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Dead Men Hike No Trails…
"Sometimes I’ve felt that you wrote it for us… Sometimes I’ve felt that you were running from something – something we couldn’t see. And you hiked and hiked and ran to keep ahead of it. I cheered you on… I didn’t want its shadow to swallow you up. Are you winning?…did you win? Thank you for the 379 pages that I laughed, escaped, and disappeared into. If that was your goal… you won!"

– Christina

Water

The hour is nigh for a holy ghost sighting. Gaia is sighing and not with pleasure I’ll bet. It is time for a secular baptism. Time for a flood of love. It is time to get down deep with Mother Earth, to move in her fine folds and ebony curls. We have worn her out, and I with my little eye, little lone observer I have worn myself out. So I have opted for change, thrown my hat in the stream of evolution.

The wildest things happen when you surrender to change. Things such as this.

In a delightful and surprising turn of events after my foreshortened Pacific Crest Trail hike, I was invited in November to embark in two months time on an epic journey. Most must plan a decade in advance to undertake said journey if they ever dream big enough to do it at all. Yes, even in an era when it seems no stone has been left unturned on Planet Earth, rafting the 300 miles through the Grand Canyon will still doubtless prove a profound and perhaps life-altering odyssey for this author and career adventurer.

And the journey has already begun.

From my reunion with Appalachian Trail amiga Coyote and new friends Huff and Georgi in the Bay Area day before last, it began. It began with a missed turn south of Bakersfield that slung us far south and into the vortex and loving arms of Terri and Joe Anderson, trails angels who live where the Pacific Crest Trail grazes Los Angeles just south and east of the Grapevine.

It continued to begin last night in a below freezing night cowboy camped and covered in frost beneath the stars in Zion National Park. Today saw a hike up Angel’s Landing and a drive the final miles to our rendez vous with alpha team leader Boo Boo in Page, Arizona, the closest big little town to our launch site of Lee’s Ferry two days from now. Brian "Boo Boo" Garcia is another friend and alumnus of the Appalachian Thruhike Class of 2004. He and his girlfriend Meredith won the private party rafting permit in the National Park System lottery, and it is no small prize. Nor is it a small privilege to have been invited to join their team.

Less than 48 hours now to our launch. There will be no posting from the canyon. There will be no cell service. A satellite phone packed along for emergencies will, in the canyon’s narrow wedge of sky, give us five minutes an hour of service. For me, there will be no typing for that matter, as my usual smart phone & blue tooth keyboard system will also be rendered fairly useless with limited solar exposure off-boat and the need for all equipment to be stowed while on the river lest water damaged or destroyed. So it’s back to paper and pen. We’ll see what if anything comes out of it in the end.

But here I go. After two months of training mostly alone and at night in a kayak on the industrial urban sluice that is the Oakland channel, I now row into the grand unknown with fourteen companions, into that great and ancient awesome chasm that some say wasn’t carved over milennia by water but rather forged in one scarcely imaginable blast by electrostatic energy at the close passing of another planet-sized celestial body.

I rather prefer this latter version. Much more exciting!

Twenty-three days in the Grand Canyon. Wow.

See you on the other side.

-RSM

"Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must be constantly defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations. In theory — that is, as a simple physical possibility — an animal could pick up and go, flaunting all the social conventions and boundaries proper for its species. But such an event is less likely to happen than for a member of our own species, say a shopkeeper with all the usual ties— to family, to friends, to society — to drop everything and walk away from his life with only the spare change in his pockets and the clothes on his frame. If a man, boldest and most intelligent of creatures, won’t wander from place to place, a stranger to all, beholden to none, why would an animal, which by temperament is far more conservative?" – Yann Martel, LIFE OF PIE

There was another reason I hit the Pacific Crest Trail this year in such haste and with a wounded heart.

Perhaps this latter matter had more to do with my broken heart and henceforth broken hike than the fainting princess and her inability to care for the broken me as I had cared for broken her.

(My, now that is a whole lotta broken in one sentence. Make a good country music song, I bet!)

I would wager on the weight of this latter matter for a couple of reasons. It has taken me far longer to go into the dark place in me where both pains reside and pluck out and reveal to you the story I’m about to tell than it took to reveal my story of lost love. And something else: the Bill Withers song “Use me up.”

Played often in random rotation on my iPod during my 900 mile stomp, “Use me up” lightened my step without fail.

