Nothing to Fear?

52.5 miles north on the trail past Kempton, an early morning thunderstorm wet the sprawling boulders that lead us toward the Pennsylvania-New Jersey state line. With my new shoes worn and muddied by the terrain belonging to what some affectionately (and somewhat annoyingly) refer to as “Rocksylvania,” I was ready to cross the border – including our Zero Week off trail at the AirBnB, Milam and I had been in Pennsylvania for nearly a month. So eager for the milestone were we that we had done 17.5 miles the day before (at the time, a personal best), so eager that we skipped breakfast in our stealth camp so Milam could skip and hop across Wolf Rocks to prepare a leisurely breakfast under the shelter of the Kirkridge Lean-to, while I more more slowly and fastidiously slunk along the shear stone ridge, wishing not to slip.

So of course I slipped.

But nearing 300 miles of what sometimes seemed less like hiking and more like a constant rebound from stumbling and falling, I accepted the fact that I was ass-down riding the knife-edged boulder like a water slide – I would simply rejoin the trail a few paces up around this jagged bit and hope for more stable footing, continuing on my merry walking way. A reasonable plan. A perfectly reasonable plan.

– if you’re not plummeting feet-first into the jaws of a hulking Copperhead.

But 52.5 miles prior, at the base of Hawk Mountain and The Pinnacle, my feet weren’t about to be snake-food – they were as healed from the Poison Ivy blistering as much as my patience could stand for. I probably could have stood to stay off my feet for much longer, but by Day Five of our Zero Week our itch to get back into the woods was spreading faster than any rash we would pick up out there. Which is not to say that our time in the rural Pennsylvania Dutch community was not enjoyable.

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For a short while, Milam and I were the third floor residents of a beautifully constructed country home, the land on which it was built adjacent to a churchyard, a field of fruit trees, and a horse farm. The kitchen featured sturdy slate counters and cast iron pans on which to bake and cook, and cooking was an all-day activity in the house. Our host Erika on one occasion prepared stuffed grape leaves (in a Lebanese fashion, as this was her heritage), and another guest of the house Greg spent multiple days marinating and cooking a rabbit. I followed suit and spent a full day crafting a recipe for and making a Lemon Blueberry Layer cake, happy to have a project while my feet healed and even happier to share with the house an indulgence in the tart sponge of an after-dinner slice, with no icing left in the wake of our ravenous forks.
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Almost all food was bought locally, fresh eggs, milk and yogurt from neighbors and friends, produce from the front-porch of a Meninite farm, staples from a few scattered general stores, lots and lots of bacon from the butcher – although these places and neighbors were spread far apart between the many fields that wound the roads as much so as the mountains, it felt like a centralized and tightly-knit community.
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Here our days were filled (when food was not being imagined, prepared, or consumed) with writing, with short walks (and in Milam’s case, a bicycle ride) to view the countryside, pleasurable conversations with our hosts – who in some ways, reminded us of older versions of ourselves (John, a semi-retired architectural engineer had mastered the dad-joke and had several maintenance projects in-progress around the house, for which Milam happily offered his assistance; Erika, a boisterous mother who loves to trade stories over kitchen prep, her values and opinions strong and sound). Our nights were long communal dinners followed by games and simple amusements (Milam and I discovered a game, Quarto, which I look forward to obtaining in the future – it’s like a combination of tic-tac-toe and chess). There it was calm and peaceful, which lead to some quiet introspection on how we might want to live our lives.

Our perspective is rapidly changing out here. On trail there is a process called the shake down, in which you analyze all you carry with you, considering what you actually need and doing away with excess. And while we are still shaking down our packs, sending unnecessary items home or giving them away, my view of the world and my place in it is now subject to a steady shake. We’re witnessing a vast array of lifestyles and circumstances, experiencing extremes in our own situations and always reassessing our values, both material and internal. Our concept of need, of comfort, of cleanliness – it’s all being challenged. We daydream about coming home and ridding ourselves of our excess clothes and books and things. Things. All those things we thought we needed.

