Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Wiff of Hiker Funk Makes the Medicine Go Down

It started out as just a few days to help clear my mind, a chance to take a step back into a former life. It had been two and a half months since I had moved out of the woods and back into a house. Two and a half months since I had summited Katahdin and so far the readjustment back into normal life had been hard fought and mostly unsuccessful. To sleep swathed in the pungent smell of the tent and sleeping bag I more or less ruined with my body odor alone while on my thru hike was nothing short of therapeutic.

Upon arriving, this time by car, I set up camp just inside the Blood Mountain Wilderness, only a few hundred feet from the parking lot at Woody Gap, just off route 60 in Georgia. I had passed through this very spot nearly eight months ago to the day. It was the infamous location where many of my fellow thru hikers and I had first met Fresh Ground. When he informed us that he was headed back to feed more hikers at the same place we all remembered so well, it turned into a mini reunion.

The first time I saw him in March, Fresh Ground had been set up under a large tarp and he replicated the scene again now in November. Back then, he had come to do a two day hiker feed that turned into what a bubble of roughly two hundred hikers coined "Fresh Ground's Leapfrog Cafe". Six consecutive installments of the cafe were set up and manned by Fresh Ground through the southern half of the trail, funded solely by the hikers he graciously and endlessly fed. Now that the northbound season is over, Fresh Ground has returned to Woody Gap to douse the early ending south bounders with the same dosage of love and hotdogs we had received going north.

It seemed as if it had already been such a long time since walls and windows had surround my life once again and I was enjoying the familiar feelings of being out in nature. The leaves were at their peak and just now beginning to fall from the trees. The wind whipped through the gap just as I remembered it had on that icy spring morning. To walk the same trail and ruminate on all that had happened since my third day on the AT, when I was last there, was a haunting experience. Mostly, I was thrilled to be around thru hikers and commune with others like me whose lives had been similarly rewritten by the terrain their feet had traversed. It was also my first chance to start paying forward the huge debt of good deeds that I accrued on my own hike.

On the fourth day at Woody Gap I met Pivot Dude and Spider Web. They had a chemistry I recognized. One drew you in, the other kept you there. One made the plan, the other worked his magic to make it happen. One was the front man, the other was the back up singer with perfect harmony. They were day and night but they were bound by something others would seldom understand. It was Gonzo and I all over again. Just as we had been, they were polar opposites, pulling and pushing each other through the tough times on the trail, as only your closest hiking partner can do.

They came strolling out of the woods some time around lunch. After filling them with food and promising beer, we convinced them to abort their plans of ending their day only three miles from Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the end of their incredible journey. They chose to stay the night with us, leaving them a relatively smooth twenty-one mile day to their end destination the next day, the summit.

That night we celebrated as thru hikers, north and south combined. No directional rivalries as one sometimes finds, just brothers and sisters on the trail together. It was a typical hiker party except that it ran late into the night, even by normal standards. We played cards, busted out games from childhood summer camps, told endless amounts of stories, and even read aloud to one another, periodically taking time to cheers another aspect of trail life with each round we drank. Still, we arose early in the morning, made pancakes, and sent Pivot Dude and Spider Web on their way, over their final stretch of trail.

Both planned to head south after summiting, so being from just north of Atlanta, I volunteered to slack pack them to Springer Mountain, meeting them with their full backpacks, and then drive them home with me that night. I said my good byes to Fresh Ground and my beloved fellow north bounders and began the long dirt road ascent up to Springer to meet the guys.  Despite leaving early I was only just barely on time. The light loads and amped up adrenaline of the day had carried Pivot and Spider along at remarkable speeds.

The parking lot where I met them was only nine tenths of a mile from the summit of Springer and I gladly and excitedly joined them on their way. As we hiked up, Pivot Dude was like a broken record the way he kept repeating himself, “Springer Mountain, man! We’re on it, right now! Is this real, man?!” Spider Web didn’t say much at all besides “You’re yelling enough for the both of us, Pivot.” I knew the feeling well, anticipation and excitement but skepticism as well. I had reacted more like Spider Web, introspectively processing the unmanageable amount of experiences that had lead me to this place.

When we reached the plaque, Pivot exploded. He hollered, jumped up on the rock and jigged around. Spider Web just set down his pack and smiled at spot he had been walk towards for months on end. I enjoyed watching them bask in the glory of their accomplishments in their own special ways, no matter how subtle or overt. Both of them had brought up a bottle of champagne and we commemorated the moment with a full blown photo shoot.

When the guys had killed the bottles of bubbly we headed back to my car. All the way down, they sang seamless duets that told me they had spent many miles perfecting their technique. The word joyous kept coming back to my mind. A joyous duo descending from the highest point of their lives, all smiles and rosy cheeks from the chilled wind and alcohol.

We drove down to Marietta, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, where I live. That night we watched a movie and drank beer, a wonderful low key ending to a full throttled day. In the morning we drove Pivot Dude to a gas station off of I-75, somewhere just south of Atlanta. His destination was Tallahassee and he was certain he could make it by nightfall via hitch hiking. The next day I drove Spider Web down to the airport in Atlanta and sent him off back to New Hampshire.

They both profusely thanked me for the slack pack, the rides, the place to crash and I just kept telling them that it was all nothing. So much had been done for me as I hiked that it was only right and natural. Also, they were still fresh off of the trail. In a months time they will be yearning for the chance to have hikers in their lives again. To meet a stranger in the woods and be instant friends bonded together by a life you have both lived.

I brought them into my house and did all I could for them not only because I am intimate with the feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next and simply relying on the trail to provide for me, but also because it was like medicine to be around them. Back in the regular world, my old pre-trail life, these guys were like a raft in waters I had been struggling to swim in.

To meet them, to walk with them, to live with them with them inseparably and rely on one another for even just a few moments, reminded me that just because I summited Katahdin, it doesn’t mean the Appalachian Trail is over. It lives on and year after year there are others who seek to grow with it and conquer it.  

 Pivot Dude and Spider Web on the summit of Springer Mountain.

Pivot Dude and Spider Web as they parted for the first time since they started hiking together at Partnership Shelter in Marion, Virginia. We left Pivot Dude at a gas station around 11am and he was in Tallahassee, Florida by 7:30 pm. 

A link to a video of Spider Web, an organist, playing the piano at my house.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Logical Succession of Events: Hike Trail, Write Book

It has been ten weeks flat, that's two and a half months, since K-Day, as we called the day we hiked Katahdin.

I have sufficiently bummed around at incredibly disconcerting levels and am unfortunately still unemployed because I am incapable of both disconnecting my work from the health of my spirit and allowing the latter to crush the former. But if something comes of these recent interviews then turning down a high-paying, degree-using, soul-sucking job or two won't seem like such a mistake as it does right now.

Regardless, I have had a lot of time on my hands and I have reverted back to my old love of writing in order to fill it. I spent a little amount of time writing about a large amount of subjects while on the trail and now I have flipped that over to spending a large amount of time writing about a particular subject.

If you've been keeping up with the blog then you probably have noticed the recent short stories. At first these started out as wanting to expand on memories from the trail for my own benefit. Then I realized that not only was the writing soothing my mind and helping me transition back into regular life more smoothly, but it was really shaping up into something. These individual stories were building up into the sequential journey that was my trail experience.

