Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

In the morning it was raining.

I woke up. I listened to the rain. I thought, Not today.

I closed my eyes.

An hour later it stopped raining but still the air oozed dim. The tent poles arched heroically. A fly crawled around and around one, then buzzed weakly. It hit the rain fly, again and again.

I thought, maybe coffee.

I sat up and unzipped the tent and reached for my stove. I went against all black bear protocol I had ever learned or taught to earnest New Mexico Boy Scouts and made coffee from my sleeping bag.

I am Storming, I thought.

Tuckman’s stages of group development. I used to warn Boy Scouts about it. “Be mindful of each other when you’re Storming,” I said. “That’s the worst part. Be compassionate when that happens.”

I wished I had myself as a ranger to tell myself things like that. Exactly myself, outside my body, younger, to appear in a polo-shirted hologram and say, “That’s the worst part. Be compassionate when that happens.” Or to just smile at myself.

How do you do that for yourself, in the deep midst of Storming?

Forming. Honeymoons, idealism, applying for grants, reading about gear, opening crisp maps. High enthusiasm, low ability.

Storming. Feet with the texture and stability of ground beef. Rain. Flashy, intense emotions. Trailular Amnesia: inability to remember why you decided a thru hike would be a good idea. Low enthusiasm, low ability.

Norming. New boots. Feelings of neutrality. Your feet don’t hurt, and this surprises you. This thru hike isn’t so bad, and that surprises you, too, but you’re not quite ready to say it’s good. Better pace. Rhythm: morning coffee, morning trail, high views, rain. Low enthusiasm, high ability.

Performing. The best ideas come in the morning. The best ideas come when the sun shines and you stride along the trail like a nymph. Your legs stretch strong and tan and able. Your feet have calloused. You’ve ditched the worst of the gear and replaced it with warmer, lighter stuff. You discover Cheez-Its. You hitchhike by yourself. You decide, this is mine. This hike. This is my hike. Early, you reach a high, high altitude, thousands of feet above treeline. A pika watches you. You say aloud, hello, Colorado. I see you.

High enthusiasm, high ability. It would come, slowly, and once it had arrived I would not be able to pinpoint when.

Today, though, I was Storming. I sat in my sleeping bag. I looked out at the meadow. I held my coffee.

I didn’t think about much. I stared.

At home, I overthought. I thought, thought, thought. My thoughts looked like bean sprouts but pulled like chains. Thoughts tangled upon one another and knotted around each other, so that I should pay my parking tickets girdled How delicious this meal and how loving these people.

The thought, adulthood can’t be all about thinking too much, hummed beneath these thoughts, not a bean sprout, not a chain. Something living. An idea.

Now, in my sleeping bag, with my ground beef feet and my hot instant coffee, I thought nothing. I came hiking to burst out of the anxious adulthood I had accidentally built for myself. Now my feet hurt too much to think. Mission accomplished.

No wisdom, though. Not yet. Now, just physical pain.

I had one thought every half hour or so.

I thought, grumpily: pretty meadow.

Then, later, I thought: okay. I’ll get out of the tent.

I thought, But NOTHING ELSE.

I thought, I will sit on the log and I will do nothing else.

I got out of the tent and sat on the log.

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I did nothing else.

Then the sun infiltrated the ranks of the clouds and shined on me.

For the first time since the day had started, I smiled.

I pulled my bare hamburger feet up to the log. I wiggled my toes in the gold sun.

“Okay,” I said aloud. Okay. I’ll hike.

The Rain

It rains here, in Colorado.

I don’t know how to tell you about the rain.

Maybe you are in a place where when it rains you watch it, soothed, from inside a window. Maybe you stay dry. Maybe you think about the plants and how the water eases through the soil to infiltrate their roots, flow up into their bodies. Maybe you watch the rain with hot coffee in your hand and you sit next to a window in an office or a classroom or you’ve ducked into a shop, and you peruse vintage clothes or hand-blown vases while it pours. Maybe, where you are, when it rains everybody’s heart rate slows down a little. Maybe yours does. Maybe you daydream for a moment, watching it come down.

Or maybe you live, like I have most of my life, in a place where it rains very little, where rain is an exception. Maybe you live in Arizona or California or West Texas or Utah. Maybe you crave rain. Maybe the earth around you looks cracked like old skin. Maybe the plants crumble to dust when you tread on them. Maybe everything is fragile with thirst. Maybe, after it rains, the dun-colored spiked plants spark brilliant violet and green and crimson, and everything smells like sharp ozone. Maybe it never rains at all and women outside the city drive into town to buy enormous jugs of water because their taps have stopped running. Maybe the mountains are burning, where you live.

Not here.

It startles me to say this, but I had never seen mist, not really. I mean I had seen mist.

But I had never inhabited mist.

Now I’m walking up a steep antique logging road. Water flows down this road, it is apparent. I step around exposed curls of roots, tumbled large rocks. Nobody has driven up this road to cut a tree in many, many years. Evergreens barricade the road on either side. The sky is gray and low. Not misty, yet. I reach a plateau on the logging road, at a sign that says I’m about to enter Lost Creek Wilderness, and stop for lunch.

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My feet ache. They have swollen with altitude. The pinkie toes of both feet have blisters, but the one on the left looks as though the entire toe has become a blister, including underneath the nail. The blister has popped, and the next layer of skin, underneath it, has developed a blister. A blister within a blister. The silver-dollar-sized blister on my left heel has similarly eroded, despite my first aid ministrations. It’s on a skin crease that folds and unfolds with every step, and it has become deep and unhealable.

