There’s a mist hanging over the forest. Darker and heavier than the drizzle-gray sky, thickening around the bowels of the largest trees, obscuring the path. At least that’s the way I want it to look, posted up a couple blocks from where a massive plastic chimney rises from an open manhole and pumps steam vapor above pedestrian areas and into the boughs of the pigeon-spooge park that lines one side of the avenue, where the vapor joins with cigarette smoke from three raisin-eyed brown-baggers seated at the base of a statue depicting the gout-riddled wife of a robber baron environmentalist. “Parks are an ideal convergence point for potential donors, especially right after the close of normal business hours,” is the kind of shit that Robbie, regional coordinator at Community Crusades, Inc., likes to write in his emails, like I haven’t been temping for the dork for the past two years.
It’s almost six and I’ve barely seen any other people on the street during the two-mile hike from where I parked my on-its-deathbed Honda Civic, lugging the binder containing stacks of same-sex marriage statistics or water quality data, whatever progressive cause I’m supposed to be championing today. I forget. If I was smart I would have called the office this morning and told them I wouldn’t be coming in. Robbie’s kind of squeamish, records Big Bang Theory re-runs, potentially a fan of the dudes. All I would have had to say was that I had extra-gnarly cramps, maybe mention a non-specific, yeast-related condition and I’d be home, no questions. But it’s too late for that now. I wipe some raindrops from the collar of my florescent polo, skim the contents of the first pamphlet on top of the pile – a non-profit that sends backpacks to kids in a Serbian economic oppression zone (good thing I’m wearing my entire rainbow of awareness bracelets) – and wait for the human downpour.
Chances are you’ve seen me, or someone like me leering at you from the most awkward center of the sidewalk. Young, energetic, possibly dreadlocked (and probably white), clipboard in hand, happy to disrupt your commuter solitude and assault your moral sensibilities. “Excuse me, sir? Do you support a woman’s right to choose?” “Ma’am, do you have a moment to talk about sustainable agriculture in South Sudan?” And if you’re like most people, you don’t have a moment. You’ll avoid eye contact (or praise yourself for remembering shades), you’ll plaster your phone to your skull like it’s the only thing keeping it together, or you’ll pretend you can’t hear me over the Norwegian black metal bumping in your ear buds when you’re really listening to shit that’s so light they wouldn’t play it in elevators. My favorites are the hoodied futures-of-America who find it acceptable – no, necessary – to explain that AIDS is great for population control, or to scream “god hates fags and clipboarders!” at a five-foot-two, 105-pounds-after-a-burrito size chick.
You’re all PIN numbers that haven’t expired yet, bodies I can use if you’re dumb enough to listen.
I watch the light disappear, take out a handful of complimentary pens – featuring the same sad multi-ethnic child’s face – from my cargo pocket, adjust my non-threatening ponytail and side-swept bangs, listen for the first sounds of movement from the cubicled infirmaries that line both sides of the street, hovering over first-floor retail façades. I pull out the tips of pamphlets so they’re easily accessible. The first off-the-clock worker exits a building, scowl illuminated in phone glow. The pace quickens in a matter of moments, as I have anticipated, becomes a hail storm of seasonally toned galoshes and laptops wrapped in plastic bags, the stink of happy hour salivation.
Something uncommon, a rookie move. Maybe it’s the stress from still being so far below my projected savings for this quarter, maybe I’m tired. Either way, I allow myself to be hypnotized by the rapid beat of transit. I press the binder to my chest, close my eyes for barely a few seconds. I take a breath, feel water droplets pooling on the crow’s feet that the Park Ranger called my “smile lines.”
I open my eyes. Two business-casual fucktards – one flicking a music player, one struggling to zip the man purse at his hip – are bee-lining, oblivious, toward the awkward center of the sidewalk and their inevitable confluence.
