Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chapter 102: Blink

I was playing leap frog with a newly resurfaced, resurgent Hobbit. I'm not entirely sure how he caught up with me, or so quickly, but I didn't begrudge him his apparent speed. Especially not with my short-term plans taking me off-trail for much of the coming week.

Still, it was a mildly amusing ballet we orchestrated: every couple of miles one of us would come upon the other sitting beside the trail—taking an unearned break or eating a snack—and we'd nod to each other and exchange grim, knowing smirks. (This tacit, subtle acknowledgement long being the most accepted and universally recognized form of greeting between haggard thru-hikers.) And so, for a few mostly pleasant hours, we more or less marked time with each other.

After slipping ahead for the final time, however, I emerged from the woods out onto a road at the edge of a vast, glassy lake. Stuck by its quiet beauty, or maybe just tired and overcome by the heat of the day, I doffed my pack and sat down on the curb. Where I noticed a note, written on a familiar tie-dyed stationary, taped to the guardrail.

Though days of rain had smudged the ink, her handwriting was unmistakable. It was a letter to Bandito and Caveman, from Redwing, telling them that she, P-Nut, and Lil Dipper were going down to the lake to swim. If the heat radiating off the blacktop wasn't already threatening to melt the soles of my boots, I might've said reading her note—and knowing that, somewhere, my friends were still together—felt like a ray of sunshine. All the same, it made me glad. Although, the fact that neither Caveman nor Bandito had removed said note made me question whether they had seen it in the first place.

As I ripped the note down and stuffed it in my pack, Hobbit emerged from the woods behind me. I pulled my things aside to let him pass, but he waved me off. No sooner had he explained that he was spending the night at a friend's house than someone pulled up in a minivan to pick him up. I saluted him briefly, and that was that. I never saw him again.


I knew my mom would be picking me up almost as soon as I crossed the Connecticut border in the morning. I proposed trying to make it as far as Kent, and coming home in the afternoon, but she suggested picking me up at Route 55 in the morning. Why spend the whole day hiking when you could spend it relaxing and drinking lemonade instead? It was hard to argue with her logic.

Still, knowing her plans did someone diminish my sense of ambition. I knew there was no point to pushing myself harder than I thought necessary. The end result of which was me saying goodbye to Sonic that day, as well. Unlike me, he had a schedule to keep, and needed to keep on making miles. It had always been a struggle to keep up with him, but I was filled with mixed emotions to see him go. Another friend gone, in so little time.

I pulled into the inexplicably named Telephone Pioneers Shelter for the night. It was lonely there for the longest time, until Pixie arrived with some of her coterie, none of whom I had seen since at least Tennessee, or maybe Virginia. It wasn't a jovial reunion. We really hadn't spent that much time together. But it was nice to have company, all the same.

Until I hung my food, and crawled up the hill behind the shelter to where I'd put up my tent. There wasn't a lot of flat ground available nearby, so my position was hardly ideal. Still, I was able to settle in and get comfortable enough, lying awake listening to the creak of the trees and the quiet burble of conversation from the group of friends below.

Tomorrow, I'd be going home. Seeing my friends. Going to bars. Drinking beer. Celebrating the Fourth of July. It was bound to be bittersweet. Yet I felt an undeniable surge of accomplishment. In January, I'd taken a train down to Georgia. And I'd walked home. It was crazy! I wondered if anyone would actually believe me. Probably. Still, I'd come 1456 miles.

Only 733 to go.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chapter 101: Breaking New Ground

The primary, indisputable appeal of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is that it gives you the opportunity to do things you wouldn't otherwise be able to do; to do the things you've always dreamt of doing; and to do all the things you otherwise wouldn't have ever considered, contemplated, or wanted.1 Pooping in the woods, for instance. Or stripping naked in front of other men. Or meeting and befriending people from all over the world, and then gleefully antagonizing them without care or conscience. On this particular day, my thru-hiking experience provided me with the opportunity to watch a World Cup semifinal game between Germany and England with an honest-to-goodness German. And how often does that happen?2

Germany and England have one of the most well-chronicled rivalries in the annals of international soccer. The animosity between the two teams is perhaps unsurpassed in athletic and world history, even eclipsing the fevered levels of antagonism that existed between the two countries in the first half of the 20th Century.3 However, while the games are hotly contested, and their fan-bases equally passionate, the overall competition between Germany and England has been drastically one-sided.4 Almost exactly like World War II, actually, only the complete opposite.

Anyway, my host Chelsea's husband was German, so I ultimately seized the opportunity to stay for the moment to watch with them. Of course, the fact that they were also having other friends over to watch—friends who were said to be bringing chips and salsa and guacamole and soda and lemonade—bore little influence on my decision. Germany ended up winning 4-1, and everyone had a great time. Around noon, with the game over and festivities winding down, Chelsea drove me back to the trail. I thanked her profusely for all her generosity and hospitality, and lamented that we didn't have the chance to talk more, or that she didn't get to ask me any of the presumably many, many questions she had about the trail. She was very understanding, and grateful, however. And so we said goodbye, and I continued on my way.

