Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chapter 41: The Watauga Lake Challenge

This is exhilarating and beautiful! No, this is awful. I'm not going to make it. Why am I doing this to myself? I'm hungry. I'm thirsty. I'm tired. Ohh, a butterfly!

These are just a few of the myriad thoughts that may have passed through my brain that day as I attempted the Watauga Lake Challenge, which involved hiking the forty miles from the Watauga Lake Shelter into Damascus, Virginia in less than twenty-four hours. As went the miles, so went my mind.

I was the first out of camp that morning, setting off just after 7:30 AM. I figured the hike would take me about fifteen hours, ten at a brisk three mile-per-hour pace, then five more at a more relaxed two miles-per-hour. I would take the uphills as I normally did, slowly, with as many breaks and as much swearing as possible, and then run downhill, so much as I could, whenever the opportunity presented itself. It was a good plan, perhaps only slightly unrealistic, and was utterly doomed to failure.

I'd been hiking for less than ten minutes when I passed where Hobbes had camped. He hadn't spent the night in the shelter with the rest of us, opting instead to tent further along the trail, next to the lake. I respectfully kept silent, hoping not to wake him. And then he emerged from behind a tree ahead of me. He was completely naked. I think I surprised him as much he surprised me. The man was hung like Lil Dipper's hammock. Which is to say poorly. Or that he was pink, loose, and floppy. I found myself staring in morbid fasciation.

"Hey, man," he said casually, as if trying to brush off his appearance. "What's going on?

"Oh, you know," I said, still bewildered. "Walking."

"Look," he said, leveling with me. "Is this going to be a problem?" He gestured down at himself.

I shook my head emphatically. "No! Not at all! My penis is tiny. I mean, it's pathetic. Really! I mean, do you want to see it?"

He winced. "No!"

"Oh, right," I mumbled, remembering that straight men don't usually show each other their junk. "It really is tiny though," I stammered. "Honest! So you have nothing to be ashamed about!"

"I'm not ashamed," shrugged Hobbes, pulling his pants on. "After all, I'm big enough for your ex-girlfriend."

He then needlessly elaborated, explaining in lurid detail how he had pleased my unsurprisingly game ex-girlfriend in ways I never could. I was almost offended. But no, I had it coming. I excused myself and quickly continued on, as much to hide my embarrassment as to make up for the delay.

The Watauga Dam is a tepid pile of useless gravel compared to Fontana Dam, with none of the latter's grandiose majesty or reassuringly solid concrete construction. It is an earth- and rock-filled dam, and gives off the impression that it could crumble or collapse at any second. Walking across it was thus only mildly disconcerting, and made me glad I was in a hurry.

The next few miles were fairly unremarkable, and passed more or less without incident. I climbed slowly but steadily through the early-morning mist, believing, rightly as it turned out, that the fog would burn off, and that we'd have good weather that day. Overall, I thought I was doing pretty well, and stopped just before the Vandeventer Shelter for a quick snack. I doffed my pack and was about to sit down when Bandito stumbled upon me, much to my dismay. He said he'd left half an hour or so after me. I didn't think that he should've caught up to me so quickly, and I scolded him for it.

"Respect your elders," I said. "By walking slower than them. Doesn't it say something like that in the Bible?"

Apparently not, as Bandito promptly pointed out. Still, I was happy to have some company. We decided to complete the rest of the challenge together.

We'd gone somewhere between seven and fourteen miles when we caught up with Fredo. The rush of adrenaline I was feeling from the challenge must have been getting to me, because I was in a singularly peppy mood. I asked Fredo how far it was to the next shelter.

He paused thoughtfully, consulting his guidebook. "Well, I think it's been about six miles since the last shelter--"

"Oh, that's no help to me!" I interrupted, "I never look back!"

And then I disappeared into the woods, leaving Fredo stunned, perplexed, and probably marveling at how much of an insensitive jerk I was. He would continue hating my guts for the next 1,400 miles, until we'd become the best of friends. He would even serve as the best man at my wedding. Except for that I'm not married. But that's another story.

My good mood continued when we arrived at the Iron Mountain Shelter for lunch. We'd gone fourteen miles, and it wasn't much past noon. At this rate, we'd reach Damascus sometime around eight o'clock at night. We were flying.

I wrote in the shelter log:
Redwing is a devastatingly beautiful, completely charming, startlingly intelligent, ultimately respectable, perfectly dignified human being, who would never do or say anything to hurt anyone. She is a true and loyal friend, has never smoked crack, and has definitely not murdered any drifters. Furthermore, if she had, I would personally assist her in disposing of the bodies. Probably by burning them. Such is my devotion to her as a friend. Major Chafage is an ass.
And then we hiked on.

