Wherever The Path Takes Me (My Final Post)
I awoke in the middle of the night with the urge to take a piss. I put on my headlamp and dimmed the light, as I didn’t want to disturb my friends who were sound asleep in a circle of sleeping bags. I peered into the darkness of the woods, wondering if the light of my headlmap would reveal the black bear to me once again, but nothing except the trees were illuminated for my eyes to see. Still, I was reluctant to trust the woods after what we had experienced a few hours earlier. I walked several feet into the darkness, and while peeing I watchfully looked all around me like a hawk. Where’re you at bear? I’m ready for your ass. Even when I’m peeing, I’m ready.
I walked back to my sleeping quarters, and looking down I saw a little snake slithering out from underneath of Clovis’s sleeping pad. It was at least two feet long, bearing stripes with hues of red, black, and white. Bright colors mean it’s poisonous. I don’t really know shit about snakes but my intuition was waving a red flag in my face.
“Clovis!” I shouted in a whisper in hopes of getting his attention without rousing anyone else into waking up. “Clovis! There’s a snake under you. I think it’s probably definitely poisonous.” I realized a few seconds later that what I just said didn’t make any sense, and that in all likelihood it simultaneously confused and scared everyone who heard me say it.
“Dude,” he groaned sleepily, “This is not a good campsite, dude.”
I snorted with a laugh I desperately wanted to conceal, but still I managed to wake everyone else up. Good Talk was the first to sit up, rubbing his eyes and noticing the snake when I shined my headlamp on it, “how’s that rhyme go, red touches yellow, kill a fellow, red touches black, you’re ok Jack?”
“Uh… I don’t know,” I replied as the snake was slithering away under a log.
“That’s a Milk Snake, it’s not poisonous,” Muffin Man said poking his head out of his bag before going back to sleep.
“Oh okay, I just wasn’t sure,” I replied as I relaxed myself, feeling a little stupid for waking everyone up over a virtually harmless animal.
“Now I’m seeing snakes everywhere I look. All these roots are looking like snakes to me,” Good Talk said looking left and right.
“Yeah I’m seeing the same thing,” Tarzan said looking at the ground around him.
The snake was now gone and I returned to the comfort of my sleeping bag, and when I awoke again the sun was shining and the forest was alight. Muffin Man and Tarzan were packing up their belongings and getting ready to leave.
“You ready?” Tarzan asked.
“Yeah, let’s hit it,” Muffin Man replied tightening his waist strap.
“See you guys in Daleville,” Tarzan said looking back at Good Talk, Clovis, and I still in our sleeping bags. I rubbed my eyes until I could see clearly, and yawned as I watched them striding north with the serene view from Tinker Cliffs behind them.
Every day that we’ll be reaching a town, like today, we like to get an early start. Knowing you only have to walk ten miles to civilization is extra incentive to get there as early as you can to have as much leisurely time as possible once you’ve arrived. It’s akin to the feeling people have working 9-5 jobs going into work on a Friday, knowing the weekend is right around the corner. Daleville made me particularly excited because that’s where we’d reunite with Sundance and Q tip, who we parted ways with at Four Pines.
It was a hot day, but it was a dry heat that was preferable to the humidity stricken climate that was the usual alternative. The Sun beat down when we hiked by power lines. Looking left to right you could see them extending up and over the rolling hills of the Appalachian forest. The channels call for trees to be cleaved in their wake, only leaving the grass, dirt, and rocks to accompany the sounds of electric current that travel across the lines hanging overhead.
“Damn Romeo, why’d you pick this spot to stop?” Clovis asked tongue in cheek as we sat in the boiling sun to drink water. I was gazing up at the double circuit lines and what appeared to be a transformer or generator towering above us. I was mesmerized by what I was seeing mechanically attached to the power lines, wishing I knew more about the intricacies of how this system operates. The perennial buzzing sound coming from this power regulator was surprising to me at first, particularly because I didn’t expect it to be so loud. This is how Daleville get it’s electric power. It was time to get back to the shade of the trees.
