It was ‘round about the winter of 1991, and I was a confused and conflicted young man still trying to re-build from disaster of my last semester at Clarkson and find my place in the working world. I had already been a resounding failure in the first district office I had worked in, Birmingham, Alabama, and I was taking another shot at a fresh start with our office in Chicago. As I mentioned before, I had been placed on a long term assignment at a new construction site in Northern Wisconsin, where I was the youngest and the greenest of our 5 person crew at the site. We were working long hours during the day, and spending the long winter nights in the neon lit bars of Wisconsin’s “paper valley”.
Like I said, I had still not found my groove after losing most if not all of my self confidence during my final days in college. Like most new grads I hated my job, and was very disillusioned about my choice of career. Lucky for me, the other four engineers on the project were all younger than 25, so my life outside of work wasn’t as miserably lonely as it had been during my stint in the South.
It was after work one afternoon, when my friends Cathy and Joe and I stopped into the supermarket across the street from our hotel to lay in some supplies. She was working one of the registers, and when she looked at me and smiled, her piercing blue eyes made me suddenly speechless. There was no doubt, I was smitten. I told Cathy and Joe about it at dinner that night and they both goaded me in to returning. So on my second trip back to the grocery store that evening I made sure to stake out the registers until her line was empty. Then I picked up a pack of M&M’s, walked up to her, and struck up a conversation.
She was just out of college as well, with a degree in Elementary Education, that old stand-by for women who are lacking in imagination. She was living at home and substitute teaching for the winter, working at the store to save some cash until Spring. Then she would hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, before finally entering the working world. I was intrigued. She was fun to talk to, and not at all shy about sharing intimate details of her life, hopes and dreams with a total stranger. Still, I was a chicken, so when someone else got in line at her register I said goodbye and left. Back in my room at the Chalet Motel I was tortured. Why hadn’t I asked her out? How could I let that opportunity pass? So I swallowed my pride and with a pounding heart, and sweaty hands I went back to the supermarket.
On the third trip through her line that evening I confessed to her that I wasn’t really addicted to M&M’s, but that I wanted to know if she’d like to maybe, possibly, like, um… go out sometime, maybe. The date was on.
We met at a local restaurant one evening that weekend and our conversation picked up where it had left off. She told me of the wonderful and amazing subculture that “through” hiking the Appalachian Trail was. How each Spring people from all parts of the country and world, in all different stages of their life, began the journey from Springer Mountain Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine. On the way they developed friendships, and “trail families” that looked out for each other, and pitched in to help each other reach that common goal. It was a life changing experience for all of them, and when they finally reached the summit of Katahdin in October they would never be the same.
I was enthralled. Now I had done some hiking in Alabama and Georgia the previous summer. With no friends, and no place but a hotel room to call home it was one of the few pursuits I had found where being alone wasn’t such a socially unacceptable thing. But I had never conceived of such an adventure as that. I wanted to join her, and as we continued to date, I began to read books about “the Trail” and dreamed of quitting my job and going from living out of a car, to living out of a backpack. It was so romantic, and seemed to be just what I needed. A six month sabbatical in the woods to find myself, and my calling.
But there was more. I was smitten with her. She was a tall, apple cheeked, all natural girl, with eyes as blue as a glacial lake and seemingly as deep. She had a mystique that reminded me of Ingrid Bergman in the movie “Casablanca”. I remember one night after shooting pool with my friends, we stayed up half the night talking and telling each other stories about the places we had been and the adventures we dreamed of having. So it came as no great surprise when under a dishwater gray March sky I made up my mind. I was going with her.
I bought a backpack. I bought a tent. I made a list of all the gear I would need. I bought maps, and started planning my trip. Then I told her. She was thrilled, but made me promise her that I was going because deep in my heart I was doing it for me. She said that if I was doing it for her I wasn’t welcome. I lied of course, what could I do?
Then I told my family. Well if the trouble I had gotten into before graduation didn’t kill my parents, this would surely finish the job. They cried, they screamed, they pleaded. How could I be so stupid? How could I throw away a good paying job, and ruin my career. Nobody would ever hire me again after a boneheaded decision like that. They even convinced my big bruddah to call me up and tell me not to make the same mistake he did when he dropped out of college to hitchhike around the country.
