Has the AT Had Enough of Me? The Last of Three Ridiculous Days
“The AT is Your Peas.”
Day Three: June 23, 2016
The third morning was cloudy but not misty, and Braveheart and I were again among the first to leave camp.
We stayed together all this 14.5-mile day, and we spoke of serious subjects while we walked that morning under darkening skies and furiously fluttering leaves. The path skirted the windward side of a mountain; it dropped off to our left and a rose up on our right. Rain was a certainty, but neither of us had acknowledged this aside from covering our packs. It was part denial and part resistance on my part that I declined to comment on just how brutally we were about to be blasted.
And then with ferocity, it arrived. Rain fired so violently and wind drove it so mercilessly that our conversation died.
I wrenched the umbrella out of my pack’s side pocket, and Braveheart wordlessly collapsed and stowed one of my trekking poles before we went on. Trees bent over and flashed silver-leaf undersides. Visibility shortened, and we anyhow kept our heads down and angled to the right to protect our faces from wet pummeling.
A movement caught my eye and I glanced up in time to see Braveheart’s pack cover, snatched by the wind, dash up the mountainside. He took high steps through the underbrush, caught it, and strode back to where I stood. He held my pole, and I tried to use my umbrella to cover both of us while making a mangle of re-covering his pack with the flapping, dancing, dripping cover.
A blast whisked my umbrella away and bounced it up the hill. “F**k,” I shouted, and grabbed it, and felt instant shame. Braveheart hadn’t made a sound when his cover had flown up the hill, and it had traveled farther, and he’d gotten wetter.
He relieved me of the umbrella when I returned to give me use of both hands, and I wrestled with the cover (whose elastic had had ONE job), but shouted in the end that I couldn’t vouch for its security. He just shook his head and handed me back my pole and umbrella, stepping aside for me to walk ahead.
A gust then flipped my umbrella inside out, and I screamed—shrieked, really—“FUCK! Fuck fuck FUCK!” as I angled it round into the wind to flip it right side back. I stabbed my pole wildly, flailing, and it found and bit into my shin.
All the anguish of all 71 days concentrated then into each stinging, cold drop of water that pelted me. I let my pole dangle on my left wrist and I grasped my umbrella with both hands against the gale; I pressed back into it; I fought it. I screamed with every atom of my being: “FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!”
My voice pitched higher until I could no longer make words, instead I simply screamed. Screamed and screamed.
I rejected the storm. I shook my puny umbrella against it. I refused and denied it and I let it know in no uncertain terms that it was not okay.
And the storm gave not one fuck.
The squall did not abate, nor subside, nor change in any way or give any indication of having even heard me.
Not spent, and yet feeling the futility of my complaints, I turned back to the path, took my pole in hand, and trudged forward. I ceased screaming but kept sobbing, as much water wetting my face from my eyes as from the sky, my sounds vocal, primal, childlike and childish. I was embarrassed that Braveheart should see me like this, that I should be so unequal to the task of walking in rain.
After a while the wind was a little less loud, the rain a little less sideways, my tears finally tapering.
Braveheart said, “That was some Lieutenant Dan shit.”
Eventually we came upon a group of the others, huddled on the leeward side of a kiosk under eight inches of overhang. They were as soaked as we and were commiserating lightheartedly. “What else can you do but laugh,” one said.
Why, why couldn’t I laugh?
I could not even stand to be near people. I instead took what cover there was on the windward side of the kiosk. With my back to the bulletin board and my umbrella out like a shield I simply stood and bore it. Braveheart greeted the others and then came around to put his head up next to mine and grin. I forced my mouth into the shape of a smile but didn’t pretend to make it realistic. I stared straight ahead and waited him out. He is good at nothing if not reading people’s emotional states, and so without a word, he ducked away and returned to the other side of the kiosk, popping back only briefly to suggest that I put on my rain jacket. “I’m worried about hypothermia,” he said. I nodded and made no move.
Left alone, I scoffed at the futility of putting a rain jacket on over a dripping-wet T-shirt, but then, for reasons I couldn’t explain, I unlatched my hip and sternum belts and loosened one shoulder strap in order to slide my pack off just enough to retrieve the jacket from its outside pocket. One arm at at time, somehow still stubbornly gripping my umbrella and not letting my pack touch the muddy ground, I got into the jacket. Thus clothed, I recognized that wearing it was better than not.
Braveheart reappeared and asked if I was ready to move on. The rain persisted, ever the bully, but I simply nodded. The depth of my despair rendered me unable to speak, to exert any agency. A Shakespearean line from “Much Ado About Nothing” comes to me now, writing about the moment: “Being that I flow in grief, the smallest twine may lead me.”
The day did not improve, although of course the rain eventually abated and even stopped for periods. Fourteen point five miles did not feel two miles shorter than sixteen point five had, and we arrived at camp late again.
Across that day and the previous one, the necessity of my getting off trail for more than the zero Braveheart and I had planned had become unignorable. Foot pain had cut my usual 2- to 2.5-mile-per-hour pace in half; it many times approached excruciating. Ascents brought me to tears and steep declines stopped me cold, for several minutes, while I contemplated how to descend them without falling.
And so we had decided that I would go home with him, back to D.C. I would take a week or two—whatever the doctor ordered—and then get back on. Only it was becoming clear that Braveheart thought I shouldn’t get back on.