That was when I decided to go all in with it. I had been asking myself, "If I do get a job, if I do settled down here for a while, what am I going to 'do' with myself?!" Writing was my answer. "I am going to write a book!" I told myself. Maybe it will actually become something one day or maybe it will just be one of those things where a few self published copies float around my family for a couple of generations. Nonetheless, here I am now, moping around the foreign land of 'Home', trying to not forget the life I lived in the wilderness while simultaneously attempting to fit in again and maybe this is my Rosestta Stone, my bridge back to normalcy. If nothing else, it's a fun hobby with a neat pay off.  


Also, It's possible because its been done before. Long before hiking the trail I picked up a book by Zach David called Appalachian Trials. Besides writing this book that helped me and many other hikers I know prepare for the toughest parts of the trail, Zach, also a thru hiker, keeps a blog as well. I sought out his advice on how to take on such a feat as writing a book. This is our correspondence.  Thanks for the time, Zach!

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Story of the Telling of the Story of Rocky Balboa on Stratton Mountain

Rocky Balboa on Stratton Mountain

Walking in the rain had become a normal part of life. It didn’t even slow us down unless it was a severe rain. The real problem with precipitation was what sometimes came along with it. As we started hiking up Stratton Mountain in Vermont, we knew it was in our best interest to lay low for a little while. This was a four thousand foot mountain and a thunderstorm was raging pretty heavily above us.

It wasn’t my idea and I hated to do it. Besides Mudmouth, none of us had a healthy enough fear of Mother Nature. We would walk ourselves right into a terrifying, life bargaining situation with every storm if she weren’t around to talk sense into us. So we stopped hiking before we gained too much altitude and took refuge among the trees, hoping to lessen our chances of being in the exact spot of a lightening strike. To sit there and just let the cold rain seep into your bones, not moving forward towards shelter, is an act that requires much patience and acceptance.  

Every time we played it safe, I would sit curled in the tightest ball I could manage and wish we were risking it instead, even if only to stay warm by moving. But the threat was real. Lucky Strike had once had a different trail name with a less menacing story behind it before a bolt of lightening struck him down. Just a couple days of rest and he was back hiking, a very luck strike he had received indeed.

Eventually, the storm petered out enough to lessen up on the dangers of climbing a huge mountain and we proceeded on but it was still raining heavily. Maineiac pulled ahead, as he is apt to do in undesirable hiking conditions, just to simply make it to a shelter as soon as possible and end the bad experience. Mudmouth and Yard Sale fell behind as they shed a layer of clothing, which left Gonzo and I trekking on at our typical steady pace.

The rain wasn’t letting up as we ascended and my spirits were plummeting. It wasn’t just the bad weather or even steeping ourselves in the bad weather. It was the sixteen hundred miles of bad weather that we had already suffered through. It was the six hundred more miles of bad weather to come. My mind was beginning to loose sight of what I was doing and why I was doing it.

There comes a time for every thru hiker where you realize you have been doing this forever and you are not yet nearly done. If this occurs on a bright sunny day on which you are enjoying yourself, it may lead to feelings of wonder and appreciation towards the trail. If this occurs on a day there you are sitting in the rain waiting out a thunderstorm before you hike up the steep face of a very tall mountain in even more rain, it may lead to a breakdown.

I don’t rightly remember how it began or what set me off. All I remember is that I was angry and Gonzo was hearing about it. I went off on a diatribe slandering the legacy of every thru hiker. All the hard work, all the dreams built, sustained and brought to fruition within this tight community we had been living in over the last four and a half months. These were my own dreams and this was my own legacy. I questioned these things and my motives behind chasing them. How selfish of me! How stupid of me! All this way and suddenly, in this moment, I didn’t understand what it was for anymore!

Between my tears and outbursts, while I was gasping for more air to start another round, Gonzo would throw in reminders when he could of what brought me to this place, what had carried me along the way. “You’re just tired. This isn’t that bad.” “We’ve done so much worse. We’re in no danger here.” “You’re just worn out. We will get to town and you’ll feel better.” “Remember the laundry mat in Damascus? Remember the night we walked into Hot Springs? That’s why we’re here.”

I eventually ran out of steam and had nothing more to say. Gonzo had patiently walked behind me adding in encouraging touches I wasn’t receiving until I had worn myself out too much to fight back. At this point he kicked off into his own speech.

“Have you ever heard the story Sylvester Stallone starting out in his career?!” A rhetorical question he asks as I sigh and roll my eyes, not knowing or caring anything about this subject. “Well, he lived in the City, right, and was trying to be an actor but, you know, he’s got that face thing going on and cant talk right. He was born with that shit, you know! It’s a legitimate thing he had to over come as a kid.” I’m shaking my head wondering where he could possibly be going with this. “So he was trying to get work but he was homeless and had to even sell his dog at one point to make money! His dog, man! That’s sucks! It’s terrible. But he kept on going.” I’m laughing because I am sure he’s making this up, as he is prone to do in his story telling. “And one day after he watched a boxing match he got the idea for Rocky. He was up for three days straight writing the screen play for the movie. You know that thing was super famous, right?! Like a huge deal!” “Yes, I know about the Rocky movies,” I assured him. “Well, he did it in three days. But then came the part where he had to get someone to pick it up. No one wanted it but finally someone said they would take it for a hundred grand.” He paused, maybe to catch his breath because he was really going at it now. “Okay?” I said. “Well he was broke as shit but he wanted to be an actor and they said he couldn’t act in it. So he said no! To a hundred grand! That’s a lot of money even if you aren’t homeless.” I was actually becoming interested in this story and egged him on. “Well, what happened?” “The producer guys came back a while later and tried to get it off him for three grand.” “So then he took it,” I weighed in. “No! He was serious! He wanted to be an actor! He said no again. And finally the guys were just like ‘The hell with it!’ and let him be Rocky in the movie. But they only gave him like, less and fifty thousand I think.” “Wow,” I said slowly as I mulled over it all. “But he had a dream, you know, and dreams are important. Sometimes it’s a tough road along the way and you just gotta be like Rocky and keep going even when it’s sucking really bad.”

I was crying again but not out of frustration and sadness this time. This time it was because even though I had spent all my effort to viscously discount the hard work Gonzo and I had spent months doing together, here he was spending all his effort to tell me a parable of a hard fought dream that was executed to its maximum potential despite all the hardships along the way. It was drenched in the passion of an Ivy League valedictorian speech and did the proper work to reinvigorate me and remind me of the future ahead of me. It lead me back to my composure and identity as a thru hiker.

It could have been anyone and it could have been any story. Any arrangement of inspiring words would probably have done the trick to settle me down and get me back on the right path. But to hear them from Gonzo and for the story to be such an example of our oil and water existence made it so much more meaningful and uplifting after the hundreds upon hundreds of miles we had walked together.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

That time in Damascus where we were...

Drinking in the Laundry Mat
The heavy raindrops pinged off the hood of my rain jacket, which was meant to keep me dry but I knew by now that hiking in a rain jacket only meant getting drenched by sweat as opposed to fresh mountain rain. I only chose the latter when the temperatures were warm enough to ensure hypothermia may not be a result of bathing in that fresh mountain rain scent. It was only mid-April and in the mountains you could still be expecting snow if the weather conditions were perfect. So I walked on in my non-breathable, nylon rain jacket and thought back on how I got here. This day had been planned to be spent indoors, avoiding this storm.

I think back to a couple of afternoons before when we walked into the town of Damascus, Virginia. With a population of just under one thousand people, it was one of the bigger towns we had been in. It was also the most hiker friendly of them all, touting itself as Trail Town, USA. It had been a twenty six mile day into town for us, after participating in what hikers called the Damascathon, and the reward was a café where the servers didn’t even look at you funny for smelling so bad. We ate our fill and got a bed at a glorified bunkhouse for only $6. This was indeed a town for a hiker.