We hiked on, and when Clovis and Good Talk stopped a few miles later for water I hiked ahead on my own, not feeling a need to rest. Lost in thought, I also managed to lose the trail, taking a right turn when I should’ve gone left. Not realizing my mistake, probably because I was looking down, I hiked a mile in the wrong direction. I came to another fork in the path, two separate trails with no white blazes on the trees to indicate which was the Appalachian Trail. What the fuck? I looked behind me, seeing no white blazes, but still convinced I was going the right way. I picked the trail veering to the right, looking up and all around for a white blaze to vindicate my decision. I must’ve walked for twenty minutes before I decided the Appalachian Trail must’ve been the left hand turn. I backtracked to the fork in the path and took the left hand path. Still looking up and all around me for a blaze, I found nothing marked on the trees. After about a half an hour down this path the bushes and trees started to encroach on my footing until I was convinced this was no longer a discernible footpath, and I turned back annoyed with my predicament. I came back to the fork in the path once again, thinking over how to rectify my missteps. Sitting on the grass, I looked at the left hand path I had just returned from. It’s definitely not that way. I looked to the right hand path. Maybe, but I walked for almost a mile without seeing a blaze. I looked behind me. Maybe I should wait for Clovis and Good Talk? Maybe I should walk south until I see them? That was what I decided on. Picking myself up and putting my tail between my legs, I hiked south. Still thinking I was on the Appalachian Trail, I looked for a reassuring blaze. Nothing. What the hell is going on? Am I even on the trail? I started thinking about where I could’ve gone wrong, but I had been too absent minded to recall any moment where the trail split. Then I came to a sign, finally seeing where I went wrong. Three beautiful women came strolling up the path, feeling defeated and humbled, I called out, “Is this the AT?”
The woman leading looked at me with an eyebrow raised, probably caught off guard by such a strange question. Of course it is the AT. It says so right on the sign. She looked over to the sign, “yeah it’s right here,” she said pointing and smiling.
“Thank God,” I said sighing a breath of relief.
When the woman leading crossed my path I fell in line behind her, saying, “I’m going to walk with you three for a little while, I just got lost and walked several miles in the wrong direction.”
I glanced behind me to acknowledge the other two, smiling and saying “Hello.” I had recognized them all from previous times we must’ve crossed paths, perhaps at shelters, campsites, or water sources, but I hadn’t formally met any of them until this point.
“Awe, that’s too bad,” the woman in front of me said, “What’s your name by the way?”
“Romeo. What’re all of yours?” I asked.
The woman in front answered first, “I’m Hey Girl.”
Then the woman behind me, “I’m Yours Truly.”
“Excuse me?” I asked smiling.
“And I’m Little Sister,” the girl behind her said.
They all appeared to be in their early twenties, like myself, and their presence was comforting. Maybe I was just happy to be back on the Appalachian Trail.
“So you got lost, Romeo?” Hey Girl asked me.
“Yeah, I feel so dumb,” I said shaking my head as we walked, “that was the first time it ever happened to me, I must’ve walked almost three miles off trail.”
While I felt a little intrusive for forcing myself into the middle of their group, they were kind and welcoming to a stranger who appeared out of nowhere calling out, “Is this the AT?”
We eventually stopped at a water source, where I asked, “Did you see two other guys walking by, one is taller with long hair, the other is about my height with darker skin tone? Both have beards.”
“Clovis and Good Talk!” Hey Girl confirmed enthusiastically.
“Yeah we ran into them not long before running into you,” Yours Truly added, “They’re probably not too far ahead.”
“I’m gonna see if I can catch them,” I replied, “It was nice meeting all of you,” I looked around nodding at them, “I’ll see you all up the trail!”
With Daleville getting closer, I ran into Clovis and Good Talk, where I was greeted with surprised faces.
“Romeo? How’d you get behind us?” Good Talk asked looking confused.
“I got lost as fuck.”
They laughed, and I smiled shaking my head.
“How’d you do that?” Clovis asked, grinning at me.
“I missed that sign a couple miles back, I don’t know. I must’ve been looking down and didn’t notice what I was doing. I probably walked three miles off the trail.”
“And you still caught our slow asses!” Good Talk said sitting on a log.
“I like your pace,” I replied.
“Yeah, I’m in no rush. I have all the time in the world,” he said with a satisfied countenance.
I thought about that for a moment. That’s how I want to live my life. I want to take my time with everything I do. There’s no need to get stressed out about deadlines and hastily moving from point A to point B, always thinking ahead and never appreciating each fleeting moment. Yes, there’s intrinsic value in getting things done; accomplishing goals; completing work. These accomplishments bring us satisfaction and peace of mind. But we can still fulfill our goals and complete our valued work while not rushing through it. If we’re not meticulous with the details of our craft, our craft will suffer. Ignoring the concept of limited time, or, refusing to set unrealistic deadlines that force us to rush through something, will allow us to express ourselves through our work fully, unencumbered by the stress that comes with the thought of ‘I’m running out of time’. All we have is time. It’s quality over quantity. Value the quality of each moment we’re apart of. Value the quality of our work. Don’t rush anything.
