Easter and Dandelions
Dandelion came up to see me this weekend. Well, she actually wasn’t Dandelion until much later in this story. So for now I’ll use her off-trail name, her real name—Laura.
I’ve known Laura since literally the day she was born. Her family lived across the street from mine for the first few years of our lives. For most of that time, Laura’s brother Colin was my best friend.
For years Colin and I spent every sunlit hour scampering around backyards (sometimes our own, sometimes not), shooting each other with stick guns and recreating scenes from the latest Power Rangers Dino Force episode. Meanwhile, all I knew about Laura was that she was Colin’s sister, and that she was a girl—which (in three- to six-year-old me’s mind) ick.
When I was six, Colin and Laura and the rest of the family moved about an hour away. I’d spoken barely a word to either of them since.
Then, just days before I left for the Appalachian Trail—about 18 years since I’d last seen Colin and his sister with all her girl cooties—I reconnected with Laura over a few drinks. The timing was less than ideal, but somehow I convinced her to join me for a weekend of hiking. She agreed, on two conditions: that she could spend some time studying for her upcoming nursing exam, and that I would at least take a creek shower before she arrived.
So on Saturday afternoon, my thru-hiking buddy Tie shuttled Laura and me from Waynesboro to Grottoes, VA, where a fire road leads up to the Appalachian ridge and intersects the trail. The plan was to hike from that intersection south, to Rockfish Gap, where Laura had left her car at a camping outfitters.
“So,” I said, after Tie dropped us off at the deserted, unmarked trailhead, “welcome to my life.” And we walked.
Chatting Away the Afternoon
Thru-hiker conversations can be repetitive and simple. There are plenty of introductions, small talk, weather discussions, mileage comparisons. It’s not a bad thing—in just two weeks I’ve met dozens of fascinating people from every background imaginable. But it was refreshing to talk with a non-thru-hiker, and even better to talk with a new-old friend.
For the first hour we studied—Laura gave me a list of the medical conditions on her exam, and as I named them she recited vulnerable populations, symptoms, causes, treatments, and the physiology behind each one. Then we discussed various edible wild plants—puttyroot and stinging nettles and dandelions. I popped one of these last in my mouth because Laura was “98% sure they’re edible.”
“I said 98 percent. If you die and I have to call your mom…” Laura said.
I thought for a moment. “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “all my mom would say is ‘Well, leave him. He did this to himself.’ ” My mom loves me, but she’s a realist.
After that, as my brain throbbed with six-syllable pharmaceuticals and names of organs I’d never heard of, we told each other stories.
We told funny stories and wild stories and some serious ones too. We told half-remembered tales of our childhoods, and tried to piece together the parts that we’d shared. And when telling old stories grew old, we made up some new ones, crafting outlandish fictional characters and the various trials they might encounter. In the quiet, interruption- and judgment-free sanctuary of the trail, creativity flourishes.
However, as neither the afternoon sun nor the incline seemed willingly to relent in severity, Laura and I eventually grew quiet.
Shenandoah Water Crisis
Around 3 p.m., three NOBOs passed in quick succession, each of whom asked with a desperate face and cracked lips, “How far to the next water source?”
I told the hikers that it was at least four to five miles, and shook my own empty bottle as proof. The last NOBO woman to pass informed us that Laura and I had seven miles of trail before the next stream crossing in our direction, too.
Inwardly, I panicked. Outwardly, I acted cool (at least I tried to) and looked over the map. To the south, within a few hundred meters of the trail, a faint blue squiggle ran down the mountain before merging with the river. I showed this to Laura and announced that I could probably bushwhack my way to it. Of course, I never let on that I had no idea if this blue squiggle was a good water source, or a safe one, or whether it was even physically possible to get to it from the trail.
As any gentleman would, I offered to get Laura’s drink as well. To the side and below the trail, the mountain gave way to a steep slope enmeshed with fallen trees, sharp boulders, and sharper thorns.
After as much hesitation as my fragile ego would allow, I lunged into the ravine. A smooth birch trunk steadied my fall. I then swung around the tree, hopped over a large mossy boulder, and promptly slid and landed on my ass in a thick patch of mud. Like a gentleman.
