Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chapter 93: To Merf

Merf and I spent the night at the Leroy A. Smith Shelter with Little Brown. It had been one of those long, frustrating slogs to reach the place; it had rained the whole time, one of us—and I won't name names—was being unduly surly and impatient with the other, and then the both of us kept misreading landmarks and thinking we were closer than we really were. It was a tremendous relief when we finally arrived.

And when we did, I naturally blamed everything on Merf and selfishly bullied her into filtering my water for me. Which Little Brown righteously objected to, all but calling me a chauvinist pig. To my eternal credit, however, I did sort of feel bad about it. And I should have. It would be the last night Merf and I would spend on the trail together.

Well, besides the following night, but that was in a hostel, so it hardly counts.

Anyway, the next morning, racked by guilt, the three of us started off towards the Delaware Water Gap. Except for Little Brown, who left either before or after Merf and me. I'm not quite sure. And what a day it would be.


And we stopped at the Gateway Motel at Wind Gap that morning, to fill up on water. The proprietors were friendly and accommodating. We may have seen Little Brown there, along with some enterprising southbounders, one of whom had an adorable, terrifying Doberman puppy who growled at everybody and ran around off his leash. For some reason, I can't find it in my heart to make fun of them, or to say anything scathingly sarcastic.

We practically ran to the Kirkridge Shelter on a continuous high from finding so many (now presumably non-toxic) raspberries. So, actually, we made terrible time. We met a trail runner there at the shelter, though, who had hiked up several gallons of water from town, because the nearby spigot had run dry. We told him about where an ATV had apparently chewed up the trail pretty bad at a nearby road crossing, refilled our water, and hiked on.

The next landmark in my Handbook was a "Grassy Area," which made Merf laugh. You know the terrain must be generally awful if it's actually noteworthy the when time it's good. And lo, we arrived at the "Grassy Area," and it was. Merf even took some pictures, just to prove the place was real.

Then we were scrambling across the "Lunch Rocks," where we did not eat lunch. After that came "Lookout Rock," where we did pause momentarily to enjoy the view: the Delaware River snaking below us, and, across from us, New Jersey. For the first time since Harper's Ferry, I felt like I was on familiar ground. And nearing home.


And then it was "Council Rock," because God forbid the last mile into town was even slightly tolerable. We met a couple of southbound section hikers who told us we were right around the corner from the road. Which was nice to hear, if slightly unhelpful. Almost immediately afterwards, however, we ran into a porcupine sitting in the middle of the trail.

Merf said "Ooh!" excitedly, and I stopped short, alarmed, thinking she might have seen a bear. But no, just a cute little porcupine, in all it's quilly glory. Spooked by our sudden arrival, the porcupine ran—okay, waddled—off the trail and up a tree. It wasn't quick or agile like the bear cubs I'd seen, but slow and graceful, keeping its quills pointed in our direction. Which was smart, I suppose, even if we weren't exactly about to climb up the tree after it.

And then we emerged out into the world, and found the Hiker Hostel at the Church of the Mountain. We took showers, and scoured the hiker box for goodies. I found a superb tie-dye tank top to wear around town. Little Brown arrived some time later, and got ready to meet Moonpie for a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. Then this kid Snack Attack showed up. I thought he was stoned at first, but then figured out he was just really, really tired. He had started the trail in April, and had been doing 30 mile days with frightening regularity. Eventually the Reverend Karen came in to talk to us, and she was really nice. And everything was fantastic.

And then the Traveling Circus showed up.

And Merf and I ended up going out for pizza with them. I remembered to thank Monkey for the emergency blanket he had given me back in Port Clinton. Merf and I shared a large pie and a bottle of root beer. And that was that. The next morning she would continue on, while I would stay behind to wait for Megan to pick me up and take me hence, back into civilization.

We didn't do anything particularly special to commemorate the occasion. Perhaps we didn't have to, or perhaps we weren't self-aware enough to realize that we should. People are constantly coming and going on the trail, as in life. And it is rare for those involved to recognize this ebb and flow as it happens. When the time came, our goodbye would be nothing more than a "Good luck!" and a wave. Could there have been more to say? Perhaps. But maybe that was just the way it was meant to be.

