From late March until early August of this past year, I hiked 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It was the single greatest experience of my life. It’s difficult to describe what the hike was like, or why it was so transformative, (although I try—almost every story I’ve told since arriving in Syracuse starts with “On the Trail…”) but I can write a little bit about the food.
As hikers, food was always on our minds. Whether planning out what was for dinner (usually something like a 3500 calorie conglomerate of instant ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes, Knorr Pasta Sides, pre-cooked bacon or summer sausage, and mountain water, all served in a single pot and eaten with a titanium spork), when our next snack break was, or what sort of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad fast food we were going to eat when we stopped in town to resupply—food which I craved like I’ve never craved anything before, like I was a pregnant woman, but which repulses me now that I’m not burning 9000 calories a day and sweating out my weight in salt. Many of the meals which I remember most fondly would probably make my stomach turn now (two bags of Parmesean Spinach pasta side with precooked bacon and pouched salmon, a dozen hot dog buns with cold chili and Dorito crumbs (given to me by a wonderfully kind Trail Angel—someone who parks at a road crossing and serves passing hikers free food), or a truly absurd amount of Taco Bell, with Wendy’s as an amuse bouche and Long John Silver’s as a digestif).
Or I thought about meals I had eaten—a favorite time-passing game was mentally listing countries, then states, then cities that I’ve visited, in alphabetical order, and trying to pick a particularly memorable food moment from each one. Then I’d re-index the memories by food or ingredient, also, of course, in alphabetical order (I don’t know why it took me 25 years to figure out that library school might be a pretty good fit). I thought about the different consistencies butter can have, or what types of berries would taste best with what type of herbs. I planned endless recipes, thinking about what I would cook when I got off-trail. So that brings me to the name of this blog.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines off-trail as follows (usage, pronunciation, and etymology removed, emphasis my own):
off-trail, adv. and adj.
Off a trail or path; away from an established route.
That is or takes place away from a trail; spec. (of a sport, activity, etc.) conducted away from an established or conventional route. Also (and in earliest use) fig.: different to that which is accepted or usual; unorthodox.
While I was hiking, off-trail was a place I never wanted to be, a place that terrified me. Injury or illness could send me there, and we were constantly hearing stories of the weak or the unlucky, people who we had last seen happily hiking past us over mountains, but who we might never see again. They were gone forever. Off-trail. Now, off-trail is a state of mind, a return to normalcy. But it is just that fact—that I’ve returned from the woods—which means that the world will never be truly normal again. The world will always be “different to that which is accepted or usual” because that’s what it was while I was hiking. For the rest of my life, I will be someone who used to be on the Trail. When I live my life off-trail, when I shower every day, or sleep indoors and in the same place for more than one night running, or cook a meal with fresh vegetables and five pans, I will always be reminded of how lucky I am, how abundantly rich my life is, but, at the same time, how little I actually need to be truly, euphorically happy.