My father is not what one might call a discerning eater. He orders his steaks well done, reveres Olive Garden’s pasta, and opts for Starbucks even in New York City; his favorite Chinese restaurant is P.F. Chang’s. After a year of not seeing one another for logistical reasons, we are enjoying a late brunch at Atlanta Breakfast Club, a midtown eatery known for its Southern cooking and long weekend lines. My father orders a cheese omelet and a large orange juice. He avoids drinking local water whenever possible and repeatedly asks me how I can be certain it’s safe. I laugh at first, suspecting his recent travels abroad have gotten to him, but I’m not exactly in a position to promote America’s ability to provide clean water to its blackest cities. As we wait for our meal, fashionable diners snap photographs of their pancakes and an unseen child bangs gleefully on the upright piano near the restaurant’s front door. Sharp laughter and the smell of fried chicken even out the atmosphere, tenderizing the cacophony. This will not be the last time I remind myself to look around and take a mental snapshot of ease.
At our table, my father is nothing but serious. I avert my eyes and tear large, anxious chunks from my biscuits every time he mutters the words “Hillary” and “corporate fascism” in the same breath. After raising me in Florida and then bouncing around [REDACTED], he has settled for the past few years in Central America. He is a secretive man who has been deeply political his entire life, and Trump’s win stands as but one in a long list of bitter disappointments. I don’t have this conversation in me right now. I blow on my coffee and offer anemic platitudes, hollow words along the lines of “we have to keep fighting.” He sucks his teeth in Dismissive African Parent, an underappreciated form of martial arts. The more he talks, the faster I shovel what’s left of the peach cobbler French toast into my mouth. It’s delicious, but honestly it could be anything. I have been stress-eating for months along with the rest of this country. Now is not the time to stop.
My father and I met in Georgia this April to take a road trip from Atlanta to Washington, DC, in an attempt to bond over barbecue and scenic byways after 10 years of growing apart. I’d hoped we would find our way back to each other while crisscrossing the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, which I’d thru-hiked the previous year from Georgia to Maine. The experience had been transformative and filled with the sort of beauty I wanted to share with the man who first instilled a love of the outdoors in me at a young age. The road trip would be our first extended journey together as adults. A long conversation fueled by spectacular backdrops, good food, and a shared sense of dread for the Horn of Africa.
It is unsurprising that few frame the Appalachian Trail as a physically demanding food tour, but the hike is a series of resupplies, and a series of resupplies is a series of town stops; a series of town stops is, essentially, a series of visits to fabled restaurants. Most A.T. hikers could never carry all the food they’d need between resupplies to make up for the energy expended. Doing so would add a staggering amount to their pack weight, which they would have to carry up and down steep mountains. As a result, many Appalachian Trail hikers opt to carry calorie-dense and nutrient-poor junk food until they can reach town and stuff their faces. My daily diet on the trail consisted almost exclusively of processed items: honey buns, peanut M&Ms, those tiny Nutella packets intended for elementary school students. The junk food couldn’t make up the deficit, but it helped narrow the gap. Consequently, the restaurants along the route have taken on mythic proportions within the hiking community. They, in turn, are prepared to greet their ravenous guests with Wi-Fi, tableside outlets for charging phones, and adequate pack storage far, far away from the noses of regulars. If they’re smart, they also have beer on tap. These restaurants are nothing short of beacons, roofs and walls promising at least a temporary reprieve.
The appearance of regular sanctuaries vanished from my life three weeks after I returned from the trail, when Trump was elected. Three days after that, I moved from New York City, my home for the past seven years, to Oakland, California, where it then proceeded to rain for the next four months. To say a healthy lifestyle evaded me would be like saying an eight-figure income lay just beyond my grasp; in truth, I never stood a chance.
Like many younger Americans of color, I have struggled to cope with the reality that neither of my (African-born) parents voted for Hillary Clinton on Election Day. My mother abstained in protest and my father voted third-party. Both seem unconcerned by what ramifications their principles might have on their daughter. My mother is hoping for the best. My father, clearly, is ready to see the worst, though he has the freedom to reside elsewhere should things truly go bad.