Hiking with Merf was a pleasure, and a privilege. She was unfailingly polite, upbeat, but never pious or judgmental. A leader by example; an inspiration; a good friend; and a wonderful, willing audience, always ready and eager to laugh, at her own foibles or at mine. I would miss her.

And perhaps I still do.

Chapter 92: Lehigh Gap

Sand and gravel crunches beneath my feet as I cross the parking lot. It's about eleven o'clock in the morning, but it's already blistering hot out. Merf and I were delayed getting out of town, due to the logistical difficulties of resupplying and then hitching a ride out, but I'm glad to be putting Palmerton behind me. What with its overpriced soda machines, overabundance of drunken ass-holes, and prison-like accommodations.

Oh, but that's right. We'd spent the night in jail. Or, well, a former jail, that the town had thoughtfully converted into a free hiker hostel. Which was certainly very nice of them. But still, too many drunk people. All two of them were super annoying. Or maybe I'm just irritable.

Merf and I follow a railroad bed for a while, then turn a corner and look up, and there it is. The mountainside before us looks like something between a vertical cliff and a shattered, vaguely Martian boulder field. It was as if Satan himself had given M.C. Escher a protractor, and a bag of methamphetamine, and told him to go design the most alien and amazingly inhospitable landscape he could imagine. If Godzilla had gotten drunk and spent the night eating rocks, and then thrown up in his shoes, Lehigh Gap might have resembled the giant pile of festering puke that would have greeted him in the morning. Needless to say, it was awful. And scary. And ugly. And evil.

And apparently contaminated with near-lethal levels of toxic zinc tailings from a nearby mining disaster. That the federal government apparently declared a Superfund site, and promised to clean up by sometime in "early 1987." Oops.

It takes Merf and I an hour to hike the next mile. I want to say that this is because the trail is steep, incredibly difficult, and nearly impossible to follow. But it's not. It's more to do with that I spend an inordinate amount of time bashing my knees into rocks, crying in pain, looking around in bewilderment as to where to go, and then crying some more.

Or maybe it's just because we keep walking past ripe raspberry bushes. And Major Chafage's 3rd Rule of Thru-Hiking (the first two being "Never leave a man or woman behind" and "Never pass up trail magic") is, after all, "Always stop to eat blueberries." Or, you know, raspberries. (I think the intent is more important than the letter of the law.) Anyway, whenever you pass a ripe raspberry bush—or blueberry bush, or mulberry tree, or whatever—you have to stop for at least five minutes to gorge yourself. It's almost your moral imperative. Because they're delicious, nutritious, and free. And, at least in this case, probably poisonous. But we don't let that stop us.

Before we get to the top of the ridge, the Traveling Circus catches up with and passes us by. I foolishly hope that we might be lucky enough not to see them again. But we won't be, and we will.

Reaching the height of land, Merf and I take a well-deserved break. We've climbed almost eleven hundred feet in a mile, over some of the worst terrain on the trail. It will remain our toughest climb until we reach the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But it will always be the least fun.

I collapse in the dirt and dust to catch my breath. I lean back against my pack, and look up. And see a line of grey-black storm clouds rolling towards us.

"Should I put my rain pants on?" I ask Merf.

"What?" Merf mumbles through a handful of raspberries. "No! No, you'll get too hot. Besides, it might not even rain, and if it does, it'll be refreshing!"

It's hard to refute her logic, even though she's wrong.

I put on my pack cover, just in case. It's—very literally—the least I can do. And I'm glad I've done so when it starts drizzling.

"I think you were wrong!" I castigate Merf later, as water trickles down my leg into my socks, until my boots are completely sodden, gushing and squishing soggily with ever step.

"You didn't have to listen to me!" she protests.

"I trusted you!"

"This is your fault! Don't push it off on me! I think you're just mad because you made a dumb mistake."

"How dare you..."

And then the steady drizzle accelerates into a lacerating downpour.

