Thursday, October 12, 2006

after a year and a half of traveling, living on peanut butter, apples, and cheese, camping out on sand dunes and washing sticks out of my teeth with coffee, i came back to boston thinking maybe it was time to go back to school, live in a single place. trouble was, having seen the whole wide west, boston was seeming a little crowded, a little busy. my friends were in a different dorm, myles standish, a very old brownstone right in the middle of kenmore square- right in the thick of it. the river a few blocks back, fenway park a few blocks up the hill, the green line trolley running right through it. they were good to me as usual and began calling me "mott the loophole" after an old rocker mott the hoople, and because there was another tom hanging around. within a day or so i got a job at the myles dining hall, but they found out i wasn't a student and told me i couldn't work there. a day or so later i found another job painting rooms at a nearby college, emerson college. i didn't really have an address, but that didn't really stop me. didn't want to keep staying in a crowded dorm room either, so, one night i snuck up on the roof. getting into the building didn't seem to be a problem, though it was right in the middle of boston. i know this wouldn't be possible now, even in rural illinois. but it was common then, and, i never hurt anything, never took anything.

the roof had a small little elevator shaft building that was even a little warm, but not stuffy. but the best thing about it, besides the view of the street below, was that the entire roof was bathed in the citgo sign that kenmore square is famous for. this sign switched from red to blue to silver; eventually the whole roof would be bathed in all three colors and then start over again. even today i can't look at my citgo credit card without thinking about it- but then, even that card has kenmore square on it, an icon, a logo, a symbol of commerce driving the big city's engines. why they chose that place to put their huge sign, i don't know, maybe so i didn't have to light candles in that rickety old elevator shaft. i loved the view and slept like a log with the fresh air, the ambulances below and the steady red, blue silver light.

eventually someone found my sleeping bag up there on the roof during the day, while i was gone, took it and later told me to get lost, but, for a few days i was able to work painting and live a fairly interesting life. it was in this time that i met a very interesting character, in an elevator somewhere in kenmore square. it was possible that i was investigating other jobs or maybe places to live, but anyway, i met up with a guy who was selling his own homemade books of poetry. the interesting thing was, right there on the elevator, someone we met seemed to know who he was, knew he was good, and bought one. i almost bought one too, on the spot, but was being kind of tight with money, such was the source of my nickname, and didn't. that was unfortunate. i have fantasies even today of doing basically the same thing, only maybe with the stories.

within days, though, i'd concluded that the whole city life, the busy square, the trolleys, the history, wasn't for me. if it was, why had i left in the first place? all the opportunities- going to the beach at revere, going over to harvard square, the music, the street life- it was interesting, historic, vibrant and colorful. but speaking of color, fall was coming, and the only trees in boston were the ones growing up in the little holes in the sidewalk- i felt i was being robbed of my natural birthright of new england fall colors, with every day that passed in deisel fuel and bar entrances. somewhere in there i hatched a plan...i would go up to mt. katahdin, in maine, and start hiking, walking the appalachian trail, south, as far as i could go. somehow i'd decide what i wanted to do next, i'd have some time to think about it.

i was able to enact my plan fairly easily. i'd already been living on very little, living outdoors, sleeping even in the cold with very little problem. the trip up there was uneventful but it was quite a ways north in maine and it took a while. i was able to find the trailhead, get a few supplies, and inquire about the nearest town, which was called monson and which was a good hundred twenty to a hundred fifty miles down the path or so, i can't remember exactly. it was very rocky there, not much of a view except maine pinelands as far as the eye could see, and i found myself in a completely different world, with too much weight on my back, and a little bored, in spite of the beautiful color all around me and the need for solitude cultivated by long nights of socializing in the city. when i ran into people i had interesting conversations, heard about the moose that got drunk in the fall, because they ate the apples off the ground and had a lot of stomachs, like cows, where the apples would ferment and make them ornery and surly. watch out for those moose, and also, watch out for winter. it was pretty clear that at the rate of twenty miles a day, i'd barely make it to monson, let alone georgia, before the heavy weather set in. and the mountains would get higher, since in northern maine we were actually north of the big appalachian range that started in the whites in new hampshire. so i'd probably get socked in by winter if i was serious about staying on the path.

