Sharing Laughs and Miseries

Recently I’ve found myself hiking alone more often than not. Though I always set up camp and wake up to the sunrise with my group, Muffin Man, Q-tip, Scarecrow, and Sundance, by the time they’ve packed up and set off, I’m just beginning my morning routine. Upon waking up, depending on whether or not I hung my food bag the night before, I begin boiling water for oatmeal and instant coffee. Otherwise I venture outside my tent to retrieve the food bag containing these morning calories, dangling from a rope that’s been lassoed over a tree branch. I’ve found the practice of hanging a food bag every evening to be cumbersome and overrated, half the time the group and myself leave our food bags adjacent to us inside our tents. One night upon not hanging my food bag, I held clenched fists and jokingly said, “If a bear wants my food, he’s gonna have to get through these hands first, and I don’t like his chances.” While in actuality, if I were to be visited by a bear in the night the first thing I’d do would be to scream as loud as I possibly could, to alert as many hikers as possible of my nightmarish dilemma.

It’s 9AM and the group sets off. I’m still in my tent, feverishly turning pages over in my current reading material, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, by Rick Strassman. It’s a study into the nature of psychedelic compounds, a peculiar interest of mine that has fascinated my curiosity for years. This book focuses on the endogenous psychedelic compound known as Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and Strassman’s controversial dose-response studies conducted in the 90’s on it’s psychological and physiological effects in human test subjects. Peculiar material indeed.

After filling my brain with intriguing distractions, I begin packing up and stretching my hips, legs, and back; all the muscles that will soon be catabolically dismantled after another day’s hike. The thing about hiking alone that is so appealing to me is that I really get inside my own head. I get the opportunity to venture into the deeper recesses of my mind. Things get pretty weird. This opportunity doesn’t manifest in the midst of conversation, while I’m preoccupied with the dialogue. But when I’m alone in the forest, I roll over thoughts normally left to smolder in my subconscious. I find myself paying attention to my thoughts more, catching myself abjectly daydreaming, questioning my feelings, especially feelings of anger or sadness. Why does this make me so sad? Is this really worth being angry over? It’s almost like I’m stepping outside my own thought process and looking at myself from the outside. Seeing a messy bundle of feelings fueled by every incoming arbitrary notion. Almost as a primatologist would look at a chimpanzee behind a glass wall, I get to study myself. I begin to laugh at myself once I realize the impossibility of objectivity in thought processes, since our own subjective experience, thoughts and feelings in response to various stimulus, is an inescapable part of being a thinking agent in this space we inhabit.

I think about this shit all the time while I’m hiking alone. When we crossed the 400 mile mark(the message 400 miles being strung together via rhododendron leaves, making for an intriguing aesthetic), it was a blistering hot day. Q-tip had pronounced his desire for swimming and Sundance admitted to sharing his sentiment. We had crossed several rivers that day which looked tempting, and right at the 400 mile mark there was a side trail veering off to our right. There was the faint sound of flowing stream water in the distance. Q-tip and Sundance curiously strutted down the alluring side trail. I wanted to join them, but looking at Muffin Man and Scarecrow’s unenthusiastic countenances left me with feelings of cognitive dissonance. They wanted to continue to hike, headstrong on putting in the miles we had planned for at the day’s outset. I did too, but the idea of dropping everything and jumping into a swimming hole for a few hours got my heart racing. Then the sounds of mirth began. We heard Q-tip shouting, “Woo-Who!” And Sundance screaming, “Oh yeah!”. I smiled and looked at Muffin Man and Scarecrow. They didn’t look quite as convinced. I began laughing.

“I’m gonna smoke this cigarette and keep hiking,” Muffin Man said, announcing his firm stance. Scarecrow nodded, but then said, “I might go check it out.”

I took off my pack and said, “I’m going now, I gotta see for myself!” And I set off down the side trail. In about a quarter mile I was greeted by a flowing river and a large rock face with easy footing for climbing. When I reached the top I looked over to find Q-tip swimming and laughing, and Sundance standing by a waterfall, arms raised in a V. They looked so happy, and they beckoned me to join them. Electrified, I took off my shirt and boots. “Yeah Romeo!” They called laughing. “Hold up, I gotta go get them first!” I called, referring to Muffin Man and Scarecrow. I turned around and hastily climbed down the rock face and ran back up the side trail to find Scarecrow already making his way to me.