And I use a choice four letter word to describe what has clearly become my favorite state on the trail.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chapter 91: The Carousel

I feel isolated, disconnected, like the lonely little kid at the amusement park who was too late to get on the merry-go-round: I can only watch and imagine the happiness, the comfort, and the sense of purpose those riding it must feel. Knowing they have a place. Surrounded by friends, flashing lights, and music. Once a revolution, I might catch a face in the crowd, but then the ride goes on, and I am gone. And alone.

However, I know that—at some point—the song will end, and the carousel will slow to a halt, and all those contented little kids will have to shuffle off, disappointed. Some will selfishly cling to their seats to take another spin, but they will see their friends replaced by strangers, and then the tune will change, and the world they have grown to love will seem foreign and terrifying. The few self-aware souls amongst them will look back and see the endless line of eager children waiting to displace them. But not me. Never me. I will have given up and wandered off, without a hope of ever getting on.


Caveman was gone. Merf was hiking with her friend Dietrich—whom I had dubbed Blitz earlier that morning, due to his unflagging speed and seemingly limitless energy—leaving me to continue on my own, alone with my thoughts. Which was fine by me; I found no comfort in company.

Nor, unfortunately, solace in solitude. The twist and creak of branches bending in the wind, the quiet rustle of leaves, the snap of twigs underfoot, and the incessant cheerful chirping of nearby birds thus became just the ironic soundtrack to my melancholy. My floating reverie.

I passed the Traveling Circus at a road crossing. They were in a typically cheerful mood, waiting for one of their compatriots to pick them up for the short ride back into civilization. I numbly mumbled a half-hearted goodbye, and then shuffled off, dispirited, towards the Eckville Shelter.

Little more than a glorified garage, the Eckville Shelter was just a couple hundred yards up the road, behind the first house on the right. The caretaker's house. A figure of much speculation and foreboding, the caretaker appeared at first only in fleeting glances, peering out suspiciously from behind a drawn window curtain. He would later emerge suddenly to growl at us filthy, marauding hikers to "clean up" and to "get [our crap] off [his] lawn." I didn't know whether to fear, respect, or pity the old man.

That said, I had heard from a (presumably unreliable) south-bounder that the caretaker took kindly to hikers who helped out around the shelter, and that I might even get a popsicle or something if I swept. Naturally, I had hardly dropped my pack inside before asking someone for the broom. Five minutes later, the caretaker came out to reward me with an ice-cold Pepsi. Five minutes after that, he returned with half a watermelon for the rest of us to share. Maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all.

I ended up sleeping in a chair, leaving the last two available bunks for Merf and Blitz. The other bunks were already occupied, by an assortment of older, more sensitive and physically fragile hikers. Like the Syke Brothers, who were hiking to raise money for charity. For some reason, they reminded me strongly of Redwing and Lil Dipper. Except for that they were very much older, lewd, comically profane, almost completely unintelligible, male, and considerably less attractive. Maybe it was because they were British.

The next morning I hiked off alone once again.

I took frequent breaks in the day that followed, the better to allow Merf and Blitz time and opportunity to catch up with me. It was Blitz's last day on the trail. His girlfriend was coming to pick him up, and was bringing a picnic lunch with her to celebrate the occasion. That was something I didn't want to miss. Did I deserve it? Hadn't I been a good friend, helping Merf and Blitz get through some very difficult and demanding terrain? Or was I just being a mooch? I'm not sure. I don't really care.

Still, Blit'z girlfriend was very nice, as was the assortment of surprisingly (and perhaps disappointingly) healthy snacks she brought with her. None of which did anything to lessen the depressive funk I could feel myself slipping into. Perhaps I envied Blitz? His journey was over; he was going home, retreating into the warmth and comfort of his loved one's arms. Whereas, I was still out in the woods, with nearly a thousand miles still left to go. I definitely envied Blitz.

It hardly seems possible that Merf and I made it into Palmerton, Pennsylvania that day. Somehow, despite stopping for our trail magic snack and to say goodbye to Blitz, we made it twenty five miles, then hitched into town before sunset. I never would have made it without Merf. Unfortunately, I doubt she can say the same of me.

