This essay is part of a larger series of creative, non-fiction pieces which Katrina Peterson wrote as part of her Harvard Divinity School thesis exploring the relationship between humans, nature, and well-being. 

My mother and I sat on the patio of a restaurant, glasses of water, folded napkins, cutlery,and a topographic map between us. Thin black lines marking elevation change curled and curved upon the page, green shading distinguishing forested from unforested areas. I folded back unnecessary leaves of the map to display my intended backpack: a circumambulation of Mt. St. Helens. As I traced the 25-mile circle of the Loowit Trail, pointing to potential campsites, anticipated water sources, and connector trails, my voice bubbled with excitement and nerves. I’d planned a trip that would be my culminating backpack: a four day solo trek affirming all that I’d learned on my yearlong leave of absence from graduate school. An absence guided by two intentions: to be outdoors and in my body. While four days was a generous amount of time for a 30-mile route, I wanted to give myself extra space and time. I was unfamiliar with the terrain, untested in my capacities as a solo-backpacker, and most importantly, wanted to enjoy myself along the way. I was craving solitude and immersion in my beloved woods of the Pacific Northwest. It was August. Come September, I’d be back in the concrete wilds of Boston, navigating the intellectual labor of graduate work.

Mt. St. HelensMt. St. Helens

My mother listened silently, her posture upright, dark eyes opaque and flint-like. She didn’t like me going out on my own, and she told me so. Her voice wass brittle and her hands gestured, alternating between the map and me. The rings on her fingers caught the sun, and the brown skin of her hands was chapped and roughened from decades of hand washing as an Emergency Room nurse. I had hoped that my detailed plans, demonstrated facility with the topographic map, and emergency plans for what to do should I not appear at the appointed day and time might convince her of my outdoor competence and allay her anxiety. But her anxiety isn’t about my competence; it is about all that could possibly go wrong. The consequences of which were compounded if I was alone. Her fear fed by years of cleaning, bandaging, and monitoring bloody bodies met with the wrong side of chance, she cared little for my anticipation and excitement.

Our food arrived, and I hurried to fold the map and put it away. Plates of sandwiches and salads set before us, we ate in silence. Don’t go, Katrina. Don’t go. My mother’s request bore down on me, weighted with innumerable voices of discouragement and concern. Strangers would express astonishment and disbelief that I’d go backpacking, much less on my own. Loved ones would tell me that it was too dangerous, that I could get hurt. “Aren’t you afraid?” Against this pressure rose the voice of my current supervisor, an avid backpacker who encouraged me to go out on my own. Over the past year, I’d been taught by people who made their living traversing the backcountry. It was the non-issue of solo-backpacking amongst my outdoor friends that stood in such sharp contrast to the fear of my community. An “of course you should go!” sort of attitude, the absence of fear born from familiarity and comfort in the outdoors. I wondered if I’d face the same pressure if I was born male instead of female, and the thought angered me. I didn’t want my life to be determined by fear: fear of what might happen or could be. I didn’t want my sex to restrict my choices. And yet, it was hard to resist my mother’s insidious fear, a fear rooted in love and concern for my safety.

Loved ones would tell me that it was too dangerous, that I could get hurt. “Aren’t you afraid?” Against this pressure rose the voice of my current supervisor, an avid backpacker who encouraged me to go out on my own.


The next day, my father drove me to the mountain. We parked at Climbers Bivouac and hiked up Ptarmigan Trail, slowly, my father’s knees bothering him. The trail climbed smoothly through shaded Douglas fir forest, thinning to reveal enormous fields of volcanic rock on our left. We stopped to take a photo. In the picture, I’m standing in the shadow of an enormous boulder, hiking poles planted in front of me. All I can see of myself is a dark brown face smiling beneath the shadow of a faded green ball cap, backpack riding my shoulders, sky blue hoodie shining in the light. At the junction with the Loowit Trail, my father walked me to the edge of the forest and into the rock field. We followed the outline of the trail between bushes and tenacious grasses until the footing became too treacherous for him, slabs of rock shifting and threatening to trip or twist the ankle of an unwary hiker. We paused. Ahead, rock stretched for as far as I could see, the monopoly broken only by wooden posts piercing the sky, trail markers in an otherwise desolate scene. St. Helens’ peak rose to my right. After a final admonition to stay safe, we said our goodbyes and I set off,hiking poles ringing against the stone, feet searching for stable placement. Even if they wanted to, I realized that my parents wouldn’t be able to follow where I was going. They didn’t have the skills, nor the physical strength. I was on my own.

