Has the AT Had Enough of Me? The Second of Three Ridiculous Days
I wrote a LABE (long-ass blog entry). I broke it up so as not to exhaust you. This is part 2. You can read part 1 if you like.
“Okay! That’s Enough!”
Day Two: June 22, 2016
I woke early, as usual, and while I had hoped and had reason to believe based on forecasts we’d read the day before that the skies might have cleared overnight, they had not. A thick mist lay over, around, and inside everything, from the shelter to the tree branches to the privy. The tall grasses on the way to the privy were laden with drops that wet my legs. Our sleeping bags, our hiking clothes hanging from the rafters, the foam handles on our trekking poles: all were damp. My hands were clammy, my skin sticky from top to toes.
The day was wretched, and gloom filled my being—every cell—at the prospect of enduring it.
As quietly as possible, since it was not yet light out, I packed my things and went to get our food bags. I unwrapped the cord from the tree and gave slack to the line. The bags descended several feet and then stopped about three meters above the ground. I tugged on the cord to pull them back up a foot or two and let it drop again; again the bags fell but were sharply arrested. Standing on tippy toes, I was just able to grasp the bottom of one sack with my fingertips, and I did this and tried to pull it down, but not only could I not get a satisfying hold of it, the bundle seemed held so fast that even if I could, brute force was not the answer. I stood back to get a better look and saw that, somehow, the line had tangled right at the carabiner. I’d have to wade back through the wet grass and rouse Braveheart for assistance. On the one hand, I was grateful he was there to help me at all. On the other, I was convinced in the foulness of my mood that his carabiner (I typically didn’t use one) was somehow at fault.
Things go wrong on the trail; they go wrong all the time. Often I can accept that things going wrong simply is what trail life is—solving problems is the experience. In that frame of mind, I can bring a cheery industriousness to bear. But as in off-trail life, one’s mood determines one’s frame of mind, and in on-trail life, it has become abundantly apparent, weather determines my mood.
Sunshine was stirring, too, and since her food bag was hanging on a branch near ours, the three of us made our way back in grim silence through the chill and fog. Braveheart at first tried all the approaches I had already attempted, while I stood watching, arms folded. Finally he assented to put me on his shoulders so I could reach up and untangle the line where it was caught up in the carabiner. “It’s a good thing you’re skinny,” he muttered. This accomplished, the food bags slid to the ground and landed in a pair of thumps.
Soon we were fed, packed up, and headed into the veil, leaving most of the camp asleep or groggily and resentfully eyeing us over folded arms, prone bodies still tucked into sleeping bags.
The little pill that was my left foot pain turned that morning into a plague. That it flared up then, when I retained a residue of resentment from the previous night’s smoke and forced lack of solitude (how I needed my usual nightly tent time, short as it was!), when trail-side weeds licked my legs with dew and dragged at my poles, when the view to West Virginia was blocked absolutely by the whiteout, and when all that lay between one wet night in close proximity to chain smokers and a second wet night in close proximity to chain smokers was sixteen and a half miles, was icing on a crowded cake of AT suck.
Sunshine and I had discovered it worked best if I walk ahead of her for ascents and she ahead of me for descents. My cardio game powered me up but her agility got her safely and speedily down. Today though, my stamina was no match for my injury and although Braveheart and I started out in front, Sunshine caught us repeatedly. The first two times, we were snacking or taking a breather, and she chatted with us and then brought up the rear. The third time, I was lagging behind Braveheart and had stepped aside to adjust my shorts after forgetting to fold their top over as usual after a pee. I waved her on with a tilt of my head, but she shook hers and said brightly, “It’s okay.”
“I’m just going to keep stopping,” I said. She stepped closer and looked at my face.
“No.” I felt tears rising but forced them back. More softly, I said, “Just having a tough morning. I need to be alone.”
Mercifully, she got this immediately. “Okay,” she said, already starting to walk. “Let me know if I can do anything though, okay?”
Shorts corrected, I stepped back onto the trail and heard her exchange some light words with Braveheart, 15 meters ahead, and go on. Braveheart waited for me to reach him, but my desperation was welling up, inarticulable and demanding, so I took him up on an offer he had made earlier to walk separately. Within a minute, I was alone on the trail, relieved but still struggling.
The terrain was easy but my progress glacial. Braveheart had gone ahead at 9:20 and agreed to look for a good lunch log or boulder at noon. But by ten, two hours seemed an impossible length of time to walk without stopping. That we had put nearly three hours behind us already, and had five or six more after lunch, was inconceivable. It was also unchangeable; the shelter was where the shelter was and our arrangement to get picked up two days hence at 8 a.m. on Route 42 (also, absent cell service, inalterable) meant our daily mileage was fixed.
I walked on painfully and hungrily, wishing I had suggested 11:00 or 11:30 instead of noon, wishing it and knowing all the time that changing lunchtime wouldn’t change the length of sixteen and half miles.