We managed to hitch a ride into town within five minutes. I say we, but Merf really had everything to do with that. A solitary male hitchhiker can be imposing, even scary. As a couple? People probably just assumed we were married, and therefore found us unthreatening. Whatever. I didn't question it.

We were staying the night in the Palmerton Jail. A former jail that was now just a hiker hostel and sometime hang-out for the local Boy Scout troops. Checking in did involve undergoing a background check at the local police station, though. I wouldn't recommend staying there if you have any outstanding warrants. Or maybe even unpaid parking tickets.

Everyone showed up. Little Brown. The entire Traveling Circus, drunk. A mysterious and tragically misguided southbound section hiker. I showered, soaked my feet in Epsom salts, ate my dinner in relative silence, and tried not to let my aggravations get the better of me. People gradually left to go to a nearby hotel bar, or turned in for the night, and things quieted down.

We were two days from the Delaware Water Gap, and the New Jersey border. All that remained between us and that goal was the absolute worst section of trail anywhere. I slept like a baby. Which is to say, fitfully, often waking with the urge to cry and/or urinate myself. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Chapter 90: The Traveling Circus

The Traveling Circus—comprised of ringleader Ringleader, her best friend Lightning, and her younger brother Monkey—was making a movie. A documentary, in fact, about the "social aspect" of the Appalachian Trail, in which they hoped to prove that not all thru-hikers were uncouth, unkempt, unclean Neanderthals woefully unfit for civilized society. The Circus had assumed the pretext that none of them would even be there hiking the trail if it weren't for that "social aspect," for that unseen, unheralded but largely upstanding community of charming, intelligent, outgoing, like-minded hikers.

Being a filmmaker myself, and one with close ties to the documentary filmmaking world—one of my best friend's former roommates is dating the son of an acclaimed and Oscar-nominated documentarian, after all—I could see where they were coming from, and appreciate the particular and unique challenges they were up against. However, I could not escape the conclusion that, if it had been my project—and, indeed, this is how I always approach and criticize other people's ideas, being an incredibly narrow-minded person—I would have done things completely differently. For example, I wouldn't have formed an impressively close-knit and impenetrable clique with an intimidatingly clever name; or slackpacked my way across entire states; or locked myself into finishing the trail on a certain, arbitrary date; or done anything else, for that matter, that might have distanced or differentiated me from that community, from those people and that culture, that I claimed to be so interested in and reliant upon.

Still, while there seemed something inherently paradoxical and ultimately self-defeating in their premise, I grudgingly came to appreciate certain details of their production. Unlike Bulldog, the blind man whose own Appalachian Trail thru-hike was being documented by a camera crew from National Geographic, the Traveling Circus had been thrust into the unenviable position of self-funding their film. However, they had cleverly and impressively overcome the shortfalls in their budget by securing product placement considerations from Mountain House Freeze Dried Foods®, REI©, Cornell University—which proud alumnus Monkey referenced in dialog an astounding and seemingly unnecessary 247 times in the brief few days I spent with them—LifeStyle Condoms™, and Axe Body Spray deodorant. Their tenacity and resourcefulness was certainly commendable, if also vaguely amusing.

Equally impressive was their catering service. As almost anybody who's been on set can attest, the best part of being involved in film production isn't the money, the fame, the adulation of millions of fans, or the opportunity to create meaningful works of art that can subversively pass as simple entertainments while simultaneously provoking thought and perhaps fundamentally altering the audience's outlook on the world. No, the best part is craft services: the elaborate all-you-can-eat spreads of usually multi-ethnic food that it is normally incumbent upon the producer to provide the crew, usually or ideally at the expense of one of the film's promotional partners. That morning, in Port Clinton, Pennsylvania, I awoke to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee and a fabulous picnic of bananas, orange juice, yogurt, cereal, and bagels, courtesy of one of Monkey's friends and classmates from Cornell. Did I mention Monkey went to Cornell? Well, he did. Fantastic university, by the way. My mother went there, too. To Cornell. Ithaca. Wonderful town. Cornell.

