Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Limp in the Woods (Day 112)

An Appalachian Trail Tale
Day 112: July 14th, 2013

Kay Wood Shelter to Dalton = 3 miles
Miles to date: 1,566

Living 'off' the Land?

Of the questions a thru-hiker is habitually popped with, one I’ve previously neglected to mention, is how the thru-hiker feeds him or herself. “Do you forage?” the interested inquisitor might solicit. After having been briefed that survival via foraging is far too labor intensive and not even remotely feasible, at least not as it pertains to the whole notion of long-distance hiking, the inquisitor walks away disappointed. “So you’re not really living off the land, then?”

Living off the land?! I am a hovercraft! My feet don’t touch the ground!

(One can dream, no?)

Foraging and thru-hiking don’t really merge. Is it possible to forage and sustain a thru-hike? Negative; hunt for food enough to subsist and the trail will never end. (A pleasing thought!) Could you supplement a thru-hike? Sure. I’ve done so to a very small degree, maybe a few thousand calories. To this point I’ve enjoyed some mushrooms, some ginseng (which was unlawful to pick, I later learned), some ramps (aka wild leeks) and the berries: raspberries, mulberries, blackberries, blueberries, Asian wineberries and dingleberries. I kid about the dingleberries. I wouldn’t go near those. Toxic!

But in all honesty--beware: not my specialty--foraging in the wild, or today’s adaptation of it, might present one with a pastime, and a way to pass the time. It could even offer a few more moments to stave off death. At best. At worst, foraging could lead to bad decisions and a fatal outcome, both for the plants and the gatherer (ala Alexander Supertramp). And in most cases, and most places, our predecessors have picked the land clean. The bottom line(1): gallivanting around in search of food is fun. I’ve done it and will continue to do so. But a thru-hike’s continuance depends on one thing and one thing only: adhering to the goal. Walking. By.

Doing just that, Bearbell and I left the Kay Wood Shelter (most shelters are wood) and directed our feet north--Mush, you poor saps! Mush!--soon walking by more edible plants. Okay, we didn’t so much walk by as we had stopped by. Weaklings! Only when we had started to feel the unmistakable, unshakable onset of the trots did we trot on.

What a battle. You. Me. Anyone. Pitted against the berries. You’re well aware that you should stop eating and get a move on, but yet each mouthful is so tantalizingly delectable. Finding the fruit is rewarding in its own right--a primordial impulse hardwired unto each of us--but nothing beats the eating. Mightily delish. Hours can pass if you’re not careful, and if someone within your charges doesn’t take charge.

I am not that guy. Only when another pair of people-like creatures showed, dodgy looking dudes who we hadn’t seen before, did we depart. A weekend, I realized. The long, leather machete sheath promised they weren’t thru-hikers, and that we’d come to the proper conclusion to get going posthaste. Prehaste.

Apart from (and in spite of ) the berries, I felt utterly depleted. Fumes. Fuming. It was going to be a difficult day, no matter what came my way. If even atop flat ground, I could expect ups and downs. This is the trouble with being born! Hang in there, dude. You’ve got no rope, so you’re nowhere near its end! The internal arguments had commenced.

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”
~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a noose and hang in there.”
~Franklin D. Funnybone!

Into either ether. The Green Tunnel vs. The Black Abyss. Should I stay or should I go? To be or not to be?

Don’t stare too long at the abyss, lest the abyss stare back at thee!

Bearbell pulled ahead and then away from us (us: me and my many demons), somewhere beyond the northern horizon. We’d reassemble at what few clearings there were, for both berries and a break from bugs, but each time we started back up, he’d vanish again. This lasted what seemed like hours, but really it was scarcely an hour. (The clock strikes sluggishly when you’re sluggish.) And by then we’d dragged into Dalton (pop: 7,000-ish), where I promptly pitched my tent in Thomas Levardi’s tight backyard and then face-planted into it. Tight, because others had already amassed. A mass of gaseous ass atop the grass, alas. Hikers and their hubbub. Keep off the grass, kids.

Tom is yet another of the inestimable AT trail angels. He opens his heart, his home and his backyard to passerbyers, those afoot anyway, offering them the chance to regroup (in more ways than one). I’d found, if only for a night, a much needed home.

And what does one do when at home? Well, after the face plant and the ensuing breather, he heads out to take care of the two Es: errands and eating! Frenchie and Coolie McJetPack and I thumbed our way to nearby Pittsfield (pop: 44,000; city motto: Welcome to the Pits!), where we celebrated Bearbell’s Bastille Day by visiting the Old Country Buffet, the hiker’s preferred all-you-can-eat-and-then-some joint wherein everyone else was thickset and smiling (us: thin and grinning). We ate in silence, our stomachs even bigger than our mouths. We then waddled our way over to the neighboring Wal-Mart, where we restocked on salty, protein-laden poison, as tradition and future hunger tells us. After that I departed on my own for the Berkshire Anthenaeum, Pittsfield’s public library, which looked to double its duties as a homeless shelter.

I fit right in.

There, I sat in front of one of the communal computers--after having carefully wiped down the keys with the provided hand sanitizer--catching up on editing this journal, email and nothing, perusing some of the trail journals from others currently thru-hiking the AT. Squinting excessively since I’d forgotten my reading glasses, I can’t say I enjoyed most logbook entries, though this wasn’t solely due to my aging eyes. Most were as difficult to read as Finnegans Wake, but for a different reason. Pithy, poor, painful. Here’s an illustrative example, misspellings mended, from a peripheral acquaintance I’ve met up with a few times along the trail but one who shall, out of deference, remain unidentified. This carefully crafted vignette is up to date and is thrilling, evocative stuff, so be forewarned:

Walked a bunch. Mosquitoes galore. Rain late. Took care of usual chores.

Proof here that once you’ve read one trail journal, you’ve read them all (in that you don’t care to view any others). He could’ve tweeted as much, and he’d still have had room for sixty-eight additional characters. At least his loved ones know he was still (somewhat) alive to that point.

"Foot"note 1: Actually, this is the bottom line.

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