We took a zero day the following day and hiked no miles. That evening we asked around for where the local drinking hole was and when we finally found the answer, we balked. “The laundry mat,” the girl at the counter of the only convenience store in the town told us. Damascus had that small mountain town feel but this still surprised us all. So we bought our beer right there and then and headed for the laundry mat. This being a small town, getting around was easy for those of us on foot, particularly because the laundry mat was only across the street. I had been there earlier in the morning doing a load for Gonzo and I.

As we walked in we made sure to keep out recent purchases down low as not to attract any attention but as soon the door shut behind us we found out that we must have been the last hikers in town to find the “secret” spot. Lined up in a row under the one TV inside the place was a band of hikers sitting in plastic chairs. We fell in line as another episode of Ancient Aliens came on the History Channel. Few people with a functioning remote will sit and watch this TV show about conspiracy theories but to a handful of hikers who live in the woods, it is award winning entertainment. We sat and sipped, talked and laughed, thoroughly enjoying the nightlife at the 24 hour laundry mat. All the while locals did their laundry.

After a while a small lady in her late fifties or early sixties came of to speak with us. She knew right off, as most people do, that we were thru hikers. She asked us how we were doing that night and how long we had been walking, along with many other of the same questions that interested people the most. We talked to her for some time and right before she finally turned to leave she said that she was the owner of the establishment and that we should pay no mind to any locals that gave us trouble, saying, “This town has a couple no accounts.”

We sheepishly thanked her and said good night as she left, not knowing that the whole time we had been sipping Bud Light which was not so sneakily concealed under brown bags that we had also been talking with the owner. How hiker friendly could this town be that she didn’t care about us loitering and drinking in the laundry mat?! It was the only laundry mat and town and at one point during their stay nearly every hiker does a load of laundry here, but at that point in time we were not even proper patrons. Even further, she referred to someone as ‘no accounts’ and it wasn’t us, despite our current status of drinking in a laundry mat! We had become quite used to stares, off hand remarks and the occasional displeased local and were surprised to be in a town where we weren’t the ones considered a ‘no account’.

Everyone went on with their business. The locals did their laundry and we continued drinking. Before it got too late, the hikers began to trickle off to their hotels and hostels. After the sun goes down, there isn’t much for a hiker to do so we had all learned to rise and fall with the sun.

The next morning the sky looked a little tense. The forecast confirmed some bad weather was headed our way. We found ourselves in a tight situation. Most hostels and hotels wanted you out fairly early in the morning but we wanted to wait out the impending thunderstorm before we walked out of town. We only had one place to go, the laundry mat.

So there we all were again among the washers and dryers and the lone TV. The locals were back to doing laundry and we were back to watching the screen, this time the Weather Channel. Hikers not being the sort to waste anything, someone walked in with the remnants of a thirty pack of beer from the night before and began to pass them around. This watered down excuse for beer was barely manageable the first time we drank them and even the thought of having it for breakfast made my stomach churn. Still, there were many among us who managed to get it down.

As we waited for the big colorful blob of dark green, yellow, and red to catch up to us, we readied food supplies, packed up all of our gear and of course drank.  But this time around we had a new set of locals on our hands and no protection from the owner. It didn’t take long until a rotund woman in the later years of middle age came over to the hiker infested half of the laundry mat. “I know that’s not BEER you’re drinking in this laundry mat,” she barked at Duffle Miner and his can of
Bud. “And get off that dryer! You’re going to throw the rotation off balance,” she yelled at Maineiac. He slinked off the machine, Duffle put down the beer can and the rest of made slow and precise movements to gather our belongings.

She went off into a diatribe about the yearly influx of rowdy and mannerless hikers. It was a story we had heard many time before and would hear many times after. There was an understandable argument against “Hiker Trash”, as we called it when a hiker partook in an activity they would have never done before living in the woods for several months, but it always seemed to come from a much less accomplished sort of trash.

It was true that it wasn’t even noon yet and it was true that we were indeed drinking in a public area and deserved a good berating. Still, that makes it no more easy to stand there as some who walked to that location from several states away and oblige an obese human who probably can’t comfortably make a pass through the grocery store with out getting short winded, also knowing that they have probably never had the courage to foster a dream most people think is insanity and then have the guts to go out and do it. Such a point of view decriminalizes a day off and a couple brews with your pals.

Regardless of how we felt, at heart thru hikers are not the sort to pick a fight or not know when they have over stepped a line. So despite the encroaching arrival time of the storm we had been waiting out, we set out for the trail. Twelve hikers in a clumped up bunch hiked out of Damascus just as the rain began to set in. It was a fourteen mile day to the next shelter and we walked the entire way listening to the rain ping off the hoods of our rain jackets. 

This story aside, hikers a by and large treated with an unbelievable amount of love and respect by the people the encounter and vice versa. We hikers know we rely on the good hearted people we encounter and we do appreciate it in a way that most of us can only express by passing it on to other in need. But you do occasionally meet a person who thinks you're just a no account drifter plaguing their town.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Infamous and Beloved Cody Coyote

The Infamous and Beloved Cody Coyote

The last we saw of him was in Vermont, between Manchester and Rutland. After a while we assumed he had turned south again. He just up and disappeared so unceremoniously, as only Cody Coyote would. Many months after that, months after being off the trail even, I heard from a friend, a fellow hiker, that he had seen Cody headed south. He was going back down to the Long Trail and wanted to make it up into Canada. It is good to hear our assumptions confirmed. Cody had been saying for a while that he was done with the Appalachian Trail. It was roughly his third time around and he had been walking this footpath for nearly three years by that point. He mentioned the Colorado Trail from time to time and we all hoped that maybe he had just caught a hitch west on the fly somewhere, no time to say goodbye.

Regardless of where he was or where he was going, I wished there was some way to stay in touch with him. He wasn’t like the rest of us. He didn’t search for an outlet to charge his phone every time he was in town. He didn’t choose restaurants based off of Wi-Fi availability. He didn’t feel the need to update a blog in every town. Cody’s most tech savvy moment was when he found a small transistor radio. He would tie it on the top of his backpack and tune into whatever local station the mountains allowed him to receive. It was intriguing to hike with him as Beyoncé blasted through the small, over exerted speakers. How could he listen to this? Did he even know who this was? What she looked like? But that was Cody. It didn’t matter what genre it was, suddenly he could listen to music. It didn’t matter if he found winter boots in the middle of summer. He would do a bit of converting and they would be breathable and light enough for the heat. One time he found a backpack with a fantastic frame, but he didn’t like the pack itself. After a bizarre sort of patchwork surgery he had rigged up a waterproof casing for his gear that he would latch on to the pack’s frame. We often joked about Cody’s ultralight set up. It was a coveted and expensive style of backpacking, unless you were as resourceful as he was.

This ability to make do with what you have and be very thankful for it was only one of many lessons we learned from Cody Coyote. He taught us about edible plants in the mountains. He told us about up coming terrain and what to expect. He gave us suggestions about what to do and where to stay when in towns. He told nonchalant stories of overcoming nature at its most brutal and through action he taught us how to live a minimalistic and sustainable life. But most of all Cody Coyote was a test and we all failed… at first.

