Although I live in the small city of St. Augustine, Florida, “city boy” is not how I would characterize myself. I love gardening. Getting my hands in the dirt feels like it grounds me, equalizing the electrostatic discharge from computers and the other digital devices I come in contact with each day. Whenever I am able, I immerse myself in the great outdoors. Mostly, that takes the form of fishing—often on the Matanzas River, with my lifelong friend, Scott. At these times, I practice a sort of meditation: Seizing the moments of quiet, I attempt to absorb the positively charged ions of water vapor saturating the air around us. This, I have always believed, approximates the quiet of the woods.
I don’t really involve myself in modern culture much, either. My wife and I like to keep our distance from the daily media onslaught that pervades modern life. We haven’t owned a television since 1994 and I have a rule of no radio while driving in the car. (Although I confess to listening to NPR on occassion – I have a thing for Terry Gross.)
I have attempted to keep my life simple. Gardening. No television. Fishing. Positive ions. Together, these led to my assumption that, since I was in such sympathetic alignment with nature in my daily life, my transition to the forests of north Georgia would be less traumatic. This, as it turns out, was an erroneous assumption.
What I can say now, with all the authority that two weeks in the woods (save for a couple of stints at a cabin and the Holiday Inn Express) can afford me, is this: When you are schlepping everything you require for your daily existence in an enormous pack strapped across your back, life snaps into focus and your priorities are reordered. No longer is a venti Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino the bedrock of your morning. Nope. Food, water, and shelter, these become your daily concerns. Hitting the trail without proper sustenance is potentially life-threatening, so breakfast takes on a monumental importance, right up there with breathing. The snack you must eat an hour or two later is vital, as well. And staying properly hydrated requires you supply your body not only with ample water, but with the minerals and electrolytes that keep your muscles going and not cramping—or you risk becoming a human Charlie horse. Or worse.
Then there is gravity. The concept of gravity never entered my head on a normal day back home. But the Appalachian Trail is a reminder that certain laws of physics rule our existence on planet earth. Out here, hiking the serpentine path of the People’s Trail, it is gravity that determines the force pounds of pressure apply directly on your back.
So, food, hydration, gravity, shelter. These are the new rules for your life.
* * *
As Alexander and I departed Tray mountain shelter Thursday morning we knew that we would only walk as far as the next shelter at Deep Gap. The distance was a fair measure of how our days have stacked up during the past two weeks – eight miles of trail. The weather forecast called for rain, and it was already overcast and quite cool. So when we awoke to a dry day we felt as if we had been handed a gift. The concern, however was that the rain which was inevitably coming our way made the protection of a roof over our head, and a dry place to sleep our main consideration. Time was of the essence Thursday morning if we were to arrive in Deep Gap before the rain fell.
To our great delight, the past twenty four hours had come together in some unexpected ways. First, we had the pleasure of meeting a very knowledgeable guy by the name of Dave Harrington. We had met Dave as we rounded a bend at Indian Grave Gap and spied a man bent over inspecting something at the edge of the trail. It turned out to be Dave eyeing up a wilting Cauliflower mushroom. As we soon learned, Dave knew a thing or two when it came to mycology (the study of fungi) and the Cauliflower true to its name was quite edible and rare. Ever since departing Springer Mountain Alexander and I had been walking past thousands of mushrooms. In fact, certain sections of the trail literally smelled as if they had been misted with mushroom perfume, the smell of them was so heavy upon us. We were excited.
We both share a serious interest in “shrooming”, however our ability to identify more than a limited number of delectable fungi made foraging a dangerous business. The history of collecting wild mushrooms is filled with endless stories of supposedly mushroom knowledgeable people who have either become horribly sick or have died eating wrongly identified mushroom species. For us, Dave was a bit of a superstar providing insight into a world that had been tantalizing us for over a week. Dave spent some time with us talking about various mushrooms, especially his apparent favorite the exceedingly rare Lions Mane. Buoyed by Dave’s knowledge we continued on with new purpose and each with an eye out for shrooms.