Late that afternoon he had interrupted what had probably been an hour’s worth of silent hiking with a story about how much he hated peas, how long he had hated peas, and how many attempts he had made to like peas.
There was no pea-piphany, no perfect pea soufflé that had turned him on to the legume and its potential. He simply hated them, and, most important, had come to understand that this was fine. I saw where he was going.
“The AT is your peas, Matti.”
The AT wasn’t my peas, but I had to concede that it did have a lot of them. Furthermore, the AT’s every pea was in abundant, unassailable display for this leg on which Braveheart had happened to join me.
“This has been the worst stretch of the whole trip,” I said.
“The four days that I’m here,” he said, sounding wounded.
“Not because of you,” I snapped. “Don’t go there.” In my wretchedness on the AT these four days we had together, I could scarcely have needed Ken’s love more, and yet I was yelling at him? We stood at oblique angles to each other, each facing a different distance.
I tried again. “I mean, it really has nothing to do with you, Kenny.” Was that true? Had his very presence, his intrusion on my introvert’s need for solitude somehow triggered me? Maybe a little, but he had been the one to pick up on this, the one to suggest we walk separately. I stared into my distance for a bit.
“I think, if anything,” I began, “the fact you’re here is what’s allowing me to break down. I’m out here every day, doing this hard thing, by myself, and I keep it together because I have to keep it together. But you come along and all of a sudden I have a net. You’re safe. And so I can fall apart. Fall down. I know you will catch me.” As I said it I knew the truth of it.
He nodded. A better version of me would have hugged him then, but I hope we’ve already established that the version of me I was those four days was rather a worse version.
Again that night the shelter was full. Quickly, as thunder rumbled above, Braveheart and I selected tent sites and dropped our packs. My tent went up instantly, I had so much practice with it, so I raced over, dodging rain drops, to help Braveheart, who was finally showing some frustration, with his. As we staked in his final guy line, the rain stopped completely.
I found a branch some distance from the shelter and threw a bear cord, returned to the group. We ate dinner, tried not to burn wet socks in the fire, and performed acrobatics to retrieve Sunshine’s pack cover, which she used as a weight when throwing her bear line, from the Y of a tree 12 meters up. Braveheart and I brushed our teeth and I packed our trash and toiletries into our bags and walked back into the woods to find the bear line I’d hung. Thunder again rumbled overhead, and my footfalls made muted crunching sounds on soggy sticks and underbrush. After clipping the bags to the line, I started to pull them up and was baffled that although line was coming down, the bags were not rising. I looked up and saw that the branch I had chosen was dead and resting against the tree, not alive and attached to it, and was now sliding down with the line I was pulling.
As I stared at it in defeat, trying for a moment to convince myself I could somehow make this work, two fat raindrops hit me on the cheek and shoulder. Now I scrambled to collect the line and get back to the shelter before the sky really opened. There would be a break later; there would have to be a break later, and I could try again with a different branch. The cord caught though, and snagged, and tangled, as I cursed it and tugged on it. I finally got it all free, bunched it up into a ball, and ran back to the shelter as drops pelted down.
Braveheart was already sitting on the ledge, and everyone had pulled all their dinner items into the shelter with them. The shelter had enough space for the two of us to sit and for six people to lie down; everyone else had gotten into their tents. I swung my legs up and leaned against the center support pole with Ken’s back to me.
We all waited it out, and watched it, without much talking. We widened our eyes at the brightness of the lightning.
I jumped at a crack of thunder and Aquaman said, “You seem a bit anxious.”
I laughed. “Have you met me?”
The rain was so copious that within minutes it formed a shallow pond at the edge of the shelter. A flip flop started swimming away on its surface until I bent down to tuck it under the shelter’s deck.
“Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas,” Red Beard started, and we all joined him.
I pulled out my phone and dialed up “Wagon Wheel” (alas, the Darius Rucker version—we’d had no wifi since that discussion), drew my titanium mug out of my food bag for an amplifier, and held the cup up like a lighter at a concert. Our voices—even Red Beard’s—swelled at the chorus, and at the AT-relevant lines about hitchhiking and “a nice long toke,” and we fairly shouted “from the Cumberland Gap, to Johnson City, Tennessee,” since we had all been within 15 miles of Johnson City a mere 350 miles prior.
It had been the worst three days of my hike, and that night my tent would spring a leak in a downpour, and the next morning we’d hear a bear prowling not too far from camp, and yet another thunderstorm would give us a final AT fuck you before I limped my last two and a half miles to our pickup point.
But then Ken would drive me to Charlottesville, where we would listen to live music and eat ice cream and cheesecake and drink gin and lie on our backs in the dry grass at night and sing along again with Darius Rucker’s voice coming out of my iPhone. Then he would drive me to D.C., where I would surprise my parents and see a doctor and confirm that I had a stress fracture in the second metatarsal. I’d do yoga until the doctor told me to cut it out if I didn’t want surgery, and I’d earn some money writing curriculum and sleep every night with my boyfriend, Inti, having all the snuggles.
And every day I would see AT pictures on social media, watch my friends progress, and every day I would think about those mornings out there, full of sunshine and promise and peace.
“I’ll hang the food bag, Matti,” Braveheart said.
“You’ll take care of it?” I said.
“I got you, fam.”
And so I opened my umbrella, hopped across the rain lake, and hurriedly high-stepped back to my tent for my last night—so far—on the A.T.
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