those theories and practices—and finally arrived at ourselves. I asked him about his job and life in Tacoma. He had no pets and no kids and a girlfriend he’d been dating a year. She was an avid backpacker too. His life, it was clear, was an ordered and considered thing. It seemed both boring and astounding to me. I didn’t know what mine seemed like to him.
The bus to Reno was nearly empty when we got on at last. I followed Greg to the middle, where we took pairs of seats directly opposite each other across the aisle.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” he said once the bus lurched onto the highway.
“Me too,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. Even when I was exhausted, I could never sleep in moving vehicles of any sort, and I wasn’t exhausted. I was lit up by being back in the world. I stared out the window while Greg slept. Nobody who’d known me for more than a week had any idea where I was. I am en route to Reno, Nevada, I thought with a kind of wonder. I’d never been to Reno. It seemed the most preposterous place for me to be going, dressed as I was and dirty as a dog, my hair dense as a burlap bag. I pulled all the money from my pockets and counted the bills and coins, using my headlamp to see. I had forty-four dollars and seventy-five cents. My heart sank at the paltry sight of it. I’d spent far more money than I’d imagined I would have by now. I hadn’t anticipated stops in Ridgecrest and Lone Pine, nor the bus ticket to Truckee. I wasn’t going to get more money until I reached my next resupply box in Belden Town more than a week from now, and even then it would be only twenty bucks. Greg and I had agreed we’d get rooms in a motel in Sierra City to rest up for a night after our long travels, but I had the sickening feeling I’d have to find a place to camp instead.
There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have a credit card. I’d simply have to get through on what I had. I cursed myself for not having put more money in my boxes at the same time that I acknowledged I couldn’t have. I’d put into my boxes all the money I’d had. I’d saved up my tips all winter and spring and sold a good portion of my possessions, and with that money I’d purchased all the food in my boxes and all the gear that had been on that bed in the Mojave motel, and I wrote a check to Lisa to cover postage for the boxes and another check to cover four months of payments on the student loans for the degree I didn’t have that I’d be paying for until I was forty-three. The amount I had left over was the amount I could spend on the PCT.
I put my money back in my pocket, turned my headlamp off, and stared out my window to the west, feeling a sad unease. I was homesick, but I didn’t know if it was for the life I used to have or for the PCT. I could just barely make out the dark silhouette of the Sierra Nevada against the moonlit sky. It looked like that impenetrable wall again, the way it had to me a few years before when I’d first seen it while driving with Paul, but it didn’t feel impenetrable anymore. I could imagine myself on it, in it, part of it. I knew the way it felt to navigate it one step at a time. I would be back on it again as soon as I hiked away from Sierra City. I was bypassing the High Sierra—missing Sequoia and Kings Canyon and Yosemite national parks, Tuolumne Meadows and the John Muir and Desolation wildernesses and so much more—but I’d still be hiking another hundred miles in the Sierra Nevada beyond that, before heading into the Cascade Range.
By the time the bus pulled into the station in Reno at 4 a.m., I hadn’t slept a minute. Greg and I had an hour to kill before the next bus would depart for Truckee, so we wandered blearily through the small casino that adjoined the bus station, our packs strapped to our backs. I was tired but wired, sipping hot Lipton tea from a Styrofoam cup. Greg played blackjack and won three dollars. I fished three quarters out of my pocket, played all three in a slot machine, and lost everything.
Greg gave me a dry, I-told-you-so smile, as if he’d seen that coming.
“Hey, you never know,” I said. “I was in Vegas once—just passing through a couple of years ago—and I put a nickel in a slot machine and won sixty bucks.”
He looked unimpressed.
I went into the women’s restroom. As I brushed my teeth before a fluorescently lit mirror above a bank of sinks, a woman said, “I like your feather,” and pointed to it on my pack.
“Thanks,” I said, our eyes meeting in the mirror. She was pale and brown-eyed with a bumpy nose and a long braid down her back; dressed in a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of patched-up cutoff jeans and Birkenstock sandals. “My friend gave it to me,” I mumbled as toothpaste dribbled out of my mouth. It seemed like forever since I’d talked to a woman.