Bandito and I struggled to find ways to pass the time. We had long since realized that our tastes in movies didn't overlap that much beyond some very recent blockbusters and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He knew more about obscure biblical epics and the family films of the 1950's than I thought was necessarily healthy. I probably knew more about literally everything else than he thought was healthy. We could only play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for so long. And so I told Bandito my life story.

I was born on December 18th, 1983. Mine was a difficult birth. In the womb, my umbilical cord had somehow gotten tied in a knot; if it had been pulled tight, I might have suffocated and died. Already, it was as if the fates were aligned against me.

My earliest memory is of biting my grandfather on the ankle, before I was even old enough to crawl. He would later die. Of Parkinson's disease. And not until I was nineteen.

I was a very cute toddler and had many friends and was perfectly well-adjusted until I entered the first grade. Then, because my ears stuck out, I was ostracized and ridiculed. People derisively called me "Dumbo" pretty much all day, every day until I hit puberty. The constant abuse left me emotionally scarred and socially stunted. It would take me years to recover. That is, if I ever did.

My first crush was the girl who lived across the street. We were great friends, and used to walk to school together every day. Her name was Amber. We ended up dating for one torrid, unforgettable weekend in the eighth grade. Okay, so we never went on a single date, and I technically never saw her in the brief period of time we were actually "dating," but I was still heartbroken when it ended. It would take me two years to get over it. That is, if I ever did. Even then, the only thing that snapped me out of my depressive funk was going out with her for a second time.

We were sophomores in high school, and Amber asked me to the homecoming dance. I said yes, we went, we kissed, and I was so terrible at it that she promptly dumped me and never spoke to me again. Or I just had no idea what I was doing, inadvertently treated her like garbage, and then could never work up the courage to speak to her again. Either way, our friendship was ruined, and it was entirely my fault. However unpleasant, the experience was elucidating and formative. I quickly lost any respect I had for myself, and was filled with regret and a deep and abiding self-hatred.

In between junior and senior years of high school, I went on an eleven-day backpacking and sea kayaking trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club. That was my first experience with long-distance hiking and the Appalachian Trail. I didn't shower the entire time. Everybody loved me. It was a blast. And I never thought in a million years I'd do anything like it ever again.

It was only in my senior year of high school that I really came into my own. And by that I mean stopped being a total slobbish loser. Don't get me wrong, I was still a nerd and a total band geek, and was still mostly terrified of the popular crowd, but, all of a sudden, every girl in school wanted me. This might have had something to do with me toning down my self-deprecating humor and comporting myself with more dignity and confidence, exuding charm and charisma. And also being really, really good looking. Or, it might have had to do with the fact that I had a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life, and that made it suddenly safe to approach me. That, or it somehow validated my worth in a way that me being really, really good looking, and consistently charming, funny, and charismatic didn't. I really have no idea. I don't understand women.

Anyway, I had a real girlfriend at last. She was a musician, her name was Libby, and we were very much in love. Or at least I was. I would have stayed with her forever. I even had the opportunity to cheat on her while she was away at band camp, but I actively chose not to! Such was the measure of my devotion. Then I found out she cheated on me. While at band camp. Whoops. I was heartbroken, fell into a depressive and existential funk, became anorexic, lost thirty pounds, and developed a raging hydrocodone addiction. It would take me two years to get over it. That is, if I ever did. I have a lot of problems.

Bandito was fascinated, soaking in every detail, and very much wanted me to continue my story. But I was tired, and took a break from storytelling for the time being. It was only mid-afternoon, after all. We still had twenty-one miles to go.

We found some trail magic just before Tennessee Route 91. There was a garish metal box marked with crucifixes behind a tree, filled with useless garbage. And one bottle of Pepsi. Bandito and I looked to each other. His expression was inscrutable. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking in that moment. I know I was thinking about physically subduing him somehow, then drinking the entire soda myself. But he was a black belt in Taekwondo, and I've lost every fight I've ever been in. We shared the Pepsi, then hiked on.

I tend to think that modern civilization is hideously ugly, with its garish excesses, pervasive moral bankruptcy and vile pollution. There's something oppressive and bleak about the urban landscape; about the cold, monolithic buildings that blot out the sky; the graffitied highway overpasses; the ubiquitous strip malls, their gutters clogged with litter; the millions of miserable people moping around, toiling away at soulless, degrading jobs for the mere privilege of prolonging their own pitiable, pointless existences. Yet, at the same time, I find there's something achingly beautiful and poignant about civilization in decay.

