Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chapter 60: Thunder Hill

On September 12th, 2001, I impulsively decided to walk downtown with one of my roommates. We were on a pilgrimage of sorts to see ground zero, or at least to see how the events of the day before had affected the surrounding neighborhoods. We wanted – or needed – to witness it for ourselves, with our own eyes, and not just see what everyone else was watching on television. In a certain way, what we were doing felt important.

We walked south on Broadway, right down the middle of the street. That in and of itself was an extremely weird experience. Except for parades or demonstrations, and before Mayor Bloomberg tried to turn it into a pedestrian thoroughfare, it was almost unheard of for Broadway to be closed to traffic. But it wasn't shut down. There just wasn't anybody left in the city.

The significance of this might be hard for an outsider to grasp. Ninety percent of the quintessential New York City experience is the ubiquity of the crowd, the sheer mass of humanity that surrounds you at any given moment. I had always, have always felt a certain safety in numbers walking the streets of New York. But on this day, we were alone.

The other ten percent of the New York City experience is the Russian roulette of dodging traffic and the tourists who clog the sidewalks to gape at all the tall buildings; laughing at people who take taxis instead of the subway; and the necessity of spending over half of your income on rent and utilities and the other half on alcohol to dull the pain of everything else. But then again, on this day, there was no traffic, no tourists, no jostling crowd. Even the bars were closed. There were no rumbling trucks, no pounding jackhammers, no cacophony of car horns, no taxis with squealing brakes and drivers cursing at you in multiple languages. Nothing. The entire quintessence of being a New Yorker was gone.

The monolithic apartment buildings lining the avenues stood silent and empty, like gaping mausoleums in a forgotten cemetery. Occasionally a face would peer out from a doorway or window, ashen, shellshocked, broken, their interest perhaps only momentarily piqued by the faint thud of helicopter blades or the far off wail of a siren. The worst part was the acrid smell that hung in the air, thick with ash and dust and probably a lot of other, more sinister things that I'd rather not contemplate.

We made it as far south as Houston Street before turning back. In retrospect, we probably shouldn't have been out there at all. It wasn't important. It was shameful, and stupid. What could we have seen had we actually gone any further? I honestly do not know. Would it have brought us any wisdom or closure? No, and of that, at least, I am sure. But what sort of toxins did we breath in, and how much danger did we expose ourselves to, even going as far as we did?

I've since come to peace with the fact that I'm probably going to die of some mysterious and horrible form of lung cancer. That is, if I'm not shot, stabbed, or blown up in an unforeseeable alien apocalypse in the meantime. Frankly, I'd rather bow out in a spectacular blaze of glory, preferably via drug overdose while I'm sitting on the toilet in a gay brothel. The point is, I know I'm going to die.

Which may explain why I'm such a vivacious and easy going person. Accepting the stark inevitability of your own mortality can be incredibly freeing. Instead of worrying about or trying to avoid one's death, one can fully embrace and enjoy life. Because, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of life, "If you don't stop and look around once in a while – and do whatever you want all the time – you can miss it." I prefer another quote, however, from Henry David Thoreau: "Life isn't meant to be spent inside on a beautiful day like this. And stop hitting your sister!" Or was that my mother? I forget.


There was no water at the Cove Mountain Shelter. P-Nut and I had to hike three miles to Jennings Creek in the morning before we could fill up. This wasn't particularly easy. Neither of us had had anything to drink since the previous evening, yet we somehow managed the feat without drinking our own urine.

As we headed down to the river's edge with our filters, a nearby day hiker warned us that the river was contaminated. Yeah, right. I wasn't going to let some "mercury" or "arsenic" or "botulinum" come between me and a nice sip of cold water. We laughed off his feeble warnings and filled up.

