In Delaware Water Gap, I met a stranger I’d been looking for since Georgia. We both stayed the night in town, at a donation-based hostel in the basement of a church. I didn’t meet any proprietor while I was there, just opened an unlocked door with a laminated sign that read Hiker Hostel and found a room with a few squashy couches, a community fridge, a stack of board games and a bouquet of out-of-tune guitars. The foldout tables held piles of gifts from past hikers, for whoever needed them: hazelnut instant coffee packets, electrolytes, ramen, water filters, knee braces.
The guy brought up a YouTube video on his phone of an army drill sergeant yelling at a bunch of people. “Boot camp videos,” he explained, with a smile that was kind of self-effacing and slyly proud at the same time. He was thinking he might want to be in the military. He said he knew it’d be intense, but he thought he’d be up for the challenge, especially after getting so in shape on the A.T. (“You need a lot of determination, which I have.”)
“I watch these all the time,” he said over the sound of the man on the screen screaming his voice raw at the army recruits. Everything they did was wrong. “Anytime I need to get up a really big hill, it’s this, over and over again. These got me up the stairs at Amicalola.”
This was in late August; I’d been hiking since the end of May. I was thirteen hundred miles or so up the Appalachian Trail, with maybe nine hundred still to go. Three months into our hikes, I and the other hikers around me, who’d all started very late in the season, were finally starting to catch up to people whose names we’d been following in logbooks since the beginning. I’d never thought I would catch this guy; at one point he’d been two weeks ahead of me.
“I listen to Alanis Morissette,” I said.
He laughed in a way that implied to me he might never have listened to Alanis Morissette before, although this is speculation. “Night and day,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “She can be pretty unforgiving.”
He looked back at me like he wasn’t sure what I could mean. I believe at least one of us, maybe both, missed the point the other was trying to make.
Later that night, he went out to a live jazz cafe and had what he said was a religious experience. I hiked out the next morning and never saw him again. At some point in New England, I learned through word of mouth that he’d left the trail somewhere around New Jersey or New York.
What I think makes Alanis Morissette fun to sing is the same thing that made hiking fun to do well, once we got out of the punishing rocks of Pennsylvania and I started really being able to hike fast. It’s the inhale and the exhale, the care the task asks you to put into breathing. How the breaths in and out transform from an automatic thing you’re doing into a ride you’re on, a path with things hidden around the curves ready to stun delight into you.
Jagged Little Pill was my constant companion on trail. I love Alanis—the embrace of contradiction in her music, the all-encompassing nature of weather and its changes. The idea that her music puts you outside, so whatever you’re feeling—rain, wind, sun, cold—has to touch you.
I like her fun, her caring, the crispness of her attention. The joy of unleashed and earned irascibility, the way real love in her world heralds anger. The way the word “through” stretches and transforms in “Right Through You”—she pulls us through along with her, makes us feel and identify with the effort of it. Her framework is full of commas, continuations. When she does end a sentence, she drops it into hell, and is able never to look at it again.
Her voice is powerful, but hitting the notes doesn’t even feel like the point; her emotion is always in front of everything else. She’s funny, she keeps secrets with you, she mourns and chats and tosses silence your way to see if you can catch it. But when she feels it’s time for things to escalate, everything starts bleeding.
My favorite, though, is when she sighs. She doesn’t usually just leave it at that; she lets it drag a second. She shows how close the space is between a sigh and a scream.
I met several female hikers who were southbound, and several who were northbound but hiking at a slower pace or not planning to go the whole way. But we were so late in the season, and there were so few other hikers around in general, that I didn’t join up with another female thru-hiker going my pace until the last night in New Hampshire, four months into the less-than-five-month journey. My hiking companions for most of the trail were all guys, almost all white, and almost all straight, which made for a good representative chunk of most of the people I met along the entire trail.
There were of course exceptions to this dynamic, but it was both obvious and impossible not to think about, not least because it went acknowledged so rarely that it was almost as if many of the hikers on trail didn’t notice. They were often busy experiencing inner transformations and revelations, of presumably some other type, and posing alone and triumphant in front of incredible vistas. They talked very little about power and privilege for people who’d carved out time in their lives for self-discovery, and who talked animatedly about how much time they spent thinking and reflecting. I know privilege can be hard to think about. But walking two thousand, one hundred and ninety-four miles is also something that’s very hard, and everyone was more than up for that challenge.
You like snow, Alanis says, but only if it’s warm.
I listened to a lot of female artists while hiking. Not exclusively, and mostly not contained to specific genres. No Doubt, Missy Elliott, Mitski, Fiona Apple, Adia Victoria, Gillian Welch. There was a period when my earbuds broke in Vermont and I’d sing along with Hole while hiking, playing it aloud out of my phone.
I have a feeling that whatever we listen to is what we’re longing for, and at times on that trail, I certainly was longing for a type of anger that knows about joy, and a type of joy that knows about anger. For sympathy. For sorrow, and grief, and anxiety to be held accountable to something outside and beyond my own body. Giving yourself the evoked sound of a place you want to be in, or an emotion you want to feel, or a way of living life that you want to inhabit—this can be an act of choosing, and it is almost always an act of showing. Giving yourself something can be the same thing as realizing you were holding it.