I was torn. I wanted so bad to chuck it all, tell my family to get bent, and for once in my life think only of myself. But I knew I couldn’t do such a thing. Then fate intervened. I got a call from my district manager that they needed a body on a job in Alabama. So there it was. I could say yes, pack my bags that night and go to Alabama, or I could say no and…
I packed my bags that night, and said goodbye to Sue. She was cool with it. Nothing ever upset her. After she left I cried like a pathetic little baby.
The funny thing is she never did hike the Appalachian Trail. Her friends backed out, and when Spring came she didn’t have the cash. So instead she found a job in Sequoia National Park working at a snack bar. You see she had spent the previous three summers working summer jobs in Yellowstone National Park, and had become something of a seasonal employment groupie to the National Park System. I never knew there even was such a thing.
So I went South again to Alabama for a week, and when the job ended I was back to sucking flyash, and crawling boilers in Waukegan, Illinois. We wrote letters to each other. The dormitory in Sequoia only had one pay phone. The difference between her letter’s filled with awesome vistas of the Sierra, and mine filled with descriptions of the purple chemical sunsets of Waukegan, Illinois couldn’t be more striking. I was miserable in Chicago. My district manager thought I was a malcontent. I thought he was a jerk. I had to get out of there. It was my second district office in 12 months, and I was running out of country. So during the national meeting that summer I lobbied hard with the Denver district manager and the following week I was headed West. Sure I was still 800 miles from Sue, but I was getting closer.
I had a week’s vacation coming so I decided to fly to San Francisco with my friend Joe, and help him drive an Alfa Romeo Spider he had just bought, back to Chicago. I called Sue and told her, I’d be on her doorstep a week from Saturday. So exactly one week from Saturday, as the sun sank into the California sky, and the stars blinked on above the Sierra Nevada, we drove the Spider up the mountain into the park and showed up on her doorstep. She wasn’t there. She’d left for the weekend, and told no one where she’d be.
I was crushed, and humiliated. The gods mocked me all the way back across the country. I was angry, but I couldn’t let it rest. So I wrote her. She apologized. Her parents had come to town unexpectedly, so she’d left with them for the weekend, and had no way to tell me. Fair enough I assumed, I couldn’t hold that against her could I? It’s amazing the depths to which a person will delude themselves over a pretty girl.
In the mean time I had finally hit my stride at work. I clicked with Charlie, my new boss, and suddenly big time responsibility, and projects were mine. The chances I never got in Birmingham, or Chicago were mine at last. Amazingly, I didn’t screw them up, and soon I was a rising star in the district. I decided work wasn’t so bad after all. I bought a Jeep, and started putting that backpack and tent to use on the weekends. Gradually I began to forget about Sue.
Then while working in Salt Lake City, Utah that September I got a letter from her.
She had found a position for the fall in Yellowstone National Park. She was only 6 hours away! When the job in Salt Lake ended, with no phone number and no idea where to find her in a national park the size of Connecticut, I headed north. It was the week after Labor Day, and the hordes of summer tourists had disappeared. The elk had come down from the higher elevations to mate. The temperature had dropped, and steam rose from the paint pots and fumaroles in the cold morning air as I entered the park that Saturday. After a day of searching, she was nowhere to be found. I was bummed. I thought that intuition, and luck couldn’t possibly fail me now. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d never find her, then I stopped at Old Faithful Lodge to get some lunch before heading home. I looked up, and there she was, my waitress.
She got off work at four, so I stuck around. We spent two hours walking around the trails by the lodge talking. It was funny. There was nothing there. No spark, no interest. Just the same stories I had heard the previous spring, only this time in the midst of all the glory of Yellowstone they seemed as flat and dull as the Midwest. We promised to keep in touch and I left.
Over the years we did keep in touch. Each winter and summer I’d find a letter in my mail box telling me what park she happened to be working at. She never did get a job teaching school. She just cooked fries, and served food to a mobile nation of old guys in Bermuda shorts, and women with bouffant hairdos. A few years later we started corresponding via e-mail. She was working in Colorado for Outward Bound. Still seasonal, but no longer beholden to the whims of Government budgets. Her e-mails were full of the plans she was making, and the things she was going to do. She still hadn’t hiked the Appalachian Trial.
The funny part is I did eventually climb Springer Mountain in Georgia. When I reached the summit it was surrounded in fog. I sat down to take a rest, and the clouds began to part. Sitting there watching the fog roll back from the southern foot of the Appalachians I realized I had done it for myself after all. I may not have walked all the way to Maine, but the path I had chosen I had cleared myself, and it belonged to me alone.