This happened during my second stab at the A.T., Day 34 to be precise. I like to describe the A.T. — well, any long walk really — as a “corridor of chance”, and this was probably my favourite chance encounter along any trail anywhere.
I’d had a frustrating couple of days trying to meet up with ‘Paparazzi’, a Trail friend from two years earlier and a Massachusetts native, without luck. He was hiking into the woods, leaving notes for me at shelters. The day before, I’d spent hours waiting at the wrong crossing near a monument to Shays’ Rebellion, then trudged interminably into the evening to a crowded shelter, a crappy tarp site and a miserable dinner.
Paparazzi and I got it right, eventually, but meanwhile…
I turned left [on MA 23] and stuck my thumb out; the third car pulled in and I was in a truck with a nice young guy heading into town. We talked about tent caterpillars and all the rich New Yorkers buying up the local real estate for weekenders and holiday homes…
He took me to a cool cafe in the back streets, bought me a coffee and I met another guy, a stocky bald guy in a black T-shirt, keen to talk about his recent 10-day trip along the A.T. in Maine… I talked history (Shays’ Rebellion) and nature with the second one and he soon offered to take me to the Trail… We talked mostly about the Trail, travelling light, animals; only later did I learn that he was an established and well-known artist called Walton Ford who had a studio in town… Well, it turned out to be one of the most inspirational mornings of my life… ~ Journal entry
I’ve already stocked up on Yukon Jack at the local “package store” (as liquor stores in this part of New England are known), and Great Barrington being a pretty, artsy, alternative, folksy kind of town, my food bags now bulge with quinoa, dried organic bananas, walnuts, humus, and vegan chocolate-chip cookies from the splendid whole-foods store. A welcome change from Snickers bars and Pop Tarts. But I’m short on one crucial type of fuel: methylated spirits, as we Australians call it, or denatured alcohol in American.
“I think I’ve got some in my studio,” Walton says. “Here’s an idea. I got nothing on this morning. Why don’t we stop in and get you some fuel, then I’ll take you on a drive, show you some of the Berkshires? I’ll drop you back at the Trail later.”
My luck, as so often happens on a long walk, has taken an abrupt switchback for the better.
Soon we were in his car, stopping at his amazing, cluttered, chaotic studio to find me some denatured alcohol among the papers, magazines, sketches, paintings, CDs, paints, and general joyous disarray of the place. While there his agent called and I admired his pictures of colourful, riotously extravagant animal portraits — birds, bison, wolves, lions — in a kind of updated classical style from the age of exploration and colonisation, with snatches of contemporary written accounts blended into the background, and little surreal or historical touches: buzzing flies, a burning building in the distance… ~ Journal entry
There’s this poster of the Stooges I’ve never seen on the wall; Walter plays some outtakes from Funhouse on a booming sound system while he searches for the fuel. “People think that record was all done in one long live take — this shows how much work and practice went into it.” I haven’t heard any pumping punk rock for weeks, and this is sweeter than a chorus of celestial angels.
Walter finds the fuel and we get into a little Japanese car cluttered with hiking gear and general debris. Soon he’s speeding us past fabulous old Berkshire farmhouses and beaver dams; we stop at a little hill town called Mill River where the locals each have their name on a coffee cup hanging behind the counter.
While we drive, the car twangs and drones with a Brian Jonestown Massacre CD. Walter’s moved here from New York City; as he points out landmarks he describes NYC encounters with mutual heroes such as Lou Reed, Thurston Moore, Richard Hell, Legs McNeil… “How old are you?” he asks. I tell him and he says, “Just a few years younger than me. We can understand this stuff innately. Three-chord guitar rock is the language of white middle-class guys like me.”
“Yup,” I agree, as we zip along ridges and through tunnels of leafy boughs. A world far removed from smoky garages and amplifiers and distorted guitars. A place for horses and hedges and hiking boots. But somehow a perfect fit. “Me too.”
Walter lets me out at the trailhead. He has work to do — and so do I. He digs out a card for one of his shows, signs it, and says he’d like to come to Australia sometime, “now that I can afford to travel”. We shake hands, and I thank him sincerely. A steep climb ensues, but I barely notice. That night I lie under my tarp on a wooden platform, swatting mosquitos, and writing:
Still high on the caffeine and the excitement, I hiked with my newly burgeoning pack up the hill, with the sun blazing joyfully down, and a song pumping in my head. I was freshly recommitted to living my life as I wanted to, to doing something artistic, to mixing art and nature and freedom and music and travel. Yes!
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote