Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Limp in the Woods (Day 32)

An Appalachian Trail Tale
Day 32: April 25th, 2013

Hampton Trail/AT Junction to a mile past Abingdon Gap Shelter = 39 miles
Miles to date: 458

He Lived Alone; He Suffered Alone; He Died Alone

In 2006 I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail a second time, because I wanted to experience something different, and because I’ll try anything twice. The notion might seem incongruous, but a single path is plenty enough for two different experiences, as no two hikes are alike. Earlier this year I deliberated taking a stab at the PCT a third time since, not unlike the first or second, the third time’s a charm.

But it was time for something new from top to bottom. Or, as it is, from bottom to top(1). I didn’t want to do something familiar, something comfortable. I wished to step outside my comfort zone and onto a new path and a new walk of life. One month in and I’m glad I have. I think.

The AT is truly a challenging trail and so far each day has tested me on multiple levels, with the notable omission of any mental lifting. The rewards are there too, but not quite to the degree a veteran PCTer might hope for. In spite of this, I rise from the dead each morning eager to see what the day will bring and what’s around the next bend. This relentless curiosity is what keeps me going, always. Hang in there, there’s no need to hang yourself yet, I mumble to my lonesome. But by mid-afternoon, when I pine to be supine, my thoughts drift back to the malicious, the morose. What’s the point in this shit? All I do is walk and stare at the ground out of necessity; of course there’s nothing else to see anyway. The script never changes. I should end it all before it’s all over.

No matter how nasty the nosh (hunger is the best sauce), mealtime alleviates the most destructive of these thoughts, as does the trail’s social scene and, from time to time, the nightly standstill. But the cycle, this slow-moving train wreck of a trek, commences again ten or twelve hours later. Like a harebrained hamster running on its never-ending wheel, you’d think I might figure it all out eventually…what’s causing the squeaking. Perhaps I might then instead head for a real change of pace somewhere. I’ve got the time, the means and the mindset, but no: I just walk and ponder why it is I believe the next curve in the path will change everything, or why I cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, it will provide the catalyst for some sort of powerful, empowering transformation, ala Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

     It never does.

Or it hasn’t yet, anyway. And so I soldier on.

William: “Oi sir, what are you doing?”
Chaucer: “Uh... trudging. You know, trudging?” [pause]
Chaucer: “To trudge: the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in life except the impulse to simply soldier on.”
~From the flick A Knight’s Tale

In any respect, the trail is a good substitute for happiness. Let’s hope they got it wrong when they wrote that happiness cannot be pursued, that it must ensue. Who are they anyway?

Any old fool should realize that you cannot buy happiness, but you can pick yourself up a backpack, and that’s pretty close.

The walking trudging was ridiculous from the onset of the day, but more about that in a minute. It had poured all night, to the point where I had to relocate my tent on two separate occasions, so I could escape the river running through it. And as I moved my shelter for the second time I heard another tree/widow-maker crepitate and then come crashing down to the ground (for the fifth time on this hike!). The tree-fall was yet another reminder as to why I scrutinize each night’s camp spot so damn thoroughly. Or at least I do as far as trees are concerned. Potential river beds, not so much.

The trail was a quagmire, often a river itself (no one ever warned me that the AT requires a PFD), but a grueling seventeen-hundred-foot climb up Pond Mountain straight off the bat helped generate some much-needed heat. Other than that there was no point to the ascent whatsoever, as it would loop back around close to Hampton at US Highway 321 six trail miles later. It offered no compensation in the form of vistas, just a feeling of fatigue and an alleged sense of accomplishment. When I was in Hampton yesterday, I watched a few hikers skip the long circuitous mudfest (skip, as in avoid, not gambol) and instead head up the highway to the AT junction near the impounded water of Lake Watauga, snipping four or so miles from their respective journeys, along with all the tree-cloaked clambering. They were smarter than me, natch. The smartest ones hitchhiked (also known as: “yellow-blazing”). Their loyalty lies not to the trail, but to the end of the trail.

When I neared the crest of the pointless peak, at the Pond Flats camping area, I detected a dog barking in the woods. I stopped to listen. His(2) yap was frantic and he seemed to be running in all directions, though I couldn’t quite see him. There were no houses in the area and it was clear the pooch was on his own. The forest was too dense and the area too boggy for a human to be moving as quickly. For a few minutes I called out his name (I’d tagged him Cujo) and tried to locate him, but decided it was best not get eaten alive, by the creature or the woods.

A long-ish descent led me down to the aforementioned highway via Shook Branch Road. I made like a chicken--the chicken--and crossed the road (damn, cars move fast!) and perched upon a picnic bench beside the sparkling lake, to enjoy a snack and to dry my belongings out. Everything in my pack had been soaked last night but it was sunny and dry now and for that I was appreciative to no end, in spite of the slow-to-get-going temps.

Easy E, the twenty-something year-old, soon pulled in and did the same thing. Our junk was scattered everywhere--on trees, benches, garbage dumpsters, fencing, and on the ground itself, a nicely mowed lawn. I stripped down to only my rain pants, so I could dry all else. It was then a Highway Patrol car pulled up, but its driver fled the scene after just one look. No nod, no acknowledgement, no nothing. Just as well, I concluded. They’d get us on murder charges had the officer stepped out of his vehicle and caught a wiff of us. Wet stuff stinks more than the dry garb.