Every time I heard it, even after things had soured between the lady and me, I felt a sense of completion, a sense of relief, a sense of satisfaction that I had done all I could for her and despite the outcome, our time together had not been in vain. Because as Bill Wither’s so nicely puts it: “If being used feels this good, then baby use me up.”

It had felt good. Really good. So good that as soon as I finish telling this story, I’ll likely be back on the lookout for another wounded bird to coddle and catch as it falls from the sky.

What didn’t feel good at all, what left me quite empty handed and stunned and stupid, was the quick end to another relationship I’d been nurturing for the past year. It, too, ended in late March and far more abruptly than my romantic relationship.

I’m speaking of my very platonic, initially altruistic and eventually business relationship with one Fantum L., prostitute. Let me explain.

I met Fantum at open mic night at a cafe in the Lower Haight in San Francisco. I was there on a self-prescribed campaign to get out and meet people, ostensibly to promote my book, a little fib I told myself to get me out of the house. I am terrible at promoting my writing. The getting out and not isolating part, now that was the main agenda. Fantum was there to sing. And sing she did. And not too badly as I recall. There was a sign-up sheet. We were in some kind of order, toward the beginning. Somewhere between my reading and her singing, she came and sat down beside me on a couch.

Fantum I would later learn was a pro at talking up men and getting them to buy her drinks and well, take it from there. I didn’t take it from there, but I did buy her a beer. We sat and she told me her story. Fantum told me how she’d run away at age 15 and fallen into a life of prostitution and drug addiction. She painted a picture of a mentally unstable and abusive mother. She had a son who was being raised by Fantum’s father, She said she’d been really bad into crack for awhile but now the crack and the prostitution were behind her, and she was pursuing a career in music. She said she lived off Social Security Disability.

Though not everything she told me added up, she struck me as intelligent and sincere. She was without a doubt someone with a story to tell. So she quite grabbed my attention when she said that she’d written a book that she’d like to publish to shed some light on the plight of young women in America caught in the downward spiral of drugs and prostitution.

Now many will attest that I have limited patience for people who, when they discover what I do, regale me with tales of their unpublished but most-often unwritten “Hey, you could write it for me” book ideas. But as I recall, Fantum intrigued me. I wanted to read her hand-written book. Based on what I’d heard and learned from its author, it seemed like it just might be a story well-told. Or perhaps it was the title that sold me. She called her story, “Autobiography Of An American Object.”

Wow. It still gets me. Which is what gets me. Because over the next year, I took on “Autobiography” and its author and a lot of related drama that amounted to a great deal of my time and energy and resource and though I have never been with a prostitute in my life and managed to keep my relationship with Fantum strictly platonic, in the end I still got fucked by a prostitute.

I folded up my keyboard just now, holstered the Motorola Droid that’s processing all these words, and made to quit for the night. My thought was, “I hate this fucking subject and I need a beer.” But I have since reopened the keyboard and the phone determined to see this tale through to the end and be done with it. I’ve hardly spoken of it in 900 miles and several months, and it troubles me. So out with it.

First I agreed to look over Fantum’s manuscript. Getting a hold of a copy of it took many weeks, as I recall. By now I had learned this much about Fantum: that neither prostitution nor drugs were in her past. They were still very much her everyday reality. Fantum said that due to the nature of her life, the way she lived, the manuscript was being safe-guarded by her case worker. I waited. I had asked that when she got hold of it to please make a copy and I would come to the city and collect it. Getting it from her case worker took weeks. Then came complications with getting it copied. She said everywhere she brought it to wanted an outlandish sum of money to copy it.

I estimated it shouldn’t cost her more than twenty dollars. The estimates she brought back were two and three times that much. Turned out it was written in the pages of those black & white marble-patterned composition notebooks and so, unlike a loose leaf manuscript that could be shoved into a copier and replicated with the press of a button, it had to be hand manipulated, page by page. So, when I had time, I came to the city, met her and the book, and together we went to a self-service copy center.

Fantum has a very good memory for details. I do not. Fantum, if asked, could no doubt regale you with details such as the dates that we met and the clothes that I was wearing and the duration of time in between each meeting. All that. But I will never forget that day in the copy store. Fantum was high on heroin and could barely keep her head up as I ran the machine and page by page copied the notebook. I was paying for the copies and wanted to squeeze two notebook pages on each piece of copy paper if possible. Consequently, I kept losing her page numbers, written as they were far outside the margins. She complained of the time expense and her need to nod off. To keep her mind active, I gave her the task of writing the numbers back in as the pages came out of the machine.

