Tuesday, May 4, 1999
A unique feature to the hike is traversing these Balds. The timberline lies just below 8,000 feet, where trees don’t grow higher than that elevation. There is no peak in the southern Appalachians that attain that height so there is no reason a mountain should be devoid of trees for climatic reasons. There is no good reason for the open Balds, these tree challenged areas.
I hiked over Big Bald, which used to be called Greer Bald. It was named after David Greer, a man who in 1798 was spurned by his sweetheart. So in his grief he ran away to this mountain to live as a hermit. In 1800 he pushed deeper into the mountains to hide better and to built a house others wouldn’t find. He lived there for the next 32 years in solitude. According to legend he also dug a 12-foot room under an enormous rock, lined the walls with clay and used a stone for a front door that he could roll back and forth. He kept livestock in there with him for warmth and company, and dug a moat to keep the animals confined to a specific area. He lived like the animals and became known as “old hog Greer.”It could be argued that he might have been the smartest man of his time to make his home in such a wonderful location. There is a quite joy in the fields and flowers. Sadly he was known for his violent temper which kept him from holding any jobs and caused problems with neighbors and law-enforcement officers. His anger led him to killed a man in an argument and eventually he was killed in one himself. There was no one to mourn his death and no one to miss him. It seems like such a selfish life.
It was such an interesting and exciting day as I saw life moving all around me on my 15 miles. Moles scampered over crumped brown leaves on the ground at highspeed, going aimlessly as if they were on crack. Chipmunks spun around thick trees, chattering squirrels, singing birds and another green rattlesnake encounter that sent my heart to racing. As I was moving I came across the rattler just sunning himself across the trail. I thought it was a mossy stick until it twitched as I drew close. But by time my brain registered what it was, my momentum could not be stopped, so I planted my poles just in front of him and vaulted as hard as I could over him. I yelled a prayer as I flew in the air above him, “God!” And then I landed on the ground on the other side of him and immediately I turned to look at him and see what danger I might still be in. He must have been in as much surprise because by time I was clear of him he was just coiling for his own protection. I lengthened my hiking pole and slowly inched closer to him, staying at a safe striking distance, and then I tossed him off the trail and into some distant bushes to protect Dawn Treader and Shiver who were several minutes behind me coming up the trail. That got my adrenaline going, I fly up the next mountain like I had just drunk a liter of coffee.
Several more people have dropped off the trail. April Fool came off for a second and last time with shin splints. A married couple shared that their journey is ending tomorrow because there are too many people on the trail for them, they wanted more solitude than they were getting. The worst is Green Mountain Man, he died in this shelter last Friday from a heart attack. He is the second man to die on this trail this year. His partner JoJo pledged to finish this trail not just for himself but also in honor of Green Mountain Man. What Green Mountain Man liked best about the trail was the people and the companionship. I never met him but over the last month I’ve been reading his comments in the trail registers, I felt like he was a friend.
When Sequoyah wrote his Cherokee language, he used characters he found in an old English spelling book, which he could not read. They were German printed characters and letters from out of a Bible. He placed them right side up, upside down, added strokes, curlicues and then made up symbols of his own invention. Because of his hard work and great vision he was honored by having the great trees in the west named after him, Sequoias. Having a tree named after you is pretty cool. But is it cooler than having come up with a written language?
Wednesday, May 5, 1999
My hiking poles saved my life and also kept me from falling many times today. The mist covered the trail making everything moist and slippery. As I kept my had down I was moving fast down the trail. My mind was lost in thought thinking of memories with friends. I must have stepped on a tree root because in a flash I was falling down. My left foot slid right taking out both of me feet out from beneath me. I landed on the muddy trail with a heavy thud, my backpack pushing me down. My momentum carried me off the trail and over the side of a cliff. I didn’t even have time to think or panic. Thankfully when I fell my pole stuck in the tree roots while my hand my hand slid to the base of the pole. My pole was wedged in the roots as an anchor while I held onto it, the only think keeping me from falling 50 more feet. I took a few deep breaths, let my mind process what had happened and how I might get out of this situation. I kept telling myself, “Don’t panic. Don’t panic.”Slowly I pulled my body back up onto the trail and then wrenched the pole out from the tree roots.