I had moved to Boston three years prior. I’d moved to date a man, an unprecedented decision in my life. We’d connected during our last month of college and had fallen in love over months of long-distance letter writing while pursuing separate commitments and jobs. After months of conversation and a couple of cross-country flights for in-person visits, we agreed to move to Boston. In my heart, it felt like the right decision: if I didn’t give our relationship a try, I would regret not knowing what might have become of us, together.

Almost a year later, I submitted an application to Harvard Divinity School. I was frustrated, professionally, and hoped that I could turn the anticipated years of dating in Boston to better use by going to graduate school. But the relationship ended after a draining and heart-breaking series of months, and soon thereafter, I was admitted to Harvard. I accepted the invitation to enroll, and began the first of three years of graduate work with high hopes for a fresh start. Instead, it was a tumultuous one, and while I persisted academically, I floundered emotionally. I was beginning to set boundaries—a serious endeavor for a woman taught to consider the needs of others before her own. Exhausted by the relationship I’d left, rundown by a mess of romantic entanglements, and unable to muster the reserves to build new community, my life flattened beneath the weight of graduate work. I felt empty, lost. I wondered how I’d arrived there. I looked over the map of my past two years in Boston and wondered at the mystery of each turn. How love had led me to Boston, professional dissatisfaction to graduate school, hope to enrollment, exhaustion to numbness—as if the map of my life could be reduced and traced so easily. I wondered how no one junction was culpable for the hollow and grinding existence I found myself living, but when taken together formed a mass of a life I didn’t want to be living. I wondered how a decision made from the intuition of my heart could have led me down such confusing, deadening pathways.

I met with an advisor mid-way through my spring semester. He asked if I’d thought about taking a leave of absence: a yearlong break, with the option to return, or not. In the silence after the question, I burst into tears, rendered speechless by the taboo of such a possibility. I’d been raised in a family where leaving school was anathema. Yet a separate part of me observed my reaction, and was curious. As I left my advisor’s office, I held the question quietly and closely, turning it over within me. What would I do if I left? Where would I go? A tendril of hope curled about me. 

Toward the end of the semester, I made quiet moves to leave. I met with deans and academic advisors, spoke with financial aid officers, and made arrangements with my roommates. I remember the day I called my parents. I sat on the granite retaining wall in front of the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library, ear-buds in and cell phone in hand. I told them of my intention to leave, that I was unhappy and needed a break. Stony silence filled the line, and then they began to question me. Why couldn’t I stay and tough it out? What did I plan to do, anyway? You can’t just leave school. You’re at Harvard. You need to finish what you start. You need to get your degree. It will open doors, you know. Voices laced with disapproval and disappointment, they warned that I was making a grave mistake. I listened and after we hung up, reflected that the interaction had gone relatively well. Unlike prior conversations, I hadn’t fought to change their opinions, I hadn’t begged for their approval. I’d known they wouldn’t approve of my decision and I’d made it anyway. I no longer needed them to be okay with what I did; I needed to be okay with what I did.

I hiked in and out of boulder fields the entire day, wide-open expanses broken by occasional swaths of pine and scrub. More comfortable navigating the evergreen forests of my childhood, where the trail was the tunnel amidst the trees, the exposure and emptiness of the boulder fields unnerved me. They spilled down St. Helens’ southwestern flank, bare of vegetation, as if stripped of flesh and skin to reveal the gray bones of the mountain below. From a distance, the rock undulated in descending ridges, shaped by the erosion of weather, time, and gravity. Up close, the rock was of all shapes and sizes, jutting in harsh, angled planes of unknown stability. I stepped carefully, wary of the unsteady formations and uncertain in my footing, pausing often to search for the route. I scanned for shafts of tall, pale yellow wood or the harder to spot cairns, symmetrical cones of rock some 6 feet tall. At times, I followed small cairns two or three rocks tall, the topmost one pointing the way forward. I sang as I walked, wordless made-up tunes to soothe my humming nerves.

