Traveling overnight on the Empire Builder train from West Glacier to Seattle, I slept most of the way. Normally after sunset, I take my inflatable sleeping pad to the observation car and stretch out in the narrow space between the seats and the windows, but on this particular stretch, I was so exhausted from hiking the Highline the day before that I dozed off in my seat. I woke the next morning a little groggy and stiff, but right outside my window, the Puget Sound glittered off into the horizon. It was my first time back in Washington state since my 2017 writing residency at Willapa Bay AiR, and it felt good to be back on the West Coast, though I also felt a bit somber on account of it being the birthday of my older sister, Chelsea, who had died of cancer when I was 16, just before she would have turned 23.
Seven years older, Chelsea looked out for me, especially during the volatile years prior to my parents’ divorce. My memories of early childhood are mostly violent and upsetting, but she did her best to shield me from what she could and to teach me how to fight. When I was five or six, she instructed my younger sister and me to stand on our parents’ waterbed and showed us how to protect our faces with our fists, bouncing from foot to foot so as not to become an easy target. Then she showed us how to jab, hook, and uppercut. These skills came in handy years later, when I was a freshman in high school, and a bully in her senior year decided she didn’t like me. For months, she called me names every time I passed her in the hallway, and then one day, she was waiting at the top of the stairs after lunch with several of her friends. I was by myself and certain I was about to be jumped, so I dropped my books and immediately punched her in the face. Her friends stood back and watched, and after that, no one messed with me. Earlier that year, Chelsea had been diagnosed with adenocarcinoma. The doctors couldn’t find the primary tumor and thus could not stop it from spreading.
We lived in rural, Southwest Ohio and never had cable, but when Chelsea’s health had declined to the point that she spent most of her time on the couch, we got a satellite dish so she could watch boxing matches. Her favorite was Lennox Lewis, and she would yell at the TV whenever he was fighting.
Like most of the adults in the area at that time, my mom had a factory job at Airborne Express, and one of her co-workers knew Aaron Pryor, who had recently been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. When Chelsea was dying, he came to our house, and we all talked at length about what it means to be a fighter. He signed a glove for her, and we buried her with it. Until a few years ago, I had completely forgotten that when she died, I wrote to him, but my memory was jogged when I came across the response he had sent back to say how sorry he was.
It’s a strange thing to go from being a middle child to the oldest. For one thing, I lost the person who had looked out for me when I needed it most, and beyond that, her death shifted some of the most fundamental aspects of my identity. All of the stakes felt higher because my older sister was no longer there to rely on if I faltered, and my sense of responsibility was profoundly amplified. I helped my mom choose a casket, a dress to bury her in, and flowers. Then four years later, I assumed custody of my youngest sister when it became clear I was the person in the family best equipped at that time to do so. In many ways, I feel I’m as functional as I am now only because Chelsea looked out for me in those early years, and that knowledge carries with it–not guilt, exactly–but an enduring sorrow.
On any long journey, there are times when weariness subsumes you, and Chelsea’s birthday was the first such day on my trip. I felt it from the moment I woke up on the train and knew I was in for a challenge. After the Empire Builder arrived on schedule that morning in downtown Seattle, I found an ATM, withdrew some cash, and bought a coffee to get change for bus fare. I’d lined up a Couchsurfing host in advance whose home was a 45-minute bus ride north, but because I accidentally navigated to the Northeast portion of her street instead of the Northwest, I had to catch another bus and reached her neighborhood an hour later than anticipated. Her house was a steep, downhill walk 20 minutes from the bus stop, and in addition to battling fatigue from poor sleep, I was wincing along on legs that still throbbed from the 17-mile hike I’d taken two days before. Every step with my 30-pound pack reiterated my soreness and exhaustion, and to top it off, my skin was coated with a sticky layer of dust and sweat that had accumulated over five days of camping.
“I apologize in advance for the way I smell,” I texted my host before my arrival.