I cite this example because it’s a good analogy for the many months that followed. Fantum and her book were not an easy project. That day in the copy store and for quite some time after, my reading and eventual transcription of “Autobiography” was a gift, an act of kindness. But it was problematic. Because as an act of kindness, it was not my number one priority. So I made a decision after reading the first few chapters.

I know myself, and I knew that if I first read the book in its entirety rather than as I transcribed it, the transcription would either go slowly or never get done at all, depending on how good the story was. But Fantum was naturally anxious that I should read it all and give a report. I explained my plan to her and my reasons. But she badgered me. I finally relented. I read it all.

I told her it was good. I told her I thought it definitely had potential to be published. But I also told her that it would require editing and some work making the story more accessible to the reader.

To whit: the story lacked an arc. It was page after page after page detailing year after year, incident after incident of bad news. And to my mind, it lacked reader sympathy. Again and again the author made bad decisions, burning one bridge after another. I believed it a worthwhile project, however. It was otherwise well written, and the author with her 8th grade education, spelled better than I. Time, I told her. It’s going to take time.

I have a very full life, and struggle not a little with focus and discipline on my own work. I did my best to chip away at Fantum’s book, but my understanding of my own shortcomings were spot on. Having read the whole thing first, having let the cat out of the bag as it were, I found it very hard to sit down to the task of relocating the cat, getting it back in the bag, and making it lovable, making it more than just an angry thing that would scratch your eyes out the moment you tried to pet it.

In Fantum’s defense, it did take me several months to transcribe and edit her rather short book.

In that span of time, Fantum changed phones several times. I would call her only to get a disconnect message. She would turn up a month later in LA or elsewhere. She would disappear and then call me from rehab only to be back on crack or heroin weeks later. She was a wild card, and as I invested my time and energy in her book, I found myself wanting assurance that it would be published. If she disappeared or ended up dead, without a contract I would be unable to publish the book.

I decided I had done enough work on it for free and unsecured. I would be far more motivated if I knew the book’s future were secured and that its potential success might help lift me out of poverty as well. It seemed only fair. I have so many unpublished words of my own, a million on my web site alone, with perhaps that much more again on hard drives and notebooks. That kind of backlog of unrequited love, if you will, would have driven a lesser man insane long ago.

What it does cause me, the ill it does do me on a daily basis, is that now every moment I spend working on something not related to actualizing my own publishing dreams feels like a death moment. It feels like I’m dying, and I have to fight to remind myself that I’m not, that I’ll live, that I can do other things, other work, that my day will come. So it took a lot to wrap my head around committing to Fantum’s book. After the initial buzz of its fantastic title wore off, it was just work. The potential success of the book meant very little to me. I have lived in poverty now for better than half my life, and potential is not a word that has ever put food on my table. Example: “Wal-Mart Boy,” my feature film script written a decade ago. Great concept. Huge potential. Yield to date: nada.

What motivated me from the beginning to work on Fantum’s book was never money but the goodwill energy of helping to see someone else’s work succeed where my own, for lack of proper promotion, has yet to reach more than a fraction of its potential audience.

So I worked at it. As is my style, I edited as I went. Little did I know, the editing part, my attempts at making this sentence more readable or clarifying that thought and making notes in the margins asking her to clarify this or that, little did I know she didn’t want any of that. As long as I was typing though, she pretended to be interested. I know this…

Because finally one day I finished the transcription. I promised us both that I would have it done by the end of February, and I delivered. In a rare switch, she came to Oakland and met me at West Oakland BART, and we went for a bite to eat at a little El Salvadorian restaurant across the street. I paid as always. Why I always picked up the tab for this person who likely made more on good night than I did all month and spent a lion’s share of it on drugs, I couldn’t tell you.

I was proud that day. Very proud to have a finished first draft of her manuscript in hand, what could potentially be a best seller if handled right. My first client as editor and agent. My first author! And I was going to see her book through to publication.

Fantum sat across from me, and nodded and smiled and say aha as I showed her how I had outlined various parts of the story that we needed to work on. I asked her to help me by fleshing out certain unclear parts by writing on the back of the particular page. I explained that I would then meet with her again and go over it and put together a second draft.

