In my culture, women of status used to have their feet bound so that they could hobble around daintily their whole lives. Fortunately, my father had left China during the Communist Revolution and I grew up in America in the '70s and '80s.
In the summer of 2001, I had the opportunity to hike 600 miles of the Appalachian Trail, commonly known as the AT. I saw few women and few Chinese Americans on the trail, but a number of hikers did have bound feet, thanks to moleskin and duct tape.
There's a strange freedom in backpacking. Waking up to a misty morning after heavy rains the night before. Firing up the stove for that belly warming bowl of oatmeal. Taking the first ginger steps on feet that sloshed through miles of mud and stomped on mossy rocks the day before.
People who hike any or all of the AT's 2,168 miles do it for a myriad of reasons, but implicit is a sense of freedom. It's a chance to get out of one's own skin and gray matter for a while. On the fourth day out, I'd just gotten water from a larva-infested pond when the skies opened and immediately turned the trail into a running creek. I was plodding steadily uphill when I passed a man in his early 20s going in the opposite direction. Two minutes later, he came up behind me and said, "Mind if I join you?"
I said nothing; my main concern was moving through the rain. "What brings you out here?" I asked a little while later. Turned out Rob had been subsisting on Pringles and beef jerky for the last few days. He had no tent, sleeping bag, or any backpacking gear to speak of.
"I'm here to find myself," the man replied. Rob had grown up in a rough neighborhood and seen a lot. Naturally, there was some wariness on my part with this disenchanted young man. Being alone in the woods felt safer than hiking with a stranger with an unknown agenda.
We parted company around 5:30 p.m. Or so I thought.
A while later, I passed by his campsite, and made camp myself in a lovely little clearing. Late in the evening, as I was studying the maps by flashlight, Rob appeared from behind my perch on the log. "I've been 50 yards away for the last few hours, behind those bushes," he said with a smile.
At that point, I asked what had been in the back of my mind for a while, "OK, straight up, are you a chivalrous AT hiker, or are you one of those guys my momma always warned me about?" "A little bit of both," Rob replied earnestly.
A small alarm went off inside, but I realized that he was trying to get away from his old life, just as I was getting away from mine. And if I treated him like a kid brother, things would be fine. In the morning, Rob ate a few Pringles and headed south. I continued going north and never saw him again, but I kept looking back that day.
In the following eight weeks, I met more interesting characters on and off trail. But the surprise encounters occurred in the natural world, a shifting landscape of textures, colors and smells. Flaming azaleas spilled out their long branches ablaze with orange, red and yellow flowers.
I saw garter snakes, 4-foot-long black snakes, and a copperhead. Looking at the rich African tapestries on the shells of box turtles, I felt a sense of kinship with wild things that seemed both exotic and familiar.
Before my trip, I felt some concern about how I would be treated as a youthful looking Asian American woman. Yet I encountered much Southern hospitality on the AT and in the towns I passed through. People lent a helping hand without being asked. Strangers smiled and made eye contact, a welcome change from the anonymity of big cities.
I encountered many incidents of trail magic, where people seemed to show up at the right place and time on lonely stretches to help me out, with a finger to guide me past confusing trail markers, a quart of fresh water when springs ran dry.
My backpacking trip ended that summer in Pearisburg, Va., after 600 miles of forests and mountains punctuated with towns and tarmac every few days. On Aug. 15th, I passed through Washington, D.C., to fly home. Forty-five minutes in town seemed to sweep me farther away from the solitude and freedom of the mountains. I walked to the Capitol, which was oddly quiet and austere, apart from the throngs of business folks and tourists.
On the steps of the Capitol was a plastic, life-sized statue of Christ, surrounded by various religious icons. "Santa Maria -- Maria!" blared from the tiny speakers of a portable stereo. It was a month before September 11th, and even a Muslim would have been able to display his faith on those steps without harrassment.
I hailed a taxi, driven by an Ethiopian who had his opinions about Ethiopian and Chinese women. "They make good wives," he said. "They are more docile than American women." True, perhaps, but I had put my relationship with my future husband in jeopardy to do this crazy long-distance hike.
Back home in the Bay Area, my experience on the Appalachian Trail has helped me feel this sense of freedom and trust that comes from within. Lurking strangers, wild animals, foreign terrorists, urban jungles -- sure, there are a lot of things we can be afraid of. But the experience of freedom is a personal choice, available to us in the most difficult of circumstances. Sometimes you have to walk through the eye of the storm, across streams and boulder fields to find it.