Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chapter 143: The 100-Mile Wilderness (Take 2)

On a fateful day that presumably fell sometime during the week, Fredo, Hot Sauce and I finally set out into the infamous hundred mile wilderness. Spirits were low, despite the exhilaration we all felt from being so close to the end of our adventure. Though it took considerable effort, I heroically did my part to motivate and encourage my friends by walking slower than them, falling down and hurting myself a lot, and ceaslessly complaining about everything and everybody.

We soon happened upon a sign, weathered and stoic, belatedly advising all comers that attempting the “wilderness” with anything less than ten days of supplies was egregiously foolhardy and would surely result in our inevitable, gruesome deaths. We were already at least five minutes fifty yards feet from the road. We had come too far to turn back.

For a brief moment, I warmly remembered all the haters, mostly in the South, who had so often predicted our premature demise. There had been those who repeatedly warned us that if we didn't buy their $200 rain gear, for example, we were gonna die. Or that if we attempted to hike the Smokies with thermals that were even 20% cotton, we were gonna die. And that if we continued to hike naked, even for just one more day, under that blistering sun, we were definitely gonna get eaten by dragons and die. Rest assured, dear reader, we were well inured to these idle threats by now, and we were not about let this latest proclamation deter us. Besides, we had at least two and a half days of food. How bad could it be?

Very bad, as it turned out, though not on the first day, the proceedings of which, besides the spotting of the aforementioned sign, were not particularly memorable. Yes, it was on our second day out that the trouble really started, our lives irrevocably changed, and our hike forever ruined.

It was on the second day that we met them. The Georgia Peaches. I had fallen behind that morning, as I frequently did, taking long breaks to sob quietly into the underbrush. Cresting yet another of the innumerable boulder-strewn, granite slabbed ridges that merrily dot the New Hampshire and Maine sections of the trail, I spotted them. Their long, languid bodies lying lackadaisically across the trail, luxuriating in the sun and the attentions of a delirious, weak-minded fool. Fredo.

I knew immediately that he was in trouble, his three-mile-an-hour pace shot, the contents of his pack strewn about the ground, his food bag open. Curiously, the Peaches seemed not to be carrying any food or equipment themselves, and were so clean and cheerful in appearance and demeanor that I began to suspect that they hadn't hiked there at all, but had simply appeared at that very spot, emerging from the deepest depths of Hell that very morning.

They were sirens or succubi, I was sure of it, and were clearly intent on devouring my friend alive, leeching his life's spirit, or at the very least mooching his food. And they were good at what they did. But my attentions were elsewhere, my mind preoccupied with dreams of Katahdin, with long-nurtured secret plans of fantastic design and foolish ambition. I alone appeared immune to their "charms." Clearly, it was up to me to rescue my friend. But I didn't. I promptly left in disgust, and then mercilessly made fun of him for it later.

That night the three of us found a sweet stealth site by the west branch of the Pleasant River. We camped there with the frequently-naked Austrian, Matterhorn. Or was he Swiss? No matter. Any way, yes, Materhorn, the same man whose dinner I had accidentally destroyed not two nights earlier. I feared for my safety that night, and was plagued by nightmares in which I was repeatedly and viciously attacked by a very angry, very nude European wielding a terrifying pot of cold macaroni.

The next morning I awoke, unfortunately still alive, for little did I know what new terrors this day would bring...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chapter 143: Oroboros

And so we come down to it. On the morning of the 18th, Fredo, Hot Sauce and I started off on the last 22 mile stretch towards Monson, Maine, and the start of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Which, of course, is where this story all began, all those many days (or years) ago.

When I first proposed hiking together, I had told my sister, "Yeah, come out to the trail. It'll be a blast. We'll do 12.5 miles a day... Relax..." Since she had joined me, however, we had gone 8.4, then 15.3, 17.3, and finally 18.8 miles each day. She wasn't exactly thrilled by our pace, but she wasn't overwhelmed by it, either.

Still, after hiking over two thousand miles myself, I wasn't entirely jazzed by the idea of such a long haul into town. So I admit it: I fully planned on taking a blue blazed trail—the one to Lake Hebron, and then on to Pleasant Road—that would cut 1.3 miles out of our trip. Sue me.

The best part was, once Hot Sauce and I hit the road, we quickly found a hitch into town in the back of someone's pickup truck.

Blue blazing, yellow blazing, what's the difference?

