Europe N to S: Trail Family (12/15/16)

Today’s Miles: 17.7
Total Miles: 3,289.5

Near Happingen, Germany – December 15, 2016

Moni led me through the streets of Freiburg toward the old cathedral. Small waterways, almost like gutters, flowed down the streets. They used to keep a fresh supply of water for the city’s tanners. The tanners are gone, but the water still flows, waiting for a person to trip into them. Legend says you’re fated to marry someone from Freiburg if you do.

The cathedral’s tower rose up like a shadow, almost disappearing in the morning fog. It stared down at the market below as we passed fruit stalls and a line of vendors selling sausages. I wondered how long the market had been there. It could be as old as the cathedral’s first stones, maybe older.

We stopped at a meat vendor to buy thin strips of black forest ham then headed to a cheesecake stand. I stared at the glass case and the round cakes inside. It was a good thing Moni didn’t tell me about them until I was about to leave Freiburg. I might have eaten myself to death.

“Let me buy you the cheesecake,” Moni said. “So I can be a trail angel.”

Three months earlier, she was the thru-hiker, taking her last steps to the Canadian border on the Continental Divide Trail. Her boyfriend Johnny joined her for the last thousand miles or so. I’d never met either of them, but back in Colorado, Moni stayed at the house of another thru-hiker that I know, someone else who I haven’t met in person, who put us in touch. It’s a long constellation of moments to go from Salida, Colorado to cheesecake under the cathedral’s tower in Freiburg, but that’s how trail family is, a constellation with each of us connected somewhere, stretching across the starry sky.  

The Divide is a different trail than this. It’s a different trail than the Appalachian or Pacific Crest too. But they share the family. It’s easy to feel at home with a fellow thru-hiker. We have the same stories and places and moments that we understand, that don’t need to be explained, that can’t be, that can only be earned by thousands of miles.

We have all faced the hard days, the moments of doubt, and stared them down. We all looked up that first day and barely believed the end was possible, that it waited for us somewhere far, far away. We all put our shoes back on day after day. We suffered, we cried, we bled, we laughed. We saw beautiful things. We made friends for life. We felt our bodies change. We drank and ate like mad. We called each other silly names like Out of Order, Cheezy, and Princess of Darkness. We crossed deserts and watched mountains rise from the horizon. And we all walked those last steps and felt sad and happy and terrified that we’d reached the end.

I gave Moni a hug goodbye outside her apartment. I’d stayed for three nights and knew I had to keep going. That’s how it is, I can’t stop for long. I have to go until the end. I want to go. I need to. That’s what it is to be a thru-hiker.  

You have to go, even if it means saying goodbye to the the first person you’ve seen in three thousand miles who understands.

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