It had been almost two months since I left the Appalachian Trail, and I was working as a barista, when a friend from high school sent a text: “I’m in town! Want to catch up?” I agreed to stop by her place after work.
My destination was a small, cozy apartment on the outskirts of town. Though it was drizzling, I contemplated walking…until I remembered that although three miles wasn’t far in the scheme of a day on the A.T., my friends would not be expecting to wait an hour for my arrival. I opted for the 12-minute drive. I was welcomed by hugs from my friend and a “don’t I know you from some place?”
Trey had graduated a year before us. We’d been mutually acquainted, but never familiar. He was training to be a pilot. The way he talked about flying made me finally understand what other people saw in my face when I mentioned the Appalachian Trail…the glow of remembered amazement. We shared photos and bonded over the rays of sunlight through the clouds, which Scott had called “Jesus fingers,” and the way you notice the slow approach of fall, if you’re paying attention.
Trey, like me, was still adjusting to life back in the ‘so-called-real’ world. He had spent the last several years overseas as a civilian contractor for the military. He’d lived in a tent in the foothills of the Hindu Kush and on military bases from Baghram to Burma. He showed me pictures of his mountains. I was impressed.
“You could walk in the woods and still see 60’s-era shells half-buried in the ground.”
“Wow,” I said. “I should do that.”
“You really don’t want to,” he replied.
“You saw some pretty bad stuff, huh?”
“It’s not like they say it is on the news. I wasn’t directly in danger, but every night the helicopters would fly into base and you knew something had happened.”
I had no way to relate. The closest thing I could think of was an old T.V. show.
“Like in M.A.S.H.”
“Yeah, just like that.”
I told him about the folks who hiked the whole Appalachian Trail. Though the stakes weren’t nearly as dire, some of the thru-hikers talked of homecoming like a return from war. One man had reportedly reached Katahdin in the company of his wife and photographed her sobbing over the signpost, feeling nothing himself. Even my hiking partner had spent the first month off the Appalachian Trail in a tiny camper on the wrong side of the tracks in New Orleans, barricading the door with his walking stick.
I tried to imagine how two-and-a-half months on the Appalachian Trail could compare to two and a half years in a combat zone. Though an A.T. hike was tough, it was nothing like a soldier’s dangerous, deadly daily experiences. I couldn’t fathom how Trey could be impressed at what I’d done. He boasted to another friend at the bar about my hiking accomplishment. Her response was: “I don’t know if I could do that.” This woman was only 22. She was about to be promoted to officer and was up for another tour.
“I went over there with the maturity of a 14-year old boy,” Trey said. “Came back totally changed.”
“I scratched the surface of that on the Trail,” I said.
He told me a few funny, scary stories about how he’d narrowly escaped disaster because of this or that little thing. I showed him pictures of the memorial to Audie Murphey, a WWII pilot who survived only to crash his private plane in the Southwest Virginia Blue Ridge. Hikers had piled stones all over it and someone had even arranged a little peace sign on a large, flat rock in front. “Yeah,” Trey said. ”It happens.”
“Even though I didn’t go crazy or anything… being over there still affected me,” Trey said.
“One night, someone told me there had been an attack on the other side of the base. Someone I knew had been badly hurt. ‘At least he’s not dead,’ I shrugged, and went back to my room. Later, I stopped to think about it and couldn’t believe I’d just… gotten used to that sort of thing. That’s when I realized I needed to get out before it was too late. Now I need to do something like you did, something like hike the A.T.”
“Do it now,” I encouraged. “It isn’t hard to get out there for a weekend, for a start.”
Photo by John Hayes
Later, it dawned on me that between work and catching up with friends, I’d spend every night that week in some sort of social engagement. I was tired of smiles, entertaining, and politeness.
Authentic conversation with Trey had been a relief, but what I really wanted was to get back to the trail. I looked at the schedule ahead. Another friend was coming to town the week following, during which of course I’d also be working, and then there was my cousin’s wedding after that. I began to feel a hint of despair. Would I ever escape? Or would I have to barricade the door to my heart with an aluminum trekking pole?
I wanted to retreat again to the solitude of the forest, which at that moment seemed like the only home I had ever had. Suddenly, though I was not nearly as war-torn and ravaged, I felt a little hint of what it might be like to be a veteran, lonely for someone who could understand what I had experienced and how it changed everything.