At the fork in the trail, we decided to take the narrow path to the left adjacent to a creek, most likely a creek that fed overflow and runoff into Eagle Creek. We were now hiking at roughly an 85° incline. The path quickly disappeared and we were forced to hike in the creek bed. It was a narrow, no more than four feet wide. The banks were steep on either side and densely lined with thick brush and large trees. It was as if we were hiking in the letter “V”. In this case, “V” did not stand for Victory … it stood for Vicious. This trail was vicious.
We clambered over tree roots and large rocks. We sloshed through muddy and slippery rocks. We scooted under fallen trees, whose large trunks were covered with moss and vines. We pulled ourselves up steep grades with the thick braches of bushes and trees that seemed to close in on us.
We pushed on in pain. Nothing had prepared us for this. This was intense. This was hard. It was hard on our feet, calves, knees, thighs, butts, and hips. Our arms were working just as hard as our legs from pushing with our walking sticks, pull onto branches, or grabbing onto rocks. Our backpacks dug into our shoulders and hips and made balancing a new challenge with their constant jostling.
I thought back to the earlier part of today’s hike. It was hard, but this part was insane. This could not be a real trail. This could not be the right trail. We went the wrong way.
“I think we should have taken that trail to the right,” I said as sweat dripped down my face, gnats and flies buzzing about.
“This is crazy. This shouldn’t be a real trail,” Kirk said.
We stopped to rest and drink water. We stopped to absorb what was going on. The sun was sinking behind the mountain and the trail was getting dusky. There were no bird songs. There were no wild flowers. There was brush, trees, steep hills, rocks, water, and this creek bed. This was not serene.
“My shoulders and my knees are killing me,” Kirk said.
“I think we should turn back. I don’t think we are going to get there before dark and I don’t want to be here in the dark,” I said. “And,” I added again, “I think we are on the wrong trail."
“We’re heading up. This has to be right. Let’s just try to keep going. We’ll get there.”
Once again, Kirk was reassuring, but I noticed that he was fatigued and weary. This was taking a toll on both of us, but he was right. We were heading up and we just needed to keep going. He started up the creek bed again.
“Fuck you trail! Fuck you!” Kirk yelled into the woods.
We both laughed. It felt good to laugh. I waited a few minutes to and watched him climb up the slippery creek bed.
“God,” I asked, “please let us get to the shelter. I have no idea where we are and I think we took the wrong trail. Please give me the strength to keep up and keep going.”
Kirk continued up the trail and, as I watched him, tears filled my eyes. I was watching this amazing man walk ahead, in pain, probably unsure if we were on the right path, but pressing on and determined. I started up the hill and I started talking to myself.
“You can do this. Just keep walking. One step at a time ... that is all you need to do. I know you think you can’t do this, but you can.”
At one point, I sounded like Dory from Finding Nemo.
“Just keep walking. Just keep walking. Just keep walking. Just keep walking. Just keep walking.”
Eventually I started to sing to myself.
“Put one foot in front of the other … and soon you’ll be at the fucking she-el-ter. Put one foot in front of the other … this hike sucks and I’m in pa-aa-ain.” Rhyming did not matter.
“Fuck you trail! I fucking hate you!” Kirk yelled again.
“Fuck you Mid City Gym! I am working out hard here! Fuck you and your pre-core!” I yelled into the sky.
We both laughed. Laughing felt good. Laughing felt right. Laughing felt insane. I wondered if we were going crazy. Then I thought about what we would do after sunset and if we would have to camp here. Where would we pitch our tent? We did not have enough matches to start a fire and light our little cook stove. I could see no flat surfaces. The banks of this creek went directly up into the grade of the mountain. There was nowhere to make a comfortable camp.
“Oh God … please don’t make us have to camp on the side of this creek. Please.”
I envisioned us huddled together in our sleeping bags. Spiders and critters and bears and thunderstorms all around us. It was not a pretty vision. I started to think that we should turn around and head back to Campsite #97 where we replenished our water. I watched Kirk continue to climb steadily up the mountain. He was my motivation to keep moving. I needed to keep him in sight, not stop or rest too long. I needed to continue so that we could do this hike together.
* * * * *
“It’s not that much further. I think we have about thirty minutes to go,” he said at one point.
“Where did he come from?” I said aloud to myself. “Out of the blue this guy comes into my life and asks me if I want to go on a hike and I fucking say yes. What was I thinking? He is so positive and so OK with this. Why am I so freaked out? Why isn’t he? What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I talking to myself?”
“Please … let there be only thirty minutes to go.”
I had never prayed so much in one day. I had never prayed as much as I had in these two days of our hike. There were three challenges I wanted from this hike: to push myself physically, mentally and spiritually. I could check off the physical challenge -- that was a no-brainer. I was being mentally challenged by trying to convince myself that I could do this, to feel comfortable not knowing what to do or how to do it and to be OK with being imperfect. The splendor and viciousness of the mountains were making me both elated and reverent, and considering that I was praying, I guessed that I was acquiring spiritual growth.
