Friday, June 22, 2012

into the woods

The morning that our hike began started in a blur and flurry. It seemed like we just closed our eyes and now we were up and at ‘em. We showered for the last time, thinking that our next bath may be in a stream or river. I slathered on my glycolic face moisturizer to compensate for not reaping its exfoliating and moisturizing benefits for a week. We flossed and brushed our teeth and we dressed in our hiking pants, shirts, moisture wicking socks, and boots.

We were excited, but the air was thick with a sense of "Oh my God, we're really doing this." We woke up a bit late and we felt a bit rushed. We were to be at the Sugarland Visitor's Center at 10:00 AM to meet Jeff. He would drive us to our southern starting point, the Fontana Dam. We were nervous … we were tired from getting in late the night before … and we hoped we could sleep in the car during the two-hour ride.

We ate a lackluster, but satisfying, breakfast at The Pancake Pantry. There were three other customers and four busy workers in the restaurant. The workers were stuffing menus, talking about upcoming graduations for their homeschooled kids, and complaining that Gus, the cement pourer, hadn't arrived yet and that damned demolished sidewalk was hurting their business.
We ordered coffee, orange juice, and pancakes with hash browns and bacon. I was undecided if I should order eggs with my breakfast, but the waitress -- a hybrid of Flo, Alice, and Vera -- said I should definitely get the eggs.

"Lease ya know th' aiggs er real ..." she said, her voice tapering off into a laugh.

As unsettling as it sounded, I got the eggs. We were almost too anxious to eat, but we managed. Besides, we had things to do. We had to repack our backpacks because we knew that we had too much stuff, mainly food, and we needed to reduce the weight. At the airport check in the day before, my pack weighed in at 35 pounds and Kirk's weighed in at 37 pounds. To make matters worse, or heavier in this case, Kirk still had items to move from his suitcase into his pack. We had to reprioritize what we needed, remove unnecessary items, and completely repack them to balance the weight and ensure that neither backpacks breeched 40 pounds.

This effort was frantic and stressful and done in the hotel's parking lot because we did not want to carry the packs back up the room. We felt the pressure of needing to meet Jeff. We pulled out large bags of freeze-dried food that we had planned to eat at lunch. We could not find the zip lock bags that would hold our bio-break wipes.

“Did we pack them? They were on the sofa when we were packing,” I said.
“I don’t remember seeing them,” Kirk responded.
“They were rolled up with two rubber bands,” I said, clearly irritated.

Kirk knew that this was going to be a problem. I was trying to keep emotions in check, but when I am tired, nervous, or feeling that I caused a mistake, I get defensive, otherwise known as bitchy. I have come to understand that it’s me projecting my insecurity on others.

“I’ll go buy more,” Kirk said and he went to a local grocery store, noticing my frustration and wanting to avoid any confrontation.

When Kirk returned we found the original baggies sitting on the ashphalt. The new ones went in his suitcase. The pressure was on, my patience was thinning, my anxiety was rising. Each minute that passed was a minute closer to us actually being on the trail. In the woods. We were both tired and starting to shut down. The job was rushed; but our packs were physically ready for the trek, even if we mentally weren't.

We drove to the Sugarland Visitor's Center to meet Jeff. We apologized for being late, and he did the same. He told us that traffic was bad due to road resurfacing. He hoped that our trip wouldn’t be more than two hours and that he would have us at the Dam by noon. Our lack of restful sleep was catching up to us. Kirk and I mentioned to each other how nice it would be to catch a few winks in the car during that long drive.

*      *     *     *     *
We opened our car's back hatch and grabbed our packs. I looked for my sunglasses in the front of the car, but I could not find them. We combed the car’s nooks and crevices, but they were nowhere to be found.
“Damn it! I think I left my sunglasses in the hotel,” I said. “I have no idea why they left the car in the first place.”

