Still cocooned in body heat and sleeping bag, I squinted one eye and opened the other. Sounds of zips and tarps and nylon folding filled the dusty barn walls as thru-hikers slowly started clearing out. Knowing we had our longest day ahead of us, with over 9 miles to cover to get back to the Mountain Harbour Hikers Shelter where we started, there had been some discussion the night before about hoofing it a bit before stopping to cook up breakfast on the trail.
My jaw worked vigorously on a peanut butter Clif bar as I went about my temporarily typical morning routine. I worked methodically – deflating my sleeping pad and rolling it tight, doing the same with my sleeping bag. Pulling on fresh socks and lacing up my boots. Putting everything back into my pack just the way it was the day before. Tightening the straps. Adjusting and stuffing and pulling. Less than a week ago, I’d been so intimidated at the thought of living out of this thing, and now it was second nature. It was familiar and starting to lose its fresh-from-the-showroom stiffness, which made me feel a sense of pride. Like I’d earned something. Like I’d dulled the giant scarlet letter that marked me a rookie.
I walked into the rousing, semi-frigid morning air, the sun boldly showing itself now over the picturesque mountains, to brush my teeth. This was it, I thought. It’s the last day of our big, crazy, I-can’t-believe-we’re-doing-this adventure. A few thru-hikers sat by the fire with their oatmeal and Oreos and coffee and I envied them. As far as they were concerned, this was just another morning in a 6-month-long string of mornings spent on a mountain somewhere on a seemingly endless trail. We would be getting off before the day was over. It was a bittersweet pill I wasn’t ready to swallow without any food in my stomach.
The General went ahead to start ticking off the mileage, and the Lieutenant, Just Mat, Gravy and I followed shortly after. If you’ve been following this series loyally, you might recall the hill we descended to get down to the barn. Hank called it a bitch and now, in the early hours of our last day on the trail, that hill was making us hers. After so many victories, I was humbled by Mother Nature for what would be the first of many times that day; My exhalations a mix of steamy fog and burning, strenuous gasps. The arduous climb from camp got us back on to the Appalachian Trail, but served only as an aperitif to the unrelenting slopes we’d soon be summiting.
It was roughly 8 o’clock in the morning and on any other Wednesday I would be settling into my cubicle with a thermos of hot coffee and an inbox full of asks. But not this Wednesday. On this particular Wednesday, I was gradually making progress on a steep gradient against a stiff, sharp, merciless wind. I wrestled my able-bodied opponent the best I could, but the beating was brutal. Lieutenant Blazer, true to form, went by. Just Mat faded first into a dot and then completely from the horizon. Gravy stood by me, I think only from the fear I would blow away or lay down and surrender myself entirely to the elements.
After nothing but up, we reached a bald that went, you guessed it, up a little higher. I shuffled like a snowbird on her way to bridge club and chipped away at the elevation in tiny, manageable doses. About a third of the way up I threw a message into the forceful wind and let it blow back to Hank, “When we reach the top of this thing … I don’t care what … it looks like … I’m stopping to make my fu@k!ng oatmeal.” After 15 years with a person, they become very attune to your signals. For instance, I know when Hank puts his hands on his hips, he’s about to call it quits on something, and he knows that if it’s been more than 3 hours since we had a sizable meal, I am likely a hangry, hangry turd.
Let me put this in perspective for you. When I was 3 years old – maybe 4 – my mom accidentally left me at home. She made it all the way to the ball diamonds before she realized that I, her baby girl, was still at home. The General and Just Mat, as a matter of fact, were both in the van that pulled away and left me, just a young pup, standing at the glass door. All because I didn’t get my shoes on fast enough. Anyway, my mother, who felt terrible obviously, still laughs about that fact that after she tore ass home, the first thing I said was, “I didn’t know what I was going to have for dinner.” Food – or the absence of it after a few hours – is a real source of stress in my life.
So, as I tortoised my way up that bald, there was no question about my resolve. And meeting my demand, the second we reached the top, I saw a handful of large boulders, dropped my back and fired up the JetBoil. It was like eating on the side of the road as a procession of semi trucks drive by at 80 mph, but I didn’t care. Wind be damned, my belly was empty. Lesson No. 8: Hiking before breakfast is not for everyone and can result in dramatic outbursts. In my blinding state of starvation I accidentally sporked more than my half of the oatmeal into my bowl without even noticing. “Man, you finished yours fast,” I remarked to Hank, not realizing my gluttonous error. I only found out I’d hogged the oats when he retold the story later.
We eventually caught up to the rest of our crew. “We stopped back there to eat,” I shared. “I knew it,” Matt said. “I told The General you have to eat. You always have to eat.” Hank just smiled. “Well, it’s good you did,” The General chimed in. “Because I think we have a big climb when we get out of this patch of woods.” Fine. Good. Bring it, you mother lovin’ trail. I got oatmeal in me now, son. And then I saw it. The bald, or mountain, or Everest, or grand finale, or whatever name indicates a monstrosity.
