Prologue: The Appalachian Trail to Calgary
I sat in the grey, early morning light of an Indiana sunrise, stretching my legs for the first time in almost a day. Coffee, chocolate milk, and donuts sat beside me on the picnic table on the edge of the gas station. The overnight bus that I had taken from Manchester Center, VT, sat outside the station, on an extended break before making the final run to Chicago. Passengers milled about. Some still dozed on the bus, trying to steal a little sleep while the bus was stopped. I was on my way to my mother's house in Evanston, just outside of Chicago, for a few days in between hikes. On May 9, 2004, I had begun hiking north from Damascus, VA, on the Appalachian trail. Two years earlier I had hiked from Springer Mountain, GA, to Damascus on the AT, an event that I had proclaimed to be the best of my life at the time. I had loved my time on the AT and was sorry to get off of it in 2002, though I was going on to other adventures in northern British Columbia. When I returned this year to the AT0, I was a changed person. In between hikes on the AT, I had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and was not the same. I was unsure whether the PCT marked the beginning of changes going on inside me, or if it simply opened my eyes to the changes that were already underway. For 48 days I had hiked north on the AT, across Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and half of Vermont. Around 1150 miles had rolled by, as compared to the 450 and 28 days from two summers ago. In contrast to that summer, I could not proclaim the hike to be the best I had ever done. Indeed, I wasn't even sure if I could mark it as a positive experience in my life. The Appalachian Trail had not changed, but I had.
On the bus ride west, I could list off many negative qualities of the AT, and a few good, important ones. The worst of the lot was the lack of wildness and scenic quality. It was extremely rare that I was ever out of ear shot of a road. Wildlife, such as deer and bear, were plastic and all the wildness had been driven out of them long ago. I had hiked for around 350 miles in between areas which I could characterize as beautiful, and the drought was only ended by a human-caused environmental disaster. Indeed, the drought was broken at an EPA Superfund site. The second quality of the AT that hurt so much was the dogma and purity found on the trail. Hikers obsessed with passing every white blaze on the trail, without deviating from the trail even when better options exist on other trails or other directions. The constant degrading of hikers who were not pursuing a traditional, pure hike was not only insulting, but reminded me too much of a settled society. While there was much talk of acceptance and tolerance on the AT, it seemed to be practiced by only a few. It was these few that represented the best qualities of the AT. People with a free and accepting spirit. People that had the internal strength to resist the demands (usually through a form of peer pressure) of the herds on the AT, the herds that were no better, though they thought they were, than those one might find at a Walmart; no better than those people driving Hummers and Expeditions to the grocery store. The self righteous nature of the typical AT hiker was discouraging, and the monotonous and dull nature of the trail itself were too much for me. I was not strong enough to hike on the AT, although for I had enjoyed the last week on the trail as I found a better way to hike. I had finally freed myself from the constraints of the trail by finding my own way north, sometimes on the official trail, other times on other trails or on roads (walking, not riding). I was sad to leave people like Indy, Tom, Captain Hook, Rock Steady, and Wild Horse, but I had to go elsewhere, especially that I had found a way to hike enjoyably and had outrun the herds of the main pack.
In New Jersey I had made a decision to leave the AT a little earlier than expected, in Manchester Center, VT. Originally I had planned to either finish the trail or to get off somewhere in New Hampshire, and then migrate to the Canadian Rockies for the Great Divide Trail. There seemed little reason, in New Jersey at least, to keep going north when I wasn't enjoying myself. And so it was that I found myself on a shorter than expected bus ride to Chicago.
I stayed for a few days in Evanston, fattening up and talking with my mother. I was unsure if I would ever return to the area, as I had landed a job teaching at a community college in the Puget Sound area. The days in Evanston were idyllic. The side and back yards of my mother's house have extensive wild gardens that I like quite a bit, particularly in contrast to the emerald green, chemically treated, perfectly formed landscape of the house next to hers. Sitting under trees that I had planted as a child, or near the bushes where childhood cats and dog had liked to lounge, I was glad that I was not hiking on the Appalachian Trail. On July 4, I began the drive out to Utah, where I would drop off some stuff at Brian Frankle's house in Logan before heading north to Calgary. The drive out I-80 is one of my favorites. Starting from the urban setting of Chicago, the interstate drives nearly straight across rural Illinois and Iowa, the prototypical midwestern states. Watered with plentiful rain, farms are green and lush and trees large and well formed. Once it crosses into Nebraska, and runs close to the 100th Parallel, the land begins to dry. Grasses become brown, rather than green. The broad and powerful Mississippi and Missouri rivers are replaced by the trickle that is the Platte, slowly carrying the Colorado Rockies down onto the plains. Trees shrivel and become spooky, gnarled things. By the time North Platte is reached, the interstate is fully in the west and the High Plains, with their lack of water, dominate. My plans for staying at once of my favorite campsites along I-80 was ruined by an apparent tornado, forcing me to stay in a motel room instead. Rain and wind pelted the motel, but quickly passed and I was left with one of the most beautiful sights I had yet experienced. I walked out into the parking lot, tall boy of Budweiser in my hand, to make sure that I was seeing true. The sky overhead was black with clouds, while on the western horizon the sky had cleared and a powerful yellow-orange sunset dominated, spectacular in the distance. The far off light and the moisture laden air combined for a rainbow which, given the fact that it was dark where I was, meant that I stared at a rainbow-in-the-dark.
