The Legend of the Fish Stick Gang
On the very first day of my hike the back of my right boot wore a blister into my heel. In 2011 I had hiked from Georgia to Maine without such a calamity. A blister on the side of the little toe is painful but not necessarily hobbling, but a blister on the heel can be a serious problem. I pondered this problem at Hawk Mountain Shelter. My hiking partner, Walrus, was half an hour behind me. There was a hiker already at the shelter, a guy with a long beard, a mixture of white and red hairs, traveling alone except for a thick, crooked wooden stick. He was a quiet fellow. I applied topical ointment to my heel, feeling angry and a bit sorry for myself that the trail gods had struck me with a bad blister, so to distract myself, I asked the quiet, bearded fellow about himself.
He was a traveling man, a vagrant, or technically speaking, a hobo, an itinerant laborer. He’d worked in Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Florida, and most recently Louisiana, on a road paving crew. Now he was headed toAsheville, North Carolina. He had hiked much of the Appalachian Trail in 2012, and now was using the familiar route to walk most of the way to his new destination. I asked him if he had a trail name— he did not. So we settled on one for him, an acronym, DOS or “Disciple of Soul,” an appellation arrived at by a complex algebra of pop cultural references which I shall not bore the reader with decoding. Certainly, DOS possessed an immediate presence I would call “soulfulness,” an admittedly ambiguous term, but one that connotes serenity in the midst of suffering. He didn’t say much unless you spoke to him first, but he was quite friendly. He did ask me one thing: “Hey man, you want some beef jerky? I found it.” I tried some. It was the good beef jerky, big hunks of dried steak. At that moment I implicitly trusted DOS. On a long distance trail, the offering of good beef jerky can forge a bond as meaningful as an engagement ring.
Walrus arrived at the shelter. There was nothing of vagrancy in his character or biography. A husband and father, and professional counselor, he was the figure of the beneficent patriarch, sober and responsible, level-headed and amiable, rational and settled. He owned a home in his native state of Washington. He certainly was not the kind of guy who would eat found beef jerky. I had hiked with him some in 2011 and now in 2014 he was back for more happy misery on the Appalachian Trail. For several days we hiked in the mountains of north Georgia, and though a revolving cast of other hikers came and went, Walrus and I always seemed to end up sheltered with DOS at the end of the day. At first, Walrus seemed a little skeptical of DOS, but I run my mouth constantly, peppering my speech with both pretentious eruditions and raunchy litanies of the crudest expletives. So perhaps out of saturation from hearing me call a toe-stubbing rock “cocksucker” one too many times, Walrus may have come to appreciate the chapel-like silence of DOS. After several days with DOS, Walrus finally tried the found beef jerky.
We spent two days in a motel in Hiawassee, Georgia because my heel had turned to hamburger meat. I was anxious and irritable. I bought all kinds of bandages and antibiotic ointments and spiraled into self-pity and fear. Walrus moped, homesick and wondering if he could push his sore fifty-seven year old body further. Walrus and I slept on big double beds. DOS slept on the floor in his sleeping bag— for two days he lived among us two grumps and oozed contentment. At night Walrus and I, two mouthy academics, would talk almost endlessly. We talked about books, about ecology, about women, about marriage, about life and philosophy, and as the gums flapped away the hours, DOS lay in his bedroll and said almost nothing. Once a day DOS would say, with a calm urgency, “The buffet is open.”
It was quite cold in Hiawassee, so the three of us wore our rain suits over our other clothes to stay warm. We looked like deckhands on a commercial fishing boat, and so we declared ourselves “The Fish Stick Gang,” brothers of the buffet and comrades on the Appalachian Trail. We made several trips to the popular Daniel’s Steakhouse and ate epic meals of all-you-can-eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pie— a hiker works up a mighty hunger going up and down the mountains. Hiking down into a town after days in the back country, the three of us marched like a pillaging army into any restaurant that could stuff us with fatty food. I joked that other gangs robbed banks and trains, but the Fish Stick Gang raided fast food joints of their ketchup and mayonnaise packets. Despite all of this eating, the hiking up and down mountains burned up even more calories than we could consume in town. By the time we reached North Carolina, I’d lost nearly ten pounds.
Most of our hike was in cold weather, but in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we were met with especially cold temperatures and strong winds, and then icy rain turning to snow. One night the temperature dropped to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. DOS displayed an aptitude for building big fires from wet wood, an exercise of both skill and patience. He would get the smallest twigs dry and lit, used a few small flames to dry out even more material, and then dry bigger pieces, and finally over several hours, have a substantial fire hot enough to dry out big logs and warm a shelter. Several days in the Smokies involved living perched on the cusp of hypothermia, the primary cause of fatality along the Appalachian Trail. DOS’s fire-building proved to be acts of genuine heroism, helping not only Walrus and I to survive in the dangerous cold, but dozens of other hikers who huddled like damp rats around the warmth of DOS’s nightly fires.
In 2011 I hiked an ambitious trip of over 2,000 miles. In 2014 I’m doing less than half of that distance. Another important difference between my last long hike and this year’s is general morale. I hiked out of Georgia twenty-five days ago, and although I have met dozens of hikers, every single night when I am done hiking I’ve enjoyed the company of the rest of the Fish Stick Gang. Nearly twenty of those nights have featured a hot and cozy fire courtesy of DOS. Walrus and I split bag-hanging duties— we hang our food out of reach of bears. We fetch water for each other. We’ve shared food and fuel, and most importantly, the stories of our imperfect though perfectly human lives. The three of us are quite different individuals, but the common path of the trail and the daily adjustment to meteorological and altitudinal changes have made us a merry band of smelly hiker trash. (“Hiker Trash” is a label of honor along the trail.) It’s wonderful to have good friends, but especially so at six-thousand feet when your hands are numb from the cold and your armpits smell like a corpse.
Yesterday we arrived in Hot Springs, North Carolina, over two-hundred miles from where we started in Georgia. I hope to hike to West Virginia this spring. Walrus may hike even further on. Today a blue sky and warming sun lights the Baptist Church and hikers walk down the main drag on the way to pick up mail at the post office. The mountains loom over the valley and the French Broad River gurgles along. My blister has almost healed. Still, I feel a little sad because DOS has arrived at his final destination along the Appalachian Trail this year, and this morning, has hitch-hiked on to Asheville, almost forty miles east of Hot Springs. The Fish Stick Gang will not be the same as a duo. Walrus has often jokingly asked DOS, referencing his quiet nature, “Got something to say?” DOS did his talking with fire. He warmed all our spirits.
(Note to reader: This post first appeared in 2014 on the author’s dormant personal blog, “joe schmidt writes about something.”)
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