Porcupine Battle at Bake Oven Knob Shelter
I didn’t expect myself to be wearing tin foil hats and fighting off porcupines named Happy on the AT — but here I am. I realized after 1,000 miles you have to start to do some weird stuff to preoccupy yourself. Sometimes I think, what’s the point of doing this? (Meaning whatever dumb thing I’m about to do.) and then I think… “what’s the point of walking 2,198 miles?” And then I continue to do whatever weird thing it is I was going to.
A Strange Resupply
Pennsylvania did not disappoint with strange trail encounters. Lovechikd and I reaupplied at a local grocery store which had an interesting playlist ranging from the cotton eyed joe to the real slim shady. Hit me with your best shot played as I dissociated at the tuna packets and wondered which ones I was going to gag down for the next four days. Lovechild proceeded to buy five cans of peanut butter for his lunches (it was the most calorie dense option in thru hiker diets.) I bought an entire rotisserie chicken which I violently ate at a picnic table outside as if I was on the discovery channel. As I had half a drumstick in my mouth, a bald man walked out of the grocery store with a singing mechanical red lobster on a green pillow. I guess it helped him to shop. We wound up back on trail soon afterwards, no thanks to the singing lobster man.
FLIM FLAM ZIN ZAM
The following morning, while hiking alone, I started to say random tongue twisters. My sleep deprived, calorie deficient mind could come up with “flim flam zin zam.” As I threw myself across the rocks of Pennsylvania, I would mutter and yell “flim FLAM zin ZAM.” Sometimes I’d challenge myself to switch it up to “flim zin flam zan,” but mess it up and just wind up saying “flim flam zin zam” five times over. Luckily there was no one around. I think at some point between the flim zamming and the flin zimming, I reached enlightenment and simply coasted over the rocks. (Just kidding, I was still suffering, just slightly losing my mind in a sedimentary manner.) I also found it was helpful if I played French songs from wes Anderson movies and imagined I was a cool French girl running along a cliff edge away from kidnappers. Alternatively, it was helpful to curse out every single rock I stepped over.
Happy the Porcupine
Eventually, after many rocks (and many curses) lovechild and I arrived at bake oven knob shelter. The shelter lurched to one side as if it was too tired to stand up right. A wasp buzzed violently around the entrance. The area around the shelter was overgrown with weeds. Almost the entire front floorboard was chipped away. I laughed nervously, hoping my first impression of the place was wrong. “Geez, someone really doesn’t like the shelter, huh?” I said.
A woman appeared from the brush with a duffel bag that was cooing softly. This place just kept getting stranger. She told us about how she had started southbound with her bird, but he had gotten the sniffles so she had to get off trail. She decided to start hiking in Pennsylvania as she was coming back and had a feeling she wasn’t done with the trail yet. From the sound of the bird’s sad coos — it sounded like he was. Soon afterwards, she disappeared back into the brush to a neighboring picnic table. The strange cooing would continue through the night.
I sat down at the picnic table and began to flip through the trail entries. Almost immediately my nervous laughter turned to a silent panic. Several entires warned about a large porcupine… THAT LIKED TO EAT THE SHELTER AS YOU SLEPT!!!! One perkily warned, “Happy does not care if you’re sleeping. He’ll still eat the shelter. He’s a big boy!” Others boldly declared they were preparing for battle. I had just done a marathon over fields of rocks — I didn’t have energy for a surprise porcupine battle! A stick almost as tall as my rib cage leaned against the shelter with an inscription taped to it that warned “This is for Happy, the porcupine that likes to eat the shelter while you sleep. Good luck.” The stick was in distressing shape — it had a clump of dark hair matted at the end of it and the other end was violently frayed and burnt as if someone had lit it on fire and brandished it at a feral blood-lusting porcupine. “Oh god…” I whispered to Lovechild, “I think they can shoot their quills.” His eyes widened.
And still other entries warned about copperheads that hid inside the logs of the shelter. Great! Now we had to worry about a porcupine, wasps and snakes! I had no idea the shelter would be so eventful. Lovechild and I looked at eachother. We had already set up our sleeping pads. I didn’t particularly want to move. He shrugged. “I guess we’re staying!” All I knew is that I wouldn’t be happy if Happy showed up.
