“YOU CALL YOUR WIFE??”
My eyes sprung open. No! Not again! FUCK YOU!!!
“I THINK I FORGOT TO TELL MINE I WAS COMING HERE!!” another man yelled back, sounding as surprised as the next guy about the whole business. One was on one side of us and one on the other.
The rain pelted our tent methodically. It had been a hell of a night. Storm after storm had rolled over us, keeping us both awake. And wet. The one piece of new equipment we had actually bought for the trip was that tent, because I had forgotten the tent poles back in Minnesota. And it failed us hard. All night long; drip, drip, drip, drip. On my feet, on my hip, on my head.
At some point the temperature dropped to just above freezing.
Neither of us had slept much.
Adam opened his eyes, which was all I could see of him with his winter hat pulled low over his eyebrows and his sleeping bag held tight to his cheeks. He rolled them at the men yelling over our tent before the sun was even up.
We laid in the tent until all the people left. We hoped the rain would let up. It didn’t. So we got up anyway. We shook everything out best we could, stuffed it into our packs wet and walked away.
“I’m impressed with how you have been picking it up,” he had said, as we walked up the mountain the night before.
“I’ve been picking it up?” I puffed.
“Compared to this morning, when you would walk for ten feet and stop for ten minutes…yeah.”
This is a gross dramatization of the actuality of the situation. It was probably shorter distance, and longer time.
That second wind didn’t lasted as long as either of us would have hoped.
It got so bad at one point that he had started surreptitiously taking things off my pack, to carry himself, so I would be lighter. But like so many things, this seems to be a placebo. If one is not told they are a pound or two lighter, are they really lighter at all?
We had laid in the tent utterly exhausted that night, but still somehow unable to shut the hell off. In the dark, we stared at the ceiling. After a long while I heard him say, “Josie… [long pause] when you were dragging your stick behind you at the end today, it was the saddest thing I have ever seen.” This is man who never uses hyperbole. Ever. In fact, I never let him tell stories because he usually downplays the best dramatic or comedic parts. A huge nervous laugh bubbled out of me and filled the air. He said, “seriously, I have never seen any person sadder than you were at that moment.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m totally sorry. When I get like that, you just need to leave me alone to get through it.” He had tried to comfort me at times, and while I hadn’t flat out been mean to him, I had often not responded. Literally unable to even do even that during the worst times. Which had been most of the day.
During the last few hours of the mountain, the pitch had steepened until I was walking with my head way down staring at my feet. Willing them to go forward. I was hunched far over to compensate for the weight on my back. If it had been possible to get more into the fetal position while still standing upright, I would have. I would use both hands on the stick he had given me and press it between my legs and push myself forward as I took tiny steps on feet that hurt more than I could have imagined possible. I paddled myself up the hill that way until I could no longer use my arms. At which point I had dragged the stick he had given me, Linus style, behind me. I never looked up. That cost energy I didn’t have.
I knew I looked pathetic. Worse than that, I knew I was ruining his trip. But I simply had nothing left to give. If we were going to make it to the Patch by nightfall, which we were required to do by law of the parks department, I just needed to keep moving my deplorable, feeble body forward.
Up, and up, and up, and up we went.
And then I could go no further. I felt like I was going to collapse. Or throw up, and then collapse. I unstrapped my pack and let it fall onto the trail. Even that effort was gargantuan. I followed it down. I closed my eyes. My legs felt bruised and beaten and pushed to the limit. A muscle in my thigh twitched anxiously. My breathing hurt. I let it slow. I kept my eyes closed.
I listened to the birds in the trees call back and forth to one another. An angry squirrel chattered nearby. The wind gusted through the trees, rattling the leaves. It sounded like a waterfall.
My body ached and throbbed and cramped. I focused on my breath. As always, this made everything better. If only a little.
He was too tired to come back to me so he waited patiently a hundred yards up the trail. He called encouragements that are only said when they aren’t true.
You’re doing great babe.
You’re so good at this.
I did not answer.
