INTO THE FOG.
A train barreled towards me. I couldn’t get off the tracks. I couldn’t move my legs. The conductor relentlessly blew the horn, but I was immobilized by fear. It was fifty feet away, then thirty, then ten. I tensed. I turned my body sideways and put my head in my hands.
And shot awake.
The trains horn blasted the tent. I put my hands over my ears. Confused.
Our tent was in a clearing. The forest, twenty feet away, hid train tracks we hadn’t noticed when we put up our tent the night before. Now, at the sharp hour of five oclock, a train barreled through Hot Springs NC, blasting its horn.
I stared at the top of the dark tent, listening to the train move farther away. My heart slowed. Someone coughed in the distance. I could hear a fire crackling. The melody of the forest nearby grew louder as my brain and breathing became more quiet. The ground was hard. Harder than I remembered it being in my mid twenties, which was the last time I had done this. Thirty-five year old me stretched out in the mummy bag. It was warm. Adam breathed hotly next to me. I rolled onto my belly and tried to turn back off. I knew I would need all the sleep I could get for what was ahead.
The birds began to chirp in the trees. I sunk farther into my bag. It became hotter.
I gave up.
Quietly as I could, I dressed inside my bag and then crept out of the tent. It was severely early. A few fires dotted the campground but there was not a soul in sight. I zipped the tent back together as slowly as I could and slunk away.
There were cabins, RVs, campers, tents and tear-drops. A dog huffed softly at me from the window of one of the mammoth RVs as I passed, but other than that the whole world was mine.
I put my hands in my pockets and walked through the early morning fog. The pines were thick and dark at the edges of the campground. I walked slowly, enjoying the coolness of the mist on my face and the opaque world through which I walked. As my feet crunched the gravel, the dirt road and the trees ahead would appear out of the fog. The world smelled like mud and wet leaves.
A small white woman, with a small white dog, materialized out of the fog. We shared a smile.
I walked for a long time.
Eventually I came upon a small wooden stage, made from rough-hewn logs. I climbed the steps and unlocked the low wooden gate. I stood in the middle, my hands in my sweater, looking out over the dark field and the deep green pines blurred by the fog beyond it. There was a small orange street light at one end of the field which made the fog glow. The structure smelled like freshly cut wood. I breathed in deep. Every cell in my body was at peace.
I decided to walk back along the train tracks as the sun began to illuminate the world around me. Then it rose above the mountain, and chased away the fog.
The spell was broken.
We packed up the tent, even though it was still moist from the dew. We hoisted our packs and walked into town.
-Note: As we come to abhor the gear we had with us I want you to know that we never for a moment misplaced our gratitude to those who borrowed it to us.
Hot Springs, NC is a small, gorgeous, bucolic mountain town. The Appalachian Trail runs right down main street. The bright green mountains snug up tight to the edges of town, creating a feeling of safety and intimacy. Awnings lean out over the sidewalk. Some of the colorful store fronts are flat against the sidewalk, some have old wooden porches, giving it all a sort of Old West feel. A few fall leaves were scattered here and there. Dried brown pine needles blanketed the concrete.
We walked into the outfitter in the middle of town to gather up some much needed, and remarkably over priced, last minute supplies. There was a band hanging over the arch in the store for weighing packs. Curious, I wrestled my pack up there. It weighed forty-two pounds. I groaned. That was way too much weight. We had discussed this at length on the way down. We knew the gear we borrowed wasn’t meant for this type of extreme backpacking. But when we stopped at an REI and saw the prices of new gear we had decided the extra weight wasn’t so bad after all. I would come to greatly regret this.
I put my hand on the handle of his massive hunter green pack and yanked on it to try and weigh it. I couldn’t lift it. Just then the curly haired man that worked at the shop came over. Adam lifted his pack.
“Holy hell Honey,” I said when I read the dial. “That’s too much weight!”
“Dude, seriously,” the curly-haired man said. “That’s way too much weight.”
