The Journey Home

February 8, 2009

When I first got on the train to head out to the Rockies, one of my main goals was to try to live a life that was as unstructured as possible while getting to know the Intermountain West, or at least a small part of it. Much of what I had done in the last seven years had been leading to this, and what I had done during the summer, the people I had spent time with, the sights I had seen, the thoughts I had thought, the smells I had smelled, even the feel of the wind on my hairy face, all of these things and more would continue to lead me to the future. Rather than terminating at some static point, there is no journey's end. In my search for unstructured living I failed more often than I succeeded. I thought about this as I walked back to Forks along the La Push road and then south down US101. I declined several rides. It would have been easier on my feet, but I felt like having just a bit more time to myself before I had to go back to the structure that comes with living in a fixed place, that comes from living in settled, civil society. Even though my failures were enormous, the fact that I had so many successes and even more opportunities to succeed, greatly cheered me. There was so much that I could have done had I been just a little more intelligent, a little more patient, a little more human and a little less herdanimal. The ending of my trip at a place other than where I had planned was somehow fitting for the summer.

I spent the night in Forks and in the morning took the bus to Port Angeles, where I sat on a variety of benches waiting for the next bus to Seattle. I didn't say a single word on the entire ride, not due to any dislike I might have had for the other passengers, but rather because I didn't know what to say to them. I couldn't put the last month and a half into any framework that would simultaneously be understandable and truthful. From the airport I took another bus to Lakewood. I was faced with a forty minute wait with the usual assortment of hoodlums and perverts loitering about the transit center. It didn't take long to decide just to walk the 2.5 miles home. Besides, I had a soda bottle full of cheap whiskey to accompany me.

The part of the summer that will stay with me forever will be the people that I happened to meet along the way. How could I forget the woman who, concerned that I hadn't eaten, brought me fried chicken and grapes? Or Jason, who although homeless, destitute, and condemned to an early death still offered me food and a sleeping bag because he didn't want me to suffer? The summer was not over. There was one last person to meet. Lakewood is a mixture of extreme wealth and abject poverty. Drugs, gangs, and a hoard of Level 3 sex offenders blend in with the 5000 square foot homes of former lumber barons. There is a hospital for the criminally insane a half mile from where I work. There is a prison just offshore on an island. People are scared of strangers and leery of anyone they do not know. It can be a hard place to live. For my walk home I stopped in at a Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee, both for the caffeine and for something to pour some whiskey in. I dropped my pack at the door and came in with my ziplock bag wallet, my money tied up with a broken rubber band. I was digging for change when a woman asked me,"Would you like a cup of coffee?" I nodded and she bought. I thanked her and left before I shed a tear or confessed the truth. She had done something moral, and I couldn't stomp on her for it. In this town of so much fear and mistrust, she did something nice for a filthy, smelly, run down, beat stranger.

It took me some time to adjust to life in the world that I left behind when I got on the train. Every morning for several months I hobbled about on painful feet. My back hurt from sleeping on a bed instead of on the ground. Friends called and invited me out, but I couldn't go. I couldn't be around large groups of people in confined areas, or even on the sidewalk of downtown Tacoma. There was too much going on, too much sensory input, for me to comprehend it and I needed time for my brain to become de-sensititzed. It was hard to talk to people who didn't already understand. I left town for a while to clear my head. I found myself after a week in Cascade Locks, right on the Columbia River and the PCT. There was a party for the PCT, organized and run by various thruhikers of years past. I didn't know who would be there, but I found a few that I knew from times past and a few that I knew, and who knew me, by reputation and writing. These were people I could talk to and not have to explain things. I didn't have to explain why I went for my walk or if I was going on another one. I could talk to them without having to explain why. They knew and I knew already that no verbal answer would be adequate. Argumentarians could always pull on a loose thread, could always pose a "What if?" There was none of that here. People here either knew, or were waiting their turn to find out.

And there was Joy. There was happiness in the crowd, happiness that went beyond the freely flowing beer. Spending time around happy people, genuinely happy people, is infectious: You don't want to spend time around moping people any more after you see how much better it is to be happy. I had a good life at home in Lakewood, with people around me who cared about me and with whom I liked to pass time. I could go and spend time with them now. I needed the community I had joined and formed around me, for I couldn't always be out and about. And so I went back to Lakewood, back to my job and my stuff. But more importantly, I was going back to my community, and that was something that I had not been able to say at the end of any of my other long walks. I was going back to something good, but I would be going out once more. Jason had told me, "I will never leave the road". That's goddamn right.