fortunately, i wasn't serious about anything, except maybe stewing about possibly going back to school, which i did (I did stew, and I did eventually go back)...but, an interesting thing happened. so-called "through-hikers" started coming at me- they'd started in georgia in the spring, prepared for the long haul, were well into the groove of serious, and now, just thirty or forty miles from katahdin, were almost done, and were elated. they could smell victory. many were compulsive, were counting every mile, knew from careful study of the map exactly what rock they were standing on when they were talking to me. one offered me a classic book, by balzac or someone, to give to another through-hiker a little ways back; apparently they whizzed through this classic literature after they set up camp, usually at a lean-to, at about two or three in the afternoon. they'd wake up and start hiking very early, and have no trouble getting in twenty or twenty five miles in a day. they knew each other as a kind of community- having passed each other off and on for ten or eleven states. and, they even had grudges, i could tell- they knew each other well enough to be deliberately not walking together.

i passed up the book, though, only because it would tie me to the trail. not that i had anywhere else to go- we were deep in the maine wilderness- but if i felt i had to be there when one of these guys came by, that would be a kind of obligation, and would weigh more than my camera. i suggested he just leave it in a lean-to, and the guy actually did it- he didn't mind that. who was going to take it? even the bears had better things to do.

most of them were willing to stop and chat for a bit- this of course depended on when i caught them, what time of day it was, etc. since i slept until eight or nine a lot of them whizzed by me while i was still sleeping in the mornings. others i would run into in the middle of the day, making a large meal at a lean-to, wet clothes already washed in a stream and hanging from a branch- the point was to make them dry off in the sun and daytime before the cold nights set in and possibly made the jeans stiffen. these were jeans shorts, though- these guys had everything down to a science, to weigh as little as possible, give as much support as possible, last to katahdin. each was a little different- tanned, older, younger, but all muscular, and most of them used to the solitude, in one way or the other. i admired their perseverance, knowing, also, it wasn't for me, at least not now, as i clearly hadn't planned as well as they had, and was going backward (north-south) and starting late, and carrying a pack full of unnecessary things (though i really was travelling relatively light), that a smart traveler would just pitch.

they told me they'd gravitated toward classical literature because it gave them something rich to think about while they were walking. sure, they'd found some trash novels too and had gone through them and passed them along, but they'd come to value the better stuff just as i've come to value a good cup of coffee in a rainstorm. i found this attitude in a number of trail-hikers and soon was discussing writers like lawrence, hardy, balzac etc. as if i were in school. in fact i hadn't read much in over a year, and almost took the book for that reason alone. but, i was using all the daylight hours just getting down the path, and began to worry about how far monson would actually be. would i last a week to ten days?

in fact that was the least of my worries, and, arriving in monson, found my two choices to be northwest and southeast, neither of which i'd planned. the road only went through two ways, and i was taking the road; my feet were tired. i went to quebec for a few days, and, upon returning, set out for the west, this time picking up my cross-country skis in buffalo, at my parents' house, and hitchhiking through a blizzard in toledo, where i'd grown up. i wasn't afraid of a blizzard in those days. i'd just go all night if i had to, go until i either got where i was going, or found a warm place to rest. ohio in particular was always fun, thought the fall colors were gone, the grayness was settling in, what was left of an earlier snow was turning dark and mushy beneath my boots. i always thought, i'm a buckeye myself- they can't kick me out of this place, i was born here. if you don't like me just passing through, i'll stop, and then you'll just be stuck with me, you won't be able to get rid of me.
this kind of thinking always worked pretty well in the north, where they basically had better things to do than hassle some guy that clearly didn't have any money.


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