The rest of the day was rather uneventful. I found some trail magic, a cooler of sodas and beers left by the side of the trail near a water source. I think it was from the same guy who I'd seen giving out trail magic the day before. I had a Heineken, because why not? And then I continued to drag my sorry ass through the muggy New York countryside, constantly assaulted by deer flies, mosquitoes, and bedraggled day-hikers until I reached the RPH shelter.

Sonic caught back up with me. He had spent the previous night in Fort Montgomery, New York with Kashmir, so they could watch the United States play Ghana. The United States lost, but it was a well played game, and Sonic had enjoyed it. I wondered where all this newfound interest in soccer was coming from, and if it had spread to the rest of America or was just endemic to people on the trail. Weird. Whatever.

Two days till home.

1. Okay, that's not strictly true. It's also about interacting with "the wild, scenic, pastoral, cultural and natural elements" of Appalachia, "unfettered and unimpeded by competing sights or sounds and in as direct and intimate a manner as possible." (Appalachian Trailways News, July/August 1997). The trail is also supposed to offer hikers' the opportunity to observe, contemplate, and explore the natural world; give them a sense of remoteness and detachment from civilization; and provide them with the chance to experience solitude, freedom, self-reliance, and self discovery. Boring!

2. Since they met in the 1966 finals, Germany and England have played each other in the World Cup once every ten years, on average. But when you consider that the World Cup only takes place every four years—and that there have only been eleven World Cups in the intervening years, and that Germany has played England in roughly half of them—you might come to the completely defensible conclusion that they play each other rather frequently. Which... So... Shut up! And as for seeing a match with a German audience... I guess that depends of how many German people you know. Back to text!

3. This is my obligatory World War II joke. See also: every article in every magazine, newspaper, or tabloid ever written about the Germany-England soccer rivalry. Or, watch this episode of Top Gear, which has absolutely nothing to do with soccer, but is still very illuminating and indicative of the general state of English-German relations. The English just love bringing up WWII when they're dealing with Germans. Probably because they don't have anything else to brag about.

4. Since they met in the aforementioned 1966 World Cup finals—in which England emerged victorious—Germany has won 13 out of 19 matches overall, with one ending in a draw.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Chapter 100: Episodes

One may encounter numerous hazards on the Appalachian Trail, including severe weather; ravenous, man-eating black bears; ravenous, man-eating hillbillies; mosquitoes; ticks; deer flies; chiggers; spiders; steep grades; limited water; contaminated water; contaminated raspberries; poison ivy; giardia; disease; southbounders; and lethally venomous snakes.

Conspicuously absent from that list, however, is "dodging traffic while running frantically across a four-lane divided highway during rush hour." Yet that is exactly what I found myself doing on this particular morning, much to my considerable dismay and consternation. It was kind of exciting, though.

What's that? You expected me to say more? Oh, well...

Early that morning I found myself in the unenviable position of having the cross the Palisades Interstate Parkway, a four-lane divided highway. During rush hour. And, unlike virtually every other "dangerous" road crossing on the trail, the powers that be had inexplicably neglected to provide a bridge. Or tunnel. Or crosswalk. It seemed one simply had to wait for a break in the traffic, and then run for it. Easier said than done, especially when your knees are shot and you're carrying a preposterously bulky forty-pound backpack.

I can only imagine the mirthful confusion of motorists as they watched me dance nervously by the shoulder, before I sprinted (or, more accurately, waddled awkwardly) out into the road in front of them. In a moment of astonishing clarity, I was struck by the fantastic serendipity of my successful pre-breakfast privy run when—as I suddenly became hyper aware of the inexorable inertia of the several thousand pounds of angry metal screaming towards me—my bowels involuntarily loosened. Even so, I somehow made it safely across the road, bodily intact and compression shorts unsoiled.

Only to realize I had only made it to the island between the southbound and northbound lanes, and that I had to repeat this entire terrifying process all over again. And so what should have taken me fifteen seconds ended up taking more like fifteen minutes. Or indefinitely, as I may have actually died somewhere along the way, and am dictating this narration to my (clearly unflappable) next-of-kin from purgatory.


I caught up with Hobbit on my way up Bear Mountain. I hadn't seen him since Maryland, when we ran into each other while he was attempting the Four State Challenge. We chatted for a bit, catching up, commiserating cheerfully over our myriad individual failures.

Bear Mountain was underwhelming, and then infuriating. Underwhelming because the park was chock-full of clueless tourists who had driven right there to the summit, inadvertently undermining my (admittedly already meager) sense of accomplishment. Infuriating because the soda machines by the central observation tower were prohibitively expensive, and most of the marauding day-trippers didn't seem to understand my pitiful attempts at yogi-ing. Even when I sat in plain view, staring pointedly at the sun with parched lips aquiver. Well, except for a kindly middle-aged couple, who gave me a spare bottle of water.