One middle toenail puffs up with its own under-nail blister. Smaller blisters have rubbed on the bottoms of each of the small toes. Each big toe and the balls of both feet balloon out like my feet are growing alien heads. Shoehorning on my boots each morning makes me lightheaded with pain. I take ibuprofen every two hours, in order to be able to walk. I’ve started calling ibuprofen Vitamin I.

Now, I sit on a rock near the trail and eat tuna from a foil packet. I watch the Kentuckians trudge up the hill. This is my fifth day on the trail, and I’ve seen them every day. I’ve gotten to know them a little. The youngest, Warren, has just graduated high school. The older boy, Adam, is twenty-one. Their father, Tim, tells me I’m lucky I’m alone because I don’t have to worry about anybody else’s happiness. “Me, that’s all I worry about,” he said to me during a break earlier today when I caught up to him waiting for his sons. “I worry about who’s happy and who’s not.  I got one son who’s got blisters and who’s moody. I got another son who doesn’t have any moods at all. Except he misses his dog. It’s a shih tzu. That’s his only mood.” He sighed. “You, you just hike. I wish I could just hike.”

Now, watching them come toward me, I try to guess which son is which. My guess is the older, more outgoing one is the calm one, and the younger, quiet one is the moody one with blisters. I’m wrong.

They nod to me. Tim grins. They pass. The gray clouds press lower. Soon afterward a man I haven’t seen before hikes toward me. He’s nearly leaping. He wears a yellow vented button-down shirt, and he has a bandanna tied around his head. His shirt is the brightest thing I’ve seen all day. He looks like sunshine. He’s in his forties and he’s a little sunburned, on his pointy nose. He squints brightly at me. “Oh, hey, there!”

“Hullo,” I say.

“Do you know, the resort in Bailey is closed?” he tells me. “The Glen-Isle Resort! It’s closed!”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“It’s where I always stay.” he says. “I hitched in and come to find out it’s closed! But I figured while I was in town I’d eat. Bacon cheeseburger with fries.” He pats his stomach. “Now I’m hiking a little slower while I digest.”

“Where you always stay?” I ask. “Have you hiked the CT before?”

“Two and a half times!” he says. “Name’s Stan.”

“Erin.”

“The first time, I started and then got double pneumonia. Had to be evacuated back to Iowa. Second time I hiked it in 28 days. Third time I climbed five fourteeners and finished in 35 days. Didn’t even know about the Collegiate West addition. I figured, gotta come back out and try that side, too!” He patted his stomach again. “But now I’m lugging around about fifteen pounds of extra groceries. Not gonna be a fast hike, this time.” He beamed at me. “I’m a truck driver in real life, back home in Iowa. I like to hike. I hiked the AT, too.”

I can’t think of much to say to this. My feet hurt. It is becoming appalling to me that I’ve considered hiking this trail once. I can’t imagine three times, and certainly not in 28 days.

“Anyway,” Stan says cheerfully. “See you.”

I wave. His yellow shirt fades into the mist and I notice, for the first time, that there is mist. It has arisen gradually. When Stan disappears I feel with deep certainty that I am alone, and, suddenly, I am cold. I shoulder my pack. I wince when I put weight back on my feet, in my newly-tight shoes. I begin, once more, to limp up the logging road.

The mist renders everything colorless. Nothing grows here, beneath the evergreens. The pine needles seem to lock out potential for flowers or grass. Nothing stirs. No birds or insects call. It feels eerie. It feels pulsing. It feels as though it presses the world away. I walk into it. To travel in any direction at all would be to travel in the same direction. In the mist, direction feels irrelevant.

I remember, once, six months ago, sitting at the kitchen table of my cramped garret, writing my thesis. Snow fell outside. My sometimes-partner Eric lay sprawled across the floor, in the only available space, reading for his grad school classes. We worked for awhile, in silence, just the typing of my keys and the turning of his pages. Then he said, “Hey, Erin, you’ll find this interesting. This study found that cold temperatures impact people’s moods and perceptions of their social interactions.” He sat up. “So, if you feel physically cold, you’re more likely to perceive people’s actions as personally against you, and then feel lonely. Whereas if you don’t feel cold then you’ll be better able to have perspective.”

I limp up the logging road. The mist presses wetly into my skin. I’m wearing my down jacket. I think about the study and then I think about Eric and then I think, I’m cold.

The logging road continues up, up, at the same harsh grade. I trudge. Nothing like walking has occurred yet for me on this trail, except in short bursts. I am limping toward Breckenridge.

The trees shift, into a much brighter aspen copse. The aspen emanate light, like elves, like angels. Aspen have eyes and souls, it seems to me all at once. They know something deep and cool and still. Beneath them grow wildflowers.

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No one else exists. Stan and the Kentuckians don’t exist. Laramie doesn’t exist. Eric doesn’t exist. My sunny friends, Caroline and Maggie, who drove me all the way from Laramie to the Denver trailhead in Caroline’s blue Mustang, don’t exist. My parents don’t exist. My brother. Everyone I’ve ever known and every place I’ve ever known. This strange narrow hard road up and this mist and these trees are the only things that exist. It feels like a crossroads. It feels like something too majestic for me to see. I feel, suddenly, very, very human. I grab hold of an aspen and I gasp. I’m crying, uncontrollably.

