It’s Time for Dinner

by Caren Duane | 10/2/14 7:55pm

Three years ago I left home, hiking pack on my back and stiff boots on my feet, for my first-year trip. After our first day of hiking, my trip and I arrived at our campsite where we encountered a thru-hiker. His trail name was Lazarus. He trekked into our wooded campsite just as the sun was setting and kept to himself while he prepared his dinner. For an hour he crouched over his rusty stove and waited for the water to boil for his freeze-dried pasta primavera. Meanwhile, my fellow hikers and I ate our cheesy tortillas around an unlit fire pit. I hadn’t showered for three days and my clothes smelled like pine needles and sweat. My hand shivered each time I removed it from the sleeve of my sweatshirt to eat my dinner.

At that moment I would have given my Nalgene bottle with my last 10 ounces of water and my left hiking boot for a home-cooked meal with family.

As I crouched around a dormant fire pit with near strangers, I couldn’t help but fantasize about dinnertime back home, something that was quite ordinary — that is, until I moved 3,000 miles away. There was something so wonderful then about the idea of the familiar people and tastes, the shrieks of my mother herding us to the kitchen.

In the dark New Hampshire jungle I could almost hear my mom screeching, “DINNERTIME, get down here... NOW.”

It would take 10 minutes for everyone to emerge from their bedrooms. One after another my siblings, Erin, Patrick, Michael, Charlie and Jack would appear.

“Hurry up, guys, I’m starving,” I would say.

We’d shuffle to our seats and do a jig to finagle all eight of us around the table. My parents would assume their positions at the dual heads. The youngest, Erin and Peach, would insist on sitting beside my mom. I would strategically sit next to Erin so I could steal her leftovers. The “bigger boys,” Jack, Charlie and Michael would sit across from me. In unison we would recite grace and eat our dinner together.

I snapped back to reality as a blanket of darkness engulfed the sky. That’s when Lazarus began to talk. As my fellow trippees and I prepared to slumber, Lazarus the thru-hiker became Lazarus the storyteller. Hidden in my sleeping bag, I closed my eyes and listened to his story.

His journey began on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia six months prior. Traveling alone for the entirety of the trek, he planned to end in Maine. Lazarus had lived through a gruesome lightning storm, escaped a mountain lion, been arrested for hitchhiking and survived two days without food. He told us about his childhood growing up in Western Massachusetts and his experiences as an undergraduate at Yale — I was spellbound by his stories for over an hour.

But, of everything he told us, I was most curious about his eating habits.

“Lazarus,” I said, “doesn’t it get lonely eating alone every night? Do you ever miss talking to people?”

“The only lonely part of my day is dinner time,” he said. “The rest is great.”

By that point, it was late and time for Lazarus to bid farewell to his new Dartmouth hiker acquaintances. But before he disappeared into the woods, he left us with some final words of wisdom.

“You Dartmouth students are pretty smart, so I’m going to give you one piece of advice,” Lazarus said. “Always eat dinner with other people. It is the most sacred part of the day.”

After three years here I have received a lot of worthwhile advice — choose your classes based on the professor, don’t go to Collis at rush hour, invest in a long coat for winter, don’t be disheartened when you get rejected from everything you apply for, don’t study in the 1902 Room, your first real job won’t determine your career, you don’t have to fit one mold in college.

But still, the best advice I have received was from that thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail.

Dinner time at Dartmouth is important to me, not just because I love a good stir-fry, but also because it is the one guaranteed time of day when I get to relax, have a good chat with my friends and enjoy a warm meal. Sometimes dinner is a “partay” because I get the pleasure of eating with everyone and their mother at FoCo. These meals full of chatter and food thievery remind me of family gatherings at home. I get to catch up with friends who have been buried away in the stacks since sophomore summer, and try every entrée that campus dining has to offer.

On Sunday nights, my friend Annie and I have our pre-radio show dinner ritual. We always sit in the upstairs of FoCo to avoid the stampede of post-practice athletes as we choose songs for our show. If I’m craving a grilled cheese and a calm environment, I’ll go to the Hop with Lisa. And when I just can’t wait for dinnertime I’ll meet Aliza for a 5 o’clock supper at Collis.

Life at Dartmouth gets busy and stressful. We can’t make time for everything. But dinnertime is one part of the day I am not willing to sacrifice. Whether it’s a two-hour ordeal at FoCo that involves walking away with a dozen dirty plates, five cups and 50 napkins or a quick sit-down at Collis, I must make the effort to physically sit down and eat with someone. It may never be the same as dinnertime at home — I don’t say grace, my dogs don’t eat my scraps and I certainly don’t get in trouble for stealing my sister’s food — but dinner at Dartmouth is my sacred routine.