These poles have my appreciation, they have saved me from trips, falls, and supporting me as my ankles begin to roll. The downside to the poles is the damage they do to the trail itself. Most hikers use poles but they cause incredible erosion. The volume of hikers with poles stabbing at the dirt widen trails by killing the vegetation. And on cliff edges, it narrows the trail by breaking up the edge and letting it fall over the side. I may agree that I don’t like the damage but I care more that they have saved my ankles and many possible bad falls and how they saved my life today.
Meals are getting more creative as I get tired of the repetitious flavors. Lately I’ve been trying BBQ sauce and peanut butter in my Mac and Cheese (not together), or boiled onions in the Ramen. Bagels with peanut butter, fruit rolls and a blueberry pop tart on top. Many people out here are vegetarians so I just hide my beef jerky and tuna cans when I am around them. I just have this love for meat that I don’t know if I could give up. And though they have good reasons for giving up meat I haven’t found a reason for me to give it up. Tonight for dinner it’s my famous peanut butter, jerky, tuna with an extra squeeze of butter and parmesan in my Ramen.
Tomorrow I am going to gorge myself on KFC buffet in Erwin, a glorious all-you-can-eat! I don’t know why the thought of greasy chicken has made my mouth water for joy for the last three days. I know it’s horrible, I just can’t help it.
There are many colorful people hiking this trail. Great Grandpa is 70 years old. He has the habit of going to bed in the shelter as soon as he gets in from his hike, even if it is 4 in the afternoon. He likes to wake up early in the morning, get his headlamp on, get out some crackers and eat next to everyone who’s still sleeping. He’s a very noisy eater. He wakes tired sore hikers with his loud crunches and more rustling of bags as he searches his equipment…aargh. What’s hilarious about Great Grandpa is that several times now he has transported mice in his backpack from one shelter to another. He doesn’t hang his food bag from the shelter rafters like everyone else so the mice have been crawling into his bag at night to get at the feast he has stored there. When he wakes up in the morning he packs his equipment away while still dark, hefts the backpack on and down the trail he goes with the full fat mice still hanging out and eating his food on the way to the next shelter.
Over-Zealous is now hiking with Gypsy. Instead of packing a tent or any of other useful survival items he has brought squirt guns, a whiffle ball bat and his most notorious item, a conch shell. He blows this mighty natural horn at the end of a day’s hike as a victory exclamation marker. And my super favorite is when he uses it for a good morning wake up. Then there are the other moments of celebration like when he summits each mountains, in the gaps, at the arrival in a city, for lunch, crossing a creek, and when he sees a snake on the trail. Most people don’t call him Over-Zealous even if it is his trail name, most just lovingly call him Conch-Boy.
Giggler only wears tie-dyed shirts and always has a smile on his face. He laughs at everything, especially himself. He’s hiking with 5 others who call themselves the Slack Packers. Their main goal is to make it to the next city for beer and to re-supply their smokes. They are no alone with this goal, I would say that there is a half of the people on the trail I’ve met have the same ambition. When I sit around the fire at night with them, the conversation tends to lead with “once me and my buddies were drinking…”. Another member of the Slack Packers is Wild Turkey, a good ole boy from Alabama who loves nothing better than fresh rattlesnake and wild turkey whisky. One of his life goals is to have a child in each of the 50 states, without having responsibility to any of them. He is a good Spades card player until he drinks.
T-bone and his companion Buzzard have been hiking near me for the last week. I love them. T-bone is a very, very skinny man who has a warm heart and calm presence. When pressed he will share stories of adventure from climbing Mt. McKinley to spelunking caves all over the states. His best friend and companion of nine years is Buzzard, a registered nurse who met him through similar passions. When he walks it hurts to watch because it looks like his chicken legs should snap under the weight of his bulky pack. He likes to wake up late and get to camp early. Buzzard leaves early and arrives to camp long after T-Bone arrived and set it all up for them. They have a good rhythm. The more I cross paths with them the more they open up with me. I am hoping to keep up with them, I feel safe and affirmed by them. He’s always in need of water and I always seem to have extra to share with him so he likes how appropriate my trail name is, (Wadi, a creek that brings life in a desert valley) he thinks it fits. Buzzard has asked questions about my trail name so I laid it all out for her. When I was done she just sat quietly looking at me and thinking. She never responded.