The dial read fifty-eight.
“It’s fine,” Adam said, taking it down before anyone else saw.
“Babe.” I pulled him aside and spoke quietly. “I can’t take any more weight. I have never backpacked with anything more than thirty-five pounds and I was ten years younger!” I spoke rapidly, already feeling huge waves of fear and guilt.
“It’s fine,” he said again. Though I knew it was not.
The man at the store implored us over and over to get rid of some weight. We just aren’t the type of people to throw money at a situation and we needed all the gear we had, heavy as it was. As it were we only had essentials and food. We didn’t even have water yet.
Later, I would overhear Adam say to another hiker, “It wasn’t that heavy until I knew how much it weighed.”
We walked down the trail to the Smoky Mountain Diner where all the hikers eat. Packs lined the rail out front. Some were sleek and ergonomic, some were homemade and ratty. None were even close to the size of ours. We tossed ours in with the bunch and went in. It’s the kind of southern joint where the curtains are floral, the staff thank you for coming with a great big accent and a squeeze on the arm and everybody, patron and employee tells you to have a good hike.
While we were waiting for our food, an older couple came up to our table.
“Are you guys hiking?” The wife asked. She had a perfectly sculpted bob, her makeup was flawlessly executed and her clothes were exquisite. I would not have pegged her for a hiker.
They gave each other a nostalgic and romantic glance. “We did the whole trail back in ninety-four.”
They talked about the bears and the weather they had had through the Smoky Mountains and even when our food came they stayed and talked some more. They said they had moved to Hot Springs after they had done the trail because the area we were in was the very best part of it.
Very soon after, they bid us good luck and left, and a man with a shock of crazy white hair sat down next to Adam, shoving him over as he did so.
“Well hello.” I said.
“You guys doing the trail?” he asked as he played with my napkin.
He had also moved to Hot Springs to be closer to the most beautiful, in his humble opinion, part of the trail.
When he left he said, “You’re going to love it.” He touched my arm across the table. He waited until our eyes met and he was satisfied that I was giving him the full breadth of my attention. “You’re going to love it,” he said.
Literally five steps into the Appalachian Trail we got lost.
We agonized under the weight of our packs as we ascended the mountain, not yet knowing about the aforementioned lost-ness.
“Is the trail very well defined?” I had asked the curly haired man at the shop as he sold us our map.
“Very,” he had replied. His love for the trail visibly radiating off of him.
Tromping up that first hill, every inch of my unused, movie-loving body became drenched. Within thirty minutes my legs were screaming. I was already angry. His neck was slick as he turned back to smile at me reassuringly. I smiled back. I couldn’t walk up that first hill and speak at the same time.
An indefatigable chant began in my head; Fuck [step] This [step] Fuck [step] This [step] Fuck [step] This [step].
For an hour we walked up, and up, and up. At first the trail was very well abraded. And then gradually less and less so, until at some point we were just walking through the thick brush of a mostly untouched deciduous forest.
“This can’t be right,” I huffed as I flung my pack into the brush. I immediately tripped in a hole and tried to grab whatever I could for support. He happened to be standing very close at the time. I punched him in the wiener.
After he could stand upright again, I heroically offered to stay with the packs while he went to find where we had lost the trail.
“Marco,” he called as he walked back down the mountain the way we had come.
“Polo,” I answered until I could no longer hear him.
I sat down in the leaves and put my arms on my legs. My heart beat began to slow. A tiny, bright green leaf hopper landed on my left breast. I put my finger next to him and he held his arms out to it. He sat on my fingernail and cleaned his face with his legs.
“I’m lost bug.” I told him.
Wisely not wanting my bad fortune to rub off on him, he flew away.
I looked around. Everything was alive. Bright green in the canopy, crunchy brown below. There were a few yellow and orange leaves mixed throughout. Through the canopy I could see one spectacularly red tree, in all its fall glory.