I brace for the collision. The impact knocks me back a foot or two, I scatter pens. The drops trickle and run down my face. Resist the urge to curse, remain sightless, allow the sensation to engulf me. I flick out my tongue, try to catch the scent of the perpetrator. I taste the sting of sludgy precipitation.
“UhhwoopsyouOK?” Purse Boy asks. I’ve brushed the water away and he’s scooping pens off the pavement. He mumbles what sounds like “Lyme-disease-free-yoga,” presses the pens into my hand and walks away fast. It’s better that way. Pity talkers are the worst. It’s like I get it, you feel bad that you bumped me, that it’s cold and my metabolism makes it look I haven’t eaten in a while, that your girlfriend told me she’d rather take bong rips of pesticide than discuss the plight of the Northern Spotted Owl, whatever. But to spend forty-five seconds pretending to be interested in the contents of what I’m schlepping isn’t doing either of us any good.
Solicitors, the good ones, don’t have the vaguest interest in the causes we promote. The real idealists – energized, new-adult faces with genuinely pleading eyes – never last. They’d rather spend their formative years scraping organic matter off the walls of a drained dolphin rehabilitation tank than hustling yuppies and guilty college kids who have discovered social consciousness as a side effect of a two-day coke hangover. And that’s cool. Because it is a hustle. Community Crusades, Inc. is a for-profit company, meaning that nonprofits pay us millions of dollars a year to run fundraising drives on their behalf, funds that tend to vanish – after expenses. I’m required to begin my spiel by explaining to you that I’m a “paid fundraiser for grassroots campaigns,” but all that stuff Robbie tells us to spew about “100 percent” going to the nonprofit is exactly what it sounds like: dolphin shit.
The position didn’t require a resume. I wouldn’t have known what to put on one. Two-and-a-half degree-less years at a state school with a moderately storied basketball program? As far as extracurriculars go, getting raped and ODing isn’t particularly noteworthy or uncommon, although I guess it doesn’t usually happen in that order.
Under the Required Skills & Experience section in Community Crusades’ Craigslist ad all it said was that they were looking for local candidates “who enjoy interacting with people, are stable, have a great attitude, and care about our planet!” Bonus points for customer service experience, the “ability to overcome objections,” and weekend availability. The correct combination of Xanax and Starbucks solves all the world’s problems and my interview with Robbie went stellar, mostly due to my embarrassing knowledge of contemporary major-network sitcoms – thanks Mom and Dad’s Netflix! We spent way more time discussing the inherent pathological slant in each of the major character dynamics in Modern Family than whether I could convince some ADHD-stricken fool on the street about the imminent perils of ozone depletion.
But yeah, pity talkers. No bueno. The only one I ever really let get the better of me was the Park Ranger. He has a name, a fake one he told me once, but I never think of him as anything less than the total sum of what he was, or what he believed himself to be.
He told me he loved making broken things beautiful.
The first words he said to me, over a year ago when I was out canvassing for a group that plants saplings in deforested wetlands: “I love making broken things beautiful.”
From a potential donor standpoint, that’s a cue to start scanning the street for the nearest law enforcement personnel. As a pick-up line it was creepy but unique. Plus I’d already secured three or four commissions and time was closing in on me not giving a fuck. We went to a falafel spot and had coffee and he started talking, a bunch of random life trivia. Growing up in North Carolina in a woodsy pit-stop town near a major hiking thoroughfare. Encountering a massive whitetail deer in rut the first time he got stoned off his ass and how he knew he’d found his “animal spirit guide.” His current job cleaning up after hikers and repairing trail shelters in the mountains of New Hampshire. He kept tugging at this gingerbread beard that reminded me of a kind of out-of-control lichen that would grow on the trees at the lake upstate where my family used to camp sometimes. Meaning, sort of cute. I didn’t ask what he was doing in the city or why he was still wearing his beige and olive National Park Service uniform.
“There are small moments,” he said out of nowhere. “And sometimes I think that’s all there is.”
