Kind of getting away: 14

It’s been good the last few days. I’m tired but things are going well. Lots of tagging, sampling. Yesterday we came across the Bochstiannanas, and it was so windy that most of the water was going up, white spray plumed and very cold. The B. is not quite iced over yet but in a few weeks it will be.

I’m coming to the edge of the Bowl now and the trees here are thinning out. Warm colours in the long blue light. It is a good place to be. This is the outside: neither structured by geometry nor struck by any kind of grief, nor made poor by want of expression, nor exuberant for its own sake. None of that. But the colours. On and on. Nothing for with an apology can be made, things textured in themselves over and over again. There are little lakes everywhere around that are bigger than they appear. The water continues through the surrounding grass and when it is very still throws back the sky at me. But most of the time it just wets my feet and makes a gentle sound when I go through it. That sound. Something more felt than heard, a communication, something that deepens the world, by which I mean all of it, all of it just from this burble, this lilt that comes up from my feet when I move. Sometimes I just stop, not because I have planned a rest or anything like that. Petrified by being. But I stand there and listen to something for a while. I have discovered the Trove is a part of this, can be invited in: Tableaux Suite 33, no.2, in C, or TS 32 no.10 in B minor. They’ve given the composers names now: this one is called Taiga[1].Nothing to hold, but something that feels like flight, like being in the air, oceans of holy feeling opening up.

One slightly – I suppose – strange thing happened, and that was two days ago when I sort of stumbled into a Harpiege with my Cover down. It was feeding but the moment I moved it heard me and turned to stare. Its eyes[2] were all pupil and it looked straight at me, or maybe it looked down at me. It couldn’t have been particularly large but I seem to remember it looking down. It’s a look only animals can master, something that is utterly unaware but also all-encompassing, all understanding and no thought. Everyone knows it: a pulse of luminous blackness. It made that circular movement of the head that is part of its FoFR. And then as I was taking a step back it made a tiny retching noise and opened its mouth and spat venom all over me, a spatter that went down my face and front. It must have been terrified; I was nearly completely covered in black. I felt and resisted a stupid urge to call Helper. The venom is harmless. I am not, after all, of this world.

Checked the log today. Some interesting developments. The tertiary fold  of the polypeptide chain in the Tk-haemoglobin of Fleckeri spp. resembles that of the Eastern White Fallwhale Tk-(D)myoglobin complex. Genetic conservation? Probably. Plus strange diversity found in the basic structure of tryposin inhibitors[3].

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

I am outside for many reasons. The biggest thing, however, is Dyhaus. While living there I decided to hike the Eastern Wind Flank Trail. Don’t know even today why I decided to do it or why I chose the EWFT. The EWFT is long, very long, 2600km. Maybe that’s why I did it. It goes all the way from the Dyhaus/Enalt border to South Throuper. It might have just been me wanting to take some serious time out, trying to see what of the natural world there was on Ditarod. No. No. The main thing eventually was that I kept being told how beautiful EWFT was. Giant Park was on the trail, and Fincher Pass, and Cascade Park, and Monument Range. 63 mountain passes. A stretch where you have to walk 281km before you see a road.

The EWFT monument at the beginning of the trail was a plain thing; a vertical stone column stating the date of the trail’s completion and its length. Hikers’ hands had worn the edges on the bottom of the column smooth. I put my name in the trail register and I read what thousands before me had written. Impossible to be cynical at that moment. There were many people wishing everyone else luck. And then the usual: The only impossible journey is one you never begin; Kate & Rog –stupid way to do a honeymoon but HERE WE ARE!; A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; CONQUER NATURE – CONQUER YOURSELF. It went on. It was in, a strange way, moving. I think I was afraid and a bit puzzled at myself. The trail register helped. It said: you are one among many.

People do the EWFT because they love hiking or because they want to leave something behind. There are traditions: Hikers get a trail name. It is a token of membership. You are on the trail for a long time; at least a month, for most people attempting a thru-hike. It is a way of dilating what happens here. I write here but of course what I mean is there. It is a way of sieving out the normal life from the life on the trail. There is a code for what you ask people about, what you ought to automatically help out with: EBliSus. Equipment, Blisters, Sustenance. You don’t ask people which trail they are planning to take; you let them tell you. You don’t ask them why they are doing what they are doing. People will talk; sure. Let them choose to do so. But you help each other out with food. You respond if someone needs equipment repaired. And you lend each other plasters. Actually, you’d really better fucking pass those plasters around. Blister really is a totem for the physical trials of the hike. Blister includes sprain, fracture, and bad graze.

It was a primitive part of a primitive world. It was good. The trick to living this sort of life was, I found out, to put in slightly more effort into almost everything than I would think reasonable. I had done hikes before but nothing this big. But the rhythm came eventually. I’d hike for several days and then head to a town to pick up the food boxes I’d mailed ahead. I stocked up in convenience stores where I could.  The early bit of the trail was winding, taking us over the crests of the Snakes. Rocks and big cool forests.

