I was still uncivilized; I stood out among the Wednesday morning commuters in their ties and pencil skirts, awaiting lattes at Starbucks. Air-dried hair frizzed from my head and baggy hiking pants hung off my skeletal frame. Instead of a purse, I clutched a nylon stuff sack. 

I hadn’t yet gone back to work after my 675-mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. In fact, I didn’t have a workplace to go back to. The whole point of my journey, cut short by a stress fracture in my foot, had been to find my life’s purpose, to reclaim the gifts I had squandered in favor of capitalism’s charms.

A ripe human scent entered my nostrils, 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.

Illustration by Anna Hall

• • •

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 able to do, 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 that I was where I should be, and giddy to have landed in a place where a private audience with an owl on a mountaintop was an ordinary 5:00 a.m.

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 mountains left no energy for assembling armor. I could not create or maintain a persona as I had done back home, as each of us does every day, to some degree, 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.

One Friday before taking a weekend away from the trail, I absentmindedly left my trekking poles—which I relied on for balance, speed, and distribution of effort—leaning against a hostel’s kitchen wall, only to find them missing when I returned to retrieve them Monday.

Across the next miles I found a couple of sticks, but these were as effective a substitute as flip-flops would have been for hiking shoes. It—everything—was suddenly all too much: the futility of the endeavor seemed certain, the prospect of another month without my boyfriend gutted me, and sobs overtook me. 

When I spotted another hiker approaching, I stanched the tear flow. He stopped when he reached me. I stood on a stream-crossing rock, my sticks dug into the pebbles on the bed, water trickling around them.

“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.

“What’s wrong?”

“Just not sure I’m going to make it.”

He stepped closer. “Can I give you a hug?” 

I closed the distance, stepping from the stone to the stream’s bank, 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 man’s forearm.

“Let me get your coffee,” I said. I was still close enough to the experience of need to 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.

About the Author

Mathina Calliope

Mathina Calliope is a writer, teacher, editor, and writing coach living in Arlington, Virginia. Her work has appeared in Cagibi, Outside, the Rumpus, Longreads, Off Assignment, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.

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