After crossing the road, we walked through a long, wind-swept meadow, past the ruins of a long-abandoned farm house, its yard overgrown with weeds. The remains of a weathered wooden fence still stood nearby, stoic and resolute, despite years of neglect and disrepair. Wildflowers grew through the cracks in a crumbling stone foundation. It was incredibly peaceful, somehow primal but mysterious, bittersweet yet hopeful. And utterly breathtaking. I only wish we hadn't been in so much of a hurry, or I would have slowed down to more properly enjoy it.

We met a lone camper just before Low Gap. He was a young kid, around Bandito's age, and seemed startlingly sad and lonely. He mumbled a greeting, staring into the distance with vacant eyes, and then asked me if he could bum a cigarette. I honestly replied that I didn't smoke. And we hiked on. His tragic appearance stuck with me, however, and I immediately told Bandito how horrible I felt for the guy.

"He looked so sad," I moaned. "Couldn't you see it in his eyes?"

Bandito agreed with me.

"I bet he lives at home, his parents are divorced, and his step-father is a drunk and abusive," I speculated. "He probably got tired of all the constant screaming and fighting and one day just packed up and left. He hitched a ride out here, because he's always wanted to hike the trail. It's the one place he can find peace. Plus, his real daddy always wanted to do it, and if he succeeds, it'll be the greatest thing anyone in his family will have ever accomplished."

Bandito was skeptical of this assessment.

"But he's never going to make it," I lamented. "He has the wrong gear. He's not prepared. He's only been on the trail for a day, and he's already ran out of cigarettes."

"I think you're seeing things," said Bandito, sounding a little worried.

"I'm not!" I cried, "And you know what the saddest part is, Bandito?"

Bandito rolled his eyes. "What's that, M.C.?"

"He's going the wrong direction!"

Bandito didn't understand.

"If he got dropped off at Low Gap, and he probably did," I explained, "Then he went south instead of north, and he only made it half a mile!"

"You're projecting all over him," Bandito asserted. "Also, you're nuts."

"Maybe," I conceded.

We reached Low Gap, where there was a picnic table and a boxed spring. Or what might have been a boxed spring. It looked more like a concrete drainage ditch. Whatever it was, it made me glad we were treating our water. We sat down at the table to make and eat our dinners. It was getting late.

Hobbes passed us while we were eating dinner.

"Oh, hi!" I said, startled by his sudden appearance. I was glad to see he was wearing pants.

"Hey, you!" he said sardonically, winking at me.

"Are you doing the forty mile challenge?" asked Bandito.

"I wasn't planning on it, but then everybody else was doing it," shrugged Hobbes.

"Because the best things in life always come after caving to peer pressure," I snorted. "Because caving to peer pressure never has horrible, unforeseen consequences."

"Stop," Hobbes interrupted. "Just stop."

"Yeah," agreed Bandito, shaking his head. "The first joke was just okay, but the second? You overdid it."

"How dare you," I breathed, then returned to my meal, pouting in silence.

"Well, it's been charming as usual," said Hobbes, after collecting water. "I'm going to continue on. I don't want to get into town too much after dark."

"After dark?" I asked, incredulous, consulting my guidebook. "It's only fifteen more miles. What are you worried about?"

Hobbes scoffed, nodded to Bandito, then trudged away. I would have resented his speed and resilience, but it was still light out. I thought we were doing pretty good.

It was starting to get dark. Bandito asked me to continue telling him my life's story. As much to keep the bears away as to stave off boredom, I obliged him.

I went to New York University, where I studied Dramatic Writing and Post-Industrial Bovine Effluence.

"What's that?" asked Bandito.

"Never mind," I said. "It's bullshit."

I had been living in New York City for less than two weeks before 9/11. We had been going to classes for only three days. I was in the shower when it happened. When I got out, my roommate Jim was watching the news on TV. His mother had called him, frantic, and told him a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. She had just wanted to know that he was okay. Of course he was. The chances that any given college freshman would even be awake, let alone sightseeing, at nine o'clock in the morning on a school day were astronomically low.

Still, I remember wondering how stupid the pilot had to be, or how he couldn't have seen the Twin Towers looming in front of him. It was a brilliant, cloudless day. I had just sat down to watch the news with Jim when the second plane hit. It was just about then that we started having the sneaking suspicion that something fishy was going on.

Throughout the day, people trickled in and out of our dorm, most going in groups to give blood at Red Cross stations set up all over the city. Classes had been cancelled of course, and the security guards were encouraging everyone to stay inside. Probably a prudent idea, considering the amount of toxins and asbestos and ash floating around in the air that day. I probably breathed in enough of it in the next couple days to assure I'd die of lung cancer. I didn't need to be out there. It was disturbing and traumatic enough just being there, stuck inside, seeing the smoke clouds billowing outside our windows, hearing the sirens in the distance, feeling lost and helpless.