Descending Bear Mountain was a treat, and then absolute torture once I reached Hessian Lake. A treat because the trail down had just recently been re-opened, and now featured a series of newly constructed, languidly twisting, wide stone stairways. Torture because approximately ten thousand people were having loud parties and barbecues and picnicking around the lake. Munching on enormous bags of crisp, crunchy potato chips. Tossing back ice-cold beers from their coolers. An intoxicating haze of smoke rising from innumerable grills. The audible fizz of freshly popped sodas lingered in the air, drowning out the blissful laughing of the children.

And yet nobody seemed to notice me, the shockingly emaciated homeless man walking through their midst. Despite the deafening rumble of my stomach. And my comically round eyes, as I stared in transparent envy at the buffet around me.

I might as well have stripped naked and danced around singing La Marseillaise, for all the attention I was getting. Well, except for that I can't speak French. Irritated beyond belief, I kept my head down and exited the park as quickly as possible.


The Bear Mountain Zoo was a quaint, mercifully brief distraction. I can't say I appreciated seeing all these wild animals I'd already seen on the trail locked up in cages, though. That was mildly depressing. But at least the zoo had water fountains.


A sign hung alongside the walkway greeting me as I approached the bridge over the Hudson River.

"WARNING!" it angrily proclaimed, "Nesting Peregrine Falcons are extremely territorial, and may dive bomb your skull at any second. Say your prayers."

The Peregrine Falcon is often referred to as the world's fastest animal, capable of diving at over 200 miles per hour. Getting hit in the head by a particularly well-thrown fastball can be near fatal, and a baseball weighs only five ounces; I shuddered to think what a two or three pound bird could do to me flying at twice that speed. It wasn't exactly like running across a busy highway, but crossing the bridge was similarly thrilling. If I had to go out—if a falcon had to kill me—at least I would die awesome.

Or should that be awesomely?

Once across the bridge, I looked back for any signs of the birds. I had no idea what I was looking for, but could see no evidence of any nests on the suspension bridge's tall towers. And the sky above me was clear. Well, except for...

It flew in from the north, looking initially like a peculiar, rather ungainly sea gull. But then it was much too large to be a gull, and only it's head was clearly white, the rest of its feathers a weathered russet brown. It definitely wasn't a falcon, but it soared like one, gliding majestically past me and over the bridge.

I felt a chill run down my spine—and a twinge of admiration, or something vaguely like pride—that I didn't understand at first. It was a Bald Eagle.


A couple miles further on, I was back in the woods, and had just discovered a cooler of sodas and beer left by a German day hiker. What a thoughtful man. I couldn't decide what would satiate my thirst better, a Heineken or a Coca Cola. I settled on both. It was... interesting.


At the end of the day, after an easy but eventful fifteen miles, I found myself at a convenience store on US9, waiting for a ride. One of my girlfriend's coworkers, Chelsea, lived in nearby Cold Spring, New York, and had offered to put me up for the night. I drank a couple of Mountain Dews while I waited, anxious but excited to get into town, eat real food, talk to real people, and sleep in a real bed.

Chelsea was very nice, and she and her husband extremely forgiving and accommodating. I assume I must have smelled like a week-old corpse, and not looked much better, but they graciously invited me into their home, allowed me to do my laundry, gave me juice, and let me use their computer. Unfortunately, they had a prior social engagement, or else they might have enjoyed picking my brain for stories and wisdom about the trail. And I would have enjoyed telling them.

Ultimately, I ended up walking alone to the grocery store in the dark. My resupply here was much more sensible—and lighter on the fluffy, fake chocolatey things—than my previous one had been in Jersey. On a whim, I purchased a quart of chocolate milk from a local farm. And drank the entire thing before I had left the parking lot. Delicious.

I went back to Chelsea's house, checked my e-mail, and tried to stay awake as long as possible, in case they came home and wanted to talk. But hiker midnight (eight or nine o'clock, for you normal folks) came and went, and I found myself slipping into an uneasy unconsciousness. I knew I would have another long day ahead of me—and then only two more until home!—so I quickly packed up and turned in, falling almost immediately to sleep.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Chapter 99: The Elusive Hipster

The Appalachian Trail is home to thousands of animal species, from the Alces alces to the Ursus Americanus. Perhaps the most elusive of all, however, is the Homo eirōneus, or Hipster. Although the hipsters' conservation status remains that of "Least concern," they are rarely seen outside of their native habitat in stylishly dilapidated urban areas, and Portland, Oregon.

On a bright Friday afternoon—at the end of a relaxed, otherwise forgettable 19.6 mile day—I had the privilege and distinct pleasure to witness a group of hipsters out on their semiannual "ironic" vacation. Which, on this occasion, took them to the remarkably drab and excitingly primitive William Brien Memorial Shelter, located an audacious sixty miles from their home in Brooklyn. I was sitting by the shelter, making idle conversation with my fellow thru-hikers Kashmir and Sonic, when the flash of an orange sneaker signaled their imminent arrival.


