Epilogue: The Journey Home

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August 22, 2003.
We slept in, there at the border, for the first time in many mornings. It was not until just past 7 am that I started rustling about, getting ready to walk into Canada, where there would be a road and a parking lot and no more trail north. Sharon was still dozing as I started packing up, although by the time my pack was on my back, her hot chocolate was heating and she was munching on a final cookie from the Bakery in Stehekin, a final tribute to the trail and our past summer. Leaving her to a lazy morning, I set out down the access trail and into Manning Provincial Park. A short twelve kilometers, the sign assured me, though the databook indicated one final, easy climb was still out there, providing one last opportunity to work up a sweat. Shortly past the border lay a developed campground, complete with a toilet and fire ring and meandering brook. Canada likes there campers in campgrounds and, despite the presence of the outhouse, I vastly preferred our site, right next to the monument. It was a melancholy morning as I wandered down the trail, lost in thought, but without emotion. The summer was over and all that was left was to go home, or at least back to Indiana.

The last climb of a few hundred feet went by without sweat and the trail ended at a former road, where I took a last break before beginning the descent to the parking lot. The road appeared to be a former logging road of some sort and, though not paved, was still completely drivable, even in the Camry that I had left back in Evanston at my mother's house so long ago. One spur trail and then another was passed, leading to places such as Windy Joe peak. Even the fine name could not brighten the mood of the day as I put in time, just as one puts in time to go the grocery store or to the dentist. No value in it, I thought, no substance. Just stupid walking.

Bottoming out onto flat land once again, I crossed a few streams and creeks and rivers, some bridged, and spotted the road less than a kilometer away. Cross a swamp, meet the gravel, pass a horse trailer, done. My feet were back on concrete, on the main park road. A bridge was nearby, in the direction of the Manning Park lodge, where Sharon and I had a reservation for the night. It was as good of a place as any to wait for her.

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I rolled a cigarette and listened to the cars rush by every few minutes, facing the trail, with my head barely three feet from their tires. Not the most relaxing of places to have a sit, but it would have to do. I felt like a vagrant now, rather than a hiker. Homeless, purposeless, without mission or objective or time. Suburban, perhaps. I spotted Sharon coming down the trail twenty minutes later and watched her dodge behind a tree to use the bathroom in the woods one last time. She came an joined me on the bridge, with no where left to go. A few families strolled by, no doubt confused over our ragtag appearance and odd choice of place of repose. One even took our picture after we told them we had walked here from Mexico. It was hard to get up and walk to the lodge, even though we knew that there was a restaurant there, and a shower to be had, and a soft place to sit. It was hard, for the first time, to go back into civilization, for we knew that we would not come back out of it again. It had to be done, however, and so we walked the mile to the lodge.

Being barely 10:30, we could not check into the lodge as yet and so went to the restaurant for some breakfast. I had an omelet, but declined ordering the pancakes that I usually had alongside of it. I no longer needed the calories, had nothing on which to spend them. I caught a few complacent tourists looking at us from the corner of their eyes, wanting to know what we were, but being afraid to ask. The food was not good, the coffee worse. The check more than it should have been, especially in Canada where food is normally cheap. The gift shop was next door to the restaurant and held a glimmer of hope. We had missed our beers at the border, but the gift shop had Nanaimo Bars, a fudge-brownie like concoction, dense like the sun, a favorite treat of mine that I could only get in Vancouver. I bought four large squares and a newspaper, before we retired to the lodge.

Still not being able to check in, we loitered about the posh front room, sitting in the deep chairs and generally smelling up the place with the funk of 2658 miles. The Vancouver Sun held nothing of interest, and so I instead read a few random passages out of one of the Bibles that were sitting about. Less interesting than the Sun, I put that aside as well and napped in the deep chair, fitfully. Despite the softness of my surroundings, the place was not conducive to napping. Or, rather, it was pitiful in comparison to a shady tree somewhere on a mountainside. Eventually the staff seemed to tire of our smell and appearance and found a room for us. Sharon had been busy during my attempt at sleep and had found the information about transit to Vancouver. I read over this as she showered, though this too bored me. A bus would come sometime tomorrow morning, and we might or might not be able to get on board without a ticket, although we might or might be able to buy one on board, if we had exact change, or even if we did not. We might or might not be able to buy a ticket in Hope, or perhaps not. Nothing seemed terribly clear and so I turned on the television to discover only five or so channels. The CBC had news of the fires that were raging all around us and the dire stories of the refugees that had lost there homes and a few loved ones. Manning Park, and the area, were under a state of unofficial emergency, as the place suffered the driest summer in memory. It was unlikely that the place would not burn before the last of the PCT hikers finished, leaving in doubt how they would finish their hike. The news was boring, and so I turned the TV to mute and stretched out on the bed in a fit of boredom. At least I had a shower to look forward to.