And sure enough, at 12 pm, there was an assortment of Guinea pig grunting noises emerging from the darkness outside the shelter. Not more than fifteen minutes after that, a gnawing sound began to start at the corner of the shelter. I scrabbled for my headlamp and switched it on. I saw a small black porcupine bumbling away into the woods. What?! That’s what we were afraid of?! An oversized hedgehog? I laughed to myself, and made a mental note to not take fear mongering so seriously. The snakes never came out and the wasps didn’t bother us — so we got half a decent night sleep between Happy intermittently coming for midnight snacks. The next morning I wrote in the shelter that Happy wasn’t very scary and liked to visit for midnight cuddles.
I visited my hometown of Phillipsburg, New Jersey which I realized was only thirty minutes from trail. The Appalachian Trail connects different parts of my life — on it, I was able to walk from my college town, Blacksburg, VA, to where I went to high school and elementary school. I felt like I was retracing the steps of how I grew up. Each time I pass through another town where I lived, it feels like I’m passing through pockets of memories, and I am reminded of how many people love and care about me. I’m always overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and how happy I am to reconnect with them. It was awesome to see friends and tell trail stories as they looked on in horror at the last time I showered. (It had been a hot minute.)
Tin Foil Hats
Lovechild and I painted our nails in my best friend’s house as I laughed with her until we cried and then the next night, we made tin foil hats at my childhood-next-door-neighbor’s house. We were preparing for the upcoming trail. We’d found that sometimes when we get bored, we had to do something to spice up walking. I was finding it difficult to leave my old friends. It was hard to leave the last town I had a personal connection to on trail and leave to travel into the unknown that lay ahead. It felt like I had walked through all the memories of who I was in college, who I was in high school, who I was in elementary school — and now I had to walk onwards to whoever I would be next. But as I prepared to leave for trail the next morning, I realized I already was that person. I had already come 1,296.9 miles — and had less than that to go. So, I decided to do what I always do when I’m unsure of what to do — do something absurd to make myself laugh!
So tin foil hats it was. Mine had two antannae (to better connect with the aliens of course) and Lovechild’s had one ominous spike. We made robot noises for a while as we walked and discussed the difficulties of mind melding when it wasn’t a full moon. With every hiker we passed, we warned them of the dangers of 5G and told them to be safe out there.
I was thrilled and amazed at all the marshes and lakes in my home state. Lovechild and I swam on our inflatable pads in crater lake at sunset and enjoyed balancing across boardwalks. I was incredulous at all the nature in the marsh wildlife sanctuary the trail snakes around. Fish teamed under the surface of the lake while frogs jumped out from under my feet. Bunnies nibbled at clovers from the sides of trail while red winged blackbirds flitted over my head, flashing pockets of orange feathers. Mice wove in and out of the reeds. Everything was a bright and verdant green under a clear blue sky. Dragonflies buzzed ahead of me, leading me towards a steady horizon of mountains and felt comforted even knowing I had to climb them within the next hour.
Just an hour before that peaceful marsh, Lovechild and I encountered a very different kind of bog. We came across a worrisome sign before it that was hastily taped to a tree and warned “STOP! Do not even think about it! Turn back! You came this far, why risk it?” So we did what any logical thru hiker would do. We risked it!
I was paused at the sign for a little while, chuckling at the fear mongering, and Lovechild came careening past me with a casual battle cry of “F*** it!” and ran forwards onto the last pieces of unsubmerged board walk we’d see for the next thirty minutes. The boards quickly began to sink beneath me and become slimy. If you ever wanted to know what it would be like to walk across a balance beam coated in algae with the thrilling risk of getting stuck in a bog forever if you fell off — this is the hike for you! I was up to my shins in brown water, practically sliding forwards across bumper boards that floated into eachother. Lovechild decided that this was his time to become the embodiment of Jesus Christ and speed across the water and wait for my slow trudging self on the other side of the bog. I wouldn’t have been surprised if an alligator appeared out of the reeds to swallow me. At the rate I was going, I might have thanked the gator.
That evening, in the random fashion of the trail, we arrived at a drive in movie theatre that allowed you to camp outside of it after hiking 28 miles. Lovechild had just spilled pickle juice all over his hands and pants (I may or may not have failed at screwing the jar lid on) and both of our feet were still wet from the bog. Three different movies played on huge screens as I scurried around in the dark, trying to set up my tent while being dead tired and very distracted by all the big screens. One of the movies was a new Mission Impossible — and the theme song began to play as I tried to set up my tent. I started chuckling to myself as I tripped over stakes and stubbed my toe on rocks. It sure felt like a mission impossible to set up my tent in the dark.
And with that — we walked on past Jersey the next day. The last state I called home faded behind me with every step, but Maine was calling to me up ahead. Little did I know — New York would come with its own set of challenges — ones that would nearly eat me alive.
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