“It’s got to be a corvid,” she said, reaching over to touch it delicately with one finger. “It’s either a raven or a crow, a symbol of the void,” she added, in a mystical tone.
“The void?” I’d asked, crestfallen.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s the place where things are born, where they begin. Think about how a black hole absorbs energy and then releases it as something new and alive.” She paused, looking meaningfully into my eyes. “My ex-partner is an ornithologist,” she explained in a less ethereal tone. “His area of research is corvidology. His thesis was on ravens and because I have a master’s in English I had to read the fucking thing like ten times, so I know more than I need to about them.” She turned to the mirror and smoothed back her hair. “You on your way to the Rainbow Gathering, by chance?”
“You should come. It’s really cool. The gathering’s up in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest this year, at Toad Lake.”
“I went to the Rainbow Gathering last year, when it was in Wyoming,” I said.
“Right on,” she said in that particular slow-motion way that people say right on. “Happy trails,” she said, and reached over and squeezed my arm. “Corvidology!” she cheered as she headed for the door, giving me and my feather a thumbs-up as she went.
By eight Greg and I were in Truckee. By eleven we were still standing on the hot side of the road trying to hitch a ride to Sierra City.
“HEY!” I yelled maniacally at a VW bus as it whizzed past. We’d been snubbed by at least six of them over the past couple of hours. Not being picked up by those who drove VW buses made me particularly indignant. “Fucking hippies,” I said to Greg.
“I thought you were a hippy,” he said.
“I am. Kind of. But only a little bit.” I sat down on the gravel on the road’s shoulder and retied the lace of my boot, but when I was done I didn’t stand back up. I was dizzy with exhaustion. I hadn’t slept for a day and a half.
“You should walk ahead of me and stand by yourself,” said Greg. “I’d understand. If you were alone you’d have gotten a ride a long time ago.”
“No,” I said, though I knew he was right—a single woman is less threatening than a man-woman pair. People want to help a woman alone. Or try to get in her pants. But we were together for now, so together we stayed until, an hour later, a car stopped and we clambered in and rode to Sierra City. It was a scenic village of less than a dozen wooden buildings perched at an elevation of 4,200 feet. The town was wedged in between the North Yuba River and the towering Sierra Buttes that rose brown against the clear blue sky to the north.
Our ride dropped us at the general store in the town’s center, a quaint old-timey place where tourists sat eating ice-cream cones on the painted front porch, which was abuzz with a pre-Fourth of July weekend crowd.
“You getting a cone?” asked Greg, pulling out a couple of dollars.
“Nah. Maybe later,” I said, keeping my voice light to hide my desperation. I wanted a cone, of course. It was that I didn’t dare purchase one, for fear of not being able to afford a room. When we stepped into the small crowded store, I tried not to look at the food. I stood near the cash register instead, scanning tourist brochures while Greg shopped.
“This entire town was wiped out by an avalanche in 1852,” I told him when he returned, fanning myself with the glossy brochure. “The snow from the Buttes gave way.” He nodded as if he knew this already, licking his chocolate cone. I turned away, the sight of it a small torture to me. “I hope you don’t mind, but I need to find someplace cheap. For tonight, I mean.” The truth was, I needed to find someplace free, but I was too tired to contemplate camping. The last time I’d slept, I’d been on the PCT in the High Sierra.
“How about this,” said Greg, pointing to an old wooden building across the street.
The downstairs was a bar and restaurant; the upstairs had rooms for rent with shared bathrooms. It was only 1:30, but the woman in the bar allowed us to check in early. After I paid for my room I had thirteen dollars left.
“You want to have dinner together downstairs tonight?” Greg asked when we reached our rooms, standing before our side-by-side doors.
“Sure,” I said, blushing lightly. I wasn’t attracted to him, and yet I couldn’t help hoping he was attracted to me, which I knew was absurd. Perhaps he’d been the one who’d taken my condoms. The idea of that sent a thrill through my body.
“You can go first if you’d like,” he said, gesturing down the hall to the bathroom we shared with all of the inhabitants of our floor. We seemed to be the only two occupants so far.
