I Wander

Hiking changes real estate. I remember house hunting with my family when my siblings and I were kids. No. Under a metal spiral stair case. Trapped between two thick yellow paint strips slicing the road in half. No in the yard. No that doesn’t fit in the yard. In the closet of a bedroom big enough for two, no, no more kids sharing bedrooms. 

I would describe it as exactly the opposite on a hike. I spent innumerable miles studying, imagining, dreaming of how I could make little flat patches on the sides of mountains, bareheaded bald spots on top of them, chilly Laurel stuffed hollows between them, into cozy fireside home for the night. No was in my little book of miles, my stack of shelter names and water sources and spectacles along the way. No was circling bare plastic in water bottles or a food sack stuffed with crushed Ramen wrappers and crinkly, metallic skin still plastered with bits of authentic peanut butter. I swear I could make anywhere home. Is that a superpower? An antithesis to the performing escape artist. My ability, my talent, the special skill I am about to demonstrate, I’m really good at home. 

Which isn’t a tent, a nice high firepit, a picnic table someone slid up underneath the shelter overhang, which is against the rules, and an answer to the prayer of every hiker in the rain passing through. It isn’t safety or security, there is none, save the insomniac canine stretched out on the leaves, ears sharp and crisp and up as early corn. It isn’t the view, though I’ve woken up by some doozies. I’ve slept sideways on slanted ground. Bent my body crooked as a snake in the shade to lie between the rocks. I’ve packed up my entire camp at nine at night because a strange man who had asked for food started staring at my dog, Eggs, like she was finally living up to her goofy namesake, hiked over a mile in the dark, shining no lights so he couldn’t see which direction we went, and set up camp in the pitch black not three feet off trail. Woke up to find out I’d slept beside an overview, woke up to carrot colored sunlight tickling hundreds of miles of central Virginia up out of a tough and too short sleep. I stayed one night down in this sopping wet valley dug by a wide shallow tongue of water called Dismal Creek. I know. I read the sign. The opposite of warm. The closest to freezing I’ve ever come when the temperature wasn’t freezing. It’s not a rule, it’s not even advice, so much as it is an observation, that one should always have trepidation about staying in a place where even the water is running. 

I could make anywhere home. Often, I think of campsites I scratched out myself, circled rocks and crushed my snow angel tent shape flat in the leaves. I wonder if anyone else has stayed there. I wonder if a ranger found it first and scattered the rocks and ruffled up the forest floor to cover the tracks. I wonder if perhaps there’s some territory in the afterlife where one has to go back through the world and revisit every place we ever left DNA. Gather it up like autumn leaves to lay down bedding in the latchless stalls of heaven. I wonder. 

Every night, I’d get my set up established, my shelter that packed down to the size of a loaf of bread, and expanded enough to hold me, my gear, my dog, room to spare. I almost always built a fire. Water boiling. Pour some wine if I had it. Slipping the dog slices of warm cheddar as if I hadn’t asked permission. I’d get out my notebook, wipe the excess ink pooled at the ballpoint of my pen, and wander. Pages. As my dinner grew cold. I’d shove all my dishes and food into a compression sack and send it up a tree on a rope, and I’d climb into my tent with my notebook and my pen, a bright white light emanating from the center of my forehead, and I’d write. 

And that’s my superpower. That’s how I stay anywhere I go. 

I am real estate.
I am home.

Bear Stories

Almost more frightening than seeing a bear is someone telling you they saw a bear. An older guy, older than my dad, who, if you saw on the street, you’d call homeless, but out here in the woods wearing a backpack with a red bandanna decorated black paisley tied around his head, just a hiker. Supposedly, who came around the corner and surprised two bear cubs up a tree. Never saw their mother. He says. But had a sense she was nearby. He tells us this as he is headed in the opposite direction, toward the almost can’t be called a town a few miles behind. Where we ate cheeseburgers and charged our phones and filled two collapsible water-bottles with cheap fizzy gas station wine. Dad and I. This guy is filling our heads with thoughts of bear and I swear I can smell every ounce of that half pound burger I ate called the hiker, ironically, likely pieces of it beneath my fingernails, grease left off in my scant facial hair. Old man hikes on but we really don’t, we’d walked all day and by design were camping close-by, maybe a few dozen yards from the place he treed the cubs.

