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On the Ranch

Come for a walk with me.

I’ve been walking a lot, lately. It’s winter and I live in the Bighorn foothills, and I miss hiking tall mountains. The season prohibits that. So I walk on the prairie where I live, on the ranch.

A ninety-two-year-old Texan extracted oil in Wyoming, decades ago. He believed that taking requires returning. So with the money he made he bought a ranch, near the oil wells.

He wanted to make a ranch that could be a model for all ranches, that could show that conservation was attainable. He ran cattle.

He renovated the farmhouse, barn, and schoolhouse that sat on the property. He moved the defunct train depot from the tiny town nearby. And he invited artists to come.

I live here now, on his ranch. I work for the artist residency program. I’m an intern here for a few months. I have plenty of time, and more space than humans need.

So I walk a lot, up and down the road outside my house.

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This time of year, things are quiet and bare. The land reveals things, past seasons.

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I work on the ranch and work on my novel and when I get stuck I go running.

There’s a theatre of characters here. One run, up the road outside my house, I encountered a hostile bovine. About two miles out from the house, a hill crests and the view expands abruptly and I feel like the center of a compass.  The Bighorns to the southwest, ranch headquarters to the northeast, my house, and Montana. I was halfway up the hill, sweating, when I encountered ranch cattle. They bumbled away from me. One stayed, close to the road, staring at me. I slowed down. Walked. It scuffed the ground. I stopped. It snorted. Damn, I thought. A bull.

So I backed up, sideways, and then turned and ran from the bull, back toward home. And as I did, all the cattle faces rippled away from me and toward a coyote, nearly blending with the winter grasses, trotting directly toward them.

Ranch drama.

I meet creatures of all kinds.

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The deer are beginning to drop their antlers, early this year. A warm winter. Looking for antlers, everything becomes antler-shaped and really they are: sage tendrils out exactly that way, grass, willow branches. Bones.

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Eric visited and I took portraits of him, for scale, against the landscape. Humans a curl of India ink over watercolor, here. The prairie, the foothills, the west–spread vast.

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Feeling small–feeling as though the ground is cold and hard and long, that the wind will break the house, that whatever Vaseline I put on my cheeks for evening runs will never be enough to prevent the kind of windburn that the plains exact–comforts me. Or, perhaps it doesn’t comfort me, exactly, but makes me feel exactly uncomfortable enough to feel comfortable, to come in, trembling from weather and a hard run and an indifferent prairie, and realize, I’m wind-whipped and hungry, but I’m not lonely, here.

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Sometimes, when I run, or when I walk, the wind is so loud I sing, or I yell into the wind, and no one can hear. It’s exhilarating.

Maybe I’m crazy.That’s okay.

I’m free.

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New Year News

I’m a little late for the new year, but 2016 still feels new to me–the plants have retreated deep into their bodies, the rabbits huddle under my porch, and the season hasn’t shifted into dynamic springtime yet. Still winter. Still new.

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I’ve retreated, too.

I finished my MFA in December, and left Laramie and my beautiful community there  for a more remote part of Wyoming.

 

Since late January, I’ve been living on a ranch in northern Wyoming. I live alone and work for the ranch and I write. Mostly, I spend my time alone–writing, running, reading, cooking, walking. It’s a good post-MFA writer’s life, for a little while. An idea incubator and maybe a human (me) reboot.

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More about the ranch later. But for now, NEWS:

I was featured on an episode of Willow Belden’s incredible podcast, Out There! The episode is my essay about failing a thru-hike. Check it out here.

Also in January, I had my own episode on HumaNature, the podcast I produced! To bid me farewell, they featured my story about working at a dinosaur quarry in Utah, and having my views about religion and science challenged. Check it out here.

The world will emerge soon from winter, but before it does, I’m relishing the cold, new feeling of the year. I hope you are, too, even if it’s warmer there.

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The Beginning of the End of the Trail

It’s been awhile.

A month has passed since I got off the trail. Maybe a little over a month. Things happened. Life happened. I got home and immediately went back to Colorado for an event in Boulder. I came home again. Breathed for a moment. Opened my computer, on a rickety shelf. Above it, an over-watered aloe plant upturned, spilling onto my keyboard. The key displayed j, the was t. I took the computer to a local repair shop, which kept it four weeks, for mysterious reasons. I took a friend to get a medical procedure in Casper. Wyoming Public Radio obtained a grant to pay me part-time. School started.

And in all of that, somehow, I neglected to finish writing the trail. I think that at least part of this is due to my uncertainty on how to think about it, my smallness at grappling with being off the trail. And overwhelming. How do I describe everything that happened?

I was only there for two weeks. It feels like a different life, someone else, but it was my life and it was me.

One day, still early on, I hiked down the trail. I hadn’t seen anyone in hours. It rained. My hood was up and I hobbled. I was in a six-mile-long meadow, a wet one. I rounded a copse of pine trees. “Oh, hello,” said a female voice.

I screamed.

Two women huddled on a log, laughing their asses off. Both looked forty-something. One of them found her breath enough to ask, “Do you have a name yet?”

“A trail name? No.”

“Spook,” she said, pointing at me. “You’re Spook.”

The other woman grinned and nodded.

I sat down on a rock. “What are your names?”

“Mothership,” said the woman who’d given me the name. “And this is Stargazer.”

I never knew them by any other name.

“Are you guys hiking together?”

“We just met yesterday,” Stargazer said. She cocked her thumb at Mothership. “She’s with her husband.”

“He’s back there somewhere,” Mothership said.

