Tuesday, August 21, 2012

oops , i did it again ...

Sunshine beamed onto the tent and warmed it up, so much so, that I woke up a little sweaty. I lay there for a little while, my sleeping bag unzipped and open, thinking about our hike the day before. The number of river crossings we had to do, losing my boot, that horrible creek bed hike, the torturous incline, seeing a bear, the pain in my hip, Kirk’s knees hurting him, fearing that we would never find the shelter or would have to sleep on the side of the creek, falling asleep to the wind — all of it swam through my head.

What an insane day! And now we have to do it again. I just want to go back to sleep. I am so tired. I want to stay here. Yesterday was too hard. I wonder if Kirk would want to stay here one more day?

I could hear voices outside coming from the shelter, a soft murmur with indecipherable words that every once in awhile punctuated the still morning with a laugh. The Others were up early and preparing to leave, off on his or her way to another day of happy hiking. Kirk and I remained in our tent, content to sleep a little longer. I closed my eyes hoping to fall back into a deep sleep. I settled for the “half asleep / half awake” drowsiness that came over me.
Kirk stirred and stretched. I opened my eyes.
“Good morning,” he mumbled as he unzipped his sleeping bag.
“Oh my gosh,” I said trying to sit up for the first time, “I am so sore.”
“Yup. Me too. My shoulders and back and my knees are killing me,” he said, as he slowly got dressed, put on his boots, unzipped his side of the tent and stepped out. A cool, light breeze came into the tent. The air was fresh with the scent of dirt, bark, and morning dew. He zipped up the tent again and I lay back down.

I listened to his footsteps crunch away and then heard the bear hang rattle and squeak. I listened to his crunching steps come closer and then the heavy thud of a backpack next to the tent. Then, again, he crunched to the bear hang to rattle and squeak and retrieve the second backpack and then drop it next to the tent.
Dammit. He’s taking down the packs.

That meant I would have to get up. We had to make breakfast, clean ourselves up, pack up the sleeping bags and tent, and then … start walking. That dreaded physicality walking. I lay there a moment longer staring at the tent ceiling. The air inside was warm and musty. The air felt clean and fresh when he opened the tent. With it closed up again, there was a definite odd odor present.
What is that smell? Am I totally pitting out? It reeks in here.

Kirk was outside, unzipping and unbuckling the backpacks. The clatter of the cook stove meant he was taking care of breakfast. I would then take care of the tent, the stuffy and musty tent. I sat up and unzipped my side of the tent to let in fresh air. I reached for my pants at the foot of the tent floor. When I picked them up I and noticed that they were damp, wet in spots.
“Fuck. Did the tent leak last night?” I asked myself out-loud.
I got on all fours to do an inspection. I knew it didn’t rain, but there was water on the floor of the tent. The foot of my sleeping bag was wet, my pants were wet, Kirk’s sleeping bag foot was wet, and there was water on the floor and items placed there overnight. The closer I got and the more I looked, the more acrid the scent became.
What on earth happened? What is that smell?

Then, as if waking up for the first time that morning, as if a light bulb lit above my head, it hit me.
Holy shit! The pee baggie!
The baggie that I peed in during the middle of the night had failed to remain sealed. The water, the wetness, my pants, our sleeping bags, the smell … all of it urine. My urine. All over the foot of the tent. I had inadvertently “peed the tent.”

I bolted up and out Kirk’s side of the tent to the backpacks. I was in my underwear and hoping that no one from the shelter could see me. I grabbed one of our chamois towels and soaked it in water from my water bladder. I put the baggie, with its now minor volume of pee, in the Pack It Out Poo Concealor, wiped off the outside, and set it outside. I wiped off the items that had been at the foot of the tent and set them outside, rinsed the chamois, and set out to clean the rest of the tent. I mopped up the tent floor and rinsed out the chamois.

I tossed my pants outside and I wiped down the outside of the sleeping bags a few times, rinsing the chamois, and soaking the feet of our sleeping bags. They were wet. I grabbed the BFI powder. Since it was designed to dry out moisture, I sprinkled it on the feet of our sleeping bags and rubbed it in. I was hoping this would clear up any telltale sign of this horrible incident. Maybe I could keep it a secret and no one would ever know.

