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The Dating Project | ‘The Mountain Man’

A word about sex. Or several. I do have it. I’m single, not dead. One fling, at 6 years fun and running, might be my most successful relationship yet. Or at the very least, my most enduring. There is frequently champagne, there are seldom sleepovers. A girl gets by. Also, around.

The project of dating involves a lot of not dating, some breaking up, and a great deal of nursing bruises, so speed-dial steadies are necessary. My most recent split was a disfiguring surprise, the up-breaker escaped unscathed, but I took it on the chin, with shingles. So I went to the standby boys for comfort. Some teams are too defeated to add a new pitcher to the roster.

And I headed to the Appalachian Trail. Not in the political sense. I really like hiking alone. As a freelance travel writer, the A.T. is the one vacation I take that I can afford. I turn off my phone. I get to be in nature, self-sufficient, but never far from civilization. Typically, I lose 8 lbs. Win, win, win, win, win.

On the trail I had a dream: The dead mother of the Big Love of My 20s was lecturing me at his recent wedding (to which I was not invited). I adored her; she smoked, drank, and canned tomatoes. We walked into the basement of her Indiana farmhouse and she chastised me: With so very many available beds, why was I sleeping alone? My dream-camera panned to a cellar full of mattresses all with Sarah Rose in black marker scribbled across the sides. “This way up” arrows were graffitied on the box springs.

Then I met the mountain man. He was a tall blond Adonis of a bearded thru-hiker on the 2000-mile-long scenic trail. In his early 30s, he had just returned from teaching English in Asia and was heading northbound, walking off his own romantic hiccups. He didn’t know where to live after Mt. Katadhin, and what should he do when he grew up anyway? He had problems I could solve.

After a night in my tent during a pelting rainstorm, he solved a few of mine too, sanctioned by the ghost of my former future mother-in-law who returned from the grave to slut up my loneliness.

Hiking with the mountain man was just like walking alone; we didn’t have much to say. The trail was hard, I carried heavy baggage–a broken heart, a sick parent–and every day was uphill. Then I blew out my knee. A metaphor shouldn’t do that. Yet I was crippled. My big city joints refused the fresh country trail.

Mountain Man and I hitchhiked to a New England college town where we could sip coffee in sweet cafes while he ate three breakfasts. We hung out at a bar and slept in a colonial inn with cable TV and a hot tub. He did laundry. I read news on my phone–a story called “Generation Exhausted” about how, in your 30s, family responsibilities speed up at the same time careers get moving, and time gets scarce and the Greatest Recession squeezes your bank account, and then shingles.

I cried.

Mountain Man: What’s wrong?
Me: There’s this really sad story. In The Economist.

I couldn’t hold back the tears. He couldn’t stop watching American Pickers.

Some men aren’t for talking. If only he had been. Credits could roll. A theme song might play. We could even have planned a sequel. But we did not. The next day I got on a bus and hobbled home. He trekked north.

I had put a little more distance between me and a very bad break-up. About five to seven inches.

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