Silverton was my last resupply stop before the final stretch to the southern terminus and the completion of my thru-hike. As I readied myself to leave town, I noticed how dulled my senses had become after just a couple nights of drinking and socializing. I was over-stimulated by the background hum of mechanical noises, artificial lights, and undirected movement. I think the deprivation of backpacking elevates even the most mundane pleasure to near sacramental experiences. But the enchantment of a hot shower and a soft bed wears off almost immediately. Though I didn’t want the journey to end, I knew I’d feel more myself once I was back in the mountains. Restored to the wordless company of the forest, drinking from streams, and bathing in alpine lakes.
We stuck our thumbs out at a gas station on the edge of town. The minutes ticked by as one car after another passed by without slowing. A silver Forerunner pulled out of the succession of cars and rolled up to where Matt and I stood. When the driver lowered his window, the first thing I noticed was that the whites of the driver’s eyes had been tattooed a dramatic, glossy blue.
“Are you headed back to Molas Pass?” As he spoke, I saw that his tongue had been surgically split. It forked like a snake’s.
Despite his bizarre appearance, I didn’t perceive any negative energy or malicious intent. If I had been traveling alone, I might have found a reason to stay behind and wait for the next ride. Matt glanced at me, assessing my comfortability, before accepting the hitch.
I laid, stretched out on my stomach, across a bed that had been built into the back of the truck. As we rode back to the trail, I thought about some of the strange and lovely interactions I’d shared with people in the past few weeks. Whether thru-hiking or traveling in another capacity, deliberately interacting with strangers has a way of renewing one’s belief in the goodness of others.
Once we reunited with the Colorado Trail, and started hiking our final section, I saw everything through a lens of wonder and gratitude. The ethereal terrain of soft green mountainsides, sprawling spines spiked with rocks the color of creamsicles and roses. Though my body felt worn out and my pack weighed heavily on my shoulders, I was energized and determined. Matt and I’s conversation buoyed us both as we began the long, slow-burning ascent back to the high country.
At twilight, we stopped climbing to admire the honey-glazed moon rising over a dusty purple peak. We stopped for the span of a single slow dance before moving on, always aware of the pull forward to the terminus. Beneath the gentle glow of moonlight, we continued hiking and conversing with equal intensity. Over the rhythmic crunch of our footsteps we spoke about ideas, our faith in their power, and the multitude of curiosities we’d like to devote our lives to satisfying.
We both sensed our impending departure from the trail, from Colorado, and from one another. But rather than confront that separation directly, each of us tried to be as present as possible in our remaining time together.
The next day, the roaring static of stress returned with a wicked vengeance the moment I was alone. I marched, furiously I marched, internally swirling around a drain of depression and anxiety. I obsessively recounted the sequence of my decisions and tried desperately to locate which of my choices I had miscalculated such that I felt so discombobulated and dismayed. The criticisms of myself cascaded with increasing relentlessness as I walked, lashing my psyche in a way that was starkly contrasted from the soothing beauty of the lush landscape.
I crested Blackhawk pass, which was perfect in its challenging and splendid stature. At the top, I made the mistake of checking for cell reception and instantly received a rush of messages from Luke, from my academic advisors, and family members. Each of these parties demanded something different from me and each demand felt urgent and overwhelming. I wasn’t ready to face them all just yet. Especially Luke, who I hadn’t yet told about the extent of my involvement with Matt. I felt stuck in the mire of my own mind, a feedback loop of guilt, shame, and stress.
When the heaviness felt like too much to carry alone, I found a place to rest and waited for Matt to catch up. He came strolling down the trail, contentment emanating from his demeanor, and it struck me as the most ordinary yet extraordinary occurrence. Completely predictable but miraculous all the same. I told him I was feeling sad, as if my sulking wasn’t totally obvious. Without saying much in response, he repositioned himself at my back so that I could recline into his chest while his arms wrapped around me.
“You know what I started reading today?” His breath passed by my ear like a warm breeze. “Anna Karenina. Listen to this…”
Sensing that I was drowning in my own thoughts, Matt deftly redirected my thinking. After a while, he suggested that we start walking again, but together this time.