Finally, blessedly, there was Braveheart, resting on a fat, comfy log at the junction of a path into West Virginia. He was thumbing his phone’s screen but looked up when he heard my approach.
It showed that much? I limped to him and unbuckled my pack, letting it fall to the ground and then picking it up several times and shifting it to get it to lean against the log and stay.
“I’m done,” I said. Braveheart reached up with his strong fingers and massaged my neck. I widened my eyes at him. “Done.”
“I can take you back to D.C.” he suggested. An outrageous and delectable treat.
“Don’t tempt me.”
“So am I.”
“Do you get how unreasonable this is?”
“I get it.”
No, he didn’t. He couldn’t. I laughed weakly and sat down beside him.
“There’s this Cindy Crawford video I used to work out to all the time,” I said. He nodded. “She’s got this trainer, ‘fitness expert, Radu.’” I made the air quotes. “He’s chipper and encouraging. At one point, she’s doing these scissors lunges and she gets to twenty and he claps his hands together and says, brightly, ‘Okay! That’s enough!’
“I say that to myself sometimes, on an incline. I just stop, and look up the hill, and feel exhausted but accomplished, like really proud of all I’ve done so far. I clap my hands together and I say it like Radu: ‘Okay! That’s enough!’”
“But then I look at Guthook’s, and it’s 1.5 miles to the top of the hill, and 4.3 miles to the lunch shelter, and more than 10 to the sleeping shelter, I don’t even check, and the lunacy of it all overwhelms me utterly. I want to sit down and give up, but I can’t. The shelter is where it is.”
Braveheart lifted bagels and smoked salmon from his food bag, looked at me. “What are you doing out here, Matti?” he said. “You hate this.”
Of course I had toyed before with the idea of quitting, but for the most part, I’d decided to do that at Harper’s Ferry. “Hiking home” (Harper’s Ferry, the unofficial halfway point, is not far from Washington, D.C.) had been my working plan since at least Uncle Johnny’s, more than 300 miles behind me.
Sure, in those 300 miles, I’d thought at times of getting off sooner, but the impulse had always passed before I had gotten to a town and/or had signal and/or resolve to call Inti and ask him to come get me. But Braveheart was driving to D.C. regardless; he had planned to visit my parents after our time together.
I sighed. “I’m afraid if I go with you to D.C., I won’t come back to the trail.” My voice broke at the end, telling me how likely that possibility was.
I held out my left hand and he put a bagel in it. With my right hand I dug through my pack and retrieved my food bag, felt around in it for my spoon. I lay an empty Ziploc across my left thigh and gently set the bagel down on it, hovering my hand over it for a second to catch it if it slid, nudging it onto the one miniscule spot where it wouldn’t.
“I don’t hate this,” I said. I hated a lot of it, though. “This has been a tough stretch.” From a terrain standpoint this was false; the way had been practically flat all morning. The other trials—the weather, the cigarette smoke, my injury—made it true. Braveheart’s presence should have been a help, but somehow it wasn’t. This perplexed and troubled me.
“Today sucks,” I confirmed. “But it’s not always like this. You’re just here for a shitty part.”
“What is it like when it’s not shitty?”
“Like, there are mornings when I just power up hills and feel cardio endorphins racing through me, or there’ll be a ridge walk, so everything’s open and bright, with a breeze fluttering the ferns, and sunlight turning everything into a golden yellow green.”
Braveheart, ever skeptical, ever encouraging, nodded. “Okay,” he said.
As strenuously as I’d just been trying to convince him of the AT’s unreasonableness, I found myself now urgently needing to impress on him its wonder. “Then there are those mornings, when you’ve walking for two or three miles in dark, shaded hollows where it seems like the day hasn’t started yet, but you come around a corner and see the sun, slanting across the trail, and you climb out of the valley up into the light, into the day.
“Or, then, there are those afternoons when you hit a stride and even though you’ve got 11 miles under your belt you know that your remaining five will be nothing, and you call up the playlist and punch “shuffle play” and the first song is Clean Bandit’s ‘Rather Be’ and you sing at the top of your lungs, off-key, and dance down the path even though there’s a family approaching up ahead. You remove one ear bud, but you keep singing, and smiling, and nodding at them, and despite themselves they smile, too, glancing down, as they edge themselves off the trail to let you pass.”
We were last to arrive at camp that night, so we did not get shelter spots, which suited me fine. Although under normal circumstances I would not have spent three nights in a row with the same group of twenty-something men (they tend to push farther and faster), rain and the ever-present threat of it that week limited their mileage. This night though, the skies held off. Sunshine, Braveheart, and I all pitched tents. After eating with the group, enjoying more of its banter, and dodging more of its smoke, I gratefully repaired to my tent, read for a while, restored some charge to my introvert battery, and slept.
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