Late Friday night, Power Pack and I met in a dark parking lot near the trail head. I haven't seen her in 9 months, because she had spent 6 of the last 9 months living and working in Nairobi. We did the usual greeting of hugging and cursing and insulting each other. The last time I saw Power Pack was at her send-off party on her parents farm, where everyone consumed too much alcohol and told ridiculous trail stories.
Power Pack and I night hiked to the first shelter. After about a mile, the trail turned into an old service road that was wide and grassy and lined with a white deer fence enclosure. Instantly I remembered that section from 2009. I find it so strange to have seen every inch of that trail for only minutes, seconds, and I can still remember so much of it. I can look at any photo, and it doesn't have to be my photo, but I almost always know exactly where it was taken. The trail is still so alive in my mind, like a downed wire vibrating across the ground, pulsating and buzzing and zapping.
We arrived at the shelter after about an hour of hiking in the the dark. We chatted quietly and shared trail stories and drank wine and ate too many lime Tostito's and briefly talked about the TED talk I listened to on my drive and we laughed and laughed. At the end of the night, I laid down in my sleeping bag on my back and smiled while staring up at the bright, moonlit sky. I listened to the creek as the water flowed smoothly over the mossy stones, thinking about my cousin Eileen, who had been admitted to Hospice only hours earlier. I knew that sunny Friday afternoon would be the last time I would see her alive. So I spent all day in the hospital with the rest of my family at her bedside, watching her life slip quietly away as she lie underneath her fuzzy brown blanket. Together as a family we laughed and we cried, we listened to her favorite Irish music and we ate Peanut Chews. That night in the woods I went to sleep on the hard shelter floor, feeling content that I had spent, what would be some of Eileen's final hours here on planet earth, with her and our family weather or not she knew of my presence.
I woke up the next morning realizing I had slept incredibly well. I never sleep well in the woods unless I'm in my tent balled up within it's silnylon walls, but the cubby-hole-of-a-shelter was cozy and comfortable and something about it made me feel like I was, once again, living in the woods. I stayed in place for a little while, wondering if Eileen was still alive and tugging at the oxygen lines in her nose, or if she had crossed through the pearly gates and into the loving arms of her long-gone son. A text from my mom told me she was still the same. Still, I knew, it was only a matter of time. After a slow morning, Power Pack and I shouldered our packs and walked.
The day warmed up as we hiked through melting snow. The ground went squish squish squish where the snow had melted away. We walked, and we rested. I ate macaroni and cheese for lunch, and Power Pack and I shared snacks. I toyed with my new camera and plunged it under water to record the rush of water over the rocks, capturing the mini waterfalls from underneath. We talked about family and I talked about my father and how my mother has played the role of my both mother and my father and how I think I've done a good job of avoiding what I'm hardwired to be: a drug addict. But maybe that's because my mother has done her best job possible of playing two roles.
When I was done playing with my camera, Power Pack and I walked again. I thought about how I miss the simplicity of walking every day and talking about nonsense. Life then, was easy.
We picked a spot to camp that had a large fire ring with a bundle of gathered wood that had been left behind. I was thankful to whoever did the hard work of collecting the wood, because the day had already grew so cold and I just wanted to build a fire to get warm. There was smaller pieces and twigs, medium branches that I could snap over my knee and larger ones too big to break by stomping it over a log. Power Pack and I chatted and laughed and ate and drank wine and told more trail stories. We talked about wearing makeup to work, what might be around the next bend in life for each of us, the people we've dated and horses. Her greatest passion in life is horseback riding, and I've always been intrigued by the enormity of horses; they scare the shit out of me. I asked how to control an unruly horse, and learned that it's all a mind game that the horse's human will always win.
When it grew too cold to be outside of our sleeping bags any longer, I crawled into my tent and turned on my phone. There it was, the dreaded message from my mom: Eileen had died a few hours earlier. She was now somewhere floating above us. Maybe she was in the woods with me, maybe she was making her famous potato salad that I'll never taste again. But she was no longer in her own body. Eileen was now with her beloved son and everyone else who had gone before her. I was incredibly sad, but grateful she was no longer fighting for life. I curled up in my sleeping bag filled with more sadness than I had the previous night; I didn't gaze up at the sky with a smile on my face this time. That night I sent my grief out into the woods, up into the treetops, and tried to sleep. I never slept, it was 20 degrees, so instead I shivered all night in my sleeping bag that should have kept me warm, but it has taken the abuse of a thru hike. So many of those feathers have shed and drifted off into the wind long ago, and the DNA of my sleeping bag lives infinitely along the Trail.
The next morning was incredibly cold, and having to shit in the woods was not fun, though I'm no stranger to that. In mild weather it's liberating, but with a frozen-solid ground, an easy task becomes laughable. Numb fingers and frozen toes. I used my heel, trekking pole and stick, but still, the ground was hard. I did the best I could to Leave No Trace.
After my less-than-successful hole-digging session, I made some coffee and oatmeal in the vestibule of my tent. Hot coffee felt so good as it made its way through the food pipes of my body and into my stomach as it slowly warmed me. Power Pack and I broke down our little silnylon homes and hiked on; I never took off my mustard yellow down jacket, it was just too cold. We walked along a reservoir where we stopped to smash through the ice with our poles; It was so satisfying to watch the ice break into millions of little shards.
The forest along the reservoir had a soft, pine needle floor that reminded me of the trail in Vermont. It made me think of my hike on Long Trail when Persistent had joined me; I was still on the solo part of that adventure, and for a few days it was just the two of us. I remember we had joked about Cabernet Sauvignon and spoke in funny voices while descending a mountain, laughing at nonsense. Everything becomes funny on a long hike, maybe it's the punchiness of exhaustion.
I refocused on the present and thought about Eileen and the rough few days that would be ahead for my family, which are now all behind us. Watching loved ones grieve a significant loss is so damn difficult. Watching my loved ones cry in pain makes me fall apart on the inside, but the pieces always seem to come back together with time.
A few days in the woods were therapeutic; I got to be in my happiest place on earth before facing few difficult days with my family. Though the feeling ended abruptly, it was rejuvenating to walk, laugh with a good trail buddy and sleep under the stars. I wish I could do it more often.
Cosáin sásta, Eileen.