“Thanks,” I said, and unlocked the door to my room and stepped inside. A worn-out antique wooden dresser with a round mirror sat against one wall and a double bed against the other with a rickety night-stand and chair nearby. A bare lightbulb dangled from the ceiling in the center of the room. I set Monster down and sat on the bed. It squealed and sank and wobbled precariously beneath my weight, but it felt excellent anyway. My body almost hurt with pleasure to merely sit on the bed, as if I were being the opposite of burned. The camp chair that doubled as my sleeping pad didn’t offer much cushioning, it turned out. I’d slept deeply most nights on the PCT, but not because I was comfortable: I was simply too spent to care.
I wanted to sleep, but my legs and arms were streaked with dirt; my stench was magnificent. To get into the bed in such a state seemed almost criminal. I hadn’t properly bathed since I’d been at the motel in Ridgecrest nearly two weeks before. I walked down the hall to the bathroom. There wasn’t a shower, only a big porcelain tub with claw feet and a shelf piled high with folded towels. I picked up one of the towels and inhaled its detergent-scented splendor, then took off my clothes and looked at myself in the full-length mirror.
I was a startling sight.
I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did like a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by my pack. Beneath the bruises and wounds and dirt I could see new ridges of muscle, my flesh taut in places that had recently been soft.
I filled the tub with water and got in and scrubbed myself with a washcloth and soap. Within a few minutes, the water became so dark with the dirt and blood that washed off my body that I drained it and filled it up again.
In the second bath of water I reclined, feeling more grateful than perhaps I ever had for anything. After a while, I examined my feet. They were blistered and battered, a couple of my toenails entirely blackened by now. I touched one and saw that it had come almost entirely loose from my toe. That toe had been excruciating for days, growing ever more swollen, as if my toenail would simply pop off, but now it only hurt a little. When I tugged on the nail, it came off in my hand with one sharp shot of pain. In its place there was a layer of something over my toe that wasn’t quite skin or nail. It was translucent and slightly shiny, like a tiny piece of Saran Wrap.
“I lost a toenail,” I said to Greg at dinner.
“You’re losing toenails?” he asked.
“Only one,” I said glumly, aware that in fact I’d likely lose more and that this was further evidence of my big fat idiocy.
“It probably means your boots are too small,” he said as the waitress approached with two plates of spaghetti and a basket of garlic bread.
I’d planned to order with reserve, especially since I’d spent another fifty cents that afternoon doing laundry, going in together with Greg. But once we sat down I hadn’t been able to keep myself from matching Greg’s every move—ordering a rum and Coke along with dinner, saying yes to the garlic bread. I tried not to let on that I was adding up the bill in my head as we ate. Greg already knew how unprepared I’d been to hike the PCT. He didn’t need to know that there was yet another front on which I was an absolute fool.
But a fool I was. After we got our bill, tacked on a tip, and split it down the middle, I had sixty-five cents.
Back in my room after dinner, I opened The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California to read about the next section of the trail. My next stop was a place called Belden Town, where my resupply box with a twenty-dollar bill inside would be waiting. I could get through to Belden on sixty-five cents, couldn’t I? I’d be in the wilderness, after all, and I wouldn’t have anywhere to spend my money anyway, I reasoned, though still I felt anxious. I wrote Lisa a letter, asking her to purchase and send me a PCT guidebook for the Oregon section of the trail using the bit of money I’d left with her, and reordering the boxes she’d be mailing me for the rest of California. I went over the list again and again, making sure I had it all correct, lining up the miles with the dates and the places.
When I turned off my light and lay on my creaky bed to sleep, I could hear Greg on the other side of the wall shifting around on his creaky bed too, his closeness as palpable as his distance. Hearing him there made me feel so lonely I would’ve howled with pain if I’d let myself. I didn’t know exactly why. I didn’t want anything from him and yet also I wanted everything. What would he do if I knocked on his door? What would I do if he let me in?
I knew what I would do. I’d done it so many times.
“I’m like a guy, sexually,” I’d told a therapist I’d seen a couple of times the year before—a man named Vince who volunteered at a community clinic in downtown Minneapolis where people like me could go to talk to people like him for ten bucks a pop.
“What’s a guy like?” he’d asked.