We stopped a little later at the Bryant Ridge Shelter. It was magnificent, recently constructed, two stories tall, and could apparently accomodate twenty hikers in relative comfort. Someone had left behind a squeeze bottle of honey that we promptly guzzled without regard to germs, disease, or propriety. I left a note in the register:
Man! I finally catch up with P-Nut after 20 miles, and he convinces me to do another seven. It's not yet eight o'clock, though, and we're still feeling good, so we may press on to the Cornelius Creek Shelter before nightfall. A 32 mile day! I must be crazy. Caveman, Bandito, Redwing, Lil Dipper et al., catch up with us! If you can...
-Major Chafage
Anticipating the bemused and panicked looks on their faces, I had more fun at the Cornelius Creek Shelter:
Well, here we are! We finally made it in at about ten o'clock last night. I was too exhausted to write anything at the time, though. P-Nut's planning another twenty miles today. We may never see any of our friends again. Oh well. I always thought those guys were lame.
-Major Chafage
And then P-Nut wrote:
Everything M.C. just wrote in here is true.
Which prompted me to write:
Augh! You screwed up the date, P-Nut! Way to totally blow our completely hilarious practical joke! I mean, totally forget what day it is, bro! Ha ha!
And then we left. Except P-Nut decided at the last minute that he should use the privy, delaying us for some five minutes. Remember this fact, because it will become important again in about forty sentences.

P-Nut always amused me with his steadfast refusal to use privies. While I never particularly enjoyed the sanitary aspects of using a privy, I eventually got over my squeamishness. Catholing was more pleasant, generally, except for the lack of privacy, but P-Nut categorically refused to dig catholes as well. This was a little bit more puzzling. What would he do? Apparently he'd will himself into suffering through bouts of painful constipation until he could get into town and use a real toilet. Perhaps not the most pleasant way to go, but it worked for him. Sort of.

As we approached the summit of Apple Orchard Mountain, we could hear thunder rolling in to our left. Now, despite it's name, there are no apple orchards on Apple Orchard Mountain. In fact, it's summit is bald, and currently houses a rather intimidating FAA radar dome. The summit was the last place we wanted to be during a thunderstorm.

"Yeah, that's more like it!" shouted P-Nut as I started to run.

He really was crazy.

I momentarily considered seeking shelter at the FAA facility, but it was surrounded by a barb-wire fence, complete with spooky signs that read "Trespassers Will Be Killed A Lot." That wouldn't do. Besides, the appropriately named Thunder Hill Shelter was only 1.2 miles away.

I had been caught out above tree line in a storm once before. I was sixteen, and doing an eleven day backpacking and sea kayaking trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club. We were eating lunch on some mountain in Maine, and we could see the line of rain approaching us across the sky. How often do you actually get to see a storm front, or the place where the sunshine stops and the rain begins? It was mesmerizing, until it caught up to us and hail stones the size of marbles started bouncing off our heads.

I didn't want to repeat that scenario. I didn't want to stop to put my rain gear on. I didn't want to get hit by lightning, or have lightning hit a tree near me. In fact, with a growing stitch in my side, I just wanted to get to the shelter and lie down before I passed out. Since, you know, we'd been running. And our backpacks are heavy.

A wall of fog materialized suddenly on our left, moving fast towards us through the trees. It was as if the clouds themselves were sentient, and maniacally intent on attacking us. It moved quickly, completely enveloping us in less than twenty seconds. It got suddenly dark; it was as if mid-afternoon turned into twilight in the blink of an eye. You could practically feel the electricity in the air. Actually, you could feel the electricity in the air. The hairs on my arms were standing on end. This was not encouraging.

We reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and hesitated. The shelter was 0.3 miles away. It was hard to see if any traffic was coming, and even harder to hear with the rush of the wind and the sizzling static in the air. We ran across the road, which was probably a doubly stupid thing to do, but made it safely. And then, maybe a hundred yards from the shelter, the heavens opened up.

I slowed down to walk. I was soaked already, and wasn't going to get more wet by taking my time. We were back underneath the trees, and I wasn't so worried about being hit by lightning. I could hear P-Nut's girlish screams in front of me as he ran to the shelter. Which was a good thing, because I wouldn't have known where to turn otherwise. I couldn't see five feet in front of me. And, of course, if we'd gotten there five minutes earlier, and we would've missed the rain entirely. But such is life.

There were a few others in the shelter. Most of them were lazy north bound thru-hikers. Who knows where they had started the day. We had gone seventeen miles, which was atypically unambitious for us, but we weren't going any further. We settled in to wait out the rain, and wait for our friends.

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