Tuesday, June 29, 1999

Our group went to the Front Royal Canoe Company to try a little aqua blazing to give ourselves a little rest, a vacation from hiking, and hopefully some excitement. For the next three- and one-half days we will be paddling down the Shenandoah River to Harper’s Ferry. We set up camp to spend the night at the canoe company’s property so we could take their van ride upstream early in the morning.  

In the afternoon we went to the dollar store and bought plastic inflatable pool sharks and then played in the river, swimming, jumping off of a giant tree branch, and relaxing on the beach reading until it grew dark. That’s when I noticed two men walk to the river’s edge with fishing gear. They were scruffy and weathered but they seemed very young. Something seemed interesting about them so Llama and I walked over and introduced ourselves.

Donny is 23 and works for a carnival company while Daniel owns a store.  His brother Daniel is 34 and a quiet man who reminds me of a Daniel Boone (Lao-Hu’ can trace his fathers family tree back  8 generations to Daniel Boone), because he can hunt and kill any animal in these mountains with his bare hands. Bear, squirrel, all snakes, turtles, fox, rabbits, deer… he has no fear of nature. After a bit of time, Donny got a bite on his line and pulled in a long black snake looking fish, a river eel.  Donny got angry at his misfortune and wanted to throw it back in the water but Daniel wouldn’t let him. Donny won’t eat the eel or even touch them because their teeth will rip you apart when you try to get the hook out of their mouths and they are too slippery to get a hold of to keep their mouths away from you. “They are hard to catch because they don’t bite at bait. So the only way to catch them is if they accidentally bump into your hook and get caught.  They difficult to eat because they have to be eaten while the meat is scalding hot. If the meat starts to cool down it will turn raw again and can’t be eaten but must be cooked again.”  

Donny and Daniel are two of seven children who have always lived in this area and said they have no desire to ever see anything more of the world than their little corner of paradise. Why should they leave when everything they ever need and love is right here? Daniel said he has traveled a lot, never further than three hours by car, but to him that’s pretty far. Their whole family still lives in the area except Teresa, their little sister who was killed while getting off a school bus. On Daniel’s back left shoulder is a large tattoo of a heart and a poem of promise and love to her.  She died at age 10 in 1988.

They reeled in their second catch of the night, this time it was a live frog caught on the end. Again they were frustrated, they had been hoping to hook a catfish. Donny decided it was time to go get his smokes and a lantern so he left us alone with Daniel. Daniel had been simply listening the entire time as his brother talked. After a few moments of silence he spoke up and asked the first question to Llama and me.  “Why do you hike?”

“Give me a second to think about how to answer that.” Llama answered.

A moment later Donny came jogging back and Daniel turned back to the silence of his fishing.

Daniel giggled as he said, “Our mom won’t eat any fish we pull out of the river, she can’t stand the smell. You know what we also love to do? Frog gigging. We can eat a mess of frogs. There’s more meat on them than you think, I usually only need 4 pairs of legs to fill me up. We also trap for turtles, we do have traps but usually we just hang long fishing lines in the water baited and then return at night to collect what we caught.”  

Daniel said he did a short time in prison, he said it was good, “I learned to make different kinds of fruit brandy, using sugar, yeast and old fruit at best or bread and jam at worst.”  He still makes it now that he is out but Donny won’t touch it. He said, “with grape juice you can pinch your nose and it will hide the taste. But with Daniel’s home brew you can pinch your nose, ears, eyes, and bottom and it will turn your head.”  They are not moon-shiners but they do have some friends who run a high producing still in the mountains.  They have enough problems with the law to add that to the list.