"So where are y'all from?" I asked the newcomers, amused by their preponderance of doofy hats, skinny jeans, and vaguely stylish eyewear.

The hipsters hovered anxiously around our fire circle, as though unsure of their presumed eventual inclusion. Wary, Kashmir and Sonic looked to me for direction. I shrugged. I wasn't about to exclude them.

"Brooklyn," offered one.

I nodded, my suspicions confirmed. "You're hipsters."

"W-What? No!" the man protested, laughing. "We're not hipsters!"

Me thinks they doth protest too much. I winked at Kashmir, rolling my eyes.

"Whereabouts in Brooklyn?" I continued, trying to assuage their growing apprehension. "I know the area, I used to live in the city myself."

They eyed each other nervously.

"Williamsburg," one offered timidly, only to be glared at, tacitly admonished by his companions.

"Hipsters," I repeated, shaking my head.

"We're really not," another assured me, grinning uneasily. "What makes you think we are?"

I shrugged.

"What do you guys do? In Williamsburg?" asked Kashmir, to their general astonishment. The shorter bearded one speaks!

The first man stuttered, obviously made uncomfortable by the direction the conversation was taking, and the general line of questioning.

"We're animators," another finally mumbled.

I guffawed. "You're animators? And you live in Williamsburg? You're hipsters!"

"Well, where did you live?" asked the man with the grin, clearly trying to change the subject.

"My apartment was in the Park Slope, Windsor Terrace area," I yawned.

"Park Slope?" the man smirked. "I guess that makes you a rich lesbian!"

"Right," I said, as the hipsters giggled and congratulated each other. "Well, I do love titties."

And that shut them up.

Or maybe I'm just an ass hole.

Defeated, the hipsters mulled retreating to their inconveniently far-off tents. Kashmir and Sonic earnestly professed an honest curiosity about their livelihood, however, so we didn't lose their company for the night. I felt slightly bad for teasing them, even if I did call them out accurately for what they were. But my regrets were easily forgotten as we bonded over shared reminiscence of life in the city, and the business. Kashmir was excited to learn that the hipsters' crowning professional achievement as animators was a cartoon music video for an independent Australian rock band. Not bad. I wasn't surprised. Or that impressed.

The day had taken me across baren mountaintops; through vast, ethereal fields of blueberry bushes; and past vistas of the distant New York City, still shrouded in an unenviable haze of choking smog. I had thrown myself towards the black, sludgy run-off of a grotesque, stagnant pond to desperately suck down its life-sustaining waters. I had deftly danced around the Lemon Squeezer, an obstacle course of laughable difficulty and curious brevity. And, through it all, I had managed to not have another nervous breakdown, starve to death, or heinously offend any random strangers. Much. Things were looking up. Indeed, tomorrow I would be climbing Bear Mountain; crossing the Hudson River; and meeting up with a particularly kind and hospitable friend of a friend, to stay at her home.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chapter 98: Breakdown

I don't know if I can do this anymore.

But if I don't manage to persevere, I'll probably never finish.


Arriving at the turnoff towards the Wildcat Shelter, I collapse beside the trail in a heap, arms and legs akimbo.

My carefully laid plans unravel before me, fraying like so many pages of my tattered Thru-Hiker's Handbook. That I desperately cleave to, and repeatedly scour for some vague sign of hope. Sadly, its dirtied and torn, nigh unrecognizable covers conceal no hidden wisdom. Dejected, I toss it in the dirt at my feet. And weep.

I was supposed to go 26.3 miles today. That was too ambitious. My muscles still ache, my thighs chafed raw, from the blistering 58 miles I've gone in the past two days. Nearly 30 miles a day. Incredible. Punishing. Stupid. Pointless.

After a few minutes, my sobbing subsides. Regaining some semblance of composure, I manage to wriggle free of my pack, and retrieve my phone. It's nearly one in the afternoon. Somehow, I've only gone twelve miles. At that rate, I know I won't reach the Fingerboard Shelter until after eight o'clock. By which time, the sun will be down, or nearly down. Which means I can forget about making or enjoying a camp fire, or socializing with my fellow hikers. I'll barely have enough time and energy to put up my tent and eat dinner before exhaustion takes me, and I end up on my back, in my sleeping bag, alone with my pain and my grief. And then, tomorrow, all I'll have to look forward to is more of the same. Repeating this grim, joyless process all over again. When all I really want to do is...

A distant peal of thunder pulls me from my reverie. I remember I have two calls to make: one to Megan—mostly for moral support, but also to see if she can come pick me up, if I truly need rescuing—and the other to my dad, telling him I might not be able to make it home in time for his surgery after all. And that I'm a massive failure. And that I'm sorry.


"I don't know if I can do this anymore," I whine, choking back tears.

An uneasy silence follows. Do you hesitate because you're carefully choosing your words? Or are you merely withholding some bitter remark, trying to conceal your frustration and annoyance? Whatever the case may be, this isn't what I wanted to hear.