Fantum had a gift for me: a set of his and her watches. I don’t wear a watch, don’t like them. A brief glance told me they were not new. But I accepted them gracefully, because it would have been rude not to. She thanked me and said she had to go, that she would talk to me soon. As she crossed the street to return to the city, I had no idea that I’d just been fucked and lied to and fired all at once.

Days went by. Finally one day I called her. I knew right away by her tone that something was amiss. She spoke of her new life that was about to begin. She said she was going to scratch out all my notes, makes copies and submit the manuscript to publishers herself. She chided me for taking so long to type it, and for typing it so badly. By this latter comment, I can only guess she was referring to places where, rather than typing it verbatim, I had edited bad grammar as I went. She then dismissed me and hung up.

Too humiliated and shocked to speak, I texted her: “That was just rude.” She retorted that the watches were worth three hundred dollars, that we were done. I told her she was making a mistake. The boiler plate agent contract I’d had her sign specified that the author would be responsible for all costs up to three hundred dollars in the event of termination. I wanted to give her back the damn watches. I hadn’t wanted them. Now I wanted to put them on the rails and watch a freight train run them over.

Days before I presented her with the draft manuscript, she’d asked me if I owed her anything. I’d said, “No Fantum, you don’t owe me anything,” to which I added some form of the following information which we’d been over before:

We have a contract. We’re in this together. You couldn’t even begin to pay me for all the time I’ve invested in this, and I don’t expect you to. If the book sells, we’ll both get paid and do very well, I’m sure.

I recall a January conversation with my lover about the book, explaining to her my misgivings about the possible problem of reader sympathy with the subject who continually spat in the face of those who tried to help her. “Isn’t is enough?” my lover asked, and here I paraphrase: Isn’t is enough that she survives? That she has lived to tell her story?

I remember thinking at the time of my girlfriend and of her statement, “How thoughtful, how kind, and yes how true.” And I told her as much. “Yes, it is enough.” I resolved that day not to attempt to alter Fantum’s book beyond general grammar and fleshing out the story line. Even if it meant doing all the work to publish a deadbeat book. I would P.O.D. publish it for her, hand her a copy and the keys to future printing and walk away. I would have done that for her.

Then the author spat in my face.

Shame. All she got was a lousy draft hard copy peppered with editing notes. Had she waited a little longer, she could have dissed me with a disc in her hand.

I have since contemplated submitting her manuscript to publishers myself. I still have a signed contract from her. Not that I would pursue it, but I don’t consider the watches fair payment nor the contract legally dissolved. If I found her a publisher and a cash advance, I highly doubt she would turn it down. Anyway, it would be worth a try, right?

But then I think again. I recall what it was like having a crack-addicted prostitute in my life for a year and I have to ask myself, “Do I really want to be tied to this person in a business sense, or any sense at all, for years to come?”

The answer is as clear as Sierra Nevada snow-melt waters at ten thousand feet in early July. Crystal.

And cold enough to kill you real quick, whimsical-like, because that how Nature is.

Are you wondering, is there a moral to this story?

Yes. There is. The moral is, be nice to one another. Keep doing acts of kindness. Don’t look for gratitude or reciprocity. Don’t let those who fuck you over fuck it up for future recipients of your kindness and love. And one last thing. No, it isn’t enough to merely survive. You can’t go through life habitually screwing over those who attempt to help you. I mean, you could. You can. But what kind of legacy is that? What kind of story is that to tell the world?

– Rick McKinney

Dope, Duff & Dung

The next day I did something quite out of character for me. I got high with Norway. I never get high. Not with marijuana anyway.

This is not because I’m some kind of weed teetotaler such as Charles Bukowski professed to be later in life, but because it just doesn’t work for me. (I loved watching taped interviews of Bukowski denouncing drug use, “dope” in particular because it makes you dopey, this from a lifelong professed and proud drunk.) No, I don’t smoke it because it makes of me just what Bukowski said: a dope. I just get stupid. Or I wanna take a nap.

But I also can get freaked out. It’s mostly for this latter reason, although nearly everyone I know smokes regularly, that I still don’t.