“Dude, it’s fucking awesome over there! You gotta check it out!” I said grinning from ear to ear. He was laughing as he made his way to the waterhole. I had to convince Muffin Man to walk down this side trail. I knew once he saw the waterhole he’d stay in a heartbeat. I managed to reach him just as he was setting off. I grabbed him by his shoulders, my eyes wide with excitement. “Dude. Come see this. It’s amazing, there’s a waterfall and a swimming hole, it’s beautiful!” I gasped, wearing my enthusiasm on my sleeve. He smiled and shook his head, unwilling to give in so easily. But I persisted, and he eventually acquiesced to my pleading. I grabbed my pack with one arm and Scarecrow’s with the other, hoisted them overhead and began trekking up the path giggling with excitement.

Muffin Man and I reached our group and he couldn’t help but crack a smile. I was so happy I had caught him just in time. The waterhole was a breathtaking site, a hidden gem, one I wouldn’t want anyone to miss. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if he weren’t there, for there is something special in being able to share these exhilarating moments with the people we call friends. I jumped in the water, coming up gasping for air, shocked by the cold temperature that characterized the swimming hole. Goosebumps ran up every hair follicle on my skin. I jumped in again and again, flailing my body about, swimming to and fro, treading water till I was exhausted. I hadn’t been swimming in years, and I had forgotten how quickly the resistance of water can tire one’s body. It felt quite liberating to use different muscle groups other than those used for the somewhat monotonous hiking day in and day out. We all laid out on the rock face and ate lunch as we soaked up the Sun, happy with our decision to venture off the beaten path in favor of a spontaneous adventure. It was in the same spirit in which I agreed to hike the Appalachian Trail in the first place, for the sake of spontaneous adventure and exploration. It felt good knowing that that intrinsic desire to explore hadn’t faded, and when curiosity brought moments like this, I saw no reason to stop keeping in the spirit of adventure and exploration.

We crossed into Virginia at the trail’s 465 mile mark, passing through the town of Damascus much like we did at Hot Springs, with the trail going directly up main street. We stayed at the Woodchuck Hostel, as it was the only available place left at a reasonable price. We also were in desperate need of a shower and an opportunity do to our laundry. This was our first day of rest in two weeks; it had been that long since we left Hot Springs. The Woodchuck Hostel treated us phenomenally. It’s in the subtleties of how a hostel’s ownership conducts their business that you see which ones genuinely care about the experience of the hikers. They provided bunks and rooms at a reasonable price, tenting in the backyard if the beds were filled up, a place to resupply on food(also reasonably priced), access to a kitchen, showers and laundry with your stay, and a buffet style breakfast for two dollars more. The people running the show were also honest and humble, and getting the chance to catch up with fellow hikers we hand’t seen in awhile was a pleasant surprise. To say it’s difficult to leave these places would be an understatement, but I always get a rush of adventure whenever I return to the woods. And the deeper I venture into that wilderness, the further from the last town I get, the stronger that feeling becomes. I start to embrace my stink, my mangled foot flesh and it’s endless bleeding and blistering, my dirt covered tent, the chill of the cold mountain air that leaves me shivering in the morning. Maybe I’ve become slightly masochistic, but I enjoy living out here.

May 5th, Cinco De Mayo, and it’s snowing. There are no margaritas in the woods. Also, I’m hiking alone today. As I’m trekking through the snow covered mountains of Grayson Highlands State Park I can’t help but think that my experience is a stark contrast to how one would think of spending their time on Cinco De Mayo; poolside with a glass of tequila, soaking up the Sun’s rays. The snow is pelting my face mercilessly, and every time I look up to see the trajectory of the trail, my view is obscured by snowflakes smashing into my eyeballs, temporarily blinding me. I look down, blinking and wiping away the snow, then I look up again to be pelted in the eyes once more. Okay, not looking up anymore. I keep trekking, looking out to the left and right to see snow furiously piling on the ground around me. White mist obscures any view these peaks would otherwise display, and I realize I’m hiking through a cloud. Despite icicles forming on my beard and the numbness in my hands, I’m enjoying this moment. I can’t even see where trail is leading me at this point, as looking up no longer seems trustworthy. But as I look down at my Salomon boots, I know with each step I’m getting further north and closer to regrouping with my friends.