*     *    *     *     *
“What are you doing?” Kirk asked when he came back to tell me that breakfast was almost ready.
“Ummm … well … I don’t know how to say this, but …” I started.
“Why are your pants out here?”
“They have pee on them. Everything has pee on it. I peed in a baggie last night and it must have broken in the middle of the night. It’s on my pants; it’s on our sleeping bags. It’s everywhere. Fuck! I am so sorry.”

We stared at each other. I smiled and feigned a little laugh, as if to say, “oops.” Both of us were thinking that this was just one more item for the ‘no one is going to believe this’ list. This hike was just getting more ridiculous every day.

I was sitting inside the tent in my underwear cleaning, laughing, swearing, apologizing, and feeling like an idiot. Kirk dug into his backpack, pulled out a pair of shorts and tossed them to me. He smiled and shook his head, as if to say, “oops is right,” and then walked back to the shelter to eat. I put on the shorts and my boots and pulled the feet of the sleeping bags out into the daylight to dry off. They were white and dusty from the BFI powder.

*     *     *      *      *
I walked to the shelter to eat breakfast and watch the others packing up their backpacks and preparing to leave. We all participated in idle chitchat about who was heading which way, on what trail, and where we were to end up that night.

Walking Man was up and about. He was tall, thin, craggy, and weathered. He told everyone to fill up with water from the big water jug. He seemed pleasant and calm. We talked with him for a few minutes about our hike in and our final destination. He was a “through hiker,” which meant that he was hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.

Another man walked up the trail and into the shelter. He was dressed in an official-looking brown uniform with patches and badges. He had a small backpack with a sleeping bag, walking sticks, and a walkie-talkie. He was a ridge-runner. An older man with a larger backpack who was, obviously, a hiker followed him.
Ridge Runners manage sections of the Appalachian Trail. They work on the trail for five days a week and hike from shelter to shelter in their section. They check on hikers, ensure that rules are followed, verify that shelters are being maintained, answer questions, and report any maintenance issues they find on the trails.

The Ridge Runner asked if any of us were through hikers. Walking Man and Beatle Juice raised their hands. He asked who pitched tents. Kirk and I raised our hands along with the older man. He asked who had reservations for the shelter. Everyone said they did.
“Let me explain something,” he said commanding everyone’s attention, “If you have a reservation in a shelter, you must sleep in the shelter. Shelters accommodate up to twelve people. You are not allowed to pitch tents on the AT. The only hikers allowed to pitch tents on the AT are through hikers; however, if there is room in the shelter, you must sleep in the shelter. If you arrive at a shelter and there are more than twelve people, those with reservations have priority for sleeping in the shelter, and they must sleep in the shelter. Through hikers have to either move on to the next shelter or pitch a tent.”

There were many rules, but he answered questions and was pleasant to talk with. He explained that there used to be over one-hundred Ridge Runners at one point, but when budgets were cut, the position was eliminated. This lasted roughly twenty years, but recently, a budget was reinstated to support a new staff of Ridge Runners to assist Rangers with trail maintenance and rules enforcement.
“We can’t write citations, only Rangers can do that,” he explained. “Make sure you have your permits. If a Ranger asks for it and you can’t produce it, you will be fined. Also, if a Ranger catches you pitching a tent when you are supposed to be in a shelter, they will fine you seventy-five dollars per person per night you are planned to be in the park.”

We told him where we started our hike and where we were heading. We told him about hiking the Eagle Creek Trail and how it affected Kirk’s knees and my hips. He was kind and told us to take it easy. He explained that the trail we were taking today would be challenging leading up to Rocky Top, but beyond that, it would be relatively level to the Derrick Knob Shelter.

When he left, he reminded us all to pick up our trash and to leave all shelters in better condition than we found them. He headed East on the AT towards the Siler’s Bald Shelter, one shelter further than where we were headed. He was going to sleep there overnight, head to Clingmans Dome the following day, and then reverse his route. He covered Clingmans Dome to Molly’s Ridge, roughly twenty-six miles.

*     *     *     *     *

Beatle Juice was packing up her backpack and brushing her long blond hair. She had mentioned earlier that she ran out of food and cooking fuel and was now expressing worry about how she was going to eat for the rest of her hike. Someone gave her some food packs. Kirk and I had packed too much fuel and decided to give her a can of ours to pay forward the kindness that Princess showed us with the lighter. Besides, it would lessen some of the weight from our packs.
She appeared grateful. The dad and the son, who were not very talkative, put on their backpacks, said goodbye, and headed West down the AT.
“Do you have nowhere to go after this?” Beatle Juice asked Walking Man.