Amazingly, we had gone no farther than a mile or two when I spied what appeared to be a Lion’s Mane growing on the side of a tree not more than twenty feet off the trail. Later, I would confirm our find on the internet and then once again on Thursday we would find yet another! For Alexander and myself this discovery lifted us up as we trudged up many a steep rise and our preoccupation with shrooms served as a new mental game we would use quite effectively in order to deflect the incredible demands of the trail.
Our second bit of good fortune were the new friends we made Wednesday night at Tray Mountain shelter. Not just one but three. There was Dave from Philadelphia and his compadre Paul from Atlanta. Two electrical engineers taking a week off to hike the AT together. Then the last guy to stroll in from the trail was Juan from Pembroke Pines, Florida. A recent graduate in psychology at FSU. This is not to say that they were the only hikers in attendance at the Tray Mountain shelter. There were actually three more. The “Eagle Scouts” arrived soon after Dave and Paul and then second from the last was a single woman named Mary, a high school teacher from Kentucky. Mary immediately received credibility from the group as a single woman hiking the trail and who was willing to hunker down in a small shelter with seven strange guys.
The Eagle Scouts irked us within minutes of their arrival however, as they began dissing a group of southbound thru-hikers they had met a few nights prior at Low Gap. To clarify, the thru-hikers had walked over two thousand miles by the time they encountered the likes of Yip and Yap (the name we ultimately bestowed upon the “Eagle Scouts”) at Low Gap. It was a clash of cultures which lay at the heart of Yip and Yap’s discontent. The south bounders were a bit gamey in appearance bordering on the non-established look of hippies. They might even be “pot smokers” quipped Yip. It was the old game of “Us and Them” and Alexander and I wanted no part of their limited view of the human race. We realized in that moment that these young boys from Ohio had some growing up to do. As it turned out they were also in short supply of manners. Later, as in five a.m. the next morning Yip and Yap began an incessant talking spree and atmospheric farting contest. To our great disappointment, Mary (Mother Mary as she was later anointed) joined in with them. Not in the air biscuit portion of their morning show but was happy to be included in all the inane bits of conversation these imbeciles could seemingly generate before daylight.
But let me get back to the trail and the magnetic attraction of earth.
We have been able to navigate this journey without the existence of a map. Partially, this is because the AT is well marked with its signature white blazes found on the trunks of trees, rocks and posts every few hundred yards along the trail. We have relied instead on a cell phone app called Guthook’s Guide to the Appalachian Trail. It is a superb resource and via the GPS function on your phone can tell you with remarkable accuracy your trail position. The other extremely helpful component is the ability to view via a graphic interface the elevation which lies ahead.
And so, on Thursday morning our new group; Dave, Paul, Juan, Alexander and myself gathered around in a tight circle to see what our day on the trail had to offer. As it turned out the view before us was not too bad. There were a few steep rises but the total elevation was manageable and spread out over enough distance that we each knew the grade was something doable. But towards the end, the last two point six miles of trail in fact was a tremendous upwards spike that made each of us groan. The mountain was called Kelly’s Knob and she was the nemesis that lay waiting for us at the end of our day. It it one thing to have a big climb-out early on but to have to face such an arduous task in the last miles of your trip is really heart rending. At that point in the day you are tired, everything hurts and the last thing you want to do is make such a horrific climb. As we viewed the numbers the truth of Kelly’s Knob became more pronounced. She is a tall slice of Appalachian Pie – a thousand vertical feet in a distance of less than a mile. A trail that steep is akin to crawling on all fours but in a vertical position.
After our briefing session the group dispersed. Dave and Paul left first each carrying lighter packs, around 35 lbs. each. Juan, Alexander and myself were much heavier forty five for myself and Juan and Alexander tipped the scales at a crunching sixty pounds. Dave and Paul would arrive first and promised to save us a spot at the shelter. The rain was coming. The three of us hit the trail by ten o’clock and enjoyed our day. We met several people along the way, socialized a bit, kept an eye out for mushrooms, and then by design stopped for lunch about a mile shy of Kelly’s Knob at Sassafras Gap. Alexander fired up the stove, we had a cup of tea then he fixed a hot lunch, a mixture of Knorr’s rice and pasta mixes. To top it off, I had been carrying a block of luxurious Italian chocolate embedded with dark cherries. We split the block among the three of us then marched on.
