Leaving Portland was bittersweet.
Firstly, we left one fourth of the group behind. Grace, sadly, had to attend to some weddings and then get back to university. The fellowship broken, we soldier on without her witticisms, brilliant laugh, and encyclopedic nerd knowledge. We miss you, FD!
Despite staying an overwhelming 3 days in Portland, I didn’t get to see everyone there who I love (Emily, Danielle, Jan, Kelly), but I never do on these short visits. Walking away was very difficult. Stepping out of the car in Cascade Locks, I felt nauseous at the prospect of hiking, not least due to the FroYo on top of Thai food working its way through my digestion.
I am conflicted about this journey sometimes, my perspective twisted. I have to (get to) hike, and my friends get to (have to) comfortably homestead in a beautiful city.
It takes only a mile or two for the magic of the trail to return, however. The scents of the forest blow in, the rhythm of breathing, the dull ache of the backpack chafing bony body parts, the delicate buzz of insects. My pack, weighty with a food resupply, anchors each step into the earth. I lean forward as bright wildflowers (indigo, crimson and violet) lightly slap my calves, dusting me with incense and pollen.
The trail has become, well… routine. The excitement is still there, but it has dulled down to singular moments. Walking is, much of the time, boring, says Henley. Especially in the tunnel of trees that makes up much of Oregon and Washington. It’s a job, says Dan, the most consistently routine lifestyle he’s ever had. Every time I shoulder my pack, I look at my watch. Nine miles, I think, three hours, and my feet start shuffling forward. Time is measured until the next water or camp or lunch, trying to keep my eyes away from my watch face. Podcasts, audiobooks and the iPod keep the time in forward motion. I find myself watching the trail, dulling to the scene around me. Observation has grown routine, too, and I stare downward, to my dismay.
“Do you think about it more in the morning?” asked Henley. “The end, I mean?” We are on a ridge top, enjoying breakfast, perhaps my favorite meal of the day, trading around Nutella and cream cheese and instant coffee between us. It’s harder getting up, we agreed. A few hours ago we’d woken up after a cold night to frost covered ground, waiting until the sun cracked through the trees so we warmed enough to move. The air has been cold, even during sunny afternoons. A couple days of occasional rain turned the trail into a puddle of dirt soup, the views around us into thick fog as we wandered through a cloud. We huddled under trees for shelter, debating the comparative hell of the Southern California desert. Reader, you can probably guess where the Texan, Englishman and Coastal Westerner landed on the sides of that debate.
Same as the last few months, I still dream of the trail, peripherally, nearly every night. I’m at a dinner party, in India, underwater, and suddenly I panic. “I’m supposed to be on the trail!” I tell the dolphins or Indians around me. “I can’t be here! I have to go back and finish!” And then the dream ends, and I wake up to the same reality every morning. The sun spilling upwards through the trees, through the cracks of my eyelids, through the fabric of my fleece hat, pulled low over my face.
We are so close to the end of this journey – I can feel it. The monument on the border is another 250 miles onward. We are looking at plane and train tickets from Vancouver. Subconsciously, I am counting the days, and have been since Portland. The end is magnetic.
People ask what we will do after this. The thoughts – compounded from 2,400 miles of considering that very question- are by now too complicated to explain in simple sentences. My future is the 11 or so days it will take to reach the border, and after that hops forward to some nebulous stable existence where I have a job, my cat, a fridge of food, couch, bathtub, blender, patio and garden, towels, ceramic mugs, candles, books, a toaster, and a porch swing.
Until then, I will walk, carrying all I need on my back.
Leaving Portland was bittersweet.