Back on trail at the Allentown Shelter, we saw in the log book that Trial, Error, and Garnet Turtle were only two days ahead of us – we would inevitably catch up to them, but for the time being we entered a new bubble of hikers – Yogi Bear, a husky, bearded hiker with quick-dry neon green Dollar Store shorty-shorts and a sense of humor even drier; his familiar, Lyla (trail name: BooBoo) a lean black Whippet too happy to play on the rocks all day and even happier for hours of frisbee in camp afterwards; Tazer and Perk – the former named for what she carried on the insistence of her loved ones, the latter named for his need for a certain caliber of caffeine on the insistence of his taste buds; Fuzzy and Twenty-Names (her for her hairafter a fresh-buzz at the barber, his for his multifaceted personality and inability to pick just one – “I’m going to be Sugarbum today.”); and perhaps most notably, a hiker family known as the Crazy AT Eight.

The Crazy Eight are mile crushers, pulling consistent 25 mile days, which allows for long lunch breaks at fantastic views, trips into faraway cities for sightseeing (Philly, New York, etc), and general shenanigans. I passed them on Knife Edge, where they were all nestled in the rocks, napping and sunning. I find myself saying, in situations like these, that there’s no rest for the slow. Milam and I were aiming for my biggest miles yet that day, 16.8, the majority of which were nowhere near soil (a la Let’s Play the Ground is Lava). And it was a hard day to do big miles – on the highest crest of Knife Edge the wind was sudden and strong, and without the aid of any controlled momentum I froze – for the first time since Katahdin I was sincerely afraid of falling, and falling alone. But the wind turned warm and brought with it the scent of the pines that bedded the soft and stable ground at the foot of the Knife leading up onto Bake Oven Knob. In the baby-gap between the two peaks, the Crazy Eight passed me one by one, congratulating me on getting over the rocks (I had appeared quite apprehensive when I passed), and encouraging me on continuing. Glacier Swiss, one of three females of the Eight (an remarkable number, as the the male-to-female ratio on the trail seems closer to 10:1), caught up with me on the top of the knob. A blonde and blue-eyed spark with an air of cheer brighter than her smile, named for her time on the Glacier trails in the Pacific Northwest and a several-hundred mile pursuit of a Mushroom Swiss burger, Glacier’s face lit up as she shouted into the sky beyond the summit –

“I believe in the power of Hives!” Swiss thrust her poles into the air. And after a breath, I followed her in the descent down to the Shelter where waiting were the remainder of the Eight, Milam, and most importantly – lunch. It was a tiny and decrepit shelter, and the shelter site was thronged with hikers and high grass. Sitting quiet in the chatter amongst the Eight and several others, I peeled off my socks to find feet sodden from my own sweat, folds of formerly-blistered skin hanging white and limp with clearly no chance of becoming callous. And when I extended my legs to allow my franken-feet to dry in the sun, the leader of the Eight, Texas Poo, spotted them.

“What the fuck? What the fuck?!” Texas Poo, a soon-to-be Triple Crowner nearing the completion of his third thru-hike after the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, excitedly reached for his cell phone. “Look at her feet, guys, seriously, look at her feet.”

And then the boys of the Eight were toppling over each other to get a better look, to find their own phones for pictures, yelling and barking like a flock of frat boys whose football team had just won the championship match – but their sport was thru-hiking, and the spectacle some seriously gnarly feet.

“What happened to you? Are you okay?”

“What the fuck?”

“That skin is just hanging off of there!”

“What happened to you?!”

“What the fuck!?!”

“Have you heard of Thru-Hiker Foot Fetish?” said Crusty, one of the Eight, of an online forum featuring such things as blisters and broken nails.

