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His Thoughts Were Unstained

I became lost in thought - past grievances, people who had wronged me in some way, the frustrations of previous jobs. They were all negative thoughts but yet they offered some relief from the tedium of the trail, at that time in the late afternoon when the monotony of thru-hiking can become almost unbearable. Once I snapped out of it I hated to admit that I almost felt relieved that for a short while I had escaped any thoughts of hiking. Soon enough my mind once again drifted off, this time with lustful thoughts and memories of past loves. I eventually returned to the present moment feeling a bit embarrassed. In everyday life a sexual fantasy can persist for only so long before some distraction intrudes. Out amongst the tree cover of Oregon, however, entire pornographies can unfold in your mind unabated.

In Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck traces the progression of conversation between Pilon and Pablo as they make their way through two jugs of wine. The list could describe just as easily the thoughts of the solitary thru-hiker as he plods across, at times, monotonous terrain, failing to remain present as his mind darts from one course of thought to the next: "first serious and concentrated thoughts, then sweetly sad memory, followed by thoughts of old and satisfactory loves, then thoughts of bitter loves, then general and undirected sadness, then unholy despondency, then a song of death or longing and finally every other song he knows."


Ahead of me on the trail was another hiker, a middle-aged man hobbling along with one knee wrapped in a brace.

"Hello there!" I called out to him.

"Oh, you startled me!" he replied.

"Where did you start hiking?" I asked, wondering if he was a thru-hiker or not.

"Oh, umm, well, I don't really know. About twenty miles back I suppose."

"I mean where did you originally start your hike?"

"Oh, uh, ummm, oh geez. I'm really delirious. Ash-, uh, Ash-, ummm ... Ashland. Oh, I'm really bad today."

I was concerned by how much he seemed to be struggling. He said he was thru-hiking, but as he put it, he was "doing a weird thru." He had started out in early spring, but had taken a hiatus to get knee surgery. He then got back on the trail at the northern terminus and began hiking south through Washington on snow-covered trail. He slipped and fell, cracking a few ribs in the process, and had to be airlifted out on a helicopter. Blackhawk Down became his trail name.

And now it seemed he had switched directions once again, getting back on the trail at Ashland and hiking north. A weird thru indeed. There was a part of me that applauded his resolve, sticking with it after two major catastrophes. At the same time, looking at his enormous pack and watching him limp along at a snail's pace, I felt perhaps it was time for him to throw in the towel. We were only a few miles from a road and Crater Lake National Park. I knew he would at least be able to get there safely and hoped he would reconsider his hike.

"You're doing great!" he said. "You're two-thirds of the way there and you don't even look dirty." I felt that dark and subconscious aspect of human nature, where upon seeing someone worse off then yourself you instantly feel better about your own situation. "I'm glad that's not me," I thought to myself, then instantly felt ashamed by my self-centered lack of empathy.

"Pilon was a lover of beauty and a mystic. He raised his face into the sky and his soul arose out of him in the sun's afterglow. That not too perfect Pilon, who plotted and fought, who drank and cursed, trudged slowly on; but a wistful and shining Pilon went up to the sea gulls where they bathed on sensitive wings in the evening. That Pilon was beautiful, and his thoughts were unstained with selfishness and lust. And his thoughts are good to know."

Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat

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