Next week, I’ll be heading out for my annual trek on the Appalachian Trail. If you’ve never heard of it, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a continuous footpath that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail is approximately 2,180 miles long and travels through 14 states and some of the most beautiful landscapes in the US.
There are a number of ways one can endeavor to hike the trail. Some people go the entire length in one trip; thru-hike. They begin at either the southern or the northern point and they finish when they finish.
I’m a section hiker. I go back to the trail at least once a year, picking up where I left off and hiking the next stretch. I would like to someday thru-hike. But for now, section hiking suits me. I get to return to the adventure every year.
One of my favorite things about the trail, is meeting other hikers. I love to hear their stories and everyone has a story. I’ve met people from all walks of life.
Last year, I met a woman whose trail name was Orange Crush. She was a retired school teacher who had dreamed of hiking the trail ever since she was a little girl. After satisfying the responsibilities of work and family, her husband turned to her in their retirement and said, “It’s now or never. You’ve got to do this.”
And she did. She got her trail name when she was walking through Pennsylvania and two men spotted her from their place atop a ridge. She was wearing a bright orange top and they could see her clearly as she made her way toward them, down into a valley and back up again. She was moving so quickly through the states notoriously rocky landscape, that they decided to wait and see who this person was. When she approached, they were shocked, expecting a much younger hiker. One of the men apparently exclaimed, “You’re crushing it!” And so she was given the trail name, Orange Crush.
A few years ago, I met a group of friends who had been section hiking the trail together for twenty-years. They’d all had careers and kids, but every year, they made the commitment to get together and go. No matter what.
I also met a couple in their 70’s. I met them in Connecticut, but they had been hiking since Georgia. They passed me quickly and left me in their dust.
I’ve met people who are hiking alone, or in small groups, or with others they met and clicked with at some point along the trail. In years prior, I’ve always hiked with a partner. But this year, I’m hiking solo for the first time.
Any time it comes up, the first question I’m asked is, “Aren’t you afraid?”
I know what they mean. They aren’t asking me if I’m afraid I’ll encounter a wild animal hungry for a hiker. Or, if I’m afraid I’ll lose my way. They are asking if I’m afraid of who I might meet on the trail.
I give them the answer I know to be true. I say that I am safer on the trail than I would be walking alone on a city street. Then I think what I also know to be true. I am safer, but I am not exactly safe.
It’s a deflating conversation. But, it’s a conversation I think every woman is accustomed to having in some form or fashion. Because we are taught and we know, that sometimes bad things happen to women who walk alone.
And when those bad things happen, there is always someone who reads the story and says, “Why would she do that, be there, take that risk, alone? She should have known better.”
I hate it.
I hate that alone is considered a risk, because someone else might consider it an invitation.
I hate that when I say, “I’m not afraid” someone says, “You’re so brave.”
I shouldn’t have to muster up bravery and courage to simply walk alone.
I hate that this is my world too, but it’s a world in which I’m often the punchline of a dirty joke. Where my choices and my rights are up for debate and can be snatched away without my say.
I hate that I have, at times, accepted negative attention, because my intuition told me it was safer than standing my ground.
I hate when I say any of these things, there is someone who hears it and thinks I’m being too dramatic, too sensitive. I hate that the statistics say otherwise.
I hate that I am a little bit afraid.
I love that I’m going to walk alone anyway.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided to get a tattoo. The decision making process for this permanent implementation of art onto my skin, went something like this:
Friend: I’m going to get my tattoo today. The one I’ve been talking about and planning and thinking long and hard about for months. The one I’ve drawn and redrawn and gone over with my tattoo artist again and again. The one that has deep, personal meaning. The one I’m not likely to regret ten minutes later.
Me: Oooh, fun! I’ll come too!
Change scene to tattoo parlor.
Me: (staring at a wall of generic tattoo selections as though deciding between the cheeseburger or the chicken mcnuggets on the extra value menu at McDonald’s) I’ll take that one! (points finger at a butterfly, because….obviously).
