I woke up in the middle of the night with a bladder like an overfilled water balloon. I deliriously wrote in my notebook, ‘if walking is my Benadryl, then peeing is my cocaine.’ I had to pee so badly that it hurt. And though I knew I would not sleep again until I did, it was thirty-five degrees out… and dark.
Dogs, coyotes, or wolves howled in the distance. More times than I’ll admit, I held my breath to listen to some imperceptible noise in the woods with my eyes opened as wide as they could go.
An owl hooted very close to the tent, making me jump. Critters scurried along the ground. I laid there. Full of water. I couldn’t stand it. But I held it. I didn’t want to wake him. I didn’t want to go out there.
Finally, the pain of staying where I was, outweighed the pain of going where I didn’t want.
“Honey,” I whispered.
His head shot up like I had kicked him in the ribs. “YEAH??”
“Can I have the flashlight? I have to pee.” No friggin’ way I was going out without it.
He rustled around in his bag and handed it to me. It was like ice in my hand. I clicked it on. The tent filled with light, making my heart jump. I covered it with my hand. It illuminated the skin between my fingers.
Holding the tiny flashlight in both hands, I poked only it out of the tent in front of me and swung it around wildly, looking for eyes in the night. I rolled, commando style, out of the tent and came up in a crouch with my arms out to each side. I waited for something to rush me. When nothing did, I sauntered five feet away to pee. When I was done, I went to dive for the tent. Something caught my eye. I looked up and immediately stopped hopping from one cold, painful foot to the other. Both lay flat on the frozen ground. But I could no longer feel them.
The whole sky was lit up with stars. The massive evergreens above me were pure black silhouettes against a navy-blue canvas sprinkled generously with giant balls of molten fire, thousands of light years away. There are about six-thousand stars that we can see with the naked eye. That night, with no moon in sight, I was face to face with all of them. The Milky Way arced above me like a bridge to the rest of the universe. Without realizing it, I had clicked off the flashlight. I stood there. Letting it all wash over me and making me feel beautifully small. I stood there so long my neck began to hurt. I forgot to be afraid. I watched my breath obscure this part of the sky, then that part. I watched until the scene changed. It was just me on the edge of the world. And six-thousand suns bigger than our planet.
It was nice there too.
The next morning Adam kept making bored sounds with his mouth hole. He was making me a conciliatory sorry-I-woke-you-up-but-lets-go! cup of tea. I was pretending to sleep. I hadn’t actually slept in any real way since we rented the god damn van that brought us to Tennessee five days earlier.
As I laid there, I realized things were seriously starting to smell. I mean they had been for a couple days but it was reaching some sort of boiling point. We had been wearing, and working out hard in, the same clothes for five days. That it was starting to get uncomfortable, was an understatement. My skin felt slimy and dirty. My hair was a disaster that I was just letting dread around my hair binder.
He had left his tent door open. I assumed in the hopes that the animals would come in and drag me out. I watched a bird land in the bush that I was basically also in. I watched him preen his feathers. He wasn’t a very colorful bird, but he was beautiful none-the-less; soft gray and soft as a cotton ball.
I told Adam to take off the rain-fly. At that point, even I was trying to coax myself out of the tent. But once it was gone I had an unobstructed view of the canopy. I laid there and stared lovingly at it. It was sunny up there and the birds were chirping. The air was crisp and everything was damp with dew. I was tired. But peaceful.
He tripped, poured half the tea on the ground, and handed me the quarter cup that survived.
I tried sitting up.
Everything still hurt.
When signing in at Standing Bear Hostel at the edge of Smoky Mountain National Park, there is a line for your real name and a line for your trail name. I faithfully wrote Jocelyn Fastner, Sad Chicken.
As we approached the bridge at the entrance of the compound, a man walked towards us. He had a slight limp, long, frizzy dark hair and a short, thick beard. Levi’s covered his skinny bottom and he wore a dirty green bandanna around his neck.
“Yea, ok,” he said to the ground at our feet. “This here’s Standing Bear.”
He had a firm and respectable hand shake, and not a hint of a smile. He would not look into our faces until later when I would tell him my name was Josie, which is what he named his guitar. And even then, for only a brief, curious glance.
He drawled in monotones as he gave us a tour of the buildings. Later we would find out he played a mean harmonica, at the same time as playing a mean guitar.
John Reed never smiled at me the entire time I knew him. But somehow, I never once got the impression he didn’t like or respect me. I never met a real cowboy before.
As we walked by the laundry, a huge fawn-colored mastiff with a black face wobbled over to me. It seemed as if her back end was not talking to her front end. She kind of serpentined inside her skin. Huge trails of slobber hung from the pink parts of her extremely droopy mouth. Her eye sockets hung so far down her face I wondered if she could see. She was old. Really frickin’ old. And I sort of got the feeling she’d outlive us all.
John Reed drawled on about how this all used to be a tobacco farm as I scratched the dog’s back. She contorted herself into such a position that I genuinely worried if she was going to crack a leg bone. She could barely stay upright. Her back legs spread way out and her front end was curled around like she was trying to break herself in half. She looked absurd. Her jowls hung down past her knees. She folded them on my pant leg as I scratched under her collar.
