Prologue: Lakewood to the Border
June 11, 2005
I sat holding the double Jack on the rocks in the airport bar, though I knew not why. Any sip that I might take would just run out on to the floor, pouring through the hole inside of me where some part of me had once lived. I was dead inside, incapable of relating or even speaking to the travelers around me. I took a pull on my drink, hoping to blur my mind and stifle something inside of me that wanted to rage. No whiskey spilled out of me. I took another pull, waiting for the whiskey to do its thing, knowing that it wouldn't take long. I hadn't eaten in twenty hours. I emptied the glass, a $10 attempt gain some measure of peace before the start of this long journey. I glanced at my watch and waved to the bartender for another double. The noise of the world faded as I worked on the second and I began to fold up inside, to fold back upon myself. Thinking of the past, the recent past. Days, weeks, months. Last night. This morning. An hour ago. Everything was over, done. Not a good way to start a three month, 2500 mile hike through some of the most wild, remote land in the United States. Alone. And crippled.
I managed to wish the other barsitters good luck on their trips after finishing the second double and wandered over to the Horizon Airways counter where my flight to Calgary was scheduled to board in a few minutes. Tipsy from the Tennessee Whiskey, I moved slowly. Dead inside, I could speak only in single syllables to the flight attendant who told me my flight was canceled, and that the next one wouldn't be for another seven hours. All I wanted to do was to get out of the airport, out of Washington, out of the States. To get to my friends in Calgary and talk to people who knew me and would understand. Who could offer some love and words that meant something, rather than the meaningless platitudes that a stranger would. If I could talk, that is. I found a corner in the airport and slept. Sleep. I hadn't done much of that the night before leaving.
I awoke to screaming kids racing about around me, enjoying a moment of freedom as their parents argued about something or other. I wiped the drool off my chin and went for a walk. Jack had left me and I hoped that strolling about the climate controlled building might cheer me up some. I wanted to be anywhere but here. I wanted to be in Calgary. I wanted to be back at home, together with her again. I wanted to be domestic and wear clothes made of cotton. I wanted to do anything but do what I had been planning to do for the last six months. To do that thing that now seemed so meaningless. So stupid. So empty. I made six out-and-back jaunts between the furthest reaches of the airport terminal before returning to the bar. My flight was delayed for another hour. I was able to speak again and got another double Jack on the rocks. They were on special or something.
The brown liquor didn't cheer me, but it did help fill up that hole inside me, where my heart used to reside. It put my soul to sleep for a while, for a soul doesn't take alcohol well. Indeed, that is a big part of the attraction of alcohol. It shuts everything else off, turns down the volume so much that one is left only with the body. I had another double. And then a third. My shell, for there was nothing else, walked over to the gate to wait for the flight. Delayed another thirty minutes. I thought about going back to the bar for another double, but felt empty enough for now. My flight boarded for the short hop over to Calgary. I got a rum and coke after we were airborne and wondered what I would do when I finally touched down in Canada. All my contact information for my friends was in my bag, and my bag had been checked as luggage. It would be well after midnight when I got on the ground and didn't know if they'd still be up or even knew about the delays. Maybe a hotel with a bar.
Surprisingly, I wasn't drunk when I landed, only tired and weary. My stomach rumbled from too much alcohol without food. I knew I was hungry, but eating didn't interest me much. Almost as if I was denying myself in order to demonstrate that I had control over something, that something was within my power now that everything had fallen down. I managed two syllable words to the customs people and emerged into the general area of the Calgary airport to see Kristine smiling at me with a look of compassion and happiness. She would understand. We went outside where I rolled up some tobacco and began to unload my story on her. Pieces out of order. Chunks misplaced. I eventually got most of it out, and the rest as we drove to the outskirts of Calgary where her and Mark live. With my story out, Kristine took over, offering words of compassion and insight that held meaning to me, and that made me feel better. Mark was playing cards in the neighborhood, a rum and coke by his chips. Kristine left and I sat down to drink a few beers after all the straight alcohol of the day. I felt enough alive inside me to actually make conversation, to form sentences. I just wanted the beers to help me sleep without dreaming. So that when I closed my eyes I'd see only blackness and not the past, nor a land and person now far away and out of reach. I realized I was tired and walked back with Mark to their place. I managed to get out of my clothes before falling asleep. Dead asleep. A sleep without dreams or thoughts or images. Dead.