I was like, “Cool, so are you having any good ones now?”
He sipped the latte he’d bought and made weird grimace/smiles that looked like he had a low tolerance for coffee or was wrapping his mind around something that had been a long time coming, jumper-cabled in irregular bursts and starts. He told me he had to catch a bus, had to get back to work. I got his number (didn’t ask for mine) and was sidling up for an awkward goodbye and he shrugged back, took out a small, wilted brochure from his pocket, pressed it into my hand. An illustration of a guy who looked kind of like him but with a backpack and walking stick, wearing shorts and standing in the foreground above a valley with waterfalls, pixelated sunset, generic nature clipart. “I like your smile lines,” he said. “They remind me of a stream bed that’s never tasted acid rain. Great biodiversity.”
He left the restaurant.
I stood there for a while, uhhhh.
I looked at the brochure. Thinking about how many like it I’d stuffed into commute-sweated palms, how many I’d seen tossed seconds later into sidewalk receptacles, how many I’d actually read beyond the cover.
I bought another coffee, sat down.
It was a beginner’s guide to the Appalachian Trail. Figured. But the more I forced myself to skim, the more I found myself getting into it, even though the pages were mostly just maps. I traced the 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, passing through 14 states in wilderness with the occasional trail town, road, and cross river. The text boxes about section-hikers, thru-hikers, purists who follow the white blazes (tree markings that denote the official trail), blue blazers who take mostly negligible shortcuts, and the yellow blazers, gentrified pussies who try to hitchhike whenever things get a little rough.
The more I read, the more I kept getting visuals, kind of like tripping, but really clear snapshots – a patchwork of light-slivers through pine boughs illuminating a root-gnarled trail twisting around a bend to nowhere, mud-wrenched legs hugging a precipice overhanging a cobalt snake-skin river, a flame-bright meadow of flowers refracted and expanding in a dewdrop’s mirror. The feeling of being welcomed by a vastness, a bird-flung other-world drowned in the pleasant ache of a sleeping bag, spiking and fading within a clock-less biorhythm of slumber and movement, the absence of anything besides my thoughts, my lungs, the land.
Meaning, not having to approach assholes and near-dementia retirees on the street.
I burned through Wikipedia articles, websites of various conservancy groups, digital backpacker magazines, personal blogs and Tumblrs. I figured out how much it would cost to do the entire trail in one season, what kind of sleeping and cooking gear I’d need, preparatory cardio regimens, proper poop disposal. I bought maps and marked the trail towns where I’d need to re-up on food and take a shower. Where to buy high-energy snacks, water filters, flashlight batteries, first-aid stuff, a whistle (three blasts is the international signal for help). Most of the cold-weather stuff I’d take from the room that used to be my sister’s.
I made a list of everything that could go wrong, researched fatality statistics, looked at pictures of compound fractures and gangrene fingernails and rotting abscesses caused by spider bites. Heat stroke, lightning strikes, diarrhea, foot blisters, biting flies, and tick-borne diseases, all the negligible hazards. Pretending to be a gung-ho millennial martyr is a lot like getting mauled by a bear, only much more wasteful. As a meat product one hundred percent of my energy would go directly toward sustaining life.
It felt good to have a goal, an end-point, one that might kill me before I reached it.
That made me feel better.
I called the Park Ranger a couple weeks later during a lunch break. What was I was going to tell him? That his giving me the brochure had catalyzed what was starting to become a potentially unfeasible obsession? That I’d developed hiking fever and could he help me feed the flame? That I wanted to apply for the National Park Service and call dibs on a personal lean-to where I could cook Ramen noodles and canned hash every night and listen to the delicate, non-human majesty of bullfrog mating rituals?
“I’m back in town,” he said, after I reminded him who I was (she of the exceptional biodiversity). He was staying at a friend’s apartment a few blocks from where I was canvassing. I asked him if he wanted to do something later and if it would be cool if I could just come over to his friend’s place after work and drop my shit off so I wouldn’t have to go back to my car.
