I felt him stir beside me. I couldn’t not. I was on the higher side of the tent and, though I had tried my damnedest not to, most of the night, I had rolled into him and we were both at the lowest two feet.
He leaned up on his elbows and looked down at me. I pushed on him to wiggle up hill a little in my sleeping bag which was impossibly slippery. I slid back down to thud against him. He dug around the top of the tent, found my hat and plunked it down on my head. His cheeks were flushed from the cold. His hair was pointing in every direction. But sexily. More Robert Pattinson than Don King.
He smiled at me.
It was just beginning to lighten. I slid as far down into my sleeping bag as I could.
“You’re missing sunrise,” I said, my voice muffled from the being inside the bag. I wanted him to bring to sunrise to me.
He wiggled around in his sleeping bag, trying to dress with as little air touching him as possible. The air was cold. Really cold. It puffed out of my sleeping bag in thick clouds as I watched him from the hole at the top.
With a little more grunting than I considered necessary, he shoved my severely sore body as far over as he could so he could unzip the tent. It was frozen shut. He punched the zipper a couple times to break the ice. The pale morning light flooded in as he left.
Hissing at the pain, I shimmied myself around 180 degrees so that I didn’t have to leave my sleeping bag, but could watch the sun as she rose. The mountains rapidly went from black, to navy, to a blue so blue that it looked like they were somehow the empty space.
A dog barked in the distance. Then the sky lit on fire with color. I was so enamored that I just watched. Forgetting every other thing in the world. Including, for the record, my camera… When the sun blinked over the top of the farthest mountain, its warmth started at the top of the tent and fell slowly in a perfect horizontal line. I watched it until it reached my forehead, my nose, my lips, my chest and the the rest of me. I closed my eyes and though the tip of my nose was still frozen I felt warm to the depths of my soul.
The white, lacy, crystal covering over every surface, of every plant as far as I could see, immediately began to melt. The plants began to sway in the light breeze. As the earth around me warmed up it dripped and smelled gorgeously like mud and morning and sunshine.
In such a profound moment of connection to the world I turned utterly romantic and vibrated with valuable, healthy, mindful, exquisite energy.
He was probably off somewhere doing math.
I stayed tucked in my sleeping bag and let her warm up the world for what seemed like a long time. I was surprised, especially with how cold it was (and had been when we crawled in our bags), to find myself naked inside of mine. All my clothes were so far down my bag and it was so tight around me that I had to grab them with my toes and shimmy them up my body. I put them on as they came up, one sock first, then all my shirts, then the other sock.
The tent began to drip.
It was time to get up.
The trail was the only thing still frosted when I exited the tent to cover my goosebumps with my pants. I wobbled and almost fell down from the unbearable soreness in my legs. Again, they would not work right. But (even if just barely) they held me up on their own this time. I quickly forgot about them when I looked up and was stunned to find a perfect cloud nestled thickly between two mountains. A lake; light, perfectly still, and white as snow.
I limped over to the food bag. After sunset it had gotten dark so quickly, and we were so tired, that we hadn’t had the energy to hang it the night before. So we had chucked it under the rain fly. This was a mistake and led to endless exhalations of “whats that?” with big round eyes the night before, until finally, blissfully, we fell too deep asleep to care if the bears ate us because we smelled like disgusting Slim Jim wrappers.
-I am never more awed by the depth and breadth of the human imagination than when we are in a tent, in the woods, at night.
As we packed away our little plastic house it got warmer and warmer. Our spirits were light. We joked, and laughed, and hugged, and kissed in the warmth of the sun. Layer after layer of clothing went into our packs along with sleeping bags, tent, stove, food, etc.
When I hoisted my pack that morning I realized the extent of the bruising on my lower back where the pack rode. That too would just have to work itself out on the go. It’s remarkable how adaptable human animals are when they want to be. Still, I was sure my pack was riding funny and that this bruising could be prevented but I was too tired every night and too protective of the last precious whit of energy I had left, to engage the human world around me enough to ask.
The second we got out of the bald, and back into the woods, we had to stop and get all our warm gear back on. Our fingers tightened up and lost feeling. Our noses went numb. But the sun shining laser straight through the trees to the forest floor was stunning. Made more so after a gray day of rain.
Suddenly he raised his hand in a fist, stopping me, military style. I froze, my heart beat rapidly. Something big crashed through the woods, over the hill to our right. We both turned to face it and scanned wildly. A murder of crows suddenly took flight. We both jumped. The sound got fainter. A minute after we resumed walking we came upon a sign; Game Lands and Bear Sanctuary.
The trail was more flat than normal that morning. We felt relaxed and comfortable. As we came to the top of a fairly massive downhill we set down our packs to drink some water. A beautiful young girl was just getting to the top on the other side. She stabbed her walking sticks into the ground and marched up the hill towards us. When she looked up and saw us she looked alarmed.
“Are you guys ok??”