“I came with a guy, but he’s a smoker,” Stargazer said. “And that first day, I had to spend more time waiting for him than hiking. I thought, man, I’m not doing this the whole trip.” She shrugged. “Don’t know where he is. Haven’t seen him since Day 2.”

Stargazer said she lived in Michigan, and Mothership was from Boone, North Carolina. Mothership’s accent sounded somehow both slow and staccato, emphasis on all syllables, round and pulled up short at the end of words. Sitting in freezing rain with these women felt warm, and the way Mothership talked reminded me of my family.

When the lightning eased we hiked on, and I outpaced them. This was unusual–I hadn’t outpaced anyone. I was a slow, hobbling hiker. I was in pain. My feet were still ragged. I hadn’t yet reached Breckenridge.

That night, I reached camp the same time as Stan. I set up my tent across the trail from his, near a stream. I started dinner. It failed to rain at that moment and that pleased me. I sat thoughtfully near a fire ring and spooned my dinner, rehydrated refried beans, into my mouth. The Kentuckians appeared, along the trail. We waved, and they found a spot across the stream. Then, as I was cleaning up, Stargazer and Mothership arrived. They plopped their packs down. “We’re camping with you,” Mothership announced.

“Cool,” I said, pleased. Friends! I had trail friends!

They circled, looking for flat places to pitch their tents. I finished cleaning up. “I’m out,” Mothership announced, when her tent was up. “Beat. See y’all in the morning.”

“Night,” Stargazer and I said in unison.

The sun emerged pink from behind a thick white cloud. Stargazer came to sit next to me. “Wow,” she said, nodding to the view across the forested canyon.

She had been laid off, she said. From a sports therapy job she’d loved. She was forty-five. And, a year ago, she’d divorced her husband. “He didn’t treat me very well,” she said. Three kids, middle one just graduated from high school.

She was seeing a man now who lived in Carlsbad, New Mexico. “My boy–my best friend,” she said. She sighed. “Not my boyfriend. We met on Christian Mingle.” She tilted her head at me. “I’m pretty spiritual.”

Stargazer was easy to talk to, bubbling over with stories and feelings. I asked more about the not-boyfriend. They’d known each other over the last year, chatting online and on the phone. He traveled for his job with the Department of Energy. “I don’t know exactly what he does. He has some kind of high-level classification status in the government so he can’t talk about it.” He traveled to places like Kansas and Minnesota and New York and one time in Reno she came out to meet him. “I flew out,” Stargazer said, hugging her middle against the chill. She wore soft-looking pink thermals and her bare toes were painted pink. “Hang on,” she said. She reached around behind the rock she sat on and emerged with a fuscia puffy jacket. Slipping it on, she said, “He asked me if I wanted to come out to Nevada, but he said we couldn’t be in a relationship, he’s not ready for one.” She hugged her middle again.

I sipped hot water from the mug cupped in my hands, steam curling up to my face. “Why not?”

She sighed again. “He’s divorced, too,” she said. “But he’s not over his ex-wife. I think he wants to try to get back together with her. She and the kids live in Arkansas.”

I waited, my fingers wrapped around the mug.

“So he asked if I wanted to fly out but that even though he really cares about me he wasn’t ready to be serious yet and I said, yes. Yes, I want to come to Nevada to see you. So, Spook, I went,” she said, looking at me. “And it was the best sex I ever had. Which,” she said, shaking her jacket sleeves down to cover her hands, “is sad, considering I was married for twenty-one years.”

We both watched a cloud uncurl across the sun, just before the mountain could reach it.

“And I haven’t seen him in person since. When I was driving out to Denver from Michigan, he called me. He said, I’m in Albuquerque, in a hotel. Come and see me. God, Spook, I wanted to. I was on the interstate in Nebraska. An exit was coming up. It would have been so easy to just turn the wheel south.” She stopped hugging herself and sat up straighter. “But the sign went on by and here I am. Anyhow, it wouldn’t have been good. We should wait till we can be in a relationship. But, God. The sex.”

“Why wouldn’t it have been good?”

She glanced at me. “Well, because God isn’t into all the sexual stuff.” She shrugged. “We’re Christians, you know?”

“I don’t know,” I said, grinning at her. “I disagree. I think God is very sexual. He’s the Creator. That’s inherently sexual.”

Stargazer laughed. “Well, anyhow,” she said. “I’m here and he’s somewhere.”

We both sat. The sun retreated into someplace we couldn’t reach. Clouds swirled. The night dimmed. I stood. “Good night,” I said to Stargazer.

“I think I’m going to stay out awhile, watch the clouds,” she said.

I crawled into my tent. Fourteen or forty-five, I thought. A crush is a crush.

Next morning, six-thirty, I huddled in my sleeping bag, looking vacantly out through my unzipped tent, watching Mothership buckle closed her pack. “Gonna try to catch up to hubby,” she said. “Think he’s only a couple miles ahead. See y’all down the trail.”

“Bye!” Stargazer called from inside her tent. I waved. Mothership padded away.

to be continued.

Creative Sunday Afternoon

For a creative Sunday afternoon, you will need tea, and the sun to come through just right onto the flowers in a jar on the table.

You will need to feel a little sleepy from the night before, when you stayed out late, when you wore a beautiful dress, when you smiled and clinked glasses with the others, when you felt alive and young.

You will need a book, something slow and contemplative, maybe poetry or a book about religion or meditation or a canonical novel or a literary magazine or an anthology.

You will need a notebook, something you can write in. You will need it to have large pages for splashy ideas and room to draw lines and arrows and upside-down lists. You will need a yellow pencil.

You will need a seat that is soft and swingy.

Finally, you will need to close your laptop, and swing in the soft chair, and set your teeth around your pencil, and open your book.

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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.