"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines, going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me."
Walt Whitman (1819-92)
"When I look back now over my life and call to mind what I might have had simply for taking and did not take, my heart is like to break."
Akhenaton (d. c.1354 BC)
And now, the current weather, from some random person we pulled off the street:
Sunday, May 23, 2004
Crashed on the Mountaintop
hike Function: noun
1 : a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise
2 : an increase especially in quantity or amount
3 : what one should not do when one gets brand new meds
We had planned it for months, which is why I think I was so surprised when it fell to pieces so quickly.
Yesterday, my wife got back on her Appalachian Trail kick. She dug out all of our books and maps and started pouring over them just like we had three years ago when we made our first attempt at a multiday hike on the trail. Seems like one time would have cured her, but no.
The Appalachian Trail, for those who do not know, is a wilderness trail that runs right across the tops of several mountain ranges on the east coast of the United States. The trail starts on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia and winds through the Appalachians, including the Smokey Mountains, the Blue Ridge, and the Presidential Range among others until it terminates at the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine almost 2,200 miles later.
Right now there are still about 600 people heading northbound towards Maine attempting a 2,000 mile "thru-hike." My guess is that about half to two thirds of these people may in fact make it.
Last year, 1,750 people started from Springer Mountain, noses firmly pointed north. That's not counting the folks who could not make the hike up Springer to even get started. By the thirty mile point, 350 had dropped out. In another 120 miles, another 350 had dropped out. By the time they reached the halfway point, over 1,000 hikers had gone home, and at the end of the season, only 391 would climb Katahdin in Maine.
None of this mattered to me as I hefted my backpack onto my back in the late spring of 2,000. We were going to do about a four day hike on one of the easiest parts of the trail, a reasonably flat part in the Shenandoah National Forest.
I guess it all depends on your definition of "reasonably flat."
The first really big mistake was in hauling along too much "stuff." The trick to doing any kind of hike like that is to make your pack as light as possible. Literally, every ounce counts. Well, I had taken everything but the kitchen sink, including a metal framed camp stool.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I had taken daily walks for months to increase my physical endurance. Two weekends prior I had climbed Crabtree Falls, a nine mile hike up the side of a mountain, and done so without any real problem. Of course, that was without a substantial pack.
We had positioned our van about twenty miles up the trail. Since we had plenty of food, my thought was that twenty miles was pretty conservative, and I expected to reach it in about three days.
Of course, the section of the trail we chose to hike starts up a mountain. After a few minutes, I'm getting pretty winded. I look down and can still see where I entered from the road.
OK, this is ridiculous. I can do better than this.
I push onward.
Gradually, we get further and further from the road, and the occasional sounds of traffic fade behind us. And we climb and climb.
Now, understand, hefting a 200 pound me up the side of a mountain is no easy task. Add to that a pack which was at minimum twenty or thirty pounds overweight, and it becomes really hard.
So, that's bad enough. What I have yet to realize is that there is yet another force at work against me.
Only a couple of months before, I had been diagnosed as a type II diabetic. They had given me some medication for it, and it had been working fairly well.
Then again, I had not demanded what I was now demanding from my body.
We climbed and climbed for what seemed like forever, and I was getting not only tired but dehydrated since I had not brought enough water and there was none on the trail. In the meantime, I was soaked with perspiration from the effort of dragging me along, so I was losing water pretty rapidly.
It was maybe four hours into the hike that suddenly, like flipping a light switch, my body literally could not move another step.
I looked up the trail (Why was it always "up"? Just once, could I look "down" the trail?) and knew that walking the next fifty yards was as impossible as flying.
I dropped my pack right then and there in the middle of the trail.
My chest was pounding and hurting, and I felt like I was going to pass out. This was not good. And we were a long way from help.
What was actually happening, of course, was that I was having a sugar crash. And due to the meds I was on, my body could not respond and make up the difference.
After thirty minutes or so, I felt marginally better. My wife and I decided that we best camp right where we were or as close to it as possible, so we started looking for a campsite on either side of the trail.
Problem was, the trail was on the side of a heavily forested mountain, and the mountainside was at about a 40 degree angle where we were. This does not lend itself to good tent sites. My wife took a little of my gear and we headed onwards.
After slowly covering another quarter mile or so, which was thankfully mostly level, we came to a place where we could see daylight above us. We were near the top of the mountain at last.
Knowing that the mountaintop is more level than the mountainside (duh!) I dropped my pack and climbed up, hoping to spot some level ground. I crossed what looked like an old unused roadway about 100 yards above us, and then I could clearly see that the mountaintop was not only level, but clear of trees.
"Hey! This looks perfect!" I shouted to my wife below. "It's all clear and level, this is where we are going to camp!"
She shouted something back, and I couldn't understand it, but it didn't sound like she agreed with me.
"No, this is a great place! Come look at this! It's perfect for us to camp!"
Again, she shouted back and I could not understand her.
"Listen," I hollered, "Just come up here and we'll walk over..."
About this time I turned to point to where the perfect campsite was, and looked right into the bewildered faces of about eight or nine people out for an afternoon walk. They were all just standing there staring at me.
I looked more closely at the "clearing" and realized that it was, in fact, a yard.
I went back to the trail without any more shouting. They walked on towards their nice ranch house that I could now see to the right.