I lean against the aspen. I sob. Into my head has popped an image of my grandfather. There was a video somebody took, when I was maybe three. My grandparents lived in a popping red farmhouse in south Texas, where it’s never cold. The farmhouse was enormous and had room for all of us plus our cousins to stay, in twin beds with matching covers. My grandpa used to wear giant overalls and a straw cowboy hat, and a faded striped button-up shirt. He smelled like sweat and smiling. The video jumps. First Grandpa is in the garden, with a very small me, large blonde head on my tiny body, and my even smaller, not-quite-walking little brother. He’s showing us plants, talking to us about flowers and tomatoes. He waits patiently while we investigate, while we ask questions. His Catahoula dog, one blue eye and one brown, trots up. The Catahoula is named Catahoula. Catahoula is bigger than me. I reach up and pat his head. Catahoula slobbers. Grandpa smiles.

Then it jumps, and the three of us are at the creek. Grandpa is wading with us in the shallow water. We’re looking at rocks.

All of my grandparents died before I was thirteen and suddenly, wearing a backpack in the mist, leaning against an aspen, this feels unbearable. It has never felt unbearable before and now it feels unbearable.

Grandpa is dead. Catahoula is dead. I am an adult and I will never be a child again. Worse, I will never get to be a child again with my brother. I will have to always be an adult. For the whole rest of my life I will be an adult.

How unbearable mortality is.

In the mist, I shudder with crying.

I hike on. I continue crying and I shuffle along the trail. The aspen seem as though they hold me, a little. They seem, through the mist, as though they’re weaving together beneath me.

Then I turn off the logging road, away from the aspen and into dark pines, and it begins to rain.

Soft at first. Then lightning, thunder. I’m no longer crying. Now I’m just cold. I don’t know what to make of what just happened to me. It felt so deeply basic it is impossible to describe even to myself. I don’t know what to do but keep hiking.

I pass Stan, setting up his tent. “Don’t want to get too wet,” he shouts to me, over the rain and thunder.

“I get cold easily,” I holler back. “I figure I’ll keep hiking to stay warm.”

“Be careful,” he yells. I wave in acknowledgement and hike on. Up, up, up. The trail is impenetrable in areas, where it circles fallen trees and skirts boulders. I’m wearing all my clothes. Rain drips off my hood onto my nose. My hands are frozen to my trekking poles.

Eventually, I reach the top of whatever it was the trail was trying to get me over, and then it turns downhill. I get colder. I wonder if I’m still on the right trail. The rain gets harder. I trudge. I hate this. I’m so cold. I feel confused, and very, very lonely.

Then, suddenly, I glance behind me. Just at the edge of my sight are three wet people, in matching navy rain jackets.

The Kentuckians.

They hustle toward me, and catch up. Tim is in the lead. He’s not wearing a rain jacket. He’s soaked, and I can hear his teeth chatter. “G-got to get to some warm clothes p-p-pretty soon,” he says. “Should have put on my rain jacket when all y’all did.” I start to power walk, to get to a place with water where we could camp. Tim is right behind me. “N-n-n-not that I’m not enjoying this,” he says. “Look at that mountain. W-w-w-we’re–” he’s struggling to get it out– “lucky to be here.”

We have emerged into a meadow, and there is, indeed, a mountain just visible through the curls of mist. I’m so grateful to him. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more grateful to anyone for being so relentlessly positive.

The Kentuckians set up their tents and I set mine up in the wet, and tumble in. I huddle in my sleeping bag and look out at the rain, and try to feel positive, try to have control over how I feel at all, but I can’t. It is impossible to shape my emotions into something acceptable or even recognizable. I wonder, sitting in my tent, if there’s a word for how I feel.

Rollicked.

The Fourth of July

Six things happen on the Fourth of July.

1. The first thing is really two things, but they happen all at once. It’s my second day on the trail and I notice strawberries. I bend down to pluck one and I eat it–tart, cool against my tongue. I close my eyes. I open them again and on the trail ahead of me strut two baby birds.

“DUCKS!” I squeal.

They are not ducks. They couldn’t be ducks. There’s no water nearby, and anyhow I can recognize that they are not ducks. They waddle, tiny and round and fluffy, with a level of arrogance all out of proportion to their cuteness. An adult, presumably their mother, pops from the grass to the left of the trail. Her tail arches, ruffled like a tiny turkey. She’s mad, mad, mad at me. Her neck feathers stick out in an irregular fin, like forehead veins. She stomps toward me and thrusts her beak and clucks. She’s a grouse, I’m pretty sure.

“Duck!” I say to her again, delighted.

She raises her wings and fluffs out all her feathers and if she had teeth they would be bared. I inch past her, stepping gingerly and sideways. “Sorry, mama,” I tell her. Once I’m past I grin.

Strawberries and grouse, all at once! What a trail!

2. I come to my first view.

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3. The Colorado Trail is divided into 28 segments. On average they’re each about 15 miles long, but some are longer (the longest is about 32 miles) and some are shorter (closer to 10).

Today I finish Segment 1 around midday and stop for water at the South Platte River. It’s got white water here this time of year; it hustles along its bed like it’s got someplace really urgent to be. I find a spot in the shade and dip my water bottles in, again and again, to fill all of them. Segment 2 is 13 miles of no reliable water. I’ll need to dry camp tonight.

The Kentuckians appear–Adam, the twentysomething I’d met on the road yesterday, and his father and younger brother. I’d assumed I was the slowest hiker on the whole trail. I figured they had left me behind ages ago. They seem stoic and fit and more able, emotionally and phsyically, than I feel. I feel mercurial on the trail–strawberries and grouse one moment, deep frustration at myself about my aching body and slow pace the next.

Papa Kentucky comes and stands near me where I sit filling my water bottles. He points. “That poison ivy?”

I glance at the plant a few feet behind me. “Maybe,” I say.

