Wednesday, December 18, 2013

161. Grocery Stores

You know that moment in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, when Gene Wilder brings the children through the front door for the first time? There's a sustained camera shot of Charlie's face, and the slow accumulation of incredible exuberance and joy. It's like all doubt, all sadness, all shame and regret melts away, leaving him with nothing but pure sublime happiness. There is such possibility in that facial expression, such hope and trust in this man, this magician of the fantastic. Let us nevermind the plot of the movie, which involves the systematic one-by-one offing of horrible children, the slave labor of little orange people and a grown man suffering from burn-out leaving control of his nightmare factory to an adolescent child. These things are not important. What's important is the look on Charlie's face, and all that it implies.

This face:

That is the look I would get on my face every single time I went into a grocery store while on the Appalachian Trail. When the trail crossed a road and I stuck out my thumb, it was like buying a chocolate bar. When some kind soul actually pulled over and consented to give me a ride, in spite of how I smelled or looked, that was like getting the golden ticket. I guess in this metaphor, Dumptruck would have to be Grandpa Joe. And Willy Wonka is probably Otto (LOVE YOU, OTTO!).

When I was in a constant state of vaguely starving, the inside of a grocery store was a wonderland. There were so many possibilities. Was I tired of eating hard, dry biscuits for breakfast? How about this week I buy an ENTIRE POUND CAKE, stuff it into a ziploc bag and eat out of it like a horse eats out of a burlap sack strapped to its face? Was I tired of that Pound Cake from last week? How about I eat tuna fish for breakfast! THERE WERE NO RULES. The only rule was that I had to be able to carry it refrigerated. So yogurt was out, for me anyway. Maybe it could work for you, if you like it moldy. And hey, if you're a long-distance hiker, your bowels could probably handle it. They've handled worse.

I would walk down every single aisle, regardless of whether or not it seemed like it would have something I wanted. I'd even walk down the dog food aisle, because hey, who knows?! I would go in with a basic plan of how many days I had to be able to feed myself. Then I would systematically go down each aisle and evaluate. I started getting very good at knowing where things would be in grocery stores, even though every single one was new to me, and I'd never go back to that particular store again. They weren't all laid out in the same way, but navigation just started making sense. The grocery store was an untamed ocean, my cart was my ship, and my taste buds were my compass.

There was always a sense of grandeur and space inside a grocery store. It's strange, because one might think that being on the trail would be so much more grand. But to the contrary, I was usually in a tunnel of trees and wild plant growth, such that if I were to stick my arms out to both sides, I would likely break my wrists on the trunks of pines. Of course there were frequent places where the trail might open up to a view, but for the most part, hikers spend their lives in thin corridors. But in a grocery store, there's a solid 8-10 feet between the aisles. I could grab bags of candy, throw them in the air, and spin around in slow motion with my arms outstretched like I was a full-blooded Von Trapp. Glorious.

My favorite thing was the looks we would get from folks at the cash registers, as they rang up our insanely unhealthy food. They would look at the piles of candy, little debbies and easy mac, and then look up at the 2 ostensibly athletic-looking young people in front of them. I could always see the quickly-masked confusion. This did not happen in regular trail towns though, where cashiers ringing up your food could tell you were a hiker without even having to look you in the face.

Everything always looked nice on the shelves, too. Once it was all re-bagged into ziplocs and then bounced around inside my backpack for a few hours, things would lose a bit of their splendor. But in the grocery store, ah the grocery store, things were always perfect and appealing. Food looked real again, even if only for a few minutes.

Oh, the desire to be able to pack out fruit.
Clever Girl

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