I'm not sure if I can tell you exactly what was going on in my mind when I decided to get off trail. If it was something a young man with long hair and blue glasses said to me, if it was a brief hormonal imbalance making me impulsive and itching to be somewhere else, if it was my creaking body that I was listening to complain to me as I walked down the street. Really, I didn't even truly decide until I was halfway to Reno and even then, in Sacramento, Portland, West Glacier, I still think about making my way back and getting deposited back at Red's Meadow, walking miles and miles and catching up to Schweppes and Mayor, to Moonsong and the Helicopter Boys, Osprey, England, Necktie, Banjo. They wouldn't be that far ahead, a couple hundred miles at most. A week. That's all. But then I picture myself past Red's and I can't do it. I want to continue only seeing myself in the Sierras, maybe this way I will never leave there. Maybe this way, I will have to go back and finish, stretch it out so that I won't have to participate in real life for a while more.
I sat in Mammoth for a week, each morning making a different excuse to miss the bus back up to Red's. I would call my mom every day, telling her she wouldn't hear from me for another week because I would be getting back on trail the next morning, but the next day we would be on the phone again. I woke up one morning, the fifth I had been there, and knew I wasn't getting back on trail. I had this overwhelming feeling of being shuttled along with all the other hikers, on a lovely tour of the countryside, stopping at all the pleasant town exhibits, all of us receiving our goodie bags full of sunburn and exhaustion. I sat outside that morning and planned my escape, not yet ready to head home, but unable to get back on that moving sidewalk of a trail. I bought a ticket for a shuttle, packed up, and started on my way to Reno.
We were all deposited outside the Greyhound station three hours later, where I bought a ticket to Sacramento, then to Portland. Once in Sacramento, I wandered for hours, waiting for my late night bus to leave. My phone showed the temperature at 104 degrees and after walking into a restaurant, sitting at the end of the bar, and mopping the sweat from my face with the available bar napkins, the couple next to me smiled and bought me a beer, commenting how overheated I looked when I walked in the door. I chuckled, thought back to my entrance--me sitting down, bearishly grabbing a handful of drink napkins from the caddy and wiping my face and down my neck. After the beer, I walked back to the bus station and waited a few more hours for the bus to leave. I sat in the aisle seat and slept bent over the armrest, my puffy jacket wadded under my neck, smelling of sweat and dirt. It was midday when the bus arrived in Portland.
A few hours before, I had reserved a bed on AirBnB and also called a man about an apartment he had listed on Craigslist, telling him I would be able to meet him there shortly after I arrived. My maps told me the apartment was less than two miles away and so I walked as fast as I could, trying to make it there in the fifteen minutes I had until twelve. Finally when I got there, I walked up the stairs and into the open room. It was a studio on the first floor of a mansion built in 1902. The room was small with wood paneling. It looked out over a parking lot. The kitchen had an old half stove and cabinets where the doors didn't shut all the way. To tell you the truth, I don't even remember there being a bathroom, but there had to have been one, right? I told him I would get back to him and as he drove away I wondered what I was doing there, looking at places to stay. For good. Why had I suddenly thought it was a good idea to settle into a place I had never been, when I had been so content just days before carrying my home on my back?
I walked back the way I came, watching my map as I went along, trying to navigate my way through this unknown city. The lady who's house I was staying at that night called me and told me she wouldn't be home for another three hours and the bed I was staying in wasn't ready for me, but I could go and drop my things off in the meantime. When I got in the room, I unshouldered my pack and sat down against it on the hardwood, dozing in and out. After awhile, a man came in the house and I asked him where I could find the clean sheets. All he kept saying was how he had to leave right now. "I really was wanting to leave right now, I have somewhere to be very soon." I told him he could just tell me where they were and I would make the bed myself, but he stayed, handing me the sheet, a pillowcase and then another pillowcase, telling me how to tuck in each one just right, all the while repeating how he just had to leave right away. It seemed as though he was there for an eternity, and yet it was only five minutes at the most, but when I heard the front door close, I slept.
