Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chapter 54: The Catawba Challenge

The Catawba Challenge consists of hiking the 53.6 miles from the Pine Swamp Branch Shelter to Catawba, Virginia. Bandito and I had decided to do it in just two and a half days. It was destined to be our most difficult test yet, filled with random encounters with south-bound section hikers, spontaneous bouts of tree hugging with the Keffer Oak—which at 300 years old and with an 18 foot circumference actually isn't that old or particularly large—nervous breakdowns, the death of yet another of my walking sticks, and some expertly wrangled trail magic.

And now, because I can't actually remember anything from that first day's hike, here's a fascinating excerpt from one of my favorite novels that I totally didn't just make up, Another, More Sordid Teenage Love Affair, by Emmanuel Asiago Tortone:
as radiant and graceful as a lotus blossom floating upon a pond dappled by moonlight. She immediately attracted the amorous attentions of all the other bees and butterflies, all of whom had shinier stripes, more muscular thoraxes, and prettier, faster wings than he did. And she became unapproachable, surrounded by an impenetrable web of admirers, drawn ever in by her intoxicating beauty.

Everything she did was effortless.

The way she seemed to glide through the party in her silky green dress, the turn of her head, the careful arch of her eyebrow as she leveled an inquisitive, slightly bemused gaze at whomever was lucky enough to amuse her.

The way her laugh carried across the air and jarred his senses.

The way playfulness and vulnerability commingled in the twinkle of her eye.

The way she could kindly and cleverly deflect anyone and everyone's meticulously constructed advances, making them seem callous, corny and clumsy in retrospect.

The way her eyes seemed to seek him out in the crowd, the way the rest of the world melted away in the heat of her attention. They way she made him feel like they were the only people in the room, in the house, the yard, the world.

Although his facile, facetious friends found fault in her gummy smile, this one flaw only made her all the more perfect for him, made him ache with longing every time he saw it, which was far too rarely. It was a continual and constant challenge to keep her entertained, to keep her from slipping into what he feared was a dangerous and all-consuming melancholy that could make the entire world fade behind it, cold and colorless. But he welcomed this challenge willingly. He lived to face it.

His only dream, his one talent, his life's purpose was to make her laugh, every moment of every day. But she didn't know it. And even if she did, there was nothing she could do about it. And neither could he.
We stayed at the Laurel Creek Shelter overnight. We'd gone 18.5 miles. We'd do 22.5 tomorrow, then the last 12.6 into Catawba by noon on the third day. So far so good.

Our second day was much more interesting than the first, if no less difficult. We walked past the aforementioned Keffer Oak, which is actually one of the bigger trees I've ever seen. A nearby plaque said something about the virgin forests of the Americas being filled with trees of similar or even surpassing majesty, before logging and agricultural needs cut them all down.

I felt a sudden surge of empathy for the stalwart tree, and felt like hugging it. So I did. My little brother thought this was awesome and insisted on taking pictures to commemorate the occasion, then asked me to take pictures of him doing the same. I was considerably nonplussed, but reluctantly acquiesced. The entire episode remains one of the low points of my life.

The day was also marked by another of my legendary nervous breakdowns. We were climbing a woods road towards the Audie Murphy Memorial, a granite marker commemorating the spot where the legendary WWII hero died in a plane crash in 1971. It was really steep, and I cried.

But you know what's more interesting than that? Pizza! Here's my favorite recipe for pizza dough:
First heat up a 1.25 cups of water so it's warm to the touch. Shouldn't take long.

In a large bowl, mix one tablespoon of sugar—preferably unrefined cane sugar or honey, or just a dab of molasses—and one tablespoon baking yeast. Add the warm water. Mix, and let stand 5 minutes.

In a measuring cup, mix together 1.5 cups of unbleached flour—organic spelt or white whole wheat works best, while white flour is too processed and thus unhealthy and plain whole heat too dry—and 1.5 teaspoons of kosher sea salt. Add this mixture to the water, which should now be bubbly or fizzing, indicating an active and viable yeast. Stir until smooth.

Add more flour in half cup increments until total flour volume is 2.5-3 cups, mixing and kneading in as necessary. Herbs like oregano, rosemary, and dill can also be added during this time for flavor. If you're feeling especially adventurous, you could try adding some diced olives.

Knead in 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. I prefer mine fair traded, sometimes even garlic infused.

Let rise for one hour, or until volume is doubled. Makes 2-3 pies.
We spent our second night at the Pickle Branch Shelter. It had been such a long, arduous, emotionally taxing but really, really interesting day. There were so many memories, so many unique and funny moments and spectacular views that I knew that day would stick with me forever. So I went to sleep.

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