“I’ve never seen feet this bad,” Texas Poo was filming now. “Three years I’ve been thru-hiking and these are the worst feet I’ve ever seen.” They were a merit badge, a show of my “true grit” as Texas Poo would later share as a caption to the pictures and video of my feet – on the Internet and with any and every hiker up the trail. Milam smirked at me as I silently bathed in the attention and took note of their tips for foot care. It was wildly amusing, and affirming – enough so to put my socks back on and complete the full day of 16.8 miles, which lead us through stands of spindling trees and cool breeze in an easy descent.
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My first day over 15 miles. 12 hours of hiking – I made it into camp without having to hike in my headlamp, but only just. I switched it on as soon as the shelter was in sight. And through the silohuetted trees over dinner in the dark, down in the gap we could see the sparkling street lights of Palmerton, PA in the Lehigh Gap. In the morning, after we crossed the river, we would climb a notorious 1-in-1 (one thousand feet of elevation gain in less than one mile), primarily composed of a boulder scramble above tree line. But for now, we celebrated 16.8 with a steamy Teriyaki Rice Side and meticulous leg-stretching.

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From the lengthy footbridge at the bank of the Lehigh River, the scramble out of the gap appeared as a colossus with birds of prey circling its barren crown. But, in 45 minutes the hawks and vultutres were 15 feet above my head, and behind me was radio tower the size of a tooth pick and the river as thin fraying thread. I could feel a marked difference in my composure from the day before on Knife Edge – certainly a huge change from my time on Katahdin. I was not clutching onto the rocks with full body contact – I was moving with with more dexterity; each step was faster and utilized the prior’s momentum – my muscles were stronger, as was my mind. Milam flew out of the gap in 10 minutes and perched on a rock to photograph Fuzzy destroying the boulders and TwentyNames taking in the view, his kilt flowing in the warm crest breeze. I only looked back twice – one glance was cut short to stave off any relapse of vertigo, but the other was elongated (on solid footing) – even if first-person perspective at this elevation was considerably frightening.

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I tell people that when I was climbing up the scramble on Katahdin I thought I was going to die.”What the hell am I doing here?” I still don’t know what I’m doing out here, what anyone is doing out here – but the thought isn’t a negative one. When I look down from the summit and see where I was before, I remember what life was like on the ground, out of the forest, before I started walking.

When I was a freshman in college I bought a book about nomadic travel in the modern world. Once I was done with my degree I was just going to walk around the country and write. So, exactly what I’m doing now – but it took me seven years to get here. Because I forgot. The book was buried in a box and the thought was fossilized under years of fluid depression and body fat and hollowing boredom and false sense of societal stability and settling. I fortuitously found the book again some months before we left Milwaukee and a phrase imprinted itself on the inside of my skull.

“Time is the only commodity.”

What I didn’t know when I read it was that it was the inception of this adventure – which everyday is less of an adventure and moreso just my life. This is my life. I live in the woods. We’re all out here living in the backcountry. And I still don’t know what we’re all doing out here, but one thing I know for sure is that we certainly are not bored.

Time is the truest, core commodity and everything else becomes tender of that.

Out here our tender is cyclical and interwoven –  a tender of time is your speed which is affected by the weight of what you carry, primarily your food and water, which affects your level of physical energy and wellness, which affects your speed, and so on. If you carry more you might go slower, carry less you might run out of what you need – but you’ll get to the next place faster – if you don’t run out of energy. So, while the northern ascent out of Lehigh Gap is infamous for its stature and physique, the miles that lie beyond upon the ridge are the source of a serious threat – dehydration. The water sources are on trail are infrequent, and some in this area are contaminated from a century of Zinc smelting. You can choose to carry more water from a clean source through the dry miles, but that potentially drains your physical energy and heightens your need to hydrate. You could go farther off trail to get clean water, but you use up physical energy you would otherwise use to get you farther along on trail. It’s a logistics issue, a numbers game. And like almost all things in my life that are supposed to be objective, it is a game complicated by fear.

