off trail

Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time or the last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.

Betty Smith
Life goes on at home, oblivious to the fact that I’m off trail.

I walk up Ramsey Hill for the third time this morning. The air is heavy with smoke settling in a sulphur haze over the city. It’s from fires far away, but it’s choking us as well, the heat and drought only making things worse. None-the-less, I push up the hill in long strides, my arms bent and pumping to make it harder.

I’m home now and the hill is just a few blocks from my house. On Monday, I was fitted with a heart monitor to try and track exactly what is happening with the erratic beat, but right now I feel strong. Strong, determined, and focused on this thru-hike of my neighborhood.

Coming off trail sucked. Just when I pulled away on my own and was finding a rhythm, I got, well, out of rhythm. I hit an SOS for the first time in my life and was pulled into a helicopter by a wire. I felt awful, but still managed to be astounded by the epic mountain views.

It’s a better view from here than from the trail.

It actually took two helicopters to get me to the hospital in Kalispell, one with the high wire act, the other, a life flight with an EMT team poking holes in my arm and shoving oxygen up my nose. But I loved those guys who never once made me feel guilty or ashamed that I hit a wall and needed to come out. They even made me laugh a few times and pointed out the best views.

Funny though, when the EKG and other tests showed my vitals to be absolutely normal, they thought maybe I was running low on electrolytes. Maybe, but I have an arrhythmia, supraventricular tachycardia – they think anyway. Not much to do here, but head home and see a cardiologist. But stubborn me was having none of that. Maybe if I just rest a few days.

Lovely Dr. Leonard suggested a kind of half-way house for people like me without anywhere to go right away and still pretty sick. Called Assist, it looks like a dorm with a shared kitchen, shared TV and shared bathroom. It was just me and two guys down on their luck. I can’t say it was luxurious – no Club Med, well, maybe Club “Med” is accurate.

Sarah hiked the Continental Divide last season during Covid. She’s glad she did it, but probably won’t do another long trail.
Mark stayed at the medical “halfway house” called Assist along with me.

It was boring. It was isolated. But that was just about the level I was at, on the phone most of the day trying to figure out my next move as the sky filled up with smoke from a nearby forest fire and the temperatures kept me inside most of the time watching Law and Order reruns.

I did visit with a local woman named Sarah who had walked the CDT last year during Covid. We had a beer at a local brewery and she shared info on her favorite parts of the trail. When I asked if she planned to walk another long distance trail, she gave an emphatic, “No!” I can’t say that I didn’t relate to her objections – the constant need to make miles, the focus on moving as opposed to seeing, the camping just anywhere rather than choosing somewhere soulful. Am I starting to think long distance walking is just too much?

There was a moment in my few days at Assist when a friend invited me to join his group and hike in the Wind River Range. I thought maybe I could do that, get some rest, find a ride south and just pick up where I left off. But my body had different ideas and suddenly refused to keep any food inside me.

More Law and Order, more hanging around with the two homeless guys, more talking to Dawn who painted the sunset in all its eerie orange against gray. It was obvious I needed to go home. I set up a Zoom meeting with my ardent supporters, who came on the screen with cocktails and advice.

Getting help carrying my pack to the train.
The train is the great leveler, its passengers diverse and from all over.
The mountains are a distant memory now.

We agreed that flying would be a stressful nightmare since I’d need to take three flights and be crammed tightly into a tube of sardines. The Empire Builder passes right through Whitefish, about 20 minutes north, so I got a ticket and prepared myself for 24 hours of a different kind of ride.

Yeah, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but the seats are huge and lean back like a La-Z-Boy. They even come with a sort of footstool extension. It wasn’t that full, so I had two seats all to myself. And I can get up and walk around, get a sandwich, and sit in the observation car, just as the sign for Marias Pass rolls by and I remember how happy I felt crossing these same rails as the conductor tooted twice.

In East Glacier I see packs of thru-hikers at the post office and feel so sad. How am I going to avoid despair now that I’m off trail? I went out there to find something, to feel something, to get a grip on where I’m headed, and right now it’s back to where I came from.

As we move and the mountains recede, it’s the ocean of prairie surrounding us, all the way to Saint Paul. Montana is dry, the towns sparse and small. Hay in neat rectangular bundles dot a field as far as the eye can see. All I walked and saw, only a memory now.

Oddly, North Dakota catches my fancy. Perhaps it’s the light at an angle, the grass turning a deep orange. There’s ponds everywhere filled with life – ducks, herons, gulls and pelicans. A cluster of bee hives is stacked far out close to a house that seems to have simply sprung up from the earth. I fall asleep but awaken in Minot where the train stops for a long break. Everyone soaks up the evening air, cool and fresh smelling.

Taking a break in Minot, ND
Cigarette break.
Music and sunset through North Dakota on the Empire Builder.