“Detached,” I said. “Or many of them are, anyway. I’m like that too. Capable of being detached when it comes to sex.” I looked at Vince. He was fortyish with dark hair parted in the middle and feathered like two tidy black wings along the sides of his face. I had nothing for him, but if he’d risen and come across the room and kissed me, I’d have kissed him back. I’d have done anything.
But he didn’t rise. He only nodded without saying anything, his silence conveying both skepticism and faith. “Who detached from you?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know,” I said, smiling the way I did when I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t exactly looking at him. Instead, I was looking at the framed poster that hung behind him, a black rectangle with a whirl of white that was meant to be the Milky Way. An arrow pointed into its center, above which were written the words YOU ARE HERE. This image had become ubiquitous on T-shirts as well as posters and I always felt mildly irritated by it, unsure of how to take it, whether it was meant to be comical or grave, to indicate the largeness of our lives or the insignificance.
“Nobody’s ever broken up with me, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “I’ve always been the one to end relationships.” My face felt suddenly hot. I realized I was sitting with my arms wound around each other and my legs wrapped around each other too—in a yogic eagle pose, hopelessly twisted. I tried to relax and sit normally, but it was impossible. Reluctantly, I met his eyes. “Is this the part where I tell you about my father?” I asked, laughing falsely.
It had always been my mother at the center of me, but in that room with Vince I suddenly felt my father like a stake in my heart. I hate him, I’d said during my teens. I didn’t know what I felt for him now. He was like a home movie that played in my head, one whose narrative was broken and sketchy. There were big dramatic scenes and inexplicable moments floating free from time, perhaps because most of what I remember about him happened in the first six years of my life. There was my father smashing our dinner plates full of food against the wall in a rage. There was my father choking my mother while straddling her chest and banging her head against the wall. There was my father scooping my sister and me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was five to ask if we would leave forever with him, while my mother stood by, bloodied and clutching my sleeping baby brother to her chest, begging him to stop. When we cried instead of answered, he collapsed onto his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor and screamed so desperately I was sure we were all going to die right then and there.
Once, in the midst of one of his tirades, he threatened to throw my mother and her children naked onto the street, as if we weren’t his children too. We lived in Minnesota then. It was winter when he made the threat. I was at an age when everything was literal. It seemed precisely like a thing that he would do. I had an image of the four of us, naked and shrieking, running through the icy snow. He shut Leif, Karen, and me out of our house a couple of times when we lived in Pennsylvania, when my mother was at work and he was left to care for us and he wanted a break. He ordered us into the back yard and locked the doors, my sister and me holding our barely walking baby brother by his gummy hands. We wandered through the grass weeping and then forgot about being upset and played house and rodeo queen. Later, enraged and bored, we approached the back door and pounded and hollered. I remember the door distinctly and also the three concrete stairs that led up to it, the way I had to stand on tiptoes to see through the window in the upper half.
The good things aren’t a movie. There isn’t enough to make a reel. The good things are a poem, barely longer than a haiku. There is his love of Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers. There are the chocolate bars he brought home from his job in a grocery store. There are all the grand things he wanted to be, a longing so naked and sorry I sensed it and grieved it even as a young child. There is him singing that Charlie Rich song that goes “Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?” and saying it was about me and my sister and our mother, that we were the most beautiful girls in the world. But even that is marred. He said this only when he was trying to woo my mother back, when he was claiming that things would be different now, when he was promising her that he would never again do what he’d done before.
He always did it again. He was a liar and a charmer, a heartbreak and a brute.
My mother packed us up and left him and came back, left him and came back. We never went far. There was nowhere for us to go. We didn’t have family nearby, and my mother was too proud to involve her friends. The first battered women’s shelter in the United States didn’t open until 1974, the year my mother finally left my father for good. Instead, we would drive all night long, my sister and me in the back seat, sleeping and waking to the alien green lights of the dashboard, Leif up front with our mom.
The morning would find us home again, our father sober and scrambling eggs, singing that Charlie Rich song before long.