Fear is by far the heaviest thing you carry, at the greatest expense to your time (and the quality of it). Poet said that people pack their fears – their excess is illustrative of what they fear the most. Afraid of being cold? You pack a sleeping bag with an excessive temperature rating. Afraid of going hungry? You pack too much food. I won’t go on; the examples are endless. Just name a fear – someone’s packed something for it. The fears are often unnamed, however, and may not even be considered as fears. The aforementioned items are only the material manifestations of fears, easily cast away once the internal essence of the fear is vanquished. That’s the tricky part. When I weighed my pack in Stevens Point it was pushing 60 pounds. Climbing up out of Lehigh Gap it was half that much. And I am, in general, a lot less fearful of a person. Mostly I feel the lifted weight of the fear of not being good enough, a leaden fear compounded by years of conditioning and shame. I can’t exactly articulate in this moment the process of ridding myself of fear – but I do know that internal fears borne from anxiety are easily overshadowed by tangible, external fears.

External fear out here is simple and it makes sense.

There is a knife edge. You might fall and break your spine. Don’t fall off the knife edge.

There is a mother bear and her cubs. They might steal your food and the vessel in which you carry it. Don’t let your livelihood get stolen by a bear.

Venomous snakes will bite your leg and inject you with poison. You could lose your leg, or, you know, die. Watch out for snakes and don’t lose your fucking leg.

“Don’t lose your fucking leg” was my only thought as I frantically crab-crawled backwards up the slippery shear ledge away from the Copperhead. That makes sense – you should be afraid of snakes killing you. My adrenaline pushed me through the rest of Wolf Rocks and back to a peaceful morning stroll on solid soil with all of my limbs in tact. And for some reason then, as I had on the rocks above Palmerton, I thought of my life on the ground, out of the woods.

Before the fear I felt was at the peril of fabricated dangers –  the “risks” of living in civilization, not just the city  – getting mugged, assaulted, raped – these are my experiences and fears – they are real, but they are made by and up of humans. We make them. Fear of your government, of authority, your elders, your peers, other people. On the trail everyone is a friend. We are all hungry, all tired and thirsty, all walking – and if not in the same direction we are at least all walking somewhere. On the street back home, you have to be careful who you consider a friend. Back home my streets are stained with violence and hatred stemming from human-on-human conflict of all kinds – sexual, racial, economical. My state has been arterially torn at the jugular, our livelihoods lapped up by the tongues of tyrants and tycoons. As I put distance between myself and the snake, I felt no resentment toward its menace – instead felt amazement and disgust at the ability of humans to play the snake. And play it so needlessly. I don’t know what it means, but I feel it sizzling like a brand upon my brain, melting that which I thought before to be so (Can you tell I do a lot of thinking out here? I have a lot of time to think – When I’m not about to be eaten by a venomous snake, that is. It feels wrong that, even though the trail presents its own set of dangers, we are made to be more afraid of other people than of snakes or bears or ledges. I think it’s pretty messed up that I’m less afraid of snakes than of where I live in the front country).

My thoughts soon were cleared of all this rhetoric – as I came up the Blue Blaze to Kirkridge shelter, I could hear Milam fiddling with the stove and chatting with some other hikers, but I couldn’t see who was there through the sweat of my brow, the humid cloud enveloping the ridge, the lack of the light in the dim and deep wooden shelter past its covered porch.

“Hives!” Garnet Turtle yelled her greeting in delight as Trial approached me with a grin and a fist bump. Soon over coffee we were sharing trail tales and I was showing off my poison ivy pictures. Texas Poo and the rest of the Crazy AT Eight had passed them, and as he had been exhibiting my injuries, our hiker family knew that we were right behind them, just as we knew we were going to catch up based on their entries in the trail logs. Error shook her head at my feet, saying they looked worse than her daughter’s – she is a Ballerina in France (I wonder what the Crazy Eight’s reaction would be in the dressing room of a French Ballet. “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?!”)

It would be a brief reunion, as Milam and I were likely to pass them again, but for the day we were all headed to the same place – a church hostel in Delaware Water Gap, within a mile of the New Jersey border, to resupply, shower, sleep inside, and eat disgusting amounts of town food. And it would be with friends sans fears – without snakes, man or beast.

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