Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chapter 21: Yes, We Are Thru-Hikers

"Yellow Blazing" is often derided as the cowardly, despicable practice of skipping sections of trail in a car, usually by hitch-hiking up the road. Indeed, people who claim to be thru-hikers while yellow blazing indiscriminately, skipping hundreds of miles of trail, are cowardly and despicable, and most assuredly deserve to die slow, agonizing deaths. However, yellow blazing itself is sometimes practical and completely justifiable when employed in reasonable moderation. I never considered road walking to be an essential part of my nature hike, so I preferred to yellow blaze any time the Appalachian Trail ventured onto a road for any appreciable length of time. The less road walking I had to do the better.

And so it was that on Monday, April fifth, Bandito and I yellow blazed for the first time. Although we had been picked up at the Fontana Dam Shelter, Bandito's friend Jen dropped us off at Fontana Dam, saving us a road walk of three tenths of a mile. Bandito, to his credit, felt deeply ashamed of this transgression. I thought it felt awesome.

"Slackpacking" is often derided, particularly by me, as the heinous, unfathomably evil practice of hiking without one's backpack. Perhaps the worst characteristic of slackpacking is that it is inherently antisocial, as it physically and psychologically separates the slackpacker from the other hikers on the trail. And that's not even to mention how it simultaneously engenders resentment and animosity. Anyone who truly values the social aspects of the trail would thus probably avoid slackpacking or anything else that might set them apart from the trail community at large. Other antisocial behaviors could include forming a clique with an intimidatingly clever name, or carrying film equipment around to document your own awesomeness. However, that may all be besides the point. I never pretended to care about the social aspects of the trail. I was as eager to slackpack as anyone.

And so it was that on Monday, April fifth, Bandito and I slackpacked for the first time, across Fontana Dam, as Jen drove on to the trail head with our supplies and equipment. We walked, ran and skipped freely for four tenths of a mile. Seven hundred and four yards. That's the length of seven football fields, plus four yards. Bandito was so happy he even managed to trip over a curb, almost falling flat on his face. Plus the views from the top of the dam were breathtaking.

We saw Freeman walking in the road ahead of us. Words cannot describe our delight at seeing one of our friends again, especially one we'd feared we'd lost forever. I called to him, and he stopped and waited for our hug-filled reunion. We still had to collect our packs, so Freeman went on ahead. Jen was going to hike a ways with Bandito, so he felt the need to remain with her and be sociable. I, lacking any pretense of social grace or tact, did not, and so vowed to catch up with Freeman as soon as possible.

A Forest Ranger was just exiting the woods as Bandito and I were gearing up by Jen's car.

"Hello, folks," said the Ranger, congenially. "Do you have your backcountry permits?"

We sure did, and we showed them to him.

"Excellent," he said, "And do you have an itinerary? Where are you going to stay? Have you made reservations yet?"

"Uh, what?" I said, articulate as ever.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park requires anyone who's not a thru-hiker to designate which shelters they wish to stay at ahead of time. The park is so extraordinarily well-trafficked that the reservation system is necessary to avoid overcrowding and prevent erosion.

"But we're thru-hikng," I explained. "I thought we didn't need reservations."

"How can you be thru-hikers?" scoffed the Ranger, incredulous.

"Because we started in Georgia?" I said, rather put-off.

"Oh," said the Ranger, smartly. "What about the car?"

"We took a zero?" I said, impressing the Ranger with my hip trail lingo. "For Easter?"

"Oh, right. A zero. Of course," mumbled the Ranger, by now clearly embarrassed. "Sorry to have troubled you."

"Damn right," I said, except for that I didn't. "And don't make the mistake again, chump."

And the Ranger hobbled off, sobbing. He would never bother us again. What a jerk.

Still stung by the Ranger's assumptions--Were we too clean looking? Too young? What a jerk!--I said a temporary goodbye to Bandito and Jen and then bulldozed ahead to catch up with Freeman. Which I did, quickly. I naturally told him all about the jerky Ranger before getting around to asking him how his Easter had been.

"I took a zero in the Fontana Hilton," he gushed.

"Mine was good, too," I recalled. "I ate too much, and then we watched Sherlock Holmes."

We eventually took our lunch break on Shuckstack, an unremarkable 3,900' mountain with a short side path to a fire tower on the summit. Unfortunately, the views were rather unremarkable that day. It was grey and overcast. We sat by the trail junction and waited for Bandito as we ate our lunch. By the time he caught up, Jen had already turned around to go back home. I was disappointed I didn't have a chance to thank her and properly say goodbye. But what could I do?

After a brief visit to the fire tower, Bandito returned somewhat anxiously, saying he'd lost his camera. We searched the surrounding area to no avail, and were just about to head back the way we came to look for it when a cheerful, clean-cut kid wearing a rubber ducky on his pack arrived. He said his name was P-Nut.

"Anybody lose a camera?" asked P-Nut, proffering Bandito's Lumix.

Bandito was so delighted to have his camera back that he promptly lost it again. This time it was discovered in the depths of his pack, and catastrophe avoided.

A fast hiker, P-Nut had long ago disappeared into the ether, leaving Bandito, Freeman and me to continue on together. It was already getting dark, and we could hear the yips and howls of nearby coyotes as we arrived at the Moilles Ridge Shelter. It was full of obnoxious overnight hikers and some college students on spring break. We recognized no one, and quickly decided to move on.

We fared no better at the Russell Field Shelter, which was completely occupied by one extremely large extended family. Bandito and I sat down to take a break while Freeman ducked down a side trail to get water. The family plied us with marshmallows and begged to be regaled with tales from the trail. I begrudgingly indulged them. After Freeman returned, we decided to eat our dinner there, and then proceed to the next shelter to make camp. The family laughed uproariously at our temerity. They assured us that we'd get killed by a bear, if not eaten alive by a a pack of the omnipresent coyotes.

The omnipresent coyotes would be the least of our troubles. We sang songs as we hiked to ward off danger, cycling through the entire catalogs of Journey, the Backstreet Boys, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then it happened: the chafage.

My nether regions began to burn with the intensity of a thousand adolescent libidos. It was all I could do to keep from screaming. Eventually I had to ask the others to stop. I didn't want to hike alone in the dark, so I begged them to turn off their headlamps for a while so I could air out. They graciously complied, and I safely dropped trou under the cover of darkness. Freeman joined me in walking around bare-assed, if only so I would have some company in looking and feeling ridiculous, and so I wouldn't feel ashamed. I'm not sure if it really worked, but I appreciated the gesture.

Imagine the sight, or rather don't, but there we were: three young men in the woods, two with their pants around their ankles, one waving his butt back and forth in the air. It wouldn't have looked good. And this was not something I would have ever done in real life, at least not while sober. Another taboo broken.

The stinging, burning sensation soon subsided enough that I was able to wince my way to the next shelter at Spence Field. It must have been extremely late by the time we arrived, as everybody there was already asleep. It was probably nine or nine thirty. Exhilarated but exhausted, we set up our tents in silence and immediately went to sleep.

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