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Upon this Trail
About three years ago, I visited my friend in Palo Alto to escape the Texas heat that had begun to take its toll. My ex-girlfriend of two and half years had broken up with me a month before. Every year since then, around August, without fail, Google Photos prompts me with the last pictures I took of her. Looking at her forlorn face in those, I always think, "Guess I should have seen that coming." The trip to the west coast in the middle of the plague was supposed to be about post-break-up catharsis. I had a call with my therapist on the day that I got there. While on the phone, I walked through the eerily idyllic streets of Palo Alto, lined with old houses retrofitted to charge two Teslas. She asked me how I felt to be there, and I looked into the distance wistfully. Instead of finding words to describe my feelings, I found a thick cloud of smoke billowing above the hills. "I think..and I might be wrong..I think there's a forest fire." I replied.
After a couple of days of staring out the window at orange-tinged skies, I made plans to head up to Oregon. The drive up through northern California was moody and ominous. This had less to do with the breakup and more to do with smoke and fire. Some of the worst Northern California had seen, I would come to know later. I passed through several stretches where both sides of the road were burning. I thought I had made a huge mistake with this trip until I reached the area around Mt Shasta. I had gotten used to my bleak existence, so I noticed nothing different until I saw a couple giggling giddily and taking pictures. I curmudgeonly wondered what the hell they must be so happy about and looked in the direction they had pointed their phone. Mt Shasta was now clear and visible, and the air was crisp. "Purified by fire, onward and upward," I thought.
The next day I hiked along crater lake and found a good camping spot in the evening. I know that if my mom found out that I camped, she'd say, "is this why you went to the US? To live in the dirt?." It is something that I had picked up from my ex-girlfriend whose mom, I assume, did not find camping an insult to the suffering of her ancestors. I didn't know how to put a tent together, but I had memorized a YouTube video for this trip. As I took the tent I had rented from REI out of the bag it came in, I felt proud to have made this trip. I had braved a breakup, the plague, and a forest fire. Then I saw the tent. I realized that it was the exact same model and color as the one that my ex-girlfriend had got for herself from eBay. I don't think I had ever cried involuntarily and without warning before that. There's a first for everything.
I had to save this trip somehow. On the 4th day, I camped overnight near Mt Hood. I spent the night trying to find the most demanding hike that I could do in the area with the equipment I had. The name of the trail escapes me. All I remember is that I made my way there through a winding, unpaved road that was easy to miss and largely empty. I got up to the trailhead, convincing myself that I really enjoyed this endeavor. Not a single soul in sight. Or so I thought. Next to the instructions about the trail was a printout that read, "A cougar was sighted here on _/_/21." The exact month and day had been written using a marker, but it had been washed away. Leaving me with a smudge that made no sense. Next to the printout was a board with instructions on what to do if you saw a cougar. The last bullet point read, "Don't walk alone." There is no place for single people anywhere in this world. Even the cougars hate us.
I made my way up the trail despite the cougar warning and unhelpful advice next to it. The grass seemed to get longer and longer on either side as I walked. The longer the grass got, the more I started to pay attention to the sounds of nature. In a state of heightened awareness, you realize that nature is not really peaceful. It's quite annoying and creaky. Rather violent. It got to me. I had cell phone coverage once again after I made my way up a mile. Hence I made the wise decision to google "cougar sighting Oregon" and wondered if it would show me 50-year-old women looking for young guys in the neighborhood. Instead, I found the headline "Woman killed in Oregon's first fatal cougar attack," and it was in the Mt.Hood area. I had a decision to make. Continue with the 6-hour hike or - turn back and be embarrassed for the rest of my life about an imagined danger that could also probably be real. I decided to go ahead with the hike, and I finished it. I have not been camping since. Maybe my mother is proud. There's also probably a cougar that died hungry in the long grass of Central Oregon.
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