I wanted to hear your mellifluous voice reassuring me, telling me that I can do this. That I'm being silly. That I'm overreacting. And that you're proud of me; that you do believe in me, even if I don't. And that I should just relax. A reminder that this isn't the end of the world.

"What do you want from me?" you finally grumble.

Is that petulance? Exasperation? Or am I projecting? And assuming the worst.

"What do you need me to do?" you ask, resigned.

"Come get me," I say. The words are difficult. Keeping my breathing steady is even harder. "If I need getting."

"Maybe," you sigh. "We'll see. I mean, I have work, and class."

I know you're an important, busy person. I get it. You're beautiful. You're a goddess. Your time is extremely valuable. And I already owe you so much. But think about what it would mean to me, how grateful I would be if you came!

Of course I say none of that, but bite down on my knuckle. Inhale. Exhale. Trying to keep it together. I don't want you to know that I've been crying.

"I'm afraid, Megan," I blurt at last. "I'm afraid if I stop now, if I get off the trail again, so soon, I won't be able to come back."

You think I'm being ridiculous. I don't care. I miss you. I think about you constantly, in my every waking moment. I mean, in every waking moment that isn't otherwise occupied by pressing bodily functions. My memories of you hang around me like a fog, so thick I sometimes can't see the trail in front of me. I have to continuously push you aside, put you from my mind, or I wouldn't be able to make any progress. It's pathetic, really. Isn't it?

"You chose to be out there!" I can hear you reminding me. "Don't forget that!"

I whimper involuntarily, sinking into this fantasy.

"What about me? Did you ever stop to think about how I feel? About how this would affect me? You disappearing for so long?"

"What? But I didn't know what else to do!"

"That's a terrible excuse. Maybe that's because you have no ambition. You could be great, but you're all too willing to settle for mediocre. You'd rather just do the bare minimum to get by than actually try to be somebody, to do something with your life."

"That's not fair! Look at where I am!"

"Lost in the woods, miserable and alone? Alienating yourself from your friends and your family, from humanity? Only succeeding in annoying and antagonizing everybody you meet? All you're doing is hurting yourself. And why? For what?"

I don't know.

"Also, why are you trying so hard to be some kind of enlightened, post-feminist 'sensitive' man? Do you think that's attractive? Because it's not! You're just being selfish. Like a poor little baby who cries so his mommy will come comfort him in his crib, and bring him things. Stop acting like a little boy. I'm not attracted to boys, or babies. I want a man! Be a man!"

Easier said than done. The back of my neck burns with embarrassment. I sputter to talk.

"Also, I'm a better writer than you," you interject, as if I needed the cherry on top. "Your prose is mediocre, and you lack imagination. And you can't sing. You think you can, but you really can't. You're always out of tune, it's--"

But now you've gone too far. And the open wound from where you've stabbed me in the heart closes and scabs over. And I grit my teeth and yank off the scab and tear it in half and ball it up and shove it in my ears so I can't hear any more of your crass, insulting prattle.

"I'm gonna prove you wrong, all you doubters and haters!" I scream defiantly, at nobody in particular. "Nobody believes in me but me! I can do this!"


And then a vaguely middle-aged rock band emerges out of the woods, and I know they must be Survivor because they start playing "Eye of the Tiger" just for me. And it's awesome. Immediately pumped, I leap to my feet and practically run the next 14 miles to the next shelter.

Except for not at all.

The slick pitter-patter of rainfall drags me out of my stupor. And I'm still sitting in the dust, my back against a tree. And I tell you I have to run, to get out of the rain. And you dutifully promise to come get me, if that's what I really need. And I choke up, about to cry again, because you don't know what that means, or how it feels. I'm grateful.

And then I'm racing to the Wildcat Shelter, where I call my dad. The thunderstorm has made my decision easier. I'm staying, and getting my rest, regaining my strength. My dad is far too understanding, and accommodating. And, again, I feel a twinge of guilt, and sadness, that I won't be able to be there for him.

But then, hanging up, I close my eyes and breath in the smell of the rain, hearing the rush of water on the tin roof, and I feel immediately better.


Sonic and a couple of others eventually join me at the shelter, where I've found a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that someone left behind. I talk with the others for a little while, but then spend the rest of the afternoon reading the book, cover-to-cover. With a break in the storm, I risk running out to set up my tent, and manage not to get drenched.

The storm doesn't last forever, though, but I try not to regret not pushing on. I know this was good for me, resting, allowing my body to heal. And I take solace in the fact that at least my fellow hikers were as lazy as I was.

Later that night, I lie in my tent, avoiding the bugs, listening to the steady drip of water off the leaves. Sonic has gone with the others to watch the sunset on a nearby rock outcropping, but I have no desire to join them. I made a small fire, difficult with all the recent rain, and watch it die through my bug netting. I wish I had better food, or any food that I considered remotely appetizing. Hot Fudge Sundae Pop Tarts®. I feel nauseous just thinking about them. I silently vow never to buy crap like that again. Only fruit flavored toaster pastries from now on, I promise myself.