Once upon a time, a drop-in clinic shrink denied my refill request for my normal anti-depressant and instead put me on the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal when I answered his query as to why I didn’t smoke pot with “Because it sometimes makes me paranoid.” As if no well-adjusted person had ever had that reaction to marijuana before. Dumb young Berkeley doctor. I took one pill, experimentally, and felt so disconnected from my body and soul the next day that I dumped them forthwith over the side of my boat and into the San Francisco Bay. There were some “well-adjusted” fish in the marina that day, I’m sure.

Somewhere about mid-morning on July 19 by a place smartly named Sharknose Ridge at about Mile 739, I decided to smoke pot with a relative stranger after years of turning it down from very close friends. Not that it mattered I was soon to discover, for no sooner had we smoked than in my stoned stupor I fell behind Norway and he, stimulated by a drug that’s as familiar to him as air, zoomed on ahead out of sight. I was alone again, and man was I stoned.

I wasn’t stupid. I mean, going into it I made an informed decision based on feeling safe in a beautiful forest on a beautiful day in a place called the Golden Trout Wilderness. What could go wrong?

Famous last words. In fact, everything went fine. No paranoia befell me. Maybe this owed to the whole journey being such a crucible with many non-drug induced periods of psychological pile-driving that somehow a little external influence on my mind in the form of smoke wasn’t enough to rattle my sense of self.

My sense of self held just fine. I came out of it with a bit of a headache. I spent a lot of time running my palms and fingers over various textures of tree bark, lichen and stone. Otherwise it didn’t amount to much. Certainly not to an accelerated pace, as was the magic it worked on Norway and other hikers like Worldwide. Worldwide was a great guy, one I knew only briefly precisely because he would get stoned and hike 30 to 40 miles at a stretch. Or so he said. I never witnessed it. But I believed him. Especially since he was one of only a few people to acknowledge the wrong done me by the one he so nicely renamed “Sugar Drama,” adding a whole stream of expletives to his observations of her as he assured me not to “worry about that psycho bitch.” How could I not like the guy?

At Hiker Town, Worldwide introduced me to an app on my Droid phone called Google Star Map (we had the same phone). The night after he left, never to be seen by me again, I spent a good half hour wandering the yard out there in the Mojave beneath the stars, earbuds in, Enigma booming out of Pandora Radio online, tripping out on the
constellations, once largely-foreign to this impatient learner, now all there with names and gyroscopic relative motion to my own, and me twirling, whirling in slow motion, making the gods dance for me and all of it coming from this computer in my hand, no longer just a phone but a portal of sorts to endless worlds and endless information and endless music and art and literature.

I am writing this book from said “phone.” It will post in pieces to the Internet before it becomes a book as a whole. What a strange and wonderful freak of creation is that. This. All of this.

Am I stoned? Where was I?

Oh, yes. stoned got me late for dinner, so to speak. The goal for the day was 18 miles out, not a huge day but big enough for the Sierra. Aside from the time lost to caressing trees, the day’s big hurdle was the elevation. At 11,145 feet, Cottonwood Pass stood higher than anything I’d yet climbed on the PCT.

In late afternoon, I hit the intersection of Mulkey Pass Trail. The first potential exit for resupply since Kennedy, Mulkey takes you down to Lone Pine fully 22 miles to the east. When I got there, three young section hikers with whom we’d been sharing the trail for the past two days, two men and a women, were chatting up an old man who’d hiked up to the pass for the day.

Twice in the past two days I had passed this little group sitting together in the shade, one of the guys reading to his friends from a hard bound book. In brief snippets, I couldn’t place the work. Here and there I had met them each in passing, learned their names and a little about them. I might have stopped and joined them, but that some powerful energy prevented me. To whit: the woman excited me in a way no thruhiker woman yet had.

She wasn’t any different than most, not significantly more attractive, and just as young as much of the hiker gang, an attribute that had gone from novelty to a pain in the ass seemingly overnight for this writer.

But something about her, and perhaps in my place on the trail, how long and how lonely, triggered in me an impulse toward candor far beyond anything I normally exhibit. I felt sure the next time I saw them if I stopped I would not be able to control my tongue and would blurt out, “Excuse me guys but I can plainly sense that the lady here and I are of a like mind and in mutual need of a good roll in the pines. If you don’t mind we’ll be going off a ways for some privacy. Mind watching our packs? Thanks.”

Is that true? I wonder. Could I really have come all this way without finding all but maybe one of the women on the trail attractive? Could that really be the case? Or am I just saying that in defense of myself, of the indifference with which I was treated?