He sits down. “Think it is,” he says. “Can’t hike anyplace in Kentucky for all the damn poison ivy. Fact, spring is the only time you can do anything. Summer’s too much poison ivy and fall you’re liable to get shot. Winter, you can hike, but no water stuff.”

I’m surprised he’s talking to me. The day before, as he’d hiked past me, he’d seemed unsmiling and grim, a hiker who gets it done.

It turns out he’s a downright chatterbox.

“I’m not allergic to poison ivy,” I tell him. Once, in fifth grade Appalachian church camp, me and my punk friend Alicia rubbed the stuff all over our arms to test whether we were allergic.  Neither of us broke out in a rash. We then felt secretly superior to everyone else whenever counselors warned kids of poison ivy.

It’s possible, looking back, that we had misidentified the plant. It’s not like we were botanists.

Now, Papa Kentucky tells me his name is Tim, and that his father-in-law isn’t allergic to poison ivy, and as a result is able to play lots of golf. “He’s terrible at golf,” Tim says. “He hits it into the rough and most of us can’t go get it because of the poison ivy, but he just tromps on in and hits it back onto the green. I can’t even play with him.”

After talking to nearly no one but myself all day, this golf conversation feels surreal.

“Huh,” I say.

Tim stands. “Better go,” he says. “See you down the trail. Nice to meet you, Erin.”

I smile at him. “Nice to meet y’all, too.” It is. It’s heartening to see them, to know that they’re not that far ahead of me, that I’m not alone in my ineptitude. I assume, though, still, that I won’t see them again. They’ll be miles ahead of me.

4. Four miles later, I’ve come to the heart of a burned-out area. The fire, less than ten years ago, it looks like, burned so hot it had incinerated the ponderosas. No shade is left, anywhere.

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Spiky plants straggle here. They clutch onto the soil. I follow the trail wearily. It’s so, so hot. My pack feels so, so heavy. I can feel myself sunburning, my hips twinging, a blister starting hotly on my left foot. Clouds pass without interrupting the burning stream of sunlight. The trail, at this moment, heads toward trees. I tell myself I’ll take a break in the shade when I reach the trees. I trudge, reluctantly. Then, twenty yards before the trail reaches the trees, it turns sharply to the left, avoiding the shade.

“Uuuuuunnnggggh!” I moan. I have to stop. I drop my pack heavily to the ground, shade or no shade. If I were a regular person, I think, I would just walk over to the trees. I am not a regular person. It will not be possible for me to walk anyplace that is not the trail. I sit where I’m standing.

Insects saw. I take off my boots and flies land on my feet. Maybe they think I’m dead, I think indifferently. Aloud, I say, ” Do you think I’m dead?” I lie back. I look at the sky through my sunglasses. A cloud inches toward the sun. “Yes,”  I say to it. “Cover the sun.” I point a finger at the cloud to direct it. I try to think of the type of soil that I’m sitting in, the mineral soil here that does not easily invite plants to take root. It’s tough to walk in, tough to bike on, tough to build trail in. It slides under your feet, your tires, crumbles under your pick. What is it called?

At the last moment, the cloud shifts shape, so that it curves around the sun without covering it. “No!” I tell it, outraged. “No.” As if the cloud is my erstwhile employee. I lie on the ground and the sun beats on me and flies land on my salty skin and I think about how I won’t have much water for the next nine miles. I don’t move.

Suddenly I sit straight up. “Pea gravel!” I shout. I look around imperiously at the insects buzzing near me. “It’s called pea gravel,” I tell them.

I put on my boots. I hike on.

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5. I come to a flat rock next to the trail. On it are two new light trail running shoes and a pair of clean Carhartts. I look around. “Hello?” I call. Nothing. I remember the socks from my campsite the night before, and sunglasses I’d seen on a branch next to the trail earlier. I wonder if I am following a naked person.

6. I set my tent on the side of the trail. I write in my journal. Thorn, I write. Comparing myself to everybody else in the whole world.

Thorn, I write. Everyone’s pack is lighter and everyone is walking faster.

Thorn, I write. My body hurts and I’m slow.

Rose, I write. Baby grouse. Strawberries.

Rose, I write. I seem to be following a naked person.

I think for a minute. Rose, I write. Nice Kentuckians.

I close my journal and slip deeper into my sleeping back. I hear faraway bangs. Denver fireworks, for Independence Day.

I get my journal out again. Transformation hurts, I write.

The First Day

This is not the way to begin backpacking.

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This hike begins with stiff leather boots and a heavy pack, wet against your lower back where your sweat has seeped into your shirt. This hike begins with a wide flat graded dirt road. This hike begins with sunburned lips and strange looks from families walking in shorts and sandals, dangling jewel-colored water bottles. This hike is six miles of heat from above and heat steaming up from below.

This hike begins with thinking you were delusional to think this would be fun, that you could do it.

After five miles, you stop for a rest in the shade at a picnic table. You’re still in a city park and there are bighorn sheep, two mothers and their two kids. They don’t seem to much mind you’re there.

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Andy is there, too, sitting at the picnic table. Together you watch the sheep mosey past. He has a fat orange pack, shiny new gear. He says he’s from Thailand via Illinois and he’s never been backpacking before. “How much does your pack weigh?”

You look at your pack dubiously and say you don’t know, you were too frightened to ever weigh it. You feel secretly relieved you never weighed it because you assume it weighs more than everyone else’s because you are no good at packing packs. Here, in the world of thru hikes, in the world of backpackers, pack weight is like dick length. The lighter your pack the more you belong here.

