“I have fond memories of that playground at the Mason-Dixon,” Philip said, and we all knew exactly which playground at the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania. He was talking to me, Wade, and Toni (who we knew by her trail name, Sphagnum P.I.). So many things had come together for us to be having this conversation. Wade and I had met in Pittsburgh before he moved to Seattle years before. We had met Sphagnum during a cold spring in the Smoky Mountains on our Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and now she had come from the Mexican border on her thru-hike of the PCT. At the same time, Philip (who I had met in an art class in Pittsburgh years before) had just come back to the US from China and was driving across the country on an extended road trip on his way to Seattle. And I had my own journey to Washington too, having tried for years to figure out how to move here, struggling with logistics and job opportunities. As a result of all of these miraculous travels and some lucky coincidence, we were all having a conversation in the woods just north of the legendary Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon border, remembering a small, somewhat mundane place on the other side of the country.
And we all had very specific memories of this seemingly innocuous park in Maryland. I remembered being excited to empty our trash and sitting around with some other hikers waiting for an ice cream truck to open. I’m sure Sphagnum had similar memories of this significant state crossing soon before the rocky hell of Pennsylvania. And Philip, presumably, had the normal childhood memories from growing up near it. And that day, thousands of miles away and with memories separated by so much time, we could all picture it.
It was a strange group. We all had a lot in common even though we had mostly met somewhat briefly or not at all before this trip, in very different contexts. The trip was planned via text, and I had been tracking Philip and Sphagnum’s journeys in order to bring us all together. Even though we had never all lived in the same location, we were connected by a sense of place, since we all had some kind of emotional link to the AT and also were currently deeply in love with this bit of Washington backcountry.
This got me thinking about the confusing role that location has in my life. My lifestyle reflects what I think is something of a trend among young adults, in that I have moved a lot, live very far from where I grew up, and spend a lot of time traveling and communicating with people who are far away from me. I have never lived anywhere long enough to gain a typical sense of long-term community– since being conscious of my surroundings I’ve never lived near the same people for a decade, watched their kids grow up, or seen a community develop very much. My friends change location so much that I don’t necessarily know where everyone I love is at any given time, and I am used to setting aside friendships for months or even years to pick them up whenever we happen to be in the same place again.
That being said, I struggle to understand how to be a good friend at such great distance, and my sense of place takes on a more important role because of this uncertainty. Seattle, for example, is significant to me as a place because it was somewhere I dreamt of living for years, somewhere I built an image of from a series of disconnected visits and where I knew people who I expected to eventually be my neighbors. The iconic image of Mount Rainier in the distance became a physical symbol of my own future. And now, I have many friends who visit me and dream of moving out here, and I point at Rainier in the distance and try to make them feel the same way. I want them to inherit the same personal symbolic significance so that they will move here and be near me.
Seattle has also gained a personality in my mind due to its role as a layover location, an easy vacation destination for others on the west coast, and a place where jobs bring in people I knew at some previous stage of my life. This constant change has become its own sort of community: I see a trail friend as they pass through on the way somewhere else, a friend spontaneously tells me they are honeymooning and want to swing by, another college buddy visits frequently just because the flight from San Francisco is cheap and direct. One friend visits and I talk to them about another friend far away, they visit each other and recount our conversation, and eventually I visit them in another place entirely. We continue these discussions across time and space as our lives progress in the meantime. I am sure all of us are on some conscious or unconscious level trying to figure out what it means to be friends across distance, how to still share a sense of connectedness and location all the same.
Not all of my long-distance conversations make use of technology. The trail gossip on the AT was a relatively reliable network where you would ask after people you’d been hiking with or trail conditions down the road. Somehow the information could travel a hundred miles in a day via people hiking faster or in the other direction. This phenomenon was one of the main reasons the sense of community among thru-hikers felt so strong to me. It even largely centered on whispers about place. Legends of easy sections, good hostels, the “green tunnel” of Virginia or the delis in New Jersey. Really, the things we had in common were mostly wrapped up in this detail-oriented obsession with our physical location– mile numbers, place names, and elevation profiles. You could always start a conversation about these things.
And that was at least partially due to the unique context of experiencing a place on foot. For the same reasons, I was pretty emotional about introducing Sphagnum to my state. All of the peaks in the distance represented great journeys I’d had with my friends, hazy apparitions I’d worshipped from other trails, or future goals. I’d had really great pizza at most of the road crossings. I wanted so desperately to somehow give all that background to Sphagnum.
And to me, sometimes this sentimentality is even stronger when I am away. I always have somewhere else to “go home” to no matter where I am, and I inevitably idealize it. I spent a lot of time describing Washington volcanoes to people on my thru-hike, and now I spend a lot of time describing the AT from Washington volcanoes. And maybe, creating personalities and memories for distant places, revering and describing them, is my way of trying to bring cohesiveness to the messy network that is my own modern and fragmented sense of community. If only I could fit my emotional map onto every postcard I sent to a faraway friend.