Huma is a guy who gave up his survival tools to bring his heavy-duty CD player, 40 CD’s, and a bag of batteries. He would say, “I must have my music.”I’m in complete awe and amazement at what he’s doing.
The longer I’m out on the trail the more the forest and mountains become my world complete. The day in and day out experiences push in a new reality, a new lifestyle I never knew existed. The cities and towns that I pass through are becoming remembered as only crowded, noisy, concrete hard gray walls and floors, exhaust that makes me cough, and where nature is used to fill in the cracks and borders. When I go into a town my eyes are drawn more and more to the trees that fill the spaces. Cities are becoming places where nature has been pressed and altered to fit into our world of importance. When I was growing up I was no taught to see creation as an expression of God’s glory. I grew up seeing it as a commodity to use. I was around people that mocked nature loving tree huggers. I wasn’t taught that maybe God is the creator and sustainer of all life and we are given the responsibility and privilege to manage it carefully. God is the giver of its breath; where he breathes is life. Animals and plants share with humans a common dependence upon the breath of God for life.
Henry Thoreau was quoted, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least, and it is commonly more than that, sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagement.” To those, who worked 40 hours a week he said, “I think that they deserve some credit for not having committed suicide long ago.” Living in the woods is beginning to feel natural.
I have now been out for over a month and I love it more each day – the wind, the trees, the life under every boulder, fallen log, and inside hollow trees. I love the smells as the earth exhales its breath before a rain. The blossoms on the ground and the pine trees soaking in the sun. My mind is more focused though my journal may not accurately record that, and my creativity jumps with excitement. I also enjoy the pain of self-discovery and seeing that healing is taking place. It hurts but I wouldn’t change it.
Over the last year I have made some good decisions that I’m proud of and many that I’m not proud of. I carry a lot of pain inside of me and my coping skills aren’t always healthy. I don’t know how to face pain. I do know how to run from it, how to ignore it, how to blame others and how to even shape my own memories to deny that I had a part in any problem. And now I’m on a dumb trail facing the true memories of my past. The true memories of my family and my growing up years. The true memories of relationships. More than once I’ve had to stop on the trail, find a log to sit on and just sit and cry as shame and regret wash out of me. I hate it. I’ve had time to feel things that I have ignored or hidden. I have stuffed so many emotions down that they are now surfacing at an alarming rate and I am having to face myself and my past in ways I have not wanted. I had no idea I had so much junk to process through. This might now be the hardest part of the hike other than my bloody heals. I’m not enjoying this journey of facing myself. A friend once asked me what makes me cry. I did not have an answer at the time but gave some generic hiding remark. I think what I have cried and hurt over is the pain I have caused others. I’ve cried over my own mistakes and lack of courage to make the right decisions. I’ve cried over having such broken character. I have nothing but time to reflect on memories as they surface. My daily prayer has been, “God help me.” That’s about all I can get out because I don’t know what else to pray.
May 6, 1999
I spent the afternoon in Erwin, TN with Shiver and Dawn Treader at the KFC Buffet – 3 heaping plates full of the most wonderful greasy delicious, soul satisfying food in the world. Even after 3 plates I left a little disappointed with myself; I was certain I was hungrier than that, I know I can do better next time. I was told that Erwin was the friendliest hiker town that I would walk through but that wasn’t my experience. As a rule, thru-hikers hitch rides from the trail into a nearby town if its several miles away. It’s how we get around from place to place when we are not on the trail. People who live near the area know that because they see the pilgrimage every year and people being overwhelmingly good usually help us out. But at the road leading to Erwin they just smiled and waved as they drove on past, laughing at us. I don’t know that they really laughed at us but I needed think that to demonize them for their lack of help.