“It’s nice here too,” I said aloud to myself and breathed the earthy air deep into my lungs. I could hear the highway in the distance.
I had half an hour there with my thoughts and our gear. Half an hour to think about all the things I wouldn’t have brought had I realized how heavy we were. Half an hour to wonder if this was a huge mistake. Half an hour to wish I didn’t always so readily agree to everything.
I heard him crunching through the woods.
“I have good news and bad news,” he said around heavy breaths. “The good news is, I found the trail. The bad news is we have to go all the way back.”
“We’ll call this our practice hike,” he said as we humped our packs onto our backs.
Downhill was easier and I was determined to get rid of this mistake as quickly as possible so I took the lead. This would become our norm. He would lead uphill and would tag me in on the downhills.
“You’re so good at walking downhill,” he said. Making me laugh.
Our first clue that we were lost, I suppose, should have been the signs saying; Leaving Safety Zone.
How we went right, when the trail went left, is beyond me. The ground was covered with leaves, sure, which obscured the trail, but we actually had to step over a small rock wall to go the wrong way.
When we got back to the hostel at the bottom of the hill I threw my pack onto a picnic table and tore it apart. I took the deodorant out of its holder and put it in a zip-lock. I made him cut my toothbrush in half. I ditched my water bottle, and tossed the coconut oil. Screw sex. All of these things were mistakes.
I threw away everything that I possibly could and more. I begged him to go through his pack but he kept assuring me he would be fine. After all my ejecting I saved myself about a pound. I was already extremely frustrated.
We hoisted our packs and walked to the trail-head. Again. I took a deep breath. I was doing this because I loved him. And I was damn well going to do my best to do it cheerfully.
And so we walked.
Up into the sky.
After only a mile up the trail everything hurt. My right heel, the little toe of my left foot, my hips where the pack rode me, my lower back, and right between my shoulder blades where the packs weight pulled on me.
Somehow we were in good spirits after we began again. Even though we were in a surprising amount of pain. I appreciated, tangibly, the reassuring sight of the white blazes, the vertical rectangles that mark the trail every hundred feet or so. No matter what else happened we knew that we were on the correct path that would bring us through this ordeal, come what may. We would never have known how powerful those blazes were had we not gotten lost.
I had to stop often to rest but we teased each other, we threw things at each other, we made each other smell things. We laughed and talked and whined and were happy.
We had debated hotly about water back at the hostel. He wanted to carry a lot, on top of the fifty-eight pounds he already carried. I wouldn’t let him. The couple in the diner had told us not to carry water. That we would find it everywhere.
He stepped over a wet line that crossed the trail. I looked on the map. It was marked as a water source.
“We’re saved!” he said throwing his hands toward the moist dirt.
We switch-backed painfully for hours.
“Good thing I did thirty squats this month,” he said.
“I did fifty-five a month ago,” I replied. “I’m pretty sure my legs still hurt from that.”
I started periodically checking my shoulders where the straps rode. It felt like the pack was tearing my skin off.
My heart was pumping hard in my chest. Our breathing was exaggerated and we had to pause during long sentences.
I carried the water can (once I ditched mine he had seen an opportunity). It was strapped to my pack. As it became lighter it began banging into my elbow every step. But by that time I didn’t even have the energy to change that small annoyance.
We stopped talking much. Our bodies capable only of putting one foot in front of the other.
I stopped walking. “You can go ahead,” I told him.
“Did you say ‘go on without me?’” he asked.
I laughed weakly. “Yes.”
Just then an angry squirrel threw an acorn at Adam.
We walked on. We watched as a family of deer ran through the woods parallel to us.
He stopped to adjust his pack. I, figuring I should keep going when I had the ability to do so, trudged past him, my extra long torso falling forward with fatigue. My arms hung limp down in front of my body. I couldn’t even pretend it wasn’t killing me anymore.
My heart beat. My skin was slick and hot. My breath hurt. My body hurt.
He began showing signs of weakness. He stopped more, sat more often, adjusted his pack a lot and talked very little.