Shaw's Lodging in Monson—a legendary hiker's hostel, if there are any on the Trail—exceeded all of our expectations. Which wasn't terribly difficult; our expectations were exceedingly low, as set by the establishment's rather iffy depiction in the laughably awful "Southbounders."1 The movie makes Shaw's seem like some sort of cultish hippy commune, where nobody's allowed to wear even their homemade hemp sandals inside, and there are no locked doors anywhere, ever.

Far from that hellish nightmare, what we found was simply a collection of large, well-maintained, adequately furnished bunk rooms; some blessedly warm showers; a cavernous dining room; a TV lounge replete with sunken-in couch, pre-stained coffee table, and a hearty selection of dusty board games; and a veritable cornucopia of a hiker's box.2 Amongst the items left behind? A ziplock bag of chipotle-flavored pepper flakes that my sister snatched up immediately, thus earning her trail name: Hot Sauce.

The three of us attempted a resupply at the Monson General Store, but were quickly discouraged. If we'd wanted to rent a VHS tape—or stock up on car batteries or replacement parts for our snow mobile—we might have had more success. Luckily, we still had a bit of food leftover from Straton, or else we might have needed to hitch two miles north to Wal-Mart. Sated, we visited an ATM at a nearby gas station—where I found my checking balance to be a startling $0.00—bought a couple of bottles of Boone's Farm, and then retreated to the hostel for a good night's rest.

Because we know what awaited us on the morrow: the 100 Mile Wilderness.

1. "Southbounders" tells the story of Olivia, a spoiled rich girl who sets off to hike the trail the wrong way, and largely fails: she falls down a lot, is pestered by an annoying fat man, and awkwardly romances a scraggly guitar-playing hipster with douchey facial hair. Taken as pure cinema, the film is sadly mediocre, neither entertaining nor emotionally or thematically uplifting. As an anthropological study, on the other hand, the film serves as an astonishingly accurate portrait of the atrocious, abominable southbounder. The trailer can be seen here.

2. About that hiker's box: apparently, most southbounders abruptly quit after finishing the 100 Mile Wilderness, and Shaw's is where they go to rest, wash up, and suffer their inevitable nervous breakdowns. That they leave behind most of their uneaten food—and sometimes their non-consumable possessions as well, like stoves, trekking poles, and sleeping pads, amongst other swag—is only icing on the cake. So, thanks, Shaw's, for your hospitality. And thanks also, southbounders, for being awful and quitting.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Chapter 142: Atonement

As we reach the end of our journeys, and thus our narratives, it is only natural for us to reflect. On all we've seen, and on all we've done. The pain we've felt. The exhilaration. The friendships made, and broken. The iron bonds of fellowship forged in toil, tragedy, and triumph, that no amount of time or space could ever tear asunder. The people we've hurt along the way. The good times we've had. The bad. The times it rained. The days when when we just wanted to stay cocooned inside our sleeping bags forever, listening to the raindrops fall, and the world pass us by. Those few joyous occasions when we could celebrate a reunion with long-lost friends, then congregate around a camp fire swapping stories, watching the sun set, and uniting in shared admiration of a giant bag of M&Ms...

Speaking of pain, I now consider myself extraordinarily lucky that—in the entire course of my travels—I never suffered a serious injury. Don't get me wrong, shin splints are plenty painful, as are burst blisters, and that weird problem I was having with my right (or was it left?) Achilles tendon that, well... But that's besides the point. I was lucky. Period. Nothing ever happened to seriously threaten my hike. Miller Time fell and broke his leg coming down off of The Priest in Virginia. Cotton brazenly wore blue jeans in the Smoky Mountains and froze to death. Robo-Vader and Runny Bottoms caught giardia, twice. Alphabet got homesick. Veggie got an infected spider bite. That southbounder in Gorham had an infected spider bite. Heck, sometime after leaving Stratton, a spider had bitten me. It never got infected, though.

Anyway, and with all of that in mind—and I do mean all—here is my registry entry from the Bald Mountain Brook Lean-to:
August 18,
Everything is fun and games until you "accidentally" steal some day hiker's/trail maintainer's food, fall on your ass, and then knock over someone's dinner.

I have a lot of things to be sorry for, and no better time than now to atone.

I'm sorry to that day hiker in the Shenandoah's whose food I stole. Rest assured your Camelback® Electrolyte™ Drink Mix© and Carnation Instant Breakfast did not go to waste.

I'm sorry to whomever I stole those candy bars from yesterday. I hope the 0.4 mile walk back to the parking lot wasn't too your day wasn't ruined.

I'm sorry to my sister, for making her hike around 18 miles a day through Maine.