I laughed into the water can. Her breathing was ragged. Her hair was plastered to her head. Sweat ran down her beat red face and I could smell her as she approached.
“We are,” I said. “Are you ok?”
She was followed by two older gentlemen. One had a long white mustache and beard, a generous belly and an old orange Harley Davidson bandanna on his head. The other had black feathered hair, like Erik Estrada.
The girl seemed anxious for some company other than the two men who followed her. She had met them a few shelters back and (reading between the lines) they had quickly decided they would all hike together. Hard thing to say no to when you are all heading the same way. I assumed she was working so much harder than she [clearly] could, to try and get some privacy, without having to tell them to back off. Sadly, even though they were so much older and heavier, in every way, they were a hell of a lot less winded than she. In fact remarkably so. Though the front man must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds he barely breathed heavily. Around her labored panting she told us about her trail app on her phone and she took it out to show us. As she put in her password to unlock the screen, I died a little inside. The last thing I wanted to do in the woods was look at someones fucking smartphone. We knew about the app of course but we didn’t come all the way out here because we wanted things to be easy.
I watched her closely as she talked. Then I watched the men interact with her. I assessed the situation with all the razor sharp emotional intelligence and maternal instincts I possess. They were annoying to her, for sure. Poor girl. But they were not threatening. There was nothing to be done. After about ten minutes of trail chatter, we went our separate ways. The Bear and Erik Estrada happily trotting after Dorothy on their way to Hot Springs.
What goes down must come up.
During a rather steep up hill I began to worry about the smoky mountains, which up until that point had seemed too far away to conjure up any active feelings about. We were still a day away from them. We had had to start thirty miles out of the Smokys in order to be thru-hikers, blahblah-burocratic-stuff-blahblah.
I readjusted my pack on my aching hips. People used to do this with wood frames and twine for straps, I told myself, sure this wasn’t true.
I stopped and stood on the trial to rest. He looked back to see if I was still there. He was chewing something. Probably wintergreen, which he kept making me smell every time he saw some. I bent way over and rested my chin on my hand, which rested atop the stick he had given me days before, that I wouldn’t part with. I smiled at him. He grinned as he chewed.
We stopped to rest on a huge moss covered log, three feet wide. He handed me a snickers. He had gotten a bag of the little kid sized Halloween ones for the trip and I had laughed at him for it. I didn’t deserve snickers. I had laughed at the snickers. So every time he gave me one it made me feel loved.
We were goofing around on the log when I felt myself going over it backwards. I was still wearing my pack and the weight pulled me right down once I was off balance. I grabbed at him but he was too far away. I landed ‘thunk,’ with my pack wedged between the log I had been sitting on and another behind it. My pants were caught on the front side of my log. I tried to roll left, couldn’t. I tried to roll right, nothing. I was stuck, Like a turtle. I couldn’t get my pack off because my pants were stuck on the other side of the log. The whole time I am sussing out this situation, he is laughing harder than I have heard him laugh in the last two years. I ask him to help me up. He doesn’t hear me. I ask him again. His whole body shakes with laughter. I will have to wait.
After that the trail was everything I knew it could be. First of all it was flat, with slight variations either way of not flat. I began to look up as I walked. From the night before, to the frost that morning, the colors had flared up like we were walking through a Leonid Afremov painting. The red and yellow and orange and pink and green and brown world we were surrounded by stunned me and left me breathless. Fall is my favorite season. And I hadn’t had one in three years. The colors galvanized me with liveliness. My body still hurt like the fricken dickens but I no longer cared.
It warmed up as we walked. We lost clothing, we began talking more and teasing each other more. The day before when I had asked him if he was having a good time he had replied, “I thought it would be more fun.” All of the sudden, it was more fun. My pack and my mood felt light as we walked in the woods. The woods, where there is so much good, healing, life-giving energy. The woods, where I have always felt I could breath.
We came into a clearing. The sun shone through the trees to light up only this twenty by twenty foot patch, for miles in either direction. We threw down our bags and I sat cross-legged, in the sun, to eat. He immediately laid down with his head on his bunk roll. He put his feet up on his pack and closed his eyes. The sun warmed our white skin. After a while I took off more clothing and waddled over on stiff legs to lay next to him.
“Did you figure out the food situation?” he asked, without opening his eyes.
“I ate a cliff bar. Does that count?”
He chuckled, “you can put your feet on my pack if you want.”
We stayed that way for a long time. The sun making us lethargic and intoxicated.
“Gosh my feet feel good right now,” he said, jolting me awake.
For the first time in days, I realized, my feet weren’t in excruciating pain. “I wouldn’t even know I had feet if I kept my eyes closed.” I replied.
I was pretty sure he was asleep by time the words were out of my mouth. I turned my head to the side. There were tiny pink flowers, on wheat like stalks, swaying in the light breeze that reached down here from the canopy. A monarch flew over us in a lazy arcing path. A bee landed on his hand and then Tracy’s winter hat, which was still atop my head.