There used to be a shelter here, but it burned down and all that is left is a giant set of concrete steps and the half buried slab it leaned on. The site isn’t popular. I can tell because of how little walking it takes to gather up a waist high pile of firewood so I can light up these woods right until the buttcrack of bedtime. Dad teases me about it. Less than an hour and a young man comes bee-bopping down the trail buried between two earbuds. He sits on our orphaned steps and talks to us about joining the army at the end of summer. And this trip is one half vacation, one half training. He can’t be in his mid twenties. One of those ultra lightweight backpacks stitched with the word Osprey. He hikes light. Carries very little water. Trusts his legs to get him more. He started further back than we did, and he isn’t done for the night. By his projections, another six miles before dark. His stories are scary-exciting like inheriting land or landing that new job. Red tee. Spiky black hair. Sweat sheened tan skin and built skinny strong. He did not stop to get a burger.

I have to drink most of my wine because my wine bag busted from the carbonation. Dad goes to tent an hour before my firewood is spent and I dirty up a couple pages and watch the flickering darkness for the twinkling of bear eyes or old men who smell like damp tobacco and liberal patchouli. The trees catch hot breath off my tall fire and juggle it between branches, busking for my attention, and I give it to them, two ever-open quarters I flick out from my pocket, like boomerangs, always seem to fly back to me whenever whatever I gave them to is finished.

I’d rather see a bear than hear a story about seeing one.

If I knew it was there in the dark staring back at me licking its lips.
Even that would be easier than waiting.

BLTN

Every east coast lick lapped by thick silver mist.
Rain light as snow might be easier to manage if it had froze.
Whipped jets from eighteen wheels in tread-shredding hurry.
People who play games with their brake lights and cruise control
don’t believe in negative prayers offered around them about them.
No car quick enough can outrun karma. Slick black skeletal mountains

vomit white cascades of frozen-fallen ice. Rock shoulders
lean out over the shoulder and make us shudder passing beneath.
Stress shedding mutt curled up in the backseat. Patience testing
two year old strapped into a carseat just barely pretend-asleep.
A couple curves with fog so thick with steady drizzle we fly headlong
fast enough that any unexpected thing in our path would end us.

Even though it doesn’t, perhaps it also does. Lost.
But for a British voice telling us where to turn. Blind.
But for all our wide open unblinking eyes. Dead.
But for the dutiful heart and grocery bag lungs
that keep us this side of alive. I drive. They ride
and we get there, but not on time. We uncover

the mantra of our middle lives.
Better late than never.

New York: By Way of Storm

They were waiting on me to get here.
The wind.
The rain.
Soggy footsteps in dented grass.
Soldering tools.
Beer fridge.
Great lake licking shades that open by remote control.
An ambush.
A trap.
Set up in series like dominoes.
One begets the next and sets up the collapse of all the rest.
In good time.

Dog plastic clicks and floor rattles in battles against the inevitability we call gravity.
Laid in wait.
Mouth open.
Whisper breathing.
Eyes hungry and open.
As I enter a scene.
Well orchestrated and rehearsed.
All except for the part I play. Of course.
An unwitting fool. A chicken dinner.
Which goes against the oven roasted golden brown rule.

Be nobody’s chicken dinner.

If you intend to make a meal of me, you will only get thinner.
This wind blown rain spotted weather.

The long flat roads framed in soaked farmland and fresh water harbors.
Seabirds lost in lake mist and island peppered distance.
Trip wires in thinning choirs and cold church Sunday morning.
Broken boilers.
Daylight spoilers.
Cows feet caked in mud and old men with blond ponytails down their backs.

Poised.
For the attack.
Growing tired of waiting.
But now that I am here.