The building was a gray-brick, six-storey walk-up, a little gross. Non-existent buzzer, walked right in, the blunt-gut and Cheetos-dust stairwell, aromas of curry and something that struck me as vaguely Caribbean. The fourth floor rumbled with the bass-fracking and booze-hoots of someone’s day off, adjacent to the apartment where the Park Ranger told me he’d be. He opened the door, scowled.
You know how when you walk into a place or a situation where something is off, where it feels like you’ve stepped into an oblong distortion of the reality you expected, that cartoon shit should happen where the needle scratches off the record and everything freezes and goes silent. Meaning, at the very least your fight-or-flight should kick in to the point where you realize you need to make a decision and act on it.
Maybe I’d been so inundated with googled hiking propaganda and my visions of what my personal journey would look like that the studio apartment, lit only by a popular LED lantern model I’d thought about purchasing myself, didn’t faze me as much as it probably should have. There was no TV, sofa, table. Any refrigerator or microwave had been ripped from the windowless back wall long ago. Most of the ceiling was covered in garlands of dried wildflowers. I recognized bluets, jewel weed, columbine, and lady’s-slipper. Fallen petals carpeted the hardwood floor. Huge trail map print-outs on multiple walls, different colored tacks marking who knows. Posters and photos of whitetail does and fawns, beaver dams, swimming moose, hourglass-banded copperheads, undulating ridges capped with snow, tunnels of greenery and autumn-scarred scenic overlooks, orgasms of nature.
The Park Ranger – same uniform, beard still nest-like – motioned me to where someone had set up an MSR Hubba two-person tent (highly recommended by veteran trail enthusiasts) and adjacent to it, a portable cooking stove and pot system surrounded by a semi-circle of what looked like lacquered tree stumps.
“Take a seat,” he said. He disappeared into the tent and reemerged holding a pair of mugs.
I was trying to figure out how to fit the majority of my ass on a chunk of wood that appeared to be stolen from a kindergarten classroom. The mug he handed me was blue with writing that said Keep Calm and Think of Mountains. A brownish green teabag inside. The Park Ranger flicked a lighter and the stove ignited, flames stroking the underside of the lidded metal pot.
I noticed a large, flowerless gap on the ceiling, directly above the ring of stumps. Black burn marks in a circular pattern.
“Is this set-up covered by your renter’s insurance? Your super must love you.”
“Chamomile,” he said, squinting at his mug.
I still couldn’t tell if he was truly autistic or if this was his preferred style of fucking around with near-strangers. Either way, the appeal had almost evaporated. But I had trail-related questions, stuff I couldn’t find online, and he was the closest thing to an expert I had.
“So I want to do a thru-hike next summer,” I said, “the entire trail, one season.”
His brain fog lifted, injection-quick, an excited beard tug. “You liked the brochure? I thought you might connect with it. Did you have any questions?”
I started spitting them out while I had his attention, tried to ignore the spoiled fruit smell wafting from the tent and the absence of an obvious bathroom. I asked him how expensive the trip would actually be (way more than the budget I’d allotted, of course), the towns and states with the cheapest resupply stores (Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and the Grayson Highlands in Virginia were apparently populated by generous souls while Connecticut was understandably “rife with thievery”), the ideal ratio of carbs-to-protein based on my body-mass index. When it came to less concrete, opinion-related fodder, like what was his favorite type of rock formation to dry off on after a particularly sweaty stretch or to warm up on during a sunrise, he was nebulous but weirdly inspirational: “It’s true that you become what you absorb, but you have to remember that your heart is stronger than anything you take from the sky.”
As we were talking the pot started making bubble sounds. The Park Ranger poured steaming water into my mug, then his. My nostrils gorged on a sweet, crisp brightness, wild herbs hidden beneath a moonlit treescape.