A girl came in sometime during the morning crying hysterically. The gay couple that lived across the hall from me tried in vain to calm her down, but she was inconsolable. She had been downtown, and had seen people jumping. We all understood.

Bandito knew what happened next. Everybody knows. None of us there in the city were really mature enough or had the proper perspective to grasp what had happened. We didn't know how to react. It would take days or weeks for it to set in. Lots of people in my department ended up dropping out. Some couldn't see the point in continuing at school in light of what happened, others were scared, or too emotionally conflicted to return to the city. Some were simply pulled out by their families. I stayed. I got a C+ in Psych 101 that semester, the lowest grade I would ever receive. It was 9/11's fault.

I may have glossed over a few details of the following months and years. My sophomore year in college was a blur of academic brilliance and debauchery. My junior year, I met Megan.

Megan was just like me in every conceivable way, except she was a girl, she grew up a different state, had a completely different childhood experience, and liked different things and had different priorities in life. In other words, we were sickeningly perfect for each other. But our relationship was far from perfect.

The first time we met, we crash a mixer one of our mutual friends was hosting for incoming freshman. At the end of the night, after walking her back to her dorm, I had turned to her and said, "We should do this again sometime. You know, the next time they have a dance." She had nodded and backed away slowly, probably thinking I was some kind of crazy person. And I had gone home and banged my head against the wall. Yet, somehow, I hadn't completely sabotaged myself. That was just the first and probably least objectionable of all the mistakes I made, but here we are, six years later, still together.

Bandito and I bulldozed through the Abingdon Gap Shelter area without even stopping. It was surprisingly crowded. An entire troop of Boy Scouts were making camp nearby. Bandito urged me onward, telling me we only had 10.2 miles to go.

"Did someone just say they were going ten point two miles further?" asked someone.

"Yes. Yes they did," responded another.

"They do know it's already nine o'clock, right?" asked the first.

"I have no idea," said the second. "They're probably crazy."

"I agree," said the first. "Aren't they worried about bears? And sleeping?"

Yeah, right. I laughed inwardly at their dialog, smug in my assumption that we were assuredly would not be attacked and mauled by a bear. Or would we? It was awfully dark. I started to worry.

"Did someone just ask someone else if they heard someone say they were hiking ten miles further?" asked Bandito.

"Yes," I said. "And I rather think they thought that we were rather crazy."

"But we are!" said Bandito. "I'm hallucinating badly. You smell like mexican food!"

"Rather," I said, adding "I'm saying 'rather' rather a lot, aren't I?"

"I don't know," said Bandito. "If we don't get there soon, I might start chewing on your leg."

We stopped only twice after that, once at the Tennessee-Virgina border to take pictures, and another just before Damascus to have a nervous breakdown. We heard noises in the woods. Twigs snapping, strange growlings. We started giggling uncontrollably. I may have started sobbing. But there was nothing. We never saw any animal.

We were practically carrying each other by the time we made it into town. Seeing the lights emerge out of the darkness was wonderful. We could hardly feel what must have been the truly awful, excruciating pain in our legs as we jogged or stumbled the last few hundred yards.

It was just about midnight. There was a replica of a shelter on a town green. We stopped to sit down, and take off our boots. I did not smell like mexican food. I smelled like I was tired. I wanted to go to sleep right there, but a sign said "no camping."

"Is it really camping if we don't set up a tent?" asked Bandito.

We couldn't be too sure, and there were cop cars patrolling the area. "We better not stay here, Bandito," I said. "I feel drunk." I felt drunk.

"I feel drunk too," said Bandito. "Except I've never had alcohol, because it's illegal."

"But it's delicious," I protested.

"Fine!" said Bandito. "I'll have a drink when I turn one hundred."

"You're my hero," I said.

"Stop hitting on me," said Bandito. "Wait, I didn't say that. M.C. You're an unreliable narrator!"

"N-no!" I protested, wobbly. "That was just a stylistic flourish to help put the reader in our delirious mindset."

"You're a genius," gushed Bandito.

"Who're you calling a psycho!" I yelled at a nearby telephone pole.

It took us an hour to get to the Place. Which is the name of the hostel there. In Damascus. We got into town at twelve. It took us an hour to do the last mile to the hostel. We only got lost twice trying to find the place, and almost asked a police officer if we could just sleep in the jail. When we finally did arrive at the Place, we found Hobbes tented outside. He was long asleep. We didn't even bother checking to see if there was room inside the hostel, there was, and quickly just set up our tents and passed out.

No comments:

Post a Comment