No one is waiting anymore.

Took New York by storm.
And it hasn’t quit since.

My Ministry

People out for the weekend were worse off than me.
Struggling. Sweat rosaries and strap stains
draped like stoles on their shoulders.
Leaned out hands together in the shelter.
Listen. They love to complain about the weather.

It is all about contrast.

Where you were yesterday gets in the way.
Sets you up for a betrayal of expectations.

And I had none. Not at that point.
Not after two months.
I was better off than them.
In that I was already broken.

Down enough to learn real truth doesn’t need to be spoken.
At least not solely by one human to another.
I learned it’s best just to let earth teach her own nature.

Surprised Still

Perched like an eagle on top of a ski hill.
Who would not have thought.
Eight hundred miles of mountains.
Would lead to here.

This dry little white one.
No more than a hill. Still.

Paid minimum wage to watch kids climb like boomerangs
come twirling throwing snow back to be whipped again.
Scarves hiding grins.
Nobody wins.
Nobody really has a gender.
Or an agenda.
Or anything better to do. Clearly.
Just surprised still at gravity.
Bolting fiberglass boards to boots.

Amused. When mountains for two months
leads to a mountain for two months.

As if it ever could have happened.
Any other way.
And still been mine.

 

 

The Pulpit

 

The mountains I cursed. The rain I out-poured prayers against. Some footsteps I used to walk. And some I just tried to crush the earth. As if I could. Mind hard as fossilized wood, and feet as white as chalk. I had this trick, for climbs, long ones, three, four hours maybe more, every step a foot higher than the last, don’t look up. Don’t glance toward the top. I would stare straight forward through the curved bill of my cap like a horse head cradled by blinders. Not until the walking levels. Or until the sunlight grows an arch around the rim of treeline, and there are no other ridges above your head, and you find yourself in some sharp bald spot you didn’t believe existed until then. People think you’re having such a hard time when you pass them. People think all kinds of things for the few seconds until you’re out of sight and gone.

So many of them. So much hey how are you, how’s it going, you doing all right, where’d you come from, where are you going, how is the water up ahead. All the way to New York? Well good luck, better get going, hurry up. Where are you from? Almost a thousand miles from home. No, that can’t be right, Pennsylvania can’t be two hundred miles, well, it is a three hour drive. That adds up.

That sunset just before Three Ridges. Wind came in that night and swept it out and I suspect no one will never see that sunset again. Rifle shots at seven AM. Strangers asking if I’m afraid of hunters. Wonder why I’m not wearing their favorite color. Shenandoah was like a burgundy and gold encrusted crown on the regal head of northern Virginia. And Maryland wishes it was bread so bad. But someone has to be inside the sandwich. There have to be some things in between. Neither here nor there. And such places tend to build monuments to history, to heroes who died there but did not live there, or lived there, but died somewhere else. I remember climbing the wide gravel path cut into the side of Mount Vernon. Rust red signs with mildewed once white lettering, walking us through President George Washington’s American life. A lady with two huge skinny as a rail Greyhound looking sharp-headed dogs who had no intention of containing themselves around mine. Coolly bouncing black fur barely glancing their frantic direction. I remember her apology. Her promise. Her dogs are not really like this. The things we swear to strangers.

On top of The Pulpit. Overlooking dead Pennsylvania hillsides. There was rusted blood red and lemony gold and hunter green evergreens going into winter bold. Black birds with flat wings glide at the top right corner of the scene while a couple who badly want to talk to me console their dog who is afraid of heights, and is white as a ghost.

We walked twenty four miles that day. Cursed a few mountains along the way, and honest to God, and anyone else who would listen, I wanted to claim that pulpit. That jagged path like a broken staircase still had a little skin from my shin. I earned it. And I always carry a sermon.

I just want to be a flash of color deep down in a valley. A streak of orange you didn’t expect to see looming there so late into autumn. My voice, hundreds of feet in the air feathers ruffled against thermals.

