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Ever since they were little, I took my kids hiking, camping and canoeing. I was (still am…) an Eagle Scout.
Ten days in the summer of 2000.
Many of the readers of this blog will know that my younger daughter Amy, also maintains a blog, and she often writes about outdoorsy stuff. Amy has many accomplishments in the area of camping/hiking/backpacking/canoeing, not the least of which is that she did a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2010. For the uninitiated, this is a marked footpath through the mountains of the eastern USA which is 2,170 miles from Georgia to Maine. She started Jun 1st and finished Oct 29th.
“Did she do it alone?” is always the first question any woman asks.
Um, sort of. She was a party of one, but I would say she was not alone for very long. How do I describe the cult-like traveling community of fellow-hikers that forms, re-forms, and mutates along the way? Amy was “Whoopie Pie” and joined the cult. No, she was not alone. But as to who she was “with” – that’s another story. Amy’s sister joined her to traverse New York; her mother joined her in the huts of the White Mountains; and though our paths crossed in Glencliff New Hampshire, my own co-hike consisted of the section between Bellview New York and the Susquehanna River – in other words, about ninety miles in the Great State of New Jersey. (which was nice – please refrain from the New Jersey jokes. the A.T. in NJ does not go through Newark… we did climb the highest point in the state, aptly titled “High Point, NJ”). This was considered to be a bit odd. Most through-hikers have a support team of sorts, but the support team evidently does not join the pilgrimage, most of the time.
The through-hike is best told by Amy. For me, I was flattered recently when she wrote about a previous hike she and I shared, the Hundred Mile Wilderness, in 2000. Back then, I had ten days off and decided I needed to do a trip. She came along.
There are too many favorite vignettes of the y2k trip to tell them all. How we got our Trail Names. The secrets of the logbook. Spending five of the ten nights as the only people at whichever lean-to we bunked in. The night some sort of Creature approached Potaywadjo Spring Lean–to and we prepared to fight it off. The lunch on the flat rocks, an hour gazing at a micro-universe of tadpoles in the shallow water. The people we met. Crossing rivers, climbing mountains, surviving the weather. Obsessing about the chimney at Chairback Gap. Standing on Little Boardman Mountain looking south and using my walking stick to say “see that ridge in the distance? That’s where we’ll be in four more days of continuous walking.” Almost burning down the Cooper Brook Fall Lean-to. Chances to just sit on a high place and dream about the world. Meeting the other long distance hikers and realizing that 98% were male. Meeting and sharing a lean-to with through hikers who had come all the way from Georgia already….
But one story I will tell.
The second night of the trip we spent at Wadleigh Stream Lean-to, partway along Nahmakanta Lake. When I was there in 1982, it was brand new; I dunno why I expected that it still would be, eighteen years later. As the trail approached the lean-to, it was obvious that it was occupied. Lounging on the wooden floor, five women casually played cards while singing a folk song – in harmony. I said hello, and they greeted me with a chorus of southern drawls….. “are you ladies from the South, by any chance?” they all gave the “oh puh-Leeze” gesture at once, and the oldest batted her eyelashes as she said “we don’t go divulging our secrets to any old YANKEE!”
I took off my Stetson cowboy hat and held it over my heart with a flourish, silent for a moment. I tried to sound like Colonel Sanders as I intoned “I do believe there is a standard of northern hospitality which I will endeavor to follow and I am honored to make the acquaintances of five southern belles such as yourselves”
And with that we settled in. I got a space near the wall, and Amy would sleep between me and the five ladies, two of whom decided to move to their small tent. I knew Amy would now have some role models for women hikers. Turns out three were from Tennessee and two were from Utah. They all talked with Amy. Good. One of the Utah girls sported a black-and-blue on her thigh the size of a tea saucer, now turning green. Amy listened wide-eyed as the hiker told of her fall coming down the chimney of Chairback Gap, and how she was too hurt to hike anymore that day. The young lady had pitched her tent at that spot and stayed a day til she decided she felt better. Dad, how many days til Chairback Gap?!?!?!?!?!
The evening was pleasant. In the middle of the night there was a burst of torrential rain, and I got up, took everyone’s clothes off the clothesline, and brought it all in.
Morning starts early on the Trail, and my habit on that trip was to get up and boil water so as to hand Amy some cocoa and some oatmeal while she was still in the sleeping bag. I was determined to show her some small luxuries and consideration so she would enjoy backpacking. Next to her, the Utah girl with the bruise was preparing her pack for the day.
First, she rolled up the sleeping pad and the sleeping bag in a very particular way. Just So. The she made her breakfast and ate it; but afterwards returned every single item to the exact place where it belonged in her pack. Meticulously. It was crystal clear that she had a system to locate each item and that she had practiced this setup dozens of times, if not hundreds. I could see Amy’s eyes widen as she watched. Wordless. But taking it all in. The Utah Girl was doing her daily routine but I wonder if she knew that she was performing for a highly discerning audience (of one). Amy and I shared one of those long silent pauses holding eye contact that told me we would dissect this at length later. Which we did. From then on, Amy sharpened her observations as to any little technique of backpacking shown by others.
And that was the beginning.
Now, I am asked sometimes what is the appeal of backpacking? Why go through all the hardship and privation? Well, there are joys involved, the camaraderie of the Trail, and all that. But I have come to realize that a person needs to have a sort of compulsive streak in order to do this sport. That morning I watched Amy as she watched the Utah Girl assemble her kit for the day. I knew at that moment Amy possessed the type of focus (yes, you could call it a compulsive streak..) that would make her want to go deeper into it. And excel. People take up backpacking as a way to tweak their compulsive gene.
Okay, just one more
One of the shining moments of the trip came close to the end. We’d eaten most of the food, and both packs were considerably lighter. We got to the ford of Long Pond Stream, and the water was a couple of feet deep there. Too lazy to take off out boots, the water was slowmoving and we could have waded across, about thirty feet, holding the packs above our heads. Too much hassle. So we searched upstream for a better crossing point. There was a place about ten feet across where two large flat boulders fronted each other. If only… if only we could get a running jump, we could make it across.
And yes, without a backpack there would have been no doubt. I went first. Uff. Landed on the rock on my belly but slipped in slo-mo fashion into the water, unable to grip the smooth rock to stop myself. Still about four feet deep, but I went all the way in and got my hair wet. Back pack soaked of course. Hat started to float off.
And there was Amy, standing on the rock, laughing at me. “Smart Aleck. Now I will show you how it’s done”
Okay your turn. Loosen your waistbelt. I got out of the way. And she did the exact same thing. She looked over at me as she scrabbled to find a grip on the rock, but she slowly slipped into the stream. Years later when I saw the scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is dragged to his doom by the balrog, I got a flashback to Amy’s crossing of Long Pond Stream. She come up for air cackling like a bedraggled chicken.
We both slogged to shore, took off out boots and socks, drained the back packs and decided the only logical thing was to have a snack. Ordinarily getting soaked by accident this way might be viewed as a crisis by some people, but what made it so memorable was as we were putting everything back together, we were chuckling and giddy about it. What fun.
I told Amy that ordinarily, people only did stupid stuff like that if they had been drinking.
There were other times that week when I thought about Amy as a lifetime Trail Buddy, but at that moment I knew. Amy was going to thrive as a backpacker. She had discovered her lifetime sport.