I believe we must first feel desirable to desire. That doesn’t sound like it would hold water with any psychologist, but I’m going to stand by it in this case.

I am a man who needs to feel wanted, desired, 100 percent. Does that make me needy? Maybe so. At any rate, give me the slightest indication that I am not welcome, that I am not wanted, and I’m gone. Not exactly good attributes for mating in a world of mixed emotions and
competition. Definitely not good attributes on the PCT, where not one clearly-available woman in 900 miles made me feel the least bit desirable and very often quite the opposite.

“Where are you headed? Headed to the North Face, are ya?” the old man was talking at me. I was leaning on my poles, staring up over my glasses into the woman’s eyes. The stare was mutual. I didn’t get the reference at first until the old man pointed to my hat. My general distaste for brandishing logos unassociated with me or my journey might have inclined me to go along with his joke. But then the bastard outright insulted me.

“You must be the slow poke. Hiking with that Jack guy, aren’t ya? He passed here an hour ago. You got a hustle ahead of you if want to catch up with that handsome Jack. That boy’s fit!”

I’ll fit you, you old smart ass, I thought to myself.

“You should have told him off to his face! Told him off right in front of those kids. Why not?” Norway explained to me how he would often use the trail as a kind of training ground to test out speaking his mind to people. “You’ll never see him again.”

I’d made it to the pass just before dark. Jack and Norway had made camp beneath the only two shade trees on the only semi-flat section of the pass not covered in snow. I mention shade because I can envision many a cowboy picking that spot to tie up their horses. But shade wasn’t an issue at this hour. The sun was down and it was colder than shit up there at eleven thousand feet.

Now that’s probably one of the few if not the only and I hope the last time you’ll see me describe something as colder than shit. But I do so here for good reason. Because Jack and Norway were camped right in the middle of a pile of shit.

It was like some kinda voodoo thing where the horse (and cow? Could cattle possibly have wandered all the way up here?) shit was laid out all around them where they nestled in their bags listening to The Be Good Tanyas and David Byrne from an iPod on a pair of little portable USB speakers Norway carried. Unless I wanted to go off and camp by myself, which I most certainly did not, I had no choice but to jump right in the shit with them and cowboy camp there in the horse crapper.

Both snug in their bags, the boys just watched as I paced around imagining enough space for myself in the small area between the two standing trees, the two men and all their gear, and a couple of large logs arranged around the tiny camp. Luckily, all the dung was as frozen as we were, so I just kicked it around to make space for myself on the ground. On a warm night, it would have been unbearable.

– Rick McKinney

Camp Dung Heap at 11,000 feet. The boys, still in their bags, await the rising sun.

How I came to find Jesus is.. well, he kind of found me.

Sweet Jesus I’m talking about. Sweet Jesus and Badger, a couple of grizzled (by the time I met them) young bucks from Marquette, Michigan out hiking the Pacific Crest Trail somewhere between college graduation and real world immersion. Quick hikers, young and strong and stronger for being lifelong friends out there together as a team, they started the trail a week after me. I mention the latter only to put forth the probable cause for our belated meeting at Kennedy Meadows. Had they begun at the Kickoff with the herd, they would have passed me long ago.

I met these two fine young men during my rather awkward five days at Kennedy Meadows, toward the end of my stay at Tom’s place. The change of packs, the addition of ice axe, crampons, bear vault, down jacket, these physical changes mirrored and compounded the psychological yolk I was bearing, the spiritual elephant on my back as it were. I was a mess from the moment my friends Mike and Cassie left for San Diego. To borrow an overused cliche, you could have knocked me over with a feather. As I’ll get to later, one fellow thruhiker did.

Kennedy had to have been a tough time for Sweet Jesus & Badger as well. They walked into Kennedy a team of three and walked out one man short. Their friend, Griz, another guy from back home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, got off trail purportedly due to an inflamed car payment, not a common trail injury on the surface, least I’d never heard of it, but one easily understood with a little contemplation. People leave the trail for every imaginable reason. Finances no doubt rate right up there with loneliness in the top five.

Hindsight has to be about the worst of human cognitive abilities. It lets us “see” what could have been had we made a different choice at one moment in time. But that alleged other destiny unchosen, that road not taken, is a lie. Because in our minds, we go back in time and change that one choice and then gleefully run forward in time to the present assuming every consequent change would have been for the better and oh damn aren’t we fools for not having made that one choice differently 873,401 choices ago that day two months back.