He looked confused and muttered something.
“Are you homeless, too?” she asked, emphasizing the ‘too’ so that we all understood she was homeless.
“Uh. No. I have somewhere to go. I am not homeless.” He replied, clearly annoyed that she assumed he was homeless. Granted, he looked like he could be, but he had been on the trail for five weeks.

*      *      *     *     *

I finished my breakfast and went back to the tent. Kirk cleaned up the breakfast and boiled extra water for me. I washed my pants and laid them on the tent top to dry out. The sleeping bags were still resting in the sun. The faint smell of wee-wee was noticeable.
“Homeless my ass,” Kirk said. “Did you see her outfit? New boots, great hiking pants and shirt. And her backpack is top notch. She is not homeless.”
“I didn’t really notice,” I was too consumed with guilt from accidentally pissing on everything and was thinking about how long it may take everything to dry out.
“And, she was talking about going to a wedding when she got to Gatlinburg, where her car is. She is a con artist. I wish I didn’t give her that fuel.” Kirk said.

He was annoyed with her, with the hike, with his knees, and with the situation. I was moving very slow and stalling. I did not want to walk, but I did not want to say that I wanted to stay another day. Besides, all the wet things needed to dry out and I assumed we would wait until then.
Kirk had dismantled the tent, unpacked our backpacks, and started the process of repacking. We had learned that each day they needed to be repacked and re-organized. I rolled up the sleeping bags and our sleeping mats and then went to brush my teeth and wash my face.

I sat in the shelter and reviewed the map and where we were heading. Today, we would cover a little over six miles. We would climb up to Rocky Top at 5,441 feet and then descend to Mineral Gap at 4,527. From there the trail would be pretty much level until we arrived at the Derrick Knob Shelter.
One by one, the others left. Walking Man was the last of the others to leave. He was heading to the same shelter we were and we would see him that night. It was nice to know that there would be a familiar face there, even if that face looked like it could belong to a serial killer.
“Ok, let’s get going,” Kirk said as he brought our backpacks in and set them on the platform.

The sun was getting warmer and there were no clouds in the sky. Now that everyone was gone, the shelter was quiet and peaceful. The occasional fly buzzing around broke the silence. It was going to be a hot and clear day. There were a few flies buzzing around my backpack.
“Where is the permit?” I asked.

We looked through the outer pockets of our backpacks looking for the permit. Not there. I checked my shorts pockets. Not there.
“I thought you had it,” he said.
“Nope. It was in the ceiling loft of the tent,” I said, which is where I placed it every night following my personal organizational set up of the tent.

He sighed, unpacked the tent, unrolled it, and found the zip-lock baggie with the permit inside. I took the permit and put it in an easy-to-access pocket in the front compartment of my backpack.
“The permit will stay in this pouch,” I directed, “That way we will know where to get it when we need it.” For some reason, I felt like I needed to make a statement. Yes, I fucked up this morning with the pee, but I know what I am doing with the permit. It will stay with me and will be safe.

Kirk repacked the tent and sat down to sign the shelter book. This was another custom of the Trail. Everyone that stays in the shelters writes a blurb in a spiral-bound notebook that stays in a larger zip lock baggie.
I read entries from the wintertime. People mentioned how muddy and cold they were; or that the rain was so hard they were soaked through and there was not enough dry wood to start a fire. I was thankful that it was sunny and warm and that we were dry. I was thankful that we did not have major weather to deal with.

I wondered how Victor was doing at home. Was he being a good boy? Did he miss me? I was starting to miss him. I pulled out my iPhone to look at pictures. I was astonished to see that I had a connection. I went to send a text to my mom, my sisters, and few others. People had expressed worry about us taking this hike before we left. It was as if they thought we were going to die or something.

Yes, it was hard, but we weren’t dying. Even though we were sore and stupid stuff seemed to happen to us each day, we were learning along the way. We were not fighting, we had not caught dysentery, and bears did not eat us (yet). We were experiencing nature and loving what we were seeing, hearing and smelling – except for the faint smell of pee that every once in awhile would lilt into my nostrils.