There was a long approach until you were actually on the incline. So you had plenty of time to anticipate the amount of suck you would soon be sifting through. “Find a rhythm or a count,” The General said. “I do a 1,2…1,2… and then I rest for 30 seconds when I need it.” On that final morning I learned a lot of things. I learned that the body will follow what the mind believes is possible. I learned that wind-burn is nature’s lipstick. And I learned what a false peak is. Do you know what a false peak is? Let me enlighten you. A false peak is when you work your ass off to get to what, you think, is the top of ginormous mountain, only to come around a turn and discover a mountain baby on top of the mountain you originally saw, and perhaps even more of an incline after that. See also: soul crusher, spirit smasher, and son of a …
After receiving my back alley thigh beating from the false peaks (they really did feel real), we reached the true top. It was one of those things where, in your mind, you’re thinking, I just wanna get there, I just wanna get there, but once we did, the wind was so deafening and violent, we just wanted to get outta there. We snapped some pictures and, as soon as The General made it, began the subtle descent down the ridge. We walked along a worn track, about 10 inches wide, through a vacant cattle pasture with rolling landscapes I’ve only seen on screens as part of other people’s lives. We endured a brutal wind bashing to earn those views, and I drank them in as deeply as I could.
When you left the mountain top, you entered into a completely different climate. Suddenly we were among giant rocks and mossy carpeting. This leg of the section was probably the most technical. Every step required a strategy and, though all of our legs were burning, the boulders demanded athleticism. There are certain things that stick, for whatever reason – the smell of your parent’s house, the lyrics to Let It Go. For me, Hank in that part of the woods that day will stay with me. Maybe it’s because his shirt perfectly complemented the emerald spring growth, or that he looked so happy in this final chapter of the journey. I don’t know.
Our descent was long and there was plenty of time to catch up with each other and chat. When we stopped for a quick lunch with just about 1.5 miles left (as a girl walks, of course), Just Mat decided to tell The General that he, Biscuits and Gravy would not be staying in the hiker’s hostel tonight as The General had hoped, but rather, driving to find a hotel with a hot shower and a decent restaurant, the likes of which we could completely destroy with our forks. The General didn’t like what he was hearing. And thus began yet another playful-yet-truthful spat between Just Mat and The General.
You see, The General has been in my brother’s life since before I was born. I would argue that no one on this planet knows Matt quite like The General does, and perhaps, no one ever will. They speak almost every day and thrive under a communication style that borders on verbally abusive and tough love. Backpacking is The General’s jam. And Matt was kind of like burnt toast; he was there for the jam, but he wasn’t into it enough to get out of the toaster on time. He participated for the sake of the participants, but served more as comic relief than an enthusiast. But I tell ya, there were so many times his sharp quips and stupid movie quotes broke up the fatigue. Lesson No. 9: When shit gets real, everybody loves a comedian.
They exchanged snarky jabs (hurt feelings under a veil of sarcasm, as identified by any woman who has ever been around any man) broken up by fits of laughter the rest of the way down the trail. The General felt it was typical of Just Mat to do what made him happy without regard for anyone else, and Just Mat hinted at the fact that The General couldn’t just be grateful that he joined them for the trip, regardless of whether or not he stayed in the hostel that night. I was just happy to have something to listen to, even if it was grown ass men bitching at each other one minute and regurgitating the Revenge of the Nerds song the next. Anything to take my mind off the lower half of my body. The exaggerated descent that made up the last part of our section hike was the part I felt the most the next morning. My knees and ankles screamed at me to stop. Every step down was like dropping an 80-pound bag of flour on top of your joints. They hated me. Lesson No. 10: Just because it’s downhill, doesn’t mean it’s easy.
After what felt like hours, we came to the road that led right back to Mountain Harbour. The five of us strolled down the shoulder of the somewhat-busy street, swinging our trekking poles and salivating over various rewards. I wanted to take my boots off and eat my Snickers. The General had a cooler of beer. Matt couldn’t stop thinking about a shower. In the movie version, we would come into the shot at a slow motion stroll for effect. Our heads would be high. The dirt smeared across our faces and elbows would represent the obstacles we’d overcome and make us endearing. Someone would start a slow clap. But this was no movie and the truth was, we were just a stinky, battered group of nearly middle-aged (some of us closer than others) section hikers from the Midwest.
We didn’t linger long in the hostel parking lot, which felt anticlimactic considering the feats we’d conquered together over the last several days. Our goodbyes were brief but sincere. My brother was a man on a mission. We piled into his truck. “Ya know,” I said, “the scary thing is I can’t really smell us.” Matt sucked down a Gatorade. “I can’t wait to ask for something and have someone bring it to me instead of pouring hot water into a bag of shit and then having everyone ask me how it tastes.”
We made it to Middlesboro, Kentucky, where we stopped for the night. The smell of a clean hotel room shook something loose in my nasal cavity and suddenly I had all the smells. We should have been ashamed. I’m not even sure what parts of the body those smells actually come from, to be honest. The warm steam of the showers combined with, 5 days of travel and hiking were nauseating. After transforming back into humans, we went back down to the desk and asked for a restaurant recommendation. “What do you have in mind?” the gentleman behind the counter asked. “Cheese fries, or a bloomin onion or …” I began to dream aloud. Turns out, Mexican was the popular cuisine in Middlesboro. They had 4 options in that category, all owned by the same family. We picked the closest one.
The waiter knew he had us very shortly into the meal. “We’ll start with queso.” I said. “How big is the dish?” He pointed to the salsa bowls. “Or I have a $12 one, but it’s huge.” “Yes, that! We’ll take that.” I said excitedly. Carnitas have never been that good. I cleared a good part of the cheese trough and my entire meal only to take 3 warm cookies from a display next to the hotel checkin counter for dessert. I didn’t hate myself. Full and happy, I had one place left to go. I think the boys were watching Wahlburgers, but I climbed into that bed, with its tightly fitted, clean sheets and, for the first time in almost a week, I drifted off to sleep with a single thought.