This might be one of my favorite nights, these two just kept going, they never seemed to run out of things to say. “To be a true man of the family you’ve got to have tattoos, we designed them ourselves and tattoo each other. They started lifting shirts, dropping pants, and moving all around to show me all their tats. They had skulls, knives, motorcycles, eagles, and a few other things we did not see, they thankfully didn’t fully strip for us. Daniel was proud of one in particular because of the location of it, the inside of his bottom lip.  I tried not to flinch or react but complimented him on his pain tolerance. I felt like I had the best meal eating things I’ve never had before and I loved it. I love learning about how others see life and what they find of value. Their values, desires and standards for living are all different from mine but we had a wonderful evening and were invited to come fish with them anytime. I felt honored that they would open up and share their stories with us.

Wednesday, June30,1999

We took to the Shenandoah River for a multi-day canoe trip with our inflatable sharks (that we bought at the dollar store) mounted at the bow of our canoes and then climbed aboard with our newspaper hats and our funky sunglasses ready for some rest. It was wonderful to drift in the silence of the river and have a change of scenery and pace. At first we thought we should paddle but we quickly deduced that if we did, our day long trip down the river would be completed by noon, so we just tethered the canoes together and drifted. We watched the ducks, blue hereon, swallows, belted kingfisher, hawks, osprey, fly around or watch us from the shallows. I saw more wildlife in one day than what I usually see in a week on the trail. 

Our camping spot had our equipment ready for us to set up camp, at the edge of the woods with wide grass fields where deer could be seen walking through. Perfect. In the evening as it was getting dark I spied two red foxes running in the grass. Their coats were bright amber with the signature white tipped tail. The fox is known for many things but most overlook their marriage model. They are one of the few animals that mate for life and continue to show a high degree of affection and loyalty.

Our trip began from Front Royal, which supposedly got its name from the Royal Oak tree that once stood at one end of town where the British Redcoats drilled in pre-Revolutionary days.  As the troops marched back and forth the drillmaster would shout out the order “front the Royal Oak” eventually making that the town name.  

Thursday, July 1, 1999

We had a great time on the river today.  We would paddle a little, fall out of the canoe two swim, lay in the canoe and take a nap… soaking in the sun and letting the gentle breezes cool us off.  Most of our water was flat paddling with occasional ledge or riffle to give some break up. No rapids or danger to spice things up unfortunately.

We watched a bald eagle soar over the river showing ownership and pride of his home. On a tree in the bend of the river sat his enormous nest, big enough to set a lazy-boy recliner in, built out of hundreds of sticks carried to the top of his tree. Each year he will continue to add to it until it contains tens of thousands of sticks. When the nest gets too dirty he adds more sticks and grass, building it up to 20 feet in depth and over 9 feet across.  The Baltimore oriole and the English sparrow will build their nests in the lower, older areas and even porcupines have been known to build a den in the lower part of the nest. He’s building an apartment complex. The Eagle can carry objects approaching their own weight of 12 pounds and have been spotted carrying small lambs several miles.

I asked Llama if anything was different in her life, if she could see a change in her life over the last week. She said, “I feel a sense of freedom in my heart, I have a freedom from so many fear I have in my life. I also have joy. It’s a joy that that’s inside me like I’ve never experienced before.” 

I bought her the book Hinds Feet in High Places, by Hannah Hurnard and she loves it. It is giving her a view of a God who is deeply in love with us. She knows she has flaws and problems in her life but for the first time in her life she’s not scared to talk to God about them. She always viewed God as judgmental, critical, punishment happy, and now she’s sensing that God just loves and enjoys her as she is. She feels accepted. She doesn’t have to clean herself up and wipe the stains of her life off, she can sit before God and receive His hugs.

I love seeing how she is growing while all the while I struggle with my own view of God.  I’ve never thought of God as mean and angry, just distant and uninterested in me. I keep praying that God would let me see Him as Llama does.

Friday, July 2, 1999 

I canoed with Lao-Hu and had a great time with him as we cut through the crisp morning water. We talked about his understanding of God.  He called himself a pantheist: God is in everything.  He is not sure God can be known relationally but he would like to think so.  He would like to think that there is a great power of affection.  When he hiked Mt Rainier last year in the state of Washington he got to the top and was overwhelmed with the presence of God.  He felt God taking joy in him as he was taking joy in creation.