You didn’t have enough money to buy a new headlamp or a pocket knife before. This was frustrating because the latest in a long line of owned headlamps has just fizzled out, and the antler pocket knife your brother gave you for Christmas a few years back has disappeared. This makes you sad. It would be good to have that now, on the trail, comforting, a gift from someone who wishes you well.

Instead, you have brought a metal flashlight and a hefty multitool that you once won in a grocery store giveaway. You brought two novels, paperback, to stave off loneliness, and a book of poetry for when you need human-made beauty. Your sleeping bag is bulky. You brought too much food. Your backpack bulges oddly like The Burrow, the Weasleys’ lopsided house in Harry Potter.

You tell Andy good luck, you’ll see him down the trail you’re sure. You hike on.

Behind you, down the road, through the haze of heat, you notice another backpacker. You stop in the shade for water and allow him to catch up to you. You tell yourself you are allowing him but he would have caught up anyway. You’re going slow. You are trudging.

He catches up. He looks a few years younger than you. His pack appears more smoothly-packed and he has a rolled bandanna tied around his forehead. “I’m Adam,” he says. “From Kentucky.”

You smile weakly at him. You’ve been guzzling water and you haven’t peed all day. The sun beats through your head. Your hips, bearing the pack, ache dully.

“Erin,” you say. “Wyoming.”

Adam says he is here with his dad and his brother. “The whole thing,” he says. “On to Durango!”

You lag behind. Let him pass. You want to bear your weakness on your own and also you don’t have any words to say.

After six miles, the road narrows to single track, and disappears into the trees. Here you stop once again for water, and watch the other two Kentuckians glide silently past. They nod stoically, unsmiling, at you. You assume you will not see them again, that their competence outstrides yours.

That night, after nearly nine miles, aching in long-dormant muscles, you slide off your pack at a campsite. You moan and stretch your arms above your head. Your shoulders have forgotten how to hold a pack. Your neck has. Your back has. Your hips and feet and legs have forgotten. You slide to the ground, against a perfectly-placed recliner rock. You unlace your boots and pulling them off your hot, cramped feet feels like sex. You sit there, barefoot. The trees arch long shadows over your legs. You notice, behind a nearby boulder, just within your sightline, a pair of wadded-up socks. You think about nothing.

After awhile you set up your tent and start your stove. You eat rehydrated refried beans and corn tortillas for dinner and then you stare at the trees and the still-bright sky and listen to the unfamiliar sound of wind through the needles and you think, I am too small. You can still smell laundry detergent on your shirt. You look at the very tall ghost trees and you think, I have something to learn from you.

On Adulthood; or, The Commencement of a Very Long Hike

Why does anybody ever hike?

There’s a comfort that many of us can get lately, these past couple hundred years. We walk outside for fun, not because we have to.

We don’t need to go out. Nobody’s telling us we have to go outside. For most of us in the U.S., we don’t thrust our feet into gnarled boots and drink bitter coffee before creaking outside to our own field in the frosty predawn to twist corn off stalks, over and over and over again until it’s done, in order to eat. We don’t need to taste our front yard for its cool mineral ping, in order to gauge its suitability for wheat or beans. We don’t need to feel a gnawing in our bellies about weather this season.

Now many of us have indoor jobs and grocery stores. We don’t have to go outside.

So why do we?

For me, it’s to dissolve the clutter. People clean out their homes and I clean out myself. I hike so I can feel clean.

I hike so I can discover.

I hike, now, so I can rethink what it means to be an adult.

Six years ago I was twenty-one and I was in love.  Nothing could tarnish it.  I was just besotted with the whole world. It was a honeymoon phase. Even its imperfections were lovely.  The world was alive, was throbbing with aliveness, with oceans and creatures and trees and whooshing sand and clouds and flowers and snow and people, people who grinned and wept and chattered in all different round and jagged languages, and my feet and my knees and my butt and my head were on the world except when I was in an airplane or a paraglider or a sea.

In the way that a lover becomes a student of the person he loves, in the way that he learns her food and her body and her God and her teeth, I became a student of the world and all the people in it.  My first identity was learner.  Please teach me, I said to the grass, to the raptors, to the weary man who stamped my passport in Dubrovnik, to my cousin Christopher in West Texas.

 I didn’t care what I learned. I knelt at the feet of each place I came to and allowed it to crack me open with unabashed faith that it would pour itself inside me.  Always, it did.  As long as I did my part—as long as I knelt at its feet and allowed the world to crack me like an egg, the world gurgled into my soul.  I was an extension of the world, grown up like a tree with feet. I was a human among humans, an animal among animals, a star circulator among star circulators.

Then these things, these regular things, happened. I graduated college. I worked in food service. Some people were cruel and some people were kind. I worked in conservation. I got skills. I went to graduate school. I lived in Austin and Nashville and Lubbock and New Mexico and Wyoming. Jobs were not all they were cracked up to be and were more than I ever expected.

I inhabited my adulthood.

For me, that meant that the feeling of openness, of connection, has simmered in me since I left the Bosphorus Strait, six years ago. It emerges in staccato conversations with close friends, a slash of red lipstick, a quiet trip to Nepal, seasonal outdoor jobs.  It seeps out over sweet drinks near an expanse of Austin sunset water.  Or in reading a smart book, or the scrawled comments of a professor I admire. Or alone, close to dawn, above secret New Mexico mountain mist.  Then the creativity, the freedom, the boldness, bubble into my surprised consciousness.

But over time, it has bubbled up less and less. I attribute this to inhabiting my adulthood too much, or the wrong way.

How do you come to terms with having already come of age?

