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Despite the festivities last night, I awake early, an hour before dawn. Crossing a log to the extensive sandbar at Five-Mile-Island, I sit quietly for hours, watching the sun rise over the Hoh River Valley as night slowly fades into day. In the city, I rarely take the time to see the sun rise... out here, it is the best alarm clock I have ever known.

Today, our group packs up over a friendly breakfast and heads the last five miles of flat trail to the Hoh Rainforest Visitors' Center. It is an easy walk, and we pass legions of happy tourists and dayhikers enjoying the forest for a day or two. Emotions and memories surge through me at unexpected times. I look down at the wedding band on my left hand, remembering the moment I collapsed above Upper Service Falls. I doubt I should ever forget it. "I'm coming home to you, baby" I whisper silently to my wife as I force back tears from deep inside me. The fear, the jubilation, the many conflicting emotions of this trip are surfacing at once as we head down the trail, and I struggle to keep them contained.

Within an hour or two, we reach the trailhead sign. Just beyond it is the Hoh Visitors' Center and adjoining parking lot. Taking an obligatory "after" shot, I chuckle lightly, wondering how different I must look than the bright-eyed hiker I was when I started this trip.
In the parking lot, we load up our gear, and Fogduo graciously offers to chaperone me. Several miles down the road we stop at the Hard Rain Cafe, a hardy little grill outside the entrance of the Hoh Rainforst. For the occasion, OlyHiker raffles off a small Quinault Indian painting he has made (he works seasonally for the Quinault Indian Nation), which goes to Cody (foggy's nephew). My eyes are as big as saucer-plates at the counter, and I order a large BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, double the onion-rings, and an orange cream soda. It is difficult to wait patiently as the orders cook, and once served, I engulf mine like a small rowboat in a hurricane. Dicentra finished only half her salmon-burger, and offers the rest to me. I swallow it without thinking. Pixie gives me the rest of her onion rings, as does Jay, OlyHiker and Cody. It becomes something of a small spectacle... long after everyone else has finished, a half-dozen trays are stacked before me as I devour the scraps of every meal left uneaten. No calorie is spared. ( For the next two days, I eat almost constantly, never feeling full. Having lost 12 pounds of bodyweight [and not having been fat even then], I calculate later that I went on a nearly 45,000 calorie deficit this trip... that is a lot of fries! )

After a round of hugs and cheerful goodbyes, I begin my journey home. Fogduo kindly drives me to a nearby truck stop in the defunct little town of Queets, WA. I enjoy a lengthy shower and scrape off a shaggy month's beard with a disposable razor, while she and Cody wait patiently in the car (thanks, Foggy!). Several hours later, I sit at a Greyhound Bus station in downtown Olympia, donning a flannel shirt and an oddly smooth face, waiting for a ride back to Portland. In-between customers, the desk clerk calls the police for an elderly woman. Her car was just stolen from the curb outside, and shirtless bums stare with shifty eyes from across the park, as an officer takes down a report. Everyone here seems noticeably tense and cautious, subconsciously wary of the world around them. I keep an eye on my backpack in the station, and have to ask the attendant for a key to use the restroom (Customers Only!). The LED sign warns that my bus arrives in exactly 39 minutes... why is everybody in such a hurry? It is clear I have long-since shed the familiar stress of the city. This feeling, experiencing it again, is oddly surreal... I am not quite sure how to react.

It is a quiet bus ride home... folks seem strangely content to avoid eye contact and steer clear of conversation. As the Cascade foothills roll away on the horizon, my thoughts wander from the trail to my home, and back again. A queen sized-bed, running water, and an endless supply of food await me at home. Questions of my immediate future fill my head as we bullet south on Interstate 5, back to the land away from the woods, a land where concrete and computerized schedules once again rule. I fall asleep, content for the moment, feeling ready to face it all once again. At least, for now...