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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.