Adults, it seems, are meant to be steady. We, especially those of us in academia, are meant to be sure. Many of us must be financially independent, caretakers of other creatures (dogs, children), voters, activists, artists, teachers, careermakers. In all of that, somehow, I began to feel that in order to masquerade as a successful adult, I needed to close in myself what I had so earnestly and lovingly surrendered to be cracked open before.

I think I’ve been doing it wrong. My perception of adulthood has become as follows:

Adulthood seems to mean I must be sure.

Adulthood seems to mean I must have a ready opinion on everything, including things I’m still thinking about.

Adulthood seems to neglect silliness.

Adulthood seems to bypass magic.

Adults seem to really think impossible things are impossible.

Adulthood seems to mean that sounding smart is more important than most other things.

If all that is adulthood, y’all can keep it, thanks.

But I don’t think it is. I think adulthood may be something more robust and vibrant than I’ve been giving it credit for. It’s time to reevaluate my perception of adulthood.

There are great things about being an adult, especially a single college-grad twentysomething adult: the freedom to choose your apartment or your partner or your career or whether you’ll have a dog; the ability to go after your dreams; the freedom, on a Saturday morning, to choose to wake up at ten and eat Froot Loops and watch Orange is the New Black for three hours, or choose to drink five cups of black coffee and then run ten miles in your local forest. In fact, this is a uniquely glorious time of adulthood.

So I’m going to take my very adult freedom and hike the 500-mile Colorado Trail this summer, in, perhaps, a quest for adulthood. I start this week.

An adult uses a map.

ColoradoTrail_Map_Posterlet

(Photo courtesy of the the Colorado Trail Foundation)

I want all those old, hastily-stapled cracks in my soul to reopen. I want the world to gurgle in once more, however it chooses. I am too small to choose, I’ve found. As one person in one body, I am too limited to choose what to let in and what not. Instead, the world ought to. The trail ought to. It’s the master.

