Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chapter 44: White, Wet, Sticky Stuff

Caveman and I stopped to take a break. It had been raining steadily ever since we left the Lost Mountain Shelter that morning and we both would have been miserable if not for each other's company. We told stories and cracked jokes to keep the miseries of the world and the creeping doubts in our hearts at bay.

We were climbing Mount Rogers, which at 5,729' is the tallest mountain in Virginia. That the trail didn't actually traverse the summit and would only climb to 5,540' came as little solace. We were already facing forty-three hundred feet of elevation change. What was another two hundred?

Still, it was a rough slog, and very slow going. We could hardly see for the fog surrounding us. The steady rain whipped at our faces, inexorably finding the seams in our rain gear, trickling down our necks, soaking us and our gear.

"But hey, at least we're not dirty slackpackers," I joked.

Caveman laughed, and we both fell silent, thinking about P-Nut, Redwing, Lil Dipper and the others being in town somewhere, keeping dry, probably enjoying sodas or juice. The idea filled me with a wonderful, burning hatred, sending a tingling, warming sensation through my body. Feeling returned to my extremities. I had to double check that I hadn't peed in my pants. I hadn't.

And then I remembered that, unless the others had decided to stay in town for another day because of the weather, they would be out here too. That they were some unfathomable distance ahead, trudging steadily away from us through the wind and rain. For some reason, that made me sad.

Something white, soft, wet, and sticky landed on my knee. I looked up. It was everywhere: on the ground, in my hair, coating the branches of trees.

"What is this?" I cried, in a rising panic. "What the hell is happening?"

"I think it's called snow," replied Caveman laconically.

But I wasn't listening to him. I was so confused and frightened. "Whatever it is," I said, shaking my head, "I hate it!"

We decided not to linger, and hurried forward in a blind rush to get to the next shelter and safety. Unbeknownst to us, we were entering the Grayson Highlands, an area of spectacular, boulder-strewn alpine meadows inhabited by herds of wild ponies. Clueless, neither Caveman nor myself stopped to acknowledge our achievement, or to appreciate the view.

We emerged from the forest onto a wide swath of unkempt, pristine grassland. The snow was falling hard and thick, coating everything in a white sheen. It was like stepping back in time, into a land untouched by human hands. Despite the snow, or perhaps because of it, there was a certain tranquility in the atmosphere, and a peaceful silence hung in the air. Or there would have been if not for the pony.

Caveman almost fell over backwards when he saw it, and then I almost bowled Caveman over not realizing that he'd stopped. The pony stood some twenty feet away from us, casually chewing on some grass. It peered at us curiously through a thick tangle of white hair, but otherwise failed to acknowledge that we were even there. It was actually kind of cute. The novelty soon wore off, however, and we remembered our predicament. It was cold. It was late April. And it was turning into a blizzard.

Caveman and I regrouped with Hobbes and Bandito at the Thomas Knob Shelter, a two-story affair that was getting absolutely hammered by the wind and snow. Some of us sought refuge in the shelter's fully enclosed upper level, but found it already packed with another group of hikers, some of whom were passing around a tall boy of Steel Reserve. Stymied, Bandito erected his tent in the more exposed ground floor to shield himself from the wind. It wasn't long before he and the others crawled into their sleeping bags, got too comfortable, and decided just to stay there to wait out the storm.

I wasn't content to wait around, however, and paced around the shelter cursing impatiently, filled with a nagging sense of impotence and futility. We had only gone twelve miles, and it was barely after noon. I couldn't believe that my companions were already contemplating quitting for the day. Didn't they want to catch up with our friends, those despicable slackpackers, even if just to take a vengeful dump in their sleeping bags like I did?

Needless to say, this was not a scenario I had envisioned when I awoke that morning. This was not what I had planned. I didn't want to be stuck there, with a bunch of people we didn't even know, falling further and further behind our other friends. As much as it pained me to abandon Caveman, Bandito, and especially Hobbes, deep down I knew they would catch up. I told them I had decided to hike on, and promptly left.

Fate rewarded my decision. No more than half an hour later, the snow began to slacken before letting up completely. The clouds dissipated, and the sun came out. It was, all of a sudden, a completely gorgeous day.

The trail was difficult to follow, hidden as it was beneath a couple inches of freshly fallen snow. Visible blazes were far and few between, and there were hardly any not at least partially obscured by a fine dusting. Fortunately, I found myself following in the footsteps of a couple of hapless day-hikers, and easily avoided making their mistakes. I could see far ahead of time where their footprints stopped and doubled back, and so managed to not become as lost as they did.

The temperature increased dramatically as I dropped in elevation, and the warmer air perhaps inspired a proportional improvement in my mood. I soon caught up with my unwitting guides. They were a teenage girl and her grandfather out for a weekend of inter-generational bonding, but their plans seemed to have gone comically awry. We chatted for a brief moment, laughing about the freakish weather. I managed to not say or do anything heinous or offensive, and quickly left them behind.

There was less and less snow on the ground the closer I got to Wise Shelter. I entered a wide-open field, my only obstacles the occasional petrified horse patty. And then I saw Nature, walking away from me in the distance, heading from the privy back to the shelter. I had arrived.

Everybody cheered when they saw me. I bowed, magnanimous, and told them I had tried especially hard to catch up with them so I could murder them all in their sleep. Oh, how I hated them. And they had missed me too. P-Nut, Redwing and Lil Dipper had misguidedly sent home their winter gear in Damascus, and were now planning to freeze to death. I still had my trusty 20° sleeping bag, my unicorn hair thermals, and my trusty Lands End fleece pullover. I was practically sweating. 

"So who wants to trade me for my fleece?" I asked the group. Hands quickly shot in the air. "And no, I won't take sexual favors." P-Nut's hand went down.

I ended up trading my fleece to Redwing for the night, although I don't remember what she promised me in return. Perhaps she never paid up. No matter. All of us gave so much to each other over the course of our journey, it would even out in the end.

Eventually, after much boisterous fanfare and catching up, we all settled in for the night. Or tried to. There were nine of us in the shelter, which was built only for eight. I was the odd man out, and ended up sleeping at everybody else's feet. I thought about how miserable Bandito, Hobbes and Caveman must be, in their frozen palace atop the mountain, and drifted off to a contented sleep.

No comments:

Post a Comment