I was still uncivilized. Among the Starbucks Wednesday morning commuters who awaited lattes while wearing ties, pencil skirts, and blowouts, I stood out. Air-dried hair frizzed from my head, baggy hiking pants hung off my skeletal frame, and instead of a purse I clutched a nylon stuff sack.
I hadn't gone back to work yet after my 675-mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. In fact I didn't have a work since the whole point of my journey, cut short by a broken bone, had been to find my life's purpose. Reclaim the "squandered gifts" I had pretended to forget in favor of capitalism's charms.
A ripe human scent entered my nostrils, dropping me back among the other unwashed thru-hikers, and yearning rose in my chest, a desperation to again feel more alive than this.
My eyes darted around to confirm the improbable presence of another backpacker but landed instead on a man in a shabby, dirt-greased shirt. Oh. He handed a used cup to the cashier and asked for a refill.
On the trail I was cold, hot, wet, lonely, in pain, and sad. I wondered why I couldn't embrace the suck of backpacking, as others seemed to be able to, and whether the journey would transform me the way I hoped: into someone who could put into practice her tentative belief that meaning mattered more than money. On the trail I was also joyful, free, at peace, certain I was where I should be, and giddy to have landed in a place where a private, 5 a.m. audience with an owl on a mountaintop was an ordinary morning.
Emotional whiplash shredded my psychic defenses. Meeting my basic needs—water, shelter, a place to pee—and the grind of hauling myself and my thirty-pound pack up and down near-vertical mountains left no energy for assembling armor or arranging my face into a mask. I could not create or maintain a persona, as I had back home, as each of us does to some degree every day in "normal" life.
Vulnerable as a shorn lamb, I was sometimes punched by sorrow and sometimes filled with the ecstasy of existence but I was never, not once, numb.
After one weekend away from the trail I had returned to find my trekking poles—which I relied on for balance, speed, and distribution of effort—were not where I had absently left them leaning up against a hostel's kitchen wall on Friday.
Across the next miles I found a couple of sticks, but these were as effective a substitute for the poles as flip flops would have been for hiking shoes. It—everything—was suddenly all too much: the futility of the entire endeavor seemed certain, the prospect of another month without my boyfriend gutted me, and sobs overtook me.
When I spotted another hiker approaching me ahead, I stanched the tear flow. We stopped when we reached each other, and I stood on a stream-crossing rock, my sticks dug into the pebbles on the bed, water trickling around them, and he saw me.
He saw me. "Going to Maine?" he asked.
"That was the plan," I said. It was the first time I had put this sentiment, expressed repeatedly over the last month, in the past tense.
"Just not sure I'm going to make it."
Gently, he stepped closer. "Can I give you a hug?"
I closed the distance, stepping from the stone to the streambank, and we embraced each other, stinking strangers in the muggy woods.
As we withdrew we locked eyes and held shoulders for a moment, then stepped apart. He waved a gnat from his bushy, graying beard.
"You'll make it," he said. "You look healthy."
At Starbucks I touched the forearm of the man ahead of me.
"Let me get your coffee," I said. I didn't say this because my trip had made me altruistic but because I was still close enough to the experience of true need to truly feel his.
His eyes rose to hold mine, and he saw me. Then he turned to accept his coffee and moved away through the semicircle of regular people, spaced equidistant, heads bent to phones.