Tattoo Artist: (likely chuckling on the inside) Where would you like it?
Me: Fluttering out of the crack of my ass, duh!
This is how I ended up with a tramp stamp.
The impulsiveness of this decision was a definite departure of type for me. I’m the kind of person who will spend days researching toasters before I buy one. But at the time, my life was particularly complicated and messy. I was in the process of ending a long term romantic relationship and the situation with my mother had reached a pivotal impasse. One of us had to die. Or, one of us needed to walk away….forever.
So what better time to do something rash and permanent, am I right?
Needless to say, I regretted it pretty instantly. It wasn’t because I have anything against tattoo’s. I regretted it, because my choice and its placement didn’t fit me. The tattoo had no meaning….although, for a long time, I told people I’d chosen it because butterflies symbolize change, hope and life….which was a total crock.
For years, anytime I looked at it, which typically required a deliberate act, I felt like I was walking around in a used car I’d purchased with a bumper sticker that said something like, “Back Off! I’m going to Fart” and I couldn’t scrape it off. I didn’t have the money to do anything about it though. They go on far cheaper than they come off. So I just tried to keep it covered.
Recently though, I decided it was time to have the tattoo removed. There was no real catalyst for the decision, I just saw it one day while trying on a bathing suit with a low cut back. It brought back bad memories.
I sought out the best laser removal specialist I could find and booked my first consultation / removal session. I knew from my research that the procedure would hurt, but I gave birth to my son au natural. I figured, if I could survive ejecting a human from my hooha, how bad could laser tattoo removal be? Really, uncomfortably bad….that’s how bad it could be.
As I laid there sweating, grimacing and squeezing down hard on a stress ball, I tried to divert my thoughts. Mind over matter. It was a skill I honed as a kid.
When my mother would launch into an attack, I would do my best to take it without emotion. Instead of being in that moment, I would concentrate instead on trying to make certain muscles move. Can I make my ears move? How about my knee caps? What about a chest muscle? Can I do it to the beat of a particular song? Eventually, the sound of her voice would become nothing more than a fuzzy buzz in the background of my mind.
The ability to remove myself mentally from situations I don’t want to be in, continues to be a tactic I employ, though it’s not always to my benefit. The word that has been most commonly used to describe me is “stoic,” followed by “aloof.” To quote Popeye, “I am what I am,” but I’m working on being a bit more emotionally accessible.
So as I tried to ignore the pain of the procedure, I also tried not to let my mind wander too far from the situation at hand. Instead, I thought about how I got there in the first place. I decided that maybe the tattoo had been symbolic of something after all.
For years, I’d felt as though my feelings and my body were a literal punching bag and dumping ground for other people’s stuff. Maybe the act had been my way of staking a claim. Or, maybe it was my way of grabbing onto something I could control in the midst of a life that felt totally out of control. Maybe it was none of those things and I’m simply grasping at straws to apply meaning to something that might have just been meaningless. Maybe that means something.
Regardless, I do feel as though the removal is significant. When I look back on my life, I can see a very definitive before and after. The tattoo is the marker that separates the years. In those that proceeded it, a lot of my life had been chaotic and messy. All I wanted was to survive it and then escape it.
In the years that followed the tattoo, I did the work of stripping away all the layers of dysfunction and self-doubt that had been piled on for so many years and replacing those layers with healthy layers. I’ve built a good life for myself. The memories the tattoo evokes are not happy memories. I don’t need that symbol of where I’ve been to be appreciative of where I am and where I’m going.
The tattoo removal process will also happen in layers. It’s a bit poetic all things considered. At each session, the laser will target the tattoo pigment and the energy from the beam will be transferred to the ink, breaking it up into small particles. Then my body will let it go. To quote the laser removal specialist, “you’ll basically poop out your tattoo.” That seemed a bit poetic as well.