Day three has begun. Not sure you’ll get this. We head to Rocky Top and then come other mountain. We’ve worked really hard. Yesterday we climbed 2700 feet yest on a steep grade. No need to reply. Just letting you know [we’re] alive and it’s awesome!!!! Clingmans [Dome] on Saturday. Bye all!!

Kirk took a few pictures and then we talked about the day’s trail. We talked about our soreness and the need to take it slow today. Having only 6 miles to go, we felt we could take our time. We stretched and we put Bio-Freeze on our legs. We laced up our boots and put on our backpacks. Kirk wanted to get a little sun and decided to hike without his shirt. We said good bye to our first shelter.
scott texting

the interior of the shelter
the shelter's exterior

We headed back into the woods on a level path that would eventually take us to Rocky Top.
“Remember when I said we were going to the Big Rock Candy Mountain?” Kirk asked as the clearing disappeared behind us and we entered once again into the trees.
“Yes,” I said, smiling.
“And you said, ‘Are we really going there?’ thinking it was a real place?” he laughed.
“Yes,” I giggled. How ludicrous it must have seemed that I thought it might be a real place.

In the distance a bird sang its’ morning song. Good morning Scott. Good Morning Kirk. Good morning Scott. Good Morning Kirk. The air was breezy and the day was bright. The sun was warm and the heat of the day was coming on strong. The morning that had started off franticly and stressful was becoming lighter and blissful. The level path was easier to hike and the pain in my hip was not excessive.

Good morning Scott. Good Morning Kirk. Good morning Scott. Good Morning Kirk.

Keep walking Scott. Keep walking Kirk.
Keep walking Scott. Keep walking Kirk.

*      *      *      *      *

Monday, August 13, 2012

just a little further ... i think ...

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.
*     *     *     *     *

Thursday, August 9, 2012

dion's treasure box ...

On August 9, 2009, I suffered a loss that I was unprepared for emotionally.

My partner, Dion C Wade, passed away from Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS), two opportunistic infections that occur in those with HIV which result in full-blown AIDS.

In October of 2008, we broke up after seven months of arguing, bickering, and anger. During that time, Dion was seeking treatment for the red blotches, almost bruise like, that were appearing and multiplying on his body. He started weekly injections of a chemotherapy-type treatment.

Our relationship started to falter when Dion (who was one to not overly-communicate or share) started to shut down and not answer my questions about his doctor’s visits, how he was feeling, if the treatments were working, or what the doctors were saying. Instead, Dion chose not to talk about it. He began to push me away and I slipped into finding “recreational” ways to escape my fear of what was happening.

In short, he saw me as nothing but a nag, constantly pestering for information; and I saw him as an alienating asshole that was shutting me out. Our last fight – the one filled with hatred, yelling, insults, insinuations, and some physicality; the one that resulted in me moving out of our Hell’s Kitchen studio – included me saying something I will never forget:

“God dammit, Dion! If we were married, we would have said the vow ‘for better or for worse!’ Well, this is worse, Dion, and you are shutting me out. You’re an asshole.”
“Fuck you, Scott. Just fuck you,” he replied as he looked at me blankly.

I moved out four weeks later.

In retrospect, it is clear that we were both scared shitless and had no idea how to productively express our fear or help each other through it. This type of thing happened to other people; people you do not really know, but people that other people know. This type of thing was something that you heard about at dinner parties … six or more degrees of separation. Did you hear about so-and-so, the friend of such-and-such? So sad…. This was something that happened in the 1980s and the early 1990s, not now. Not now. Not this. Not us. Not him. Not me.

There was, in fact, no degree of separation in our case. This was close. This was my house. This was my partner. This was the person who would be mentioned at dinner parties. This was real. This was my life. This was happening. Now. This. Us. Him. Me.

*     *     *     *     *

In March of 2009, ten days after his forty-first birthday, Dion was admitted into St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was having major difficulty breathing. He called me after being there three days to let me know. I went to visit him and we started to communicate, not talk – communicate. He opened up and shared his fear and so did I. We began to repair our relationship. The doctors had him on high doses of medications, breathing treatments, and antibiotics. His lungs were spotted with PCP and KS lesions.

I was at the hospital every day to visit with him, sometimes three times a day. I talked with his doctors about his condition, what they were doing, and what the outcomes could be. I translated “doctor-speak” for Dion, who was overwhelmed by the information.