Our plan was that we would give ourselves a good hour up a steep rise from Sassafras and then down the other side before we had to attack Kelly. That way the slowing effects of our hot lunch would have worn off and we would be as ready as ever to make the slog up. Arriving about three thirty, Juan went in the lead, then Alexander and I brought up the rear. For myself, the climb was accomplished in small sections. Every hundred feet or so I would stop, flex my legs, lean on the ends of my hiking poles and wonder with all the sincerity I could muster why in God’s name I was doing this. Internally, I was a churning mass of doubt, fear and desperation.
You might think that with such intense physical demands placed upon your system that the mind would be essentially quiet leaving the body to do the dirty work of making it up the mountain. This was not the case. There were moments when I wanted to quit, long extended moments when all I could think of was how can I escape this torture in the quickest most direct route. The visions of slinging my god forsaken pack over the edge of the trail, watching it tumble down the steep incline and finally exploding as it collided with an enormous rock was actually helpful for it took my mind off the misery. I had done the math every way to Sunday and realized with a searing pain that the quickest way out was up this bitch of a mountain and down the other side. Unfortunately, I was still another day’s hike out to civilization. I realized that I would just have to persevere to the shelter.
There was also the fantasy of simply giving in and succumbing. Curling up on the trail, lying in a fetal position until the elements claimed me. But I couldn’t get past the itching thought of the ants, beetles, slugs, and centipedes which would inevitably feast upon my corpse and so I trudged on. About half way up, I began hallucinating. I remember keening for my mama and having visions of lying in bed at home atop my eighteen inch pillow top mattress while my wife brought me bowls of delicious chicken soup and caressed my head. I remember seeing my life before me inventorying every modern appliance that made my life easier. I drooled copiously as a haloed image of the quarter round shower we purchased at Home Depot appeared and the hot, steaming flow of water cascaded over me from the Water-Pik shower head.
Likewise, I sat seemingly for hours on the elongated bowl of our porcelain toilet, and stood before the upright freezer refrigerator with ice and water dispenser built into the door. I am not sure how long this lasted but eventually I placed one foot in front of the other and continued to move forward. At a certain point I became aware of the flood of dark matter seeking to leave my body. The sensation was mental as well as physical. I began to feel as if my flesh were tearing, separating itself from the responsibilities of work and home and any idea of a normal life. I began to view the climb up Kelly’s Knob in a different light. The thing about going into the wilderness is that you instantly begin a process of separation. Your life back home and the new life you have found in the woods cannot co-exist under the canopy of elm, oak, sycamore, poplar and chestnut. The natural world full of its treasure trove of animals, streams, rocks and mystical meadows does not play well with the anxiety you bring from outside this place of wonder. As I increased my slog up Kelly’s Knob I could almost see the kinetic spring which lived inside me. I could feel the earth spinning under my feet attempting to turn that spring ever tighter. Attempting to compound my fate. But in a brilliant flash of understanding I knew that the only way to release the tension, to overcome the stress that had become me was to continue onward and upward. In that moment a lightness dawned in my chest. Kelly’s Knob became less my nemesis and more my alter ego.
Alexander and Juan had long since escaped my view. They each had gone ahead pitting themselves against the mountain finding their own truth along Kelly’s steep trail. I had been walking in a dense cloud for almost an hour but suddenly the mist parted and in a flat rise fifty yards ahead of me stood Alexander rolling a cigarette to share with Juan. They had made it to the top and were were celebrating with a smoke between themselves. I joined them a few minutes later. I just stood there catching my breath attempting to stop the river of sweat coursing down my face with a handkerchief.
We all smiled and I said quite exuberantly “Well boys that wasn’t so bad after all!”