Rainy day fashion faux pas

You know how I posted a photo of myself hiking with my sports bra on over my shirt, because the durn thing was itching? Well… that look inspired an entire collection. Here I am in my rain gear:

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Aaaaand, here’s the Yellow Kid, a cartoon character from 1895:

The Yellow Kid

Just sayin’.

 

Also, here is Zippy in his rain gear:

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Aaaaand, these guys:

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Zippy wants his rainy day trail name to be Hazmat.

Goodnight everybody!

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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Massachusetts mud

The guidebook said that in Massachusetts we should have no trouble finding water.

Touché.

After a post tropical storm dropped between 2-5 inches of rain, we had a couple beautiful but puddly days, followed by two more days of rain. Today we basically walked through a 20 mile long puddle, which varied from sole to mid-calf depth. Here’s a typical stretch of trail:

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Ooh, and an occasional boardwalk! Which usually ends in a deep, sandy pool of muck:

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I think it’s safe to say that at no point in this state will my shoes be dry.

But there’s a simplicity here, in that no matter the circumstances, pleasant or tedious, there’s really only one solution: to walk. To walk north on the path that has been made through the woods. The path that hundreds of volunteers clear of debris (from winter, from spring, from Sandy) for our leisure. To follow the white blazes that are painted on trees and sometimes on the rocks to show the way. Walk up, walk down, walk around, walk and slip, but walk.

We pass through stretches where the blazes are faded and hard to discern. There’s a whitish lichen, a fool’s blaze, that sneakily resembles the painted rectangles when it grows at eye level. We get weather, we get moods. We check each other for ticks every night, and try to make it more romantic than routine. (Incidentally, Permethrin is amazing stuff!) We show up at a camping spot and find that the host has made us an indoor bed and a hot dinner, and we melt into puddles of thankfulness. But the next day, there is still only one thing to do: walk.

The old saw “One step at a time” has never been more useful. Also, “How important is it?” and “Easy does it.” I carry stuff, try not to lose or break it. I hang my clothes to dry after a night of rain and wind, try again when I make a mistake, try not to beat myself up about the mistakes (and they are legion). So far I’ve only butt-planted twice. But mud washes off, and there’s no shortage of streams in which to dunk a wet pair of shorts while still wearing them.

Singleness of purpose is not always easy, but it’s simple. I am not always happy when I walk, but I wake up every day ready to walk some more. Walk on!

Roller coaster

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This post is going to be mostly photos. I’d love to write at length, but have no keyboard access at present. Let’s start with the panorama above… This was four days into Shenandoah National Park, when we finally got some sunshine!

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This, on the other hand, was a more typical view during that stretch. We logged a lot of miles with our friends Rain, Wind, Fog, and Drizzle, and a few with Thunder, Lightning, and Hail. I felt pretty drippy myself after three days of it, but then one evening the sun broke through:

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and it was like a revelation. The pink, gold, and blue sunset was the first color I’d seen in days. Another hiker told me that one reason he likes the AT is because the dramatically low lows make the highs higher. I’ll allow he has a point, though it’s hard to say how much tough weather is worth a mind-blowing view.

The past few days have seen much better weather, and an indecent amount of trail magic. Nothing like a Coke and an Oatmeal Creme Pie at ten in the morning. I feel spoiled. But I’m not about to say no.

Today, Mother’s Day, was exquisite. The trail, consequently, was busier than we’ve ever seen it. We crossed paths with maybe 80 people out there today, and one standoffish turtle–

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–but no other thru hikers. So we had this pleasure all to ourselves:

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Know what that is? Our thousandth mile! A couple hikers before us made the pebble pattern.

Incredible. How did it happen? How did I ever manage to do this? One step at a time.

Squall

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It was not so long after this photo was taken. Roadrunner, Clark Kent, Zippy and I had eaten our lunches while swatting gnats at a shelter just before Tinker Cliffs.  We were full of peanut butter, except for Roadrunner, who is from Germany. (Apparently PB is a uniquely American taste, like Vegamite to Australians.) The day was warm, and we climbed quickly to the ridge. The trail in this section of Virginia has stayed mostly atop ridges, and so has been unexpectedly dramatic, despite relatively low elevations. But this afternoon’s walk would prove to be the most dramatic yet.

It often happens that the sky on one side of a ridge will be robin’s-egg-blue, and on the other side will be hazy or gray. Such was the case that afternoon. To our left, the valley and town below bathed in peaceable sunshine. But to our right, the green hills and blue reservoir were topped by an army of dark clouds, which marched toward our perch at a quick clip. The light on that side was strangely yellow, and a foreboding breeze puffed our sleeves and made goosebumps rise on our right legs and arms.

We’d seen the chance of a storm in the forecast, so we crouched behind a tall, toothlike row of rocks to secure our dry bags and ready our rain gear. One by one, we emerged from the windbreak and darted forward down the trail.

Energy rose in the wind. The high-altitude, intoxicating smell of ozone filled my lungs. For some reason, I welcomed the rain. I had seen the clouds and knew it was coming. I suspected it would be brief, and then it would be gone. Best to accept it, relish it even, and let it go. Why hide? Why shrink? So I kept jumping between the jagged rocks and following white blazes, glancing between footfalls at the incoming spirit to the west.

It did not disappoint. There was no thunder or lightning, but the wild, windy rain was magic. It started with scattered drops and grew to a gusting, symphonic force. It filled the springs from below, the rivers from above, and soaked my right pants leg but left the left side dry, blowing in only from one side. The tiny speck that was me disappeared into the greater force of the front. I was only another mouse or moss or stone, subject and witness, not actor.

And then, the light appeared. Even as the rain hurled down and the gray squall pressed from above, the reservoir and hills below were illuminated. The sun had cut through, and though it was invisible upon the ridge, its light mirrored below. It was the light people see in near-death experiences. It was at once golden and white. It radiated and attracted. It was like a birth canal. And the land looked like Eden, like heaven, like Hawai’i, like the Appalachians before man touched them. We shouted and pointed. I was the happiest mouse or moss or stone. My heart felt as large as the mountain. Something touched me, though I couldn’t say what the message was. It was enough to be there.

The rain blew past and we began to dry off, savoring the glow and dwindling energy. Giant power lines rising from the reservoir’s dam sliced through the woods at intervals, buzzing and humming, and each time we entered one of their clearings, we were given astonishing, if unnatural, views. Roadrunner crowed over a fragment of rainbow, and I knew the storm was past.

We walked down the hill and I felt myself coming down, literally, but also as if from a drug. I felt content, inert, spent. The newly unfolded green leaves canopied over us, bright as the lithe, yellow-eyed snake Roadrunner had spotted across the trail that morning. Like me, the trees were still quivering from the squall.

To not see

It was on the corner of Farol and 12th. It was snowing on top of three days’ rain, which had hardened into black ice. He turned away before he saw. His eyes were already squinted against the wind, and his vision narrowed by icy lashes, but just to be safe he made sure his face could see no red, yellow or green lights, no people, bicycles, or trucks. He didn’t want to be a witness, for a thousand reasons. The flood of sounds that surged from the intersection buffeted the fence and signs at his side, sank into the back of his coat, but through nearly meditative effort his ears heard nothing but the crunch under his feet. He walked away toward 13th Street, running his bare hands over the skin of his jaws, a habit he could not drop. The skin was numb from the endless stings of snowflakes, and felt as if it were someone else’s face, someone else’s tensed jaw, bearing someone else’s thousand reasons.