Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Friendship with Solitude

Whistle stood on the rim of a deep canyon, a gentle breeze pushing a few loose strands of hair across her sun-spotted face. Reaching into her pocket, she went to press pause on her phone to halt the playback of a book about teenage brains. The woman was expressing some fear about when teenagers take a single sip of alcohol, they permanently screw up their brains for the rest of their lives, due to the neurons not completing their development properly. That's silly, Whistle thought, her finger hovering over the pause button. I dare her to find a single adult who didn't have one sip of alcohol as a teenager. I mean, society's all falling apart or whatever, but it's probably not because of that. She pressed the button, and the woman's voice cut off mid sentence. 

As she pulled her ear buds out, first one and then the other, her mind became awash in a gentle, pressing silence. Clouds curled across the distant horizon, forming and splitting and forming again in their own slow motion dance. Taking a deep breath, she let out a single carrying cry, bending slightly at the hips and hurling her voice into the canyon at her feet. Her voice flew away from her, careening into the far wall and bouncing back up to her in a reverberating echo. The echo faded in diminishing returns, and Whistle was again left in quiet. She tried to sing a round, but the canyon and her echo didn't have a good understanding of harmonizing and 8 counts, so she gave up. Hitching her pack into a better resting space on her shoulders, she turned and headed on. 

There had been many moments on her journey when Whistle was overcome with the pressing need to share the beauty of the trail with someone. Being the only hiker on a vast, seemingly endless trail through wilderness had its perks and its sadness, but it was always hardest when being awash in the experience of something being particularly lovely. The burble of a creek, or a certain smattering of stars blinking in the milky way splashed overhead, and any number of other tiny experiences of joy, were diminished just a little bit, as she looked over her shoulder and wanted there to be someone standing by. Just to be able to point and say,

"Look."

Whistle was not dogged by this pressing loneliness; it wasn't as though she was hanging her Snoopy head and slowly trudging down the trail, while Peanuts' "No Dogs Allowed" played in tinny melancholy over the speakers of her mind. On the other hand, she wasn't skipping down the trail throwing imaginary sparkles into the air and relishing in the sheer delight of every passing of gas that was unimpeded by the constraints of society. Instead, she was settling into a better understanding of herself. Understanding solitude. 

While humming along to herself on an old ATV track, Whistle was startled to discover that her face was suddenly feet from the face of a horse. The horse blinked slowly at her. Whistle dutifully blinked back. Her attention traveled up the horse's face to the man sitting atop the horse, a man who was clearly doing everything in his power to mask his pure joy and delight in stumbling upon another human being. 

"Howdy!" The man said, brightly, just as two large dogs bounded around and between the legs of the horse to snuffle up to Whistle's knees and lick her hands. Whistle grinned and knelt down to ruffle the fur of the dogs' faces.  The man's name was Ron, and he had been camping with his animals and riding South on several trails in the desert. Whistle and Ron began to small talk exuberantly, as it was clear that neither of them had interacted with another sentient, language-speaking creature in quite some time. This became abundantly clear as both Ron and Whistle quickly ran out of things to talk about, but desperately wanted to keep interacting. 

After a few minutes of introductions and general explanations in regard to why both of them were alone in the woods, Whistle and Ron fell into a quiet, panicked silence, as each of them cast about for something, anything to say.

"This horse is 11 years old," Ron suddenly explained.

"Wow," Whistle enthused, "Is that old for a horse?"

"No," Ron replied. He looked a little pained. Whistle pat one of the dogs absently on the top of the head.

"How... long do horses normally live?"

"I think the oldest ones have lived into their 40's."

"Wow."

"But I think most of them live into their 20's."

"...Wow."

Somewhere in the underbrush nearby, crickets literally chirped.

"Weeeeell," Whistle said, nudging a little stone with the toe of her shoe and holding the straps of her pack, "Best be on my way! Good luck to you, Ron!"

"To you as well!" chirruped Ron, and they both marched off down the trail in opposite directions. Whistle felt buoyant at having had human interaction with a friendly man and his animals. Sometimes, when you're alone in the woods, having a conversation on the level of awkwardness akin to trying to small talk with your boss at the water cooler after he has just accidentally interrupted you talking with your close coworker/friend about your most recent bowel movement, isn't so bad, because hey, at least you had a conversation and no one was injured!

Whistle later found herself hiking up a 9,000 foot peak in the rain, overcome with the incredible beauty of it. The trail wound its way up a rocky, dry, desert side, but at its peak changed into a lush pine grove. There were thin veins of cold mountain water burbling down between the trunks of the stoic trees to collect into crystal clear pools. Agave grew in abundance, stretching strong and healthy with the collected water of years. Pillars of rock made miniature, natural totem poles, telling secret stories of a world long gone. Whistle stood at the peak and wondered if her voice still echoed in the canyon she'd left behind, a tiny, quiet sound heard only by the space between stones.



















Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lessons from the T800

Whistle had spent her entire life dealing with one inescapable truth: she looked very wholesome. No behaviors, no matter how bizarre, could sway first impressions away from her awe-inspiring wholesome-ness. For example, wearing a gigantic backpack and completely mismatched clothing, walking alone down a highway in the middle of a desert, unwashed, with a giant silver umbrella perched permanently on her shoulder, was not nearly enough to dissuade strangers. In one mile of highway walking, no less than three separate cars driven by kindly older couples or women pulled over to ask if she needed a hitch somewhere. And even after telling them very politely that, no, she was perfectly fine with being a wandering vagrant and that she was actually on a "trail" that "isn't finished yet", these strangers accepted her word and drove off cheerily, thinking to themselves my, what a charming young lady.

After turning off the highway, Whistle came to one of her water caches, which she knew had far too much water. Opening the box, she hmph-ed to herself, seeing the two gallons she'd left there with Mama Whistle days previously. She was in a conundrum, as she knew she couldn't carry that much out with her, but she couldn't leave it for someone else to clean up, and she couldn't just pour it on the ground, and she couldn't chug it all because she would barf. Luckily, a young gentleman named Tucker pulled off the highway and started unloading his mountain bike. Whistle rushed over to him to start a conversation, and after learning about all the various ways in which Tucker had broken all of his bones in various biking accidents, she asked for a favor. 

"Listen, I know it's not very often that you encounter a long-distance hiker who wants to give something away instead of just trying to get something for free... but can you please take this water?"

Tucker was happy to oblige, and thus it was that Whistle did not have to pour out fresh water onto the sand in the middle of the desert. 

Some time later, Whistle was hiking up a very steep mountain and listening to her audiobook about Russian hikers likely murdered by aliens when she heard a strange sound. She looked up, and there, standing in the middle of the trail at an impossibly steep angle, was a full grown cow. 

Whistle looked at the cow. The cow looked at Whistle. The cow made a judgment call about Whistle, and apparently determining that Whistle was indeed not wholesome enough, jogged up the trail away from her. As the cow turned, she revealed that she was with a calf. The calf followed her mother away from the scary stranger lady. After they scrambled away about 50 feet, they were still directly on the trail. Whistle then had to walk forward, and upon getting within 15 feet of them, the cows fled again. Staying on the trail. 

This went on for some time. Whistle: an unwilling provocateur in the world's slowest chase scene with a cow and its baby. 

Eventually the cow and its baby got tired of being repeatedly terrified of a slowly trudging, completely unthreatening young woman, and made their way off the trail and down the mountain. Upon reaching the peak of the mountain, Whistle saw across a valley, on an opposing ridge, numerous other wild cows, all perched precariously on the steep mountain face. They were like goats. Except they were cows. Big, fat, awkward cows in their natural environment. These cows were not escapees from a farm, they were indeed wild, which is why the two had been so skittish with Whistle's presence earlier. I know you were about to scroll down excitedly to the photos to see if there are any pictures of the cows. There aren't any. Whistle wanted to preserve the cows' dignity. Also, as everyone knows, every picture you take of a cow steals the soul of a hamburger somewhere.

Upon taking her first zero, Whistle watched Terminator 2. She sent me a vox about how when she was 13, she had read the whole series of books by Orson Scott Card starting with Ender's Game. She spoke about how there was a particular part of one of the books that had caused her to think about wanting to have children one day. This led to another series of thoughts, which I absolutely cannot transcribe. You must listen to her words yourself.



If the audio embed doesn't work for you, you can go here to listen to it directly:
http://www.voxer.com/v/80c12aa41a




Whistle didn't eat any tuna for the entire year of 2014, knowing that she
would want to eat tuna during her CDT hike, and not wanting to
die of mercury poisoning from eating too much tuna.
Whistle was very excited to eat tuna again.



Whistle brought some temporary tattoos.



Whistle describes how being in the desert covers your entire body in a fine,
complete coating of salt and dirt, which cannot be dusted away and must
simply be endured. This makes it very difficult to rub in sunscreen.






Monday, April 13, 2015

Bushwhacking

"Hey trail, where you at?! Oh! There you are. You lookin' fiiiiine..." Whistle's voice tapered off as she realized that she was, yet again, talking to the trail as though it was another human. In a way, it was, as the trail was her only real companion in the lonely, empty desert. As she spoke, her voice was taken by the wind and spirited away across the forever horizon. It wasn't that she was embarrassed about using her out-loud voice while hiking all alone in the middle of nowhere. Rather, she just didn't want the trail to start blushing with all the compliments she was giving it.

