The station was empty, except for the baggage handler who popped in and out, country music blaring from his iPhone. Other than him, I assumed I was the only person in downtown Billings that night.
After a few hours, a young man walked cautiously through the front door and made his way to where I was sitting. I waited for him to ask me for money, a common occurrence on my journey. I recognized him. When I first landed in Billings, I noticed him walking up and down the sidewalk, frequently bending over to look closely at something on the ground. It was as if he lost something valuable and was convinced it was there, if he just looked hard enough.
We introduced ourselves. As I had seen him do outside, he focused his attention on the floor in front of him, again, as if looking for something valuable. He gnawed on a green apple from the paper bag he was carrying. All the time, his eyes darted from me, to the floor, to the ceiling.
He was 22 and on his way from his home in Las Vegas to South Dakota, and a new life as a cook at a cousin’s restaurant. He had been a heroin addict much of his life and had been arrested in Mexico for turning tricks to pay for his habit. Because he was a teenager, he was sent to a prison somewhere in central Mexico, where he was subjected to brutal beatings and lengthy periods of isolation. Upon his release, he returned to Vegas and his life of addiction.
I asked how he broke the addiction. He tried methadone, which, as many addicts will attest, may be worse and more addictive than heroin. Then a friend told him of a wilderness camp near Tijuana, Mexico. Within a month, he had kicked his habit. Being in the camp, alone under the stars, in the comforting heat of the Mexican afternoons, made Alfredo realize how lost he was. “I learned that I had forgotten to breathe man,” he said. “And if you don’t breathe, you die.”
As he waited for his bus to South Dakota, Alfredo said he was hopeful for the first time in his life. He was happy to be away from Las Vegas, from the friends, the life that continuously pulled him back to the streets, to the needle.
As he got up to leave he asked what I thought to be an odd question at that moment: “Hey, you ever heard of the Appalachian Trail?”
I told him I had.
“One of my dreams has been to walk the trail someday. I think that would be great, but I’ll have to save up some money because I don’t have any camping stuff.”
I was about to say something when he interrupted me as he got to the station door:
“Do you think you’d like to walk the trail with me?”
He didn’t wait for my answer as he headed out into the Billings night. With or without me, I hope Alfredo makes it to the trail someday. And that he remembers to breathe.