After a very, very, very long wait, a kind 19-year-old skinny, wild-eyed kid named Ziggy pulled over with the radio vibrating the road around it, and offered a ride. He pushed his four cases of empty soda cans and CD’s from off the seats to make room for the three of us. He took us first to the post office and waited for us to pick up boxes of supplies waiting for us. That was a surprise. When we got back into the car he told us that this was not a friendly city for hikers and that we should watch out. “They don’t like young people,”he said as his eyes shifted nervously about. While living in the area he has had 13 friends die from suicide, drugs, alcohol and even one murdered. “The town hounds the teens,” according to him, making them want to fight back. He shared with us that he was looking for something to buck and fight against, he was just so angry and he wasn’t even fully sure why he was so angry.
I shifted the questions to a different direction, “What do you love most about the area or living here?” “My favorite thing is my baby,”he said as he pointed to his cars stereo system. He showed it off and gave us samples of its majesty and power. It could thump and vibrate windows in the stores we drove past. With great pride he said he has had 18 tickets for speeding and his stereo being played too loud. The city has a 40 decibels limit but he has been fined when his volume was only playing at a level 3, and it can go to a 10.
He said he once went into a church and was kicked out of it, he said he was told that they didn’t want him there. He didn’t say why they did it, maybe they had a good reason, maybe not. But his response was that he yelled back at the elders, “You are hypocrites and are going to all burn in hell!”
As Ziggy drove us around town he was very patient, courteous to pedestrians and slow drivers. He works at a grocery store right now but he’s hoping to go to college to become a computer programmer. I found that I began to really like this kid and was sorry to see him drive off after we got out. We gave him a few bucks for gas and wished we could have done more to ease some of his pain that he is carrying.
News reached me that Boo stopped at Hot Springs with a bite on her leg. Her leg swelled up and she pulled her to let her body heal. I was told she would probably stop hiking. I’m sad for her, she’s tried to hike the AT twice previous and made it to Hot Springs twice in the past, but not further. Another Ragamuffin down.
I love spending time with Dawn Treader and Shiver. She is the female version of Spock, analytical and very hard working. Dawn Treader and I tease her and call her Spock when she sits on her logic and facts as we talk. “Blast you Spock and your Green Vulcan blood!!!” Dawn Treader and I will start dreaming up ideas and visions of what we would like to do in the future, we will get excited and get more energized as we bounce ideas off each, and then Spock comes in and pulls the plug out of our hot tub of fun to let us know why our ideas won’t work and are illogical ideas. “Blasted!” She is very quiet and it has taken me some time to learn to read her expressions. I can read enough to know that she does enjoy my company and that I am not intruding on her trip. But she still does not laugh at my jokes and that drives me nuts more than anything else. It makes me try harder and harder and she just rolls her eyes at me.
Dawn Treader is very intense but he has a heart of gold. The main vein that runs inside him is justice. This gets him in trouble at times because he wants to fix the world and all the problems that are so easily noticeable. He feels compelled to help others and to fight any oppressive system, including the church if it necessary. His humor is very dry and intellectual. So when he drops humor he will give a waiting look of anticipation to see if I’m going to react appropriately at his wit. That expression alone causes me to burst out in laughter long before I even understand what it is he has said. He can seem very intellectual and stuck in his head but there is a deep vein of joyful playfulness and warmth that shines through. He does think at a higher level than me, and as he processes life and God he loves to frame his thoughts with well-crafted words. I think he even gets headaches trying to understand where God and others fit into the equations and problems of life. Spending time with him over the last two weeks has not only been relationally filling but he has challenged my thinking on theology, politics, social concerns, and on marriage. I deeply appreciate this friendship I have with him.
I left Shiver and Dawn Treader in town while I headed out. The hostiles were too much money for me. And I get frustrated when I get nickel and dimed. They were charging for me to take a shower, to use a towels, for a bed, pillow, sitting on the grass, watching their TV… So, after I paid to wash my clothes I then I just went back into the woods. I found a group of hikers a few miles out of town gathered in a gap who were all feeling overwhelmed from the town. I met Erick the Eagle Scout who taught came over to the fire I built and fixed it. He then proceeded to teach me that in a survival situation you can cook an egg in a hollowed-out orange or grapefruit rind. The fire will not burn it but will cook the egg or meat you put inside. Meat inside an onion will work just as well he thought. That’s great, thank you for teaching me. I decided I just need to crawl into my tent and read, I think I just needed time alone to think and pray and process.
