Hell or high water

I actually thought I had trench foot… the ol’ jungle rot, like back in ‘Nam. We had just climbed Stratton Mountain on a beautiful, sunny Vermont afternoon, and were waiting to get up into the fire tower for big views.

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I pulled my shoes, gaiters and socks off to air them out (they’ve not been dry since Connecticut, two states ago). And yipes. My toes looked white and brown and weird. I freaked out, and J. had to talk me back into calm as we descended the mountain, my feet ticking time bombs, just waiting, in my imaginings, to explode with gangrene. (After consulting the Mayo Clinic website, I am hopeful that it’s just ghoulish-looking waterlogged callouses. As a gift to you, I will not post any photographs.) It’s a result of the deluge of the past week that made the trail a cold, deep, sandy river, just another of the extremes we’ve encountered out here.

One thing I have learned out here is that I am not a fan of extremes. I knew beforehand that the AT is a trail prone to extremes, but 2013 has been an extremely extreme year so far. If it weren’t 2013, would I so frequently find myself wondering how many more years folks will be able to hike these long trails before global warming and global weirding make them impossible, impassible? I also have been wondering why I wrote 2013 on the note to J. three years ago when I proposed that we hike the AT. I picked a year that sounded good, not too close, not too far. I was one year off: 2012 was one of the best weather years ever for the trail. But this year, I hear, boasted the trail’s worst winter in fifty years. And Massachusetts has had eight inches of rain this month, compared with an average of two inches–and the month’s only half over.

Statistics aside, I didn’t expect so much suffering on this journey. Maybe that sounds naive. Even compared only with other citizens of the first world, have suffered very little in life. So this, I realize, is the hardest thing I have ever done. And it’s too late to quit. Just a few more than 500 miles left, plus my brother is joining us for a week soon, which will be excellent. (John: ignore everything I write about things sucking. It’s going to be grand.) I will finish this, I will triumph over this trail, come hell or high water… or black flies, which I hear is the next plague to expect.

Maybe the silver lining is that on this trip, as during no other period in my life, I have been able to see the divine spark in other people. Usually it is difficult for me, as I am unfortunately a bit judgmental, skeptical, impatient. But on the trail, it hits every hiker over the head repeatedly: kindness. Loads and loads of unearned kindness, like the deluges of rain. Kindness from people of all sorts. Truckers and moms and strange people and familiar-feeling ones, rich ones and poor ones, lefties and righties and everyone in between and beyond.

A bachelor with a house decorated like a little old granny’s, who asks us to not drip on the sink and to leave our muddy boots outside, but to come in for doughnuts and coffee in the quiet of the morning.

A gang of bikers who stopped for a break at a road crossing on their way to some races in Concord, New Hampshire. They were dressed in black leather, with t-shirts bearing second amendment slogans. And they were eating fancy snacks on the tailgate of their sag wagon pickup truck. “Hey, d’you want a Pepsi? water? beer?” they asked. “Here, you gotta try this.” And these biker guys showed me their favorite combination: a Pretzel Ritz cracker, topped with cream cheese, then a dab of jalapeno jelly, using a knife that looks like it was for cleaning fish. They had never “rescued” hikers before. They said we understood a little of what it was like to bike across the country at 70 mph in the wind and rain.

Or the people–friends and family, and also ones I met for just a moment on the trail–who leave comments on my journal entries, which is like having cheerleaders. Witnesses. It brightens my days.

And people I definitely don’t know, musicians who write songs that go into my mind through my mp3 player, songs that push me up the hills, distract me from my toes, make me want to dance, swagger a bit after too much cowering. (Currently, my hiking anthem is Muse’s Uprising. Arr!)

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You, and the occasional burst of perfect Vermont sunshine, save me every day.

P.S. You may think this is crazy, but I have tentative plans to hike the 2600+ mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) next year with Zippy.

Everyone says it is much, much more pleasant.

If they are right, I just might do it.

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We’re gonna die

We both know this. As for me, you tell me that maybe I’ll fall into an unmarked hot spring and boil. Maybe I’ll buy a car without side airbags and be crushed. Maybe Yellowstone will blow and I’ll have picked an apartment on the wrong side of the Mississippi. Maybe I’ll lick cookie dough with salmonella. Maybe I’ll puncture my throat gesturing with a sharpened candy cane. Maybe I’ll walk to the bus stop on a dark night instead of driving, and be dragged off to an unspeakable end. Yes, one of these fates which you illustrate for me out of love, out of care, or one of a thousand other fates all ending the same place, will be mine. And despite vitamins, safety features, savings, insurance, prudence, mistrust, fear, despite health food, moderation, and vaccinations–one day you’ll die too. Cautious one, beloved friend, choose your path through the wondrous wreckage of this world. Step with all the care you please. The way may be just as you like, or otherwise. And as we fall, one by one, or perhaps hand in hand, as we lose gravity, weight and our entire collection of atoms, may we be thankful for our days. May we die in pain but without bitterness. May we think not “If only I hadn’t–” but “Oh! this was worth it!”

Morning

An hour more of dark before dawn. Asleep. But now the alarm, the toilet, cold water splashed on my face, somehow into pants and shirt, gathering ingredients of the day–bag, lunch, key– okay– and I’m down. Wedged in the couch warm in the sweater, the pet rat’s tiny heart pulses with contentment, nested by my big slow heart. Can’t stay here, we can’t stay like this for long– but not yet, not yet to go and be human. It’s two minutes free of any presence of mind, just me and the other animal, tired and awake and breathing here now. And in the marrow of my bones, I thank God for stupor.