Kirk let me sit and rest while he ran down the trail, backtracking, to see if he could find my boot. I was grateful to have the time. I sat on rocks in the middle of the river to clear the panicked thoughts of completing our hike in my water crossing shoes. After forty-five minutes of resting and thinking and worrying and then stopping myself from worrying, Kirk returned and stood on the creek’s bank and shook his head. My heart sank. Then, from behind his back, he proudly displayed my other boot. He found it!
I crossed back to the bank and stepped up to the trail. I gave him a huge hug. Tears started to pour out of my eyes.
“Where did you find it?” I asked as I looked at my boot as if it were the Holy Grail.
“I ran back to where we took our break. It was sitting on top of that skinny rock. Just sitting there, like it was on a pedestal,” he explained.
He was out of breath and sweaty from running there and back. He drank some water.
“Did you hear me barking?” he asked.
“No. Did you hear me barking? Did you see a bear?” I said.
“I didn’t hear you and no, I didn’t see a bear. I saw a huge wild turkey,” he laughed.
While running down the trail, a seemingly prehistoric beast crossed his path. It was at least four feet tall and running up the trail. Kirk stopped dead in his tracks and barked until the turkey passed. At least we were both letting wild critters know that a pack of dogs was waiting to take doggy bites out of them. No beasts would get the better of us.
I re-tied my boots onto the back of my backpack, this time with a tight double-knot to secure them against my pack. Kirk and I headed back to the crossing where the drama began, re-crossed the river, and continued walking on the rocky trail. This incident set us back about an hour and we tried to pick up the pace. We hit our twelfth river crossing, which according to our planning would be the last. Then we came across our thirteenth … and fourteenth … and fifteenth, while gaining serious elevation at certain points. There were steep climbs with roots or rocks acting as pseudo-steps. The trail would turn to the left, run level for a while, then turn to right and dead end into the river.
We were in a deeper part of the woods. The trees were changing, getting thicker and lusher, with a denser canopy. The bushes were taller and the path was narrower. Occasionally we would dead end into the river and have no idea where we were to cross over because the brush was so dense on the other side.
“Who made this trail!” Kirk shouted. “Why doesn’t it just follow the river on one side?!”
It was exasperating. We would have to cross below where we were to pick up the trail again. This happened repeatedly.
* * * * *
At sixteen river crossings, I stopped counting. We focused on keeping a steady pace to make up lost time. When we reached our “halfway point,” Campsite #97, we decided to fill our water bottles and eat lunch. We sat at this rocky area against the creek where the trees had branches that held our gravity-based water filter. While sitting there, a huge tick crawled up onto Kirk’s leg and he flicked it off.
Ticks. Gross. Ticks are disgusting. We had watched a documentary on the Appalachian Trail as part of our preparation. One hiker had talked about how he shaved his beard, head, legs, arms, chest – everything – to reduce the opportunity for ticks to latch on. It made me think of the old man we saw on our first day and his beard. I imagined he’d have ticks in there. It made my flesh crawl. I, on the hand, had “taken care of business” before starting the hike. I shaved my face clean, which is a rarity for me since I always have some kind of facial hair. I trimmed my thigh hair and my <eeh hem> privates. I didn’t trim my lower legs since I could easily inspect them, but checking ones ass crack for ticks would be a challenge, so it was important to eliminating their latching opportunity.
“Oh my gosh! He’s back!” Kirk said, and flicked the tick off again.
“We have to do a thorough tick check tonight,” I reminded.
We filled up our water bottles and Kirk made lemonade with the MRE juice mix we packed. It was refreshing to have the sweet-tart flavor quench my thirst. I am not a water fan. I don’t like water. It’s boring. I like it ice cold, with lots of ice cubes, like at a restaurant; or with a slice of lemon or lime or both. I just don’t go to the sink and get a glass of water when I am thirsty. It’s not the first thing I think of to drink. I drink seltzer instead. No sodium, no caffeine, no sugar … it’s water with a little bubble and pep. Water is just … water. Boring. Granted, the water from the creek, filtered while ice cold, was amazing. It was refreshing, but still a wee bit boring. Shaking it up with some lemonade was awesome.