We lifted ourselves out of the creek bed and onto a dirt trail. The incline was now less steep and the trail began to level off. The bushes thinned and the tree canopy opened to shed more light. This was a sign of hope that maybe we were not that far away after all. Maybe this was the home stretch. The path was only wide enough for our feet and lined with grass and wild flowers. It was a picturesque and bright moment in this day of stress and pain. It was like a reward for the hell we just went through.
* * * * *
On this straight away, Kirk and I were able to speed up our walking pace and increase our stride. We focused on getting to our destination and hiked closer together. Suddenly, Kirk stopped in his tracks and put out his arm like a driver would do when stopping short and protecting a passenger. I stopped and followed his gaze to our left.
There it was … my greatest fear-- not fifteen yards from us. A bear! A huge and hairy dark boulder of fir with eyes fixed on us. This beast was massive, at least five feet from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. It stood there, as frozen as we were, staring.
“Holy shit,” I sucked in my breath.
Then, as quickly as it appeared, it turned and galloped up the hill and deep into the forest. The sound of its weight as it crunched leaves, twigs, and brush was the only sound we heard. His gallop was so forceful and heavy we could feel the earth tremor with every thud. He was as scared of us as we were of him and he disappeared in a flash. Kirk and I stood there in awe.
“That was amazing! That thing was huge! I have seen black bears before, but that thing was enormous. That was the size of a grizzly.” Kirk said.
“Oh my God. I can’t believe it.” I whispered.
We both started barking. The tension in my throat made my bark sound less like a bear-crazed hunting dog and more like an Upper Eastside purse poodle. We continued to hike the incline and talked about what just happened.
We actually saw a bear! It was huge! That was incredible! Did you feel his gallop?! My leg is killing me. Grizzly-sized! Oh my God! At least I didn’t shit my pants. My knees are really starting to hurt. That was insane! A huge bear! How much longer? Where are we? That was awesome! Look at these wild flowers. Where is the shelter? Where is the damned shelter?
Would this day never end? I slowed down to put distance between us. I was exhausted. I started to cry. I cried and walked. It was too much to take. I wanted to stop, but knew I could not. I wanted this to be over. I wanted to give up.
* * * * *
The straightaway ended abruptly and we were on a steep switchback flanked by a cluster of large boulders. Kirk disappeared to the left around one boulder and I heard him speaking, but could not make out what he said. I turned around the boulder and climbed the four or five steep steps to the top of the trail. There, squatting at the top of the trail was a man. He was filling up a water jug.
“I’ve never ever seen anyone come up that way before,” he said as he stared blankly at us.
“Is the shelter close by?” Kirk asked.
“Well I certainly hope so,” the man responded a little too snarky. “It’s one-tenth of a mile ahead.”
We turned the corner and made one last little climb to a trail that led to the Spence Field Shelter. Never ever was there a more remarkable sight to behold. I felt like we were Laura and Mary finding home after being lost in the woods, seeing their little house and hearing Pa’s fiddle. Spence Field Shelter. It was home. We were home.
The shelter, a little lean-to set in a clearing, had three solid log walls and one open side. The open side had a built in table with benches that ran the width of the shelter. One wall had a stone fireplace and the rear wall had two long and deep sleeping platforms, like a top and bottom bunk. Each platform could hold up to six hikers.
We took off our backpacks and set them against the bench. We sat to catch our breath while we surveyed the scene we were now part of. There were seven other hikers there. We said hello and they responded. It was clear that they had been there awhile and were comfortable with each other. We were late to the party, intruders almost. They were chatty amongst themselves, which suited me fine. I could barely formulate a sentence. We wiped sweat from our brows and drank some water and then the small talk began.
Kirk sat motionless and speechless while questions were asked. Where had we come from? What was our starting point? How long were we hiking? Where were we going? Where were they from? Where were they going? Simple, congenial, and not very involved.
“My name is Scott. What is yours?” I asked while the group sat around the fireplace.
“My trail name is Beatle Juice,” this thin, blond, twenty-something said from her perch on the top platform.
Trail Names! I had forgotten about those. We read about these and heard references to them in a documentary on the Appalachian Trail. Apparently, trail names were important to the hiking community. Trail names are names that people give themselves, almost like a ‘spirit name’ that captures the essence of their journey in their name. Honestly, it’s a bunch of ridiculous crunchy bullshit.
“I’m Princess,” said a woman with short blond hair, a kind face, and welcoming smile. She was from Perth Australia and was very pleasant.
“Walking Man is around her somewhere,” she continued, “and there’s another guy down the hill in a tent, named Grandpa.”
The man who was filling the water jug introduced himself and his son. They were both preparing to go to bed. They were laying out their mats and sleeping bags on the platform.