Risking a Fairy Feast

In the old European fairy tales, the eeriest and grimmest of fairy tales, a person, a regular person not a fairy, was safe in fairyland as long as she did not eat the food there.
            Here is an example:
            Anna goes for a walk in the woods behind her house.  She sees a warm light in the distance.   When she follows it she finds a tiny cottage and the door is slightly ajar.  Anna, curious, creaks open the door.  Behind it is an enormous hall with an enormous table and hundreds of people with clear skin and sparkling eyes and richly dyed clothes.  They are eating more food than Anna has ever seen before, with the most exquisite textures—the juiciest birds, the most savory meats, the most emerald spinach and the most crimson apples, the latter of which somehow seem to have dyed everyone’s lips.  Everybody smiles at her, touches her with cool hands.  Someone pulls out a chair.  Anna sits.  The woman next to her bites into a peach.  Juice drips down her neck.  The man on the other side holds a turkey leg with his whole fist.  Anna hesitates and then she bites into a gold, soft roll.  It leaves a sweet sheen on her fingers and on her lips.  Immediately she forgets her own home and history and people.
            Here the important parts are these:
1.     Anna’s life has heretofore been rather stark in terms of sensuality.
2.     Certain traits, perhaps flaws, drive Anna more than sensible restraint, and they’re sort of her fault and also sort of not her fault.  She becomes consumed (ha) by curiosity and by desire, which she has already in various quantities someplace inside her personality.  But also some external force sweeps her toward the light, toward the door, toward the table, and ultimately, the crux of the story, toward the food.  Anna loses control and she must eat.
            The next thing that happens in the story is that Anna stays for what seems like a few minutes but when the spell is (luckily?) broken as a result of her clear-sightedness and willpower, and the hairy backs and pointy ears and beady eyes of the fairies emerge, and she stumbles out of the hall back into the woods, a hundred years have passed and everyone she knows is dead.
            I think this is the most pressing problem in food systems.
            In the story, Anna probably eats something like hard dark bread and watery beer most of the time, and then she enters into a rich sensuous world with rich sensuous food, and she consumes it, and then she is punished for her consumption/gluttony, and then she sees that the rich sensuous world was a lie, and then she faces a loneliness that is usually only hinted at in the stories, because the main point has been reached: do not trust sensuality.  It cannot be real.  Stick to your hard bread and watery beer.
              As an undergraduate I studied for a semester in Cape Town.  I remembered this fairy tale trope soon after I had gotten there.  The juice of produce there dripped over my skin.  Dates were fresh.  The first banana I had was on the University of Cape Town campus, outside at a metal wicker picnic table, with my new friends at lunch.  It tasted like how I never knew bananas could taste.  It tasted like a self-actualized banana. We ate peri peri chicken sandwiches for lunch and we ate birthday cake made with springbok butter.  We ate South Africanized versions of food we ate at home: red beans and rice, chili.  We drank gourds of umqombothi.  We ate beef and antelope and ostrich at braais. We ate, we ate, we ate.
            I am here now, I thought.  Once I eat this food I am a part of this place.  This food is of this place and now so am I.
            I thought maybe there could be a different moral to the fairy tale, a different way to read it.
            We tell the same fairy tale now, in our United States food culture.  The old storytellers used to know something that we now work hard to try to forget.  Food has power.  Food is a manifestation of place and an embodiment of place and a union of body and place.  When we die we become part of a place because maggots ingest our organs and then our bones become the minerals in the soil.  While we live we are part of a place because we eat it.  We eat and we are eaten.  Food is place. Perhaps my meaning was not clear earlier when I said this, but here it is again: food is the most powerful manifestation of place and our fear of this manifestation is the most pressing problem in food systems.
            Food has the power to propel away our control and sweep us into connection, into identity, into base survival.  Food is an equalizer—people of all classes need it and then shit it out—and food determines and describes class.
            Did our fear start with some kind of Puritanical anti-hedonism?  Did it start because the Catholic Church labeled gluttony as a Deadly Sin?  Is our fear religious?  Did we believe we could get closer to God by shunning our earthly bodies and our earthly places?
            Then how conflicted did we feel at weddings and funerals and birthdays and evenings and first dates, when we ate?  Did our eventual access to any food from anywhere year round increase our confusion and thus our fear?
            Did we, white people in the United States, ever know what to feel about food?
            We don’t now, anyhow.
            So we tell the fairy tale, with the moral that Anna made the wrong choice to eat the fairy food.  Our resulting fear looks like my parents, Atkins one half-year and vegan the next.  Our fear looks like our obsession with weight loss and with eating disorders and with liposuction.  Our fear looks like fat-free sour cream and frozen TV dinners that are SINFULLY DELICIOUS but GUILT-FREE.  Our fear looks like the gap between what we yearn for—connection, fulfillment, identity, pleasure—and the bland universality we confine ourselves to and that we confine each other to.  Our fear looks like our judgment of other people’s eating habits and fatness.  Our fear looks like nutrients-not-food.  Our fear looks like tapping on our smartphones while we eat, fast.  Our fear looks like our fad diets and our nutritionists/prophets.  Our fear looks like my friend Debbie who ate only spinach for a week so that she wouldn’t have a muffin top when she ran into her ex-boyfriend.  Our fear looks like the phrase “muffin top.”  Our fear lurks in our language.  Our fear shows in our girdles and our secretive bingeing and the breach between what we eat in public and what we eat in private. Our fear is gendered and it is racial.
            Food has power and we are afraid of it.  So we strip it of its place in hopes of stripping it of its power.
            In some ways, I don’t quite know what all this means.  I don’t know what local means.  I don’t know where place ends and someplace else begins.  Food, both its physicality and its tradition, is usually from someplace else: bananas are a New World food, and I ate them in Africa.  Peri peri is influenced by Indian cuisine.  “Braai” has Afrikaans origins, which has Dutch origins. Umqombothi beer is Xhosa, and the Xhosa walked to South Africa from the Great Lakes in Tanzania in 1400.  So where is the beer from?  Is anything local?  How can food be a manifestation of place, a union of our bodies with place, if it isn’t actually from the place?
            Maybe it’s all in the preposition: of versus from.  A food could be of a place without being from the place.
            What distinguishes the prepositions is the individual food’s history—where was it grown and harvested and sold?—and also its role in the area’s culture—do people in that place identify themselves with it in some way?
            The banana and the dates were grown in South Africa.  South Africa claims peri peri, braais, and umqombothi.  South Africans own those foods.  They own them like they own their feet or their hairstyles or their languages.  Those foods are inherently, unambiguously, South African.  Peri peri in India has different spices and a different name.  There are no braais in Holland.  Xhosa people are their own people in South Africa as they were not in Tanzania, and umqombothi is theirs.  In these ways—where they are grown and who takes cultural ownership—these foods are of South Africa without necessarily being from South Africa.
            I’m not sure how this works in the United States.  It’s harder for me to see my own culture, and to distinguish cultural ownership.  Easier to label a food as locally grown—but even then, I’m still not certain where the local map ends.
            So, add that as a sub-problem: how do I define place and locality?  How do we begin to talk about food and place?
            But we must, in order to begin to conquer our fear of food as union of our bodies, our identities, our culture, with place.
             This is an international squeamishness, but perhaps it is most salient here in the United States, where hard, attractive food grows in supermarkets like videogame Life Points: snatch it, hear a ding, add to the Life bar at the top of your personal screen.  We do not know where it is grown.  Our cultural ownership of foods is mysterious to us.  We eat non-jiggling yogurt on our way to work and frozen pizza at night.  In this way, food is rendered harmless.  In this way, we barricade ourselves from the sway and the seduction of a place and a people.  We can walk in the woods and see no cottage and return to our lives unaltered. We can stay in control.  We can remain untransformed.
            In this way, we do not risk our lives or our identities, and we remain unruined.  In this way, we aren’t lonely but we aren’t fulfilled.  We never meet the Others.  We die without the sensual wisdom of place and without having found who we could be.  And now we are sick with heart disease and cancer and diabetes and general ill-being, we are disconnected, and we don’t know how to fix it, from a scientific or cultural or spiritual or folkloric or personal standpoint.
            We have made a food culture where we do not have to risk an accidental fairy feast.
            There is, though, another way of reading the fairy tale.  Lately, we have found that stripping food of its place does not successfully strip it of its power and further we have found that perhaps we really don’t want to strip food of its power.  If we strip food of its power what is our power, what is our identity, what is our pleasure, what is our connection, what is any possibility of magic?  We have begun tentatively exploring, in farmer’s markets and in our kitchens, what food could mean, again or anew.  We are wandering in the woods again and there is, for some of us, the possibility of coming across a cottage that, if we say yes, could perhaps envelop us in something we haven’t known in a long time.  We aren’t at the cottage yet, but its possibility is in our weariness with fad diets, in our exploration of local foods, in our acknowledgement of food as something more than sustenance/guilt.  The cottage’s possibility is in community gardens and small farms and in ranchers we have met.  It is in our kitchens and our bellies and our classes and our talk.
            Our culture will accommodate the cottage if we make room.