When my mother finally called it quits with him, when I was six, a year after we’d all moved from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, I wept and begged her not to do it. Divorce seemed to me to be the very worst thing that could happen. In spite of everything, I loved my dad and I knew if my mom divorced him I’d lose him, and I was right. After they broke up the last time, we stayed in Minnesota and he returned to Pennsylvania and only intermittently got in touch. Once or twice a year a letter would arrive, addressed to Karen, Leif, and me, and we’d rip it open, filled with glee. But inside would be a diatribe about our mother, about what a whore she was, what a stupid, mooching welfare bitch. Someday he’d get us all, he promised. Someday we’d pay.
“But we didn’t pay,” I’d said to Vince in our second and final session together. The next time I saw him, he’d explain that he was leaving his position; he’d give me the name and number of another therapist. “After my parents divorced, I realized that my father’s absence from my life was, sadly, a good thing. There weren’t any more violent scenes,” I said. “I mean, imagine my life if I’d been raised by my father.”
“Imagine your life if you’d had a father who loved you as a father should,” Vince countered.
I tried to imagine such a thing, but my mind could not be forced to do it. I couldn’t break it down into a list. I couldn’t land on love or security, confidence or a sense of belonging. A father who loved you as a father should was greater than his parts. He was like the whirl of white on the YOU ARE HERE poster behind Vince’s head. He was one giant inexplicable thing that contained a million other things, and because I’d never had one, I feared I’d never find myself inside that great white swirl.
“What about your stepfather?” Vince asked. He glanced at the notebook on his lap, reading words he’d scrawled, presumably about me.
“Eddie. He detached too,” I said lightly, as if it were nothing to me at all, as if it were almost amusing. “It’s a long story,” I said in the direction of the clock that hung near the YOU ARE THERE poster. “And time’s almost up.”
“Saved by the bell,” Vince said, and we laughed.
I could see the outline of Monster by the dim streetlights that filtered into my room in Sierra City, the feather Doug had given me sticking up from the place where I’d wedged it into my pack’s frame. I thought about corvidology. I wondered if the feather was really a symbol or if it was simply something I hauled along the way. I was a terrible believer in things, but I was also a terrible nonbeliever in things. I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didn’t know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even precisely what the word faith meant, in all of its complexity. Everything seemed to be possibly potent and possibly fake. “You’re a seeker,” my mother had said to me when she was in her last week, lying in bed in the hospital, “like me.” But I didn’t know what my mother sought, exactly. Did she? It was the one question I hadn’t asked, but even if she’d told me, I’d have doubted her, pressing her to explain the spiritual realm, asking her how it could be proved. I even doubted things whose truth was verifiable. You should see a therapist, everyone had told me after my mother died, and ultimately—in the depths of my darkest moments the year before the hike—I had. But I didn’t keep the faith. I never did call the other therapist Vince had recommended. I had problems a therapist couldn’t solve; grief that no man in a room could ameliorate.
I got out of bed, wrapped a towel around my naked body, and, stepping barefoot into the hall, walked past Greg’s door. In the bathroom, I shut the door behind me, turned on the tub’s faucet, and got in. The hot water was like magic, the thunder of it filling the room until I shut it off and there was a silence that seemed more silent than it had before. I lay back against the perfectly angled porcelain and stared at the wall until I heard a knock on the door.
“Yes?” I said, but there was no reply, only the sound of footsteps retreating down the hallway. “Someone’s in here,” I called, though that was obvious. Someone was in here. It was me. I was here. I felt it in a way I hadn’t in ages: the me inside of me, occupying my spot in the fathomless Milky Way.
I reached for a washcloth on the shelf near the tub and scrubbed myself with it, though I was already clean. I scrubbed my face and my neck and my throat and my chest and my belly and my back and my rump and my arms and my legs and my feet.
“The first thing I did when each of you was born was kiss every part of you,” my mother used to say to my siblings and me. “I’d count every finger and toe and eyelash,” she’d say. “I’d trace the lines on your hands.”
I didn’t remember it, and yet I’d never forgotten it. It was as much a part of me as my father saying he’d throw me out the window. More.
I lay back and closed my eyes and let my head sink into the water until it covered my face. I got the feeling I used to get as a child when I’d done this very thing: as if the known world of the bathroom had disappeared and become, through the simple act of submersion, a foreign and mysterious place. Its ordinary sounds and sensations turned muted, distant, abstract, while other sounds and sensations not normally heard or registered emerged.
I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.