And, when I eventually do get to sleep, long after the sun has gone down behind the ridge, I am at peace.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chapter 97: A Shortcut to Ice Cream

I could not sleep. Mosquitos kept biting me through the thin muslin cloth of my liner. The heat of the night was oppressive, as were the dull snores of my fellow hikers. Sometime in the early A.M., I gave in and put up my tent, where I found it much easier to get comfortable.

Yet I still awoke a mere four or five hours later, in excruciating pain. Rest is normally the best cure for achy muscles, as it allows the acids and toxins that build up during times of physical stress to naturally flush away. Getting a good night's sleep might have really helped in that regard. It was almost imperative. But it was not to be. Too bad.

There would be no rest for the weary. I had an ambitious 24-mile day planned, one that would leave me only five more difficult days short of home. Fortunately, the terrain was mostly flat, with the trail meandering across swamps, past lakes, and through farmers' fields.

What do I remember, besides the omnipresent pain? Besides the slowly enveloping despair and hopelessness. I had been in such a hurry to make it to Harpers Ferry, and to the Delaware Water Gap; the thought of seeing Megan again had lightened my burden—made the weight seem to float off my back—lifted my spirits, and carried me through. Now I was marching away from her, and even the faint allure of home was ebbing. I knew I wouldn't be returning to a party, despite the rapidly approaching July 4th holiday. My dad was about to have surgery. Whether that went well or not, it would be a somber, subdued house, and lonely.

I do remember baking in the blazing sun; and the brilliant, cloudless sky. The shimmer of heat coming off the blacktop at any of the numerous road crossings I made that day. The first appearance of the dreaded and nasty deer fly, a blood-sucking parasite whose bite carries the unexpected punch of a bee sting. The constant grumble of my stomach, as I continuously lurched forward afraid of or unwilling to touch any of the noxious food I carried with me.

My body rebelled against the punishment my brain forced it to endure. My brain rebelled against the degradation of my body. I was at war with myself, and I was losing.

I was sitting besides a road, struggling to swallow down a few meager morsels, when Sonic emerged from the woods in front of me. He was—at least—six foot five, with a scraggly beard and perpetually sweat-soaked Danny Fortson jersey. I'd met Sonic before at some point, not that I could place where in my stupor. He stopped to chat for a bit, and we ended up hiking on together.

It helped to have someone to hike with, even if I had to take three steps for every two of his. He appeared to bound across the landscape as though weightless, jumping from rock to rock, his pack—and the laws of physics—seemingly an afterthought. Yet I somehow kept up as we skirted the edge of a huge, inexplicably placed reservoir. And when Sonic told me there was a farm store where we could buy ice cream just off of NJ94, some seven miles away, I practically started running. It was all he could do to keep up with me.

We followed a raised walkway for about a mile on either side of the surprisingly elaborate suspension bridge over Pochuck Creek. Visions of tubs of Black Raspberry ice cream and hot fudge swirled in my head as I scrambled across a last railroad embankment and saw the road in front of me. We arrived at Heaven Hill Farm about ten minutes before they were due to close, but they dutifully saw that we got our ice cream.

Miraculously, they had Black Raspberry, and something called Maine Blueberry that piqued my interest. I knew it wasn't blueberry season yet, and that the ice cream could therefore hardly be called fresh or all-natural, but I didn't care. It was everything I had been dreaming about, and more. The two of us sat outside in the dust and the sun for nearly twenty minutes as we finished up our cones. I had stupidly failed to buy anything to drink, but made do with some ice cold water from a nearby spigot.

It was almost dinnertime before we set out towards the shelter, which was just over five miles away, which included an eight hundred foot ascent. Sonic got ahead of me in the flat sections, but I caught up to and then passed him as the trail began to climb through a boulder field. And then he caught up with me again—after the trail flattened out at the height of land—as I was singing "Hey Jude" or "Let it Be" at the top of my lungs.

"What was that you were screaming?" he might've asked.

"It's called 'singing' and the Beatles," I shouted, defensively.

"Oh, I thought you were in pain or something," mumbled the clearly tone-deaf Sonic, confused.

We made it to the Wawayanda Shelter together, and in silence. The shelter was packed, but for every hiker there were about six dozen mosquitos. I angrily tossed up my tent and dove inside without bothering to eat a meal or socialize. From all the high-pitched buzzing outside, I could have been at a Formula One race. I felt like a helpless Londoner during the Battle of Britain, listening in the dark for the shrill scream of the attacking enemy, and for the far-off yelps of their unfortunate victims.

And with that delirious mixture of metaphors dancing in my brain, I drifted off to sleep, repeatedly reassuring myself—or just hoping, really—that tomorrow would be better than today...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Chapter 96: Madness

I awoke just after dawn. I didn't carry a watch except for my cell phone, which was inconveniently stowed away in the lid of my backpack, so I had no idea what time it was. Finding it impossible to get back to sleep, and not knowing what else to do—and also not wanting to disturb Ten-Fiddy any more than I already had taking my tent down and packing my gear—I scarfed down a quick breakfast and then hit the trail.