Along a particularly steep section of trail, my gaze caught upon my thighs. I was dressed in grey synthetic pants, stained and holey from the fly-away campfire embers of prior adventures. My back was soaked and my upper lip salty, breath coming in rapid, openmouthed inhalations and exhalations. I noticed the mechanical intelligence of my legs: the 90° flex of my knee, the intuitive search and set of my foot, the stability of my slim ankle as it bore more than 150lbs of weight, the burn of my thigh as I stepped up, knee extending, weight shifting, to repeat on the other side. Again. Again. And again. I marveled at the endurance of my body, at its strength. I marveled at the striving and labor of hauling myself and all that I needed to survive, up and over and down the flanks of the mountain. At the aching in my thighs, the bellows of my chest, the moisture beading down my back, the heavy, comforting wrap of my backpack about my hipbones. It seemed like a wonder.

Photo by Benjamin Hollis, FlickrPhoto by Benjamin Hollis, Flickr

Late that afternoon, I got lost down a drainage. I was walking through a swath of new growth pine, the ground beneath my feet dusty and dry, when stripes of bright pink tape appeared about tree limbs. The Loowit Trail was being rerouted. I followed the bows of pink down a slim footpath, trees thinning and eventually opening to parallel an enormous drainage. Descending from the peak of the mountain, the drainage was 30 feet across and 40 feet deep, sides sheer and crumbling. Bites of rock protruded from otherwise smooth, dusty-looking walls. Boulders littered a floor devoid of vegetation. Gazing up the drainage, I imagined winter snow-melt roiling between the walls in a muddy froth, reshaping the land on its watery descent to the ocean. I began to appreciate the malleability of the earth. I’d always thought of landscapes as slow changing, erosion and formation so incremental as to be invisible to the human eye. Yet here was an ecosystem some 35 years old, landscape pummeled by a volcanic eruption in 1980. New and raw, with earth exposed and vegetation struggling to take root, the landscape changed with the changing of the seasons. As a result, the trails changed too.

The pink tape led to a crossing. Marked by a cairn, the drainage was narrower and smaller here, trail descending in a steep slide of rock. Once in the drainage, I couldn’t find my way out. The walls rose steeply in loose formations of compressed rock, scree, and sand. I couldn’t spot a trace of pink above me, and after wandering down the drainage, returned to my place of descent. The sun disappeared behind the walls. I became acutely aware of the time and evening’s imminent approach. Backpack on, I attempted a more moderate section of wall. A couple of feet up jutting pieces of rock became footholds and handholds, the earth rising in a vertical ascent more reminiscent of rock climbing than hiking. Twice, the wall crumbled and I fell in a tumble of earth and scree. When I finally made it to the top, I belly-flopped over the edge, nose an inch from the earth, slithering forward on forearms and belly, terrified that the ground might still give way beneath me. I sat up only once I’d reached the shelter of young pines, several feet from the edge. Heart racing, mind filled with images of broken limbs, rockfall, and unconscious bodies, my mother’s words rang in my ears. I looked about me. The trail was nowhere in sight.

Panic pulsing through me, I followed footprints downslope, brush thickening, until I came across a rocky outcrop. Perched with a view, I pulled out my map, estimated my location and guessed that the trail was upslope, not down. I retraced my steps, following the drainage past my point of ascent. Several dozen feet upslope, I spotted a pink-ribboned rock cairn: the drainage crossing I couldn’t find earlier. Continuing, I spotted a smooth path running into the forest. I’d found the trail.

I sank to the ground. Hands trembling, I opened my water bottle and took a sip. I forced myself to eat, taking several bites of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The food felt dry and suffocating in my mouth. Adrenaline beat through me, fear looming beneath. I could barely think. My mother’s warnings blared in my mind. I tried to breathe and clear my thoughts. Consider my options. I wondered if I should go back, return the way I’d come and spend the remainder of my trip at Climbers Bivouac, tent pitched in the parking lot. I wondered if I was in over my head. I knew the terrain I’d traversed and the prospect of recrossing the drainage felt monumental. I didn’t know what lay ahead.

I decided to go on.