Our waitress in Atlanta has come to ask if we are ready for the check. I nod enthusiastically as dad starts to explain to me why he’s prepared to see the country burn at the hands of its conservatives. Somehow we are only one hour into our journey. Nothing I say is getting through to him, but perhaps he fears the same of me. To change the topic, I ask how he feels about his omelet — for the purpose of this essay. He shrugs while standing, says it won’t kill him, and pauses; he quickly scans the room. He takes one last sip of his orange juice until the straw rings hollow, and then he exits.
We visit the nearby Civil Rights Museum. As an African, my father’s relationship to black America has been complicated, dotted by frustration and, at times, borderline conservative rhetoric. In the past, he has regurgitated the model minority myth, citing the successes of other marginalized groups and blaming African Americans — rather than systemic racism — for their woes. After walking through the museum, however, I doubt he will talk that way again. Something clicks for him hard. I spent the previous night explaining white privilege and why the Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner was so insulting. My father knew America’s history of police brutality but little about its most recent, militarized iteration or its devastating effect on black communities nationwide. The topic comes up again as we complete our walk of the museum. I tell him there is no way to quantify the weight of black America’s fear of the badged. He asks me if this is true even where I live. “In Oakland?” I say. I assume he must be joking, but his eyes are sincere. And then I see it: He is newly afraid for me. We are standing in front of a gift shop filled with overpriced empowering mugs when I realize I have never seen him look so small, so vulnerable. I lie and tell him I can take care of myself out there, like taking care makes any difference.
For months after I moved to the Bay Area, there was a white police officer aiming a gun at my face every morning. The billboard read “Don’t pay that ticket.” His aviators obscured his eyes. The radar gun masked his expression. He stood against a red background surrounded by yellow words. DUI. Suspended license. He was the first thing I saw when I sat down at my writing desk, when I looked away to reach for an apple, and when I closed my laptop at the end of the day. He was brought to me by the Ticket Clinic, a firm specializing in traffic law. The officer was intended as a threat. Don’t let this guy catch you, the billboard warned. Call us if he does. This specific gun — which tracked speed — could not hurt me; it was also not his only gun. The officer aimed at my head all day long as the cars whizzed down San Pablo Avenue. Before I’d left my house, I was reminded of what might happen if I did. This is the outside world, the billboard cautioned. Someone with a gun is waiting for you.
Indoors, someone with a gun has been living in me for at least a decade. This billboard created a feedback loop with my anxiety at the worst possible time. Winter had just started. The days were at their shortest. I found myself staying inside a lot. I mean a lot. I started suffering from insomnia. My ceiling became my new best friend. I would open the All-Consuming Hell App at 3:00 a.m. as East Coast Twitter rose for work and Africa Twitter updated its daily lament of dictatorial repression. I distracted myself with fiction until I’d read enough about the end of the world to come to terms with the present. Then I’d wake up. I’d sit at my laptop. I’d stare out the window while the officer stared back. Most weeks I’d be lucky if I made it to the supermarket.
My father knows nothing of this. I am watching him glide from exhibit to exhibit in awe. Lunch counter sit-ins. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Selma. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is fascinated by black America’s resilience but even more by the center’s unsparing depictions of their oppressors. Later, my father will confess the Civil Rights Museum was his favorite part of our trip.
After we exit, and because I am still annoyed by the Pepsi ad, I drag us to the World of
Slurm Coca-Cola for some people-watching. The tasting room has five large stations that represent the various continents (sorry, Australia!). Soda flavors from all over the world are at our increasingly germy fingertips. The battle for a pour is fierce. Children and parents huddle around each of the soda fountains, slurping down a few ounces of whatever nozzle is free at that moment. My dad and I wonder aloud how many times a day the floor must be mopped in this room alone. My shoes stick to the ground with every step toward the Africa station, peeling reluctantly only after considerable coercion. Finally, I get a mouthful of Bibo DJ Kiwi Mango from South Africa. I don’t know why I am surprised to find it painfully sweet. Looking back over my shoulder, I see my dad appears bewildered and disgusted by everything before him. He wishes to touch nothing. I check in with him briefly before walking over to the Asia tasting circle but am elbowed away by a mom with five children. The soda itself, the branding, the worship, the company’s unspoken hope that an excess of caffeine will encourage visitors to spend more money on memorabilia. It is all a lot for my father to take in. The gift shop pushes him over the edge. Everything short of the air we’re breathing is for sale. Plush polar bears, key chains, pajama bottoms, seasonal socks. He takes small sips from his complimentary Coca-Cola bottle for less than a minute before throwing it in the trash.