Maybe that’s the line of thought Good Talk was hinting at when he said he’s in no rush. He also rarely ever looked in his guidebook. When he did, it was usually for writing notes to remember particular days along his journey, or seeing how far the next water source is. Some hikers obsess over their guidebook, constantly stopping to study the terrain and mileage. He didn’t care to see what terrain he’d be faced with, or planning out his daily mileage. He just hiked. I understood his reasoning. Seeing upcoming extreme terrain changes in the guidebook can stress you out. You see that you’re about to do a 3,000 foot climb over the next mile and a half and think, ‘oh great, this is gonna suck’. But it’s never going to make you think, ‘well, that’s it. I quit. Heading back south’. No matter how arduous the the terrain gets, you push through it every time. So if you know you’re going over every mountain no matter how high it is, why even bother looking at the guide to see what you’re up against? It’s only gonna stress you out. In this instance, perhaps ignorance is bliss.
The best part about Daleville is that there’s no need to hitchhike to it. You walk out of the woods and the road is right there. You look to the right and there’s a motel, the Howard Johnson Express, just a few yards away. You look across the street and there’s a Pizza Hut, and to the left a quarter mile down the road you’ll find myriad restaurants and grocery stores. Cutting the hitchhiking aspect out of the equation gave us one less thing to worry about, and having the Howard Johnson Express adjacent to us did the same. It was a mob scene of hikers. Seemingly everyone who stops in Daleville stays at the Howard Johnson Express, or the HoJo, as we called it. A large portion of our hiking bubble seemed to be in Daleville at the time we arrived, which meant one thing, revelry.
I came out of the woods and soaked up my new civilized surroundings. An asphalt road busy with fast moving cars marked my temporary foray back into society. The Pizza Hut and gas stations were looking like paradise. Finally, I can simply tell someone what I want to eat instead of finding water and boiling it to cook with. Fast food felt like an honor to partake in. Pizza Hut was the food of the gods.
I turned to the HoJo and the girl with the red hair was walking in my direction with her friend, a short Latino guy with a trimmed mustache and wavy black hair. I cracked a smile and waved, “Hey! What’s up?”
She smiled back, “Hey!”
I nodded at her friend, smiling, “Have you met Flash?” She said introducing us.
“What’s up Flash, I’m Romeo,” I said holding out my fist for the universal hiker handshake, and he obliged.
“How was your hike?” She said brushing her hair behind her ear as the wind blew powerfully with each passing car
“Aside from getting lost for a few miles, it was good,” I said smiling in a self deprecating kind of way.
She laughed, and I continued, “We also had a crazy run in with a bear at Tinker Cliffs last night!”
“I heard about that! That’s crazy!” She said as Flash nodded, indicating he had also heard about it.
“Did you run into Muffin Man and Tarzan then?” I asked.
“Yeah, they were at the HoJo, then I think Muffin Man said they were going to Wendy’s,” she replied.
I laughed, “Yeah that sounds like Muffin Man. Straight to the Wendy’s. So are you staying at the HoJo tonight?”
“Yeah, a lot of people are. We actually have a room there now. Well, it’s Flash and Wolverine’s room, they’re letting me crash with them,” she said.
“Oh that’s awesome!” I said nodding.
Flash interjected, “Yeah you’re welcome to stay with us if you want, you two could share a bed,” he gestured to the girl with the red hair.
How much does he know? I wondered playfully, “Really? You don’t mind?” I asked.
“Not at all!” He said affirmingly.
“Fuck yeah!” I laughed, looking at her in excitement.
“We’re on our way to get something to drink now,” she said pointing down the street, “Wanna walk with us?”
“Sure thing,” I said, “I can tell you my version of this bear incident, and how I almost fought him.”
We walked and talked until we came upon the small shopping center that harbored a chinese buffet, coffee shop, and grocery store among other things. I spotted the Wendy’s and said, “I think I’m gonna go say hi to Muffin Man and Tarzan, I’ll catch you two later at the HoJo!” We parted ways and I ambled over to the Wendys thinking about how fast I would devour a frosty and a cheeseburger. And I hardly ever ate fast food back home.
