Once during guided meditation, a yoga instructor read a poem about a singular drop of water falling into the ocean.
“The drop doesn’t enter the ocean – the ocean enters the drop,” was the refrain, touting the fluidity and symbiosis of all existence. One’s one-ness with all the other ones. Apparently I cataloged the line, mostly due to the instructor’s saccharine and airy delivery of the text, but I hadn’t recalled it for a few years until now as I write this – like when a song you forgot about plays on the radio and you know all the words.
It was strange to see the time displayed on the radio console in Dawn’s vehicle, which pummeled down the dirt logging road, both the vehicle’s suspension and pilot alike unphased by the potholes and oncoming logging trucks narrowly roaring past. Dawn was born and raised in Monson, and had been an English teacher there for 37 years. When she retired, she bought Shaw’s Hiker Hostel (which had been in service for her entire teaching career), ran it for nine years and just recently sold it to Poet and Hippie Chick. She’s still happy to shuttle hikers, though. “This is the fun part. We get to talk, and I don’t have to make you breakfast or clean your sheets!”
And we did talk, discussing the theatre, (she ran the drama club; she’s been to Shakespeare & Company where I worked a summer), teaching, and the similarities between Wisconsin and Maine. There are quite a few, not only in the categories of terrain and wildlife but also in education and the economy (as a result of our respective governors). The poverty was widespread along the rolling countryside. Everyone had something for sale at the edge of their property, if not the property itself.
At the first possible place, about an hour into the ride, we stopped for gas and coffee. Feeling gluttonous after days of ramen and oatmeal, I selected a glazed donut that was chewy and dry, packaged in cellophane with a twisty tie. I unwrapped it tenderly, not wanting to spill crumbs in the car, though I was sitting on the upholstery in soiled rain gear. As I took my first bite I must have audibly reacted to the flavor. “Civilization,” Dawn throatily chuckled as Moxie begged for a bite. “Just wait. There’s plenty more civilization where you’re going. Moxie, down!”
If Shaw’s was occupied solely by a small family (such as the new owners – Poet, Hippie Chick, and their daughter Little Chick), it would be a considerably large residence at 10+ rooms and an additional guest house. But, even when packed to the brim with 30 hikers nestled in the rooms and bunks (and spread about the lawn in their tents), the property never felt crowded. For everyone, it seemed, Shaw’s felt like home away from home.
It took me a hot second before I got that feeling. Being extracted from the wilderness, so soon into our journey, was a trip. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no constraints on food or sunlight or physical energy. All there was to do was rest my legs, which had the worst reaction to the mosquitoes (each calf was essentially one big red hive). And wait for Milam to crush the wilderness.
Poet, who I had met before arriving at Baxter State Park when we stopped for fuel and water, was busy in the Gear Shop (formerly a garage?) shaking down a demure fellow named Fisherman who, despite possessing the ability to catch his food in the wilderness, had worn denim and flannel, and had (as we and many others had) way too much weight. Poet waved at me to go into the house and I took off my muddy boots to dry in the sun, a welcome feature having escaped the green tunnel. I could hear Hippie Chick somewhere in the building, clearly busy, so I just stood for a moment next to the laundry, very uncertain of where to be or what to do with myself. Feeling more awkward standing in one place than aimlessly wandering, I moved farther into the building and found myself in the kitchen, which is where I met Lonestar.
Having only just an hour beforehand taken a meager sip of lukewarm civilization from beneath the safety of a seatbelt, Lonestar was, in a word, overwhelming. So caught off-guard was I that I could only process half of what spilled from his mouth – some things about sleeping outside or inside and with what level of privacy. He talked twice as quickly as I was thinking, and what I was thinking was: he is from Texas, he is a hiker, he must be work-for-stay, and he must have been here for a while. He asked me everything that could be asked of a new guest to the hostel before he asked me my name, but he didn’t even need to ask – Lonestar took one look at my situation and said, “I know what your name is; Your name’s Hives.”
And thus my name was Hives.
At first in the bunkhouse I was a bit uncomfortable – the kind of discomfort had when slowly inching one’s toes into water of an unknown temperature. My bunkmates were far more accomplished than I – some of them had summited Katahdin the same day I had, making it through the wilderness in less than a week. Snake Guy from Georgia was there, his actual trail name Terapin (a kind of turtle, not indicative of his 20+ miles a day straight off Mile Zero). Thigh Guy was there, too – his name, Rockin’ Robin. Some Northbounders (Nobos), Shitfoot and 0311, were resting there before their final leg – a rest well deserved, as they had already gone 2000 miles. I had gone 60. I wandered away from the bunkroom and into the house, leaving my phone off, not on the trail but not wanting to connect with life away from it. Again, the anonymous nowhere feeling of few people knowing your location.