He showed us the bunk house. The structure was old and the room was extremely dark, even though the sun was out. The bunks were raw hewn logs and the comforters on the beds were old, colorful, well loved, handmade quilts. There were two huge metal drums, one atop the other, that acted in some way as a heater. It was warm inside. The floor was raw wood, the ceiling was raw wood and everything in between was raw wood.
On the way down the hill to Standing Bear Lodge, Adam had looked at me and said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Even though he was padding his shoulders with thick wool socks and his hip with his winter hat, he was in an extreme amount of pain.
I hadn’t known what to do. Do I prop him up and coax him along? This was something he’d wanted to do for a long time. Or, do I protect him from more pain and call this thing before we even got to the Smoky Mountains?
“Let’s stay here for the night and see how we feel in the morning.” I had replied.
We would stay in the other cabin because there was a double bed and no one else in there.
As I was walking our things to the laundry, I passed John Reed sitting in an old wooden rocking chair, on the old wooden porch of the old wooden bunk house. The whole place made me feel like I was in a Western, circa 1900. He was fixing a fake leg that started at the knee. Without looking at me, he nodded.
I did laundry on an old glass washboard. I poured soap on our clothes and ran them up and down the ridges in the washboard until my arms, the last part of me that didn’t hurt, ached. When I was done, everything went into a state-of-the-art dryer. There was a trail notebook in the cabin. I picked it up while I waited for our clothes.
I opened to a page at random.
Heavon 77 wrote: When a fourteen-year-old is liable for taking another fourteen-year-old’s life, it stings. Wish I hadn’t been the one driving. Forty years this has haunted me, so… No more. Walking away the pain to Maine.
As this was the end of the Smokys for anyone starting in the South, every other log entry was some form of “Fuck the Smoky Mountains.”
So, that was encouraging.
Standing Rock is the kind of place that brings back the magic and romance of a lifetime ago. Small cabins and a shared building configure themselves around a gravel road and fire pit. Everything is made out of dark wood and tucked into the landscape. There is even a tree house you can stay in for the night. There is a truly remarkable bridge over the small stream that runs through the compound. Its design is all wrong for the place, which adds to its charm. It’s more Under-The-Sea than Old-Western. It leads to the toilet, which is an outhouse except that instead of it going into the ground, it is built on stilts. The bottom of the outhouse, where the feces end up, is surrounded by chicken wire. And nothing else.
There are paperbacks covering every wall of the place. Hikers who have hiked past their boots leave them along the buildings to be filled in with dirt and flowers. An old wishing well sits in the courtyard. There is a tiny white sticker on the door into the kitchen house that says, “all will be OK.” There are cards, guitars and checkers if you get bored. Dogs run everywhere.
A tiny Jack Russel named Rusty ran around and around us. His back end moved so fast when he was happy that you couldn’t see that he had one. He was mostly blind, but that didn’t curb his enthusiasm in the slightest. His owner had left him at the compound while he hiked around for a week or so. The cowboys assured me it was to both the owner and dogs chagrin. Little Rusty just didn’t have the trail in him anymore. They didn’t know his owner. But it didn’t matter. They would take care of him. They were cowboys. Taking care of things is what they did.
There were also two bull terriers. I saw one climb a house to get a three-inch piece of old wood flooring.
Nights there are spent, not on a screen, but at a fire. Rife with stories of bears and blizzards and trail magic, and there was a weird kid with a samurai sword everyone kind of tried to avoid making eye contact with. Just your average everyday woods ninja.
One of the cowboys told us about growing up with bears. We told him about growing older with sharks. The two apex predators are surprisingly similar. They don’t want anything to do with humans. If you respect them, and are aware of yourself in their territory, you’ll be fine in both the water and the woods. But if you push that boundary, they will have to choose between fighting or fleeing. And not all bears, or sharks, would choose fleeing. Of course there is the odd unprovoked attack or taste. But these things are so rare and not a good reason for staying out of the water or woods.
They had pizza and cold beer. After five days in the woods with so much pain and re-hydrated lasagna from a bag, pizza and beer were better than they had ever been before. As had been the shower (concrete walls with beer bottles in them to let light in) which had two temperatures, scalding and freezing. There I sat, warming my face with a fire I didn’t build, swapping trail stories with two cute farm boys from Iowa, slightly damp and smelling like a flower.
We went back to our cabin early. After the relief of the shower, food and good company we were determined to take on the Smoky Mountains after all, and it would be a very hard day the next day getting back up into the mountains. Mountains far higher than the ones we had just exited.
We tucked deep into our huge log bed with two homemade quilts on top of us. The air inside the cabin was cold. We didn’t bother with the heater. It was colder on the trail. The blankets were heavy and warm. A cream-colored cat with blue eyes cleaned itself above the blankets, between my legs. When it was done it walked in two circles and laid on my stomach to purr us all to sleep.