Sunday, January 03, 2016

These Boots that have Hiked

These boots are worn. The leather is marbled and tired. They've been waterproofed and Shoe Goo-ed and as of this past weekend on the way to Desoto State Park, Krazy-glued. The tread on the left boot pulled away on New Year's Eve and Ryan stopped at a Walgreen's and bought me a tube of Krazy Glue. The tread on the right boot pulled away the day after New Year's Day, after two days of walking the rocky, wet and root-laden Desoto trails. I've glued the soles back together and for now, the tread bonds tightly to the leather.

I think, though, these boots might be done. They might have walked all their miles.

It might be time for new boots. . .

I wore these boots over Thanksgiving break while camping at Vogel State Park. They held up well for the hike up Blood Mountain. I imagined, they were rejoicing to tread over the familiar lichen-covered rocks, gnarly roots and bouldered switch-backs of the Bryon Reece trail. My first ever backing packing trip at age 9 began on that same Blood Mountain trail, though, of course, not in these particular boots. I can't even guess or count how many times I've walked the trail to the top since then. I can say, I have walked it twice with my children and many, many times in these particular boots.

This last time, my daughter, the teen, walking with me, admired my boots and asked if she could have them when her feet are finally big enough. She has a little more than half a size to go. I felt happiness, pride even, at her asking because anyone with a teenager daughter knows that her liking or admiring anything of yours is the equivalent of her saying the she thinks you are not so terrible after all and that for that moment, when she is liking your stuff, she likes you again. You are "Mommy", again, not "Mom!" (eye-roll a given.) It is a bit like being asked to hang out with the cool kids and you say yes a little too quickly.  There is desperation in it, only this isn't high school, it's your family, the family you made.

My initial impulse of yes! You can have anything of mine gave way to pause. These are my boots and these are the boots that over the past two decades, I have hiked, both alone and companion-ed, the self-guided trail that led 22 year-old Natalie to this 44 year-old Natalie. When I think about all the people, the pathways, the places, the heartaches these boots and I have traversed, well, I wondered, if these boots are really a thing I can really give away, even to my daughter.

I bought the boots at Call of the Wild in Roswell, which has long since shuttered its doors. It was a month before I turned 23 and  before I left to work in Yellowstone National Park for the summer. My father had given me money, as an early birthday gift, with instructions to "get a good pair of boots" for my trip. He also gave me an industrial can of bear spray that came with a holster. And he also, after surveying all that I packed,  gave me his red Northface fleece. I was grateful many times that summer for that fleece. It was the only warm piece of clothing I had and trust me, it gets cold in Wyoming in August. I needed it!

However, never once, did I think, standing in the store that hot summer day deciding between the pairs of hiking boots laid out before me, that the boots would be with me this long. In fact, I remember, the Call of the Wild sales guy advising me to choose a different pair. But I liked the old fashioned look the leather Merrell boots had, even if they were not as practical or potentially durable as the Gortex boots he recommended. The leather Merrell ones were the only ones in the store that fit with my image of what hiking boots should look like. I bought the boots, a tube of Shoe Goo and a waterproofing compound. I rubbed both all over the boots and decided they were as good as Gortex.

I may have been wearing these boots or they may have been siting next to my external framed maroon Jansport backpack in my bedroom waiting for my real adventure, when I went with my then sort of a boyfriend, Marcus, to get a tattoo.

Marcus and I had beers at the Yacht Club in Little 5 Points and discussed our body altering plans. We walked, buzzed, across the street to the headshop. I chickened out on the tattoo at the last minute and went with a naval piercing. I picked out a stainless steel ring with a hematite stone. I still remember the girl who did my piercing. She had a pretty face, delicate, girly hands, a shaved head and strange tribal, facial tattoos and facial piercings that purposely distracted you from her prefect features. I remember wondering, as I lay with my shirt hiked up, belly exposed, why she had purposely made herself unattractive. As a habit (and still do,) I tried very hard, with my plain features, to be pretty. I wondered, as she shoved a thick needle through my belly button, and couldn't quite comprehend in my beer muddled brain, why someone would try equally as hard to make her pretty self not so pretty.