I'm sorry to all the people I've written mean things about in registers. I'm sorry to Fredo, for not loving him the way he wants to be loved. I'm sorry to Freeman and Strider, for leaving you behind. I'm sorry to all my other trail friends who have already finished, that I couldn't be there for your summit days. I'm sorry to my friends, my family, and especially Megan for disappearing for 5 months to go on this crazy adventure.

I'm especially sorry to that spider, for taking a shit so near you that you felt compelled to bite me in the ass. It hurts, and I have yet to develop super powers.

Chapter 141: Pancakes

On the morning of August 17th, 2010, I awoke to a strange, unearthly grumble. Sitting up, I eyed my sister suspiciously, but—somehow—it wasn't her surprisingly sonorous snoring. Emerging from my Tarptent into a thick, soupy fog, I quickly deduced that it wasn't Fredo, either, as his hammock was strung up a conscientious and considerate twenty yards away. Nor was it the spectacularly reverberating apneas of all those snotty, southbound section hikers who had so courteously occupied all the space in the nearby Pierce Pond Lean-to the night before. The family of loons bobbing along serenely through the mist on the adjacent lake were similarly guiltless.

Who—or what—was causing this ungodly noise?


Okay, so I could continue on in that vein, explaining in my typically florid way that the "strange, unearthly grumble" was just my stomach growling. (Ha ha, what a funny joke!) And how Hot Sauce, Fredo and I eventually enjoyed a "lumberjack breakfast" at the Harrison Camps that morning, to satiate my growing hunger. But I won't. Because who—except possibly food fetishists and hipsters with internet cooking shows—really cares about that sort of thing, or wants to hear about it in such exhaustive detail? (FYI, the lumberjack breakfast was a stack of twelve gigantic pancakes with blueberries, strawberries, and whipped butter, smothered in maple syrup, with a side of fried eggs and more coffee than any of us could ever drink. Not that we didn't try.)

I could also tell you about our momentous crossing of the Kennebec River, which involved getting a canoe ride from an obese mountain man in tattered sweat pants who seemed to have an entire family of birds nesting in his beard, and may have been a serial killer. Or at least a not-so-distant relative of one. But I won't do that either.

I could tell you about the trail magic we encountered later, just south of US201. Actually, I will: we found a cooler beside the trail containing an assortment of candy bars and soda and even a couple cans of Keystone Light®. For whatever reason—but probably because he's a selfish bastard—Fredo took all the beers, then giggled sadistically when we ran into a couple of SOBOs later on who were looking forward to getting some. Naturally, we didn't tell them there weren't any left, but cruelly sent them on towards their inevitable disappointment.

I could tell you how I may or may not have accidentally stolen some trail maintainer's gorp at the Pleasant Pond Lean-to. (I mean, who leaves a giant stuff-sack full of delicious, delicious trail mix unattended and expects it not to get stolen?) But I certainly won't do that. (Too unbelievable. Like I would ever do such a thing.)

I could even tell you how Fredo, Hot Sauce and I first met Matterhorn—an annoyingly spry and well-equipped section hiker from Switzerland—and stayed with him at the Bald Mountain Brook Lean-to after hiking up in the dark singing John Legend songs.

But my heart just isn't in it.

Instead, I'll leave you with excerpt from Rutledge Sandybottom's excessively, er, florid, probably pretty bad Repressed Desire:
It's late, and we're on a long drive to nowhere in the dark. Your headlights sweep past eerily familiar street signs, long rows of seemingly empty houses, bereft of any signs of life. The silence between us fills with bittersweet reminiscence, regret, and longing—both for past glory, and for a future that might never be.

I catch you glancing at me from across the car. You look away quickly, abashed. But I'm the one who should be ashamed. I'm the one who's staring.

Before, I might have felt the warmth of your breath on my cheek, your hand tugging on my shirt, and the brush of your lips against mine, as I leaned into you, pushing you back into the door of your car.

But no, I lacked the courage. To touch you. Instead, I just stood back and watched as you searched through your purse for your keys. Admiring your figure in the soft glow of the streetlamp overhead. Alone together in the parking lot, intoxicated by your closeness, by the way the your dress clung to your body from the sweat.

The sweat of the dance, the drinks, the laughter... The furtive looks, shared in secret, across the table, through the crowd.

And my memory of all else fades, crushing into a swirling vortex of you. The twinkle in your eyes, the crooked curve of your smile. And suddenly I'm back in the car, short of breath, pulse pounding in my neck.

Meeting your eyes, seeing your breasts heave with every breath, I wonder if you've felt the same.
Ew. Best leave that there.

Tomorrow, a special treat, and back to the business at hand...