I became Poley to trekkers. I had a habit of using my trekking poles to stabilise my tent. I had a small superlight was not too stable and I thought it was a good idea. About a week in I met Boiler. I was in my tent and she came over to apologise about the noise.

“What noise?” I asked.

“Fantastic,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

We liked each other almost immediately. She was taking her gap year; we talked about astronomy and where to find food places along the trail. She passed me antifungals from her bounce box when she got it. We went over Gamble Pass together and headed on the West Branch after that to hit the good old Runoff.

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

We both stank, as everyone else did. I mostly wanted to splash about.

“Do you know how to fish?” I asked. It was a stupid question because the important question was whether or not we had any fishing equipment, and I knew the answer to that was no.

“No,” Boiler said.

We took off our pants went down into the Runoff’s shallows, bracketed in that space by the ridges all around. We waited until we saw the gunmetal flash come past and then we plunged our hands in and tried to grab them. They were fast. I could feel them moving around my feet. At the end of the evening we had caught seven. The barbecue was delicious.

I eventually figured out why Boiler was Boiler. She didn’t use the standard-issue water safety pills. She boiled her water. I’m not sure why: she had WSPs in her bag. But we all need rituals. Here is water; here is what I shall do. The alcohol stove, the little holding container. A flame that hisses out suddenly in the evening. Light snagged against the trees, casting about only for people. Sparks ghosting out, brief companions to minor stars.

Friendship on the EWFT was not simple but it was straightforward. In the day, when we were crossing the desert plain of the Carazon in the flush of the spring flowering, we’d often get separated or walk with other groups we found; we’d get three, four, kilometres apart, sometimes, but at night we usually found by some unarranged magnetism where the other was camping. Or we’d see each other the next night. Once, I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped at a road crossing and Boiler waited for me whiIe and I went off and fell asleep in a hollow under a big Brescia Fir for a couple of hours. When I came running back I expected her to be gone but she was there, looking like perhaps she was starting to get worried.

“I thought you’d be gone,” I said, not knowing what to feel. We often ducked out for brief rests from the sun but I had been gone very long.

She hefted her pack, looking bemused. “It’s okay,” she said. “The place is nice. I talked to a couple of speeders.”

“I fell asleep. There was a spot that looked just irresistible.” I grinned and she grinned too.

We took the Six Point Route across Carazon. We went up and down the stony dunes, sometimes following the crests. As we did we listened to the apocalyptic alt-rock Boiler liked and eventually she convinced me to sing to it: Because eh-eh-eh you know the world eh-eh-eh cannot catch you aah, aah, o-AAH— We played impromptu football with plastic bottles on the flats with other trekkers taking a day off. In any case I got tired after the Carazon, and after we descended Ripas Gorge together I said I wanted to take a rest day or two at a trail angel lodge. I had my stinking clothes off and had my feet in a creek.

“If you want to go on,” I said, “You should go on.”

And she left.

It is like that on the EWFT: friendships become memories fast. Nothing to be spoilt by time and overexposure. It was the early sections of the trail and people at this stage wanted to get as much distance out of daylight as possible. Maybe she had a tight schedule. I don’t ask. But there was nothing bad about what happened.

It was at the midpoint of the EWFT, after Lake Niyare and approaching the Dippers, when we had come to the basalt fields of Mishila, that I met Bread. He explained the name. He’d gotten a bad nosebleed early on.

“I had nothing to stop it,” he said. “Except bread.”

“I see,” I said.

“I never knew how good bread smelt,” he said. “Not the freshly-baked sort of smell, but like the actual doughy smell you get when it’s right up there in your nostrils.”

Bread wasn’t quite like everyone else. He was small and skinny and pretty young. He looked too fresh to the entire thing. His frazzled little beard grew out rather than down. His MexTexes looked a little new. My Merrells were tattered and filthy and looked considerably more comfortable.

I never asked him why he was doing the EWFT. Beside his pack’s shoulder strap there was a scar where there had been a chemo[4] port. He kept fingering a spot under his hipbelt. Sometimes he did it absentmindedly.

He didn’t want to go fast. That was good for me; I had time. We chatted for long times about lots of crap. He was a bit of a daydreamer. He talked a lot about wanting to make the Big Three. I indulged him. After a while I stopped indulging him and the conversations took on a life of their own; he actually wanted to do it.

When we were leaving Mishila the trail started to rise. We had done 20km of the climb when he stopped on the lava flats and waved his arms and yelled from up ahead, “Look at this!”

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

Around us the taut rocks flexed, frozen and perfect. I was very tired but I looked around.

“It’s like a river!” he said. “Must have been amazing when this was all lava. Like standing on the surface of the sun.” He sat down, let himself collapse, with his legs in front of him, looked out at the sun. He squinted or winced. He sighed. We ate granola with a stick of butter in it. Trekkers eat lots of butter. We took off our shoes. We felt some blisters that looked threatening. He started crying. I didn’t say anything. “I fucking love granola,” he said. He poured some into his mouth and wiped his lips.  He swigged water hard from his bottle. I hugged him briefly. “I’ll be okay,” he said. He looked very determined.

