The morning sun broke through the pines of the Pacific Northwest, a fog rose off the damp asphalt, and the small town of Marblemount stirred to life. Here was the last place to buy food before a ninety mile stretch of forest that made up the Northern Cascades National Park. The town consisted of an inn, a gas station, two restaurants, and a general store. From the general store, I bought a coffee and an apple danish and sat with them on the bench outside while Savannah curled at my feet.
We’d only been walking for four days, but my body felt better than I anticipated. The past two days Savannah and I had walked twenty-four miles and I woke feeling surprisingly fresh. My new habit of meditating and doing yoga each morning was making a difference.
Yet, despite my body feeling strong, and my spirit riding the high of walking again, I felt on a deeper level profound exhaustion from defending myself against my self-imposed solitude over the past ten years.
It was only the week before that I decided the mental and emotional armor which had protected me throughout The World Walk became too great to carry.
I first donned the armor at twenty-two, after I ended things with my first love. We dated for four years and I would have married her, but I suspected in a few decades a seed of bitterness would grow in me if I left walking around the world an unfulfilled dream. So, still in love, I ended things.
And I remember thinking afterward that I would see the walk through even if it killed me because I could imagine no greater sacrifice than giving up life with Lianna.
After the breakup, I wore the armor willingly. I needed to.
It wasn’t as though I was in medical school or doing a Ph.D. Though arduous journeys in their own right, they don’t necessitate removing yourself from every creature comfort as walking around the world does. Ph.D. students still have their rooms, their beds, a roof, familiarity, friends to get drinks with, and a community with which to commiserate.
While walking, there is none of that.
The armor I wore thickened as I went. I straightened it, tightened it, and it protected me. It kept me safe from loneliness. It held together as I navigated new cultures on my own, as I raised Savannah, as I pushed my body, as I walked for months in the desert, as I climbed mountain after mountain, and most importantly, as I fell asleep each night.
But after ten years of wearing that armor, sometime in Azerbaijan or Turkey, I realized it was beginning to crack.
My friends from Iceland noticed immediately.
“After we met you, Tanya said how interesting you were, but we both knew you were done with The Walk.”
It was true, but The Walk wasn’t done with me and I had made a pact with myself to finish it.
For a few months more I did my best to keep the armor patched together. But it was no good. The armor was finished. And after walking Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, once I knew I was headed back to America, I accepted the weight of the armor just wasn’t worth what it offered anymore.
Rather than letting it fall off me piece by piece during my walk across America, I cast the armor off all at once when I flew to New Haven to tell the girl I’d been living with in Turkey how I felt about her.
The relief was total. No longer did I have to carry that weight. No longer did the armor bite my neck or constrict my movements. I arrived battered, bruised, and weary, in filth-ridden rags, but allowing myself to be exposed and unprotected for the first time since twenty-two.
But instead of being met with warmth and balms in New Haven, I was surprised by the cool knife of indifference. No sooner had I taken my armor off than I was wounded.
So there I sat outside the Marblemount General Store, tired and aching, but with the strangest sense of lightness about me. While I thought about all this, a burly man with a long white beard leaned on a post to say hello.
“I can see it in your eyes,” he said, not far into our conversation.
“I had the same thing after a year in ‘Nam.”
“That’s so much worse though. I haven’t been in war, just on my own.”
“But it’s there. I see it in your eyes. You’re older. It wears on you, ages you.”
I nodded. I couldn’t remember ever having such a personal conversation with a stranger so quickly while I was abroad, but now they were happening every day. The day before I found myself consoling a barista about her ailing mother and the inevitability of death.
The bearded vet continued.
“After these seven months, you’ll be finished. I mean really finished. For me, all it took was that one year in ‘Nam. I got here and I’ve been content ever since. At a certain point, you understand there isn’t anything more you need than a good woman by your side and a little peace and quiet.”
“I can’t wait.”
“You’ll get there. For now, make sure you load up on food, and if you’re camping in the Cascades be sure to hang the food away from your tent. Do you have bear mace?”
“You should, but it’s all right. Odds are you’ll be fine.”
“That’s my bet.”
“Well good luck.”
The vet and I pounded fists and only moments after he left, my mother called.
“How are you?”
“Good, sitting in a little town enjoying a coffee before I start across this national park over the next three days.”
“Sounds wonderful. Did you speak with Susan?”
“She had to reschedule to Monday morning. Her mother is sick so she had to fly down to Florida and take care of her.”
“It might be a good thing actually. I won’t have any internet the next three days so this really lights a fire under me to get moving and get into reception.”
“How far is it to the next town?”
“About ninety miles, but I’m sure there will be reception sooner than that.”
“Ninety miles in three days?”
“I won’t need to go ninety miles.”
“I sure hope not.”
“I’ll get into reception hell or high water.”
“I trust you. Just bring some energy drinks with you to be sure, can’t miss this call.”
I laughed. “Will do.”
“How’s your heart?”