Stepping out of the shower, as clean as I could make myself, the room was awash in the terrible odor that we had carried in with us. Still, there was nothing to do, nowhere to go. Sharon went somewhere. I went nowhere, did nothing. I couldn't think any more than I could feel. I needed an activity, but none came to mind. Having done nothing, I was not hungry, but upon Sharon's return we decided on dinner in the pub. Bad Caesar's salad and terrible, colored beer greeted us in the pub. Being British Columbia, all package liquor sales (that means a 6 pack) has to be done in a licensed store, and the pub was licensed only to sell beer out of a tarp, or in bottles, to be consumed on the spot. The bartender, however, told us that there was a package store out at the east gate, perhaps twenty kilometers away. Why not?

Sharon and I had had our thumbs out for perhaps ten minutes before a summer ranger came by and gave us a lift in his truck. A student on summer break from Nanaimo (home of the fabulous bars), he was deeply interested in our summer hike and pleasantly amused that I knew where Nanaimo was (I didn't tell him the reason). He dropped us off at the store and then turned around to go back to the park, having gone out of his way to give us a lift. This seemed like a good omen for the hitch back, but alas it was not to be. The store held bad beer, but at least it was cheap. It also had tickets for the bus tomorrow. Sharon and I left with six beers and six hard lemonades, along with some ice cream for now and pastries for later. Our thumbs out, we expected a quick hitch given our earlier luck. Ninety minutes later, it was getting dark and still no one had stopped for us. There was plenty of traffic on the road, but no one seemed interested in picking us up. Sharon even directly asked some youths in the parking lot for a ride, but they declined, citing a busy evening schedule. Finally, a large VW (modern) van stopped for us, driven by a late 30s musician and his absolutely stunning early 20s girlfriend. The musician has just finished touring and the couple was returning from a visit to her parent's house. They were on their way to Vancouver tomorrow, but were planning to camp in Manning Park for the night. We chatted about our summer and the fires and thanked them profusely for the lift back into the park.

The lodge rented VCRs and movies, which we took advantage of. They even had a Steve Martin movie called "My Blue Heaven", a particular favorite of mine that Sharon enjoyed also. A silly farce about a good hearted New York gangster who enters the witness protection program and has to move to a San Diego suburb. Rick Moranis, his FBI watchdog, has his life transformed by his knowing Steve Martin and everyone lives happily ever after. Sharon was nodding off by the end, having drunk all six of the hard lemonades. I turned out the lights on a lost day, knowing that tomorrow would be more of the same, except with better food. Vancouver had that in spades, at least.

We didn't bother with the restaurant for breakfast and instead ate pastries from the night before. Sharon even bought me a Nanaimo Bar to go with my newspaper to kill time before the bus arrived. Three hours to Vancouver, and then what? Vancouver did hold the promise of excellent, cheap sushi, but all of my friends that lived there were up north on a mountaineering trip. It was a place to kill a day in before heading to Seattle, where I would have to waste another day before going back to Indiana. The bus was, at least, uncrowded and faster than expected and rumbled into the main Vancouver bus station shortly after noon. For all of its charms, Vancouver, or parts of it, rather, can be a mean place. My car was stolen her two years ago, although I later recovered it without any damage. The city had a large homeless population and an even larger drug problem. The area around the bus station is about the worst in the city. Violent crime is fairly unknown her, although this isn't apparent to those on foot, walking by strung out junkies, being propositioned by fourteen year old girls, stepping over nodding heroin addicts. More prostitutes, more pan handlers, more addicts. I knew what to expect, having been here before, but Sharon was a little surprised at it all. Unlike large US cities, Vancouver makes little effort to run its downtrodden out of town and instead keeps them confined in certain areas.

We picked up a map on the way out of the station, along with a schedule of buses heading to Seattle, and started strolling for downtown, through the sea of homeless, addicts, prostitutes, and grungy travelers. Fortunately, one of the many Chinatowns in the Vancouver area was close by, and after a mile of the underbelly of Canada, we dodged into clean streets and well kept shops, whose advertisements contained few, if any, English characters. A man stopped us an asked for directions. He had, it seemed, taken us for locals, and this made a certain amount of sense. I was weathered and had a thick, puffy beard, along with gritty clothes and a beat pack. Sharon's thin body and even beater pack gave us the appearance of a homeless couple, wandering the streets in search of a meal or a safe place to stay for the night. We could not help the man, although we did show him our map. Leaving Chinatown and entering downtown, the buildings got larger and fancier and the panhandlers fewer. Downtown proper was outside the safe zone for the homeless, although they could pass through quietly without incurring attention from the non-existent Vancouver PD. No panhandling, but plenty of panhandlers moving about, scrounging cigarette butts from the ash trays outside of the fancy buildings and shops. I stopped in a hotel to find out the price for a night: $230 Canadian dollars.

