Two days ago, Bernard slowed down, circled back, and stopped. He said something in French, saw my eyes go big, and switched to English.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
It was a fair question for anyone dragging a 17-foot kayak down a bike path five miles from the nearest water.
“Trying to get to the St. Lawrence,” I said. “I came from the Richelieu. I’m on a long trip.”
The sun had just begun heating up. Bicycles zipped by me, always looking, but never stopping until Bernard. We talked for a few minutes, warm and friendly, before he mentioned that he’d hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years ago. My eyes brightened and a giant smile came over my face.
“Me too!” I said.
The distance between us crumbled away. For a moment we were back on the trail, meeting in some shelter.
“Montreal,” he said, laughing about how his trail name sounded so close to the city.
“Out of Order,” I said.
We hiked different years, with different people, with different weather, with different gear, but that old dirt path and the white blazes still went from Springer to Katahdin. We still paid the price. We laughed and cried and yelled and lived on that same path. We fought through the toughest miles, the bad days, the moments of doubt. We know the joy of every state line, of trail magic, of opening a register and finding a note from a friend, of a shower and a warm meal. The bitter-sweetness of seeing Katahdin for the first time. We understand each other without a word because we carry it with us forever.
Bernard reached out his hand and I took it, happy and overjoyed, because for a moment the trail wasn’t over, it was extended north to a bike path on the outskirts of Montreal.
“I want to take you to breakfast,” he said. “But I have to go to work, so…”
He reached into his wallet and pulled out ten dollars. I shook my head, not wanting to take money from a fellow hiker. But he insisted.
“I want to be like a trail angel!” he said. “A river angel! Take it! Take it! Buy something good to eat.”
I nodded and took the money, knowing I would want the same. I folded it in my plastic bag turned wallet and knew exactly what to buy. That was two days ago. Today, the clerk at the grocery store barely blinked when a half-gallon of ice cream rolled down the register’s belt.
I bought it for luck, for fun, for the Appalachian Trail tradition of eating a half-gallon at the halfway point. I probably should have done it in New York or Burlington if I wanted to be exact, but something held me up. It didn’t feel right until Bernard slipped me ten dollars on the outskirts of Montreal.
I walked through Chinatown and into the old city, up cobblestone streets and past stone cathedrals. The ice cream melted as I ate and I thought about the beautiful moments on long trips, not the mountain peaks, not the lakes, not the canyons, or rivers, but the people you meet along the way.