January of last year I decided to leave my life completely and hike the Appalachian Trail. I permanently said goodbye to my boyfriend of four years, put my material detritus in storage and hopped a plane New Years Eve of 2015. As I took off east for Kentucky, I saw fireworks erupt out of L.A. After a few months of planning, drying food and collecting gear, my Mom and I made our way down to Georgia to start the long trek. She refused to let me go alone.
The beginning was painful and physically harder than expected, but my mom and I got along very well and made a great camping team. It was nice to have someone to laugh with at the end of every long day. Near the North Carolina border her knees started giving her trouble, and at the gap before Standing Indian Mountain she and I caught a hitch into Hiawassee, Ga.
We stood at the gap, shrouded in the freezing fog of a late March morning, and wondered how to get to town from the end of an untraveled dirt road, miles from everything. After about five minutes, a red truck pulled up and offered us a ride to town. We asked them why they were there, and they replied: to offer us a ride to town. This was my first experience with trail magic.The next morning, in a bright salmon pink sunrise, I began hiking again… alone. There wasn’t a day on trail I didn’t have her in my thoughts. It was our trip, but I needed it so much that I couldn’t stop. When I was a little kid my family and I climbed Standing Indian. When I was a teenager my dad and I hiked from Standing Indian to Erwin, Tn. It was as if I was handed off safely into known territory. I hiked the next section with my memories, and I hiked it hard.
Coming out of Erwin I realized that I was finally on my own. I was in unknown territory walking north. The next day I met Flask, not knowing that we would eventually come to know each other by our real names. He walked by me in the early morning, which baffled me because not a single person passed by me in those days, especially right after sunrise. It was a crystal clear morning, cold and bright. I watched the stranger cruise on by and disappear into the leafless forest. I didn’t meet him again until mid-Virginia, and I didn’t realize that he was the stranger who passed me in Tennessee until he told me last month.
I kept on for most of the trail independent and solo, passing shelters and setting up minimalist stealth camps in the woods. I can close my eyes and be there again, sitting on my sleeping pad, drinking green tea, watching the orange summer sun set through dense green leaves. Flask was only briefly part of my hike, maybe only a few hundred miles of my walk was spent with him. We barely knew each other and didn’t finish together. But after wondering for months if I would see him again, he showed up in the middle of the hundred mile wilderness. It was a cold fall morning, so cold my face was puffy and my hands were frozen in my gloves. This time he emerged from the brown barren woods, walking towards me. He awkwardly handed me an apple and we tried to hug each other. Stretching and reaching we tried in vain to wrap our arms around one another, not realizing in this nervous moment that we were trying to reach around backpacks. After a frantic struggle to embrace and a good laugh we put our gear down. That night a full moon rose over a glassy lake, reflecting a marshmallow pink sunset.
We spent my birthday in the wilderness of Maine and parted again. I walked onward north to the terminus of the trail. A few weeks later I stopped by to visit in Connecticut, and he invited me to come back to live with him. I barely knew his real name. We lived in Connecticut for a month as I tried to cope with rehabilitation and adjusting to an overwhelming amount of new people in my life. I met his entire life while I was desperately trying to collect myself again.
After struggling (and failing) to find a place to live and a job that paid, we hit the road. The week before we left we spent tuning up the car and donating our belongings to thrift stores. We were digging through repair manuals and ripping out old rusted parts. Everything we owned was in the back of his ancient red pick-up. We slowly rattled westward through the rolling mountains of New York, across the A.T. and through the heartland of America to Minneapolis, Minnesota. We’ve lived here for about a month and a half now. An exciting new year is happening. I find myself in disbelief that only a year has passed because so much has happened, and I find it hard to believe that an entire year has gone by so quickly.
I think back to myself on trail, and I see the strength and attitude that I learned to carry. I have come to see that I am always walking alone in this world, yet I am never alone. I am always myself, but that self has meaning through those who surround me. I knew I would end up here, but I never imagined being surrounded by people who love me. I never imagined falling in love. I live my life through intuition and mostly by following ridiculous dreams. Little happenings, bits of magic, always tell me when I am where I should be. It takes a great deal of attention to know which way to go when the trail isn’t marked. But knowing where to go and going aren’t so different, just like walking alone and knowing you don’t exist without the surrounding world. I once thought that “trail magic” and “trail angels” were religious phrases. But now I see it the other way around, they are references that point at real people who help and real events that happen. I know some trail angels; I could give their names. I know what trail magic is; I can tell you a strange story that no one made up. It begins and ends with right now.