She respond to say that I was in luck because her bathroom had “the greatest water pressure you’ve ever experienced unless you’ve been doused by a firehose.”
She wasn’t exaggerating. I messaged A first from the list of possible Couchsurfing hosts in Seattle because 1.) her accommodations included a detached, private room with a real bed, and 2.) other surfers had spoken so highly of her in their reviews. When I arrived, I knew I’d made a good call as I walked into a small, gated compound and was greeted by two adorable Yorkies. From the time I was little, I’ve felt a strong connection to animals, and being around pets tends to make me feel at peace. So when the two tiny furballs emerged from the main house, snorting softly with excitement and wagging their tails so fast their little butts wiggled, I forgot my weariness for a moment and felt a wave of joy.
A walked me to a toolshed off the garage that she’d converted into a Couchsurfers’ paradise. On one counter, there was a bowl full of snacks, a book of house rules, maps, brochures for local attractions, and lots of memorabilia from and about Couchsurfing, including a funny New Yorker article and a book by Gabriele Galimberti called My Couch is Your Couch. The opposite wall was lined with what looked to me like every tool imaginable–“In case you need to fix anything,” she said. Beyond that was a door that led to another narrow room with a twin bed positioned between rows of shelves lined with hat boxes.
I plopped my pack on the floor, and A told me to get settled and come find her in the house when I was ready. “So I can show you your bathroom,” she said, handing me a set of keys.
After she left, I skimmed through the house rules, which among other things, instructed me to tell the neighbors, if they asked, that I was a friend visiting from out of town. I’ve gotten similar instructions from a few other hosts over the years. A lot of people just can’t comprehend the ethos of Couchsurfing, to the extent that one time, a woman told me that what I was doing was “incredibly stupid.” Another host’s father referred to his Couchsurfing guests as couch potatoes–a description that, although it made me laugh, I don’t find to be at all accurate. A, for instance, was a successful entrepreneur who had opened a men’s clothing store in Seattle in the 1960’s and then branched out into several other successful endeavors that had left her quite comfortable. Other Couchsurfers I’ve crossed paths with over the years include an inventor who made a small fortune improving some aspect or another of tractor design, a tech genius working who was working on driverless cars for Apple, and a business executive at Lionsgate.
After I familiarized myself with the rules, I mosied into the house with my shower bag. A was sitting behind a computer, crunching numbers, but she took a break to show me a luxurious little bathroom I’d have all to myself and the laundry room, which I’d read that I would be permitted to use once during my stay. (It was a good thing, too, because I was down to my very last clean pair of socks and underwear.) I gleaned from our short conversation that she would be busy with work most of the day and then out for the evening, and that meant I could shower at my leisure and then take a nap, which I desperately needed. Getting to know my hosts is normally one of my favorite parts of Couchsurfing, but in this case, I was grateful that A was busy. I scrubbed the grime from my skin, returned to the shed, and collapsed into a dreamless sleep for a couple of hours.
When I woke, it was late afternoon, and I walked a path I’d read about in A’s book down to Puget Sound. I texted a friend from grad school who had moved to Seattle a few years back and made plans to meet up with her the next day. Then around dinner time, I walked to a nearby shopping complex for ramen. The restaurant had spaced the tables out to follow social distancing protocols, and as I would notice in most places along the West Coast, people were following the mask mandates a lot more strictly than they had been back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Patrons removed their masks only to eat and then put them back on if they got up to use the restroom or leave the building. Having been vaccinated back in March, I felt relatively confident that if I did get a breakthrough case, it probably wouldn’t be catastrophic, but since I also knew I would be crossing paths with plenty of unvaccinated people on my journey, I was glad to see reasonable precautions being taken.
That night before bed, I put a load of laundry in the washer, and A showed me where to find the coffee, granola, yogurt, and berries in her kitchen for breakfast in the morning. I fell asleep in gratitude for the safe haven I’d found at A’s and got the best night of rest I’d had in recent memory.