He sipped. “So, who’s your partner?”
He snickered. “OK, but who is going to be hiking with you?”
No one. That was the point. I hadn’t really considered that most people wouldn’t want to be totally alone in the woods for more than half a year. That pit stops at communal shelters and trail towns were probably looked at more as sanity-sustaining re-immersions into the hobbit-stink matrix of mountain society than ordeals to be relished with the fondness of a root canal. Even the Park Ranger had at least one likeminded friend, whoever’s place this was.
I sipped. The tea was strong. Those two words in my throat sweetened it.
“Well if it’s your first time and you’re going solo,” the Park Ranger said, “you’re going to need some trail magic.”
“It can be anything really,” he said, “big or small, sometimes a beer, a bottle of water, maybe your blisters are acting up and there’s a tube of bacitracin someone’s left for you at an abandoned fire site. An act of kindness from one true hiker to another when you didn’t know you needed one. Happens all the time. Maybe you sprain your ankle and out of nowhere someone out on a day trip shows up with a set of car keys and GPS to find the nearest clinic. That’s a trail angel. You’ll want to meet a few of those.”
He finished the tea in a gulp, the runoff forming tributaries down his face, his eyes lidded, heavier.
I took another sip. Other faces and randomly appearing plastic products had been pleasantly absent from my trail visualizations. The idea that reliance on handouts wouldn’t stop once I quit Community Crusades started working its way down my esophagus, corroding. “So you’re saying there are all these littering Samaritans lurking everywhere, who get off on just abandoning supplies that they might actually need themselves? I call B.S. When you want to pretend to care you give money, it’s quick and a tax write-off. There has to be some other motivation. How many angels are really just looking for a thank-you blowie in a pastoral setting?”
I followed the Park Ranger’s gaze to the back of the apartment, to a red and white gingham shirt I hadn’t noticed nailed to the wall, its sleeves crucifixed and unraveling. A smudge of undecipherable rust-colored crud obscuring the left breast pocket. Above, where a person’s head would be if they were wearing the shirt, hung a pair of deer antlers wreathed in either dried grass or really blonde hair or maybe some other kind of tinder.
I took a sip of tea, crossed my legs.
“I found her when I first started clearing trails and working on shelters in New Hampshire,” he said. “A couple college students had called into the station, reported her creeping around where they’d made a campsite. My supervisor told me to check it out, probably a harmless tweaker lost in the woods, wanted me to make sure she didn’t have any kids or anything, if we needed to send up some EMTs. I hiked to where she was supposed to be, an area that had been mostly cleared and mulched, and she was there, wrapped in a filthy once-white sundress, hugging herself under a large dogwood that was in an almost identical state of wilt. It was September in northern New England and rain was coming. I called out and she spooked, rabbit-fast, took off into the trees. It was surprised to see something so small and skinny run like that. I left my jacket and a couple oranges. I came back the next day and she was sitting in the same spot, wearing the jacket and tossing an orange between her palms. I approached and she took off again, but this time I could see her peering at me behind some undergrowth a few yards away. Hair wild and shining, eyes large but clear. This went on for weeks. I’d bring shirts, sweaters, boots, a tarp, kindling when it got colder, jerky, water bottles, granola. The food she wouldn’t touch – there was a growing pile of wrappers and plastic under the tree – but she’d take everything else. Where, I don’t know. It got to the point where I’d almost be able to hand her the packages before she sprinted off, could smell her, could touch her breath. One day she didn’t run. She was waiting, holding the antlers. ‘Never lose it,’ she said when she placed them on the ground in front of me and backed away into the trees. I couldn’t believe it at first. How she could know how important the deer, the idea of what the antlers meant, was to me? But walking back to the station I began to understand the truth she had taught me. When you give pieces of yourself to the forest, you become the forest. You become part of something bigger, something that feeds you, heals you. You don’t lose it. I only saw her once more after that.”
