Before heading off on my Appalachian Trail journey, I’d already had experience with the sort of extreme physicality I knew lay ahead on this trip. My cross-country bicycle journey of five years ago prepared me for the ultimate by product of this type of adventure: a dark matter that seems to leak from your psyche when you engage in such rigorous physical activity. As I have mentioned before, I am in great measure a man who likes his comforts. The old adage “built for comfort and not for speed” aptly describes me. But deep down inside, squirreled away between sedentary layers of fat cells, lies a kernel of rogue consciousness that seems intent on testing my mettle. Normally, I am able to deflect the ludicrous demands of this internal devil, demands which on any given day would appear completely insane. But this little monster seems to take hold of me on occasion, as if it were an addict craving the solicitude of a new drug.
As our merry band set off on the approach trail at Springer Mountain, I was already prepared for the unusual experience(s) I knew lay ahead of me. Or so I thought. You see, the thing about dark matter is that it doesn’t follow any of the normal rules of worldly engagement. There are no warning signs along the trail stating, “Warning: Dark Matter Ahead.” It simply sneaks up on you, toying with your senses and your physical and mental equilibrium. One day it might attack your feeling of confidence and send you reeling into a mental abyss. On another, it might act as an oracle, providing insights into the deep terrain of your subconscious mind. Whatever path it chooses, the results are always shocking.
Now that I look back on it, I can see that the flood of this dark effluent began towards the end of the very first day. It is necessary at this point to characterize the conditions we hiked last Friday so you get a sense of our mental and physical landscapes: The Springer approach trail is a bitch, no two ways about it. It is outlandishly steep, sometimes slippery, insanely rocky in stretches, and it winds before you like a dark tunnel full of such nonhuman sounds that any city boy will quiver in fear and cry out for his mama quietly under his breath. I certainly did.
Within a half mile, I knew two things very clearly. One: my pack was horribly overweight. Two: I was in no shape for the steep inclines I was facing. Had I been able to muster the presence of mind to focus, I might have heard the peals of laughter from the tormentor deep inside of me. Instead, I was huffing, puffing, and wheezing with such ferocity that I was only able to place one foot in front of the other. In fact, my brain was teetering on the thin edge of reality. I kept asking Ryan and Alexander if they could hear the drumming sound emanating from the forest. Of course, they heard nothing. The drumming was inside me. It was my very own heart beating so powerfully, so loudly, that the sound seemed to originate outside me. When I finally made this tiny discovery, I had only one pitiful thought: Yikes, I am in big trouble!
(You may be thinking at this juncture that Hugh loves using a wee bit of literary license to elevate his tale, and that I am wildly exaggerating. Sadly, I am not. Feel free to contact either of my boys, and they will be glad, albeit embarrassed for their dad, to verify my simpering state of disorientation.)
At the “final act” of the Springer approach trail, the juncture with the AT, one would anticipate a grand feeling of accomplishment and victory: “Yes, we made it! Wow, that was brutal. We just slogged through eight miles of hell, but now we stand atop Springer Mountain. We win!” But then there is the harsh realization that you did all of this just to reach Mile Zero on the Appalachian Trail. Of course, you knew this before you ever left the comfort of the lodge, but when you see that mileage sign on top of the mountain with its big, fat, emblazoned zero, the reality slams home.
In fact, from this point forward, no matter how far your journey along the AT takes you, the approach trail is simply a non sequitur. “Hey, I just hiked one hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail!” Sorry chum, the approach trail at Springer Mountain doesn’t really count. If you don’t believe me, just read any of the published Appalachian Trail guides out there. The mileage starts from the top of Springer Mountain. Not the bottom. So the only benefit to having conquered the approach trail is the knowledge that you did it—and the ecstasy a religious penitent might experience for having suffered its precipitous climb.
By the last half mile on Springer, I had lost sight of the boys. They had steadfastly waited for me throughout the day as I laboriously brought up the rear. But at this point, I understood it was really every man for himself, and both Ryan and Alexander were fighting their own battles for survival. I had been sweating so profusely that, earlier in the day, Alexander tied a spare American-flag bandanna around my head to help cease the flow of stinging sweat pouring into my eyes. The added benefit was that it kind of gave me that Billy Jack sort of look, which added a layer of 1970s hip to my trail image and gave me the sense that even “A Born Loser” such as myself might yet make it to the top of Springer Mountain.
One of the most useful tools we have employed on our journey came to the fore almost immediately. The cell phone app “Guthook’s Guide to the AT” is a wonderfully useful piece of technology. It has almost every bit of info that one might need to tackle the 2,178 miles of the trail. Life-saving data such as water sources, trail elevations, shelters, mileage points, yes—but to me the best part is that it tells you, via the use of GPS (so it doesn’t require cell connection), precisely how far you are from any destination point. I mention this because during that last half mile at the top I had to take a “Spanish Pause” (Jack Nicholson in Going South—his term for taking a break) about every couple of hundred feet. I would sit long enough to catch my breath, wipe the overflow of sweat from my eyes, nibble on a cheese stick or Clif Bar, and reference my progress via Mr. Guthook. At this point, I was referencing my pace up the trail in feet rather than miles. I would sit as long as I could—or until I heard an unidentifiable sound from the woods (bears!). And since almost every sound at this point was unidentifiable, I kept moving at a snail’s pace towards the summit.
