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One of my biggest anticipations for the trail is all the people I will meet. The ones I will walk with and become as close as family to, the ones I will pass by and have a single conversation with, the ones who will be there with a service or the ability to meet a need just as I am on the verge of loosing hope. Strangers of varying degrees.
As of late, I have come across a couple of notable strangers in my life, ironically both named Jeremy. The first is a very normal looking guy, typically dressed in neat, yet casual, jeans and t-shirts, with a pair of those well built flip flops that seem like men always make last forever. If he is just standing there and you're not paying close attention, he retains that normal demeanor with the support of his short cut hair and closely watched after beard. But when he walks, and if you listen to what he says in conversation, you realize you're dealing with a fully developed hippie. He has a quiet and unconcerned swagger in his step and between a plethora of recanted tales of travel, you can pick up on his disconnection with our society and it's ways of working. He is a thru-hiker and the son of my mother's co-worker. I met Strange Jeremy #1 at a bar for drinks, interesting enough, at the request of my mother. More accurately, at the begging and pleading of my mother. I suppose she believed that he held the single nugget of information I needed to successfully and, more importantly to her, safely finish the trail. Nothing like the love of a mother. So I, very reluctantly, met with him only to find out, as if it should have been a surprise at all, that we have a lot in common. Go figure, that two people who wish to or already have put their body, mind, and soul through an extremely trying bout with wilderness, have some things in common. I am sure we would remain good friends and that I would make him my official AT Prep sensei, but he travels far and wide with a job that keeps him gone all but a few weeks of the year. So besides email, phones, and Facebook, all the modern modes of connection we use today, I have all but lost this friend, much as I will time after time with wonderful people on the trail in the months to come.
The second Jeremy was pretty close to a normal guy as well, dressed in a naturally distressed Earl Small's Motorcycle shirt and a pair of beat up jeans. His short hair was the same flaming red as his impressively lengthy goatee hanging from his chin and his face had the freckled markings of gingerdom, contrasting with his thin rimmed glasses. His normalcy dissolved when he first spoke to me in his thick, twangy accent of a back country boy of North Carolina. I found myself standing in his front yard, camera in hand, on one of my photographic wanderings into the Southern Appalachian Mountains. What I had believed to be an old, abandoned store turned out to be his home. I wanted to photograph the gorgeously rusted out and over grown cars of yester year crowding the lot. A passerby pointed me toward the door with the name of a man who owned it all. I walked down a well worn, yet well hid, pathway to a white washed screen door which hardly served its purpose. I knocked and a voice answered to open the door. I peered into the darkness, lit only by sparse natural light, at an incredibly disheveled room that appeared to be an office, den, and storage space all in one. Directly in front of me, stretched out on a couch as if he had belly flopped right onto the length of it after carelessly letting the screen door flap closed behind him was Strange Jeremy #2. I asked if it was alright if I photographed the area, repeating the name Raleigh, as the woman outside had told me to, in hopes of gaining credibility. He said he was the son of Raleigh, who was in the kitchen, but that he probably wouldn't mind. I looked in the direction he motioned toward the kitchen, thinking that my slight frame may not be able to weasel through the clutter to it even if I did possess the guts to try. I thanked him and walked out of the cave like dwelling to begin photographing. A moment later he came to find me outside and it was only now that I actually could see him well enough to describe later. He asked if I was headed up the river, that he was looking to get to PBR. U.S. 19 follows the Nantahala River all the way through the Nantahala National forest from Murphy, NC to Bryson City, NC and he lived right in the middle of the mountainous gorge. I told him I was and that I knew of the place, a popular post-rafting trip eatery named Pizza By the River, and that he could have a ride. He went back in to fetch his guitar and I continued photoing as I thought of all the ways my offer could could go bad. When he came back out, he stood around for a moment waiting for me to finish up and we headed out. Once in my car, he profusely spouted praise to the "nice" and "new" car. My car is nice (in my middle-class opinion), but it is nearly ten years old. No where near new to those who live around the suburbs of Atlanta. I suppose when all the cars at your house are being eaten by vines or are sitting on cinder blocks, a ten year old car looks really great. In the several miles of the winding, two-laned highway that we drove, he said several statements that alluded to the idea that he lived nearly fully off of government aid. Things about "disability" and "collecting back pay". We talked about the state of America and I tread very lightly, knowing this is rural North Carolina and also remembering the "Save America! Vote Republican!" billboards that his father had erected, a liberal's warning sign to stay away. I mentioned the trail and wanting to be outside of it all and taking care of myself. He told me about friends who still don't have drainage systems in their houses. Eventually, we fell to travel and though country meant two different things to us (to me meaning: Mexico, France, Japan, etc. and to him meaning: mountains, coast, plains, etc.), it appears that we will both go to dire extremes to uproot ourselves and explore another land other than home. He had sold prized four-wheelers and dirt bikes, I had moved back home to save money and rearranged my college graduation to work better for the trail. It was all very fast and nerve-racking, to consent to a ride and give it and trust the best will come of it. But it was an incredible experience to speak briefly with a person who I will never see again, from a place I now see I know very little about and am actually very uneasy in, and realize that despite the two worlds we were raised in, simply put, we just both long to satiate the same feeling of wanderlust in our lives.