May 7, 1999
Last night after dinner I had gone into my tent and started to go through some of the mail people had sent me. I love reading the letters from friends and family, it’s the connection I need to stay motivated and grounded. One of the letters was from a friend responding to a phone call I had made a few weeks ago. Ugh. Apparently I had stuck my foot in my mouth and said some thing carelessly. I love that person and I was reckless and thoughtless. Even out in the wilderness I’m not safe from myself. I laid down in my sleeping bag as emotions of sadness and regret washed over me.
When I woke this morning I was still sad. I packed up my equipment, loaded my burden onto my back and let the emotions carrying me forward more than my muscles. I pounded the dirt with my feet. When I stopped for a small lunch I realized that I had never seen the views, the scenery around me had become a blur of colors. I think I was trying to get away from the pain. I hate pain and I was running. When I was in high school I broke an ankle playing volleyball. The second I fell to the ground I started to push backwards on the ground trying to back away from the pain. I dragged my foot until I ran into the bleachers and couldn’t move any further. Then I had to sit and let the pain wash over me. That’s what I was doing today. I wanted to outrun the hurt. I hate that there is no TV, no noise, nothing to distract me from what’s going on in my brain. I don’t know how to deal with so many problems in my life. I don’t understand why so many people my age have seemed to grow up but I don’t feel like I have. How did they do it? How are they so much more mature than me? Why am I behind emotionally? I still have so many attitudes, perceptions, prejudices, pride, and wrong perspectives. I hate this breaking process.
I made it to Cherry Gap shelter just in front of the rain storm. I could see the dark clouds closing in on me and heard the deep rumbling of thunder echoing through the mountains and valleys. I didn’t want to be in the shelter with others, I just didn’t to talk. So I set up my tent and was crawling in when Dawn Treader came marching into camp. He set his tent up next to mine and brought his humor and friendship. We walked to the nearby spring and filtered our evenings water with lightening flashing nearby. It was a little unnerving but Dawn Treader always keeps a level head and that helped me. As we finished up we could hear the sound of rain beginning to hit the leaves of the trees high above us. We started to shuffle up to our campsite when I was startled by Dawn Treader as he cried out in alarm. He was struck by hail. Hail the size of marbles began ripping through the trees tearing the earth apart and anything in its way. It was smashing through the branches and bouncing off the ground. Dawn Treader gave out a few cries of pain as we began to run up the path to the safe shelter. I don’t know how it happened but I somehow managed to dodge the flying frozen marbles. And Dawn Treader continued to scream in startlement and pain as they continued to pummel him. Just as we got to the shelter a hiker ran out of the woods with blood on his face from cuts on his scalp, he had fallen several times as he tried to run the gauntlet to the safety of the wooded shelter. The ice looked like it was jumping in the air, dancing on the forest floor as it bounced. I have never seen a hail storm like this in my life. Back on the west coast it would hail, but they were always the size of small pebbles and cute. These were pounding the tent and trees with pelting noise that made it hard to even hear us talking to each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if it broke branches. None of us in the shelter had seen hail that large. One girl came in later crying, having been stuck out in the midst of the abuse and bruising. I had never seen such display natures power from the sky before.
When the hail turned to rain and the cold settled in, Dawn Treader and Shiver invited me into their tent to hang out, talk, read, journal, eat dinner, and listen to the falling rain around us. And once you are dry and warm, you have no desire to go outside the tent. So when it came time to brush our teeth and use the restroom, we took turns standing in the doorway to make our mark on the world. The only problem was that our own puddles started to flow back towards the tent. Treader in a panic grabbed a poop shovel and started digging a trench in front of the tent. Dirt was flying all around as he tried to head off the stream. After several minutes of concern, Treader relaxed and a look of satisfaction crossed his face as he saved the castle.