That night, I pitched my tent above South Fork Toutle River. The wind whistled down the mountain slopes, whipping the tops of the young evergreens within which I camped. The black sky glittered with stars, but it was a cold, hard sparkle. I’d seen no one else the entire day. Anxiety ate at my stomach as I thought about the mileage I had to cover the following day. I was positioned to cross the Blast Zone, a 10-mile stretch of rock and earth flattened by the eruption of 1980. Camping was prohibited within the area given its sensitive status, and I didn’t know what to expect. More of what I’d just traversed that day? I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag and journaled by the light of my headlamp, reviewing the incident at the drainage. I noted my assumption that the trail would continue downslope, not upslope. I noted the rush of panic that propelled me to climb the wall without properly scouting both down and up the drainage. I noted my successful use of the topographic map. I asked myself what I’d learned. In response, I wrote: “Stop. Breathe. Drink some water. Sit down and eat a bite. The rest will help you recuperate and give you a moment to analyze the situation.” Ahh, the wisdom of taking a deep breath in the face of panic.

Ahh, the wisdom of taking a deep breath in the face of panic.

When planning my leave of absence, I decided to enroll in a NOLS course: a four-week backpacking and sea kayaking outdoor educator course in the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound of southcentral Alaska. I worried I was nuts. 

NOLS is an abbreviation for National Outdoor Leadership School. For years, I’d fantasized about completing a NOLS course. Friends would return from comparable courses with an air of adventure and a posture of confidence that I envied. Imagine being able to set up a tent on my own! Would I be able to carry that backpack? What did they do when it rained? Didn’t they get scared, out there, in the middle of nowhere?

I’d grown up on a steady diet of fantasy novels featuring sword-wielding, horse-riding female leads. Some part of me fancied that in an alternate universe, I too was a kick-ass heroine on an epic adventure. Years later, it occurred to me that my love for the genre might derive from its consistent portrayal of strong women: women who were tough—physically, emotionally, and mentally—women who fought for what they believed in, made a positive impact on their world, and occupied positions of power. They were the sort of women I aspired to be: resilient, strong, and kind. They were also women who spoke their mind, and this was something I struggled to do. The NOLS course appealed to the adventurous streak in me. It promised the skills to live in wilderness terrain. It promised self-sufficiency. In short, it was my literary adventure made real.

Yet this vision clashed with my lived experience. I’d been backpacking before, and I hadn’t even liked it. My freshman year of college, I’d completed a multi-night, pre-orientation backpack in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My memories were of endless rock steps, slanting rain, and immense discomfort: everything hurt everywhere, I could never catch my breath, and my backpack felt like a ton of bricks. At the time, I appreciated the opportunity to bond with other incoming freshmen, but in all honesty could have done without the backpacking part of it.

I questioned the hunch that had nudged me outside for my year-long leave of absence. The murmur in my gut that told me I needed to get outdoors, sweat, breathe, and be in my body. I didn’t know where it came from. It was quiet, and easy to ignore. Almost a decade had passed since I last spent significant time outside, and all of my memories were of playing in my backyard woods. I didn’t think of myself as particularly outdoorsy. My mother preferred hotels to campsites, and while my father and I would occasionally go hiking, it was just that: occasional. I’d gone backpacking, and clearly didn’t need to repeat the experience. Why the pull to the woods? I suspected my intuition of fantasy.

I finished my spring semester, sublet my room in Cambridge, and that August, found myself in the midst of the Chugach Mountains, exhausted and frustrated. I was attempting to set up a tent. We had stopped for the day. Most of my peers were off summiting a nearby peak while I stayed behind to rest. My period had started and I wanted to practice my tent set-up skills. What I hadn’t anticipated was the wind or the rocky terrain. 

Wooden posts along Loowit Trail, Photo by Blair PetersonWooden posts along Loowit Trail, Photo by Blair Peterson

Now under normal, or perhaps ideal, conditions, we’d unfurl the tent fly and body, lay the one on top of the other in a square on the ground, stake the four corners, and extend the center pole to elevate the tent. The resulting pyramid of fabric resembled a blue and grey striped circus tent. But that day, as I unpacked the body and fly, the fabric spun and flapped in the wind, threatening to fly from my hands. I battled the tent to the ground, anchored the corners with rocks, and grabbed a metal stake to pin the edge. To my dismay, the ground was made of small stones and shale, rock too loose to hold the bite of a stake against the tension of the tent. I went in search of large, heavy rocks. Working meticulously, I drove in stakes, tied trucker’s hitches, and pulled up slack, weighting stakes with rock. All four corners pinned, I extended the center pole, unzipped the tent body, and reached in, hooking the peak and planting the pole. I stepped out to examine my handiwork. The tent held for a couple of moments, wind buffeting its sides. Then an anchor slipped and a corner folded, the tent collapsing before me. The heavy wind had overstressed my anchors. So I tried again. And again. I gathered more rocks. I repositioned anchors. I adjusted slack. But the tent continued to fold. I grew more and more frustrated, close to tears. I was on a backpacking course. One of the most rudimental skills of which was to set up a tent. And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make our shelter stand. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. I wondered if my peers hiking the peak could see me struggling.