Although I greatly enjoyed these fringe benefits of being an extra—or perhaps I was merely being a leech and taking advantage of their largesse—I was slightly put off that they never asked me to contribute anything on-camera. I am Major Chafage, after all. A legend amongst legends. And, honestly, I would have expected the Traveling Circus to recognize me as something of a kindred spirit; not only did we have that aforementioned filmmaking connection, but we had both spent the majority of our time on the trail alienating and annoying people. Or maybe that was just me. Still, wasn't their documentary supposed to be about the "social aspect" of the trail? Wouldn't it therefore be reasonable to expect them to at least perform a cursory interview with every hiker they met? But I digress. Perhaps I simply didn't fit with their desired aesthetic. Perhaps they deemed me to be too ruggedly disheveled, and feared that I wouldn't match the image they were trying to portray.

Anyway, I certainly didn't resent them for their lack of interest in me. I definitely didn't have unpleasant flashbacks to all those years being shunned by the "beautiful people" in high school. And I absolutely didn't think that they were a bunch of pretentious, tragically misguided blowhards. Who were, at best, inadvertently mocking me and my noble, more philosophical, or even spiritual, intentions. And, at worst, scorning nature, degrading me, belittling my experiences, and ruining my hike. No, I loved the Circus. I thought they were lovely people.

"Would you be out here, if it weren't for the 'social aspect?'" I asked my friend Merf later, as we sat atop Pulpit Rock eating an early lunch.

Merf scoffed, disapproving of my tone.

"Would you?" I asked Dietrich, Merf's friend from home. I had recently dubbed him Blitz due to his unflagging energy. Merf and I were running him ragged, but he was holding up admirably.

Dietrich shrugged.

"Because I know I wouldn't," I lied. "I fucking hate nature."

And once we had finished giggling, we packed up and headed off towards the Eckville Shelter.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Chapter 89: To Caveman

I'm in Pennsylvania. I've gone twelve-hundred and two miles. It's the second week of June.

I am utterly miserable.

I sit down, dejected, in the tick-infested weeds beside the dirt road that marks this particular pipeline right-of-way. Or whatever it is. If I check my Handbook, it will tell me that this is a "Game lands road." I think of a more accurate, profane description while retrieving a soda from my pack.

That's right, we found trail magic earlier. Someone had left sodas in a creek, just off the trail. I took five: a Coke, a Mountain Dew, and a Birch Beer that I drank right away, plus a Dr. Pepper and another Birch Beer that I saved for later. Eat your heart out, Caveman.

My "friend" Caveman, always denying me what's rightfully mine. Urging me to be "conscientious" and "considerate," to leave some for the others. For the faceless crowd we've left behind. What nonsense.

I had to take them. I deserved them. I needed them. Because I was depressed.

Because you broke up with me.

As I sip my Dr. Pepper, luxuriating in every one of its sumptuous twenty-three flavors, I reminisce about walking home from school with Amber on that fateful Monday afternoon, and of watching Libby drive away in the rain, barely resisting the urge to run after her. I quickly come to the conclusion that this is worse. Or at least more recent.

I knew you had been feeling antsy, and that you weren't entirely content just slumming it with me anymore, doing relatively relaxed 17- and 24-mile days. I knew this because you basically told me as much, if in not so many words. I remember the conversation vividly, as though it had only happened a few hours earlier. Maybe it had.

"I'm just feelin' a little antsy," you had said, grimacing. "It's not that I don't enjoy slummin' it with Merf an' that other dude an' you—I love you, man. You know I do—it's just I like everybody else more. P-Nut an' Hobbes..."

"And the British girls?"

"Yeah," you had sighed. "Sure, them too."

"And Bandito?"

"Well, not so much him. No."

And we both had laughed. Me bitterly. Because I knew it was probably the last, after we had shared so many.

And I'm back in the dust by the road, amidst the buzzing insects, feeling the weight on my back, the sun on my face, and the pain in my ass. Stupid pebbles. I should've picked a better place to sit.