Yesterday was field day at my son’s pre-school and I volunteered to help out. When I arrived and asked where I could make myself useful, his teacher looked at me with pleading eyes and asked if I would take the face painting assignment.
“Um, sure” I said, hoping my hesitation would imply that I really did not want to be in charge of face painting. It didn’t.
She handed me a few boxes of face paint and another few boxes of hypoallergenic face paint that had been provided by the parents of children with allergies. She also handed me a list of the children who had parental permission for face painting; those with allergies were highlighted for my reference.
I sat down on a tiny chair that essentially made me feel as though I was holding a supported malasana (squat) pose and began to prepare my station. Upon opening the first box of face paint, I was relieved to find that there were stencils included. Ok, cool, I thought. I could do these, no problem! Hell, I could even free hand one of these rainbows or smiley face designs. I’ve got this!
I like to believe I possess some artistic ability. I like to decorate, refinish and paint old furniture and I love a good DIY project, but I’m not an artist in the sense that I can draw or paint….anything. In fact, I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I wish I could and I’ve tried, but I’m too much of a perfectionist. This is why the thought of having to paint the cherubic faces of a bunch of excited and wiggly pre-schoolers gave me such pause. But with a guide? Well, I could definitely manage with a guide.
With renewed confidence, I welcomed my first customer of the day. So, what are we doing today?” I asked a little boy with a drippy nose and the remnants of a snack in the corner of his mouth, as I gestured toward the stencils I’d lined up for choosing.
Boy: I want to be a jaglion
Me: A what?
Boy: A jaglion!
Me: Um, what’s a jaglion? Is that like a liger? (Napoleon Dynamite reference he totally didn’t get.)
Boy: No. It’s a jaglion. You know, a jaglion. It’s part jaguar, part lion.
Me: (blank stare)
Boy: It lives in Africa, it’s magical, it runs 2,000 mph. A jaglion!
Me: (picking up a stencil) How about a bat?
He wasn’t accepting some shitty generic bat when he wanted a jaglion.
Boy: Ask Siri, she’ll show you a picture.
Me: Um, why don’t you just tell me what it looks like.
I did my best. After painting his entire face orange, then outlining it in black and adding red stripes and some whiskers, I sent him on his way, but not before using a small mirror to show him what the outcome looked like. He told me he looked exactly like a jaglion.
For the next three hours, I proceeded to paint a number of butterflies, princesses, Batmen and Spidermen, blue cats and pink dogs, a snake with fangs and scales, a fox, a tin man, a Pokemon character and a glittery koala. Exactly none of them were a stencil, no matter how hard I tried to sell them on the idea. Not even my own kid, Snugs, gave me a break when he sat down and requested to be a cardinal.
Me: Snugs, look at all these choices. What do you think?
Snugs: I fink I want to be a cardinal.
Me: The bird?
Me: Are you sure you don’t want to be one of these? Like the bat, I could paint it red and we could pretend it’s a cardinal.
Snugs: No, I want to be a cardinal.
My artwork throughout the day was not impressive. But after every sitting, I would show the kids their reflection, bracing myself for disappointment and maybe even tears, but every time, they would say something like, “Yes, I look exactly like a blue fox with a top hat.”
One little girl, who asked to be a pink and purple zebra, looked at her reflection and said, “Wow, it looks so pretty. You’re a real artist.”
I had to stop myself from correcting her. In her eyes, it was art and she thought it was wonderful. Why should I ruin that? Then, it struck me how beautiful the world must look to little one’s and how sad it is that we lose that gift so soon.
Then, I told them all my name was Karen. Because I’m betting when their parents picked them up from school and especially when they had to try and scrub away the layers of paint that morphed their children into some sad version of modern art, they din’t think it was so beautiful. It’s a safe bet. I was cursing Karen too.
PS: I Googled “Jaglion” when I got home. It’s a real thing. A jaglion or jaguon is the offspring between a male jaguar and a female lion.
That is pretty magical.