This guy I meet over and over, he listens to the coolest things, things the others can’t pin down. He tells us how many miles he’s walked and what he ate for dinner last night, exactly how he prepared it. He calls it meditating when he goes without his headphones. He walks fast. He looks panicked. He has “I’ll show them” energy, but he will never show us.
I met a young female hiker while I was on a solo stretch through Virginia, who looked me right in the eyes and told me it was impossible for me to make it if I kept walking northbound continuously. I was tired that day and not sure if I’d catch up to my friends, who were days ahead. I felt haggard, sitting there on a log next to my backpack, eating my snacks and looking at her probably all morose while she said this. I wouldn’t meet another person I could tell about this for two days. She’d hiked the entire trail north of there in sections, and like many other well-informed hostel owners, shuttle drivers, former thru-hikers, and random strangers I met that summer, she seemed to think I was stupid.
“You’d have to do twenty miles a day,” she said. While it overall was a negative encounter I had with her, I was still impressed by her ability to make unbroken eye contact with me while saying these things. “From here all the way to Katahdin. Are you doing twenty miles a day?”
The answer was yes but had only been yes for maybe two weeks; I’d had to work up to it. “Yeah,” I said.
She shrugged. “Well, you can’t do that up north.” Which was true. She kept looking at me for a while and eating in silence, and I kept eating next to her. We both wanted the other person to admit they could, just in theory, be wrong.
When my friends and I met strangers, the most common things they’d say were that we weren’t going to finish the trail in time (in time meaning before mid-October, when snow rendered the final mountain in Maine too dangerous to hike); that they’d always wanted to hike the full trail someday, too; or they’d want to know why we’d decided to do it. I had a lot of reasons, many involving wanting to prove something to myself on a bodily level, to feel some pain and prove to myself I could get through it. There were a few material reasons. There were a few people, and a few actions, I thought about long and hard.
But the main way I can characterize what I felt is a deep and almost wholly insatiable appetite. I wanted to get up high and sweat doing it, look at the farthest horizon, and then walk to it—see the next farthest horizon from there, and walk to that one—and then the horizon beyond that, and the horizon beyond that. I wanted to see what could happen if I started walking at eight A.M. with a full pack and didn’t stop until near midnight. Deer, moose, black bears in the wineberries, in the rhododendron tunnels, waking up drenched amid the blooms, black-throated blue warblers conversing in the canopies, frenzied squirrels, nuthatches, red efts, silkworms and their webs, millipedes on the ropes of food bags, rattlesnakes, copperheads, mud, roots, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, chicken-of-the-woods wearing the morning mist, how blue and far and green things could go and I with them. Fire pink. To set my mind on a treadmill, to be able to turn it off. To eat meal after meal, and still be hungry. I wanted also to enable myself to feel relief.
I couldn’t put words to it; I still can’t; the feeling just keeps going and going.
This girl who said I wasn’t going to make it, she said she was telling me this to be kind.
A couple days before we reached a hostel called Boots Off, remote, far into the woods of Virginia, I’d been packing up my bag in the morning at a shelter and my friend had shared the news from his phone about Roe v. Wade being overturned. The dominant vibes, when political news came up among other hikers, were kind of, Ope, yeah, that’s not good. Or, in a sympathetic voice, I really come out here to get away from that sort of thing.
At the fire ring outside Boots Off, I sang “All I Really Want” and felt the lines about justice and deliverance take me away like a kite. Everyone around me was nodding, watching me close. I try to use my own voice anytime I sing, because I try to be careful of dishonesty and it’s hard to keep track of what one’s own voice is, even when you are being careful. So I was singing in my own voice, but I wasn’t doing anything unique to the song; snarling is how Alanis does it.
That feeling I mentioned earlier, that what we listen to is what we long for—I don’t mean to say that we can never be where we are. I am figuring out how to be where I am. To accept gifts.
Many weeks and many weather systems later, I sat with a guitar in the attic of Hikers Welcome Hostel, a New Hampshire cabin at the very edge of the White Mountains—the last point at which the elevation is still low, at which things still feel safe. People kept telling me how many people have died or up and vanished into the snow on Mt. Washington. There was no central heating and the attic was chilly. The manager might’ve been in, but his door was closed; no one else was there at this time of day. I drew “Daydreaming” by Paramore slow out of my heart.
In “Forgiven,” Alanis sings about growing up Catholic and interrogates the ability of any religious tradition to truly forgive or save her—and questions what she’s meant to be asking forgiveness for in the first place. There’s a liberation that comes with facing your own internalized guilt and confusion, but there’s also a loss that comes with shedding anything, even something you never wanted.
What I see in Alanis is a deep, grating ability to be honest with herself, about herself—and a frustration when the others around her aren’t able to mirror that honesty. When they can’t meet her there, they make meek excuses: it hurts, it’s hard, she’s got the wrong idea. But of course it hurts, looking at your own actions, your intentions, your weaknesses. Your real weaknesses, I mean. Didn’t it hurt when she did it?