During our break, I checked our map. We were at our halfway point. It was 4:00 PM and we guessed that we would be at the shelter by 7:00 PM since we wouldn’t have to waste time looking for missing boots. This seemed realistic. The map showed that we would quickly gain elevation, going from our current 2,600 feet and ending at 4,950 feet. We weren’t sure how many more water crossings we would have, but we decided to leave our water shoes on and at some point we knew we’d need to change into our boots.
We refitted our backpacks and started on our way. The trail continued to narrow and get increasingly rocky. The incline was getting steeper and our calves were getting a workout. The rocks and stones made makeshift stairs up and down. The trail continued to cross Eagle Creek several times. There was a sharp turn to the left and the trail continued up the mountain. We changed into our boots and took a little rest.
* * * * *
As we hiked, we would gain one hundred feet in elevation climbing up rocks, roots and dirt then the trail would level out for a few moments. Those level moments were bliss, but much too short. The trail would then turn and we’d start a decent and drop fifty to one hundred feet, only to hit another incline. It was as if the trail was Charlie Brown’s shirt stripe … a continuous and undulating chevron.
Up and down and up and down. We climbed and hiked for another hour. Kirk kept a good pace, but I lagged behind. I would count ten steps and need to rest, winded from the pace. My left hip was beginning to hurt and my right leg felt as if it were on fire. It seemed like the trail was closing in on us. The trees were denser, the brush continued to thicken, rocks got larger, and the air got thinner and drier. We rarely talked during this part of the hike, which indicated that we were no longer walking. We were hiking.
At one point, I caught up to Kirk after a rest. He stopped to wait for me. He mentioned that his knees were starting to hurt. As a professional dancer, his knees had been put to the test. They were now bearing the weight of the workout we were experiencing.
“It’s like being on the fucking stair climber for eight hours,” I said. “I am worked over. This is crazy. I don’t think I can do this.”
He was looking at a huge cluster of rocks on our right. Not rocks, but boulders, with a gaping hole in them leading to nothing but blackness, dark and creepy blackness.
“It looks like a cave,” I said, thinking of the cave that Tom Sawyer and his pals were stalked by Injun Joe.
“It looks like a bear cave,” Kirk said.
“Then what are we doing standing right next to it! Move! Move! Move!” I shouted. It was exactly the motivation I needed to pick up the pace and get going.
About thirty minutes later, we needed a real break, not just a rest. We took off our backpacks and drank water. It was a chance for my right leg to stop shaking and Kirk’s knees to cool down.
“Thank God I quit smoking. I can’t imagine trying to do this if I were still smoking,” Kirk said.
I pulled out the map and assessed where we were. There was one pivotal point on the map that was a good indication of where we were. It was a switchback that looked like it took us up in elevation of 200 or 300 feet. Before the switchback, there were more assents and descents. I started to analyze the turns.
“Ok … it looks like we will turn to the right and incline, then right again and decline. Then we level off, turn left, and do a u-turn that looks like an incline. After that right, we incline, turn left and then decline and level off. From there we turn left and incline, then right and decline, and then hit the switchback.”
After the switchback, we would have about an hour – two at the most -- until we hit our destination.
“I think we can cover this portion in two hours,” I said, “if we keep a steady pace.”
It could only take two, maybe three, hours to be at our shelter. Hooray! We could be there by 8:00 PM, forty minutes before sunset. All it would take was a steady pace. Our steady pace was pretty slow, but we definitely wanted to get to the shelter before sunset. We put on our packs and started walking – hiking.
* * * * *
We hiked until there was the turn to the right and we did the incline. The trail turned right again and we began to decline. Down the rocks and roots we went. During the level off, I was excited about my map reading skills. We hit the left turn and climbed higher, just as I had assessed. Kirk was quick on the inclines, but those were killing me. I could do declines quickly, but those really pushed Kirk’s knees to the limit. While each of us had troubles, we relished in the rest time while waiting for the other to catch up.