I could hear the rain pattering on the window next to me when I awoke in the early morning. I should have been sleeping. I should have been somewhere else. Instead I was listening to rain fall gently outside, the rest of the house quiet. With the passing of the night the deadening effects of the alcohol had faded and left me with myself and the past. A past that I could not claim as my own, as it had not happened as I preferred to remember it. I thought about the words she said to me. The smell of her hair. I thought about how long the summer was, how cruel it was going to be. And then I stopped thinking. I stayed in bed and only felt. I let emotions run over me without the hindrance of thought, like a wave in a raw ocean. I wanted to let go completely, I needed to, I couldn't. The rain continued to fall.
Showering seemed to help bring me out of the stupor that I was in, but what I really wanted was some coffee. More particularly, some caffeine to brighten up the day. Chemicals. I was depending on chemicals to get me started now, to make life a little more bearable. Never had to do that before, I thought. Kristine and Mark were up, along with their new dog, a Bernese named Gunner. I borrowed their car and drove up to the local Starbucks for a coffee and, somewhat to my surprise, a scone. I had to eat sometime. The caffeine did its thing while I read the morning paper noting, as I always did, the much higher level of writing in Canadian newspapers than in American ones. The Seattle Times was something of an anomaly, being written at a high school level. USAToday, the worst offender, was written for people with fifth grade educations. The Calgary paper I was reading might actually have college educated people in mind. Being distracted from myself, I spent an hour in peace, one of the longest stretches I'd had in the last couple of days.
Mark and Kristine were doing some lawn improvement stuff and I went out with them in the rain to a local nursery to buy some plants or something. As we walked along through the rows of plants and bushes and bricks, I watched the two being domestic. Planning out what to do with their lawn. How would it look at the end of the summer? Listened to them discussing plans to sell their house in a couple of years and move into a larger one in a less suburban setting. They had built a deck just before I showed up last summer and were planning more improvements. They had a life together, a happy one. I thought about myself and where I was in my life. And then I thought about the Springtime and everything I had thought about then, felt then, and how it all fell apart. It wasn't even fair to say that it fell apart. It never existed in the first place, despite how things appeared at the time. The hollowness inside returned, made worse by the thought that in a couple of days I would be completely alone, not only emotionally, but physically and mentally as well. I didn't want to think about it. I didn't want to think about the past or the future. I wanted to turn everything off for a while. Like for three months. Was it cocktail hour yet?
The day and the rain continued at their slow pace. A few drinks in the late afternoon helped silence things, though only slightly. Around dinner time we went out to eat at a sushi place. Excellent toro. The rest was better than expected given Calgary's distance from the ocean. Chatting with my friends in the restaurant helped significantly. Seeing a few pretty couples in the place didn't. People starting something that might hold meaning. Maybe in the middle of meaningful things. The optimist in me insisted on coming out. The optimist didn't make me feel any better. I listened to it, saw the couples, and reflected on the Springtime. I hurt. Mark and Kristine have an excellent bar at home, and I was glad when we left the restaurant to return home.
I was glad of the bar, but also that they had television. Without TV at home, I have to keep myself occupied and active, which requires some sort of mental effort. I didn't have anything left to give, any mental cash to spend on resolving the past. Drinking Wild Turkey on the rocks and watching a home improvement show, that turned out to be better than expected, required no effort. Another glass of Wild Turkey and I was enjoying the show. Some Canadian guy, a master builder or something, takes his crew and donated materials to people's houses, who have been ripped off by a contractor, and fixes them properly. It seemed the most common problem was just really shoddy work. The man and his crew fixed the houses for free, turning them from disasters to beautiful abodes. I switched to Cruzan on the rocks for episodes of the Family Guy and American Dad. The liquor was doing its thing again and I was in full shell mode. A husk sitting on the couch, eyes pointed forward at the the blinking box. I didn't want to go to sleep, despite Mark and Kristine having done so. The liquor would keep the dreams away, but then tomorrow I'd be awake and sober and have to face both the past and the future at the same time, without enough reserves to deal with either. Neither could I stay awake and under the influence all the time. At least the night would be peaceful.
