The four of us--Chris, Dina, Amy and me--slogged through slimy mud that filled our boots. We sloshed through knee-deep water. We were hiking the Florida Trail, a footpath that winds through swamp and prairie. Someday it will run through the whole state. This time, we were only on a weekend adventure--seven miles in.
We were in our twenties and maybe because of that we did everything the hard way. We loaded up our packs with too much stuff. We brought potatoes. Potatoes. We built an enormous fire. We were loud. It was fun.
Chris was larger than life, a bearded, jovial character who regaled us with tales of his thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. He documented our progress with a video camera. Looking at a star bandanna, trying to match it to the constellations above, he backed up and fell into a gator hole--a small pond of murky water where alligators go when the swamp dries up. We heard a loud splash and Chris appeared, dripping. We laughed and laughed.
I never saw Chris after that hike, but once you go on a wilderness trip together I think there is some kind of an invisible bond that stretches between people. There are things that only you and your companions remember, a kind of shared memory. Places where the trail was hard and you almost turned back. Small secrets like slender orchids hiding in the grass. Once in a while I used to trot out the video footage to others who had not been there, but they didn't get it. They didn't know the feel of cold swamp water, the search for elusive trail markers. They weren't there. The pieces of the whole did not add up for them the way it did for me.
You never really forget the places you hike, and the companions are part of that place. I will never forget that one night in the swamp, the four of us tied together by our epic slog. I can close my eyes and still see our grassy campsite and Amy trying to hang our food bags in a cypress. I can see Dina and her long black hair. I can hear Chris' booming laugh.
I am haunted by the hikes I remember and the ghosts on the trail.
Amy sent me a message last night. Chris is being sent to hospice. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor a few years back, but at last report he was hanging in there. Obviously this is the last mile for Chris.
Even though we know we will all go out some day, we retain the illusion that we can pick the path. We can run, we can hike, we can avoid all the things we are supposed to avoid. But in the end it is just random. You can be as big and bright as Chris was--how many people do you remember so well after twenty years? Hundreds have passed through my life and he is still burned into my memory.
When our hiking companions are taken from us, we are left to be the memory keepers. We're the only ones left who remember the paths we took and the things that happened along the way. We trot out the old video. We hope not to forget.
Hike on, Chris. I hope this one will be easy walking.