The next day, our road trip kicks off in earnest with lunch at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack. The restaurant provides shaded outdoor seating and enough space inside to accommodate a nightly blues band. After we order, the cashier slides me my sweet tea and a photo of Robert Johnson with an “8” on it, our table number. My hair is a tangled mess, only a handful of single-strand knots away from neglect territory, and the woman behind the counter gives me the same look any black grandmother would. My father doesn’t catch it. He is hungry. We both ordered rib sandwiches and instantly regret it. We should have ordered two racks each, maybe three. The ribs are smoky and flavorful, falling from their bones at the slightest pressure. The kind of good that makes one obnoxiously moan how grateful they are not to be a vegetarian. My dad helps himself repeatedly to my side of rum baked beans, and we enter our car with the kind of giddiness endemic to cheap, exquisite decadence.
The rest of the day we spend driving to Asheville, North Carolina, first crossing Chattahoochee National Forest and into Nantahala. The signs creep up on us one by one. I say nothing, but my father finally notices. Homeowners have yet to take down their Donald Trump endorsements five months after the election. "Vote Trump Make America Safe Again" reads one of the banners just south of the Georgia-North Carolina border. My father shakes his head. “Who does the town of Dillard, Georgia, have to fear?” he asks in amazement.
I don’t have an answer for him. We are passing so many mountains so very quickly. Too quickly — my head starts to spin. This time last year, I was hiking 13 miles a day across them. A half marathon. Now my dad is covering 13 miles every 10 minutes. I find myself starting to feel carsick. A part of me had wanted to show him not just who but what I’d made myself into. Instead, I sit beside him, 20 pounds heavier, an example of what I’d undone.
We pass through another town, another sign. The world is on fire and I want my body back. Not necessarily my trail body, although I miss feeling strong. I mean the ability to consider the mass below my brain in something other than the abstract. A chance to will myself into existence.
I don’t know who I’m kidding. I can push myself up mountains, but I have never been a balanced eater. My body runs primarily on breakfast staples and anxiety. Eggs, yogurt, world news, despair. Some oranges between Ethiopian takeout on the weekends. To call it a lack of initiative would be letting me off easy — not thinking about food is an extension of my desire to not think about my body, to hide. I have spent my life swimming in clothes that are too large, my face cloaked under an enormous cloud of hair or obscured behind glasses so scratched it’s almost impossible to see my eyes. And food, ultimately, is for people who are there.
Now, driving instead of hiking down these mountains, I learn that my father loves taking sharp turns too fast, something I never noticed growing up in the road-dull broadsheet that is Florida. I do not share his enthusiasm. I’ll take sore knees from 4,000-foot descents over feeling my inertia any day. I recognize for the first time just how much of him comes from the highlands of Eritrea. He's been courting death in this way since before I was born and has dedicated most of his life to anti-imperialist causes. If he is ready to watch America’s political system fall, it comes from a vastly more complicated place than indifference. The man is simply exhausted.
I begin to tell my father about the Appalachian Trail. I start small. Wildflowers and birds. Rhododendrons, trillium. Loud whippoorwills that perch outside your tent all night until you curse their name. I tell him how the first time I saw an ad for the supermarket Ingles I thought it was pronounced "in-glays," like the Spanish word for English. How hikers repeatedly found themselves reflected in the dumbest things. How it feels weird for me to be around this beauty now and not hurt.
