Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Frozen Floridians and Accidental Magic: Paul Plans, God Laughs

Not every single mile of the Appalachian Trail is something wonderful that you want to remember. In fact, there are some spots that we would prefer to not think about when looking back....this is one of those places we will never forget.

We were enjoying our lunch on a long log at a gap between two mountains in the nice warm mid-day sun. It was hard to believe the heat we were experiencing after the cold of the previous night. I was fixing my next to last Mountain House meal and Paul was enjoying a well-deserved cigarette, while Chase was taking advantage of an opportunity to take a quick nap. It was one of those UN-scenic spots, featuring a giant run of power-lines, and a gravel service road running through the gap. It was a reminder that even though we were in the middle of nowhere, civilization wasn't too far away. It was still mighty peaceful, the only sound besides the buzzing of the power-lines was the sound of Paul warming up to another story.
I heard a gravelly noise nearby and looked up from my stew to see Paul's face contorting and his eyes going wide. It was an expression that I hope I never see again...

It had started off as a beautiful morning. We were somewhere in North Carolina, the day after the coldest night ever, and I was still alive and I had gotten a bit of shut-eye. My new sleeping bag had become my most favorite thing in the world, right next to a cup of good coffee. Speaking of which, I had convinced myself while at home packing for the trip, that I didn't really need good coffee while backpacking and took a baggie full of some Spanish brand of Instant coffee that tasted almost as good as dirt. This wasn't strong South American coffee that was an acquired taste, this was just plain bad coffee. I had plenty left over at the end of the trip. I would have left it on the trail as Magic for another hiker, but that would just have been mean.

A few of our new friends from the night before had hiked off early to their cars and the ride home, doing a fast 13 mile march, knowing that good hot food and nice warm beds were waiting for them. Paul had decided that we needed one more night in the woods, so we were going to hike to a shelter that was only a little more than a mile from our truck.  Chase had mentioned several times that if we just hiked that little bit more, we'd have a steak dinner and be back home in our beds by 3 am in the morning. Paul would have none of that, so we hiked slow, taking our time and enjoying the weather that was nothing like Florida, or possibly like Florida on it's best day. We had plenty of food, plenty of time and the only worry on our minds was making sure that we didn't get to the camping shelter too early. 

It was lunchtime and we were taking it easy before the next ascent when Paul got that horrific look on his face and everything we thought we knew about the upcoming last day of our trip changed for good. Paul's cigarette fell from his mouth, I spilled stew on myself and Chase jolted awake at the sight before us. On the road below, were 3 vans with the name of a local church on them and out of the vans were spilling a horde of preteen boys with backpacks. It wasn't difficult to tell that many of them looked ill prepared for the trail, with giant packs and heavy sweatshirts. There were a few counselors scattered among the children and I watched with interest while the group assembled, not thinking of how this might affect our own plans. Paul, however, instantly knew that this was a less than desirable turn, and quickly ran down to the person that appeared to be the leader and conversed with him at length. He came back with his head hanging and announced to Chase and I that the group was heading to the same shelter. "There is only one thing we can do, " he said, "beat them to the shelter and claim it for our own.."
What Paul had not counted on, was the church group had a secret weapon: two older teenage boys that could hike faster than Chase could run, and soon our leisurely last day of heaven turned into some kind of trail race. I was left behind, limping with my bum knee, feeling bad, but not as bad as the counselors I passed by, with kids sitting and crying on the trail. I saw an iPad laying on the trail, and several men carrying their pack and someone else's at the same time. Who knew that a kid could grow up in the mountains without knowing anything about hiking? 
The day turned into a long pattern of leapfrog. We would pass the two scouts for the church group and then get passed by them. Instead of fun, it became a competition. 
I saw the look in Paul's eyes and knew that it was no longer about the serene peace of a night under the stars, it was about winning. Finally, it was late enough in the day that Paul announced that he and Chase were going to take off and capture the shelter for us and save me a place. I agreed that sounded like a good idea and decided to take advantage of my time alone on the trail, pretending that I was an adventurous solo hiker, doing the AT on my own. It was a great feeling, listening to the woods and my thoughts, occasionally interrupted by my encounters with whimpering young boys sitting on the trailside with their large packs. I was very glad that I had someone show me how to prepare for these trips and how to bring as little as possible. I walked alone until it was almost dark, thinking I would finally arrive at the campsite of my dreams with another large fire going to help keep me warm while I prepared my last cup of hot chocolate before climbing into my beloved new sleeping bag one last time. Instead, I ran into Paul and Chase on the trail, coming back towards me, Paul with a look that was even worse than the one that I had seen before. One thing we had not taken into account was that the last shelter being only a mile from a parking lot meant easy access for locals. This translated into Paul finding a shelter full of rednecks with booze, a bonfire and a lot of whooping it up, and no room for a bunch of weeny backpackers.
So it was, that our last night of happiness under the stars, or even a sizzling steak dinner, morphed into a drive-through at Burger King and a hard bed at some Pakastani roadside hotel with Cheerios for breakfast...after you paid through the bulletproof window of course.

Author's note: My mother's last request of me was to keep writing. This one is for her.