One of the most enjoyable parts about hiking through the snow covered grassy balds of Grayson Highlands is getting to see the wild ponies that populate the area. Using the word “wild” may not be entirely accurate in this sense, because these animals are actively monitored and managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The ponies were introduced in the 1960’s after land managers noticed that trees and shrubs began to repopulate the once open high country. In an effort to mitigate the growth of this vegetation, introducing these animals provided a sound solution. The herd grazed the land, eating away at the excess vegetation as well as charming hikers with their sheer presence. Each year the herd is rounded up, their health is audited, and if their numbers become too large, some are sold to avoid tipping the balance of the ecosystem.

I cross the 500 mile mark, with the message 500 miles displayed across the trail, this time strung together with sedimentary rocks of various shapes and sizes. I pass by Wise Shelter, and look inside to find hikers huddled close together for warmth, but none of my friends are there. I unzip my backpack and rummage through my food bag for my last granola bar, my first bite in over six hours. I pull out my filter and fill up on ice cold mountain stream water, then pack up and continue my trek. Our plan was to meet up at Old Orchard Shelter, nearly seven miles past Wise. I know they’re close. My feet are freezing at this point, and my body is beginning to feel stiff and rigid. It’s important to stay moving during the daily hike for this very reason; sitting down for a long lunch can be quite relaxing, but resuming the hike with fatigued muscles filled with lactic acid isn’t worth the momentary comfort.

As I amble northward up the trail I begin thinking of how lovely it’ll be to sleep in the shelter tonight, despite the mice. Having to pitch a tent in the freezing cold on the snow covered ground would’ve been a miserable prospect. Just as this thought crossing my mind I here Q-tip calling out “Romeo!” From my right side. I look over and down a smooth snow covered gradient to find my friends with their tents set up, gathered around a dying fire. Muffin Man is hiding away in his hammock under his camouflage colored tarp, probably trying not to freeze to death.

“What happened to hiking all the way to shelter?” I inquired, making my way into their makeshift campsite.

“It only has room for six, it’s definitely gonna be full by the time we get there,” Scarecrow answered, and I nodded, probably looking somewhat dejected by this realization.

I joined them at the fire, and attempted to warm my numb hands before setting up my tent in the freezing cold on the snow covered ground, the very thing I had been hoping to avoid. Everything got wet. I pitched my tent, and before I could throw the rain cover over it, snow had already penetrated it’s permeable roof. Moisture from the ground seeped through onto the floor of my tent and onto my sleeping pad. The snow and mud that covered my boots eventually crept into my tent despite my efforts to carefully remove them before crawling into my meager excuse for a home. And dragging my pack into my tent with me made for a lovely mud splattered mess to sleep with that night. How the hell is it snowing here and now? It seemed ludicrous.

I thought back to how we were all just swimming together on a beautifully sunny afternoon just last week. But that was then and this is now. Now it’s snowing, it’s muddy, and cold. It’s a miserable experience. The arbitrary nature of the trail provides a sound metaphor for the hurdles life may throw our way. One week it’s sunshine and smiles, then the next week it’s cold and harsh. It’s difficult to sleep with chattering teeth, knowing that once I awake I’ll be greeted with mud and slush at my feet. But at least I wouldn’t be going through it alone. I had my friends, Muffin Man, Q-tip, Sundance, and Scarecrow to share my miseries with. We were all going through it together. Whether it be diving into swimming hole on a hot, sunny day, or walking through a cloud, beards covered in ice and freezing all night in our tents, these were experiences I had the honor of sharing with my newfound friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There’s something special in being a part of a group in that you realize it’s no longer just about you. This truth can apply to any relationship. Once you’re apart of something bigger than yourself, you’re willing to sacrifice for it. You’re willing to swallow your pride some of the time if it means keeping your group or relationship afloat. Whether or not that relationship is worth sacrificing for is up for us to decide. For me, it’s an easy decision. I love the people I’ve met out here. I love getting to know them, finding out what makes them tick, learning about how they think and how they see the world. I enjoy the solace of hiking alone, but if I didn’t have their company to balance me out, I don’t know if I’d be able to keep my sanity in these woods. I’m forever in debt to them, simply for sharing this Appalachian Trail experience with me.

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Comments 2

  • TBR : May 19th

    Lots of Beard Power in that photograph.

    You guys don’t look skinny enough to be AT hikers … must be getting plenty of trail magic.

  • Karyn : May 19th

    Nice post. I appreciate the ‘hiking alone’ section and that you have time to get inside your head.


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