As it had the day before, the trail followed the edge of the ridge-line, and occasionally emerged from the underbrush to offer a magnificent vista of the river valley and surrounding hills. Although New Jersey is oft maligned—even or perhaps especially by its long-time residents—I could see nothing wrong from my vantage. And that early in the morning, with the air still clear and not yet choked by the oppressive haze of exhaust coming off the Interstate, as thousands of grumpy, irritable commuters make their miserable way to and from New York City? It actually was kind of beautiful.

I took my first break at Blue Mountain Lakes Road; where I utterly failed to extract anything other than stale, rusty air from an obstinately dry water pump. I seized the opportunity to check the time, extracting and turning on my buried cell phone. It was just after eight o'clock in the morning. And I'd already gone nearly ten miles!

It was at this point that I made the tantalizing—and ultimately disastrous—decision to simply go as far that day as my legs and a copious amount of Excedrin would take me. Unfortunately, my plan was not without flaws. I had no set goal in mind, like making it to Virginia in less than 24 hours; nor did I have a stalwart, agreeably delirious hiking companion like Bandito to help pass the time. But then a new wrinkle emerged.

I stopped taking breaks. I don't even remember if I ate lunch. I probably didn't. And it's not that I wasn't hungry, I just couldn't stomach the thought of shoveling another Hot Fudge Sundae- or Cookies and Creme-flavored Pop Tart™ into my mouth. Which, unfortunately, was all I had. It was a blessing and a curse.

I don't remember much about that afternoon. Like I said, it would've helped greatly to have someone there to mark time with, and to help identify landmarks. It's also nearly impossible to keep track of one's own mental deterioration when walking by oneself. It's not as if you can accurately discern your conversational standards slipping, after all. You're either talking to yourself or not.

So I may have been slowly losing my mind. And while I'll readily concede that crazy people generally make unreliable witnesses, the fact remains that nobody else was around to see what I did. Except for the young woman I met named Inferno, although I'm not even entirely sure she was really there.

June 21 is known around the world as Hike Naked Day. At least amongst avid backpackers, and possibly nudists. For some reason, Hike Naked Day had been a hot topic of discussion on the trail in the preceding days and weeks. And I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe it's because hiking naked is awesome.

Even though this was June 22, and I was a day late, a certain confluence of factors contributed to my ultimate decision to strip down to my birthday suit. For one thing, it was awfully hot, like a million degrees in the sun, and quite humid. For another, the chafing along my supple inner thigh was well-nigh unbearable. Thirdly, there's simply nothing quite like a stiff breeze flowing through your dangling extremities.

My experiment didn't last long, however. Despite my lengthy personal history of taboo breaking and enormous, ah, confidence, I wasn't really enthusiastic about the prospects of running into another human being—or any wild animal, either, for that metter—while so inappropriately attired. Also, the combination of deer flies, mosquitos, and exposed human genitalia is... Well, the less said about that the better. Let's just say I eventually put my clothes back on, and not a moment too soon.

What else can I say about that day? I hiked the last few miles to the High Point Shelter with Inferno, where we arrived shortly after dark. I tried squeezing my sleeping bag into a corner of the shelter, but found I was either too cold or that the mosquitos were too persistent. Sometime during the night I abandoned the shelter to put up my tent, prompting cracks about a "UFO landing" when people woke up in the morning.

But I didn't care. I'd hiked thirty-four (!) miles in less than fourteen hours. I'd spent part of that time stark naked. I'd discovered the tragic reality of my last resupply. I'd nearly starved. I'd consumed approximately half a bottle of Excedrin, in just one day. I'd utterly destroyed any of the recuperative effects my week off the trail had accomplished. My knees, legs, feet, and nether regions all throbbed in intense pain. And the chafing. The chafing was awful, and unending.

Still, I'd made up for my ten mile day. And I now only had 117.1 miles to go, meaning I'd dropped my required average back to just over 23 miles a day. I felt heroic. And stupid. And lonely. But mostly stupid. And I vowed never to make the same mistake again.

Chapter 95: Prelude to Madness

Megan, Liz, and Steven drove off around four. I loitered in town only so long as to take care of a pressing bodily function, my digestive tract still overwhelmed from my week-long sojourn into civilization. Considering that it was getting late in the day, I was only planning a ten-mile hike out; a trek I didn't anticipate being too difficult.

And it wasn't hard, but it was unexpectedly beautiful. The trail followed a mild grade up to the height of land, then skirted the edge of the hill, offering frequent and spectacular views of the river valley below. Before long, I found myself meandering past Sunfish Pond, a dazzling glacial lake that twinkled gold and violet in the fading daylight.