In the morning I finished the drive to Logan and Brian's house, where I dropped off some homebrew that I didn't want to haul across the border to Canada. He, Amity, and I sat up until late in the evening talking. It was hard to go to sleep, despite the late hour. I had so much to talk about, so much that had been bottled up inside me for large parts of the summer. There were so few people along the AT that could understand. Or, rather, there were so few people that I could trust enough to unload my mind on. Brian, yes. I had met Amity just that day, and she was right as well. But sleep must come.
With a few hours napping, I rose early and said my goodbyes to Brian and Amity before pushing north toward Calgary. I-15 snaked its way north, changing side of the Continental Divide. This was land that I would sometime traverse, someday get to know. It wasn't typical alpine. Rather, it was dry, scrub, and high. The contrasts between valleys and peaks was exactly the kind of thing that I loved, and I scanned each exit, hoping to see a CDT hiker trying to hitch somewhere. They were out here, few in number, though the chances of my encountering one were slim.
The Rockies bend to the west in Montana and I-15 continues north. The interstate dropped out of the mountains and down onto the massive plains that make up most of Montana and stretch all the way to the Great Lakes, At the border crossing I had to file immigration papers and answer a lot of personal questions, such as how much cash I had in the bank, the credit limits on my credit cards, the names of references, presumably because I had told the Canadian border agent that I was going to be in the country for perhaps forty days. After a two hour delay at the border, I drove into the night to reach Calgary in the dark. Two friends from graduate school days, Mark and Kristine Bauer, were now married and living in Calgary while teaching at the University of Calgary. I had not seen Mark for three years, and Kristine not for the last two. Mark and I had lived together for two years and Kristine was a constant presence there. I wished that I had kept in better contact with them after they left, but there was nothing I could do about it now.
Kristine and I (Mark being away at a math conference) sat up and talked late into the night over Scotch. Again, I didn't want to go to sleep. Kristine was a person that I could talk to, although we had spend much of the night simply recounting what had been going on in our lives for the past two years. I had another couple of days in Calgary, however. In the morning Kristine had to go into her office to work on a research project and I needed to buy some gear and talk to Parks Canada about various permits. Kristine drove me into campus, where I took the train into downtown and the Mountain Equipment Co-op, my favorite outdoor merchant. I spent far too much money on gear, stuffed it into my pack, and then went in search of lunch and Parks Canada.
Lunch was easy, and consisted of Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, but Parks Canada was more difficult. I finally found the right building and made my way to the upper floors where the offices for the Rocky Mountain parks were located. I spent an hour and $113 to secure various permits and make a few reservations for Banff NP, the antiquated system of having (the secretary did) to call each park causing most of the delay. It seemed silly to do things like this, rather than having a computerized system (as in the Grand Canyon, for example). I didn't particularly like paying the money, but I thought it best to try to be as legal as possible during my hike. At least if a warden caught me camping illegally, I could honestly assert, and prove, that I had paid all the money required of me, that I had not cheated Parks Canada out of any revenue.
Kristine and I met up at the University of Calgary and went out for sushi at the Sumo Lounge. For about $20 each, we were able to sit at the ellipsoidal bar, ringing which was a trough of water which served as a highway for small boats with different bits of sushi on them. We could eat what came around or order from a short, select menu, and, best of all, we could eat as much as we liked. Usually All-You-Can-Eat means bad food, but the Sumo Lounge was tasty and I tried to force in as much of the raw and partially cooked fish as I could.
After dinner we walked around a local park where a troope was giving a free performance of one of Shakespeare's plays, although I did not recognize it. We stayed up late once more, talking and drinking Scotch, and making plans for the next few days. I needed to buy supplies tomorrow and Kristine had to work. But, the following day she could drive me down to Waterton in style, rather than the bus-and-hitch plan that I had originally planned on. Everything was working out well and I felt more in the flow of things that I had since I left the PCT last August.
Kristine spent the following day at work and I with buying food for the first leg of my hike and for the fourth leg. Kristine was planning to come up to Field and meet me for a day or so, although she would have to bail out if something came up and would instead mail the box to me, although with a pair of shoes that I would need by then. I ate a whole cheesecake that I had bought at the grocery store. A few hours later I was hungry again and Kristine made an excellent dinner of salmon and potatoes, along with rhubarb cobbler, which rivaled even my mother's. My last night in a bed for a while was passed quietly and serenely, partially due to my extreme relaxation over the last few days, but also from took much of Mark's stock of excellent rum.
The time had finally arrived and in the morning we made the three hour drive down the plains, skirting the egdes of the mountains, to Waterton National Park. After looking around town a bit, we walked the six kilometers out to the border along Waterton Lake, lounged, and then returned quickly, forced by the cold, strong winds. It was almost Time. Kristine and I parted, and I was alone once again, with a long trail in front of me and the desire to be out here. I was very far from the Appalachian Trail, much further than the few thousand kilometers that separated the two trails. Indeed, there was no resemblance between the start of my summer and the Now. The future, unknown, had to met in order to be experienced. I was ready and my time was now. I had no obligations, nothing was fixed. All I had to do was to meet life and see what came of it, a luxury that many people do not give themselves and one that I have only recently come to appreciate.