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.

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