I glared at Kirk. I wanted to blame someone other than myself for my stupidity in leaving them behind. Everything -- and I mean everything -- was removed from the car the night before, even though some things I would have left for the night. I immediately felt bad about my reaction and apologized.
“I can wear my regular glasses. It’ll be fine. We’ll call the hotel when our hike is over.” I said, hoping that I could start relaxing. This was supposed to fun after all, wasn’t it?
If I didn’t wear my eyeglasses, I would not be able to see the distant views. Thankfully, the transitions lenses would provide some sun protection, but they were not as comfortable as my sunglasses.

We loaded our packs into Jeff’s truck and got into the backseat.
"I'm not a cab. One of you has to get in front, so ...." he drawled, the ‘so’ tapering off.

Kirk and I looked at each other. He was in the passenger side backseat, so he moved to the front. Jeff pulled away and immediately started talking. It was clear that we would not catch up on sleep. This could have been a frustrating "Oh-my-god-he's-going-to-talk-all-the-way-there" moment, but it turned out to be an invaluable, and very appreciated, experience. He provided us advice and education.
When he saw us packing the bear spray he told us to leave it behind.
"You don't need the extra weight and you don't need the spray. If you see a bear, bark like a dog. It's how they are hunted and they have learned to be afraid of dogs."

He further explained that bears are not hunted in the Smokies, but that they are hunted elsewhere. Since there are no boarders, like fences or walls, the bears migrate into the Smoky Mountain National Forest from other areas.

“Hang everything on the bear hangs,” he professed. “And I mean everything -- your pack, your food, your boots – everything. No matter what you see other people doing, do exactly what I say. Hang everything on the bear hangs.”

He explained other basics that we didn't know, like staying safe in a thunder storm, the importance of meeting people on the trail and what to expect from them, including being be aware of shady business. (There had been an increase of jobless and homeless living on the trail due to the economy.)

*      *     *     *     *

As we rode along, we passed through varying terrain. There were vast and gassy fields in the valleys of the mountains. In the distance, we could see elk. Jeff told us about the effort to repopulate the natural elk herds that used to exist in the area until they were hunted to eradication. Some of the new elk were relocated from Canada and others from Minnesota.

We passed through the Cherokee Reservation. Jeff talked at length about the casinos, whether or not they benefitted the tribe, how crime and drugs were rampant, and other perspectives on the Cherokee. All I could think about was how horrible it must have been to be herded into a confined area, left in poverty, and then practically forced to watch those who took the land parade in and out to enjoy the forest that meant so much to ones ancestors. The raping just continues.

A band of motorcyclists (mostly aging men with ponytails and wannabe trophy wives clutching their backs) roared by. I mentioned how annoying the sound was and how using proper mufflers should be enforced. Jeff had a very strong point of view on these “two wheeled turds,” as he called them. They were rude, they didn’t pay attention to the rules of the road, they were aging men who felt entitled to what they want when they want it because they could afford it. He caught them pissing on his lawn. He also mentioned how we’d know we were close to Clingmans Dome because we’d hear the rumble of their engines.

Most importantly, he reminded us that this hike should be fun.

The road climbed into the mountains and we talked about his wife Nancy and how they started their business. I looked out the window and watched the trees moving passed us. The trees continued up into the hills, the rhododendron bushes on the side of the road blossomed, and I couldn’t help but think that up there … in those trees … in those bushes … we’d be for the next week. My stomach flip-flopped with excitement and apprehension, a combination of being excited and scared.

We waited in the traffic convoy. Jeff got out of the car and smoked. Kirk and I locked eyes. We knew we were both thinking the same things, “How much longer? We’re so close, but so far away. We are tired. At least the weather is decent.” The convoy moved and we moved forward. Jeff kept us entertained while he educated us.

We arrived at TheHike Inn that he and his wife, Nancy, run. She was going to drive us to the dam. We filled our water bottles and had time with all of their pets. Jeff and Kirk filled out the permit, which is required in the Smoky Mountain National Forest, especially the Appalachian Trail.

"Keep this in a safe place and keep it dry, so…." Jeff directed. I placed it in a zip lock bag and put it in the little side pocket on my shorts.
"Where's the map?" I asked Kirk.
After a pause, he sheepishly replied, "I think I left it in my suitcase."