Mercifully, we saw no people.
My world became smaller and smaller. I knew only the two feet of trail in front of my body and my own two feet. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.
Then came the bugs, they flew around our salty heads incessantly.
We stopped to rest and put some calories in our exhausted bodies.
“Why’s this giant bee just hanging upside down on this leaf?” I asked him unnecessarily as I munched on beef jerky. I bent upside down to see the bee better.
“It’s not like he knows about New York City or Atlanta,” Adam replied.
Suddenly there were dogs tumbling over each other down the trail at us. One, a gorgeous long haired Golden mix and the other, a funny black lab with his tongue hanging far behind his body. They wore brightly colored packs bursting with their own supplies. They jumped all over us as we stood to greet them. Even exhausted, I happily met their excitement with my own. Their owners came around the bend and yelled at them. They got down, but wagged happily at us until their owners were past and they had to follow.
As we got closer to the shelter, we began encountering more people. One unlucky man in tight blue shorts, came around a bend and caught me before I had a chance to rearrange my puffy, red, sweaty face into a smiling, puffy, red, sweaty face.
“Oh, no,” he said softly to his companions so I ‘couldn’t hear’. And then to me as he passed he whispered, “you’re almost there.”
One of the most painful things about being around others on the trail was seeing just how wrong our gear was. People thru-hiking the whole 2,250 miles had half the weight we did. I didn’t know they had been working on hiking gear like it was the cure for cancer over the last ten years. Their tiny ergonomic packs, rolls, sleeping bags and stoves felt like a punch to the gut on the harder days.
One particularly light man jogged by with a full, but very lightweight pack strapped to him. Adam stopped walking and watched him disappear quickly around the bend. His eyes were glassy. His shoulders sagged. “We’re having more of a lug than a hike aren’t we…” he said.
I put my hand on his arm and squeezed. Poking my stick into the dirt, I willed my body forward.
The closer we got to camp, the more my feet hurt. I knew if I stopped I’d never get going again.
When we limped into camp Dawn was there, the lovely man who drove us the rest of the way to the trail head after Chris Curtis almost ended our lives. He was with an attractive young Asian man with a charmingly weak left eye, a very white man with jet black hair, a red beard, and killer long eyelashes, and an older bald gentleman with an impressively muscular body.
Dawn greeted us warmly and asked us about our hike as we tried not to fall onto the benches of the picnic table and weep. We said nice untruthful things as I took my shoes off and rubbed at the pain in my feet.
They asked us what we we were doing there.
“Actually, this impressive man,” I sat, patting Adam’s shoulder proudly and tiredly, “just became one of the youngest 747 captains in the world.” They made satisfying ‘oh’ sounds with their mouths and eyed him more closely.
Pleased, but embarrassed, Adam got out the giant stove we had with us, Wee, the Asian, laughed and said, “a jet engine for a jet pilot.” He then taught us how to use it. As I watched him lean over Adam to help, I noticed his calves were rock hard and well defined. I pulled up my pant leg and poked my calf. It jiggled defiantly back at me. I put my forehead on the table.
Having people at camp was tough. I had to make small talk and laugh at their bad jokes when all I wanted to do was wallow in my pain while I force fed my hungry ass re-hydrated lasagna out of a bag and then crawl into my sleeping bag to die.
It got dark around seven thirty. Surprisingly everyone went into their tents shortly after to cough, snore and fart their way through the night. Adam kept his head leaning on my shoulder long after he fell asleep that night. I put my arm over his stomach. Without waking up, he moved it to his chest. He too smelled like wet leaves.
As exhausted as I was, I couldn’t fall asleep. Because the trail doesn’t just take your energy, it takes your emotional health as well sometimes. If you are lucky, and persistent, it gives it back to you in droves. But that would have to be another day.
I listened to the human sounds around me for hours as I tried to at least rest my soul. Finally, blissfully, I fell asleep.