Shoe Blues and the Bluesman

7/3 – 7/7

Because of the proximity to the 501 Shelter where most northbound hikers plan to stay (there’s a nearby pizza place that delivers), as well as the holiday weekend (many hikers were either staying in town or going farther off trail to celebrate), the William Penn shelter was remarkably quiet during my two true-zeros. When Milam was in town resupplying less than ten hikers showed up to the shelter, most day hikers and only a few long-distance – none of whom planned on staying there. The shelter is a massive one, its dark log walls notched lengthwise, a unique architectural feature, and said to comfortably sleep 16. And though we were nested in the loft, I lounged on the porch all day, feet propped on an inflatable pillow, catching up on my writing. Only Riggs and Hoss, a couple from Florida walking to Riggs’ daughter’s wedding in Massachusetts, stayed long enough for me to engage in both conversation and observation of their characters.

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Riggs loosened her tangle of hair (it was both the color and texture of straw) and lit up an American Spirit, interested in the narrative of my feet. She made me a cup of mint tea and we discussed literature and playwriting (she had just recently completed an English degree) as Hoss amused himself at the fire circle – he had definitely started a fire, but hadn’t really made one – not in the way that Little Giant & Co could magic one up in the afternoon for it to sizzle through the night. But, the flames were mindlessly entertaining – Hiker TV they call it – and as the rolling fog which had been my enjoyed program over breakfast had long since dissipated,
his efforts were applauded.

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I imagine Riggs would entertain herself with reading as we all might, had any long-distance hiker the space or weight allowance for books. One of her favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor, and upon learning this I shared my actual name. The culture of trail names is such a treat for me, as I can write freely while preserving the partial anonymity of these people while expanding my understanding of the symbology and reasoning behind names. Riggs was named after a character in the film Lethal Weapon, but only because she wasn’t carrying a gun when she found herself in a situation where she otherwise may have enlisted its use (some scary dudes had come into their campsite, and she had somewhat overreacted) – an example of how trail names can be ironic, as opposed to illustrative.

Milam returned from town with not only Benadryl and Calamine lotions, but also ingredients to make a chili dinner (his ability as a chef in the backcountry is growing exponentially. We’ve come a long way from taco-potatoes debacle). He surprised me with his dinner plans again the next evening, concocting a version of one of my favorite at-home meals, Pozole, which was a treat after a full day of foot maintenance.

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We both zeroed as I carefully washed and drained my feet three times that day. It was quite an involved task and a fairly grotesque one at that. When Hoss was at William Penn he shared with me his own rash, fearing he had gotten into some poison ivy as well. He asked to see mine, wanting to compare and gauge his condition. I told him that my feet were looking pretty gnarly, but he insisted.

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“Oh my God!” Hoss recoiled at the sight my largest blister, which I had affectionately been referring to as The Big Guy. “You gotta go to a hospital!” Hoss had been so startled by my rash that he had nearly fallen off the edge of the shelter site. I shrugged it off, not to be a braggart but simply in acceptance of my situation. I gave him the last squeeze of my hydrocortizone cream, and Hoss was astonished by my gift. “Don’t you need this? Mine’s nothing compared to that.” I assured him that it was fine, there was more on the way, and that if anyone knew what he should do about the rash (he’d sought prior consultation from several other hikers), it was me – I was turning into the on-trail expert, living up to my name.

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In the cleaning of my rash du jour, Milam and I were, in order to avoid infection and further discomfort, so meticulous that the amateur surgical sessions were lengthy enough that we only stopped for meals over the course of an entire day.

The next day we were both eager to get back on track but my feet needed more time to heal. So, we walked the 4 easy miles to 501 shelter where I would stay that evening – Milam would solo on to the next shelter. We planned to meet the next day at the world’s biggest Cabela’s, Milam by foot and I by thumb.

501 is an enclosed shelter with twelve bunkbeds and a skylight, and though I was the first to claim a sleeping spot all the bunks were soon spoken for. They were clearly a hiking family, and after they settled in, bathed in the solar shower (a seriously rare novelty along the trail), and ordered ten pizzas I was welcomed into their circle to play cards, which we did until well after dark. Green Bay (a Wisconsinite!) brought the deck but others suggested the games, and soon a rowdy tournament of Spoons was underway – but instead of spoons in the center, tiny Snickers bars were the prize to be won. And after each round’s winner enjoyed their sugary spoils the empty wrapper was placed back in the center, upping the stakes and chaos as each camper clawed their way to the candy remaining as cards flew across the cabin.

Mantis, CousCous, and Powers played another kind of card game – Magic: the Gathering. I had grown up with the trading card game, so I was familiar with its fantastical creatures and complex rules enough so to impress the boys with my knowledge and for me to be impressed at their carrying multiple decks (for more varied gameplay). The trio, who had conveniently found each other and all happened to have brought the same toys, couldn’t estimate (or cared not to admit) how much time was spent tapping land cards in comparison to walking on actual earth. However, in the morning when we had all packed up and were headed out the door, Powers unbuckled his hip belt. “That pizza’s getting to me,” he groaned, reaching into a sidepocket for some bathroom tissue.
“Do we have enough time for a game?” asked CousCous, glancing sideways at Mantis, who didn’t seem upset at the prospect. Powers nodded and bolted towards the Port-a-John; Mantis grinned and unbuckled as well, unleashing the wizard within.