Okay, so I just pulled that number out of thin air. But do you see the problem? We make a lot of choices every minute of every day. If we failed to make a better choice about something even a few days ago, it doesn’t guarantee that, given the ability to travel time and go back and alter that choice, that we wouldn’t then err again sometime between now and then. Or then and now, as it were.

So any product of hindsight is a fiction. And since only on very rare occasions do a select few vengeful humans look back and say, “I wish I hadn’t done that good thing I did!” then hindsight, when indulged in, can rarely be a positive experience. I imagine it is very often rather cruel and masochistic. So don’t do it!

Stop right now, Reader! Stop it! Because I know simply by the power of suggestion I have inadvertently triggered some memory of some past event you wish had gone differently. Well, it couldn’t have gone differently! Alright, given your time machine, maybe you could go back and change it for a second or a minute or a day. But there’s no guarantee it would hold for long. Because between that moment and today, right now, uncountable choices have been made by you and everyone in the web of life that surrounds and effects you. Too many variables.

Even something as acute as pulling a trigger or not pulling a trigger. There is no guarantee that going back and changing that one moment would save that life, or your own. Am I saying that Fate is fixed? Do I believe the game is rigged?

No. I am not saying that. I am only saying that choice occurs so often and by so many interdependent souls all at the same time that to engage in hindsight is to step outside the present and dwell in a fantasy of inconceivable improbability when all one need do to change the course of history is begin now.

This very moment. Right here. Right now.

I next saw Sweet Jesus and Badger on that frost-laden morning one day’s hike north of Kennedy, the morning that the party of three ladies who’d bade me come hike with them disintegrated, two of them at first light, Arctic specters trudging off in the cold snowy half-light of eternal winter doomed by their haste.

Or so I imagined, snug in my down bag, hiding from the frost. Carmen, the third ready just a heartbeat ahead of me an hour later, gave me a look I can only describe as one given an embattled lover as a last chance offer before departing forever, and left without me. To her credit, lest I make her seem cold (she wasn’t – just businesslike) she didn’t just look at me but beckoned me, “Abby?” one word communicating many thoughts: here’s your chance, choose now, us or them, the ladies or the men. For there I stood with Badger and Jesus, and two section hikers Norway and Jack Straw, all men.

One must follow one’s heart, one’s intuition, though it be not always spot on, the result not always the best. So many influences play upon the heart. But again, hindsight is no sight at all. So we do and we choose and we hope for the best. I chose the men.

“Why the hell did I choose the men?” I might ask myself while sitting on my be-hind sighting my way back in time several weeks now. But I don’t ask myself that and for good reason.

The girls, kind as they were to invite me to join them, came off very businesslike. They weren’t real warm and fuzzy. But what am I saying? Nobody on the trail was REAL warm and fuzzy. We, and I include myself in here for despite my best efforts I’m sure I came off as an aloof prick a lot of the time thanks to a growing sense of alienation, we then were all as tough as the trail had demanded we become. With a few exceptions. Sweet Jesus and Badger, in hindsight anyway (oh, how I love the frailty of a proposition), had the shoe size to fit the glass slipper of this cobbler of exceptional character.

“What?” you ask.

“They were an exception to the rule. They were not all business. They were warm and fuzzy.”

“Oh,” you say. “Why didn’t you just say that?”

“Because I’m having a particularly odd day of florid description, sort of foaming at the mouth with big and useless stupid words. I’m sorry it won’t happen again.”

“Sure.”

Okay. Where were we?

I let Carmen go. Norway had hiked the next 200 miles of trail three times. I wagered, and not incorrectly, that he was a safe bet for the safest guy with whom to hike. And I liked these characters Sweet Jesus & Badger. Though so far I knew little of them, I liked their energy. If they were at all businesslike, I had yet to see it. I thought perhaps we’d all hike together, we gang of five.

That idea proved entirely hallucinatory. One minute they were screwing around not looking ready to go and the next they were packed and saying “Later.”

It constantly amazed me on the Pacific Crest Trail how often this happened, the most exaggerated occurrence now behind me at Kennedy Meadows. My entire stay there was one protracted episode of being left behind, one hiker at a time. Kennedy was like what happened whenever I made camp with anyone on the trail, but in slow motion over a couple of days time. One minute someone looked at ease, smoking a bowl, no big rush, collecting their stuff, maybe making off into the woods with a roll of toilet paper for a spell, and the next bam! They’re locked and loaded and gone. And as I’ve said before, you can bend over to tie your shoes on a long trail and never again see someone with whom you were just engaged in conversation.

