Imagine climbing into your car just outside of City Hall in New York City, driving north along Centre St. to Canal St., turning left, then taking the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, getting on Interstate 80 and heading west. Seventeen hours and a thousand miles later, you'll find yourself in front of the University of Iowa College of Dentistry in Iowa City, Iowa. At this point – and I sincerely hope that you had the common sense on this hypothetical journey to at least stop a couple times for coffee, donuts, and to use the bathroom – you'll probably be exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and a smelly, horrific mess.1
The experience of walking a thousand miles is surprisingly similar. True, it takes approximately two months instead of slightly less than a day, but you'll end up in the same place. And you'll still be exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and a smelly, horrific mess.2
But Caveman, Bandito and I had quite a ways to go – exactly 16.2 miles – before we would figure all of that out. And we still had to contend with the "roller coaster," a sprawling, soggy section of pointless ups and downs that stretched from the Rod Hollow Shelter practically all the way to the West Virginia border. A rather antagonistic warning sign announced our arrival by boastfully declaring, "Beware! You are about to enter the Roller Coaster! Which last saw trail maintenance in 1967! Basically, you're gonna die. So turn back now. No, really."
And yes, it was that complicated a sign, obviously written in very small print. And we all found it hilarious. Nature cautioned us not to take it too lightly, however, and we would have done well to heed her wisdom.
Unnervingly, a large portion of the "roller coaster" had recently been burnt out in a forest fire. Where my handbook advertised "ant mounds along A.T.," we found only the ashen hulks of trees dotting a dusty, gray, almost lunar landscape devoid of vegetation or life. But then we were out of it, and descending another five hundred feet or so down the side of a perilous ravine.
And then we were climbing another six hundred feet, and finally reaching the side trail to the Bears Den Hostel. A magnificent stone building with bunks for twenty-six, a refrigerator with ice cream and soda for sale, and an overflowing hiker's box—basically a garbage bin that hiker's can raid for supplies or leave their unwanted supplies behind in for others to take—the Bears Den was a welcome respite from the morning's drudgery. I bought three sodas for myself, and then two more for Caveman and Bandito. Because I am a nice guy. I also pilfered a plastic trowel from the hiker box. All the better for digging catholes with.
Nature and Hobbes joined us outside, and we all sat around relaxing, eating lunch. I tried not to think about Redwing, Lil Dipper, or P-Nut, and how much more fun we'd all be having if they were there. I especially tried not to think about the fact that I likely wouldn't see any of them again after tomorrow. Of course, that meant I could think of little else. The pain was too great. I tried to stay in the present, to enjoy these last few moments with my remaining trail family, such as it was. Bandito, Nature, Hobbes, and Caveman. And me. Drinking sodas in the sun.
I wished we could have stayed there forever. But we were only seven miles away from the thousand mile marker. We had to move on. And, despite a particularly nasty flare-up of monkey butt3, we made pretty good time, bolstered by Caveman's seemingly bottomless supply of Excedrin and several rousing choruses of The Proclaimer's "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)."
And then we were there! One thousand miles!
Of course, we had no idea we were there, because there weren't any signs, and we were miles from the nearest landmark, but that didn't matter. Oh, and by we I mean me, because I had run ahead of Caveman and Bandito on a blistering caffeine high. But that doesn't matter, either. Anyway, I waited for them roughly around where I thought the thousand mile point was, and we had a raucous celebration.
"One thousand miles!"
"I can't believe it!"
And we whooped for joy and high-fived each other. And then it sank in. And we realized we had five more miles to go.
"The Proclaimers better be giving a surprise concert in Harpers Ferry tomorrow," said Caveman bitterly as we continued on.
I agreed, but kept it to myself.
Only 1,179 miles to go.
1. And, no offense to Iowa, severely depressed. Iowa City is a far cry from the bustling happeningness of the Financial District and Chinatown, after all.4
2. And depressed, too.
4. Okay, so that's not strictly true, or fair. There are a number of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and even Vietnamese restaurants in and around Iowa City. And those are the only attractions of the Financial District and Chinatown, right?