Next summer he is going on a 600-mile canoe trip which sounds exciting. This summer, his focus is on legs.  Next summer will be his arms.  I have been thinking similar thoughts for a few months.  The problem with that is I need to buy a canoe. And really, before I buy a canoe I need a vehicle to transport it.  Before that I guess I need a job to pay for both and to give me the ability for another epic journey.  I guess I will see how life unfolds before me without a canoe.

We saw a snowy egret, more blue herons and an osprey.  The osprey is one of the most admired of hawks whose numbers are in decline.  It has the ability to make swift and accurate decisions enabling it to achieve a 90% success rate in capturing its slippery, submerged prey.  Its wing span is six feet and their eyes are the size of an average man. They live for about 20 years building their nest up each year with new materials.  Some nests have weighed in at one-half ton, so heavy that it breaks the tree in which it is constructed.

The grasp of the osprey is so strong that once its claws lock in position on its prey the bird is not able to release its grip. If the prey was misjudged in size and weighs more, the osprey may be dragged beneath the surface and drowned. Large pike and muskie are two fish known to drown the giant bird.  Occasionally a hawk will wash up on a shore with its talons deeply embedded in the back of the fish, both being dead. Misjudged.  

When we finished out canoe trip we made our way towards our 5thstate, West Virginia and mile marker 999.4. We made it to Harper’s Ferry, a wonderful town, from what I could tell.  It was pouring down rain in sheets, limiting view and desire to look. We met up with the rest of the gang who did not canoe but hiked, and together we hid ourselves in a hotel.  As we were all packed in a room telling of our adventures, into our room walks Canada Goose! He said he drove down to find the Ragamuffins group. He was shocked and surprised when he saw me while I sat stunned.  “Hidilly Hodilly fellow hiker.” Is what came out of his mouth when he was able to speak.He took some more vacation time and is going to hike with us for a few days. Just as exciting to me is that he brought me Stray’s address so I can finally get in touch with him and let him know he has been missed on this journey.

Llama and I have been talking a lot and what we talk about scares me. I’m super attracted to her, I really like her, and I can see in her quiet eyes that she really likes me. What do I do if I really fall for her? I’m scared that someone might know me. I’m scared that someone who knows me won’t want to be with me. I’m really good at building walls and using smoke and mirrors, I fear pain more than anything and the idea of letting someone in close enough to cause me deep pain makes me panic. How do others deal with this? Is this what everyone has to go through?

Saturday, July 3,1999

We woke up this morning really excited for our adventure to the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.  Llama and I walked into Sam-I-Am and Sidewinders room to ask about the groups plans to getting to D.C. and if we had a plan while we were there. They said flatly without even looking at us, “We have our ride, we don’t know how you’re getting there.” So Llama and I backed out of their room and decided to talk to some of the others.

The others also had rides and places to stay and none of them had room for us. Somehow, we had been left out of planning conversation. Llama and I felt very left out. It’s just not that important for us to stay with this group of hikers. I would be a lot more hurt if Llama wasn’t with me. Yes we are getting pushed out, ultimately I think I’m ok with that, I’m having so much fun getting to know Llama and to spend time with her, the others just don’t matter that much. So Llama and I started to plan to continue hiking when Kimberly came up to us. Kimberly had been hiking with Moezass and really connected well with the group in the last week. She’s a very outspoken, opinionated, feisty woman who likes to hike in sandals (How can she do that? Do you not have to hike in boots? Her feet are filthy. I guess mine are also. Is it enough protection? Are mine too much. I hate my boots, should I try something else?). She is a Christian who loves God but really struggles at loving others. She would love to be a nun but can’t seem to leave her Methodist roots to embrace Catholicism completely.  If she had been raised Catholic she thinks it would have been better, because then you don’t have to accept all the tenants of the faith but if you convert you do. She really seems frustrated about this. She said she has a friend who has an apartment in the downtown D.C. area and invited Llama and I to join her. Llama and I looked at each other, we both thought it would be cool to see the fireworks display at our nation’s capitol, we both wanted to see the Smithsonian, we like Kimberly, “Sure.”We will see how this works out. So we took a train to the nation’s capital.