As I set out our tent and Milam’s sleeping bag to dry in the sun, Hippie Chick skipped across the driveway in a hectic moment of mother, maid, and manager. I caught her as she flew past again to say that I was bored (not true, more restless) and born to work, “so if I could be any help” etc. Many hikers offer a helping hand, but I was going to be there for nearly a week and didn’t want to be left to my own devices. She nodded a cordial “of course,” as of course she would to all who offered even if there were no need (Lonestar was there, afterall, and I soon found out he had been there for a week). I felt suspended, like my newly-clean nylon underwear hanging from the clothesline.
I didn’t land until I stumbled upon Little Chick, watching Little Bear in the hostel-owner’s private residence, just beyond the kitchen and their office. At first Little Chick wasn’t interested in having a new friend, but after standing in the doorframe watching cartoons with her for a few minutes (and honestly, being very entertained), she invited me in – and an invitation from a two-and-a-half year old to sit in a nearby beanbag is an exclusive one, and not one to be refused.
Little Chick and I spent the rest of the afternoon playing, imagining ourselves as sleepy dogs, mermaids in need of baths, and feasters on shark fin soup. It wasn’t really childcare, though it was useful for Poet and Hippie Chick; I was enjoying the simplicity and whimsy of having my only friend in the world of that moment be a toddler in afternoon pajamas (on her own accord).
It was only when I heard the words “moose meat” that I knew I needed to invest in being a bit more extroverted outside of mermaid land, even if at first in the role of documentarian. Lonestar had lined up a Moose Dinner for himself at Pete’s Place, and in lieu of Poet (shuttling a hoard of hikers to the next -and bigger – town over), I snatched an invite in exchange for photographs of the occasion. I did have the hefty Nikon SLR at my disposal.
Now, Moose steaks are not listed on any menus or written on daily-boards, as it is illegal to sel as restaurant fare. And for as rare as it is to eat moose, more rare is the opportunity to hunt it – obtaining a license is done through lottery only, and the punishment for poaching pricey. Neal and Colleen, propietors of Pete’s Place and masters of pie, spread a smorgasbord – a private, three course meal featuring Neal’s prize meat, marinated in soy (I inhaled the salad – walking through endless foliage left me wanting for fresh veggies).
The meat was lean, juicy and tender – not like a steak of beef but more like chuck, a bit of stringy texture, but not at all gamey. I ate it all, not just to avoid being wasteful but also because it was delicious. I had only first seen a moose less than a week ago, it had never occurred to me that I could and would eat one. And all due to Lonestar, who ate more moose than anyone.
He had only just met the folks at Pete’s Place and he convinced them to cook him up a moose. But, convincing isn’t the right word for what Lonestar is – he’s the kind of person you want to be around as a documentarian (and as a friend, I soon found). He is genuinely honest and effortlessly charismatic, always asking questions and questioning, playful and curious – and earnest. He’s interested in people, in stories and facts, in everything – a writer’s dream wingman. It sounds hyperbolized but it’s true. I told him, I’m a writer and I’m constantly observing, but I don’t always absorb it into my own being. Usually there’s a barrier, however finite, of not quite being inside the thing which I’m watching. Not about the thing but the experience of the thing – I guess I’m a little bit of a tourist. But after eating moose meat, I was inside of it in a way I wasn’t expecting.
That night (and some nights following) was a hootenanny. A number of the hikers were musical and we all stayed up until 2am on the picnic tables in the yard, singing and talking (keep in mind, hiker-bedtime is usually sundown, if not earlier). Rockin’ Robin was aptly named for his prowess as a fingerstyle guitarist, and though Sunshine will tell you otherwise she played guitar just fine – it was enough, anyway, to accompany her voice, which was thicker and sweeter than the syrup we poured over pancakes at breakfast the next morning, which came very early at 7am (not hiker early, just early for us).
The breakfast at Shaw’s is a must for anyone on the trail, and has been for decades. The cast iron pans in which it is cooked have been seasoned by at least 20 summers of hiker breakfasts – eggs, homefries, and bacon, with Maine blueberry pancakes on the griddle (unless it’s a full house, in which case all cast iron is utilized solely for potatoes, prepped the night before).
And after that first late night and first big breakfast, Hippie Chick put me to work – in the mornings it was breakfast and dishes, then flipping beds and cleaning house, then laundry for the rest of the day. They were definitely tasks and chores but never did they feel like work. While setting the table with Hippie Chick and Lonestar, a random comment would lead to an hour-long conversation – talks deep and tangential, existential and philosophical, but never overbearing and easily interrupted with humor, sometimes sarcasm, but never cynicism (which when I felt, I kept to myself).