Everything was exactly as it should be.
When I stood up after this longer-than-normal break, I fell over. I got back up and helped him stand. Every step I took, hot white pain exploded in my ankle and shot up my leg to my knee and then to my hip. We hobbled around the little clearing like two baby deer, falling over and getting back up. I don’t remember ever being that stiff or sore in my whole life. My muscles and my joints were destroyed. Thank goodness for the time I had spent taking care of my mental health that day or I would have quit right there.
It was just one more thing that would have to work itself out.
After that we had a tremendous hill. I noticed halfway up that either by muscle tone, placebo and sheer force of will I was moving farther, faster. It was still hard, I still had to rest of course and god damn if my body wasn’t screaming at me to knock this shit off and go watch some Downton Abbey in a snuggy, but I was suddenly hating it almost not at all.
“Man it feels like we just ended one scene and entered another,” He said.
The trail had woven through a gorgeous deciduous forest all morning and then meandered through short mossy grass as green as Northern Ireland and now we were walking through wildflowers with a measly six inches of dirt trail deeply cut into the ground. One foot must go directly and precisely in front of the other. I opened my hands and let my sensitive palms skim the tops of the flowers on each side of me. It was a perfect day on the mountain. Sunny, but with just the right amount of breeze ruffling the grass and our hair.
At one point I stopped to rest and he lost me around a corner. I heard him yell, “C’mon Sad Chicken.” I laughed, for though this would solidify it as my trail name for the rest of the trip, I wasn’t sad chickening, at all.
We stopped at an FAA tower (okay, a Very High Frequency Omni-directional Range according to him). Because he’s a nerd. We sat for a long time. Deciding to eat dinner there.
Again of course, Our feet became fused to our shins.
“My God,” He said, as he flailed his arms to try and stay upright. “It’s like you can never stop.”
“I am really surprised how much going down hurts,” I said. “I had forgotten that part.”
“Slightly up,” he agreed. “That’s my jam.”
We limped to our packs and wrestled them up onto our backs. My right knee was making me very nervous. Our backs felt like there were knives sticking into them. Deeper and deeper with every step. I would shift my pack up, onto one arm, just to get the weight off the same place it had been riding for the last thirty miles. When that was unbearable I switched it to the other arm.
But the worst thing, the everlasting worst thing, would always be, my feet. Everything I had felt the day before was magnified by twenty. I tried to block out the pain but every step hurt worst than the last. For the last four miles that day, pain shot up my legs into my hips every step I took. Somehow, this was true especially when going downhill, which is so not cool. Every few steps were punctuated by a hissing sound, released from my mouth, that I could not stop, no matter how hard I tried. First it had been my heels. So I made sure to land on the middle of my foot. I stepped as lightly as possible and still white hot molten pain shot through me. When I could no longer stand that pain I landed on the balls of my feet. Every step was a test of mental and physical agility. Someone had told us that snow was coming on Thursday. I have never known tangibly what the phrase, “push through the pain,” meant until someone told me that snow was coming to the mountains, in a week when I had a week and a half left to go in them.
So I hiked. As far and as fast as I could. Sometimes the pain was so bad my eyes would fill with tears. But I would not… did not… cry.
I pushed my beautiful human body past anything I had ever pushed it through thus far in my life. And though it did not hold gracefully, it held.
Somehow we passed our campsite that night. Of all the nights. It began to get dark. Turning back, or rather, walking even a step farther on this trail, with these packs, than was absolutely necessary, was unthinkable. So he left me to see if the campsite was just up ahead somewhere. I laid on the trail. I took off my right shoe. My foot was bone white. My toes were pruned as though I had been swimming. Everywhere I touched was sore in a way I had never known. I squeezed my heel in my hand and the relief when I let go was on the very same level as an orgasm.
I watched the shadow of the curvature of the earth ride slowly but steadily up the trees. I watched the woods get darker and darker. I started to imagine what it would be like to be alone in the woods. At night. I was raised in the city. I am growing old on a boat. Though I love them greatly, the woods are not in my wheelhouse. The hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up. I wiggled around uncomfortably. I squinted at the trail where he had gone. But I could not stand. Not until I had to.
Finally, he was there. Somehow, he was running. We would have to go back, he said. We would have put our tent anywhere at that point, parks service be damned, but there simply was nowhere we could. We were switch-backing a hill.
I stood up. I squeezed the tears back and humped my pack onto my back.
And I walked.
We had hiked, on feet that felt like bloody stumps, a mile in the wrong direction and would now have to walk another mile back.
I fell into the campsite. Certain I couldn’t have taken one more step, but fully aware of the monumental coincidence that would be. The campsite would have been beautiful if we could see past our pain. The foliage was dense which was why we had missed it. We put up the tent three feet from the stream. But I could see none of that. I was so tired that the line between being awake and being asleep had become indistinguishable.