It was in this last stretch that the hallucinations began. Every hundred yards or so, I could have sworn that I saw someone out of the corner of my eye. There would be quick movement behind a bush or tree, and I would see a human form standing there. As quickly as I turned my head to look more directly, it would be gone. The whole thing was very unsettling, and after three or four occurrences, I was seriously questioning my mental capacities. Yet I never once thought that I might have unleashed a flood of dark matter throughout my system. This is the tricky nature of the stuff. You just never see it coming.
Finally, on my last sit down, the wind had been completely unleashed from my sails. I was bonking hard, and I knew it. I removed my pack and leaned against a large rock, consuming Clif Bars and mozzarella cheese sticks and guzzling my electrolyte water in order to send nutrients to my feeble body as well as my mind. A check with Mr. Guthook said I was 534 feet from mile zero. I knew that the boys were just above me—in fact, I knew that they had many hikers in their company, that there was a veritable party of survivors whooping it up just over the crest of the summit, while I was hopelessly lost in a never-ending maze of forest.
For a moment I experienced a bolt of terror, thinking I had sidestepped into a situation akin to Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day experience, and that I would be forever caught in a endless loop on the Appalachian Trail—forever bonking, sentenced to an eternal diet of Clif Bars, cheese sticks, and grape-flavored electrolyte water. But this was not to be my fate. At that fading moment, I caught sight of another movement to my left. The form was large, and for a brief instant I knew the bears had found me. Instead, when I mustered the courage to slowly turn my head, I was met by the loving visage of my father, clad in his favorite plaid, wool Pendleton shirt, western-cut khakis, and rough-out, round-toed boots. He smiled—then he was gone. I sat there for a long moment, tears welling in the corners of my eyes, and felt a warm flow of renewed energy revisit my body. Ten minutes later, I was standing beside my boys looking over the summit of Springer Mountain, happy to have made it.
This was just the beginning. During the next few days, when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to view it, I would see my father for a fleeting moment. On the fourth night, we slept in our rented cabin at Blood Mountain. That night, I had a dream—and in it my father was with me. Since his death almost eight years ago, he has visited me in dreams on only two or three other occasions. Each time, his presence has held a specific meaning for me, and now was no different.
In the dream, he and I were riding along in an old blue Ford sedan—a car he owned when I was a small child. Dad was driving, and I was the age I am now and seated in the passenger seat. Both our windows were rolled down, the weather was perfect, and the wind blew through my (non-buzzed) hair. Neither of us were speaking, but a peace pervaded the vehicle like warm, brilliant sunlight, and I was basking in its aura. It was then that we rounded a turn on the edge of a small lake that lay to our left. In it, I saw a school of small fish jumping from the surface—splashing about as if something was after them. Dad did not seem to notice, he just continued along the long arc of road that led around the lake. But for some reason, I couldn’t take my eye off the school of fish. And then, suddenly, an enormous fish broke the surface, revealing its golden underbelly and dark flank. I knew it was a large-mouth bass, but it was huge. He must have been 20 to 30 pounds, making it possibly the biggest large-mouth in existence.
I asked dad to stop the car.
The next thing I knew, I was standing on a green, grassy slope at the edge of the lake looking down into water that was as dark as richly brewed black tea. Out of the depths, glided the enormous fish I had seen, and although it was as big, if not bigger, than I had imagined, I could see it was starving, for his flanks were withered and thin, and a ball of monofilament fishing line was wrapped tightly about its upper torso and great mouth. There was no way this beautiful monster could have caught the small fish he had been pursuing because his mouth was wound tightly shut. There was an empty golden hook dangling at the end of the line, and it was embedded under one of the creature’s large scales. I felt a flood of compassion for its plight and knew he was approaching me for help.
I waded into the water, and reached out, grasped the gold hook, and slowly unwound the tangled line from the fish’s body. It took several minutes to accomplish my task, and the entire time the creature just gazed at me, its large dark eyes filled with complete trust and hope. After the line was removed, the fish stayed where it was. I turned it around so it was free to return home, back to the middle of the lake and watched as, slowly, its giant tail propelled it forward. But only for a few feet—then the fish stopped, and stayed where it was for a long while. I could tell it was thinking, making a decision about something. I had no inkling of what that might be, but I was transfixed by whatever transformational process it was undergoing.
Then, in a rush, it flipped back to me with a renewed strength and swam up my extended arm, gazing at me with the same pure trust, to which was now added a radiant joy I can only assume was caused by his recent release. He was displaying his thanks, and, if a fish can love, an expression of love for me. We stayed in that position for a long time, and as the fish wiggled with evident pleasure on my outstretched arm, I could feel the gaze of my father over my right shoulder. I turned to look at him, and he was there with the same broad and engaging smile I had seen in the forest, and I could sense an expansive radiant warmth that encompassed him and me and the wonderful creature still fast upon my left arm.
As dreams so often do, this one ended at just the moment I wished it would not, and I found myself awake in my bed, left with the memory of it all and wondering what it was trying to tell me. I am not an interpreter of the unconscious mind, but we have all read that if there is a message for us in our dreams, it is usually one we’ve conjured, made from images that make stories about our lives. Sure, some people may have the gift of precognition and prophecy, but mostly we dream about ourselves. As I see it, the fish was me, and I suppose that I once again I found myself attempting to set myself free—to untangle the lines which bind me.
For some confounding reason I have elected to do this by the most strenuous means at my disposal—hiking the Appalachian Trail.