I guess Marcus still has his tattoo but I do not have the piercing any longer. Maybe he will read this and say whether he still has that tattoo on his ankle. I lost the belly ring, somewhat traumatically, when I was pregnant with Carmella at 28. Ah, here is a thing you should definitely not pass on to your children, maybe?  Your body piercing jewelry. ( Just thinking out loud here.)

I can also recommend that you should not, after getting a body piercing, "Shoot the Hooch." It was a fun afternoon, (fourth of July!)  and my last ever with Marcus but it was a year before that piercing fully healed. No amount of surgical soap, hydrogen peroxide and antibiotic ointment could hurry the healing along once the Chattahoochee had her dirty hands on my navel.

 Life lessons here people, life lessons. . .

I was wearing these boots on the plane to Oregon.The plane that flew me across the country to my ex-boyfriend. He picked me up at the Eugene airport and drove me to a party at his house, where I celebrated my 23rd birthday with him and bunch of people I didn't know. We drank tequila and said cheers to me and to our youth. It was truly one of the funnest birthday celebrations but I can't recall a single name or face other than my own or John's.

John and I had broken up the February prior after a 3-year long distance relationship. When you break up with someone over the phone who is in Eugene, Oregon and you are in Roswell, Georgia  you might not be 100% sure of your decision until you fly across country, celebrate a birthday with tequila, spend a week driving and backpacking across Oregon, Idaho--where you gamble in Pendleton on the Indian Reservation and win a steak dinner-- and drive into Montana --where you have beer for breakfast because you can: you have good times, you laugh and you have fun but you do not love each other. A week in a van and a small tent and miles on your feet and many beers later tell you this is 100% true.  But it isn't  until you find yourself at Old Faithful, in the heart of Yellowstone National Park,  where you finally realize that yes, you two are done--this is because he tells you that your are the biggest bitch he has ever known and you think, this is a fair and true assessment. It hurts your feelings though that he didn't know this before, that he didn't figure this out in those 3 long distance years. But, at the very least, now you know, for sure, that when you said, I don't think we are meant to be together anymore, you know that you were right.

I was wearing these boots when we said our lukewarm, handshake of a good-bye. He dropped me, my boots, and all my stuff off at my post at Old Faithful and turned his van back to Oregon and he nor I have ever looked back. At 23, you don't often know what is true and right, but as I watched him drive away I knew that we had hung it up for good, and that I was okay with that.

I met Chuck that same day and he showed me the Yellowstone ropes.He was my friend all of July.He called me Nat right after I told him my name was Natalie.  He is still my friend today, living not far from me with his wife and two children  We bused tables together at the lodge until I got a promotion serving either baked cod or prime rib to tourists (tourons, as us Yellowstoners called them.)

Chuck and I made days worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hitched hiked our way with his roommate Bill to the Tetons. We hiked and bouldered and forged streams. We did all the things I was scared to do and all the things that would have kept my mother up all night worrying about if she had known. We walked in the woods in day and in the dark of night,  we jumped off cliffs, we sat in muddy hotpots at midnight and had parties around bonfires. It was  of one of those parties that got Chuck kicked out of Yellowstone because a drunk guy kept leaping over the fire and the permit for the party was in Chuck's name. The next morning, in a borrowed car, I drove him to the bus stop in Livingston. Along the way, to pass the time, we listened to  Dave Matthews' album, Under the Table and Dreaming, liking every single song. We picked up French Canadian hitchhikers with a hookah, talked our way out of a ticket, and Chuck, the best of the best salesmen, bartered us a hotel room for a night in exchange for an am/fm radio. I didn't even think such things were possible. I thought you could only barter for stuff in 3rd world countries, not in America and at hotels with Formica 50's decor. We said goodbye the next morning and I felt life was as wide and open as the highway and Montana's endless sky as I drove back alone to Yellowstone.

 I made new and close friends: Shawn, Tara, Blake, Frank and Monique. It was as if we had known each other all our lives and would forever. But I have seen nor heard from any of them since.

Shawn and I drove to the Tetons to take pictures with his fancy camera. We talked about Ansel Adams, I wrote in my journal, he told me about his girlfriend and we drank Molsons at a bar outside of Jackson Hole.