As we covered mile after mile, a hobbled sort of gratitude began welling up within me. At one point, I plucked a massive dandelion which lined the path, feeling an uncharacteristic need for a wish. I shut my eyes and wished that instead of struggling against myself, I would try to trust the universe. To surrender myself to the grain of its movement and resist the urge to fight for control. The sticky translucent fibers, dislodged by my breath, sailed into the invisible current of the winds, carrying my deepest longings along with them.
Matt and I were intent on savoring every instant of our last full day on the trail, beginning with the sunrise.
My alarm alerted me that morning was approaching, not yet arrived but lurking somewhere behind the ridge to the east. The solace that preceded the dawn energized my fingers such that I could capture my thoughts with accuracy and ease. Matt left the tent with his camera in hopes to immortalize the liquid gold sliding down the mountain’s sides and across the valley floor. I stayed behind, obeyed the compulsion to write, and intermittently peaked out the vestibule. The red trees, the striped salmon skyline, the silence of the day breaking at 13,000 feet—it filled me with the most intense nostalgia, but not for anywhere in particular. It was as if I was preemptively feeling longing for something I hadn’t yet departed from or lost. Nameless emotions morphed into salt water stinging the corners of my eyes, the back of my throat, the tightening joint at the hinge of my jaw.
The peace of setting out early and soaking in the hushed newness of the day brought about a vivid clarity. Matt and I planned to spend most of the day at Taylor Lake, eating some psychedelics which had been gifted to us by another hiker. That meant I had seven miles to collect my thoughts before beginning our trip. I walked with purpose through the alpine forest and beyond the treeline, up and along a spectacular ridge. The horizon was uniquely hazy, despite the brilliance of the naked sun.
A dreamy quality imbued my vision, as though a marbled gloss was forming over my perception of reality. I was still sober then but filled with wonder and gratitude. My breathing was heavy and rhythmic, propelling my legs up the final sustained climb of the trail. At the high point, I suppressed the need to shout and instead gulped down generous amounts of air, imagining all my loved ones as I did so. Imagining my mother and her mother and feeling my own finitude and the infinite quality of Life itself all at once.
I met Matt on a rocky crest and sat beside him to dig out a snack, drink some water, and suck on a mint infused with LSD.
“Let’s get weird,” He said with humor and ease, though I knew he was feeling apprehensive. We let our mints dissolve and release their chemical magic into our gums and tongues. Together we hiked the steep decline toward the lake, which revealed its striking turquoise surface with a grandeur that demanded admiration.
We found Big Spork and Mountain Goat sitting at the lake’s lapping shore and listening to music. I assumed they too were on drugs because of their dazed smiles and glazed expressions but it was only the power of the pristine water, the red earth, and the seamless sky. Other hikers found their way to our spot; a serendipitous reunion of various individuals and groups I’d gotten to know over the hike. A few inflated their sleeping pads and charged into the water, leaving a wave of delight in their wake.
Matt shed his clothes and launched himself into the lake with two boundless steps. I laughed and my open mouthed grin cemented itself on my face. The sparkling surface of Taylor Lake exploded and glittered in such a way that shot light in every direction. When the wind subsided for a moment, I quickly stripped out of my clothes. I tumbled gracelessly into the water, feeling its weight close like a trap door over the crown of my head. My limbs extended reflexively, crawling through the lack of gravity and liquid environment with an intuitive ease.
When I surfaced, my gaze rested instinctively on Matt, treading out of reach and smiling brightly. He always managed to inspire wonder with his inexplicable radiance. I swam toward him but like fish our bodies would dart upon at the moment of our meeting. The cold built pressure in the cavity of my chest and I returned slowly to shore as the seconds slowed into minutes and time itself fell away with the shivers that wracked my lean frame, the bones of my shoulders and hips.
The sun was the only antidote for my cool, wet skin. The sun and pacing over the shrubby ground. Making conversation with anyone and everyone to distract from my dropping body temperature. Matt dressed himself in every layer to which he had access. His puffy and sleep clothes engulfed him like a soft, black cloud. His shivers were violent and pronounced, causing enough concern that I felt the need to intermittently float over to his side and offer small embraces. Nothing could warm him and I was struck for the first time at how much weight he had lost, how emaciated he looked with his clothes hanging off his quaking body.