Near Marshall, North Carolina, there’s a man picking ramps on the side of the mountain. I explain to my dad how this can be a lucrative effort if done correctly. We are driving to Hot Springs, North Carolina, where 25 percent of the town’s residents are former thru-hikers. Many still use their trail names, which more often than not were given to them by fellow masochists the year they hiked. Dad and I stop at Artisun Gallery and Marketplace for a cappuccino. There, we meet Sunshine, a woman who hiked the A.T. in 2002 at the age of 48 and eventually moved permanently to Hot Springs. Our visit here overlaps with that of OMG, the sister of a friend who decided to hike the trail this year and happens to be taking a day off in town to recuperate. I treat her to a blueberry smoothie and a muffin as we catch up on her hike. I can’t help but be jealous, not just of her life, but of her impressive mileage (she’s already pulling 20-mile days). She goes on to tell me about the people she’s met and the kindness she’s encountered. She appears to be in high spirits but is endlessly hungry. I tell her not to miss the breakfast at Mountain Harbour B&B coming up in the next hundred miles. The place doubles as a cheap hiker hostel, which is good, because when I was there I ate so much in the morning that I took the rest of the day off to recover. She makes a note to spread the word among the others.
After saying our goodbyes to her, my father and I drive to Erwin, Tennessee, for a quick lunch at Hawg -n- Dawg, the shop with the best barbecue I had on the trail. My dad orders chicken and potato salad, and I get a barbecue sandwich and baked beans. There are five different sauces on the table. It’s good, but not as good as I remember. My dad says nothing tastes as good as it does when you’re starving and avoids making eye contact for a few minutes. We eat in silence, and I decide it’s best not to push. Both he and my mother had very little when they came to America. We have rarely discussed this time in their lives, but I know it impacted him in ways he still feels today. I chose my prolonged caloric deficit. The same cannot be said of his.
We jump back in our car and head toward Dalesville, Virginia, our base for the next two nights. We pass Damascus. Marion. Trail town after trail town. My dad taps his fingers to Sharon Jones while time happens on me and to me and all at once. The past at one speed, the now at another, driving forward and gulping back until I ask him to pull over at the next exit while cattle graze from the best views in the valleys. I am having trouble catching my breath. I rest my forehead against my palms. Half of me wants to ask what he’s doing here, convinced it’s 2016.
In Daleville, we stop at a restaurant called Three L’il Pigs. There is a large painting behind the bar of a three-piece pig bluegrass band in suits. I treat myself to a vinegar barbecue sandwich and Caesar salad. I can tell my father is reaching his limit for barbecue consumption by the way he keeps ordering cheeseburgers. Two barbecue restaurants in eight hours is more than he’d prepared for. By the end of the meal I’m with him. The food, again, is good, but not as good as I remember. This time, he flatly says, “Nothing is.”
The next morning we hit the Blue Ridge Parkway and promptly fall in love with its views. We find it difficult not to stop at every overlook. The setting is beautiful, but it’s also blissfully quiet. There aren’t too many cars midweek this time of year. We park and sit on our car hood looking out over the valley. A calm hits me that I haven’t felt since leaving the trail. It's the silence I miss more than anything. Everything stops for me in that moment on the parkway. The negative thoughts. Anxiety. The world. (Even the mild guilt I feel about the world stopping when something good distracts me from it.) We drive the empty road and stare at gash after gash of just-leafing trees. Some shocks of pink. Barring the evergreens, the trees along the Blue Ridge Parkway are mostly barren with a few bright tufts up top, lanky teens with their first jars of Manic Panic. We stop again at a viewpoint intersecting the A.T. It marks mile 747.4 for hikers heading northbound from Georgia. I take a few tentative steps in my flip flops, jeans, and cotton shirt: anti-hiking attire. He and I both touch the white blaze, and I tell him to imagine replicas of it stretching all the way to Maine, the amount of volunteer work that goes into conserving something of this magnitude. He smiles in disbelief. We are both ready for a drink and make our way through several flights of beer at Devil’s Backbone Brewery. After a while, my dad says, “All the way to Maine?” and I respond, “Yup.”