As I sat with Muffin Man and Tarzan in Wendy’s, I felt an overwhelming rush of contentment. Being right there in that moment, sitting across from two dear friends, one I had known for years, one I had met only a little over a month ago, eating a chocolate frosty with a plastic spoon, feeling like all was right in the world. So caught up in this comfortable moment that all perennial worries that periodically cripple me washed away. These moments are fleeting I knew, and most of the time when they come, I fail to recognize their presence because I’m too caught up in experiencing them. And other times it isn’t until I look back that I really cherish some moments I’ve already lived through. And it sounds absurd because all I was doing was sitting in a Wendy’s, eating and talking idly. But the honor that comes with merely existing for these comforting simplicities came over me, bringing profound elation to my feelings at the time. I was noticing that these moments were coming more frequently the deeper I traveled along the trail, and I held onto them for as long as I could.
I noticed Clovis and Good Talk making their way to the Wendy’s, and I waved them inside. I think they noticed me, but they stood outside talking. I got up and walked outside to greet them. “Hey guys!” I said jovially.
They seemed to be in the middle of a discussion I was interrupting, and Clovis acknowledged me saying, “I think we’re gonna split a room at the HoJo. You guys getting a room too?”
“Muffin Man and Tarzan are gonna crash with Sundance and Q tip for the night, they got to town last night I think,” I replied before hesitating to speak further.
I noticed smiles building on their faces, and I knew which direction this conversation was about to take when Good Talk asked, “So what about you Romeo? Where are you staying tonight?”
I was probably blushing at this point, “I’m staying with the girl with the red hair and her friends tonight,” I said looking down.
Then I looked back up to see them laughing, and I shook my head laughing too.
“You know,” Clovis said, “Your name is really fitting dude.”
“You guys gonna sit down and eat with us?” I changed the subject, still smirking.
They looked at each other, then Good Talk said, “I think we’re gonna go check in at the HoJo first, get food later. You should come by after, have a beer with us.”
The thought brought more excitement to my already joyous disposition, “Oh hell yeah, I’ll bring us a six pack!”
Muffin Man, Tarzan, and I walked back up the road to the HoJo, where they led me to Sundance and Q tip’s room, located on the ground floor. We walked through the parking lot and into the common area, which is outside on a grassy lawn with a garden in bloom, and a wooden picnic table under the shade of an oak tree. The common area is surrounded by two story buildings with balconies that all connect as a concrete walkway, creating easy transport between rooms on the second floor. Looking all around me smiling and nodding at familiar faces, this place seemed to be a civilized oasis for hikers, at least for today.
The door to their room was cracked open and we walked in to find them laying on their beds watching TV, soaking up the bonafide relaxation time. “Q tip! Sundance!” I shouted entering the room behind Muffin Man and Tarzan. We moved in to fill up all the available space, as everyone’s belongings were spread all over the floor to air out in typical hiker fashion. The room smelled like body odor and grime, also in typical hiker fashion.
“Romeo!” Q tip called excitedly! Sundance smiled and said, “Hey man!” I gave them both hugs and I felt as though it had been ages since I last saw them, but in reality the last time I saw them was at Four Pines Hostel, only a few days ago. So much had happened since we parted ways, and we caught up on each other’s travels over pizza later that evening. I made my way around the HoJo and spent the night hanging out with Clovis and Good Talk on the second floor drinking beer and resting my legs. A community of hikers gathered outside in the common area and as the Sun went down things quieted somewhat. When I parted ways with Clovis and Good Talk for the night I ambled down to the first floor and peaked in Q tip and Sundance’s room to find them sleeping, with Tarzan and Muffin Man sprawled out on the floor, also asleep. The girl with the red hair’s room was just across the common area, and she left the door cracked open, as my arrival was expected.
Her and her friends, Flash and Wolverine, greeted me with smiles, and I laid down and cuddled up beside her until the TV soothed us all to sleep. This day was one of my favorite memories of my Appalachian Trail experience, as the past week had been a turning point in the adventure. At this point I truly felt apart of the community of hikers I was with. I felt like I had made genuine friends in the people I met.
Knowing I had come over 700 miles brought me feelings of accomplishment, and while I also knew I had well over a thousand to go, it didn’t seem as daunting as before. Instead, I looked at all the miles I had left to hike as something to be cherished, hoping that this wild adventure would continue with the people I had come to love, and also the people I have yet to meet. Thinking of how emotionally and spiritually full I felt, this journey wasn’t even half way over in terms of mileage. I couldn’t wait to start tomorrow, wondering where the path would take me next, ready to embrace each trial with my whole heart and honor each new experience that came over me. What sights will I see? What will the mountains look like? What will future animal encounters be like? Who will I meet? Who will I journey with? How different will I be by the end of it all? Boundless and free, I couldn’t wait to uncover the answers to the questions that lingered in my mind.
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