I wanted to be alone with him and I sensed he wanted the same.
“Let’s find somewhere to lay down.”
We searched for an alcove that would conceal us among the towering pines, firs, and spruce and came upon a small hidden flat. We spread my groundsheet over the earth, collapsing into one another, and taking in the swell of sound that characterized the forest. The buzzing things. The biting things. Life—teeming and consuming and being consumed. We haphazardly constructed my tent to shield us from the winged blue bodied flies, then deposited ourselves inside.
I was grateful for the privacy and immediately wanted to undress. I took off my own clothes unceremoniously and then removed Matt’s more slowly. More deliberately. I asked him to shut his eyes and traced lines across his skin that were visible only to my eyes. Matt’s skin, luminous and smooth, was a texture I felt desperate to memorize. The sleepy, sweet expression he wore with closed eyes and an upturned face urged me on in my task of covering his limbs with imperceptible kisses. Moving carefully down the length of his torso with my teeth and nails and scorching breath. Matt said my name so softly that I raised my head, surprised to hear his voice, and surprised to hear my own name. His whisper lingered in the air, leaving a trail behind like a slithering snake or an airplane’s scarring of the sky.
I felt my own will and body bending artfully to match the shape of his. Matt’s pleasure and mine fused so intensely that whatever boundary usually separated our senses became indistinguishable. Irrelevant. The neural pathways in my brain blinked like overloaded circuits, scattering my perception of time, leaving me grounded only by Matt’s movements. Grounded by Matt himself, the only recognizable presence in the space through which I drifted. The performance of that act–ordinary, extraordinary, miraculous, and mundane–formed a sense of connection with us to all of those that came before us. Yet after, as we lay side by side on our backs, I could see him stringing together the elements of original, elegant ideas. I watched beautiful thoughts coalesce behind his eyes until he told me he felt inspired by all that he was feeling.
Lights and shadows. Inspiration comes, sometimes unbidden and other times because it’s been chemically induced. Then it goes, as predictable and rhythmic as the tide going out. Or the arrival of absence in the shadow of the new moon. We couldn’t stay in that moment indefinitely. In fact, it was already beginning to expire. The sun was going down, our hunger mounting, and the neurotransmitters in our brains were already tipping back toward their natural balance. Our hike was coming to its conclusion.
We wordlessly packed our things away then walked, stridently and without ceasing, until the moon lit our path. Ten miles. Twelve miles. Fifteen miles. Through the forest and then a canyon until we reached the cow pastures demarcating the lowlands. It was one of the few times in my life where my mind was utterly blank. I was only aware of the trail underfoot and the ache of hunger in my gut. After about twenty miles, long after the sun had set, we found a truly lovely little tent site in a rocky ravine. With the incredible efficiency that accompanies rehearsal, we established our camp one last time, ate our cold-soaked noodles & veggies, and promptly went to sleep with that relentless hunger still lodged in our stomachs.
The next morning, we walked our final miles with friends we’d made along the way. We reflected on our favorite days, things we wished we would have done differently, and whatever we were going to do next. Durango, which we referred to interchangeably as “town”, was an abrupt reunion with the “the real world.” Although, why the consumerism and habitual busyness of society is considered more “real” than the wilderness where I’d spent the past few weeks–beats me.
The wonder I had derived from waking in the forest dissipated. My senses felt overloaded and under stimulated all at once. An avalanche of noise creeped through the paper thin walls, assailing me. I was sensitive, like a fresh cut or an exposed nerve. Saddened to have reached the end of my journey. Afraid to confront all that came next. Reluctant to say goodbye to Matt. Confused about what I had learned and what I did not. I craved the clarity of sobriety, stillness, and safety.
Even so, when I stuck my thumb on the street in Durango, and was immediately picked up by two gorgeous blondes driving a funky green van–I thought to myself, These are my people. I am at home here, on the road. It’s hard not to feel that way when you’re in the back of a stranger’s car, with all your possessions on your back, feeling that, for a moment, all is right in the universe.