Preaching to an audience who already knows the war between blessings and curses
is coming to a close. We all exist now in a state of perpetual both. In fact, the mountains I recall the best, are the ones I cursed the most. 

Coming Soon – 800 miles of trail journal

“Today I met a flip flopping thru-hiker who called herself Fly Away.
She asked me my trail name. And I said Jeremiah.
Fly Away replied, “Ah, the weeping prophet.”
I laughed and said now you know that’s not far off.
And she told me about a vista overlooking the valley
I had just spent the morning circling, where she ate lunch.
It was just as breathtaking as she warned.”

Going through this trail journal and finding lots of little notes like this between poems. I’m excited to see it all cleaned up and put together. I will have a manuscript shortly, and I’m also working on an audio recording. Everyone who helped me along the journey, and I mean every one of you wonderful people, will receive a copy.

I know I’m biased, but I’ve never written anything like this before. The hike sort of naturally induced a story structure onto the more day to day, experiential journal writing I normally produce. It’s essentially a collection of free range poetry somehow all cooped up in the two months of my hike. Which was actually a pretty rigidly structured, meticulously planned and well rehearsed endeavor.

Each poem clearly uses some visceral detail or setting element as an excuse to answer every single question in the universe. [insert laughter] But divided up into chapters that follow each section of the trail, with little secular notes in between, regionalisms, geography lessons and of course, issues of theology and functional philosophy wrestled with continuously in my writing.

In some ways, I feel like the hike isn’t really done until I have this collection put together and recorded. And even beyond the value of this writing, is this new form. This pace of life. Blended into all my work. Everything I write. The consistency and intentionality required of a hike. Getting from where you are to where you want to be without forgoing everything in between. Which is actually the principal function of poetry anyway.

In other words, about eight hundred miles of trail journal coming to you soon!

Twenty Five Miles

Love is a twenty five mile day.
You take it on in sections.
Walk along. Taking your licks.
Your fallen sticks and fractured logs.
Your sharp rocks, and the ones that like to stay slick.
At the frazzled tail end of each, you’re beat.
Done. Broke-hearted but too tired to run.
Until you see it.
The tinny right angle of a rusted roof.
The creek. The road. Some sign for both.
And suddenly impossible has changed.
The same ways mountains range.
Different.
From nothing other than one foot before another
until miles you planned months ago
are behind you and gone. You breathe.
Drink a little red water that’s too sweet. You eat.
Then plan the next one and move on.
Love is not one.
It is not two or three.
Love is at least five of those sections in succession
until you’ve stacked up a day that was too tall, too heavy,
too much for you before you were ready.
Love is how you hiked it anyway.
Showed up out of breath feet throbbing
almost surprised you made it
to that random spot you circled
on a long list of random spots.

Bit off more than you could chew.
Wrote a check you couldn’t cash.
Eyes were hungrier your stomach.

Love is not a challenge. Or a goal. Or a game.
It is a miracle. Simple and plain. It is too much.
By definition. Love is too far to walk in one day.
And yet you somehow found a way.
You made it happen.
When they ask how, don’t explain.
Love is all you have to say.

It is the same as saying
I walked twenty five miles today.

Booted

I left the cap off the peanut butter.
Didn’t shut the refrigerator.
I unplugged the coffee pot when I was done.
And damn. I’m sorry.

Muddy footprints across clean floor.
Said eat one. Somehow ate four.
Clogged the toilet again. Didn’t I?
See. This is why I went outside.
Why Homesley booted himself out of his home.
Couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Now he’s four states along.
Took off after his feet.

I was warned.
They told me not to bowl beer bottles
all over the coffee table anymore.
Take the lighters of your pockets.
Don’t wash wool in warm water.
Or cotton for that matter.
Better yet don’t wash anything at all.
Going on three days now.
At the very least five good ones still to go.
Before I will be clean again.

I accept the smelly underwear of my own decisions.

Self-banished. Willfully evicted. Booted out the door.
Booted across four states.
Booted all the way.up north.