At this point in books about such things, the writer would say something to the effect of, ‘why was I doing this?’ and then have some existential epiphany. The sad shape of me at that moment was all the answer to that question you needed.
I needed to do this.
That next morning it was cold. So cold my breath came out in wet clouds in the rain. I went to exit the tent with a normal person step and fell flat on my face. I couldn’t believe it. It was like my ankle had been fused into a solid brick and that brick was made of the pain receptors in my brain. With help, I was able to stand, but swayed on my feet. How the hell was I going to go on?
My fingers were so cold I couldn’t open them all the way. I kept dropping things. My nose ran constantly. I looked at our one sad toilet paper roll and started blowing my nose on my scarf. Fuck it.
The trail was wet. Everything was covered in a haze. The foliage was dense around us and everything sounded muffled. We passed a couple with their hands in their pockets, their hoods up and their heads down. They grunted at us as they passed. We followed his giant sloppy backwards footprints, which slipped and slid all over the trail for miles.
I love the woods in the rain under the right circumstances. The pungent smells of plants, spores, oils, and ozone can sometimes put me into almost a meditative state. We could see only a few yards in front of us as if we were inside of a cloud. We were quickly soaked from both outside and in as we climbed and descended and sweat and exhausted ourselves. But the world was drinking and so alive and we were in high spirits. There is something to be said for having to do nothing but follow a path in the dirt until one comes to an end. This could be a good metaphor for life. There might be big rocks and hills and storms on the path to what you want. You simply need to keep walking it.
Our backs began to ache and we would have to readjust our packs every quarter mile or so. But when we stopped walking, not only would our joints stiffen back up but we would become very cold, very quickly. So we just didn’t stop anymore. Everything had to be done on the move.
My shoulders were rubbed raw from where my pack rode. However, my pain in this respect was nothing compared to his. Later, when he would take off his pack, his shoulders would have huge angry red welts and large fluid-filled blisters, where his pack pulled on him. His right hip would have a huge bruise, with nasty spidery black and blue and red lines coming away from it. The searing pain from this wound would almost take him down at least ten times in the next couple weeks. At some point, I would put his pack on my back, mostly empty, and the pain of the thing was unbelievable.
My husband is a god damned legend for carrying that thing, with more weight than anyone would take on their back, over the hardest hundred and ten miles of the Appalachian Trail.
As we walked, we heard muffled laughter through the trees and fog. It sounded far in the distance. It continued and grew louder. The laughter was so magnanimous and enthusiastic that it lead both of us into fits of our own laughter.
Finally a man came into view. He was wearing what looked like a bright blue snowsuit with white trim. It was cinched at the waist and puffed out from there. He had two blue poles. Behind him came a man in similar garb, only this man’s suit was white with blue trim. They were both fit, even though they were probably in their seventies. The first man had a lovely round face and big perfect white teeth. The second man had a small head, tiny, perfectly round glasses and crazy white hair coming out of a winter hat. The rain dripped off their hair and their noses. The first one said hello with a touch of his hat and the second bowed. The laughter never abated. Their faces were windburned and wrinkled and so full of joy that I wanted to squeeze them. Like when you see a puppy so cute that it hurts a little.
“You guys are the happiest people I have ever seen in the rain.” I said with a big smile.
“No reason to be otherwise darling,” the last man said as he winked at me, and they both giggled.
As we passed each other, my body was engulfed in the distinct and nostalgic vestiges of the marijuana plant.
That encounter left smiles on our faces for a long time. And has me smiling so much, my cheeks hurt just writing about it.
When we got to Roaring Fork Shelter there was an attractive couple sitting at the picnic table already, their hands cupped around mugs of coffee for warmth. They had kind eyes, down jackets and state of the art gear. It was less than half the size of ours. Their eyes grew wide (as everyone’s would) when they looked up and saw two huge packs coming at them with a couple people underneath.