At one point, Hippie Chick joked that she felt like everyone’s mom, and in some moments her warmth and affection could be viewed as maternal. She is an amazing mother to Little Chick, nurturing and open, raising her naturally and thoughtfully, with infrequent moments of spoiling or stress. And her qualities as a mother are only partly indiciative of her attractive personality overall. I’m not sure which is more captivating about Hippie Chick- the rate and quality of her speech (fast and effervescent), or the content of it.
Lonestar landed there and stayed for more than a few reasons, but once I landed I saw why he hadn’t left. You settle in real quick there. Hippie Chick and Poet are as warm and welcoming as they are witty and wise. They’re thru-hikers of multiple trails, former teachers, parents, and people – real people.
If Lonestar stayed for two weeks at every hostel in every town it would take him years to finish the trail. Then again, it takes years to settle in anywhere else, to form meaningful relationships. On the trail it might not even take a day. I told Hippie Chick and Lonestar that I often relate to others by the rules I impose on my playwriting – enter late and leave early, or – get in there, embrace furiously, and never see each other again. At times, that is the trail. And it will be for most people I met at Shaw’s. But usually I’m not so broken up about it.
The drop enters the ocean, the ocean enters the drop.
It means something to me now. For a few days, for a second, for eons, a few people were all there, or maybe nowhere, all strangers all dropped out of their own bodies of water into one another, collecting and condensing in this place. I don’t think it is the norm there. It was hard after Stank and Quiet left, and even more so after Sunshine and Kool Aid. Poet said it comes in spurts. A few hours after Sunshine left, Milam emerged from the wilderness. I find that different people fulfill varying needs in my life, usually at the right time. Or, at what turns out to be the right time, which is the narrative in hindsight.
And while I was sad that our late nights were over, it’s good that each successive night is not a late one full of feelings, as the work doesn’t stop. On Monday night, when everything around Monson is closed, Hippie Chick cooks up dinner for the house. The house was empty, comparatively, and almost all the hikers were in the kitchen helping Hippie Chick cook lasagna. Except for me, taking photos (Milam is a better photographer than I am, but he is also a much better cook).
As soon as Lonestar said “moose meat” I knew something interesting and important was happening in this place and I assigned myself the documenting role. I didn’t know that by the end of my short stay I would be attempting to immortalize a piece of my heart-
How Lonestar convinced me he had once tried to mummify a cat, but folded under my inquisition, proving his genuity. And learning but not really learning how to fold fitted sheets, which I may have mastered had I not been so entertained by Lonestar’s repeated demonstration at my request.
Poet finding pockets throughout the day to actually sit and eat a meal, and even have one cooked for him. Sharing trail tales over dinner – of bears and other beasts, of friends (like Poet’s friend Packrat, who would prank the shelters, and is rumored to have found and packed out a Moose Skull from Mahoosuc Notch).
Poet playing Quiet Earp’s Martin Rover, which has been carried for an unknown portion of Quiet’s many thousands of miles across the continent, which he has been walking for three years since he turned 18.
The dozen or so more people I had connections with, how challenging it is to reduce them into words, more challenging than hiking the trail, finding that I have no pictures of Kool-Aid, but can picture him so clearly.
Barking up at Lonestar’s window in the bunkhouse, to rouse him for a proper goodbye, but being quite unable to break his slumber. It was better that way. The morning of our departure felt so abrupt, breakfast at 7am but leaving at 8. Milam and I decided that, due to the remaining miles in Maine and the challenge of their terrain, that we should flip down to Harper’s Ferry, WV and head North. Hippie Chick and Poet supported this plan – the timing was right to Nobo that section of the trail, and I would more easily acquire my trail legs. Plus, no bugs. It felt like ripping across space-time, back into real-time, with no time for farewells. The volatile ocean evaporating.
A map of the trail, laminated onto a wooden plaque, hangs vertically in the kitchen at Shaw’s. When I told Little Chick I was leaving, I pointed at the map. “We’re here,” I pointed to Monson, Maine, “and I’m getting on a bus that will take me all the way down here.” I showed her Harper’s Ferry, a thousand miles away. “And then I’m going to walk back to your house,” I told her, explaining what I’ve dubbed the Shaw’s Flip. “It’s going to take a few months.”
The night before, Lonestar had gotten word that his friends TJ and One-Downer, who had gone on without him while he folded sheets in Monson, had made it as far as Rangeley – but were yellow-blazing further down the trail. Skipping ahead. Lonestar scanned the kitchen-wall map with a furrowed brow, the first on him I’d seen. There was no way he would catch up to them now.
“What are you going to do?” I asked him after watching his fingers trace the cartographic marks, just as mine had done when I processed that I wouldn’t make it through the wilderness. Lonestar hadn’t been aware of my watching, and the concern immediately left his face, replaced by a cheshire grin.
“Walk,” he winked at me, rapped his knuckles against the wooden map, and waltzed out of the room.