City hikes

In Missoula, Montana, you can drive 20 minutes in any direction and arrive at a mountainside woven with dirt trails and pine trees; a tapestry that holds promises of mystery and exploration around every curved stitch. 

As a high schooler I spent hours walking through these mountains. I could watch the seasons go by through the changing landscape: The spring brought Cabbage White Butterflies disguised as snowflakes, flying through newly bloomed flowers that scattered across hillsides like flecks of paint on a canvas; The summer grew miles of huckleberry bushes and dense collections of Tufted Hairgrass that tickled my knees as I walked; The fall collected a cascade of pine needles that coated the earth in a warm blanket, as if to prepare the soil for the deep snows of winter.

 My favorite trail system was Pattee Canyon, partially because the foot traffic always stayed pretty close to the trailhead —so I never had to walk far before the silence of nature surrounded me— and partially because it felt like no matter which direction I went, eventually I would find somewhere I hadn’t walked before. 

When I dropped out of college from South Dakota this spring, right after my 21st birthday, I first thought about going back to Montana. I dropped out because I felt unbearably lost, and Montana was home, after all. Yet the thought of going back caused anxiety to swell around my throat. Despite knowing that I would be comfortable there, the small-town life also made me feel trapped. 

I was naive. Hardworking, optimistic, and sweet, but incredibly naive. I had my ass handed to me in college again, and again, and again. Then the pandemic came, and then I was in a horrific accident (see Break your broken bones – Brain Butterflies), and then my entire world crumbled. 

It felt impossible to try to move on while living in a town where every place reminded me of the person I thought I could be. Where everybody knew who I was. So Montana was out of the question. And there was no way I was staying in South Dakota. 

I decided I needed to get out of the Midwest. I couldn’t fly internationally because travel restrictions still barred Americans from going almost anywhere. Then I thought about where I could go in the United States… and I had always wanted to visit the East Coast. One of my best friends lived in Boston, and a combination of curiosity, impulsivity, and desperation led to me taking a plane across the country less than two weeks after choosing the city.  

I recognize that my experience so far has been an incredible privilege, especially in the middle of an international pandemic that has sent our country through a rigorous economic crisis. And although normally I could never have pulled off something this drastic on my own, I got lucky and had come in contact with a decent amount of money that I wasn’t forced to spend: I had just gotten my stimulus check, a refund from the rest of my empty semester at college, and I still had leftover money from my insurance that I didn’t spend on hospital bills. 

When I first arrived in Boston, city restrictions on businesses had just started relaxing and shops began opening up again. For the first month I lived here I only did part-time jobs and spent most of my time exploring. 

For a while, I could thrive in this exciting historical place. I could try various restaurants, meet new people, and travel anywhere on a whim. I visited all of the essential parts of Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, Bunker Hill, the Common. I wandered through the cobbled streets along the North and South End, spent late nights in Dorchester watching the deep blue, starless sky, and sat reading for hours in front of the Boston Public Library in Back Bay.  

One of the first facts I learned about Boston after arriving here was that in 1919 a molasses flood swept over the North End. Purity Distilling Company used the 2.3 million gallons of molasses stored in the steel drum to make ethanol, and of course, they ignored proper safety protocols. Whenever the drum leaked, they simply painted over the cracks with brown paint. Then on a cold winter’s day, the pressure of the mass and the fragility of its container caused a 25-foot tidal wave of boiling molasses to come crashing through the city. Although the concept of a molasses flood might sound humorous (or even delicious), the accident was a terrible tragedy that killed 21 and injured 150. A Boston Post article described the incident:

Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was …. Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. 

There’s a rumor that when you walk around the North End on a hot summer day, you can still smell the sickly sweet molasses that once terrorized the city. 

As time went on I decided I wanted to take the next step and settle down here. Which meant I had to find a job. Which meant I’d have to exist, for the first time in my short life, as a fully independent adult. No sort of structure enforced by the school nor easy meals at the cafeteria nor quick walks to the post office. Everything became a part of my day I had to plan for. I thought this was what I desired. I thought I wanted complete independence. But I didn’t realize how depressed I had become until I began fully living on my own. And now I was alone, thousands of miles away from my family and friends. 

 As the weeks kept slipping by, I stopped exploring. I settled into a routine, going outside only to go to work and then to immediately come home at the end of my shift. The newness of the city began to fade, and I crept further and further into a state of numbness.