Thinking back on it, I find it so strange that we would all go out into the woods thinking we were so big hearted and open minded in doing so and then experience the self check that is Cody Coyote. Who of us could say we knew all along that he was going to be at the height of our affections and that we would so strongly yearn for his well being in life? Which of us could honestly say we pinned him as the upstanding center character of an ever-evolving epic that we all longed to know the ending of?

When we met Cody Coyote just outside of Erwin, Tennessee, none of us would have predicted those things. We all shared the same feelings towards him and I am sad to say that they were not the most positive. First off, he looked like the type of person your mother warned you not to associate with. His pants were too big and sagged around his waist. He wore a faded black, cotton shirt sporting the Pearl music company logo on it and a baseball cap that covered a curly, wild mess of brown hair. With all repurposed and sometimes charred black gear, he looked and smelled like a homeless Kurt Cobain fan on a backpacking expedition. Secondly, he was quiet. So quiet that it was hard to get a reading on him. That quietness accentuated our misunderstanding of him.

It wasn’t until one or more of us finally broke through this shyness that we slowly came to know Cody Coyote. After nearly a week of sharing campsites with Cody we began to see that we had nothing to worry about and he began to feel more relaxed as well. As we built friendships with Cody I began to realize that despite all we had taken him for, he was playful, whimsical and creative, yet his life had wrought an uncanny fortitude within him. After much coaxing we were able to get several stories out of him about his time on the trail. Some starred past thru hikers and a plethora of cheap beer. Others were persuasive tales of particular hostels and trail towns not to be missed. The most intriguing and unsettling of them came from the winter southbound hike he had completed not long before we met him. He recounted many times that he had to sleep next to a fire in order to stay warm enough throughout the night. This explained the singed parts on much of his gear. He even told us of a time, when after days of waiting out an ice storm, he was forced to fashion a pair of crampons for his shoes out of soda cans he found in a shelter. Many shelters have a contraption used to hang food bags out of the reach of mice made by stringing cord through a can or bottle. He ripped apart and remolded the aluminum around his shoes just so he could climb up the slick, icy façade of a mountain and down into town.

These stories helped grow the fame of Cody Coyote as we walked northward along the trail but his reputation preceded him wherever he went. Even after those of us who were closest to him fell in love with this unparalleled character, there was always a handful of hostility towards him. Cody wasn’t to be trusted in many people’s eyes.

He was once blamed for stealing cookies from the church hostel in Vernon, New Jersey. There was a table of food provided for hikers in the free hostel with signs that asked for donations based on how much was taken. When an entire package of Oreos went missing, it quickly spread that Cody was the culprit. My hiking partner and I had stayed there the night before, along with Cody. When another hiker angrily alerted us to the situation, we asked the accuser if he had been seen with the cookies. She said he hadn’t but it only made sense because he often chose to eat whatever food he may find in a hiker box. A hiker box was a designated place in many outfitters and hostels for hikers to leave behind unwanted food or gear they had or to pick up what they may need. Her assumption saddened us because we had no doubt that he would not do such a thing. Later in the day we caught up with Cody on the trail and told him what we had heard. To us it seemed to be a petty and foolish accusation from a stranger, but I could tell it still bothered him. I couldn’t help but notice that when the three of us stopped for lunch that afternoon Cody only had his typical merger rations. No Oreos to be found.

Though his looks did not suggest it, Cody Coyote was an innately virtuous person. He retained his humble and good natured qualities even when poor judgment got the better of him. As even Odysseus of the Odyssey, the most famous epic in literature, eventually experienced, every man has a flaw. Cody was not exempt. One of the last times we saw Cody before he disappeared was a sunny, hot morning in Bennington, Vermont. Bennington is known among hikers for its uppity atmosphere.  The town isn’t too pleased with the yearly plague of offensively fragrant and uncultured mountain men and women that pass through their town. One can imagine their feelings towards Cody. Particularly when the local authorities apprehended him for sleeping in a park, hand still clasped around a mostly empty tallboy.

He was taken to a halfway house in town and told to sleep it off, that he couldn’t leave until later in the evening. When he awoke that afternoon, sober and clear minded, he realized that there was nothing holding him there besides the instructions he had gotten before. The authorities at the house told him they couldn’t make him stay but that it had been suggested for him to do so. Despite the fact that they also could not feed him and he was not allowed to cook his usual dinner of Ramen noodles, he chose to follow their guidelines and wait until they officially released him. No paper work was filed, no charges were given, and yet for some reason he stayed.

As we sat outside of a laundry mat the morning after this incident, Cody admits to being a bit angry, mostly about not being able to eat. It seems he also got a lot of hassle for his expired, broken drivers license as well. He hadn’t been back to his hometown in years and I was surprised he even had one still. My hiking partner asked him why he didn’t leave when he woke up and Cody didn’t really seem to have an answer other than that he was just doing what he thought was best. I couldn’t help but admire that train of thought because I am not sure it would have been my own.

Cody Coyote was easily mistaken for a vagabond, both on and off the trail, but it took a lot of work to see him for the inspiration that he was. It was simple to pity him and or fear him, but it was difficult to get into his world and understand it. I’ll be the first to admit that in the early days of knowing Cody I was afraid to hike alone with him. The closer we all got as friends, the more he and I opened up to each other and Cody became one of my favorite people to hike with. He taught me how to play a game that made the miles fly by even on the roughest days. One of us would think of an object, anything in the world, and the other would guess what it was. It was such a simple and pure game. It was very Cody. He was a lot better at it than me, or maybe he just caught on to the pattern that my objects seemed to always involve food. We would take turns at guessing for miles and miles, hours and hours, as we hiked along.

Slowly, I began to see into the world of Cody Coyote. You could sense Cody’s small town upbringing in his slow, backwoods drawl but I soon learned that his hometown of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee had a population of less than 500 people. From what I could tell he was an only child, never mentioning any siblings, and even from a young age he seemed to not get along with his mother very well, never mentioning his father either. He told me stories of growing up in Cumberland Gap that lead me to believe his training in self sufficiency began long before his days on the trail. As a child Cody once built a fort in his back yard. Most young boys do this but he took it to the next level and ran an extension cord from the house, wiring up lighting and small appliances so he could live there until the winter cold drove him back inside. He said he “preferred” it.

Preferred it to living indoors? Possibly. He had become quite the mountain man in the years he had been on the trail. But a part of me believed what he meant was that he preferred it to his home life. From the very beginning, many of us suspected that Cody Coyote was running from something back home or at very least there was nothing left for him there. We never came to find out what it was and I can only imagine that is the way Cody wanted it to be. Many before us have been left to ponder his mystery and I am sure many more will join us.

Ever a wanderer, ever drifting, he came into our lives, like he has done to so many others, and taught us to be mindful of our perceptions and judgments. Our consequences for failing to do so may include missing out on a great friend and a beautiful character. Maybe next time we will all think of him before we make our rash assumptions about a new acquaintance. In the meantime, winter is coming and as far as any of us know Cody is still headed north for Canada. I am hoping that some where along the way he meets some one with a truly big heart and open mind, who passes the Cody Coyote test, so he can settle down in a warm and safe place for the winter.

Cody Coyote, from the lens of my hiking partner Gonzo.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Reassimilation, the Train that Spoke, and Community

Reassimilation is, I have learned, the last hurtle of the trail. The mountains are done but the battles are not. I have moved into a little, old house off of the Marietta square. Four of us live in two halves of the house with some shared space and there is even another two people living in a "mother in law suite" out back. The amount of people we have on such a small amount of land is a point of pride for me. I can walk to the local coffee shop and to countless restaurants whenever I want and I shop at the farmers market on the weekends. Because of the location there is almost always a friend nearby, but despite all of these things, still there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness in my life.