We walked down the road to the train station and when we got there I saw Chris sitting by himself. So I set my pack down and walked over to talk to him. He’s a thru-hiker who never took a trail name because he had never been around anyone long enough to give him one. I met him about a week ago at a shelter after he had finished a 30-mile day, he is a power hiker. His pack is nine pounds without food so he is able to jog these miles. He is a purist hiking out of a vow he made to his grandfather who passed away several years ago.  He vowed he would hike every mile of the trail with his pack on. We almost killed him in the shelter because he kept bragging about how light his pack was and mocking us for slacking, blue blazing, aqua blazing and even a small yellow blaze. But then he complained that his hike was getting discouraged. He was just hiking by himself because no one else would hike 20 plus miles a day. He wasn’t getting to know others and building friendships, he carried no luxuries with him, like a camera, book, or journal with the explanation that it was extra weight which would slow him down and it was just not very important to him. 

He took a sweet commitment he gave to his grandpa and turned it into a miserable vow that became a weight he couldn’t shed. Now he is quitting.  I asked him to just try staying with a group of people and go 15 miles a day and have more fun, enjoy the journey. “I can’t do that, I need to go about 25 miles a day or I won’t hike at all.”He responded. Chris just couldn’t change his mind set and because of that he seems so defeated and hurt and I am not certain that those are all the reasons he’s quitting the trail. I wonder what else is going on deeper inside.

We made it into Washington D.C. by 5 p.m. and were met a friend of Kimberly’s who give us floor space to sleep on, fed us, and gave us keys to her place for our stay. We came to see the 4thof July celebrations at our capitol. Her apartment is within walking distance to the Smithsonian museum, that’s what I want to see the most before heading back to the trail in two days. 

This is my second trip to Washington D.C.  The first time I had visited was a few years ago when I was attending Mississippi College. I was on spring break and had three friends who had planned with me to travel together for an exciting week of museums in our capitol and then going to a few plays on Broadway in New York. I know it’s not what others would call exciting, but the idea of spending a week with other guys not partying and getting trashed sounded more intriguing. It sounded like great bonding and memories. It sounded like growing up. I’ve gone to beaches for spring breaks and done the party scene and that just doesn’t interest me anymore. One of the best weeks of my life was traveling with other guys around England, why traveling around our own country be just as adventurous and exciting? But in the few days before the trip all three guys dropped out, not for better offers, they just decided not to go. I felt sad, rejected, disappointed, hurt, and a little abandoned. So, I rented a car and went on my own determining to build fun and adventure into my life even if I had to do it alone. I didn’t want my direction and my week to be determined by others. I would have loved for my friends to come, and I didn’t want to miss out on this experience just because I was alone. I ended up only spending one day in there and only had time to visit a few of the Smithsonian Museum buildings before driving up to New York. I left disappointed that I didn’t get to see even a fraction of what I wanted to see and experience. From that point on I had been waiting for an  opportunity to return, even for just one more day. I’m excited that the museums are open on the 4thof July so I can have that day and it’s even better because I have my Llama to share my “one more day” with.

Sunday July 4th, 1999

Out of all the wonderful and powerfully things we saw in the museums, my favorite was the walk through the sculpture gardens where I visited a sculpture by Rodin, the Burghers of Calais. Rodin has been my favorite sculptor for many years and any chance I get to see his work in person I jump at the chance. 

In 1346, England’s Edward III, laid siege to the French town of Calais, while Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip failed to lift the siege, and starvation eventually forced the city to surrender

King Edward offered wanted to kill everyone in the city but was talked into sparing them on the condition that six of its leaders would surrender themselves to him to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and castle. Six volunteers came forward and walked to the city gates. It was this moment, this emotional mix of defeat, heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death that Rodin captured in his sculpture. 