Another early wake up. Same feelings. More rain in the morning. It seemed like that was all there was in Calgary. A lot of rain (it had been raining for almost two weeks straight and towns had been evacuated as the Bow River overflowed its banks in places). A lot of pain. I forced myself to shower and get some coffee. I had things to do today, after all. I needed to buy food for five days of hiking. I needed to figure out a schedule for the rangers down in Glacier National Park. I had to pack. These were things I could concentrate on. Things that might keep the past quiet for a while. I remembered that I also had to buy a birthday present for her. Three things to do before cocktail hour.
Mark and I ran about doing various chores, including buying fuel for my stove. My stove was the bottom two inches of a juice can. The fuel was gas line antifreeze (methyl alcohol). Usually common in cold places, it was scarce in Calgary, which was cold enough that the gas came with antifreeze in it, according to Mark. After lunch Kristine and I ran to the store to buy food for a barbeque in the evening and for the first leg of my hike. I was active enough that only fear of the future clouded my head, with the past effectively shut out. The rain even stopped long enough for Mark to do some work on the lawn, and for me to get competely packed up outside in the sun.
I looked at my pack and was proud. I always am at the start of a long trip. Some of my students tote more stuff to class that I was carrying on my back. All they had to do was sit and listen to lectures. I was trying to walk down the Rocky mountains from Canada to Mexico. I needed less stuff to do that than they did to learn basic high school and college material.
In the sun, on a deck, in the afternoon, there is some sort of unwritten rule that says you have to drink a beer. I indulged. I sat and lounged and watched Mark labor, drinking down the first beer, then another, and a third. The sun went away and was replaced by clouds and rain. Mark and Kristine left for a retirement party for a dean at the University of Calgary, where they were both mathematics professors. Gone, too, was my fear of the future. The past crept back on me, rendering me hollow and empty as I sat alone, except for Gunner, in the house and brooded. Although I knew that I should, I couldn't let go of the past. It was too recent and I wasn't strong enough to simply forget it and move on. I poured a tall glass of Wild Turkey and was determined that if I was going to keep my head in the past, I should jam it into a happy past, rather than one filled only, now, with disappointment. Using their computer I opened up my Pacific Crest Trail webpage and began reading through some of the entries from my journal. The grammatical and spelling errors bugged me a bit, but reading back through those days from the summer of 2003 helped cheer me a lot. That I could return to that sort of experience was a hope that I allowed myself to have, to cherish. I poured another Wild Turkey and sat down with the maps for Glacier National Park. It didn't take long to figure out where to sleep at night. At this time of the year getting reservations for the backcountry sites would be easy. Just had to get to East Glacier on Friday before the post office closed. No problem.
Mark and Kristine came back from the reception with good news and smiles. I was almost shell like, but the prospect of a barbeque was a good one. Mark cooked up steaks and sausages on the grill and we sat down like a family to eat. I ate almost all of my meals alone and it was good to have someone to talk with over a sit down dinner. I thought about the Springtime about other shared meals. Fond memories. Painful memories now.
We spent the evening watching Yojimbo, a famous Kurosawa movie, and consuming more cocktails. I remembered that I wanted to send out a birthday present. Two books. Two books that meant something to me, sent to someone who meant something to me. I couldn't figure out if I should use the past or present tense. While checking my email, I found out that an acquaintance of mine had just died that day. Same way his wife had died two years earlier. Riding his bike around town, clipped by a driver. Driver sped off. They never did find the guy who killed his wife. Probably never find the person who killed him. I wanted to weep for him. I wanted to weep for myself. Instead I poured a Cruzan and finished watching Yojimbo. No dreams, I told myself when I eventually headed off to bed. Another night without dreaming, without having the past in sight. Tomorrow, I would not have that luxury. Tomorrow I was leaving for Waterton and the start of the hike. A hike I didn't care about anymore. A hike that seemed a stupid way to spend three months when all I wanted to do know was go home and to live as I had in the past. Damn.