We both looked at each other blankly, our eyes twinkling with the humor and horror of it all. Thoughts flashed through our minds, like what we would do without it, how we would know where we were, how we would find water sources, and whether or not we could do this hike without a map.

It just keeps getting better. Fuck.

"I have one you can borrow," Jeff said. "Just mail it back to me when you’re done. That’s all I ask, so…. And be sure to send us a picture for our picture wall."

They had a mural of photos sent to them by hikers that they helped, or who had stayed in their inn. Most sent photos from Mount Katahdin in Maine after completing the entire AT. The expressions on their faces were weary and elated. You could sense their feeling of accomplishment. A gold medal Olympian was on their wall. A man in his eighties. Couples. Single men. Single women. Varying ages and races. Maybe we’d be the first gay couple to grace their wall, even if we were just section hikers.

Jeff opened the map, reviewed the trails we were taking and the shelters we'd be staying in. I put the map in my shorts pocket. We looked around at the arrowhead museum in what used to be the living room. Jeff collected them on hikes. There were thousands of them in different sizes and shapes. Kirk hoped to find one on our hike.

*     *     *     *     *

We put our packs in Nancy's car and off we went. She was very excited for us and was very pleasant to be with for the twenty-minute drive. My nerves were near boiling over and my stomach was growling. I had to pee. I was starting to get very nervous. She talked about how fun it would be, how nice to be in nature, and how much we were going to love this challenge. She was very calming, as if sensing that we were both on edge.
We got out of the car at the dam's welcome center. The air was cool and the sky was cloudy. Nancy pointed us towards the bathroom in the welcome center and reminded us to have fun. As she was getting into the car to pull away, I asked one last question.

"Which way do we go?"

She pointed and gestured over our backs.

"That way … over the dam. You'll see a sign for the Smoky Mountain National Forest. Just follow that. That's the trail."

She drove away. The sound of tires rolling over gravel faded into the distance and we found ourselves alone. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and laughed.
"Fuck! Here we are!" Kirk said.
“This is insane.” I said, “Oh my god. We’re totally here."

We took turns using the bathroom -- our last toilet and sink for a week. I was too nervous to pee, but stood in front of the urinal trying to focus on the fact that this was really happening. This was no time to be afraid. This was no time to second-guess myself. This was a time to push myself and to live my life, to be adventurous and not worry about failure.

I walked back to where Kirk was standing. We heaved our packs onto our backs and adjusted them by tighten the belts. We gave each other a hug and a kiss and started walking.

As we crossed the dam, we took a picture to capture the awesome view from the top. We looked at the hills to our right. They looked huge. We thought that we were hiking to one of the fire towers seen in the distance, which we assumed was near our first campsite. Those first minutes seemed like an eternity. Getting used to the weight of the packs was a strange difficulty.

It took twenty minutes to get to the trail head at the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Forest.

"Here we go ... into the woods!"

We started crunching our way into the woods. Trees lined the trailside, which was a wide dirt path with no noticeable incline. The sound of our footsteps, breath, and packs echoed in our ears. It was now perfectly clear what would fill each minute of our journey … walking. For the most part, we were silent; except for the occasional "Oh my God" or "This is crazy" we were pretty much in our own heads.

Those phrases, coupled with "This pack is so fucking heavy!" swam through my head. It was unsettling to realize that in moments after starting, we were already feeling out of breath. It was clear that this would to be harder than we thought. We were not prepared.

“I should have gone to the gym more!” I screamed out as if wanting to banish the thought from my mind.

We laughed about our New York City “practice hikes,” and how we thought they were a challenge. Not yet an hour into our first day, and we were both feeling the effects of the packs on our backs, the sweat on our foreheads, and the mental impact of what we were setting out to do.

Were we prepared -- in the slightest -- for this hike? Are we really going to be able to do this for seven days? Was my mom right; should we have started with a three-day hike? Should I have fucking read “A (fucking) Walk in the Woods”?

But, we walked on. The road narrowed and the incline gradually increased. The gravel path eventually turned into a dirt trail. The tree canopy enveloped us. Thunder rumbled in the distance. We walked on. We walked on.

We walked into the woods.

*     *     *     *     *

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