There are a group of tattooed men, overweight in cargo shorts and T’s; a young black girl with a huge grin and a cigar; a Mennonite couple in home-spun clothes stand together but slightly apart, he with a bowl cut, her with a weary and perhaps sad face beneath a tight white cap; a couple kisses goodbye touching foreheads and a skinny boy dances in high top sneakers.

“All aboard!” They really do sing that and we all head back, most beginning to cuddle in for the overnight stretch. I get a burger and sit in the dining car along with eight young women in brightly colored dresses and bonnets playing cards and speaking their German dialect while a man behind me plays guitar and sings, trying mightily to draw me into joining in song.

But I am so tired and have to decline. I’m heading home, to the cardiologist who fits me with a heart monitor and schedules a stress test, to our smoky skies and intense heat, where I still push myself to walk, stretch, lift weights, hold planks and change this story’s ending from one of loss to one of opportunity. There are a few surprises waiting for me, unexpected jobs and opportunities that make me wonder if perhaps the trail itself ejected me at this moment, sent me home to make a full reset on all fronts.

I’m surprised how happy I am to see Richard too, my best friend who doesn’t really want to backpack that far with me, but understands who I am and what matters to me. I read a book Greg from East Glacier recommended called “Breath” by James Nestor and start exploring how my breathing can control my stress levels and maybe even bring whatever is out of balance in my body back into balance.

He’s pleased I’m home because I can take him to a clinic for a procedure that he needs to get done and he won’t have to ask a friend to do it. This time, it’s not me who’s so needy as I sit in this busy and airy space of specialty clinics, listening to a programmed piano, off-kilter and out of synch.

No one seems to notice but us this poor instrument’s distress and disability, the keys barely depressed, only shards of melody emitted out of time like a gasp from a demented musician. The art on the walls is good though, some abstract bits of metal in lines and circles, wood cut and colored in shapes, a massive glass piece hanging from the ceiling. But my attention is drawn to works from nature – blown up images of leaves and flowers up close, each vein and ripple at eye level. And then there’s a series of lakes and rivers, each one familiar to me, yet hidden slightly by a birch or falling leaves.

As I study them, I see a place I’ve been that is precisely like the painting in front of me. That’s the night on the Kekekabic when the full moon grew out of the water. That’s the spring in Southern California, where the oak leaves were bright orange and red. That’s a sky in Colorado when I came down from Mount of the Holy Cross guided by massive cairns.

I am home, and my walks are limited by the heat, the smoke, my health and the unknown. But all of these moments I’m reminded right now happened to me. Soon, the 200 miles I walked in Montana and the extraordinary places I lived and breathed will become part of that tapestry. I’ll return to the mountains. I just have something I need to take care of right now. It’s a bump in the road and maybe the trail knew something I didn’t by kicking me off.

I can tell you this, when I go back in – I’ll be ready.

I’ve been inside this painting before.

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. “In East Glacier I see packs of thru-hikers at the post office and feel so sad. How am I going to avoid despair now that I’m off trail? I went out there to find something – to feel something – to get a grip on where I’m headed, and right now it’s back to where I came from.”
    This statement from you is so salient, so saturated with feeling and reality…with boing pushed to a something you can’t quite wrap your hands or your head (or your hike-shoed feet) around. I don’t even pretend to know how your feel. But I sure see you, hear you. And am with you, my dear sistah, as you do what you do: you death despair by facing it and leaning into it that you can hear and learn as opposed to running. Certainly not quitting. Or running away. You will face it and find the pivot point.

  2. An amazing journey; a tale well told that captivates and pulls for the next chapter and hopes for a return to the inside the painting.

  3. And, on the upside, you have all the material you need for your book, “Wistful Hiker.” Hundreds of pages of blogging, hundreds of pictures, and hundreds of memories – all meaningful, mesmerizing, magnetic. You know, don’t you, Alison, that your readers walk in your shoes, feel what you feel, hurt when you hurt, rejoice when you rejoice? A sense of immediacy flows through your writing – we’re there with you, at Assist, in that first helicopter, at the Specialist’s Clinic. So, please keep on being . . . being is more important than doing, I have learned. Your being is important to all of us, and I hope that it seems like support, not obligation. As Tracy Grammer sings, “In praise or lamentation, peace or desperation, any way I do I come into the presence of the Lord.” Amen

    1. Or as my brother teases me, “Hissful Biker!” Yeah, pretty wistful now, but I do wonder if the trail knew this was the time and season for something different. Interesting twists and turns requiring an openness from me. Challenging? Yes! But oddly peaceful as I launch myself up and down Ramsey Hill, breathing through my nose like a yogi and repeating, “Thy will be done!”

  4. Alison, I sense you searching for guidance thru the morass of clouds, options, choices, voices, memories and dreams. Stepping back can be a strong and lofty move thru time warp. Answers will come to you like shooting stars and we will embrace you and your decisions.

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