“I did what I could. I can live with that.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“All right. I just wanted to check-in. Kick some butt over the next few days. And get into reception so we know what the hell is going on with the children’s book!”
I left Marblemount at noon. My cart was weighed down with protein bars and cans of beans and soup. For miles the road was flat. The sky was cloudy and there was a breeze. We passed a few farmhouses drifting in seas of grass. To our right, the wide Skagit River roared.
Eventually, the road began upward and I was surprised at how well my legs handled the climb. It had been months since I pushed the cart uphill. Uzbekistan was flat and horses carried my things in Kyrgyzstan.
In the afternoon, Savannah and I reached the small community of Newhalem – a town populated entirely by the employees of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Two dozen identical bungalows lined the street, and up the road, where the river bent, was the tall silver dam that kept Newhalem alive. We rested on the perfectly manicured grass of the town center, then continued.
By five Savannah and I had covered twenty-one miles. That was more than enough to be considered a fine day’s work, so I turned down a service road looking for a place to sleep. Down a ways, I found a clearing between the road and the hill which rolled to the gorge. I parked the cart and put out Savannah’s food.
Savannah ate while I sat beside her and gazed into empty space. I considered how much farther it was to town, we still had about seventy miles. Then I thought of the children’s book my mother and I had been working on and the phone call with my literary agent on Monday morning.
I looked over my map and considered where else I might sleep. In eight miles there was a campground, but it was five-thirty already so even if Savannah and I walked non-stop we wouldn’t arrive until after sundown.
But that was good enough.
“No,” I said aloud. “This isn’t over.”
I let Savannah finish her food, then I covered the bowl and put it back in the cart.
“This isn’t over, Savannah. We’re not done.”
I was tired. A full day of walking was behind me, but I didn’t walk for six years and pull my mom through her depression for two years in order to miss a call with my literary agent by a handful of miles.
For two hours Savannah and I walked without rest, but after we crossed Gorge Lake, the road turned suddenly steep and the day caught up with me.
I pushed the cart uphill for a few minutes then stopped to catch my breath. Five minutes on and I started again. A few minutes after that, I took another break. We’d walked twenty-seven miles already. My calves were throbbing.
With my phone, I inspected the elevation gain ahead. The road was steep for a little over a mile before it leveled out.
I wasn’t going to let a few miles keep me from this call.
We began walking again. The cart pressed against me and I pushed it back, fighting gravity with my weary body. I was wrecked; physically, emotionally, spiritually, but I wasn’t going to give in.
“Finish it,” I said to myself.
“Finish it,” I said again.
My legs moved steadily beneath me.
I found a rhythm between the words and my breath.
In six years of walking, I had never spoken to myself in mantras, but never before had a mile of road represented so much. It was the entire walk. It was my life after the walk. It was the past six years and it was the seven months remaining. It was my exhaustion. It was me dragging myself to the finish line.
The cold air stung my throat. The road grew steeper, but my legs kept moving.
“Finish it!” I shouted, with tears in my eyes.
Savannah raced ahead of the cart, pulling the leash.
The road didn’t give in. My chanting went on and on, becoming nonsensical.
“Fina shit, fina shit, fina shit…”
My back was knotted.
The road curved and I thought I could see where it leveled out, but minutes later I realized it continued to rise. My legs screamed. My heart was in my head. My vision was bleary.
The words were empty. Inspiration was long gone.
There was only grit.
Tears fell from my eyes.
“finish it…” I pleaded.
When the road leveled out I didn’t celebrate. I didn’t throw my fist in the air. I only felt relief.
A half an hour later I staggered into the campground and found a clearing where I could set my tent. Across from me were picnic tables full of families playing games, drinking beers, and laughing. One had fairy lights strung between the trees. At another, a guitar was being played.
I laid out my tarp and sat down.
I hung my head and marveled at the totality of my exhaustion. It wasn’t the thirty miles I walked that day, it was the twenty-two thousand before it. And with my armor cast off, it felt as though I was seeing myself for the first time in a decade. The armor had protected me, but now I saw my skin was shriveled and pale and my body was bruised beyond recognition. How many hits had I taken? No close bonds. No love. No Sunday dinners. No drinks with friends. The careful separation. The practiced Stoicism. The ports I had to leave again and again. The dull pain of it all was unbelievable. How pervasive, how deep it ran. How many wounds did I suddenly find? And at my stomach; the cut of indifference. It would heal quicker than the other wounds, but it was a sharp pain.
I closed my eyes and swam down into my mind in search of shelter. I swam far from the aches covering me.
I swam to where the water was cold and the sunlight was gone, where pressure gripped my chest and threatened to crush me, where in the icy darkness there lay something shimmering.
The warm wind on my face. The smell of lavender and the sea. The weight of her body on my legs and my hand holding her thigh. Her arms around me and my head safe in the nape of her neck.
Somehow the memory wasn’t tainted by knowing her indifference.
For me, it was gold. It was perfection. It was wandering through the wilderness for a decade and finally, finally allowing myself to rest.