ASPEN MATIS: Found Love After 2,650 Miles

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When I told my lawyer parents in Boston that I was leaving college to walk 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada-alone, no less-they thought I was nuts. I didn't tell them I was quitting school; instead, I called it a leave of absence. I flew to Los Angeles with a big backpack filled with trail mix, granola bars, chocolate, cheese and a tent. My father met me there and drove me down to Campo at the Tijuana-California border. He left me at the fence, dust puffing from his tires like drab clouds. There was a border monument marking the southern terminus of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail-a trail that fades in the mist and lush of northern Washington then ends in Canada. I would walk the length of the country. I walked north from the Mexican border fence; the trail was well marked with rusty signs and scattered with lazy rattlesnakes baking in the sun's warmth. I was eating a green apple, I remember, when I nearly stepped on the first one. I shrieked and ran south a hundred yards. I bit my apple, breathed, ate that apple-my last piece of fresh food; everything else was processed or salted or junk. I was fine. I walked back north, stepped over the snake, kept walking, stepped over another and another. Within a few hours, I had met a dozen hikers, all attempting the same trans-country journey on foot. They seemed kind-young men, retired couples, a 30-year-old woman with big curly hair and good teeth; the curly lady smiled at me. I was curt. On my second day on the trail, I met a 20-year-old man-a former professional mountain bike racer from Switzerland. We hiked together for 700 miles and five weeks and then let the miles between us grow. He hiked faster than I did. I didn't love him. I made friends-a twentysomething girl with a ukulele and an angelic voice and face and a photographer with a master's in psychology he had never used and didn't want to. And packs of fit, hungry hikers, happy to hear my stories. Happy to know me. In Bend, Ore., 1,970 miles north of that border monument dull with Campo dust and 1,500 miles from spiny pastel plants and rattlesnake teeth and venom and sadness, I met Justin. We were in town-the verdant, river-cut trail town of Bend-and we knew a handful of the same hikers. A big group of us went to dinner at the Deshutes Brewery. Justin sat next to me, close. He smiled a lot. I smiled-tried not to but couldn't help it. Under the table, his knee brushed mine. I lifted my hot hand, moved it slowly through the space between us like a teenaged boy would when trying to float unnoticed to second base; I pressed my trembling palm against Justin's sweating beer, squeezed the glass. Lifted and carried it through the air to my mouth. Took a sip. I was 19. Justin knew. He was amused, contorted his face like he disapproved-but I knew he didn't. I was pulsing, invigorated. So fit from the miles and miles, unarmed and no longer unhappy. I felt an illogical desire for Justin-my body, high on attraction and quivering, betrayed my mind. We walked, together, 600 miles into Canada. I remember our first day hiking together. Rain had poured down in sheets, smacking the soil, tearing up the trail. Earth washed away; roots loosened, left soaked and exposed. Lubricated with water, everything shone in the gray light. Justin and I shouted over the downpour, shared childhood stories and our ambitions as we walked. We were saturated with rain to the bone, both of us, but I was giddy and on the verge of laughter. My walk with Justin ended in the mist-dense Cascade Mountains on a garden stage at the end of a lily-lined aisle. Storm clouds, gray, navy and low, illuminated the flowers, the fine clothing, the glassware in soft, important light. The mist was backlit by sunlight, bathing the Cascade foothills in silver. Justin and I read our vows and grinned and cried on a stone stage over the Cascade Mountain garden, lightning flashing like a camera. Camera flashes would have been invisible under that sky. My parents were there in the garden, happy and warm and not too nervous.

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