I wanted to say that my trail name was “Runs Like A Girl,” but I decided against it. I knew I couldn’t mask my sarcasm and they would most likely think I was making fun of them. Who knew what these people were all about? They could be crazies and have knives. They could be cannibals just waiting for someone to say the wrong thing so they could attack and have a feast.
* * * * *
It was 8:40 PM and the sun was setting. There were a few more moments of daylight in which to get ourselves situated. The thought of sleeping next to these strangers was a little much. Kirk went to pitch our tent next to the shelter and to hang our backpacks on the bear hangs. I made idle chitchat until I found myself with nothing to say. I went to Kirk and told him that I would finish the tent set up if he would cook dinner. He took down our backpacks, removed the cook stove and our dinner pouch, and went to the shelter to cook.
I was blowing up our sleeping pads and unrolling our sleeping bags when Kirk came over with a great surprise – a lighter! He had told Princess about how we used most of our matches the night before and that we didn’t have any more. She kindly gave him one of hers.
Because we had stopped moving so intensely, and because late dusk was upon on, the air was gaining a chill and we were getting cold. We remembered what Greg from Paragon told us about regulating our body temperature with the down sweaters we bought. We were to put them on immediately after we stopped hiking at night because our body temperature would quickly drop. He was right. The chill was coming. Kirk went to the bear hang, retrieved our sweaters, and pulled our backpacks back up the bear hang.
We ate our undercooked spaghetti and meat sauce in the shelter. I thought it was gross but Kirk seemed to like it. At that point, it really did not matter what we ate and I had no appetite anyway. I was too tired to eat and now I was too tired to chat. We needed to wash our dishes, wash our faces, brush our teeth, and get to bed.
During our dinner, the others either prepared or roasted marshmallows in the fireplace. I excused myself from the roasting saying that I had to lay down. Really, I just needed to get away from this group. I mentioned how tired I was and how hard the hike was today.
“I heard you lost your boot, too.” Princess said and laughed.
“Oh yeah … it was a rough day today. And this is only our second day.” I responded. What I really wanted to say was, ‘What a dick! He told that story?’, but I kept that to myself.
“The third day is the worse,” she explained. “That’s the day your body realizes exactly what you have done to it and it starts to rebel. The third day is the hardest.”
Oh great. That’s reassuring. Considering how challenging this day was, I was in no mood to hear that tomorrow was going to be harder. I asked about the trail from this point and most of the group agreed that it was easy. We would find it mostly level with some inclines and declines, but it sounded like it was nothing like what we experienced today.
* * * * *
Once again, Kirk lowered our backpacks from the bear hang and dug through them to find our hygiene stuff sack and the cookware stuff sack. He did the dishes and I boiled extra water to make our powered and non-alcoholic mulled wine. I took the mulled wine to our tent. Kirk finished cleaning up and re-hung our backpacks one last time. Then, he sat with the group and ate roasted marshmallows.
He came to the tent and we prepared for bed. By now, it was dark, the sky was clear and the stars were out in full force. So many stars! We were too tired to gaze and enjoy them. We nestled into the tent while the group’s chatter petered out into silence. The need for sleep was heavy on our eyelids. We took off our boots and socks – finally. The air on my feet was a gift. I rubbed BFI powder on them to cool them down, dry them off, and ward off the start of blisters.
It was warm in the tent. We took off our shirts and pants. I tossed mine to the foot of the tent. We put Bio-Freeze on each other’s legs and backs. We checked for ticks. We talked about the day and how insane it was while we drank the tepid and bitter mulled wine. I wrote notes about our day in my iPhone.
We crawled into our sleeping bag knowing sleep would come quickly. The wind had started to blow high in the tops of the trees. We kissed goodnight and closed our eyes. Sleep … that which we lacked the night before and that which we needed from this strenuous and stressful day … came fast.
In the middle of the night, I woke up needing to pee. I did not want to wake Kirk this time, so I put on my headlamp and peed in a baggie on my own. I sealed the baggie, put it at the foot of the tent near the Pack it Out Poo Concealer, and settled back into my sleeping bag.
Laying there in the tent, in the dark, I listened to the wind gusts push through the treetops. They were strong and forceful and would blow hard for a few minutes and then die down. Great rushes of wind. No other sound. No exploring or sniffing critters, no rain on the tent top, just wind blowing and rushing through the trees. It sounded very much like evening traffic on West End Avenue.
I thought of the day we had. I thought of how Kirk was so determined and focused. I thought of how hard we worked to get to this shelter. I thought of how much I prayed during the day and of my tears of exhaustion. I thought of how grateful I was for Kirk and his putting up with my complaints. I thought of how grateful I was for this hike, but mostly for my sleeping bag at this moment. I thought about how grateful I was that we were not huddled on the side of that insane creek bed.
I thought about the clear night sky, the stars, and the wind. The wind. The wind that lulled me back into sleep.
* * * * *