On the lengthy drive back to Denver, I retraced the steps of our journey. The route repeatedly intersected with the Colorado Trail, knocking loose memories as we whizzed past. Molas Lake appeared in a series of fragments falling through the trees and I recalled Matt jumping through those trees to surprise me. We passed by Lake City, then the campground where we’d discussed road-tripping together after the trail, giddy at the vastness of the possibilities ahead. We drove through Monarch Pass and I pointed out the infamous trail that had led Matt and I north instead of south. When the singular building constituting the town of Jefferson, I remembered Megan, Big Spork, and I sitting on the plastic picnic tables outside the storefront. Finally, we sailed wordlessly beyond Kenosha Pass and I envisioned myself walking across the road. Recalled how different my headspace had been back then. I smiled a small smile to myself. Felt the trajectory of my journey collapsing in on itself in one great giant loop.
The image of that loop came to me again the next day as Matt and I sat inside the Denver International Airport awaiting two different flights to different destinations. A weary flavor of melancholy hung in the air around us, but we did our best not to acknowledge the conclusion of our fling. We had spoken vaguely about reuniting back east, but no firm plans had been developed yet, and neither of us wanted to press the other. It’s wondrous–to be young, unfettered, and falling in love–but it’s usually more complicated than that. A ravine was forming between us, expanding with all the things we didn’t feel prepared to say to one another.
Tell him you love him, said a little voice inside me. Tell Matt he’s been the most surprising and beautiful discovery. But I couldn’t bring myself to try, and fail, to convey the depth of my affection. That kind of sentimentality wasn’t my style and it seemed trite, or somehow cliche. Besides, I didn’t want to petrify all the love and bliss we had shared just because I was afraid to lose it. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle, or however that saying goes.
Instead, my fingers traced delicate trails across Matt’s palms and veins while we sat waiting side-by-side at the airport terminal. When the first boarding announcement came, we stood and held each other close. We both released heavy sighs and I focused on how it felt to have his body pressed against mine. The smell of the neck against my face and the scratch of his stubble on my temple. I concentrated on slowing down the moment, spreading it out beyond the ordinary span of a few seconds.
“Te amo,” Matt said into my ear, softly and without expectation. I pulled away, just far enough to read his expression and study his features one final time. The oceanic depth of his eyes–soft, knowing, and verging on mournful. The smooth, porcelain planes of his forehead and cheeks. The parenthetical creases framing his wonderfully symmetrical lips, threatening to smirk at the slightest provocation. “Te amo, Isabella.”
How was it that we had only known each other for a few weeks? How had we found each other out here, and why now? What terrible and wonderful timing. What synchronicity. What a gift!
As I boarded my flight and took my assigned seat, I remembered the first glimpse of Matt on the plane that had originally brought me to Denver. I recalled the awe of seeing the Rockies on the horizon through my little jet window. The delicious anticipation I had felt in the beginning which eventually yields to the sweet, inevitable sadness of the end.
Big journeys are more like spirals than linear paths. Spirals leading inward, into the unseen recesses of ourselves, through the terrain of past experiences that have formed us. We encounter lessons we may have “learned” before, but each time we return to a painful fact about ourselves, or others, or the world–we do so with more wisdom, more nuance and perspective.
I thought my thru-hike would include an abundance of solitude and the opportunity to challenge my body. I thought I would complete my hike and reunite with someone else, someone with whom I shared a completely different lexicon of memory and experience than the one I was developing with Matt. Sometimes, we surprise ourselves with what we want, or what we’re capable of. Sometimes, that knowledge is difficult to bear. But, as the plane lifted gracefully from the runway and I felt myself become weightless in my seat, I was profoundly grateful for all that I didn’t foresee or account for in my careful planning.
I didn’t know what would come of Matt and I at that moment. I didn’t know that there would be so much to work through–my previously unresolved relationship, long distance, and countless other challenges–but I knew I felt so intensely kindred and connected with him that I wanted to try. If each of us had the will, determination, and desire to walk hundreds of miles (most of them in the rain), then I figured we had the grit to work it out. And we did!
Across too many trails and trips to track or recount. We found our way back to one another by taking up new adventures–some big, some small, and a few outright terrifying. But sharing our lives with one another has been one of the greatest adventures by far.
Te amo, cariño. Muchas gracias por todo de nuevo, Matt.