I hitched into Bethel with Laura, 501’s caretaker and young mother of two, who was in her third season employed by the conservancy. It was clear who she was as I approached her car when she stopped for me – her bright yellow shirt showed the ATC logo (it also accentuated her Trillium-like complexion and her hair, which was in a single braid and was the color of creamy hot chocolate). As we drove into town she pointed out the interstate ramp on which I should try for the second half of my hitch, but first took me to The Gathering Place Cafe, a church-sponsored coffee shop, and bought me a cup of coffee and a pastry. I sat there long enough to enjoy a refill, amused and amazed by my ten-minute friendship I had made and the continued kindess I have encountered on the trail.

James the Physical Therapist drove me to Hamburg, after turning around to pick me up as I was on his route to work (I had luckily made a sign to clarify my destination, as the interstate could take me too many places to count). As we pulled into the Cabela’s parking lot, which was reminiscent of the one surrounding Miller Park (there were even some folks tailgating), James assured me that there were still gentleman in the world but wished that I would be careful if I continued to hitch alone. I thanked him for his chivalry, and silently hoped he thought his actions to be somewhat thrilling if not just gallant. I pictured him in his polo shirt and crew cut walking into his place of employment. “Sorry I’m late,” he might say to his supervisor, “but you’ll never believe what I did this morning – I picked up a hitchhiker!” The thought of it makes me laugh – but perhaps I am not that remarkable. Or maybe he wouldn’t share it with anyone, and keep his brief foray into risktaking as a fond memory – or maybe I am one of dozens of hikers he’s picked up on his way to work. Maybe he’s a hiker himself. I’ll never know.

Milam and I arrived at Cabela’s almost at the same time – we were meeting in their cafe, and by 11am when I walked in he had already started in on the bottomless coffee. The camouflage-covered greeters at the entrance directed me to the restaurant area, “on the second floor, behind the mountain.” We sat and sipped on coffee, taking in the taxidermy and shopper-tourists posing for souvenir pictures beside each furry statue. We giggled at the thought of couples and families spending the whole day there, but we spoke too soon – we ended up being there for 8 hours.

The camping section, though not extensive, did have items we needed – trekking poles and a Sawyer-Mini for me, but our sole purpose for shopping at all was, of course, to acquire my shoes. I won’t give an account of our time in footwear as I’m sure its description would be as boring for you as it was frustrating and tedious for me. It was between hours 6 and 7 inside the store when I caught myself spaced out and staring upwards into a stuffed ram’s perfectly framed genitalia that I knew we had to get out of there. As we left to walk the two miles into Port Clinton, where hikers can sleep under the town’s pavilion, we both felt unsuccessful and deflated.

“I didn’t come out here to go shoe shopping,” I vented, feeling some serious shoe blues. Milam nodded.

“Neither did I.”

Prospects for hitching were slim along the highway through this commercially developed area and the sun was sinking fast, so we started back toward the trail with our thumbs at our sides. It was a surprise, then, when Shotgun pulled up behind us and honked, beckoning us to hop in.

He had been out for a drive with his two-year-old black lab Sam who had been promised a small packet of McDonald’s french fries – the oily potatoe sticks were currently being held outside the window to cool down and calm Sam’s impatience for the treat. Shotgun had seen us walking down Cabela’s lengthy drive as he pulled up to the speaker-box to place his order, and the combination of knowing where we were headed (he had hiked sections of the trail) and the sight of Milam’s guitar attached to the side of his pack had given Shotgun a good feeling about us. So, we climbed into the car for a ride to Port Clinton and Sammy got her snack.

The ride to the neighboring town was only a few minutes, but in that time the passengers of the car engaged in immediately bonding conversation – so much so that when we pulled into Port Clinton, a miniscule community contained to less than a mile area, it felt like there was more to be said. Shotgun invited us over, with the enticing offer of a shower and a bed (and the company of a happy dog). We had been idling on a side street, and once we accept his gracious proposal Shotgun shifted out of neutral and burned rubber back to the highway.

He was a blues guitarist of many decades and had been a contractor for most of that time, but first and foremost Shotgun was a self-proclaimed purveyor of peace and spreader of smiles. The yard of his property was expansive and carefully designed, and he had been working on the house for thirty or so years – the basement of which held a studio space with some seriously nice guitars. Shotgun put steaks on over the firepit for us (he lit it, and a cigarette, with a propane torch) and plugged us in downstairs – in exchange for hosting us we held a private Appleseeds set for him. Sammy danced and even sang along, and we were up way past our normal bedtime, singing and talking and trading songs for songs.

In the morning we fed koi fish from the footbridge over a small pond while drinking coffee (our luck with finding coffee has been of no short supply), and after breakfast Shotgun drove us back to where we had started our short friendship – I made sure to get his address so we could send him some vinyl. He is, as he called us, “good people.”

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On the AT they call them Trail Angels, people who seem to drop out of the sky, appearing from nowhere, when you need them the most. And so it was that we’d met one, all because a sweet black dog had got herself some fries.

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