The fellowship of feet

I camp with Cathy and Marianne on a flat patch of earth tucked above the meadows by the winding fork of a river. They’re scouting for a good tent spot, and I call out to them: there is space for yours next to mine. Middle-aged women in wool caps and down jackets, they rib each other as they pop up their big orange shelter. The company makes me glad.

Marianne carries a full-size teakettle and a large stove. Extra weight, but calculated to please: she gets that flame whooshing, and they have cocoa and tea before meals. She’s funny. “You’ll be happy to know: there’s a new river flowing in California!” she crows after taking a pee.

Marianne, Cathy & me
Marianne, Cathy & me

The next morning, they’re up early: they can’t be “burning daylight,” which is to say, wasting the precious fourteen hours when you don’t need a headlamp. They insist they are not bothered when I freak out for twenty minutes because I can’t find my patch kit. I retrace my steps, dump the contents of my pack twice to no avail, and finally at my wits’ end, walk to the creek and back, praying to Saint Anthony as my mother-in-law would suggest.

Marianne holds out a little tin of chocolate covered nibs and pushes a few into my hand. “They’re good!” I don’t feel like eating, but I accept, and seconds later, the patch kit falls out of the top of my pack where it was wedged despite lots of shaking, like a pillow into the corner of a pillowcase. “THE NIBS!” I shout. “They worked!” I feel stupid now, but that’s preferable to not having my kit. In the end, what did the trick was not the cocoa nibs themselves, nor the syllables of a saint’s name, but being able to accept kindness. This isn’t rationally sound… but it’s true.

We share one evening and one morning, and I never see them again: they head north, almost done with their journey. That’s typical of this linear community, this fleeting intimacy. When one meets another on the path, both have a sense for what the other is experiencing. Feet in common, probably more. And when one outpaces the other, or heads the opposite direction, why bother saying goodbye? Await the next pilgrim and pick the conversation up where it left off. As a person who relishes connection but is too private to easily achieve it, this is wonderful. Each human is less an individual than a verse in the long ballad of trailwalking. Less hangs on forming an identity, more on joining the choir.

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This is not a solitary trail. People who exclaim, “You’re hiking aLONE?” must not realize how many folks are out here: 30 southbound JMT permits issued per day, plus day hikers and the occasional northbounder. Sometimes the trail is extremely full: descending from Donohue Pass, I probably met fifty people.

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On the other hand, when I’m solo, I entertain the company of an imagined J. from last year. He hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014, a 2,650-mile trail spanning the United States from Mexico to Canada. Except for maybe thirty miles, the John Muir Trail follows the same route through the Sierras: it joins the PCT at Tuolumne Meadows, and hops away to end atop Mount Whitney, while the PCT dives south toward Mexico.

Of course, when J. was hiking here, it was just a wee bit colder...
Of course, when J. was hiking here, it was just a wee bit colder (photo from 2014).

Since J. hiked north, and I am heading south, if one ignores the minor detail of time, we are perpetually walking into each other’s arms. Sometimes I hold out my arms to him as I walk, and grin. I obviously miss the guy.

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On personality tests, I lie on the cusp between extraversion and introversion. I need both equally, but daily routine nourishes my introvert much less than my extrovert. So I tend to withdraw when I have a choice. Before the hike, I write: “I am amiable, yet wordlessly send the message that there is a limit to my time, even when I’m not at work, just out in the world. What if I were more open to taking time with people, to listen and share? I’d like to experiment with this…”

The result of the experiment? In the woods, I am 100% extrovert. This is crazy.

Here’s the thing: a lot of days, I talk with maybe three to five people. Oh boy! A speck on the horizon! Where are they coming from? Where are they going? How do their feet feel, what have they seen? (And eaten. Food is an extremely popular topic of conversation.) I don’t have to rally. I really wanna know. Let’s chat!

So maybe introversion and extraversion are not fixed points. Instead, we slide along the spectrum depending on the surrounding population density. How many purported introverts are merely experiencing a higher than desirable number of interactions per day? How many extroverts just need a more crowded world to turn within?

The magical extroverter
The magical extraverter

Damon tells me about his love of old, giant trees, how they teach him the weight of history. Dan spins tales from days as a wilderness guide for young people, camping between the boys’ tent and the girls’ tent, eyes peeled for bears smelling the jam-sticky paws of children. Another guy and I, in rain gear while our laundry whirls in the dryer, compare weird things that are happening to our toes. “Whoa,” I say, “that looks like the trench foot I had in Massachusetts. Don’t worry, it’ll get better in a few weeks.” He reassures me that lots of people get the same pointy, triangular pinky toes that I’m sporting. This is not a conversation you would have with most people.

I’m not having super deep conversations with anyone. But it feels deep. The content of the conversations is irrelevant to their underlying truth: We are in the fellowship — we are the fellowship. Thousands of interchangeable lights that the trail draws to itself to illuminate itself, pinpoints that create a blazing line of energy. We say our destination is Mount Whitney, but our journey is through one another.

The luminous trail

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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