Over the past few days, Whistle's body had taken on a delightful new appeal, as her skin began to pink and then tan in the sun. And yet, this was not the sun-kissed surfer girl tan of California. Nay, that type of tan was far too cliche for this industrious, independent, blazingly fashion forward young lady. Instead, Whistle was getting bands of tan around her mid-calves in the space between where her tall wool socks ended and her American flag leggings began. Her umbrella didn't quite cover her perfectly as she hiked, exposing her elbows to the sun, which led to patches of tan collecting like patches on a smoking jacket. Except for leather, these patches were made of skin. Indeed, Whistle was a sight to behold.

As she sauntered along, grooving out to the thoughts in her head, considering her own tan lines and talking to the trail, she got lost. Getting lost on the CDT is something that happens quietly and without ceremony. Unlike in regular life, when one is driving their screaming children to a pool party that everyone is already 30 minutes late for, the driver knows immediately when they've gotten lost. Instead, on the CDT, because the trail is hardly ever marked, a hiker could get off trail for quite some time before they realize they've gone astray. In the middle of whistling, Whistle suddenly stopped and considered her surroundings. 

After checking her map, she confirmed that she had, indeed, gone about three quarters of a mile in the wrong direction. Before leaving for the trail, the most oft repeated advice she'd heard about the CDT was,

"If you get off trail, which will definitely happen, don't be tempted to bushwhack. Just take the time to walk back the way you came! It will always take longer to bushwhack, even if it doesn't seem like it."

As Whistle considered her map, she thought to herself, Those people probably just weren't good at math or maps! According to her map, she could either walk back three quarters of a mile, then walk ahead another mile or so... Or, she could cut across the hypotenuse of the triangle which was only half a mile. Easy, right? Incorrect!

The half a mile bushwhack took her almost 40 minutes, as she was ensnared by shrubbery after shrubbery, and ended up having to walk at a meandering uphill almost the whole time. For the entire adventure, she felt determined not to have to turn around again, and that she had made the mistake, so she had to live with the consequences. The consequences were a thousand little prickers jammed in her socks. Once she found her way back to the trail, she spoke to it quite a lot about not being so coy and sheepish, and expressed her desire that they no longer play this "hard to get" game. 

And yet, even with all their flirtatious bantering, Whistle and the CDT had not yet fully grown to understand one another. The next day, Whistle was looking for a dirt road crossing that would take her out to the highway. She came upon a road, but parked there was a car with CDT bumper stickers, and a very clean, clearly marked trail continuing on the other side of the road. 

Well, ain't that something! Whistle thought, Maybe I'll meet those people!

Crossing the road, she popped onto the trail and headed down it, admiring how it was clearly a newly cut trail that was very well maintained. After 20 minutes or so, she ran into a kind couple and their dog. They told her that they worked for the CDTC, and that this was a new route for the CDT, and that they were trying to make the trail more direct and obvious through this section.

"This trail goes for another mile or so, then just ends. There's 5 miles of bushwhacking after that, because this new section is not finished being created yet."

Whistle nodded politely, not listening whatsoever. 

She then bid farewell to them, and marched off down the trail, leaving them looking rather bemused. The trail wound its way down into a beautiful valley, and Whistle hummed to herself, thinking about what good time she was making, but also wondering every once in a while where the road crossing was that she was supposed to turn on. 

After two miles, Whistle came to a dead end. She blinked, and then her echoic memory finally plopped the words of the trail maintainers into her consciousness. Aha... she thought the road with the car parked on it... that was the road I was supposed to turn on. 

Sighing once and shrugging she headed back up out of the valley, humming all the while, her spirits undampened by yet another misdirection. 

Some time later, she found herself on a different road, and stuck out her thumb when a truck drove by. The truck slowed down, and revealed a father and mother, and their two young adolescent sons. As it is with the Appalachian Trail, long-distance hikers are largely ignorant about the surrounding landscape other than what falls in line with the trail. Thus it was that as this dad asked a series of friendly questions about where Whistle had been hiking and where she was headed, she was unable to answer these questions with any level of authority or confidence. The man stared at her.

"Does your mother know you're out here?"

"Yes, sir! She dropped me off!"

"...You know there are bears out here, right?"

"Yes, sir!"

"... Well, alright. Get in the back, we'll take you down the road."

Whistle sat in the back of the pickup truck next to a half-full bucket of water with a recently caught fish in it. Later, the two young sons proudly proclaimed that they had gone fishing, had failed to catch any fish at all, and then a nice older fisherman gave them one of his fish. They explained enthusiastically that they were headed home to gut it and cook it on a fire! Whistle expressed that she understood the feeling.

They dropped her off, and Whistle said goodbye to the kind people who clearly just thought she'd been lost in the woods for DAYS. While this was not far from the truth, the difference was, she was having a great time doing it. 










Whistle says "This is the CDT's version of a shelter, clearly."





This is the tiny hippo that I gave Whistle when we were on the AT
together.