I live by the train tracks. On Wednesday nights the freights are very frequent and speak the dialect of a higher consciousness. Once, one spoke to me, "You don't fit in here. You don't belong here. You are only here out of habit." I recognized this. It was my subconscious. I had been awakened by the blast of the train horn far off in the distance and as I faded into consciousness my mind retained its grasp on the deep, deep thought of my dreaming, more honest state of mind. It broke me because it was true and I knew it. The only reason this thought had not come rolling across the marquee of my mind in a waking state was because it was painfully true.

If I was not already a little estranged from nearly everyone in my town for wanting to drop my life for six months and hike, having done just that doesn't help at all. I have never been quick on fads, or known about anything on the TV, radio or internet and seldom did I ever try. But now my indifference towards these things has grown into an accusation. These are the things that are making me lonely. Even the small amount at which I am a part of them, they affect me in a negative way. After being separated from them for so long, I now see what a large role these things play in the lives of my friends and the lives of my generation. When I am hanging out with imaginary friend A and imaginary friend B, the internet is always a fourth friend on the scene. It both fascinates and disturbs me how strongly we commune with our phones and laptop, the providers of this entertainment. We craft such a livelihood in cyber space but all the while our actual living and breathing souls are being neglected.  Why can't I sit alone in public and not be on my phone? Why do I have to check Facebook again even though surely nothing excited has happened in the last fifteen minutes?

It is a sickness. We want to be a few clicks away from the entire world but we don't want to be close to anyone in real time. On the trail I lived or died by my fellow hiking partners. They made me laugh when I was crying and fed my soul. They made me eat their food when I didn't have my own and fed my belly. There is no tighter community than that of the community that relies on each other in all parts of daily life. Now I find my self in a place where no one needs me and I am expected to need no one. I can buy all the groceries I want, pay all my bills and rent on time and be as self sufficient as I want but this won't satisfy the human shaped hole in my life. In this new life we all run around like chickens with our head cut off, aimless in our flapping. Directionless, if only we had a North.

I moved back to Marietta believing that several friends and I were headed for Denver come spring and I would only spend a new months here saving up money. I have since been reminded that I no longer live among a clan of people bat shit crazy enough to say "I want to walk 2,200 miles in all sorts of elements over the roughest of terrain for a very extended amount of time" and then go out and actually do it. I am back in the normal world where it is somehow acceptable to have a dream that never becomes a reality. So I now find myself directionless, if only I had a North.

The trail has given me this impression that two or more people can decide that they want to reach a goal and that by helping each other out, that can achieve that goal. Maybe this is only true with long distance hiking, but I feel as if it is a universal application. I am not afraid to set my own goals and do what is necessary to achieve them. I have done it before and I will do it again. But I have seen the light of a life filled with partnership of so many levels and it is so fulfilling. I suppose I am now on a journey to find a sustainable life in which is the norm. Exposure is the first step. I know it exists and I know I desire it. Now I must work to find it. Wherever it may be...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Queen of Katahdin

Top Three Moments #1: Queen of Katahdin

There is one thing every hiker has in common. It doesn’t matter why you set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. It doesn’t matter how long it took you. It doesn’t even matter how you did it. Regardless of any of these things, there is in every hiker a strong lust for Katahdin.

It starts off as this fantastic idea when you’re still in the southern states. Something so removed that it only seems hopeless to count it as your actual goal. Eventually you forget about it. You’ve been on the move for so long and still you can’t even feel its presence yet. Nonetheless, you’re drawn northward, magnetically, to that open space ahead of you. At some point you begin to dream of it again. You wonder about the feeling of that first glimpse. You practice poses for the sign in your mind. It begins to feel like a possibility.

Then one day it is there. It is small, off in the hazy distance and it grows in size with every peak you climb. This is when you begin to count down the mountains between you and the end.

Katahdin. Even the name means “Greatest Mountain” and it is. Hundreds and hundreds have come before it and many you remember for the beauty they offered or the torture you suffered, yet none of them compare to Katahdin.  Standing at its base, there is no more prepared your body can be. This point also marks the most abused status your body may ever summit a mountaintop in. Skin and bone and sinewy calves, thighs and buttocks. Two thousand, one hundred and eighty plus miles you have put into building, and consequently destroying, the only piece of gear that can take you to the top. But you’re so single-mindedly focused that none of these things come to mind.

Despite every due that has been paid up until this point, there are still no easy endings. The path is well worn through the trees but as soon as the Alpine level is hit the trail disappears with the foliage. It becomes a game of eye spy, scanning the immediate surroundings for a white blaze on grey rock among an even greyer sky. They seem to always be in the least plausible places, leading you over and around and under and beside.

Then you come to the table. If you are unfamiliar with the topography of this beast, you may imagine you have arrived. It is, after all, the only logical assumption since you have been climbing hand over hand for several hours. But there is more. It is either a wonderful breather of the well-informed hiker or it is a dismal realization for the unsuspecting. After the shortly lived level land, one more mile of treacherous climb is left.

Your eyes are peeled, peering into the deep grey space around you, for the looming shadow of the sign. When it appears, there is an impulse to run towards it, but there is hardly enough reserve energy to do so, even if it weren’t barricaded in a grave of sharp, loose rocks for miles around. Your spirit soars but your knees buckle as you fall against the worn wooden sign that haunted your dreams and fueled your passion for longer than you have even been wandering this trail.

All of these things you have come to expect, as you painted the scene over and over in your mind through the past fourteen states. What you do not expect is often what becomes the defining moment of the experience.  

There were eight of us and we climbed Katahdin in smaller groups of two and three. Somewhere during the last few states we had simply committed to experiencing the end with one another. We passed each other and waited for and hurried to catch up and then we stood at the base of the mountain together.

Five of us already sat on the summit, sprawled out in hiker trash fashion before the iconic sign. We waited as long as we could stand it. The blustering wind was relentless and we had already partaken in several rounds of photo shoots and naps. The clouds shifted endlessly but never lifted and seemed to hold the promise of worse weather to come. Finally we decided to start hiking back down and hoped to catch the other three on the way up.

As soon as the sign faded into the clouds behind us, the triplets emerged from the sky before us. They were drained and running on empty from the climb, not knowing they were less than 50 yards from the end. We were still high from the adrenaline of being on the summit and descended upon them with the excited knowledge of how close they were. A song burst out among us and we surrounded them as we sang:

“We are the champions!
We are the champions!
No time for losers,
Because we are the champions… of the world!”

It had always seemed like such a narcissistic song, but now I can only suppose that Freddie Mercury wrote it for that moment when someone who had spent six months living in the woods, thinking about a mountain over two thousand miles away, finally made it to their promised land.

By the last line they had joined in along side us, sensing that we had not even been off the summit long enough to loose the shine. The five of us stood and whooped and hollered as they continued up the trail, watching them until the disappeared into the atmosphere, wildly close to the terminus of their own journey.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Another AT Short: Top 3 Moments #2 - The Snack Break

This is no regular update. It is a short story. That means if you double the length of my already verbose posts then you have a rough estimate of the length of this. My Apologies, but I hope you enjoy.

