Hiking and Hurting
I stand alone in the shallow part of a sun-exposed creek in a small valley on the Appalachian Trail and look up to see sycamore, pine, birch, and oak cling to steep inclines like mountain goats. My hands pass water over my head, and the runoff snakes down my spine. A Dead Milkmen shirt bakes in the sun on a rock next to me, the same one that I’ve taken on every summer hike since I got it. The shirt is nothing special, just a faded black graphic on white. But it feels good to wear. The cotton and polyester mix make it airy and soft, perfect for hot summer days. I put it on and sunbathe on the rocks.
My boyfriend is upstream, trying to catch a salamander in the halfway-sunk rocks. I go up to him to check between the neck and shoulders where his pack, heavy with our water, chafed him all day yesterday. I was struggling too; my feet were so swollen I was walking on my heels by the time we rested at the river. Despite the wear, we’re both motivated to keep going. When I hike a trail, I can forget my cleanliness, my job, my classes, and everything else that runs me ragged. Life goals and deadlines become mile markers that lead to the top of the mountain where I can make camp. As much as I hate the exhaustion, gut rot, and heat-induced nausea, I know it’s a small price to pay for a life encumbered with responsibility. And as we progress up the mountain, my boyfriend and I feel the pain and boredom together, the literal peaks of the trip, the joy of finding comically large mushrooms. I switch to the lighter of the two bags before the final stretch. The rocky paths are steep, and the gains are slow. A drizzle starts to seep into my shirt; breaks every hundred steps turn to twenty, and I chug sugary juice out of desperation. Eventually, my body decides it’s had enough, and my tendons refuse to respond. After getting dragged around the last bend, I throw up the soft drink, and we continue to the overlook.
The temperature barely reaches 80 today; air up here feels like being in a conservatory, and each breath gives you a bit of life back. Summers of violence and one heatwave after another fade as we perch on a clearing of boulders overlooking the mountain range. About ten valleys over, I squint and see a never-ending row of wind turbines against the golden backdrop of a near-setting sun. Nearby to our left, turgid clouds of ominous grey spill over pine peaks and make my white shirt ripple around my chest. I sit on stone, tracing iron deposits while he leans on dogwood, and I think of the old warship graveyard, fields of barley, and the coal-plant train tracks that divided our parent’s houses. During our first summer together, I could only hold the sleeves of my shirt and pull them until they hugged me, counting the days until the first semester at my dream school. My prom date had warned me about “catching feelings” before college, and I paid dearly for not listening to her.
I thought a couple like us was best kept from the public eye back then. He had a soul patch, I weighed 110, he wore all black, and my arms were splotchy from years without sunscreen. Our portrait was far from the cute and nonthreatening expectation people have for gay youth, so we stayed away from others’ gazes as best we could. With no driver’s license and all ambition, I would bike across a pedestrian-hostile highway, walk uphill past my therapist’s office, through the town square, and continue to our old middle school. I’d smoke cigarettes lying on the baseball field until he arrived, and we took the train tracks that led to the swamplands along the Potomac. This was the arrangement back then. Everything stayed in the woods, the literal middle-ground between our two lives where we tried to cultivate something meaningful.
Once we got the confidence to be ourselves with others, I figured our days spent covered in ticks and sweat were over. But it turns out that doing anything else with another person that isn’t watching a screen or playing cards tends to cost the kind of money college kids can’t spend. We eventually found ourselves in the wilderness again out of desperation for something to do together, but with a broader scope. As beautiful as Nanjemoy was, a change from the muck and sticky air was in order. Anything west of the Chesapeake Bay became our go-to destination, where the mountainous Appalachian Trail resides. Driving there from the bay is an experience. Before I threw up on that mountain, my boyfriend and I drove from the bay to Western Maryland to jump in on a section of the trail. As the roads ascended, we felt the roots of the District of Columbia’s anxious energy give way to rocky cow pastures and crumbling coal towns. I enjoyed it until we reached the narrow back roads at the tail-end of the trip. My boyfriend is the kind of driver who stays as far away as possible from the double-yellow line, which puts the passenger side in perpetual chaos as it teeters on the edge of steep cliffs.
After we camp out on the overlook, we descend the mountain, and contrary to popular logic, it’s harder than going up. Our toes jam into the fronts of our boots until they bleed, and bulging root structures threaten to send us down the mountain. My foot catches one, and I fall on my wrist, nearly fracturing it. The last couple of miles are always the best part of a hike. For almost the entire hike, I block out the thoughts of air conditioning and sitting in a car for a few hours. When I see the final mile markers, I let the anticipation out, which drives me the rest of the way. I don’t notice my hand turning purple or the splitting pain in my feet when I spot the parking-lot gravel through the tree line.
Before our trips, I always overanalyzed how my boyfriend and I contrasted. Yet I don’t put thought into how we look at our strangest. We sit at a booth at a grill in some suburban town at the halfway point, both with a film of grime that seals clothing to skin. When our burgers arrive at the counter, I hobble over to them, looking like I just fought Jake La Motta. As we eat, I don’t sit with my back to the wall or dart my eyes around to look for glances. I don’t lower my voice when people walk by or stutter when the waitress asks if I want a box. We talk about how good a shower’s gonna’ be, argue rowdily over movies, and dream about everything we have yet to do.
© Michael Fialkowski
Michael Fialkowski is pursuing degrees in creative writing, communications and technology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. This is his first published work of creative nonfiction.