Bread kept taking selfies. At first I was a bit embarrassed by this. It turned out I was more embarrassed at being embarrassed, however, and we really got into it. Standing nearly at the peak of Tall Dipper, crags falling away around us into unbreathed blueness; clinging to the guide ropes in the middle of Hilper Fall, eyes barely open in the spray and the thundering noise; pointing at lewd signs outside towns; us dwarfed against the Tempuis of Catherdral Park.

When Bread and I stopped in a town for a food box he would try to find some place to develop the photos and mail them to someone. He wrote letters too. He had his writing stuff in a Ziploc and in the evenings if he was not shattered he wrote a little. He always kept his Gillie hat with all its rings of sweat on when he wrote. Hikers have rituals.

“Does it sound stupid,” he asked, “to say I feel like I can do everything? Does it sound, like, arrogant or something?” We were in a Youth Lodge and between the clothes and the shoes and the sweaty burnt bodies the place reeked. We stopped smelling it after a while and he had started writing.

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds perfectly good.”

“The problem about hiking,” he said, “is that after a while it’s very hard to make it sound different. I mean all the places you’ve been.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s something you must do.”

“The thing is its shit. It’s so wearying. But that makes it great. Doesn’t it?” People were bedding down so he said this in an intense whisper.

I laughed. It was true.
We had a strange cold spell right after that. Snow, even. There were danger signs going up but Bread decided to go on and I decided it was probably okay. Sometimes after a day of walking our hands got too cold for us to do anything properly in the evenings. We clipped our tent canopies using our teeth. It was pathetic and it was noble, and it was shared. We had hysterical and near-silent laughing fits in the tents.

Two months in or so I got up one morning to find that he could not move. His eyes were alert and glassy.

“Box in left compartment,” he said, very softly. He tried to turn and an involuntary sound came out of his mouth. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Fuck, fuck.” I rummaged around in his pack. The box was there, near the top. I opened it. Small compassionate rows of pills, muted colours. Inert. Incredible that so much could ride on this. An autoinjector.

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

He insisted on moving on the moment he could walk.  He wrote a little more, over the next week, I think, or maybe I started giving it more significance. We bought jellybeans and gorged on them. I tried to notice when he took his pills. I saw him take them in the mornings, but only occasionally. We made one or two detours to scenics, which before we hadn’t really done. We looked irrepressibly happy in the photos we took. Negotiating terms. When the trail widened for two to walk abreast we did so.

After White Meadows he started to slow down. He had an easy way with the trail but now he struggled more than he usually did. He would stop and bend over and breathe for a while. He took his hat off and used it to wipe sweat off his face. On Temple Rise for every seven or eight steps he took he slipped a little and would curse.

That night he said, “It’s really frustrating sometimes, hm?”

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

“I get so frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I don’t finish this it’s all going to be my fault.”

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Half the people who start out finish,” I said. “We’re only two weeks away.” After all those weeks, all the mountains and the ridges, the long desert plains, I felt a thrill.

He laughed. “We’re fucking boss,” he said. We were near Brotherswater. If we were very quiet we could hear the water. We had talked about how we were going to fish in Brotherswater. I told him about what Boiler and I had done in Runoff. He had said that we could probably only do that in running water. I told him that mountain lakes were worth visiting anyway. He said of course we’d have to go.

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

Before he finally went to sleep he said, “I’m feeling so lazy now. Late morning?”

I said that I might walk to my next pickup and come back.

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and then later, in his tent, I heard him say, “This has been unbelievable.” He didn’t say it so loud that I thought he was talking to me and so I said nothing.

The next morning his trail runners were in the camp and he was gone. I remember seeing them, grey things with laces undone, outside his tent. I don’t know what happened. You cannot walk far without shoes. You cannot walk at all, in fact. But I never found him. In the morning he must have gotten up, looked up at the dawn, and decided that this would be the end of it.

The Marshal came to ask me questions and I answered all of them. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I kept thinking about that last night. In the end I decided that he had not done anything wrong at all. I never asked about a corpse or Bread’s name. It had been perfect, what he did. He knew when beauty and struggle became too much to bear and how to put it away, put it out. Too much to bear.

I imagine myself standing there, the tent not far away, while the trees rise and arch around me, and I am looking at myself from above, rising and rising until the trees are pointillist specks tethered to a great tide of rock, and I am a point, turning about and seeing only trees, finding nothing, and I see now where Bread is, how big the spaces he occupies, how pelagic the urges he carried, how unfoundable. I’ve always wanted to go outside since then.

[1] There is nothing cold or particularly Arctic about the stuff that has been attributed to Taiga. I’ve no idea why the people on Stize opted for this. But TS33/2+32/10 fits perfectly with that name.

[2] Its two primary eyes. The secondaries on the top of the head were invisible.

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

[4] I think we got them to stop it and use GpTH eventually, but that was after I left. It’s what they do to you if you get cancer: they pump you full of cytotoxins that destroy basically everything in your body, but destroy the cancer a bit more effectively than everything else because of how fast it divides.