I worked for close to an hour before I asked a friend for help. Another thirty minutes later, we got the tent to stand and stay standing. I thanked her for her help. That night, I silently resolved to master the skill of tent set-up. 

The remainder of the week, I set up my group’s tent. Upon arriving at our campsite, after hours of hiking and lessons, I’d pull out our tent and get to work. Occasionally, one of my tent mates would help me find rocks or pin the corners, but otherwise, I worked alone. I wanted to master this basic skill for myself. What if I was ever out on my own? Without shelter, you could die outdoors in a worst-case scenario. 

Our second to last night, a fierce windstorm blew up in the night. I woke to the sound of shrieking, everything dark about me. A neighboring tent had collapsed upon its inhabitants. Our own tent flailed against its anchors. Walls strained taut, clapping loudly under the vacillating pressure. Any part of the floor not pinned by a body or a backpack billowed upward. The center pole shook and I wondered if our tent would hold. Eventually, I fell into a light sleep, resigned to whatever would happen. The following morning I learned that everyone’s tents, including our instructors’, had fallen in the night. Ours had not.

My NOLS course was exhausting and exhilarating. Our task was simple: to get from Point A to Point B. On the backpack, the space between Point A and Point B was a mountain range. On the sea kayak, Point A was Valdez and Point B was Whittier, the Pacific Ocean stretching between them. Was everyone safe? Did we have food, water, and shelter? How was morale? These were the fundamental questions that grounded our lives, daily salient. We wore bear spray on our chests and traveled in groups of four, shouting “BEAR!” to avoid grizzly encounters while negotiating thick brush. We learned to wet-exit and then reenter kayaks in case we flipped in the middle of the ocean. We broke the distance between Point A and Point B into small sections, and daily, we inched our way across topographic and oceanic maps.

I endured, and then I learned to thrive. I learned how to set up a tent. I learned how to stay dry in the rain, and when I could no longer stay dry, I learned how to stay warm. I learned how to cook cinnamon rolls on a camp stove. I learned how to put one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, long past when I thought I could keep going. And I learned how to do it while cracking a joke and raising my voice in song. I learned how to do it with a smile on my face. Moments of unexpected beauty astounded me. A sunbreak, after three straight days of rain. Wet clothing and gear laid out like a laundresses’ operation, steaming in the sun. Sea lion backs breaking the water’s surface by our kayaks, sleek mammoth bodies frightening and awesome up close. Some days, I was so exhausted my legs would shake and my hands would tremble as I lit the stove. I’d sleep like a rock, muscles aching. My feet blistered as we hiked, my hands as we kayaked. My days stripped of distraction, there was only the present moment to focus on. Though exhausted and pushed to the edge of my comfort zone, I felt alive, vital. It was a presence I treasured.

I endured, and then I learned to thrive. I learned how to set up a tent. I learned how to stay dry in the rain, and when I could no longer stay dry, I learned how to stay warm. I learned how to cook cinnamon rolls on a camp stove. I learned how to put one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, long past when I thought I could keep going. And I learned how to do it while cracking a joke and raising my voice in song. I learned how to do it with a smile on my face.

The day I crossed the Blast Zone was breath-takingly awesome. St. Helens’ might was evident in every step I took. The 1980 eruption had blasted the forests along the northern flank clear away, revealing magnificent views of the surrounding new-born landscape. White skeletons of tree trunks lay perpendicular to the dome, bleached by the sun and polished by the wind. Wildflowers sprouted, blue-purple lupine, red Indian paintbrush, white yarrow, and yellow asters blooming in merry abandonment. Clumps of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries sported lush fruit. Young noble firs with silvery smooth bark and tall upright cones dotted the landscape. Small bits of white-grey pumice lay scattered about, porous and light: a rock that could float on water. 