Top 3 Moments on the Appalachian Trail #2

I was the first of us to reach the shelter. Before I even got to the entryway I thought to myself, this must be the worst shelter on the entire trail. It was small. It probably only fit four hikers, maybe five if they were really close friends. The roof was leaky. I could tell the afternoon rain storm I had just walked though had taken a toll on one particular corner of the shelter. It was old. Based off the way the wood was slick and worn down until the square headed nails protruded out, I assumed that most likely it was an original shelter from when the trail was built in the 1930’s.

The plan had been to stop there for the night, but it wasn’t going to work. Not with seven of us. Not with two other hikers already claiming a spot.

Eventually, the guys started to trickle into the shelter, throwing down their packs wherever there was space. Jean Genie and Duffle Miner had just graduated from Maryland Institute and College of Art, very prestigious in the art world.  Spider Mac and Maineiac were both taking gap years. Spider Mac was headed into a graduate program for classical guitar and Maineiac was off to Green Mountain College to study outdoor education. Movie Star and Broken Pack were the shape shifting, mold breaking types. Neither was done with college nor interested in finishing it, they were bound for good things via pure determination and whatever hard work was required. I was the only girl and fresh out of school with a BFA in photography.

Only a week before, most of us had been strangers to one another. We had all come together while passing through the Great Smoky Mountains and had found much encouragement and entertainment in each other. The rough passage in very wintery conditions had built a strong bond between us. At the worst moments we were able to keep each other going and even crack a few hypothermia and frostbite jokes.

By the time Jean Genie reached the shelter, strolling in at his whimsical and unconcerned pace, the rest of us had already made the decision. It was almost dinner, some of us were already in the process of cooking, and we told Genie that we were heading on. “All the way!” we told him. I had tried to rationalize with the guys that hiking another thirteen miles into town and doubling our distance for the day, wasn’t the best idea. Despite their lack of sound logic, they had me beat on the facts. We couldn’t all stay here. The camping was terrible; we were way up on a blustery ridge. We at least had to go another seven miles to the next shelter and if we do that we might as well tack on the last few and end up in the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina.

If the shelter hadn’t been such a dump I probably would have fought back harder. A twenty six mile day was going to be our biggest yet and nearly half of it was going to be in the dark. I gave in because the lure of town was too much and if they were all going to make it tonight, I surely wasn’t going to hang around and be hiking in the morning while they drank coffee and ate pancakes!

We set out after dinner not knowing if more rain would come through or not. It was still early spring, only a few days after Easter, and a chill rolled in as the sun began to set. I snaked down the switchbacks of a steep mountain with Movie Star and Broken Pack and it lead us further into dusk as we descended. At the bottom, we took a break to get out our headlamps so they would be ready when the light was too faint to hike by. It was rapidly fading already, particularly in the valley with the mountains blocking the last shades of blue that were slipping into black. It seemed that just as our eyes could adjust no more, we ran into Maineiac and Duffle Miner, who were waiting for us. We took a short break until Spider Mac and Jean Genie caught up, then we all put on our headlamps and proceeded on as a unified group.

Maineiac and Movie Star switched off being in the lead. BP insisted upon being the caboose of the train and hiked using only the red light mode of his headlamp. I nestled myself in the middle of the line, three of them ahead of me and three of them behind me. It was the safest place I could think to be if we were to come across something unexpected. Night hiking started off as an exciting idea but we soon found it to be very nerve racking even with a large group of people. Every strange shadow seemed ominous and even the smallest and most harmless animals were terrifying in the night until properly identified. Our faces were parallel to the ground as we marched onward trying to avoid all the roots and rocks. I struggled to keep the heels of Genie’s boots in the light of my headlamp as we wove in and out of the undulating sides of mountains and up and over their tree covered summits.

It was cold out but I was sweating immensely and out of breath. We had been walking in the dark for several miles and I was growing weary. The terrain and miles were taking their toll on me. I knew we were all walking on fiery pins and needles due to a slew of new blisters that came up during the past week of hiking with wet feet in the snow, but none of the guys seemed to be slowing. Faintness came over me in a way that a hiker quickly learns to identify when on a long journey like a thru hike. It was hunger. Finally, I had suffered enough. Crankiness brought me to speak up against the relentless pace Movie Star was setting at the front of the line. “Can we PLEASE take a break?! This is not a death march!” To my surprise, the rest of the guys seemed to collectively sign in relief, though covering it with muttered statements of agreement. All of us were worn out and needed a long break, but it is not in the nature of males in their early 20’s to admit it.

We sat down in a row along the trail and began to rummage through our bags for snacks. BP reached in and pulled out two glazed honey buns, his favorite food to eat on the trail. He had cleared out the honey bun stock of a small market in Fontana Dam only a week or so prior. Now he ripped open both plastic wrappers, took a bite out of each honey bun and passed it to Duffle Miner. Duffle took a bite of each of them as well and passed them on once again to Spider Mac. At this point, Maineiac grabbed a cinnabon and started it down the line in the opposite direction. Jean Genie provided a pack of peanut butter crackers and I produced my clif bar, both of those traveled around the group. Movie Star gave up four consecutive snickers bars, one after another, taking a bite and handing it down. Every snack was passed down the line, disappearing bite by bite so that all eight of us, snack having or not, had the needed energy to keep hiking.

This moment in time, this strange way of consuming food, became an icon of the hiker community in my eyes. At a time in which all of us were miserable, too far into a decision to turn back and seemingly forever away from the goal, we were still able to create a joyful moment with one another. The act of digging down deep into our packs and pulling out the most sacred items we have, our food, and laying it down for our fellow hikers is a display of love one rarely comes across. It is a testament to the devotion and bonds built between thru hikers everywhere.

In a matter of days, six more brothers had been born into my family. The past week we had spent fighting for one another in any way that was needed to keep our clan together and now we were even divvying up food so that none of us went hungry. It was exactly the communal experience I set out on the trial to find.

Four days latter the group was temporarily disbanded as a stomach virus rocked the hiker community. Every shelter was plagued by hikers lain out heaving and groaning. Puke splatter was a common sight and the privies were filling up. We miraculously fell back into line with one another in the next town of Erwin, Tennessee, only a day or two after the sickness befell us all. As we commiserated together we couldn’t help but think of all the warnings that were now posted at every shelter and hostel in this section of the trail. “Wash hands with soap and water as much as possible! Avoid contact with those who are sick! Do not share food or drinks with other hikers!”

We still don’t think it is related.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

But Wait! There's More!

I have found that just because I am off the trail, doesn't mean I am done with this blog. I love to write and find myself needing an outlet for many stories from the trail. What a great place for it, right?!

This is the first of three part series. Really, the series is just my top three moments on the trail. This is only #3. Number two is in the works and of course #1 will be the last. But you will realize that all of these have to do with people. They're not about beautiful vistas or even sweeping moments of feeling at one with all of the universe. There was a lot of that along the trail, but in a day to day sense, I would have shriveled and died if I had only those to work off of. People are there with you no matter the weather, no matter the terrain, and even no matter of the current state of your heart.

Top Three Moments on the Appalachian Trail: #3

Whiskey in the Wilderness

It was the first time we had spoken of things such as these in a group of this size. They were heavy things. Things about our vulnerability in relationships, the compulsive flaws we saw in ourselves and felt helpless to change, and the tendency to accept less love as a result of these things. Things that hadn’t come up in the last 2,000+ miles and five months of hiking with one another.

It must have been the whiskey.