Soon every single day, every single second, felt like a chore. How could I go do the things that I wanted to do like work, cook, clean, or explore? And even on a more minute scale, how could I eat, drink, bathe or brush my teeth, when even breathing felt exhausting?

I tried to keep up my positive persona, forcing myself to be productive by a sheer force of will, but it continually became overwhelming. One day I’d be smiling and laughing with friends and the next day I’d be adhered to my bed with a hopeless glue. 

I kept thinking about the Molasses Flood and the sticky river that swept dozens up in its unrelenting torrent towards the Boston Harbor. I kept thinking about the line from the article, “the more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.” 

I began to see myself as one of the victims of the tragedy, watching helplessly as molasses covered my body.  I was living in slow motion, trapped by the exhausted whirrings of my own mind.

After I realized I felt like this my instinct was to move away again. To go to another city, to become part of a different community. But I was so tired of moving, and I knew in my heart that I wasn’t fast; Running from place to place to place, it would only be a matter of time before my depression caught up with me. 

So I braced myself and stayed, letting the syrupy wave finally roll over me. 

I was scared at first. Suffocated by coagulated nihilistic and self-destructive thoughts that had built up since I started college, I ended up having a complete mental breakdown at work, and quit my job soon after. Without my job, I stopped having a reason to eat and a reason to socialize. 

Thankfully, I have been going to therapy since I arrived in Boston, and my therapist has helped me learn how to cope by going back to the very basics. By appreciating the smallest of details and celebrating the tiniest of goals. She also helped me get started on two new types of medications, one for my depression and the other for my ADHD. 

Because of my therapist, my ever-supportive friends and family, and my optimistic fire that can’t seem to die, I’ve started pulling myself out of the molasses. I created a new daily routine that I (mostly) can complete. I finally can begin to move on from the painful memories, with freshly gained self-assurance and confidence that I never knew I could have. 

I’ve also started hiking again. 

I weave through the forest of brick, following the endlessly winding roads —roads that once carried carriages—  for hours on end. Each building is as old and towering as the Ponderosa Pines. At least once a week, I leave my phone at the house and just start walking. No matter which direction I go, eventually I find somewhere I haven’t walked before. A playground high on a hillside that makes the nighttime skyscrapers look like they’re glowing, a corner barbershop filled with loud happy customers, a colorful mural halfway hidden behind an abandoned warehouse, a neighborhood cat who lovingly rolls onto its belly.

The puzzle I’m piecing together feels intimate, slowly and intentionally built from my wondering, wandering miles. 

Although by now I’ve visited all of the essential parts of Boston, walked through the MFA half a dozen times, and eaten my heart out with freshly baked cannolis, I have finally found a way to experience the city that grows and shifts with the changing seasons. My new home. 

Molasses Flood:

  1. The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 – New England Historical Society
  2.  Dark tide : the great Boston molasses flood of 1919 : Puleo, Stephen : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Break your broken bones

I don’t like talking about the accident.

I’m totally comfortable explaining the changes my scar tissue goes through naturally; Scar tissue constantly adjusts itself, a perpetually healing organ that grows and shrinks as necessary. I don’t know how to stitch somebody up or do CPR, but I do have in-depth knowledge about what to do if someone gets a third degree burn that I could go over, in explicit detail, for hours.

I have a mantra in my head, a canned speech for whenever anybody asks me what happened to my arm, so conversations usually go something like this:

“If you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your arm?”

“Well, last July, I was hit by a car and dragged for a block.”

“Oh my gosh I’m so sorry! What an awful thing to have to go through. And during the pandemic!”

Then we talk about the pandemic, or piercings, or the weather. Sometimes I’ll share a little more: “I also had road rash covering my entire back, severe liver lacerations, a concussion, a swollen knee and large wound on my shin, but those all finished healing around October.” “I continue to put sunscreen on my arm regularly, otherwise I could permanently mess up the coloration and texture of the scar tissue.” “After the burn healed it itched really really bad, but it doesn’t itch as much anymore.” “I don’t use my skin sleeve as much as I used to. It’s mostly to prevent the scar tissue from getting really thick in some areas and thin in others.”