Vignette 2. An Ethnographical Account of Hipsters in Laramie

Many intellectual/anarchist/musician/scientist/poet types claim Front Street is the best bar in town.
People say Front Street is a hipster bar.  As far as I can tell I haven’t seen any hipsters, only bearded outdoorsy types in flannel and thick black-rimmed glasses.  I think of that more as a mountain man with poor vision than a hipster.  Maybe, though, it’s been awhile since I’ve spied a real hipster.  Maybe hipsters in cold western towns are different from hipsters in silky hot Austin. 

This is a place where dressing up for going out on the town means putting on your best pair of Carhartts.  Sometimes overalls, or, as Wyomingites and some Coloradoans tend to call them, bibs.  Carhartts lined with flannel appear to inspire great envy among the locals.  Though I’d like to avoid environmental determinism, this envy may be due to the ubiquitous wind that comes slamming horizontally over the train tracks and through paper-thin skinny jeans.  As such, the hipsters of Laramie have pragmatically ditched skinny jeans and creative, ironically vintage facial-hair sculpting for flannel-lined Carhartts, leather hiking boots, and full, take-no-prisoners beards.
Carhartts are best worn with a thick plaid flannel button-up.  Flannel is Laramie’s silk: graceful, in high demand, simultaneously sexy and professional.  This appears, for the most part, to apply equally to women and men, although some women prefer jeans in a light wash with gleaming silver sequins or glued-on crystals, and contrasting stitching.  Perhaps in black light situations this makes it easier to determine gender.
This anthropologist is a Laramie fashion outcast in unlined Arborwears. 

September in Laramie

There is very little water here.
The plains look like ocean, and they ripple with gold and blustery wind.  It’s high up here.  We have an aspen in our front yard, and now in late September the first of its leaves are shivering in the persistent wind and spinning down like coins into the yard.  We have rocks, and a deer skull, and potted mint. 
This place is old.
Our house was built in the year 1900.  The walls are three feet thick, solid stone.  It’s cool, even in the afternoon, and especially when the wind blows in the gray dawn, and the bedroom air on my face is fifty degrees cooler than my body wrapped like a warm gyro in thick down and my great-grandmother’s quilt. 
The outside is beige stucco.  On slow rainy days I walk, and on sunny days, days when things are happening, I bike on my mother’s candy-red 1982 Univega.  I walk to my office in the English building.  The office is a graduate assistant office.  I share it with Nick, Olivia, Kenny, and Ginger.  Olivia and Ginger are poets.  Nick writes fiction.  Kenny studies literary criticism, I’m not sure what.  The other day I saw a stray loose leaf on his desk scrawled all over in deep black ink, something about slavery, and feminism, and hegemonic patriarchy.  I think he’s writing some kind of article.
I bicycle downtown.  It’s close.  There’s a yoga studio that used to be a ballet school, with creaky original wood floors and high ceilings and the old subtle markings of leather toes being dragged over the wood, in swirls and short stops.  There’s a vegetarian restaurant, Sweet Melissa’s, that doubles as the best bar in town, Front Street.  On Fridays the streets shut down all day for a farmer’s market, and I skip past the fresh bread and salsa and produce for the coffee shop, Coal Creek.  When my dad (an occasionally persnickety coffee connoisseur) visited in August, he told me Coal Creek served him the best coffee he’d tasted in fifteen years. 
I usually find a tiny table where I can see everything.  I spread out my environmental policy reading, and watch people.  Sometimes there’s a band, a couple guys with a guitar and drums and soulful voices.  Sometimes there’s a girl who sings like Nashville in the sixties, up and down and strong, with true concrete details, like I try to teach my freshmen in composition. 
Sometimes the streets pile up on one another and the ocean plains call, and beyond those, the mountains.   On mornings like that I hop in my little blue Fit and drive ten minutes to Happy Jack, and run on the warren of trails through aspen and fir and spruce.  Some days we drive west, to the Snowies, and explore the peaks and the high glacial lakes and the subtly glittering quartz boulder fields.  Once we stepped through some low juniper in search of the next cairn, and stopped suddenly as twenty elk ladies silently traipsed past.  They didn’t notice us, and we didn’t find the cairn. 
This is a kind place.  Strangers smile, and people say “bless you” if you sneeze on the sidewalk.  I think it’s necessary.  I think it’s late September and something is coming, a deep winter that blows hard snow into your skin and over the highways out of town.  The highways shut down and this will be it, sometimes, this small western town on the plains, somehow tough and vulnerable all at once, alone in the eerie hugeness of this dry cold state.  All the university and imported culture in the world cannot save a person, a town, from a Wyoming winter.

So while it’s still warm and the aspen aren’t all the way gold, I find all the pools of sunlight I can, like a cat.  I chase their fleeting warmth with something verging on desperation.  I bicycle to class and to meet friends downtown, making confidently tight turns on for-now dry streets. I run in the prairie, and in the hills, and spy on elk by lakes in the mountains.  
I smile at strangers and they smile also.

Vignette 1. Cow Tipping in Nepal

They’re upright, among the grass, strong and heavy and asleep.  It’s before dawn and the grass streaks dew along your legs and you creep, low and fast and quiet as you can.  The first one smells faintly sweet and like something else, something animal, sweat and hormones and the body results of all the processes: digestion and flowing blood and some deeply buried semblance of thought.  It peers at you with this side’s eye and the rumbling beginning of a low grumbles from its throat.   You put both hands on its side and it’s too sleepy to move quickly, to bolt, and you push hard and after one stumble it tips.
“But,” Rashmi says, “why?”

There’s a pause.  “Because,” someone says tentatively, “it’s fun.”