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.