If we get to this point in the conversation I usually try to make some cheesy joke, something like: “I affectionately like to call this the most painful and expensive tattoo I’ve ever gotten”, to gently push the topic of conversation away before curiosity turns into prying.

It’s not that I mind people asking about my arm; It feels like a recognition that all of our bodies aren’t the same and haven’t had to go through the same experiences in life. But I try to change the subject quickly because the questions people ask can lead to doors that I don’t want to open again.

It took seven months: four major and three minor infections, a skin graft, six days in ICU, various trips to the ER (when things got really bad), and an innumerable amount of trips to the regular hospital before my arm healed.

During this time, my doctor/plastic surgeon knew more about my personal life than almost any of my friends did. I hid away, only coming out to see people when I felt as good as I possibly could. Like most people, I hated seeing my loved ones watch me suffer. But this caused a rift in my reality; At college, I would laugh and joke, I would interview people for my jobs and spend nights watching movies with my friends. But at home with my grandmother, I would sob hysterically, the pain breaking me down month after month into my most vulnerable form. Even now, when I’m consciously sitting down to write a story about this, it’s becoming harder and harder to write, like my brain is covered in molasses.

Which is why on the year anniversary of the accident (July 15, 2021), I decided to make a trip to Salem, MA, with one of my friends. To clear my head that seemed to be filled with molasses-coated memories.

I had never been to Salem, and was surprised at how comforting it felt being there. My friend joked about the “mystical energy” there, because she said Salem draws out the energy of people who have magic in them.

I don’t know what I actually believe spiritually, but I do know that coming to Salem did feel right. And walking around the small town, full of old buildings turned into various monster museums, tattoo parlors, and knickknack shops, I was able to successfully distract myself from the painful memories of last year.

However, one thing I knew I wanted to do in Salem was get a tarot reading. To ask about healing.

I’ve never used tarot before, and I felt nervous walking into the small curtained back section of a small witch shop. But I felt a deep calm settling into my body as I took a seat across from a big blonde psychic. I am safe here.

They began by asking me what I wanted to focus on. I said, “Healing.” I paused, then added, “but not really physical healing anymore. More emotional healing.” The psychic nodded, and then gestured to my arm and said, “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened here?”

Canned answer, usual response.

Then they began the reading, explaining that they read tarot more intuitively, letting the spirits guide them more than the cards literal meaning. But of course, one of the first cards turned over was the Tower—16th card of the Major Arcana, basically symbolizing the moment when everything in your life falls apart. It’s something happening completely out of your control but usually results from a continual unwillingness to change something necessary in your life.

They laughed, almost incredulously. “Wow. This hurt you. This hurt you really bad.” These simple words, just an acknowledgment that this was a difficult journey, nearly brought me to tears. But I held back and nodded.

“This changed you in many ways.” Flip, flip, flip. Pause. “But, this horrible, terrible event… It flipped a switch in you, did it not?”

I sat back, a little flabbergasted. I had never thought of it like that. “Yeah, I suppose it did,” I said.

Flip, flip.

“Every time something bad happened in your life before this, you continued on like nothing happened. You hadn’t let yourself heal properly.”

“Wow… yeah, you hit the nail on the head,” I said.

“You know how if you break a bone and it hasn’t been set right it won’t heal properly, so doctors have to break it again in order to reset it? That’s what happened to you.”

They flipped over the final cards and sat looking at the spread. We chatted a little bit longer, I told them some more details of my experience, and then they ended the reading by saying, “You’ve grown so much since this tragedy happened to you. But you need to continue to allow yourself to feel the emotions you’ve been hiding away. Don’t let yourself push past the things that have hurt you. You’ve already done the hardest part. It may seem like you’re taking two steps back sometimes, but don’t lose hope. You’re heading in the right direction.”

I thanked them for their time, walked out of the tarot reading, and started wandering between the gravestones on the other side of the street. I could have been one of those gravestones.

I didn’t think about what the tarot reader said much in the moment, but afterward, I mulled it over for a long time. I thought about the accident. I thought about the pain. And I thought about how I’d changed over the last year. Mentally, I did feel stronger. I do feel stronger. I am much better at communicating with the people I love, putting up boundaries, and knowing when to give myself a break. But, most importantly, somewhere inside all of that pain and suffering, I began to learn self-love too. Something I hadn’t known for so many years.