Mudmouth and Yardsale had the foresight to include in their mid 100 Mile Wilderness food drop a bottle of Maine’s finest local whiskey, that was still sold for less than $20, of course, as by this time all hikers have learned to have a good time on a budget. Gonzo and I had failed to perceive the opportunity in the ‘drunkard friendly’ terrain of the 100 Mile. Weaving between ponds and lakes, you rarely felt you were exerting yourself with the lack of elevation change and thankfully our hiking partners had realized this would prove to be the perfect stretch for intoxicated hiking. This was, after all, the last hurrah of the entire trip and celebration in any way was a must.

We reached the road where our food was to be tucked away, under some brush, in two five-gallon buckets and began sorting through our loot. By having a food drop we had avoided carrying seven full days of food straight through, meaning a very heavy backpack for each of us over a long stretch of trail. We traded in our trash for a new food stash and ate a late lunch. Yardsale and Mudmouth transferred the whiskey into an empty Gatorade bottle and we set out to a shelter only a few miles up trail.

For quite some time we had been putting in a very slack amount of miles. We had been at it for months on end and now that Kahtahdin was in sight we threw on the brakes. Partially to aid in taking in as much of the beautiful Maine north country as possible and partially in hopes of it never ending. This day was no different, but we did realize we needed to hit a daily quota to finish by the day our ride home was to arrive. So when we reached the shelter we took a vote among us: either stay and start drinking the whiskey or hike on and fulfill our desired mileage.  None of us felt very ambitious towards the goal but we knew it was best, so in typical hiker fashion we decided to make a less appealing situation more fun in any way we could. This time that meant whiskey. We combined our two options by passing the plastic bottle round for a few swigs each and then set out for a campsite that was right before a road, named Jo-Mary, marking the halfway point of the 100 Mile Wilderness. If we reached this point, it would be a momentous accomplishment for Gonzo, who had previously hiked the part of the trail that still lay before us. If we could reach this point, he would have traversed the whole trail. All of us were excited for this feat.

As we hiked, each time we stopped for any reason, the bottle would float around the circle and it seemed we all kept finding reasons, valid or not. Finally, someone announced they had to pee. It must have sounded like a great idea because our bladders collectively fell like dominos and all four of us stepped off the trail in various places to do our business. We reconvened where we had thrown down our backpacks and took a seat as we did. When the last of us arrived we simply didn’t stand up to keep hiking. A conversation had started right in the middle of the trail.

We shared woes that we had carried, like the gear on our backs, for as long as we could remember. Poor choices that has been made and near misses that we now, in our wiser, older states, realize the gravity of.  We expressed gratitude for one another. For every time one of us had been another’s life line.  We offered up encouragements to the group and ourselves as we once again, for the second time in half a year, were about to change our lives in a 180 degree about face, this time back to the “normal”. All these things, for all this time had lain dormant among us, despite the wildly tight bonds that had been built between us. Nearly an hour passed as we sat on our backpacks, blocking non-existent traffic, with the rapidly setting sun lowering itself behind the trees.

As Twilight became more evident we eventually brought our attention back to the task of completing our miles. Even if we hadn’t of hiked in a tipsy haze in which we paid little attention, we still had no way of knowing how far we had come. We just knew we should keep walking. By this point we had finished off the contents of the plastic bottle as we sat and decided that the next reasonable campsite we saw would be where we set up camp.

We hiked on and found a spot as dusk was turning to darkness. It was a little clearing nestled by a rushing river with ample space and a fire ring already built. We pitched our tents and hung our hammocks, forgetting the need to reach our checkpoint. In the morning we awoke, broke down camp in our usual manner and set out for a new day. Fifty yards up the trail we came across the road. We had made it after all.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Home Sweet Home, So They Say

The transition back into "normal" society is ever looming over a thru hiker as they near the end of the trail. A lot of people talk about it. Hiker's who have done it before offer up good advice to those who are about to experience this transition for the first time. I even read a good bit about it in a book before I even left for the trail in March. But really, much like getting on to the trail in the first place, nothing can prepare you for it.

Once off the trail I spent nearly three weeks at my brother and sister in law's house in New Jersey. That entire time, I sat there waiting for the moment in which I realized I was in the middle of this dreaded transition, but it never came. No moment of disgust at the luxury of the life around me. No distaste towards the people I was around. None of the things that I heard from so many sources was sure to happen. I thought maybe I had escaped it.

This past week I finally drove back down to Georgia. I had planned to do a bit more hiking to make up the short section I had skipped in Pennsylvania, but with a new house and roommates already lined up for me back home, I decided it would be most responsible to save what little money I had and return home sooner rather than later to begin the inevitable job hunt.

On the way down I drove I-81, which parallels the AT all the way from PA down to TN, or so it seemed by the amount of trail town names I was seeing on freeway signs. I remembered a shelter I stayed at just outside of the town of Marion, VA and I remembered passing under I-81 in the back of a cow farmer's car as DuffleMiner and I hitched into town. The shelter was on the property of the Mount Rogers Visitors Center right off of a road so I stopped by to see if any Southbounders needed a ride to town. There was one guy there, Danko, a young tall, lanky, bearded (aren't they all) guy from Missouri. He had started on June 2nd, so we had passed each other on the trail at some point and had been on it at the same time for at least two and a half months. It was nearly 5:30 and he was happy to join me for dinner in town. We ran by Wal-Mart first so he could resupply on some things and then we went to Wendy's. Not a exactly a glamorous night out but it is the sort of thing that makes a hikers day. After dinner I dropped him off at the shelter and finished up the last 5 hours down to Georgia.

The beautiful thing about the hiking community is that I can walk up to a stranger and make a friend of him with out the slightest feeling of awkwardness between us. It's a normal thing for two people who have never met to have a relatively intimate, one time only meeting with one another. You never run out of things to ask about and share with two hikers.

Since I have been back in my hometown I have kept very busy with visiting with friends. With some of them it is like things have not changed in the least. We just catch up on some facts and carry on like we did before. With others there has grown an obvious chasm between our interests in life.

Over all, I feel a bit like I am simply six months behind in a life a never said I wanted. The fear of this life is what made me want to hike the Appalachian Trail in the first place. Now that I have completed the trail, I am again faced with this formulaic, although fool proof, "life" of what I would call non-living.

Now, the prospect of it only seems more unappealing. Some of my friends have moved into bigger houses. Some have gotten new jobs that aren't particularly satisfying but pay well. Others have accumulated a collection of new, really neat things. More now than ever I hope to avoid all of those things and for the first time ever it is more than just a hope. I have lived so minimally for so long that it seems easy to go with out these things I once thought were something important.

The house I am moving into is a small, older house and will be shared with 3 other people. I am having to (and enjoying) getting rid of a lot of things in order to be able to fit all of my belongings in my new home. Before the trail I was very sentimental and would save everything. Now I have lived a life where you cull your material possessions down to the necessities and throw out all the rest, putting it in storage inside your heart and memory, and then putting it into the trash.

It's a better life, a lighter life. One I hope to cultivate for a very long time.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The 100 Mile Wilderness and The End

Right now I am sitting on the big, plush couch in my brother's den, in front of his oversized TV. It's a scene I dreamt of for so long. 

On Thursday August 22nd, at 8:30am, I summited Katahdin. The whole crew was there: Gonzo, Maineiac, Yardsale, Mudmouth, and the triplets, Ocean Spray, Umble and Twilight. (To clarify for further reference: Umble and Twilight are twin sisters and have a twin brother who didn't hike. Ocean Spray and Umble have been dating for several years and the three soon collectively became known as the triplets to other hikers. We have been traveling around them since Virginia)

We had spent the past week passing through the 100 Mile Wilderness, which begins right outside of Monson. It took us a week to traverse this last, famously beautiful section. In that week we had only half a day of rain. Mudmouth, with her unwavering positivity, had been saying for several states that we had a week of sunshine coming. She said she knew it to be true because we deserved it. After a season where we rarely went more than three days between precipitation, we got a solid week of sunshine as we walked by half a million ponds and streams in the mossy, Maine forests. 