I have always loved the sculptures and the story. How often do we find ourselves needing to lay down our lives? Its not something that happens. When I see the sculpture I feel a sense of weight, of importance, of deep honor and respect that just grows inside of me and inspires me to grow to be a better man. I want to be a man of courage, of character, and worthy to lay my life down for others. It makes me not want to live a life that is self-gratifying or self-glorifying. This one art piece has had an impact on how I live my life, thank you Rodin.

We did find the gang of our hiker friends and spent part of the day with them as we walked to see the White House and watch the fireworks at night. The fireworks were amazing as they exploded over the heads of a million spectators sitting in the mall of D.C. My favorite was when they would explode into a brilliant white ring with a perfect red star bursting in the middle. How do they do that? I don’t get that quality in the small towns I usually see displays in. When the rockets red glare ended the sea of people flooded the streets in waves and currents of bodies. Cars could not move as they were caught in the wave. We made it back from the noise and heat of the day to the calm cool apartment we were staying in. Kimberly and her friend were there and we all shared our adventures. It was a great day and I’m ready to go back into the woods.

Monday, July 5, 1999

We all made it back to Harper’s Ferry, which is considered the half way marker for the thru-hiker. It’s the location for the Appalachian Trail headquarters which manage the entire trail and records all the hikers who complete the journey. I’m thankful for them to create and maintain this trail for me to be broken against.

K.C. has developed a large blister under her big toe on her right foot preventing her from walking for now.  So K.C. and Amazon, inspired from my aqua blaze are jumping ahead to Vermont and will Kayak the Potomac river back to this point giving her foot time to heal. 

Harper’s Ferry was the United States Armory and Arsenal producing more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The Potomac and Shenandoah rivers merge here and produce the necessary power for many local mills and factories.  

John Brown believed he could free the slaves so he chose this location to start his crusade. On October 16, 1859 his 21 man “Army of Liberation” tried to seize the 100,000 weapons in the arsenal to use for guerrilla warfare.  36 hours after his raid began Brown was captured with most of his men killed or wounded.  He was captured and found guilty of treason against the common wealth of Virginia, conspiring with slaves to rebel and murder.  He was hanged on December 2, 1859.  His death focused the nation’s attention on the moral issue of slavery and headed the country toward civil war.  In the Civil War the town changed hands eight times, which left the town in ruins.

I love the feeling of walking through the physical location where much of history was transpired. As Llama and I left town, just the two of us, we hiked through old battlefields with signs describing the battles and the statistics of how many died or were wounded on both sides. The mountains were silent for us making it hard to imagine the thunderous noise of war that once took place under our every step and where blood and body might have fallen.

The heat index is rising, the muggy wet heat is stealing our strength and our appetite. Its getting difficult for me to sleep at night as I lay nearly naked waiting for a quick breeze to calm my frustrated. I’m so tired and yet I can’t sleep. It leaves little motivation for me to get up and press on into 100-degree heat when my body and mind are screaming for rest. Does that really stop me? Not me, we pushed on because it is what we do, and I’m keeping up with Llama. The gnats and mosquitoes are breeding in crazy numbers. They seem to be enjoying swarming us, each night I’m an all you can eat buffet for them to dine on. When you slow down on the trail or if you take a quick water break, within seconds you will find yourself swatting at them to keep them out of your eyes and nose. The gnats swarm our head dancing in front of our eyes waiting for the perfect moment to dive into them thinking it will be a refreshing pool of water to help them beat the heat. The problem is temporary blindness when that happens. And when blindness happens I start turning my ankle on the small rolling stony minefield they call a trail. Llama doesn’t seem to attract them as much as me. Are they attracted to masculinity? Is it my beauty? My dashing personality? I can’t think of what else it might be. So Llama just rolls her eyes at me and we keep moving north.

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