My feet are doing slightly better. The new blisters are getting toughened up, there seems to be less blood soaking my socks, the painful infections are going away, and the bruising, well, the internal bruising is still there and continues to hurt and will most likely be there until this trip is over. Most people still have their feet covered in duct tape and mole-foam to help their blistered feet. I don’t know anyone whose feet have escaped the foot problem, no one is pain free. Vitamin “I” is taken like candy out here (ibuprofen).
Another hiker ended her adventure in Irwin, TN, because she couldn’t flex her foot any longer. I am grateful to have made it 350+ miles and can’t even imagine what another 1,800 miles will be like and what it might do to my body…baby steps, I must have small goals to pull me through. My next goal is to make it to mile 500, about ¼ of the entire trail. I should make it in just over a week with a few days off in the town of Damascus for Trail Days, a festival made to celebrate thru-hikers. I have been told that we get to be in a parade, that there will be lots of free food, and that there will be some activities and concerts for the community. Food… the word alone is magical, a wonderful word that brings pleasure to the heart of a hiker.
Saturday, May 8, 1999
More news from the front lines. Two nights ago there was a mighty battle against the miece’s. Great Grandpa 70 built up his arsenal to include two mousetraps. He loaded them up and waited for the inevitable attack. He was patient. The shelter filled up with people quickly because it was a rainy night. A shelter built to hold 20 packed in 30. Extra troops, excellent. Around 11 p.m. they heard their first “snap.” Headlamps quickly turned on and viewed the first kill. A wild cheer went up throughout the shelter encouraging the troops. Soon another was caught, and then another. Moral was high as eyes started to close in sleep. Great Grandpa kept vigil throughout the night giving a surprise to all in the morning. Nine mieces lost their lives, all their attacks to steal food was foiled. As the light of the morning came they continued to watch us with dark eyes, angry at the defeat. They would be patient, there would be more humans and with them more food on other nights. They took heavy losses but the battle is far from over. They would adapt, build new strategies of attack, and they would persevere.
I climbed up a Bald today fighting my way past some weekend tourists who were sight-seeing. At the top of it I sat down for a drink of water I watched three hefty men moving up the trail towards me. They were locals who had driven most of the way up, pulled their morning beers out of the cooler, and then taken a short walk. When they got up to me they were struggling with their breathing and had wet pits and backs as the sweat was pouring freely from them. I was tempted to grab my pack and move on, giving them the space but then something seemed interesting. They walked right up to me and stopped, never gave me eye contact and never acknowledged that I was there. What’s going on? There is a whole mountain top here, so much space to share. I started to wonder if I invisible to them. Is it possible that I’m so dirty and grungy that I fit in with the dirt, rocks and grass? Do I blend in with the landscape? Have I developed a natural camouflage? They were only a few feet from me, panting and huffing from the exertion, quite for several minutes until the largest man broke the silence saying, “how do you suppose this Bald got here?” The bearded man with a Skoal hat on said, “I think it was the Native Americans. They burned these mountain tops to raise some kind of crop.” The third man said, “No, no, no. These Mountain tops once had glaciers on them and so no life grew on them.”
I just sat there amazed. I didn’t want to laugh, I was scared that I might give away my position. The first man took his Hooters hat off, wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “I heard that from one of them aerial photographs all these Balds build some kind of pattern. Now I’m not saying aliens created it or nothing, it’s just a little creepy to think about.” This man has far too little to think about if alien creating Balds worries him. I was done. I loaded up my burden upon my back without notice and headed down the other side of the Bald with the three guys getting into a serious heated argument over the issue. That made me laugh all day.
The A.T. path is not built on old Native American trails. The Indian trails were created where the walking was best and easiest. The more efficient paths were at lower elevations to move warriors and nomadic populations through the wilderness. They might have a single warrior walk the ridges silently where they could see more land and search for distant signs of their enemies, but no-one would historically have done what we are doing on purpose. Nobody is that crazy. Even before the days of the horse the Indians were known to travel widely and they would also leave no sign of their passage which is not always the case with some hikers.
