It was a seemingly uneventful Saturday night in early March. The chicks were having a sleepover with their little buddy from the sitter’s and everyone was chasing and screaming and actin a fool in the basement. After consuming half of a chicken club pizza and a warm chocolate chip cookie or 12, I figured it would be best if I went down and got in a workout. I grabbed my laptop and a big cup of water and headed south. I still don’t know if I missed the last step or I did all the steps right and am just my mother’s daughter or what, but I heard a crack! from my ankle region and went down. My water went flying and covered the wall … my laptop flew into the baseboard. Responding to my shrieking sobs, Hank came flying down the stairs from the kitchen. No words … I had no words. Until I managed to get out, “Is my computer OK?” “Let’s just deal with this situation first and then we’ll look at that, alright?” Then he half-joking, half-shitting-himself, looked up from my ankle and into my eyes and said, “We leave in 3 weeks to go backpacking. Three. Weeks.” A lot of ice, elevation and laziness got me in my boots by go time. But on the third day of our adventure, the crack! came back.
I woke up from my last 20-minute stretch of sleep and heard footsteps and voices in the distance. The thru-hikers were breaking camp at Roan Mountain High Knob Shelter. I was alive. I looked over at Hank. “I don’t want to get out of my sleeping bag,” he said. “I thought I was dying from hypothermia last night,” I responded, in an I’ll-top-that tone. “What the hell were we thinking with this?” True to Princess Biscuits form, I grabbed what was mine and hauled ass to the shelter to get out of the thrashing mountain wind and in to Jetboil some coffee and breakfast. One by one our crew Frankinsteined their way into the small cabin; stiff and frozen and cranky in a way that the Starbucks Via just couldn’t thaw. I pulled a fresh pair of underwear and a new sports bra out of my pack and assessed my dressing room options. I could either go out to the tent or climb up a shady ladder to the formidable second level of the shelter to change. Based on my PTSD from the night before, it was looking like the attic had it. Let me ask you something … Have you ever stripped down to your birthday suit in a 30-something-degree log enclosure that’s too squatty to stand up all the way? Well, you’re missing quite a thrill. I gave those mice a show, I tell ya.
Between frozen water bladders and frozen spirits, it was slow going that Tuesday morning. The most exciting piece of conversation was around a splatter of spilled coffee on Just Mat’s boot tip that looked like an old man. The longer we stood, the more my 10 toes felt like 2 blocks of ice jammed into cement blocks. It was my brother who suggested he, Hank and I take off since we were packed up. Movement does wonders for numb appendages, I can testify to that. The three of us spent that morning alone, first strolling down a rocky bed under a canopy of soon-to-be green branches, frost from the night before blowing off the treetops, sending majestic flurries through the streaming sunbeams. Eventually the terrain turned to a more traditional forest. I spent those hours trailing my husband and talking to my brother. Really talking to my brother, without a million kids running around or tension about a businesses matter or softball schedules. I had drinks with a girlfriend after we got back and I mentioned this time to her. “That is such a gift,” she said. Kelly lost her brother when we were young and I’ve often thought what a slap in her face it is to waste my own sibling relationships. And it’s true, it was a gift. I’ll always have that morning to retreat to when I need it. A particular fondness, radiating that morning sunlight, will always coat that memory in my mind.
We passed a young man at a turn in the trail. “Go ahead,” I said. “We’re pretty slow.” “That’s OK, I’m waiting for someone.” he replied with a smile, and we trekked on. Eventually we came to a road. We crossed and searched for where the trail picked back up on the other side. No luck. A young girl emerged from the path we’d just left. “Huh,” she said. “My brother isn’t here and he usually waits for me. Having trouble finding the trail?” “Yeah. I think we did see your brother though about a mile back. Blue coat?” “That’s him! We must have missed a turn,” she concluded. She turned around only to save our bacon by yelling back down at us a minute later that we’d missed a redirect. In hindsight, the logs that were piled where we should have turned but didn’t were actually a fairly clear indicator. We probably gave ourselves an extra half a mile on the day, if that. The error wasn’t surprising given the fact that we were gazing down 90 percent of the time. Rule No. 6: Try to look up every once in awhile. You’ll like the view. That was one of the most disappointing parts of the journey for Hank. “You’re in this beautiful area, with these amazing views, and you spend the majority of the time looking one foot in front of you on the ground.” It was true, your best bet of avoiding injury was to constantly calculate your next step to avoid roots, rocks and ruts. A necessary evil if you want to stay upright.
A short time later, I heard a familiar voice, “Hey guys! There’s a real bathroom down here! It’s really nice!” It was Lieutenant Blazer. He’d found a visitors area for day hikers and took full advantage of the facilities. We were at the base of Three Bald Hike, a grassy section of the trail with vast views of purplish-gray mountains on every side. Almost as soon as we left the asylum of the forest, the wind began lashing out at my cheek pudge. I pulled the hood of my rain jacket over my ball cap and secured it to save my skin. The gusts carried any chance of conversation out of your mouth and back down the mountain like a dryer at the end of a car wash. Being as we were on a fairly challenging incline, I didn’t have much to say anyway. This section was interesting since, unlike when you were in the maze of the woods, you could see what was ahead of you, a feature that was both daunting and sobering.