I hiked. I forded the rushing white South Fork Toutle River and hauled myself hand-overhand up a knotted rope ladder, climbing the steep embankment on the other side. I traversed sandy slopes and volcanic black plains barren of life. My heart lifted upon hearing voices in the distance: trail runners, out for the day. I was comforted to know I was no longer alone. The terrain continued to challenge me, but I gradually re-gained my confidence. When unsure of the route or uncomfortable with the terrain, I paused to stop and assess before continuing.

Loowit Trail, Photo by Benjamin Hollis, FlickrLoowit Trail, Photo by Benjamin Hollis, Flickr

That night I bedded down on the Plains of Abraham. The peak of St. Helens at my head, the eastern flank of the mountain plummeting at my feet in a near vertical drop of several hundred feet, I slept without a tent. Dark green forests covered the valley floor below and Mt. Adams loomed large in front of me. The moon ascended in a slow arc to my right. Fingers of wind reached into my sleeping bag, but I slept warmly that night, cozy and at ease.

As I continued on my journey, I reflected upon my decision to return Boston. My year-long leave of absence from school had been spectacular and I anticipated a career in outdoor education. I hadn’t thought that I’d re-enroll in my master’s program. Yet a short summer program blending mindfulness and outdoor recreation had changed my mind. For two weeks, I had helped students apply the mindfulness techniques they were learning in the classroom to real-life, stressful outdoor situations. It was a singular experience demonstrating the possibility of work utilizing both my divinity school and outdoor education backgrounds. Should I choose to return, there existed work that would benefit from my continued studies at Harvard. But I wasn’t convinced. It felt like a feather’s-weight of difference on my scale of decision-making. I worried I was caving to societal and parental pressure to be successful, to complete my degree, and to graduate from Harvard. But I hadn’t been sure of my leave of absence either, and it had been okay. More than okay in fact. I’d followed the whisper of my intuition and look where it’d led me: to the Loowit Trail, on a four-day solo-backpack around Mt. St. Helens. A trip I never could have executed before my leave.

For two weeks, I had helped students apply the mindfulness techniques they were learning in the classroom to real-life, stressful outdoor situations. It was a singular experience demonstrating the possibility of work utilizing both my divinity school and outdoor education backgrounds.

Perhaps the difference was that I trusted myself. I trusted myself to travel terrain I’d never encountered before, even on my own. I trusted myself to get lost in the woods and be able to find my way out again. I’d learned to pause, evaluate the terrain, and choose the appropriate route forward. And in the process, I’d begun to thrive. If my return to Boston proved deadening, I knew that I could leave and flourish beyond the world I’d built for myself there. Perhaps the challenge was to bring the lessons of the woods back to my urban, academic life, to learn how to flourish, vitally, in an entirely different wild wood.

I’d followed the whisper of my intuition and look where it’d led me: to the Loowit Trail, on a four-day solo-backpack around Mt. St. Helens.

I spent my last night by June Lake. Children’s giggles floated through the air and families lounged around campfires. The evening was warm and I felt lazy reading the last pages of a fantasy novel before dinner. As dusk fell, bats began to appear, one after another. They darted through the air after insects invisible to my sight. Mesmerized, I watched as they fed, zooming in swift flutters of wings, near blind but able to navigate without incident in a pitch black night. They sounded and sensed their way forward.

Perhaps the challenge was to bring the lessons of the woods back to my urban, academic life, to learn how to flourish, vitally, in an entirely different wild wood.

My final miles passed with ease. I traversed rock fields confident in my footing and grateful for the view. My eyes traced the spine of the Cascade Mountains south, pausing upon the snowy white peak of Mt. Hood, the guardian mountain of my childhood in Portland, Oregon. When I arrived at the junction of the Loowit and Ptarmigan trails, I paused, then turned downslope toward Climbers Bivouac. Less than an hour later, I emerged from the woods and into the buzz of an asphalt parking lot full of cars, tents, and people. I settled by a patch of blueberries, rummaging in the bushes for handfuls of fruit. When my parents drove up their relief and joy at seeing me was palpable. I wore the same sky blue hoody and grey pants I’d donned the day I departed, circles of dust and salt sweated into the fabric about my arms and hips. A smile bloomed upon my face. Together, we drove back to the city for a celebratory chocolate milkshake and burger.