When I woke up, it was dark outside and I walked the few blocks to a neighborhood brewery. I sat at the bar beside two others while everyone else sat outside playing trivia. The last couple of days I spent in Mammoth, I kept thinking of Montana and Polebridge and all of the trails through Glacier National. The first one that came to me, however, was the Pacific Northwest Trail which starts at the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail and goes along just underneath the Canadian border to the western coast of Washington. 1,200 miles. Just about what I would have had left on the PCT. For those last days in Mammoth, I searched and searched for public transportation to Glacier National, all to no avail, but as I sat at that bar in Portland, there on Amtrak's website, a ticket to West Glacier for under $100. I gasped and the bartender glanced over at me and I immediately booked it for the following day. The next morning, I made my way to Union Station and boarded the train that would take me up through Washington, across the small finger of Idaho and into Montana's Kootenai Forest and then Glacier.
However, as I stood in line to board the train in Portland, I noticed the young guy a couple people ahead of me had an ice axe strapped to his Osprey pack. Slowly, I made my way forward, and when finally, I came up behind him, I asked what he'd planned on using that ice axe on in the coming weeks of July. He laughed and said he was hiking in Glacier. I asked where and he said his camping ground was Polebridge. I couldn't believe it. For six months if anyone had told me they had stepped foot in Montana, I had asked about Polebridge, yet this one random man in the station in Portland just happened to be heading to that exact place. He knew the general store and the cabins, with all their own wood stoves, their double beds, their electricity turned out by 7. But when he sat beside me on the train, asked about where I was headed, I told him about getting off trail. He looked at me, laughed that weird, surprised, gasping laugh people do when it's just been a little too much for one day, and told me about his PCT thru-hike the year before. After a half hour, he hopped out of his seat, came back with two cans of beer, handed me one and continued on with the conversation. We drank and laughed until it was apparent we were the only ones awake on the train and so he moved over to the two empty seats across the aisle and we both slept, if that's what you can call being slumped between two seats for five hours.
An hour before I rolled into the West Glacier, my mom called, telling me about the grizzly attack the day before that had happened a mile from where I would be arriving, how it was a forest ranger that had been killed and if they weren't capable, then who would be? I assured her I would be as aware as I possibly could be, and when I arrived in West Glacier, I cannot lie, I was ecstatic (probably since I was off the train after a fourteen hour trip). I got off the train, walked through the gift shop, slightly avoiding the awkward feeling I had developed towards the ice axe kid since arriving in West Glacier, and made my way to bathroom. When I came out, he was nowhere to be seen and to be honest, there was this horrible feeling of relief. It didn't matter how much he made me laugh, how much we had in common, I was so glad to be alone again. I walked across the street to the nearest cafe and had huckleberry french toast and coffee and asked about their lodging options. The guy behind the counter shrugged his shoulders and claimed to know basically nothing about the area so I walked to the nearest market and found information there. The man told me of different camping options, but the one he pointed me towards was the golf course a mile outside of town. I bought white cheddar popcorn, strapped it to the outside of my bag and I walked up a mile and a half of back road, only to find that there was no camping nearby and 'Wasn't that weird that the man recommended the golf course?' After 30 minutes of the woman trying to find a legitimate campground for me, she pointed me in the direction of a campground two miles from West Glacier, three miles from where I currently stood. Compared to what I am used to walking on a daily basis, three miles is nothing, however, if you ever speak to a long distance hiker off-trail, they will never ever want to road walk further than a quarter mile. I couldn't believe it. Standing amongst the crisp, clean golf t-shirts on their hangers, I wanted to make the most of my exit and obliterate everything in my path on the way out, but seeing as I had no getaway car, I would most likely get arrested, which would be much more uncomfortable than finding a flat spot in the woods to unroll my sleeping bag.