Back on the street, a hotel on our tourist map caught Sharon's eye: The Laughing Taxpayer Pub and Inn. It was close by, and with a name like that it had to be interesting. At least we could have a few beers if they didn't have a room or it was similarly expensive. A bright, cheery sign greeted us from down the street, although given the location (two blocks from the ocean, right in the heart of downtown), the prospects for a cheap room were not good. Upon entering, a friendly Irish lad greeted us with the best news in two days. A clean room could be had for only $70 (about $45 USD), including breakfast. Clean and safe he added, the best in downtown. Plus, he had information about an All-You-Can-Eat Sushi and Mongolian Barbeque joint close by. Normally AYCE sushi is a recipe for the truly awful, but he swore by the place. Moreover, the bar was downstairs. Perfect.

With nothing particular to do except to wait for tomorrows bus, the day passed without interest. We napped. We went to the sushi place and stuffed our face with respectable, if small and limited, sushi and sashimi. We walked to the ocean to sit for a while. We looked for, and failed to find, icecream. We retired to the pub, nominally to get some kind of dessert, but ended up drinking Strongbow Cider on tap, a rare find outside of Canada, and watching the Women's Track and Field Championships. I bought a can of Molson from the bar to drink upstairs, although I was quiet tipsy after five pints of the cider. Sharon started to go to bed and I went out to the porch, overlooking the street below, and drank the beer, trying to think. Even though I had no purpose here in town, I did not want to leave. The most trivial reasons came to mind. It wasn't stiflingly humid here in Vancouver. The food was good. I had friends here. There were outdoor opportunities unrivaled anywhere in the world. Virtually every outdoor sport was represented here by some world class facility. Rock climbing? Sure, Squamish is just down the road. Skiing? Aside from one of the only vertical mile descents at Whistler, there were numerous ski runs dotting the mountains rimming Vancouver. Mountaineering? There were unclimbed peaks within sight of the city. Wildlife? Victoria Island is one of the best places in the world to watch whales. Scuba diving? The harbour around Vancouver and Victoria Island hold many shipwrecks from days long past, as well as more recent times. I drank the Molson and thought about all that Bloomington held for me. Cheap living, I suppose. My job and my stuff were there, I thought. Nothing else. To make re-entry worse, it was the hottest time of the year in Indiana, with complete humidity and ninety degree days. The students would be moving in, causing traffic jams and wrecks, as parents and students wobbled about town in overloaded cars and moving vans. I had a day and a half in Bloomington to plan out the course I was teaching this semester. And, I had to move my stuff into my new rental. I crushed the beer can and went back to the room, slipping into bed as quietly as possible so as not to wake Sharon, and closed my eyes on the day, feeling less content than I had since I stepped off the plane in San Diego at the start of the summer.

Sharon and I ate the complimentary breakfast of cereal and toast quickly and then headed back to the bus station, through the prostitutes, addicts, and homeless. The bus station was busy and I was glad that we had arrived a little early to catch the bus. Schedules were already becoming a downer, but I did manage to secure some coffee, a cinnamon roll, and a newspaper to read on the three hour ride to Seattle. Our bus was mostly full, though we were the only hikers it seemed. Or, former hikers. A pack of Australian girls, out to see North America on their winter(?) break were seated behind and next to us and kept up a constant chatter over the most inane topics possible to imagine. Perhaps the topics were fairly normal, but after a summer spent listening to the wind, any topic they could bring up would have been silly. The bus rolled out of Vancouver, past where my car was stolen, past my favorite Sri Lankan restaurant, and out onto the swampy plains between Vancouver and the border. I buried my face in the newspaper, swapping sections with Sharon as each of us progressed on. At the border the bus stopped for us to disembark and clear customs. With my passport in hand I cleared immediately, despite the thick beard and ratty clothing. Sharon, however, had only a drivers license and, contrary to what the signs in the Vancouver bus station said, this was not sufficient to enter the US with. After twenty minutes of questioning, lecturing, and general probing, Sharon was admitted to the United States once again. It took quite a bit of time for the rest of the bus to pass through immigration, as the border agents seemed extra vigilant this morning. Forty minutes of waiting and we were again rolling south to Seattle.