Mudmouth, Yardsale, Gonzo and I arranged to have a food drop halfway through the week brought by a hostel in Monson. They told us a location on a logging road about halfway through the wilderness and gave us clues to find a two five gallon buckets with our food in them. This saved us from carrying a huge load of food over a long stretch of miles. Mudmouth and Yardsale had the forethought to include a bottle of whiskey in their drop. After picking up our food, the four of us began sipping as we walked and this was the spirit of the 100 Mile Wilderness. We were in a constant state of celebration and spent a large amount of time enjoying ourselves by sitting by streams and reading, fly fishing, or painting pondside. 

After so much difficult terrain through New Hampshire and the beginning of Maine, we had finally passed into the flat stretch where the only mountain left was Katahdin. In the last days we were seeing several views a day of the mountain we had been headed towards for over five months. The day before we summited we popped out of the 100 Mile Wilderness at Abol Bridge, one of the most famous views of Katahdin. The nearby camp store was our last chance at real food on the trail so between the eight of us we bought them out of all the hotdogs, buns and baked beans and planned
 to cook up a feast that night. Little did we know what was waiting for us. 

We hiked into the Katahdin Stream Campground where the AT brings you to the base of the mountain. There is a shelter for thru hikers only, but it is far removed from the action and costs each hiker $10 to stay a sleepless night there. Thankfully, we arrived on a special night. There was a couple in the campground who had come across two shelter sites by donation and they were encouraging thru hikers to stay there instead of paying money. Besides providing a free place to sleep right near the trail, they also fed us! There was hamburger, stew, subs and all the picnic sides. 

Just about the time we were ready for bed Ocean Spray's mother showed up with a whole other spread for food for us! Having built up an insatiable need for food over the months, we were pleased to eat more. 

That night no one slept well. We all felt like a small child on Christmas Eve, sleeping at the base of the last mountain on the Appalachian Trail. Gonzo, Mudmouth and Yardsale hit the trail before the night was over, having to stop often and rventually wait for sunrise. Maineiac and I stuck it out until just before day break and set out just after 5am to head up Katahdin. Even after all the way we had come, it was still a strenuous climb. Once we broke out into the alpine zone it was all rock scrambling from there. It was a foggy morning and we couldn't see much of what was around us. Several times we thought we saw the iconic Katahdin sign before us only to find out it was not. 

We reached the top so early that we had ample celebration time for just the thru hikers before the day hikers began to shown up. Half a million pictures were taken and champagne corks were flying everywhere. 

Besides our group three other hikers also summited that day. Two were thru hikers, Garfunkel and Sundance, and the third was Sundance's girlfriend Michelle, who had hiked all of Maine with him. They reached the top about 30 minutes behind us and there right in front the the sign Sundance got down on one knee. The words were lost in the wind to those of us standing over to the side but from Michelle's reaction we knew the answer. 

We knew the triplets would take a while to get to the summit because they had family hiking up with them, but we waited as long as we could in the chilly wind before we headed back down. Just below the summit, where the sign was barely visible, we crossed paths with them. The five of us burst out into song, singing "We Are The Chamipons" by Queen and we stepped to the side of the trail and have them high fives as hey passed. Ocean Spray's mom manned the camera with a huge smile on her face and Twilight and Umble's brother and friend just watched the strange scene unfold. It was one of the more surreal and favored moments on the trail for me. 

We hiked back down to Katahdin Stream Campground and hitched a ride to Abol Campground to wait on the others to come down. Ocean Spray's mom had reserved two campsites for us all and when they got down the mountain she had yet another spread for dinner. Soon Maineiac's aunt and grandmother joined us with even more food. We cooked up our hotdogs and made jiffy pop over the fire and drank champagne. It was a bigger celebration than we could have asked for to commemorate the end of our hike. 

The next morning my brother Evan came to pick up Mudmouth, Yardsale, Gonzo and I. We stayed the night in Millenocket and had a lazy recoup day. Then at 9:30 the next morning we set off towards home. 

But first we made a stop at Maineiac's aunts house. Since the day I met Maineiac at Fontana Dam he had been talking about the pig roast his family was planning upon his return. We had finally made it, five months later, and Maineiac had earned his huge gathering. The rest of us hauled it down to southern coastal Maine, just outside of Portland, to His aunts house to join in the fun by lunchtime. When we got there we were showered with adoration by very member of his overwhelmingly large family. 

We were also reunited with our friend Cinderfella, a French hiker who was headed south and crossed out path only a few days before. We had a great time t the last shelter on the AT talking to Cinderfella about our hiker and about his travels down from Canada to the trail. He was trying to hike or hitch all the way to Mexico to study ruins and when in Millinocket Maineiac's family spied him on the street. They picked him up, fed him and offered him a deal he couldn't refuse. They proposed that he should come to the coast with them, stay for a few days and then travel to Boston with the part of the family that was flying back to Texas, then take a bus to NYC to visit for a few days and finally fly down to Texas and stay with them as a French tutor for their children, using their house as a home base for his travels. This is how Maineiac's family is. They take you in and spit you out as one of their own. 

His aunts house was a poster child of New England living and there was a gorgeous and wildly tasty spread of food. We played frisbee and drank beer and the triplets showed up as well. 

From there we drove into Portland for coffee and continued on our way to New Hampshire to drop off Mudmouth and Yardsale. We arrived at Mudmouth's parents house, their temporary landing pad, around dinner time but only stayed for a few moments. Gonzo, Evan and I continued on to Brooklyn to drop Gonzo at his sister's apartment, stopping for a later dinner, and made it into the city just shy of midnight. 

On the drive home Evan said that he felt like he had just taken part in the closing scene of a movie. A group of friends come together in the wilderness and eventually have to part ways: one hosts a farewell party in coastal Maine, two are dropped off in rural New Hampshire, another is dropped off in the bustle of New York City and then there is only one left, fading off into normal life once more. 

For me, I think I am still enjoying the comforts of life in society a little too much to miss the trail just quite yet. The toilet flushes and there is always toilet paper already in the bathroom. I can shower everyday in a clean shower. The bed has a pillow topper mattress and two great pillows. Cold water comes out of a fridge full of food and I don't even have to treat it. It even rained and I didn't get wet. 

I know I will miss it soon and already there are things I am seeing around me that I understand less than before. Most have to do with TV and the Internet. It will be an interesting transition that starts with the small things.


 This is our first official view of Katahdin. We sat there for quite some time and looked at it. 

 Katahdin as you are crossing over Abol Bridge and into Baxter State Park.

 A different angle of Katahdin. If you can't tell, by this point every time we saw Katahdin we had to stop and take a picture of it. 

 Our little group at the sign! Mudmouth and I (Rainbow Braid) up top. Maineiac to the left and Gonzo on the right and Yardsale below. 

The most important picture every thru hiker takes!

The extended crew in Maineiac's aunt's back yard! Twilight up top, in the middle left to right, Me (Rainbow Braid), Umble, and Yardsale, and on the bottom left to right,  Mudmouth, Maineiac, Gonzo and Ocean Spray.