So I didn’t learn much about Sweet Jesus & Badger that day either. Next time I would see them was three days hence.

I kept up with Norway fine that day resulting in that unforgettable night of dreamy fireside dialogue beneath the vault of the heavens, a dreamy night’s talk of McCandless and freedom and all things which define us as free-thinking and free-roaming persons, a night made all the more surreal by the spell of Norway’s whiskey and, for him (for I did not partake) his herb.

In my memory I see that scene now not as I have it photographed from our perspective by the fire but from far off, the view of some mountain lion at 9700 feet looking down on our 9200. The cat sees a clear night sky, every star in the heavens diamond bright way out here far from the polluting light of cities. He sees the trees and the wide areas of open mountain in between each tree, all the stone, all things in shades of gray. All except us. Norway and me and our little fire burning up the side of one tall rock. Our hearth.

We are the one little bit of yellow light in the night, surrounded by gray to the horizon and then the endless sea of blue black sky. The sea’s depths are littered with tiny white pearlescent mementos, memories of lives organic and inorganic lived out and long extinct in an inconceivably distant past somewhere so deep in that well of space as to be mined only by the tools of imagination.

What a far out thing for a cat to see, for me to see, as I fall back from the fire and stare skyward, sensing him near, imagining him and all of this.

– Rick McKinney

[More on the tale of Sweet Jesus & Badger next time…]

Contouring. That’s what they call it. All my talk of fingers on a hand, walking around the fingers. That day there were too many fingers. Too many.

Now the story of Bonnie & Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, sung in French, comes on my computer here on the boat as I work outside in the cockpit to repair the hatchway frame, not even at my computer but suddenly drawn down into the cabin and to it, keyboard in hand and writing as the song takes me straight back into that strange sunny forest more than a month ago, that day of seemingly endless fingers, endless contouring around and along one mountainside and another, over this ridge, down that road, a long section of road walk, the sun exposure perhaps to blame for the altered state my mind drifted into later in the day.

Did I listen to this song repeatedly? Or was it just with this song that the real weirdness hit? Bonnie and Clyde.

I do not understand the French, but we all know the story. My brain knows the story, can follow the growing tension, however subtle. Knows what’s coming. And somehow that mixes with my own anxiety of being lost and alone in the endless forest. I look at the map again. It seems I have been on the same mile or so forever now. But these sections are deceiving, like loopdiloops, like counting petals. Loves me. Loves me not. Loves me. Loves.. where was I? Which one was I on?

On the map, they look like a sprung Slinky, a child’s Crayon drawing of an endless lower case m. The same clutch of contours, a bridal bouquet cast backward over the bride’s shoulder, flying blind, airborne, captured thus by the photographer’s camera, forever frozen in time now traced by finger’s nostalgic, each flower a thickly-forested ridge of some mountain range I married when I woke up this morning. "We now pronounce you man and mount…" I was half asleep! Surely I can’t be held accountable. I didn’t know what I was saying.

The same can be said of this whole ill-begotten adventure, come to think of it. I was under the influence of a strange and beautiful witch. She inhabited my right hip, put a poison and a pain in there. By day said she didn’t want a boyfriend, didn’t want the responsibility of me, but by night whispered "Take me away with you to the country, save me, love me, save me from myself."

Abnormally exhausted for mid-afternoon, a kind of vertigo in the forest, rounding the next in an endless chain of zig-zag contours each one the exact copy of the last, I, like Alice, shook my head with the strangeness of it all. And finally unable to take it anymore, sometime during the demise of Bonnie and Clyde, I staggered like a drunk off the trail and into the first available grassy spot, dropped my pack and fell hard into the grass and fast asleep in a way to mimic fainting.

Perhaps, I thought, I think back now, that is what fainting feels like. I fainted there in late-afternoon in the forest dizzy and overwhelmed and hot and perhaps a bit dehydrated and most certainly anxious over the unmistakable sense that I was not walking some straight south to north trail but wandering lost in a labyrinth, quite alone, soon to be gunned down.

And where oh where was my Bonnie then?

– Rick McKinney