I love her honesty around pain. As in, is this the sort you can grow through, or the sort someone else should have spat back at them? Or both? Have you sought out this feeling? No? Should you?
Love is hard work. But I want to feel something—what a bland thing to say, but I do—I want to break out of the box of paranoia and splinter it under my feet, bury it in the dust and forget the map to it. I want to go live somewhere else, in a different mind. I want to be clean and dirty. I want to sit very still and think thoughts in my head. To be a character with a background, a personality, and a future. To feel appreciation and involvement that exists outside myself—can I ever move away from having gotten so selfish? I want to think purely about others, not all the time but, God, at least once or twice a day—I want to get this sharp glass snowflake out of my heart—look at something beautiful and be able to see it, open my eyes and have them open.
I am afraid of how selective I am about which pains I will allow myself to feel. I’m afraid of getting to the summit of having proven myself worthy and equal and seeing only more horizons. I’m afraid that promises mean nothing unless both parties speak language the exact same way, and we never, ever do. I’m afraid that maybe we don’t have the power to make anything unconditional.
In “Hand in My Pocket,” Alanis finds a way to hold contradictions with compassion, to criticize herself while being playful and not making self-pity the point. She casts about widely for a way to grow: “I care, but I’m restless / I’m here, but I’m really gone / I’m wrong and I’m sorry, baby.” I too have felt a lot of here but really gone, but usually it’s more of a cold prism I’m stuck in. Alanis can level these messy confessions while relishing a sense of release: it’s an aspect of freedom, after all, speaking our weaknesses. We could all be so strong if we leaned into real friction. Maybe this is the problem: none of the people around me will admit that they’re chickenshit. Half the time I won’t even do it.
I went on the A.T. to try to give myself a gift, and wound up thinking mainly about what we offer each other. What do we offer when we have limited information, or limited money, or daylight, or food in our bags? When someone new is walking through our town and their feet might be in pain? Sometimes doubt, sometimes a ride. I did meet with a little evil here and there. But I couldn’t have finished the trail if I wasn’t also given so many free rides from strangers, free nights on couches and La-Z-Boys, and assurances of faith and of my strength from the strong people around me. When I change the shape of myself to accommodate surprise, the world gives me things constantly. I can’t fix the doubt, but I can maybe offer something else, something of my own.
The efforts I can see Alanis making, I’m trying to make them too—to reconcile care with confinement, kindness with inquisition. I’m walking through such beautiful places, and the people around me, I love them so much—but this thing they let hang in the air around us—why do they let it do that? Why do they let it stay there?
You cannot fail to notice the cold; the cold you fail to notice is the most dangerous kind. It took me five months to pinch myself, and I’m not even certain that I didn’t just wake up inside a different dream. I do know that effort alone is sometimes the only guarantee we can access, and this maybe makes it a beautiful thing.
A beautiful thing I did over and over on trail: I listened to Jagged Little Pill with reverence. When I do this with an album, I’m getting to know what I love about it. I’m spending hours giving it deep, careful, thoughtful attention. I’m thinking of all the people whose brains and souls are in it. I walk the long path they live right alongside, to which I’m mostly a stranger. I cross paths once with the mountain summits they know as closely as childhood friends, pass once in summer under trees they’ve befriended in all weathers and all seasons. I meet them occasionally in parking lots or on porches and see something small about them. This imagining is the opportunity for empathy. I try to know this for the honor it is.
When the imagination of someone I love short-circuits, and they say something diminishing of me and of the world within which we are so luckily and so briefly breathing, I want to break the ice. This is how I know I’ve won something: I want to get up and shout at you. I have a limit and the self-respect, the means, to enforce it. The snowflake melts in the heat of anger, in the heat of my love for myself. I took all year to build that fire. To gather the wood to keep it burning.
The night of the day we summited Mt. Katahdin and officially finished the Appalachian Trail, one of my friends got annoyed with another guy because he didn’t want to stay up later and keep drinking. “Don’t be a pussy, come on,” he said.
I had already been drifting to sleep. I rolled over and sat up on my elbow. “Dude,” I said.
“What,” he said, stricken, “too far?”
I loved this guy, and still do, for so many reasons. Once, in New York, I’d broken down crying mid-step, and he’d walked back and sat down with me, right on the trail. Said, where do you wanna camp tonight? Right here? I’m good here—we’ve done plenty of miles—nice patch of dirt here, I’m down.
I’d heard the word many times on the trail, not usually from my friends. Another time had been on the top of Mt. Moosilauke, the first peak in the Whites—just a few seconds after we got up there and I’d been thinking nothing, except This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
“Yeah, bit too far,” I said.
He looked afraid for a sec, which I knew meant he was sorry. But too afraid to really think about it—to think about what he was sorry for. He looked like he wanted me to explain it, but I hate it when people ask me to prove things to them. All it makes me want to do is walk away and keep walking. Like you could even do it that way, and like that could keep being the answer for the rest of your life.