It was the settlers and immigrants who improved the Indian trails by heavy use with carts and horses and even blazed new ones of their own, hacking and clearing, widening and felling the trees as they expanded. Over time the trails widened into roads that we now use today. When the roads were built, the wilderness trails were lost. These concrete snakes in the mountains seem far removed from the original sweat, grime, pain, history, tears, and death that were required to cut these paths through the wilderness.
The sun came out giving me a bright sunny day with only one tough climb. Unfortunately, it was at the end of the day. As I stood at the base of the mountain trying to get motivated, Perma-Grin charged right past me with boldness and confidence and a huge smile for me. That woman is amazing. I immediately began to follow after her making my way up the 2,500’ climb which brought my legs and lungs to a screaming agony. There were no switchbacks to help, it was just a wonderful straight up path with a few boulder scrambles to make things entertaining. Whoever made this trail is having a good laugh at our expense.
On the way up, I saw another buzzard flying close to the mountain ridge. Some Indians do not view the buzzard as a sign of death but as an omen of healing because of its ability to eat the diseased without worry of infection.
I think that the most difficult part was the mind game going on inside me. Just when you got to the summit, you found out that there was a further summit to be climbed beyond it that you couldn’t see. You would reach that summit only to find that there was another one beyond that, higher up and more work. There were eighteen false summits that got my hopes up and then dashed them. It really got into my head and frustrated me. When I reached the summit, I found a few hikers sitting there, (no Perma-Grin, she just kept going strong) who shared that they had similar head games going on for them. It’s nice to know it’s not just me.
I was done hiking for the day. So I made camp on top of Roan Mountain, just above 6,000 feet. I put on all the clothes I was carrying and I was still cold as the wind whipped chilly air around. A road reaches the top of Roan Mountain, so there were a few locals out to watch the sunset as I finished eating my dinner of Ramen noodles with fresh gathered ramps (a wild onion). I was told there was a city near here that has an annual ramp festival with ramp casseroles, ramp bagels, ramp soup and many other ramp recipes.
I was camping next to Dawn Treader and Shiver and cleaning up after dinner when a kind looking older man who was watching the sunset came and talked with us. “You bin eating ramps?”he asked us through his large cowboy mustache. I answered with a smile, “Yes sir, we just had us a mess of them.” He nodded silently with a smile on his face. He was pleased with my answer. “What’s your favorite way to eat them?”I asked. He thought for a minute and then replied,“Whale, shoot, I’d hafta say I just like’m fried bout bettern any thang else yet.” Then he started going sharing about his chili recipe without a break in any of his mumbling words. “If’n ya take ah can a beans n’ dump it in a big ole pot’n then mixin ah bag o’…”he rambled on and on. Shiver and Dawn Treader sat staring at the man silently, they later told me they had absolutely no clue what he said. If I hadn’t lived two wonderful years of my life in Mississippi it would have made no sense to me either. He proceeded to tell me how to find ramps and wild cabbage and great ways to cook’ em. The ramp season is about another two weeks long before they start turning yellow and dying in the ground. But he made sure to tell us all the great places to find them over the next two weeks so they wouldn’t go to waste. “Don’t want you tuh starve out here.”
As he walked off I gave my appreciation for his help and concern,“No sir, thank you kindly. You have yourself a good night.”
Monday, May 10, 1999
As I was headed up the last climb to the shelter last night I was on guard. Apparently the previous week someone who wanted to hurt hikers had strung up fish hooks from tree branches along the trail at head height. That adds a new fear to my day. This was the section it had happened in and everyone kept their eyes out for any hooks that might not have been previously discovered. And we wanted to find them before they found us.
And then everyone at the shelter was given some wonderful trail magic. I was busy making my standard extra-buttery mac and cheese when B-Dog and his hiking partner came into camp carrying a bag of food for their friends and fellow hikers. They told us to sit down and that they would cook us a feast. I’m sitting and not moving, you have my attention. They took a skillet and set it on the lit stove. They poured some oil on it and all of us sat watching as it began to heat up. The diced some fresh bell peppers and threw them into the oil. Then they cut up pepperoni and ham and tossed it into the skillet to warm up. Once it was hot and the meat bubbled, they threw a handful of mozzarella cheese on it. They then flipped pita bread that was covered with pizza sauce and garlic salt onto the cheese. When the pits was warmed, they flipped the entire beautiful pizza onto a hikers plate. Then they began the whole magical process again for every hiker who stayed at the shelter. Something about eating something that’s not out of a box or freeze dried that just lights up the taste buds like fireworks. I felt honored and valued.
