When I first met Julie I wasn’t impressed. She wandered from here to there with little intention but to live. When she told me about the trip I was hesitant, but that soon faded to anticipation. I was going to spend a bit of my life with these people that I had heard about, famous in their own way, but never met. They were legends to their kind, full of burning madness and wandering passions. Their trails spiderwebbed across the country, converging at separate points to form rectangular markers of the places they had meandered through.
I met Julie and her boyfriend, Alex, at a rinky-dink place called Hal’s, handed them a rolled up twenty dollar bill and pumped gas into the bottomless pit of the El Camino.
“What’s the gas mileage on this thing like?”
“Aw man, you know, it runs,” I received with a smile and a wince inducing “yoohoo!” Alex gave me a pat on the back that expelled all the air from my lungs and then handed me a cigarette. “We gotsa a ways to go, Poncho, best get in the car.”
Alex was a misplaced texan. He was raised in the backwoods of Tennessee and only ate what he could shoot. He dressed like a mexican, flamboyant colors of pink, purple, and red woven into the shapes of buffalo and antelope, a felt hat, and a pair of boots complete with jingling spurs.
I climbed into the back of the El Camino and we began our trip. We started in the wandering plains of Kansas, but our trip would be ending in the rollercoaster mountains of West Virginia. We drove through corn fields, miles and miles of corn fields. A person doesn’t realize just how boring corn is until it’s their only visual companion for ten hours. Suddenly you begin to notice differences in the corn, this one is maiz, that one is white. This one is above our heads, that one is up to our knees. Either way the corn was all encompassing.
Slowly a single hardwood would begin to speckle our horizon, and as we got closer to the mountains it was joined by other various friends: chinquapin, poplar, and then more rhododendron then there was corn. As we traveled farther into that maze of rhododendron I found myself missing the corn.
Julie and Alex rode up front, occasionally switching drivers by climbing over top of each other. I personally preferred Julie driving, she was the only one of us that was completely sober. When she took the wheel the speed of the car went from lightning fast to one closer to a snail stuck in molasses. Suddenly we were also on our side of the double yellow line, and as we maneuvered the switchbacks of the mountain roads I found myself appreciating that more and more.
Alex was a person and a half. When he was drunk he drove with a passionate rage, cussing out our fellow sojourners. When he was high he drove with the most angelic kindness, pulling off the road to let others pass him. When he was high we spent more of our time in the grass then on the blacktop. When he was high and drunk it was multiple episodes of whiplash. He would pull off the road to let someone pass him, but just as quickly he would change his mind and pull out in front of them laughing and cursing all the while and sometimes chucking an empty beer bottle at them. Julie would sit beside him and laugh. I sat in the backseat and downed more whiskey - the drunk people always survive the accidents, I would remind myself while taking another swig.
At last we got to the point where Alex pulled that beat up car into the trailhead parking lot, which was really just a patch of gravel long enough to fit a bike and wide enough for a single person. By magic, he shoved that car into that spot. We climbed out of the Camino and pulled out our packs, at least I did. Alex pulled out a duffle bag that he had finagled with twine to somehow stay attached to his back, and Julie pulled out a burlap sack that she had sewn two straps onto. I suddenly felt very out of place with my internal frame Kelty.
“Now we walk,” Alex said and then slapped me on the back again. This one sent me flying forward which caused Alex to chuckle. “Ol man here can’t hold his liquor worth a blood nickle.” After an intense internal struggle about whether or not I should tell him his sentence made no sense, I opted for taking another swig.
Hiking with Alex was only slightly less frightening than driving with him. He was completely wasted and constantly stumbling off the trail. Under normal circumstances this would’ve been okay, but these were not normal circumstances. On one side was a sloping granite wall, dispersed with its fair share of the accursed rhododendron. Our other side was a steep drop for eighty feet, equally dispersed with rhododendron. As Alex began to stumble off the side of the mountain he would throw out some butchered quote, “all you need is a will to trudge,” or “I took to the woods to find when I died I had lived.” I have never in my life felt so sorry for Bartram and Thoreau as I did in those moments. I found myself praying that he didn’t stumble into the realm of Wordsworth or Frost and effectively ruin those authors for me as well.
After hiking for a few hours on that rhododendron blazed trail we wound up by the river - our final destination. Julie took the sack off her back and unloaded a tent and a pair of jeans. “I like to pack light,” she said with a grin. I watched her set up her tent and then pull on the extra pair of jeans over the ones she was wearing.
Alex, however, was completely different. He set down his duffle bag with a clunk, and proceeded to pull out a stereo, several blankets, a few bottles of whiskey, and about ten cans of beans. “Gotta eat something, and y’know beans are almost a complete protein.”
“You’re only eating beans?”
“Don’t ruin a not broken thing, man,” he replied and handed me another cigarette. Julie just chuckled and took the blankets into her tent.
“How much does that duffle bag weigh?”
“It ain’t about the weight, it’s about the journey.”
I had no idea what to say to that and instead unloaded my tent and sub-zero, down sleeping bag.
Alex built the fire with one match. A feat that I could never hope to achieve. Julie supplied him with kindling and firewood.
“You wanna see something downright neat,” Alex asked me with a broad, terrifying grin.
He proceeded to walk over to those stinking rhododendron and pull off a bunch of leaves. Then he threw them in the fire. They exploded with loud pops and snaps, making tiny sparks in the fire. “I love rhododendrons,” he innocently informed me. That was when I knew Alex and I were from different species. My hatred for corn was only outweighed by my hatred for rhododendron, which, in my opinion, was the kindling they used in hell.
Alex passed me the whiskey and turned on the stereo. The leering voices of Dwight Yoakam and REM streamed out into the night. Alex pulled Julie to her feet and began waltzing with her to the slow rhythm of A Thousand Miles from Nowhere. I sat on a log and sipped my whiskey and watched.
Alex and Julie swayed together as though they were the only two people in existence. They didn’t care that my wondering eyes followed their feet as they moved from side to side. They were blissfully aware of the moment. Routinely passing a cigarette between them as they danced, and I watched from the outside. My point of view skewed by the knowledge that soon it would be very cold, and in the morning we would have to pack up dew wet tents. They didn’t care about that, Alex with his jingling spurs and Julie with her two pairs of jeans. They lived on the inside, acutely aware of the passing of time, and yet not caring. They would never have to wonder if they had wasted time, because they were always living.
And I sat on my log and watched.
In the morning we packed up our wet tents, hiked out of the woods and climbed back into the Camino. Alex was dropping me off in Slatyfork, where I would meet up with friends heading to New York. I climbed out of the Camino and took one last swig before handing the whiskey over to Alex. He laughed and handed me a cigarette.
“Adios, Poncho,” he said and slapped me on the back.
“Thanks for the ride, Alex.”
“Tain’t no thing, just giving us a little more mountain to see, right Babe?” Julie just nodded and gave me a swift hug.
“I’ll see you later, Julie,” again she just nodded and climbed back into the car.
Alex grasped me by the shoulders, “the only reason you’re a stranger is because you don’t experience, everything is not meant to be surreal, dude.” And he climbed into the car, leaving my head reeling. I sat down on the curb and watched the Camino disappear into the distance as I waited for my friends to come pick me up.