My father looks at the mountains differently when we get back in the car. He asks me what else has saved my life, and I tell him about Cloud Twitter, a group of friends and strangers who share photos of clouds from wherever they happen to be. “Small beauties tend to add up,” I say. He seems touched by our mutual fondness for the sky. In Ge'ez, a language and a script common in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the word for heaven is ghenet. My dad adds, “And mengiste semaiyat: the government of the skies.” I shake my head at the phrasing as well as the concept. It says more about our people than either of us ever could. "Different administration centers for God," laughs my dad, as though God needs help organizing.
At one point during our drive, we meet Blueberry, a thru-hiker from Maryland who started in Georgia early in the season, on February 12. He isn’t LGBTQ but carries a rainbow flag he picked up at Uncle Johnnie's, a hiker hostel in Erwin, Tennessee. He sees it as an opportunity for social dialogue and wants people to challenge their assumptions. When I ask him how he got his name, he tells me he ate seven blueberry Pop-Tarts in a day and a half and became very ill. He is carrying the last one all the way to Maine. I tell him he is everything I will struggle to write in this piece all wrapped up in one human. Generous, open, unafraid of laughable pursuits. We refill his water bottle and wish him the best.
A famous all-you-can-eat restaurant called The Homeplace sits in Catawba, Virginia. It specializes in Southern fare, offering fried chicken, country ham, roast beef, green beans, coleslaw, pinto beans, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits — as many free rounds as you can handle. Our throats clench watching the other diners inhale their meals. We came here just a few hours after eating and shouldn’t have bothered on such full stomachs. Our waitress is disappointed by our efforts to clean our plates. We shrug. By this point, we both just want to sleep. We return to our hotel with boxes of leftovers that we forget about entirely.
We leave Dalesville the next morning and head toward DC. Our first stop is New Ming Garden in Waynesboro, Virginia, at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park (SNP), the first national park created in the South. I tell my dad that New Ming Garden is one of the most beloved all-you-can-eat stops on the Appalachian Trail. He is overjoyed. He loves American Chinese food and thinks this is the best place we've eaten at all trip. I've just taken a bite of the worst stir fry of my life and am now nibbling on a pineapple chunk. I really need to have a long talk with my memory. My plate today is piled high with bourbon chicken and vegetable lo mein: what a hungry hiker would devour. Oil, noodles, and protein, all adequate. The restaurant is, among other things, a paean to fried food. Chicken wings, onion rings, egg rolls, fried wontons, and so on. My stomach churns at the sight. If ever I doubted that things had changed in the six months since the end of my hike, that time is over. The person who looked upon this food with euphoria is gone.
Our bellies filled, the ranger at the entrance to Skyline Drive, the road that runs through SNP, tells us the first thru-hikers arrived on March 7. The A.T. intersects Skyline Drive numerous times, and drivers are likely to see at least a few large packs and sweat-soaked bandanas. We spot a hiker at a crossing and offer him one of the bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits we’ve packed for such an occurrence. If our road trip started in Atlanta with me taking a mental snapshot of ease and carelessly self-medicating with starches, I was now reminded of what the face of profound gratitude looked like. How it felt to see food as a gift.
At our last stop, my dad keeps asking what I have planned next for my life. I tell him I’m not sure, which is partially true. Some writing? Sleep? A few dangerous projects worthy of pursuit? Definitely some therapy, though I keep this to myself. As our journey progressed, I’d found it easier to feed my father my ghost than the truth of me, something concrete like an instance of my best self, agreeable to the lining of his parental gut. I ask him the same question about his future plans and he gives a few equally vague answers. We’d grown closer in four days than we had in years, but it would clearly take more for us to be willing to share with each other in the ways that truly mattered. For now, at least we feel like family again. A start, if nothing else.
Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer of short stories and essays who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016.
Header art by Melissa Deckert and Nicole Licht
Other photos by Rahawa Haile
Art direction by Nicole Licht
Copy edited by Jaime Green
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