Two full water bottles and two thorn-mangled shins later, we made our way to a small backwoods campground along a flat-topped ridge. Laura built a fire, which I shamefully admitted was my first on the trail.
The fire struggled and then rushed into existence while Laura and I sat on tree stumps and watched, taking turns pulling from a fifth of cheap whiskey—which is the only suitable drink for stump-sitting and fire-watching. Soon we were both locked in that solemn unblinking trance that campfires alone are able to induce.
As it tends to do through the maze-like Appalachian ridges, the wind swayed and pivoted with indecision. One moment, warm flames from the fire licked our outstretched palms, eagerly; seconds later, and they’d recede as if shy, leaving us in icy darkness until the wind could coax the inferno back to our welcoming reach.
The next morning I woke early and began scoping out the day’s walk. That can’t be right, I thought. I’d expected no more than a ten-mile stroll back the Shenandoah southern boundary, yet my guide now suggested it would be an 18-mile hilly trek back to civilization.
Again, inward panic, outward cool. And thus began a series of white lies. With 14 miles still to go, I told Laura we were “a quarter of the way done, or so.” At 12 miles left, “ten or so.” At 9.7, “about eight or nineish.” Laura finally let on that she knew I’d been fudging the numbers with six miles still to walk (or the home stretch, as I called it). I sheepishly admitted to my mistake and generous mileage rounding.
“Well, guess there’s still only one way to get there,” Laura responded. I was shocked. She was fully entitled to a full-blown outburst, or at least a few stern words, or even just a few miles of irritated silence. But no. She remained smiley and energized. “So do you take all your dates on marathons marches?” Laura asked.
I was determined to think of a trail name for Laura before the day’s end. Something about Easter or rabbits would be appropriate. Yet Easter and Rabbit seemed too simple. Br’er Rabbit and Peter Rabbit—too masculine. Bunny—too Hugh Hefner-y.
“Mmmm, those are good.”
I spun around. In one hand, Laura held a green stem. In the other, an open jar of peanut butter. She reached down and plucked a dandelion from the grassy side of the trail. Then she dipped the yellow bloom into the jar and held it out to me.
“Try one with peanut butter; it’s delicious!”
I was about to remind her that I still had a backpack full of non-floral snacks, and that we needn’t resort to survivalist scavenging quite yet, when something hit me.
“Dandelion.” I said. “That’s your trail name, Dandelion. Is that OK?”
And Dandelion smiled.
Goodbyes Rarely Feel Good
We walked the last few miles along the parkway to save a scant few tenths of a mile. Clear blue skies reigned overhead. To our right, blue-green hills painted the horizon. And in front and behind, endless sweeping tarmac. Dandelion blitzed through more test review as cyclists coasted past with enviable ease.
Finally, back at Rockfish Gap, we hitched into town in true AT fashion: piled in the snug truck cab of a friend of a friend of a friend, a section hiker I’d met three days prior, and to whom I spoken maybe six words, tops.
Back at her car, Dandelion and I made a quick stop at a gas station to pick up water and our Easter candy quota, before heading back up the mountain for yet another round of goodbyes, see you soons.
And as I watched her drive away—back to her life, to real life—I felt my stomach knot itself. That was a real goodbye. Now “soon” didn’t seem so soon. At best, it would be three months before I saw her again. That’s no 18 years, but this time 1,300 treacherous miles of trail stood in my way.
The once-gentle mountains all around now loomed and hid behind shadows. From a spotless afternoon sky, dark clouds had emerged out of the literal blue. Through two thick layers of wool and one of down, I shivered as I walked toward the white-blazed path.
After two of the best trail days I could have asked for, I was alone. Again. Alone with nothing but my pack and my thoughts. By myself, walking back into the unfamiliar, unforgiving wilderness, back to trail life, to roughing it. I was headed back to an existence with a singular goal: north. And yet this time, I wasn’t driven by the lure of Katahdin alone, but also by something—someone—who would be there after it.
So I walked.
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