Monday, March 23, 2015

3. Finding a Trail Family

"That section of the trail was CURSED!" I declare in mock-rage as I fling back the tarp of Derrick Knob Shelter in the Smoky mountains. I have just hiked 12 miles with Dumptruck after being snowed in for an entire day at Mollies Ridge Shelter. The day was beautiful, crisp and clear, with the bright blue sky bouncing off the brilliant white of the snowy ridges. Apollo had been with us, but he is a much faster hiker, so we haven't seen him in hours. I storm inside the shelter, marching over to Apollo and shaking his shoulders.

"It took us a billion hours to go 12 miles! The trail markers must be wrong! The only explanation is that there is a rip in the time-space continuum and we were caught in a loop."

I am not actually angry at all, though it's true that Dumptruck and I have spent the last two hours wondering aloud of the shelter even existed. We had mused that perhaps it had been blown off the top of the mountain, Apollo and all. Apollo laughs and agrees that the distance felt much, much longer than 12 miles. I look up and notice that there are two other people in the shelter.

"Hiya!" I grin, waving, "I'm not actually mad. I'm Clever Girl."

"I'm Hotdog!" chirrups a young lady with short brown hair. She is curled up in a sleeping bag puddle next to another young lady, this one with long hair under a red knit cap. She is sitting up, the top of her sleeping back over her head like a hood. She peers at me from under the hem of the sleeping bag flashing a smile, then returns her gaze to the weird brown package in her hand, pursing her lips and clucking. 

"Whistle," she says, before holding out the package for me to examine, "Do you know how to make this work?"

"Is that an MRE?" asks Dumptruck.

"Yeah," Hotdog replies, "Another hiker gave it to us after he learned that we were running out of food. But we don't know how to make it work."

I chew on my lip, reading the tiny printing on the side of the package, before handing it to Dumptruck and shrugging in equal confusion. I slide my backpack off and set it down, and start to set up my sleeping bag and pad. The five of us start chatting as we make our dinners. Rather, Dumptruck, Apollo and I make our dinners, while Hotdog and Whistle make some half-cooked luke-warm lumpy stuff that they eat anyway. We offer them some of our food, but they politely decline, knowing that we all might have several more days before we can get out of the mountains and into a town to resupply. Whistle reports that the previous day she ate nothing except 20 raisins because that's all she could afford to eat.

"It was just enough to cover the palm of my hand, one raisin deep!" she continues, in that slightly manic cheerful way that every single one of us is feeling. We're trapped in the mountains, it's freezing, and it's possible that the road at Newfound Gap will be closed and we'll be without food. And yet, we're all talking way too loudly and laughing way too long and talking for hours and hours about Game of Thrones in the dark. It's like we're the musicians on the sinking Titanic, playing away dutifully and with happy gusto, even though the ship is sinking and we're probably all gonna die. 

But, luckily, we don't die. 

We become a family.

My hiking family changes shape over the course of my journey, gaining beautiful faces and losing some as they hike at different paces or take on different goals. We gain Grim, and Otto and Apple Butter, Catch and The Hunger. We become a satellite family of Funky Town. We are Shanty Town and M3OWZ3BA! We are lots of things, but mostly we're ridiculous.

I learn the difference between trail friends and trail family. My trail family loves me exactly for who I am. My trail family plays word games with me for hours. My trail family finds new and different ways to make each other laugh and to make each other feel loved and cared for. We respect each other, and find subtle ways to stay with each other for as long as possible. We understand when the family changes shape, and don't leave blame or anger as we part. But we cry long and hard when we say goodbye.

My trail family argues. We don't argue a lot, but when we do, it's loud and passionate and angry, and it's about the stupidest things, just like a real family. Afterward we hug and kiss each others foreheads and apologize for being so dumb about a silly card game. And then we're in the space we need to be to be able to talk about what's really bothering us. Sometimes we just need to cry about how hot it is. Sometimes we just need someone to scratch the mosquito bites on our backs. Sometimes we're just homesick.

My trail family listens. My trail family kicks my butt when I need them to, and they carry me when I ask them to. My trail family is embarrassing with me, embarrasses me, and tolerates me embarrassing them. My trail family isn't blood related to me, but with all the injuries and bleeding we do, we might as well be. 

My trail family holds my hands, and they hold my heart.

Forever my family they'll be.

Clever Girl

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