One of the morning routines every morning before I pack up the gear is to look at the map of the trail, I like to have an idea of what to expect for the day. As I looked at the profile map I was led to believe that this might be an easier day than what I’ve lately pushed through. I would say that the mad led my expectations astray. I won’t say that today was my hardest day of climbs but I was a bit disappointed that they deceived me. I hiked 15 miles to the next shelter and found that every person staying the night there was wrestling with emotions of frustration at the difference. The trail shelter register was full of comments, more than most shelters. And the conversations all seemed to start with the same topic. A hiker named Shure Paw wrote, “I have never in my entire life ever experienced a more beautiful and well planned instrument of torture.”
Appalachian torture conference map
The Real A.T.
I get that we have to hike the miles regardless, that’s why we’re out here. And there weren’t added miles to the hike. We hike because we love it and we wouldn’t change a thing about this lifestyle we have embraced for these months. And when our expectations are dashed to the ground and stomped on, it adds to the emotional challenge of the day.
I have really enjoyed getting to know a hiker named V.P. He’s a thin young man with blond hair growing out to a shaggy tangle on his head. What he loves to do more than anything else is to sit and philosophize with others about the important issues of life. He loves to fill his head with challenging thoughts. And he’s a great one to dialogue with because he’s interested and hungry to hear and learn what other have to say, not for others to be convinced what he believes in. And as you talk with him his natural wit disarms and makes him endearing. Yet while he has a mind that is fascinating his health practices seem to need some work. He is known for wiping himself after doing his business in the woods with rocks and sticks instead of toilet paper. His belief is that he only has so much room in his backpack and he needs that to store his large supply and variety of candy. I asked him, “Did you develop a tolerance for rocks and sticks by starting with the softer leaves and grasses and then work your way up to the harder more abrasive materials?” He just smiled at me while he rolled a cigarette.
As I sat making my dinner, V.P. disappeared into the trees surrounding the shelter. Not too long after I had begun to eat my spaghetti he reappeared with some small roots he had dug up and a giant smile on his face. He told me he had found a sassafras tree and had the inspiration to make a treat for himself. He built a wood fire in front of the shelter and with a small pot of water he boiled the bark off the roots. He then cut up the roots into small pieces and began to steep them making a licorice flavored cup of tea. He must have sat crouched next to that fire, watching and tending to the fire for over 30 minutes. In the end he produced one small cherished cup of hand-crafted tea. He was very proud of his resourcefulness and accomplishment. He generously let others taste his creation and I was impressed with the flavors he coaxed out of that small fresh dug root.
When everyone goes to bed and I’m still up watching the last of the campfire my thoughts often turn to God. I find that though I may think of God a lot, I can’t say that I desire to love and follow God so fully that He is my single ambition. I feel like I’m supposed to say that He is. I feel like that’s what a seminary graduate is supposed to feel and tell others to feel. I think that if I had that connection I would love it and want nothing else. I just don’t. How do I get it? How do I develop that depth of intimacy or even the desire to move towards it?
I feel that I continually fail by comparison to the measuring stick of God. I would love to take my identity and worth completely from God and I know I would be satisfied. But do not know how to gain that level of maturity, enlightenment, or place of acknowledgment. I do pray and I do talk to God. I don’t know what is lacking in me to reach this. I think its easier to serve God than to love God or to be loved by God. And this leads me to thinking about my dad. My dad loves me. I know it in my head but I don’t know that I feel it, I don’t know when I last felt connected and loved by my dad. He was always around in my growing up years but I don’t know that I felt close to him or that he thought I was worth getting to know. I want intimacy with him but I didn’t know how to move towards it. I don’t know how to move past the patterns we have set, with my dad and God.