Seven days later, he was no longer responding to any breathing treatments and he was fighting the ventilator that they put him on. His condition was worsening by the day. His doctors felt that the only way to help him was sedation and intubation.

He was sedated for a little over one month. During this time, I continued my daily visits. I would talk to him, rub lotion on his drying hands and feet, and stretch his arms and legs. I also acted as his medical proxy by asking questions and learning about his condition and tests being done, giving answers and information to the doctors, and advocating for his survival by approving treatment options and procedures. I managed his bank account, ensured his rent was paid, paid his other bills, and was the “information and support go to” for friends and family. I couldn’t have gotten through this time without my cousin Shannon. She was there alongside Dion daily. Helping him. Helping me. Helping us.

Dion came out of sedation and spent one month in the ICU. He was still intibated and could not speak, his motor skills were non-existent and he weighed ninety pounds. He communicated by nodding his or shaking his head to yes or no questions. He tried to mouth words. Slowly his ability write – or scrawl – returned. He spent the next four weeks in Acute Therapy after they closed his tracheotomy. He slowly regained speech, and he worked hard to develop full motor coordination by re-learning how to sit up, stand, balance, and how to walk.

Four months after being admitted, he was released from the hospital. He came home to my Upper West Side apartment to recuperate. It was unthinkable to let him return alone to his fifth-floor-walk-up. He was doing physical therapy, walking with a cane, and going to multiple doctor’s appointments. His breathing was still labored, and he was on several strong antibiotics.

*     *     *     *     *

The week after he came home, I was laid off from my job at French Connection. I will forever be grateful for that. You see, five weeks later, Dion was back in the emergency room unable to breathe. The ambulance would not take us to St. Vincent’s where his regular doctors were affiliated. We had to go to Roosevelt Hospital. We spent 15 hours together in a little room attended by a group of unfamiliar, yet very capable and kind doctors. I acted as the “go between” by relaying information and consulting with his regular doctors over the phone.

After several tests, X-rays, breathing treatments, and rounds of antibiotics, he finally asked for some pain medication. Another round of X-rays were done. The ER doctor explained that the most recent X-ray showed the PCP growing quickly and very aggressively. He had lost three-fourths function in his left lung and almost half in his right. The only way to get his condition under control and stable was re-sedation and intubation.

“Do you understand?” the doctor asked me, his hand resting on my forearm.
“Yes. I understand.” My heart sank.
“I’ll leave you two to talk. I’ll be back with my team in thirty minutes to begin preparation. You’ll have to leave at that point.”
“I understand.”
“Scott … I don’t understand. What was he talking about?” Dion asked, a little hazy from the Dulodin.
“They need to re-sedate you, Dion. They have to intubate and put you back on the ventilator. Your body isn’t responding to what they are doing now.” I said.

His eyes focused on mine. He was absorbing what that could mean. He was lucky enough to come out of the first sedation. Chances were slim that he would come out of this one.

“Ok. I understand,” Dion said. “Either way, I’m not scared.”

We had … what I can confidently call … the most amazing and frank discussion I have ever had. We talked about what could happen in real terms – the potential of his death. He was so strong and accepting of what was about to happen to him. I was so proud of him. We talked about what options he preferred if he died (resuscitation, cremation, a memorial). He rattled off a specific list of items that he wanted to give to friends.

His approach to this conversation put me at peace. It was clear he was ready to go. I had the honor and privilege to thank him for what he meant to me, to tell him I loved him more than I could really express, and to say goodbye. He also thanked me for everything that I had done for him and we held hands. When the doctor’s came in, I gave Dion a kiss on his forehead and said goodbye again. As I was leaving the room, I turned and looked back, one last act of ensuring he was OK. He was sitting upright in bed looking at me. He mouthed, ‘thank you’ and then ‘goodbye’ and waved a little sweet wave.

That was the last time I saw Dion alert. I would not trade that Monday for anything in the world. It is a day I will never forget. Six days later, he passed away.

In September of 2009, I wrote about Dion’s Treasure Box.

*      *      *      *      *

I am surprised that I find myself still sleeping on ‘my’ side of the bed. The other side is empty and can now easily be slept in, but my body just does not go there. I look to my right while reading, and half expect to see him laying under the sheets, bedside light off, head on the pillow facing away from me. I reach out to stroke his hair, or his shoulder, or his hip; but there is nothing and no one there. Just air. Just bed. Just me.