Another quarter of a mile or so, we found a nice rock ledge which would hold our tent, and chose that as our resting place for the night.
Now, understand I was literally running on empty as far as energy goes. And our water was almost gone too. The closest source was at the top of the next mountain.
And I didn't want to tell my wife, but I had seen bear spoor on the trail. We knew there were bears up here, and we knew that we really did not want to meet one face to face.
So, here we were, in the middle of nowhere for all practical purposes (except for that house on the top of the mountain), running short on water, packs way too heavy, and I was fairly useless. Oh, did I mention that all of our meal food was dehydrated?
While my wife took some of our now precious water to boil and make a rice and chicken dish that looked like perfect camping food when we were sitting in our kitchen, I set about figuring out how to hang our food sack and packs.
You see, when there are bears about, they can smell your food and your garbage. In order to avoid fighting over it in the middle of the night, which is a very bad idea, you toss a rope over a branch and suspend the food out of the reach of the bears and any other hungry critters.
At least, that's how it works in theory.
I unwrap the camping rope I had purchased and head off into the woods to a respectable distance from our camp, and start looking for a limb.
Gee, how come none of these trees actually have limbs? I mean, they do, but they are way up there.
Not a problem, I think. All the books said that the best way to do this was to take a little sack, put a rock in it, and tie it to the end of the rope. Then toss it over the limb.
Great. Finally something easy.
And I even brought a little sack just for that purpose. How clever.
So, I start looking for a rock. To my frustrated astonishment, there's no rocks. Well, there are rocks, but they are all attached to the mountain. I guess all the other ones had long since rolled on down towards balmier climes.
The best I could do was a rather lightweight rock that was just this side of a pebble. I tucked it into the sack, swung it in a big arc, and let fly.
It went about ten feet, snagged on something, and plopped to the ground.
This isn't going to work, I thought. So, I started walking around looking for a better rock. "What are you doing?" my wife asked as I wandered over her way. "Looking for a rock," I answered.
She gave me a look like I had rocks in my head, and went back to what she was doing.
Finally, I found a better rock, and headed back to try again, quickly discovering that I had bought camouflaged rope. A few more minutes and I had found it, and I started trying to toss that bag over the limb again.
Swoosh....thud. Swoosh...thud. Swoosh...thud.
About every fifth time it would land in a bramble patch and it would be more like swoosh...rustle...ow ow ow ow.
Finally, about the twentieth try, it sailed over the branch as pretty as you please. And the rope immediately snagged on the bark, leaving the bag suspended forty feet up.
You see, apparently "camping rope" is good for anything except actually camping. Not unless you have a real need for a rope that vanishes if you drop it and snags on anything with a hint of texture.
As the sun began to set in earnest, I got lucky and managed to get the rope over the branch and the end back to the ground so I could tie our food sack to it.
We ate our meal of chicken and rice with something less than gusto. We had decided to use canned chicken (a good idea) and also to use the juice from the can since our water supply was low (not a good idea.) The flavor was less than gourmet.
Afterward, my wife tried to clean the pot, but ended up just wasting part of our water. We finally packed up the pots dirty and hung them with the food.
Since there was no way to hang our packs, being as how the whole hanging business wasn't working well and besides they weighed as much as five year olds, we decided to just drag them into our tent.
And this was supposed to be fun.
That night we went to sleep listening to what sounded like chain saws or motocross bikes. Eventually we came to the conclusion that it was neither, but rather was the sound of the wind whipping around the mountains.
Morning came, and I felt recharged. We used a bit of our water to make coffee, packed up and headed out. That days trip was mostly downhill, thankfully, and even though I really tried to talk my wife into letting me drop some pack items (like the camp stool) we made it to the road intact.
Which, actually, was a bit of a problem.
I think we had covered somewhere between six and seven miles in total. That meant that one car was six miles behind us, and the other was maybe 15 miles in front of us. The next shelter with water was only two miles, but it was on top of the mountain we were now looking up at.
There was a Skyline Drive overlook just down the road, and we made a beeline for it.
Once there, we dropped our packs and I set about trying to get a ride to the car we had left when we started. But, this overlook was on the wrong side. I needed a southbound car, and every car was northbound. For the northbounders, this was one of the first overlooks. But for the southbounders, they were pretty much burned out on the overlooks and rode right on by, one after the other.
We waited for about thirty minutes and finally a car pulled in from the north entrance.
It was an older couple. I went up to them and explained what our situation was, and that I needed to get to my car outside of the Shenandoah park gate. They graciously agreed to let me hitch a ride.
Leaving my wife with my pack and hers, I hopped in the back of the car. We had a nice chat about the history of the area as we headed south. The guy was a real history buff, and had come down from Ohio just to take a look at some of our United States Civil War sites.
They dropped me off, and I got into our car and headed back into the park. Soon, I was pulling up into the overlook.
There was my wife. And there was the older couple that had given me a ride. Which was a surprise.
It turns out that they had not been heading south at all, but had just missed the turn into the overlook. Their entire trip to take me to my car had been out of their way. What wonderful people.
Well, we did the car shuffle and limped home with our tails between our legs.
And here we are, three years later, and she has the books out again.
God help us all.
Now, if I can just get that pack weight down...
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)