We threw down our packs. I took off Chelsi’s gloves and blew on my bright pink hands. We swapped trail stories and warned of what was ahead, as we were going in opposite directions. They were finishing at Hot Springs with a soak in the actual hot springs themselves. When they said this ,there was a pause in the conversation and we all became a little colder.
We started talking about how hard this whole thing was.
“We were climbing all yesterday of course,” she told us. “He always wants to keep moving. I simply do not have the same stamina and I have to take a lot of breaks. I was sitting down at one point and he goes, ‘do you want me to take your pack?’ … I don’t know if I have ever been that mad in my life.”
We all laughed, but I understood. Completely.
We told them about the rapturous old men we had just passed.
“Oh we met them,” he said. “It was like eight minutes before they realized anyone else had even arrived at the shelter with them. Then they offered us some of the weed they had been sitting there smoking.”
I stared at their gear with more materialistic feelings than I can remember having in years. Their packs were tiny. If they faced you while wearing them, the straps would be the only indication they wore one.
As we all chatted easily, they packed up. They tossed their packs onto their backs as though they were putting on sweaters. There was none of the grunting, jumping, readjusting that took us at least a couple minutes every time we put ours on. Adam had begun to wear socks under his shoulder straps and his winter cap over his hip. He would have to do this for the rest of the trip. At one point we would run into a man who would look at the socks under Adam’s straps and pull out a matching one that he had lost days earlier.
We walked on.
To distract us from the cold, and the wet, and the work, we got into a deep and philosophical discussion about our relationship and relationships in general. For hours we talked about where we were in life, where we wanted to be, who we wanted to be and any areas we wanted to improve. We spoke gently, lovingly, and with total acceptance. What we were doing was hard enough.
The rain let up just as we reached Max Patch. The guidebook says the name was changed from Mack’s Patch. Which for some reason, completely annoys me. It is a bald, originally used for cattle and now sustained as a tourist attraction. A meadow, on top of a mountain, with 360 degree vistas of nothing but blue mountains as far as the eye can see.
The trees held much more fall color every day. A cute little bright green grass road serpentined through the reds, oranges, pinks, yellows and browns of the closest hill. There were clouds in the sky above us and they opened so that light shined squarely on that hill, sending the whole scene up in pseudo flames.
There were people everywhere, setting up their tents on top of the hill. Wind whipped their tents from their hands and their hair into their faces. There were clear instructions everywhere that no fires were allowed, and truly anyone who had ever spent time being alive, knows that you don’t build fires in the wind. At least three groups of teenagers hunched over makeshift fire-pits trying to shield the wind enough to light their sad piles of sticks. They took selfies and tried to toss footballs and laughed and yelled. We decided not to stay at Max Patch after all. For while I do not hate the foolishness and excitement of children, at that moment I was tired enough to strangle them all dead.
We walked down the hill a ways out of the wind. About one hundred yards down the trail someone had trampled down some grass. It was by no means perfect. It was slanted and rocky, but we were so tired and this way we could still catch the sunset from the Patch, an opportunity we were told over and over not to miss.
We had to pull out a hundred baby wait-a-bit bushes before we put down our tent. In fact, when we saw how many there were we almost gave up. But the idea of picking our packs back up after putting them down for the day, was unbearable. So we persevered. Our fingertips bled from the work but it didn’t take long. We got our tent up and our things inside and ran, light as feathers, up the hill back to the Patch.
I sat in the grass next to the trail with my camera and he walked around talking with me, picking the grass, staring at the mountains or the sunset. A young couple sat below us a couple hundred yards, wrapped in an Aztec blanket.
Being slightly down from the top we were more protected from the wind. A metal piece of the signpost next to me clanged mellifluously when the wind did reach down to us. The grass was long and blond like wheat. As the sun set, we were bathed in a light so golden that everything took on a romantic and ethereal quality. It seemed to last forever. I looked at my husband in the fading light and his eyes were so blue and far away it seemed a little piece of the ocean was on that mountaintop with me.
The young girl put her curly brown head on her mate’s strong shoulder. He put his arms around her.
And we all sat still.