The first week after he passed, I left the sheets on the bed a little too long. When I finally washed them and crawled into bed, I couldn’t smell him anymore; there was no trace that he had ever been back in it. Around the same time, I finally addressed his bedside table. His urinal with his last early morning piss still inside, a half drunk Ensure, his cough medicine and the little plastic cup/cap with his lip marks on it, his notebook and a pencil, and some pills. All of it cleared off, and in some perverse way, sanitized of his pain and suffering.

Other items soon made the move from closet, drawer or cupboard to the trash bin, or a donation bag. It felt selfish at first, as if I was singling out his items and banishing them. I kept a few of his favorite t-shirts, his orange cowboy shirt, and his Adidas slip-ons. For some reason, it was harder to let go of those items.

I also kept his “treasure box” that rested on the windowsill since the day I brought it from his old apartment as a surprise. After he was released, he needed some more clothes. He dictated a list and I went to his place to them. I also included a picture of him and his friend Marie and his treasure box.

I showed Dion my treasure box when we first started dating. It holds keys from past apartments whose addresses I no longer remember; tickets from movies, shows, and concerts; trinkets either found or received; and other knickknacks that someone unfamiliar with the contents would see as junk. Mine also includes a piece of paper with his name and phone number on it … a memory of the morning after we met at The Eagle. He started his treasure box soon after.

I showed him the clothes that I brought and he seemed pleased that I got it all correct. I hung up his shirts, folded his jeans, and put away his t-shirts, socks, and underwear.

I told him I had a surprise for him. I reached into the duffle bag and I pulled out the picture of him and Marie. He was so happy to see it and held onto it for a while. We decided that it should go on the living room bookshelves. Then I pulled out his treasure box. He was elated! He went through it and looked at everything again. It was like an affirmation that he had lived before; a life filled with experiences other than pills, hospitals, doctors, nurses, and tests.

Dion’s treasure box was just like mine. His passports, tickets, foreign money, keys, a baggage tag from the Concorde, a box of tea, a stuffed toy Nessie from Scotland, and other assorted “junk” and pieces of paper filled it to the brim. He placed it on the windowsill next to his side of the bed.

It stayed there until recently. Since then, I have gone through his treasure box twice. The first time, one night a week after he passed, curiosity and sadness drew me to dump its contents on my bedspread. Nothing out of the ordinary, shocking, or unexpected lived inside the little plaid box. The other half of the slip of paper with my name and number was inside. I was overcome with heart-broken tears.

The second time, I noticed a pattern with the ticket stubs inside the box. With a few exceptions, each stub was from something that we went to together. Whether a show or a movie, he kept those ticket stubs. Those were his treasures. I was a part of those.

He had a list of items that he wanted moved to what we were now calling “our apartment”. They all made the move, but he never had the chance to see them here. His round white mirror, the tortoiseshell bowls he bought in Paris, the seashells we collected in Mexico, the rocks from Shelter Island, the award statuette for some unknown achievement, the cool and creepy painting of children, the plexi-glass mantle clock, his miniature buildings, the art deco lamp, Buddha heads, and – of course – his book collection.

In every room of this apartment, something that is or was his is around. They comfort me when I see them, to think of him, to remember him. I wish he could enjoy them here with me. And when I see him in bed, or at the sofa when I glance from the kitchen, I know it is a figment of my saddened state of mind.

Someday I will assess that his old t-shirts are taking up too much drawer space and his slip-ons have gathered too much dust, and I will decide to part ways with them.

But … what of the memory of him sleeping quietly next to me, the smell of his hair, the heat of his skin, the feel of his hip? And what of his treasure box?

Well, those are for another story.

*     *     *     *     *

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

this trail should not exist ...

The second day of the hike started off a little … well … off. We left our campsite at noon and started hiking the Eagle Creek Trail. We crossed over the creek and back again several times. The higher we climbed, and the deeper into woods we went, the wider and deeper the creek became. At one point, I lost my footing and nearly fell face-first into the creek’s strong current. During this fall, one of my boots came untied from my backpack and was found swirling in the water; the other was nowhere to be seen.

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.

*     *     *     *     *