We walked about an hour longer and I stopped to check the map. It was getting late and I wanted to know where we were. I just wanted this day to end and this trail to be over. We should have had a right turn, but we were still on a straight incline. I kept the map in my hand to verify our position was as we walked. I didn’t feel very useful since I was walking so slow, but reading the map made me feel useful. I needed to know where we were – to determine our location – in order to feel like I was contributing to this endeavor. I felt that all I was doing was complaining about the weight of my pack, the pain in my leg, my need to rest … that, and crying. Reading the map was what I needed to feel successful. We turned left and inclined and then turned right and inclined.
Where the hell is that on the map?
After that right, we hit another incline. Reviewing the map, it looked like we would hit the switchback soon, but we just keep climbing up.
I have no idea where we are. I am so confused. Where the hell is that switchback?
Then we came to a left turn that turned to a right turn and then left again. That led us up a steep incline to a more level path and then to the switchback. We made it! And faster than I thought. That was good news because it was past 6:00 PM and we were on the southeastern side of the mountain. The sun was low from our position and the forest was getting a blanket of late-afternoon haze.
“We will soon come to a sharp left that has a steep incline and we’ll begin the climb up to the shelter.” I said.
We both were concerned about this last portion of the hike. We were both very sore. Kirk’s knees were hurting him and my right leg was getting numb. We hiked on for a while longer, but the sharp left turn never appeared. Instead, we started to decline to the right, and then a left with an incline.
I had no idea where we were. All I knew is that we didn’t hit the switchback. Or had we? I had no idea.
“Oh my God. I have no idea where we are. It’s getting late. What are we going to do? I can’t tell where the fuck we are on this map, Kirk.”
“It doesn’t matter. Let’s just keep going,” Kirk said.
He wasn’t mad or disappointed that I didn’t know where we were. This befuddled me. He wasn’t freaking out, but I started like crying because I felt like I was failing at something that should be simple. How fucking hard can it be to read a map? But he wasn’t mad. He was just … normal. He walked on and I just stood there and watched for a few minutes.
Who is this guy? He is so kind. How did this guy come into my life? He is so … normal. Decent. Kind. Generous. And doesn’t freak out over my freak outs. Damn … it’s starting. I don’t want it to start. I don’t want to feel these feelings. I don’t want to go there. I can’t go there. I am such a wreck. My life is in shambles, I am emotionally unhealthy, and I know that they say you shouldn’t make life changes in your first year of sobriety. I can’t do this. I can’t want a boyfriend. I can’t want him to be my boyfriend. Oh God. Please.
The inclines and declines continued. Our walking time decreased. Our rest periods increased. The sunlight was getting lower in the trees. The water crossings were easier as the creek was narrowing the higher up we went. In some spots, we were able to walk easily across the water in our boots, or steps on rocks to get across. The uncertainty of where we were on the trail deepened. My inability to forecast when we would arrive at the shelter became clear.
* * * * *
We pushed on. Kirk, although in pain, was still leading the way. I would fall behind and he would wait.
“It gets easier up here. Pass that dead tree and then it’s easier,” he would shout back at me.
I’d push on and pass that dead tree. It wasn’t any easier, but I would catch up to him. We’d rest a moment, drink some water, and adjust our packs.
“This fucking sucks. I can’t do this. I am so tired. I have no idea where we are,” I would say once again.
“You’re adorable and you can do this,” he would smile and kiss me and then turn around and walk on.
Soon we came to the elusive switchback. It made itself clear when we started to climb it. It had a steep grade and elevated us at least 600 feet. It turned on itself repeatedly and was grueling. At least we now knew where we were, although there was no solace in that fact since we were very behind our timeline. Reaching the switchback now meant we had at least three hours to go before we would be close to the shelter.
“Three more hours of this shit?”
“I hate this trail.”
“This trail should not exist.”
We continued on and crossed Eagle Creek one more time and came to a fork in the trail. To our right was a very narrow path, no wider than two feet and lined by bushes. To our left was a stream, rocky and muddy, with a very narrow path adjacent to it. Kirk and I looked at other. I pulled out the map. It looked as if we were to take the path to the left, but it could be that we needed to follow the path to the right. It was hard to determine. We weren’t yet on the Appalachian Trail so there were no white trail indicators to refer to. We had to guess.
We went to the left and started hiking up the creek bed. And then the day got really interesting.
* * * * *