Drying the TarpTent out
The trail skirted the man-made lake in an incorrigible chain of mud bogs, all of which I’d successfully avoided with some jumping and pole-vaulting: plant the hiking poles and use them to spring vanward farther than without. At one point the way had even briefly divided for an alternate, official High Water Route, but I failed to notice the junction and was forced to slog straight through shin-deep mud, toward the lake’s dam, past the well-concealed Lake Watauga Shelter. As luck would have it, it was the last of the sodden trail, and my shoes, which had remained relatively dry to that point, were now saturated. From the knees down I looked as though I was made of mud.

The dam offered as much wide-scale scenery as I’d witnessed in a while, so I partook in yet another break to slurp some of the vistas up, as well as to air-out my shoes and socks, and to take advantage of a porta-potty intended for maintenance workers. By now the temperature was warm and welcoming. Easy E was already long gone, pedal to the floor, to the fore. There, the trail looked a nefarious affair, so any and all respite was alright by me. If I was still Easy’s age, I’d attack the trail with the same intensity and fervor, but I’m twice as old now and a little less keen (due to the certain--yet uncertain--effects of any and all ill-provoked eagerness). As always, on the AT or anywhere else, it’s a case of HIKE IT FORWARD, one small step at a time. With enough of them, progress continues. If not progress, amateurgress.

Progress continued until the Nick Grindstaff gravestone (1851-1923) on Iron Mountain, where I sat down and watched a flawlessly round moon crawl up behind the serrated skyline alongside four other hikers: Mountain Goat (male, sweet beard, New Hampshire, mid-twenties) and his girlfriend Tiny Klutz (late twenties, no beard, NH), Backstreet (early twenties, Orlando, FL, no facial hair) and a buddy of his whose trailname I forgot upon hearing. The epitaph on the six-foot-tall chimney-shaped monument read: “He lived alone, he suffered alone, he died alone.” Nick had been a hermit par excellence, not a Thoreauvian counterfeit-loner, but a full-fledged recluse. No doubt, he picked a good spot to live. And to die.

It was the ideal evening to pay homage to the hermit: the circular pink moon, an armada of reflective gray-silver clouds swirling around, bats flittering frantically above, a slight mist lingering, and an overall eerie ambiance. We had to wonder if Nick ever found himself frightened up here, far above the uninhabited vales below. Such pronounced solitude would terrorize most souls. But then he wasn’t like most souls.

Orphaned at the age of three by the decease of his ma and pa, Nick and his three siblings remained with relatives until reaching adulthood, whereupon the family farm was dispersed amongst them. Grindstaff would till the land for five years before selling his portion and ranging west. He soon swapped rings, but would lose his wife to an early demise. He retreated east and would eventually lose everything else he had--accounts differ as to why; some say he drank his money away; others claim he was robbed of everything. In any case, he then repaired to the hills, backtracking to civilization just once every six months for the next forty or so years, for supplies and the occasional haircut.

The quartet had a small fire going and had there been enough smooth, flat real estate nearby I’d have called it a day. Instead, I made the executive decision to enjoy a full moon hike and carry on into the velvet night as far as possible. I felt better and better as the day wore on (and as it had worn out) and had always looked forward to a full moon hike on the AT. One never knows when he’ll encounter a big, fat full moon on this trail, as clouds had smothered my first one and could very well enshroud the next three or four I hope to witness. You take em when you can get em.

Trail Magic! A box full of soft drinks and snacks!
An England-style stile
I forgot however that on the AT trees all but negate the celestial bodies above, creating an eclipse of the universe(3). As I carried on, all I could distinguish was a deep, dark, rather uninviting forest. Regrettably, I had my headlamp on almost the whole time, as the trees cast their spooky shadows everywhere. I’d end up carrying on farther than I had during daylight hours, past TN Highway 91 and the only officially-designated wheelchair accessible section of the AT (no trees!), through some cultivated plots, up and over a number of English-styled stiles, past the Double Springs Shelter, past US Highway 421 at Low Gap, past another shelter (the Abingdon Gap Shelter) and past the point in which I was at all coherent.

Dead man walking
It is now a whisker past midnight and the moon is straight overhead. I’m nesting atop a bed of brown, crunchy leaves, too tired to eat or pitch my writing studio (aka: tent). No writing studio, no more writing. Though the trail sits just a few feet away, the DO NOT DISTURB sign has been conspicuously hung on a head-high tree branch between me and it, so that I might sleep in tomorrow, which is now officially today. (It is always today, it seems.) My thoughts slip in and out of consciousness and it’s likely I won’t finish this journal entry the way I would normally like to, with something witty or

"Foot"note 1: 'GAME' is the name of the game: GA-ME, Georgia to Maine. 'MEGA' is the southbounder's ellipsis for ME-GA. Mega Game is a yo-yo hike from Maine back to Maine via Georgia. Yes, a few have actually done this.

"Foot"note 2: I didn't know the canine's gender but figured it a male since the dog sounded as though loaded with testosterone. 

"Foot"note 3: There was an actual, de facto lunar eclipse going on this evening, a penumbral one, but it was not visible on the AT, and not just because of the vegetation. All the other continents were treated to the show, alas. Just not Americanis Norte.

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