Couchsurfing in Seattle

(August 9)

The westbound Empire Builder train into Seattle runs along Puget Sound.

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.

Chelsea and I, probably 1984 or 1985

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.

Chelsea with two-time light welterweight world champion, Aaron Pryor. I think this was early 1998.

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.

Glacier National Park Without a Car, in the Rain

(August 8, 2021)

I woke up this morning around 5 AM to the sound of heavy drops splashing against the rainfly of my one-person tent. It’s the same tent I took on my solo, cross-country train trip in 2017, but that time, I somehow managed to get from Atlantic to Pacific and back without having to test its water resistance. It was still dark this morning when the storm rolled in, so I felt around the seams of the tent to make sure there was no water dripping in or pooling in the corners. It was still storming when I woke again at 7–warm, dry, and grateful not only that the rainfly was doing its job, but also that the storm might help to quash the Hay Creek Fire that had been burning in the park for the last two and a half weeks.  

I lingered in the tent awhile, wondering how long the storm would last. Since there was no cell reception to check the radar, I formed a mental plan as to how I would dress and break down my tent in the rain before making my way toward the Amtrak station to catch the Empire Builder to Seattle that evening. I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t keep your pack inside your tent in case a trace of some scent lingered that might attract an animal; since there had been a light mist before bed, I’d put the rain cover on my pack, just outside the door to my tent. So in the morning, I simply unzipped the door, pulled my pack toward me, and retrieved some moisture-wicking clothing and my raincoat. Once I was suited up, I ventured outside to the bear-proof storage bin where I had stored my toiletries, and then I trudged off to the bathroom to brush my teeth. 

Then I returned, deflated my pillow and sleeping pad, and rolled everything up. I tucked my eyeglasses away in their case to avoid the hassle of rain-fogged lenses and fumbled to put my contacts in without a mirror. Then I broke down my tent and stuffed the sopping heap into its case, knowing I would need to pull it out again for a good cleaning once I reached Seattle. I crammed everything into my pack and stored the tent in an exterior side pocket to avoid dampening the precious few clean underwear and socks I had left since I’d last done laundry in Minneapolis.

During a normal season, the Glacier Park Shuttle stops across the street from the campground, but since the Sprague Creek stop was not in service during the pandemic, I heaved my pack onto my back and slogged a mile from the campground to Lake McDonald Lodge, propelled forward in spite of my sore knees and calves by the promise of hot coffee and breakfast. (I’d hiked over 17 miles on the the day before, mostly on the Highline and Garden Wall Trails.)

For my 2017 trip, I’d brought a pair of heavy-duty, water-repellent hiking boots, but I opted not to lug them around this time because they were bulky and a bit warmer than I would have preferred for August. I’d decided instead to bring one pair of good quality rubber flip-flops and one pair of lightweight Brooks Ricochet running shoes, which had served me well on my various hikes and jogs up to this point. Since there was considerable overgrowth along the road to the Lodge and I would be carrying a 30-pound pack, I went with the sneakers. For socks, I wore one of my two remaining clean pairs: some lightweight Feetures I use often for running. Within five minutes, I realized the combination was not ideal, and for the third time already on the trip, I wished I’d brought more merino wool Bombas–the only socks I’ve found that are truly all-weather (thick enough to have adequate moisture-wicking properties while still keeping my feet cool enough in the summer and warm enough in the winter). A man driving a U-haul truck stopped and asked if I wanted a ride, but I figured wet feet were less potentially dangerous than a random man, so I declined. Luckily, I had just a short way to go, so I sloshed to the Lodge and changed into the Bombas, which in spite of being quite dirty made my feet feel dry and warm even though my shoes were not. (Fun fact: I later figured out that enterprising people had resorted to renting Uhauls in order to circumvent the rental car shortage.)

The restaurant take-out window by the lake. I ordered a coffee, a sausage biscuit, and a hashbrown. Seeing my pack, the server asked where I was headed. I explained that I had a train scheduled out of Whitefish at 9 PM, and he asked if I was walking. I shrugged. He raised a thumb and his eyebrows to ask if I was hitching. 

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m taking the shuttle to Apgar, and I’m wondering if there might be a bus or something from there.” 

He nodded. “You look resourceful.”  

I nodded back. “I am.”  

He handed me the coffee and told me I could pick the food up at the window around the corner in five minutes or so. I moved aside, took off my pack, stretched my legs, and remembered what another server had said yesterday about how he and some friends wanted to take the train from West to East Glacier sometime. I thought I’d read somewhere that the East Glacier station was open only during the summers and West only later in the year, but I figured it was worth double checking. So I waited out the weak Wifi signal long enough to figure out that I could indeed change my reservation to depart from West Glacier rather than Whitefish, and I could walk two and a half miles along a bike path from the Apgar Visitors’ Center to the West Glacier Amtrak Station. Furthermore, the rain would be on lunch break from 11-12 AM. As much as I wanted to see Whitefish, the weather forecast made it seem like more trouble than it was worth. I reasoned that it was writing weather, anyway, and I could do that from any dry location with a power outlet. 

So after breakfast, I sat in the Lodge and wrote until around 10:30 and then caught the shuttle to Apgar Village, an adorable little outpost on the west side of the park that I regretted not having explored in nicer weather. I didn’t know how long the break in the rain would last, though, so I found the bike path and headed in the direction of the Amtrak station.

About a quarter mile from the West Glacier Amtrak Station, a small stretch of Going to the Sun Road was lined with some charming little shops and restaurants. I had quite a bit of time to kill before the arrival of the Empire Builder, so I ordered huckleberry pie à la mode from the West Glacier Cafe and settled in to write.

Huckleberry pie à la mode from West Glacier Cafe

That afternoon, I posted a photo of myself at the Grinnell Glacier Overlook from the day before, and although most of my Facebook friends cheered me on, a couple expressed concern that it hadn’t been safe for me to hike the Highline alone. My sense is that people usually mean well by this kind of concern, and it is true that under certain circumstances, I am less risk averse than many; it comes from having grown accustomed to volatility in my early childhood. When some of your earliest memories involve things like being hidden in a closet by your older sister so that you won’t get trampled by the fist fight happening in the living room, your adult brain becomes capable of a mental calculus a lot of people aren’t wired for. For instance, how might the risk of something like hiking alone compare to, say, the risk of being a victim of domestic violence? Might something as common as marriage actually be more dangerous, statistically?