If you have wondered whether my foot is better and if I am still planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in September, the answer to both questions is, Yes, and I leave tomorrow. Actually, my two boys, Alexander and Ryan, are going with me, Ryan for the first five days and Alexander for the entire journey.
So, tomorrow is departure day for the three of us, as we load our heavy backpacks into the back of the old silver Caddy, my pack weighing in at a sturdy forty-eight pounds, Alexander’s at forty-five, and Ryan’s at forty-point-five pounds. We will travel beyond Atlanta into the mountains of north Georgia at Amicalola Falls State Park—a distance of four hundred fifty-seven miles—and spend one luxurious night at the park lodge. Then, after a hearty breakfast, we shall embark upon our walking journey.
The Appalachian Trail doesn’t really start there. It is necessary for us to hike eight miles along the approach trail upwards some 2000 feet over the course of the day, to reach the southern terminus of the A.T. It is there that we shall encounter the first of the white trail blazes, the two-to-three inch-wide stripes of paint, about eight inches in height, that mark the trail all the way to Maine. There is a blaze approximately every hundred yards or so, and these friendly stripes situated on the bark of trees will help us to stay on course.
It is tradition that each hiker chooses a trail name for him – or herself to help distinguish individuals in the trail registers that we will sign all along our journey. So, starting Friday, I will be leaving behind the moniker of “Hugh” and instead shall become “Teatime,” a nod to my exuberant love of tea. Alexander shall become “Straight to Bottom” (a story in itself, about a dark night, a bottle of rum, and a precipitous gang plank on a small island in the Bahamas), and Ryan, with his full and well-manicured facial mane, shall take on the trail name of “Tree Beard.”
I believe there is something to this name thing that goes beyond an easy way to tell between the five or ten Bobs, Sallies, or Joes who might be hiking at any given time. It is a small rite of letting go, of leaving behind our normal world and the name that binds us to that place. As we take our first steps into the forests of the Appalachian wilderness, we go forward as different people. We have, in a way, willingly rebranded ourselves and become people whose history is only as long as the number of steps we take along the trail.
I like that. It feels clean and new, and it allows each of us to drop our normal set of baggage at the base of Springer Mountain and move forward unburdened, ready to experience all that nature has to give.
My last day at work was Friday, and since then I have been busy tending to my gear and to the organizing principles that allow one to make a journey of this sort. Already, it has become apparent that there are two distinct theories on how this should occur: my own and that of my son Alexander. I fall into the camp of dry-bag organizing, while Alexander champions the single-bag stuffer technique. It is not that either is inherently right or wrong, but Alexander comes to this trip with solid experience, having spent thirty days in the wilderness of Wyoming on a National Outdoor Leadership adventure when he was fifteen. Myself, I have not completed an overnight stay in the great outdoors since, well, since God was a boy. My predilection for organizing my various accoutrements into brightly colored dry bags is a sign of my age—and a sign that somewhere deep inside my psyche is a desire to bring order to an experience that already frightens the bejesus out of me.
It’s not entirely the long miles up one mountain and down another that lies ahead of me, nor the many days of travel without the luxury of the normal food which I dearly love, nor the normal shower(s) I relish taking, or even sleeping on the ground with nothing more than a three-mil polyester tent wall around me. It is a deeper, more primal angst that feeds my fear.
It’s the bears.
I have to face the fact that, for all of my nonchalance about life in general, there exists inside of me a deep and dark well of fear. I recall making my cycling trip across America five years ago. At that time, it was the shadow of zooming semi-trucks that kept me up at night and made my hands shake ever so slightly as I gripped my handlebars each morning. I was certain that one of those ugly beasts would veer into my path and pancake my human form somewhere on a lonely road in some no-name location in America. But if I think back across my life, there have been many of these fears (boogeymen) that have sent chills down my spine. When I was a kid, I was terrified of the dark and the shadows that formed in my room at night. Later, when I made my way to the beach I was terrified of the sharks that swam hidden in the murky waters of the Atlantic. Now it’s the bears who are waiting for me in the dense Appalachian forest. But I try to remain positive, so I am trying to focus on the grandness of the forest that surrounds the Appalachian Trail (and on organizing my stuff) and not spend any more time thinking about bears.
I have come to realize that there is always something lurking—some dark, ominous, seething thing that is out to get me, trying with all its cunning to snuff out my candle, to drag me kicking and screaming into the night. Maybe everyone feels this way, a holdover from our prehistoric ancestors who really did have to fend off threatening beasts at every turn. But in view of our present reality, I see that I am a bit of a pussy, when it comes right down to it. I think I make trips like this one to try to fight my inherent nature.
* * *
On Monday night, Alexander and I spent the night in the backyard inside the warm cocoon of our tents. It was a shake-down run, so to speak. I had ordered new tent poles and needed to see if they fit. Did my air mattress have a hole in it? Would it take thirty minutes to blow up? (I went for the three-inch luxury model. No aching back for this fifty-nine year old.) It only took four minutes, which is acceptable.
The shake-down was fine, but already I was ready to be on the trail. Despite my nest of fears I was ready to go.
The next morning, I awoke to an osprey circling overhead. I could hear her chirping above me, riding the air currents on a cool September morning, as she searched for her breakfast and wondered what, if anything, she could glean from the human encampment below. I took her appearance as a good omen, a sign that we had been blessed and our journey along the trail would be safe. Later, Alexander tested his new Whisper-Lite stove and we sat in lawn chairs with my dog Ila Mae at our side and drank hot coffee from camp cups. Alexander called our setting “Camp Ivanhoe.” It’s a name taken from the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom and the Scout camp of the same name. Alexander knows how much I enjoyed the quirkiness of the film and the nostalgic look from a moment in the 1960s. In his great, loving, and omniscient way he surmised that dad was attempting his own step back in time by attempting our journey.
The name Camp Ivanhoe brought a warm feeling of joy in my heart. It rolled back the hands of time for a man staring down his sixtieth year. The last time I set foot on the Appalachian Trail, I was thirteen years of age and had been named “honor camper” at Camp Alpine for Boys. The year was 1969, and I walked fifteen miles of the trail in an area very close to where my boys and I will start on Friday. With my camp counselor, Fred Benice, and a group of young kids, mostly from Miami, I spent two days suspended in a world high above anything I had ever experienced. Fred showed us plants we could eat, berries we could forage, and how to start a fire in the rain with only one match. For me, a wide-eyed boy from Jacksonville, this was a rite of passage. I never forgot that trip, its beauty, but mostly the freedom I felt wandering along a winding path high in the Appalachian Forest.