What direction will my life take now? How will I define myself without you? If I'm not walking to be with you, what am I walking for? Why am I even out here? If not for love or friendship, then what?

The forest in front of me shimmers in the heat. And then they emerge. A man and a woman walk towards me out of the haze. The man is tall and muscular; his rakish beard and casually disheveled hair exude the careless confidence of a man who has never once had cause to doubt his devilish good looks. Or his good fortune. The woman is striking, similarly tall and startlingly voluptuous. Clear skinned, vaguely Nordic in stature, she carries herself like some avenging Valkyrie, with a serene look of steely detachment in her eyes but her gait and body language full of an inexplicable violence that sends a cool shiver down my spine. Both are clean and seem in good spirits. They look down on me with a vaguely mirthful curiosity, as if I am so comically insignificant as to be utterly unworthy of their attention, let alone their scorn.

And then they're gone.

"Who the hell was that?" I ask, half to myself.

"Slackpackers," says Caveman.

I practically jump out of my skin. I'd forgotten he was there. I nod absentmindedly.

"I met them yesterday," continues Caveman. "They were hitching a ride by the road on the way up to the 501 Shelter. I think her name is Lightning."

Sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.

"Slackpackers," I spit, shaking my head. "How I hate them."

"Did you find yourself, like, sexually threatened by him?"

"What? No! Why?"

"It sounded like you were. From your narration," explains Caveman.

"Shut up," I scold. "You're not allowed any meta commentary. Not today."

"Why? 'Cause I'm leaving you?"

"Yes. I'm still hurt."

Caveman sighs. "You shouldn't be threatened by him, M.C. Or anybody, for that matter. You are one handsome devil."

"Don't tease me."

"Come on," Caveman urges. "Let's just try to enjoy these next few hours. It's all we've got left."

"This is wrong," I say. "You were never this prescient in real life."

"But that's the beauty of fiction," says Caveman. "You can fix every wrong."

I begrudgingly concede his point, until I remember. "Hey! What did I say about the fourth wall!"

"The fourth what? What're you talkin' about?" asks Caveman, amused. "I don't even know what that means."

"That's better," I say, cautiously.

"Come on, M.C." urges Caveman again. "We'll go into Port Clinton, stay at the pavilion there. It's free. Maybe we'll order pizza from Pizza Hut, for old time's sake. I'll pay with my credit card over the phone, and you can promise to pay me back when you get some cash, but then again I'm never going to see you after this, so that'll be an empty promise!"

"Yes, it will," I agree.

"And then we can laugh at everybody who didn't get trail magic back there at the sign, and you can write something mean in a shelter log."

"There won't be a shelter log, Caveman. It's a gazebo."

"Okay, well you can think of something really mean to write the next time."

"Maybe. What if nothing pisses me off?"

Caveman laughs. And says nothing. Like I was joking.

"Well?" he asks, after a moment. "What do you say? Is it a plan? The perfect afternoon ever? Or what?"

"It sounds like every other day on the trail," I grumble.

"So? I wouldn't want it any other way."

I want to stay mad at him, but I can't. He offers me his hand. Which I don't take, choosing instead to stumble to my feet the manly way. Because Caveman and I are two burly dudes, who don't ever touch each other for any reason.

"Oh stop," Caveman chides. "Gay panic? Really? That's beneath you."

I let this one slide.

And we head off into town, where we get Pizza Hut, and drink our last remaining sodas. Where we formally meet Lightning and the rest of her group, the Travelling Circus. Where I bond pleasantly with a stray kitten, until someone erroneously warns me the cat has fleas. After which I foolishly ignore it. Eventually Merf and Deitrich and Little Brown arrive, and I let them eat the crust of my large stuffed crust pizza. Because I'm too full to eat anymore. I mean, in the spirit of togetherness.

And then it is the end of our perfect afternoon, our last day together. Caveman and I say goodnight, and goodbye, one final time. Our jubilant reunion cut short. My last tie to my friends gone. He will leave the next morning before dawn. I will remain to face the unknown future alone.