Despite that, it took me just about three hours to do those initial ten miles. I arrived at Camp Mohican Road just before sunset. I would be staying at the Mohican Outdoor Center, a lodge and campground run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

The atmosphere at the Center was more than a little subdued. I figured that most of the guests had already turned in for the night, but there also didn't seem to be anybody working there to tell me where to go. I eventually found an empty tent pad next to Ten-Fiddy, whom I had met briefly sometime in the indeterminate past. I felt reassured that here, at least, was one person I actually knew.

Sleep came easier to me that night than it had my first day out of Harpers Ferry. Maybe that was because I knew more what to expect, both of the trail and of myself. Or maybe it merely helped having something else to look forward to: home. My parents, my friends, my bed, and a refrigerator full of juice awaited me just over 150 miles away.

My dad was having a kidney stone removed in a week, and I kind of wanted to get home before he went in. I don't know if I thought we would have been able to hike together at all before his surgery, but I knew we certainly wouldn't be able to hike together after it. And the Delaware Water Gap was was only 161.5 from the Connecticut border. That meant I only needed to average a little more than 23 miles a day. Unfortunately, I'd only managed those ten miles my first day, bumping my required average to just over 25. But Merf and I had just done 19 miles a day through Pennsylvania, the toughest state on the trail, and that hadn't proven too difficult. So twenty-five miles a day didn't seem like that big of a deal...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Chapter 94: The Turnaround, Part II

On the morning of May 26th, 2010, I was a smelly, desperate, unclean, unshaven, uncivilized, disreputable mountain man, terrifying to behold, even scarier to contemplate. My future was bleak. I was only halfway done with my thru-hike, meaning I still had two or three months to go before I finished. Another eleven hundred sun-baked miles before I could relax and recuperate; reunite with my friends and family; finally shower thoroughly and frequently enough to rid myself of the rancid stench of so many weeks of accumulated sweat and burning muscle; drink unlimited amounts of juice; and never eat, look at, or think about overly-processed crap like Ramen, Knorr® Pasta Sides, and Instant Oatmeal ever again.

Meanwhile, all I had to look forward to was an endless series of long, exhausting days, spent entirely outside, amidst the sweeping majesty and forgotten natural beauty of America; the sporadic but blissful occasions when I might rapaciously devour other people's table scraps, or gleefully re-appropriate their serendipitously discovered garbage; setting my own agenda; getting up when I wanted; eating when I wanted; going to sleep when and wherever I wanted; and basically having unlimited personal freedom, albeit in the narrow confines of the trail. All with no bed but my sleeping bag, no roof but the tent in my pack, and no possessions but what I carried on my back. But with no cable TV to lull me to sleep. Or authority figure to harangue me, order me around, and constantly remind me just how little my time—and my life—was really worth. It was awful. And I felt awful. As if my life was meaningless, and that I was of no use to society, or to anything or anybody.

And then, not ten hours later, I was showered, presentable, relatively clean-smelling, and sitting in the upper deck at Camden Yards, enjoying a pizza, a Coke Zero, and—to a much lesser extent—a Baltimore Orioles game.

On June 15th, 2010, I experienced a similar if no-less life changing reversal.

That morning, I wandered around the Hiker Hostel at the Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvannia, saying goodbye to some old friends while waiting anxiously for others to arrive. I wore a pair of skimpy board shorts and a tie-dye tanktop I'd pilfered from a hiker box. The tanktop was a woman's, and a small. It fit me surprisingly well. I would find out later that P-Nut actually wore the very same shirt when the Nature Train rolled through town. In some small way, it would feel like I was maintaining his legacy, and I would feel honored by the connection. Still, I must have looked like hell.

My facial scruff resided somewhere in the uncomfortable no-man's-land between "suave French musketeer" and "convicted child rapist." My feet ached, and my Achilles tendons were wound tighter than a [insert gross, mind-blowing metaphor here]; I could barely walk without a severely pronounced limp. I wanted little more than to soak in a bathtub of Epsom salts, for about a week. While reading a book. And eating copious, possibly unending amounts of baked ziti, and possibly lasagna.

Some scant forty-eight hours later, I was in New York City, enjoying a riotous New Kids on the Block concert at Radio City Music Hall with Megan, Liana, and Rebecca. A day after that, I might have been lying in bed, watching movies from Blockbuster, while Megan—very tentatively and probably unwillingly—massaged my feet. Twenty four hours after that, I was eating Chinese food with Megan's parents and her sister Elizabeth; and stuffing my face with joyful, reckless abandon.

Somehow, a week passed, and the time came to head back to the trail. Megan, Elizabeth, and their childhood friend Steven accompanied me to the Delaware Water Gap, where we went tubing for the afternoon. Just the four of us, a twelve-pack of Bud Light Lime, and the river, with a beautiful cloudless sky above; the occasional hawk soaring overhead, past the sun; and only a handful of unbelievably pungent, mysteriously dead fish floating along beside us.

Our goodbyes later that afternoon were bittersweet, tinged with a melancholy longing. I knew I wouldn't see Megan again until I was done, one way or the other. It was hard to stomach, letting her go once again, but also exciting in a way. At the very least, we had made some happy memories that would help carry me through the trying days to come.