It had been several hours since breakfast by this point and the balds led us down into a windy route with strange-looking scraggly trees. I was getting a little lightheaded and the twists and turns weren’t helping. Finally, I could hear The General’s voice. That meant they were stopped for lunch. I picked up my pace a bit and came down the muddy hill to where the men sat sorting through granola bars. I heard pack hit dirt behind me and turned just in time to see Gravy sliding down the path. First fall of the trip. “I’m OK!” he assured me as he pulled only half of his right trekking pole out of a mud puddle. The suction of the wet dirt clenched the bottom, stabbing side of the stick and offered only a slight struggle before he reclaimed it.
Of course any time we eat, it’s a highlight for me, but I have to ask: You guys, have you had Justin’s Maple Almond Butter? I don’t know if it’s really that good or it was just that good on the side of a mountain, but I’m telling you, we slapped some of it on a flour tortilla during lunch that day and it was like a creamy hug for my soul. With a full tank of gas and the promise of one more night sleeping out on the trail, we pressed on. The afternoon was a woodsy decline full of switchbacks and proof of Mother Nature’s sense of humor: roots. They are the bark that bites. Even if you’re looking right at them, you still trip over roots. I swear, they’re a magical height designed to hook the toe of your boot and send you hurdling toward the earth for one frightening flash of a second. All while, I imagine, the forest fairies point and laugh at this America’s Funniest Home Videos montage. I love it when they really fall, they say. But on that steady descent on the afternoon of the third day, I hit one of those stinkers and felt a familiar crack! Game over, I thought. Hank knew it, too. The sound, my obvious hesitation moving forward, the fact that we’d just been through this 3 weeks ago. “I was thinking about how I could throw myself down so we had an excuse to get rescued and no one would think you were wussing out,” he later told me. Did everyone think I was going to wuss out?
My ankle was sore but sturdy enough to keep me propelling forward. The rest of the afternoon was quiet for this girl. I focused on my steps and kept my fears to myself and soon we came to The General standing at a small side path. After 7.1 miles (plus our morning detour), we’d reached Over Mountain Shelter, a large barn that stood at the foot of a post card-esque panoramic view. We made our way down the steep hill to the building and I remember Hank noting, “This is gonna be a real bitch in the morning.” I filed it away in the folder in my brain labeled: Thoughts to freak the frick out about in a few hours.
I walked into the barn and into the strangest adult sleepover of my life. We climbed the ladder to the second floor, which was essentially just a large hay-mow. We put our sleeping mats and sleeping bags down in a neat little row like preschcoolers preparing for nap time. I grabbed my snack (the Snickers) and went down to the fire. A girl about my age was whipping up some ramen and two older gentleman were working on the wood teepee over the fire. I struck up a conversation when it felt appropriate and waited a respectful amount of time before asking her what had crossed my mind the second I saw her. “So, how are you able to be out here for 6 months?” It’s the question I had for all the thru-hikers. How do you have the time and the resources and the ability to detach long enough to hike this entire trail. In some cases, it was easy to tell. They were recent college grads, or retired, or kind of a bum … But in a lot of cases I just couldn’t figure it out. It fascinated me. “Well, actually I worked for a tech startup in Seattle,” she said. “One day, I’d had enough, so I decided to go for a walk.” I sat on the log and stared at her like she was Deepak Chopra … or Oprah. “That’s so freaking cool.” I said, like a 7th grader to a senior. I was awe-struck. The super zenned-out gentleman next to her did fire and rescue in Wyoming and was a grade A badass. The third guy resembled Bob Ross and was so kind and calm I never pushed to hear his backstory. The one I came up with in my mind was far better than anything he could have said.
They started trickling in … some just to eat and then press on, others to shack up in the barn. Fanning my internal flame for the trail life, the thru-hikers would greet all of the new arrivals by trail name. “Hey, Ruffles! Where’s Willow?” “Hey, Johnny Walker! You made it. You must’ve hauled ass, man!” “Grill! I haven’t seen you since the Smokies. What’s the story?” It was a club and we were there on a guest pass. I wanted in. I sat with my eyes open and my mouth agape with a jerky grin. Then my body caught on to the fact that I’d stopped moving and, once again, I was cold. I shivered, at times violently, at times with control, as I spooned pasta from a pouch past my wind-burned lips. “Do you want this dessert tonight?” Hank asked. I shot him a what-the-hell-do-you-think glare. A Raspberry Crumble with chocolate cookie topping wouldn’t fix everything, but it sure as shit took the edge off. Just Mat knocked over the bag with the juices from his chicken teriyaki and we all watched, helpless as they ran across the sleeping platform on which we sat. “The mice are gonna come.” The General said. My brother, in an act I can only assume was a byproduct of exhaustion, reached out with his glove and pushed the liquid to the edge. We all scrunched our faces in unison and disengaged.
As much as I loved being a fireside voyeur and taking in all the trail talk and mile tallies, I turned in early that night. I was praying for sleep and warmth since we were technically out of the wind. I was also hoping the mice stayed away. I put on all of my clothes, including both of my jackets, and pulled every drawstring closure on my sleeping bag to keep me sealed in tight. I thought I heard one at some point in the night, but I can’t be sure. In the early hours of the morning, I (shocker) had to pee. I drunkenly climbed out of my sleep sack, put on my sandals and headlamp and scurried down the ladder. As I wondered out into the random smattering of trees behind the barn, I saw light from another headlamp and changed directions. Then I saw another light. And still one more. It was like a game of hide and seek with full bladders and bears. Or like the scene at the end of ET where the scary guys are coming for him. Rule No. 7: When you find yourself in the woods with other sleepy bathroom buddies, shine your light toward them, drop trou and get it done. They can’t see your fanny if they’re temporarily blinded.