The bus pulled in to the station in Seattle, right in the middle of downtown, and the passengers filed out, all with places to go and things to do. I sat down on a bench, alone in the parking lot, while Sharon went to the bathroom and look at some lodging information. We had nowhere to go, and lots of time to do it in. The gaggle of Australians moved off rapidly, though I could hear their voices as they trundled off to some attraction. A half hour later Sharon returned with the suggestion to walk to the visitors bureau and go from their. Signs outside of the station directed us past the massive shopping opportunities of downtown Seattle to the bureau, which had stacks of information about lodging opportunities. The Green Turtle Hostel was recommended and close to Pike Street Market, a large, open air market that, if a little touristy, was supposed to be fun.

The Australian girls were just then checking in to the Green Turtle when we arrived. The lounge area was filled with much of the world youth that I had encountered in the Third World, which didn't seem promising. I wanted to decompress, do nothing. I had little desire to share a dorm room and a bathroom. Particularly since men and women were segregated, we had to rent sheets, and there was a strict no-alcohol policy. All this could have been ours for $25 each. Instead, we went to the Commodore Hotel, a block a way, and got a room with cable TV, a shared bath, and a lot of quiet for $50, total. Even closer to Pike Street Market, the Commodore was a formerly grand hotel, it seemed, whose better days were long past. It was a little shady, but I didn't mind very much and Sharon seemed content as long as I was around as well. She would move out tomorrow when I left town (her flight was several days after mine), but for today it would do. We dropped our stuff off and walked down to the market to look around and get some food.

Much like South Lake Tahoe after the Sierra Nevada, the stroll through Pike Street Market, on a Sunday no less, proved challenging to the sanity gained from many days alone in the wild. Jammed with tourists, shoppers, street performers, flying fish, vegetable hawkers, fruit vendors, sausage makers, flower wholesalers, and every type of merchant possible, the market place was too much. For hours we strolled up and down, got some ice cream near the ocean and watched the waves come in, strolled more, ate the world's greatest nectarines and peaches, and had some Greek food to match the Turkish we had consumed earlier. With the day beginning to wane, the market started to close up for the day and we had to find amusement elsewhere. We hunted for a liquor store, or any place that would sell us packaged beer, but none were to be found. It was like Seattle wanted to keep that sort of thing out of their touristy area. We finally found that Pike Street Brewing Company sold packaged beer and brought back a load to the Commodore. Rather than watch the sunset and the stars come out, thriving on the energy of life, I settled into the motel room to watch television and drink beer. Instead of the anticipation of another day on the PCT, all I had to look forward to was four hour plane ride back to the humid midwest. Rather than finding some interesting flower or getting a glimpse of a neat bird, Sharon found a hypodermic needle in the woman's bathroom and I found blood on the floor in the men's. The soothing scent of a pine forest, or sage and juniper ripened by the sun's heat, I had the stench of "air-freshener" to breath. The bed was soft and I did have running water, but I would have traded much to return to my free room of the summer.

I had a bus to catch and only a few hours left with Sharon and Seattle and the West. The summer had ended days ago, although I was not ready to go home again and rejoin the sedentary life that I had so joyfully given up in May. A city bus would take me to the airport and then Southwest would take me to Chicago, a ticket I had purchased way back in Ashland. More than a world separated me from that time. We got coffee and pastries in a French cafe on Pike Street and chatted about things past. A bus schedule in hand and an eye on my watch were constant reminders that time was slipping away. While the coffee was good and the almond croissant even better, neither did little to cheer me. Sharon walked me to the bus stop, talking about what she might do for the next two days in Seattle and for the next few weeks. We made plans to meet at the ALDHA Gathering this October in Hanover, NH. She was going home for a few days and then was headed out to hike south on the Appalachian Trail from Katahdin for two weeks. Then a fun visit to some friends in Boston and then the Gathering. She might start working again shortly after, but was in no rush. I was flying to Chicago today. The next day I would drive back to Bloomington, unpack, sleep, unpack, get my class for the upcoming semester set, unpack, sleep, unpack, and then drive out to rural New York for Patrick's wedding. Then back, then teach, then...what? It seemed a gloomy future, stuck in Indiana, particularly when I thought of all those hikers still on the trail. I could see my bus coming down the street, still a mile off and it was time to say goodbye. I gave Sharon one last hug and then watched her walk down the street and turn the corner to go back into Pike Street Market. My bus was here. It was time to go back.