Monique and I hiked at midnight after work to camp under the stars. I had brought my sleeping bag, a tent, a bottle of bourbon and some extra clothes. I was the only one who had brought things. They called me the girl scout. I shared with everyone, gave up my tent, bourbon and extra clothes to others. I slept in my sleeping bag in the dirt next to the fire and woke the next morning with ashes piled up on my cheek and spiders in my hair.

Other times I was the designated driver from parties in West Yellowstone we all attended. Frank was the only one with a car but I would stay sober because I knew no one else would. I would  insist, at 3 am, on driving his old Buick to the park, selling them on the promise of clean beds instead of cold dirt and a bonfire with drunk people. I would drive them all home under the million of arched stars and the compromise of either his sole Eric Clapton album or  the compilation of Ministry covers because it was all I could stand of Frank's otherwise heavy metal discography collection. They would call me Mama, making fun but glad to have someone looking out for them.

Jerry Garcia died that summer. OJ Simpson was on trial but no one really cared about that. Garcia's death was the only true tragedy. Some people just couldn't get past it. I had to work a shift for my roommate Tara who was just too devastated to clock in that day.

In late August, Monique and I rode horses with Blake and his family in the Gallatin Mountains. And Blake, my sweet friend, picked me up from the hospital when I had, a still undetermined but most likely, a gallstone attack and spent a scary night alone in the Yellowstone hospital. And by alone I mean, I was the only patient and there was one nurse. The doctor went home after he gave me an IV drip with morphine and determined there was nothing he could do for me. It was like being in a Stephen King novel.

Blake picked me up, helped me pack and then drove me to the Jackson Hole airport in a borrowed car the next day and put me on a plane. It was the last time I ever saw him. It was the last time I was in Yellowstone.

I was wearing these boots when I stepped off that plane and back into my regular life. I finished my degree in literature and floundered for a year while I figured out what to do. I hiked in these boots many times that year. Eventually I met Ryan and decided on graduate school. I was 25. The two years that lead me to him were an immense journey. One that I would think, had I worn these boots everyday, they would be worn too thin to have led me anywhere else, to go on any other journey.

Maybe this speaks to Merrell quality, leather's tenacity or that with enough forethought to weatherproof your boots, they will last you through many journeys, miles and years  and get you through the most ruggedest of hikes.

These boots and I hiked with Ryan for a week on Cumberland Island the summer after the fall we had began dating.A year later we were engaged to be married and the year after that, married. The year after that, pregnant with our first child. Life, in these boots, has trudged relentlessly and surprisingly forward.

Shortly before our wedding, I came home from work one day to find a letter. It was from Blake's mother. Blake and I had kept loosely in touch, post cards and letters. Just friends who wished each other a good, happy and long life. It was the 90's and before email was a thing and a million years before social media, so when you made significant friendships back then and parted ways geographically, you said, "We will see each other again. Best of luck in life, keep in touch." And so you kept in touch, maybe; postcards, letters, Christmas cards and an occasional phone call.

Blake's mother's letter told me that Blake had died a few months earlier in a car accident. She included his obituary and the program from his funeral. I suspect, in going through his things, she had found my letters to him. She reached out to me, I guess because she had remembered me from her trip to visit him in Yellowstone. I think though that she reached out to me before I could reach out to him. She was saving herself a surprise letter or potential flood of letters that would rip open what will always be a raw wound.

As a mother, I see this as self preservation on her part but for many years I puzzled over her letter to me. Having a child and son in particular, gives me empathy now that I did not possess then. I believe I wrote her back but maybe I only think that in memory. I do know that the me today, understanding how a mother feels about her son, I would have written her back. Blake was my friend, knowing him helped make me who I am and I have nothing but good memories of him. I would write to her, your child is a part of the happy memory of one the most profound, life defining periods in my life.

 I cannot wear my boots without thinking of all the places I have been, who I have been over the last 22 years of wearing these boots.

And what of this teenage, first born child of mine who I would gladly lay every bit of my life aside so hers could find a brighter, clearer and easier path?

Give her these boots that have hiked my way to her?

Well, of course, I would give her my boots. But I know these boots will not work for her. They will not fit her. As much as I want, so very much want to walk every single path and trail she must traverse in her life and make certain that every path is always clear, easy and bright or at least walk along side her, guide her. . . I know I cannot.

I know, we all know, the paths that lead us to us are ours alone to walk. We cannot get there in borrowed boots.