“That’s, uh, nice.”
I looked into the mug, the teabag pulsating in the gunk that remained. A slight thud in my chest, a thickness. Then a buzzing that was both auditory and physical, like being bathed in a high-pitched white noise strong enough to make the hair on my arms pucker.
Unexpected but not unfamiliar.
“It’s why I chose you,” he was staring at me but his eyes were kind of rolling around, spindly. “Because I knew you needed it. The trail. But also because I knew your spirit was beautiful enough to want to reciprocate. You’d want to become a part of the forest.”
I tried to steady myself, tried to swing my neck around a little, tried to focus on something I’d just noticed in one corner of the room: a pile of beige and olive pants and shirts, thrift-store-beaten, an open shoebox containing what looked like various park service patches and different nametags, sewing needles, several spools of black thread.
“I have something for your trip,” the Park Ranger was saying as he stagger-crawled into the tent, clumsy and failing to zip up the door flap all the way. “Don’t look yet.”
Above the increasingly louder buzzing, the sound of metal on metal, a vague pressurized release.
It doesn’t matter that, as far as I know, the Park Ranger didn’t try to follow me down the stairwell. That it took me two hours to find my car and another hour of pulling the trigger and heaving until I felt clearheaded enough to drive. That the name he’d given me wasn’t in any National Park Service employee database or that the apartment wasn’t registered with the city’s housing division. That I didn’t eat for three days and came tantalizingly close to getting fired. That I couldn’t stop thinking about the red shirt with the smudge, the antlers.
None of it matters.
Because it’s been over a year and it’s past happy hour and I’m still standing near the awkward center of the sidewalk clutching the binder, my hair sagging with moisture against the collar of my florescent shirt.
Because nobody, including me, gives a shit about Croatian orphans or whoever I’m supposed to be championing.
Because I still haven’t saved close to enough money for a proper thru-hike and my car is about to die.
Because Robbie’s idea of being a competent regional coordinator includes sending dozens of text messages every day like the one I just got: “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm – Winston Churchill.”
More rain droplets roll from my forehead into the corners of both eyes. I’m unable to prevent them from entering, from dancing across my corneas in defiance, turning the flickering shapes on the street into a mass of tiny horned creatures that want nothing more than to bury their jaws into my skin. I crash into one as I try to fight my way to the edge of the sidewalk and she curses and I’m rubbing, shaking, slapping, and continuing to do so until the shock of contact has been removed.
But the damage has been done. Squinting the liquid off my face, I feel the venom surging through my body, the years of tiny bites, so close together, so sunk in with time that I imagine red lines have been etched beneath my arteries. My marrow starts to burn with these parallel and perpendicular lines, with lines intersecting to create a prism that’s only red, closed, no chance for any other colors to enter.
I need a beer, a bottle of water, a tube of bacitracin.
Anything to stop the burning.
A tall shape extracts itself from the howling din, pauses, steps toward me. Smiling, calm, his yellow hair illuminated in a street light’s halo. Blue and white checkered shirt.
“Hey, ah, Marissa?” He’s skinnier than I remember, older, healthy 401(k) gleam, no more fake-diamond ear studs.
The same too-thick wrists.
And the name’s wrong, though he’s close.
“Marissa in Kappa, right? You lived with Kelsey Donovan freshman year? Didn’t –”
I fling my binder, start running toward the park, the belching plastic chimney, the bums. Remembering the brochure the Park Ranger gave me, I try to follow the main path, the white blazes. But it’s totally dark now and the mist keeps getting thicker. And it keeps raining bodies, so many bodies between here and where I need to be.
Chris Vola is the author of Monkeytown, a novel. He lives in Manhattan where he tends bar, plays slow-pitch softball, and regularly escapes near-death situations on his longboard. Find him at @ChrisVola or at smalldrunkencog.blogspot.com.
–Art by Marina Ćorić