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.