Dave and I were married late (he was 39, I was 37) and plus I already had a kid from a virgin birth, okay, not really but I’d never been married because I’d waited until I found a gardener (I like tomatoes) who reads. And neither had he. Been married before. We were late bloomers but then we bloomed.
So a cogent thing about Dave is that he’s walked the Appalachian Trail twice, though never all at once. The AT is over 2000 miles long which means he’s walked over 4000 miles of it and also he’s walked every bit of it at one point or another. He’s lived out on the trail for three months at a time, a couple of times. He’s like, you know, a trail expert. He has feelings about the fact that he never made an actual what they call “through hike” but I, having met a couple of people who have actually done through hikes, do not share those feelings. Through hikers seem a strange breed to me: driven and sort of martial-minded and not entirely suited to the suburbs, which is after all, where we live.
On our honeymoon, almost twenty years ago, we walked a bit on the AT so he could show me how it looked. It looked lovely. We went to Max Patch, which is a bald (which means a mountain top on which no trees grow making for those soul-filling, waves-of-blue-mountains views) and we hiked for a couple of hours in the deep woods (us and a bunch of boy scouts).
But I’d always wanted more.
It’s not that I’m a hiker-type. I’m a couch potato, like, maybe the grandmother of all couch potatoes. I’m the opposite of in-shape. Also, I’m not outdoorsy. I like the idea of the out of doors more than the out of doors itself. I don’t like heat nor can I bear mosquitoes. (You see why I needed someone to grow my tomatoes for me.) I like the idea of farm-life, I like the picture of picnics, I like the image of the trail. The real thing often proves too violent or buzzy or strenuous. (I hope I have proven here that I know how lame I am.)
This is not to say that I haven’t paid a few dues. For four years out of college I lived without running water in a little house on a hill in the middle of tobacco fields. There’d been a pump when I first moved in but a big Black Snake took up residence on the pump itself, nightmarishly filigreed around the handle and the spout, and then when he left, the pump just gave up the ghost. (Maybe the snake had been holding it together.) But I lived there nonetheless, toting water in from town to wash my dishes, bathing in the shower room of the university at which I worked. (This was in a time before key cards, when you could just walk in and wave hey to the towel guy. Times have changed.)
So as I say, I’d wanted more of the AT than those few honeymoon hours, sweet as they were.
Maybe it was because, due to the fact that Dave and I were an older bride ‘n groom, we’d learned to live pretty well without each other and continued to do so even after we were married. We often vacation without each other: he hates the beach, he hates cities, I like both. Anyhow, maybe I wanted the AT because I felt like it was time we did something together for a change.
Or maybe it was all about me. As I recall, I meant to go hiking with or without him, though now—having done it—I laugh at my own hubris. But what I mean is that I feel myself getting older (as Bilbo Baggins put it, I’m beginning to feel like butter scraped over too much bread) and I knew I’d better get while the getting was good. I’ve always had my share of physical strength; as I feel it wane, I regret its passing.
Or maybe it was for the worst of reasons: because Dave drives me crazy sometimes. He lives entirely in the present which I’m sure is awesome if you’re on a mountain top staring at the insides of your eyelids. But say you’re married? And your kids need summer camp plans? And college funds? And there’s a weird spot on the ceiling which what is it? And if we put one more thing in the attic it’s going to collapse the ceiling which maybe that has something to do with the spot? Well, maybe a little bit of planning ahead isn’t such a bad thing. Which means that after years of knowing—like just Knowing in my Bones—that he was thinking, “mmm, some day I’m going to walk on the Appalachian Trail once again tra la la la la,” I was feeling frustrated in a decidedly un-live-and-let-live way. So I decided, Man, if you’re not going to make it actually happen than I am. You can thank me later, bud.
Or maybe it was for the best of reasons. That being that even such as I—out-of-shape, self-indulgent, hyper-critical, hypocritical—heard the siren-song of the big trees and wanted, above all things, to answer. I believe that barring mano a mano violence and starvation and greed and Republican politics, why, there’s nothing a good long walk in the woods can’t cure. My soul hungered for the dark forest and I wished to feed it.
So there we were, walking together. It was so physically taxing for me that I feared my heart might explode in my chest. It’s all about the one foot in front of another, the great trudge, the uphill, the downhill, except that you’re wearing a pack filled with food and stove and sleeping pad and clothes and sleeping bag and toilet paper and a book and your various pairs of spectacles and water bottles with water in them. One nalgene water bottle, filled, weighs four pounds. I hadn’t worked as hard or hurt so much since I had a couple of babies without anesthesia. I climbed and panted and thought about the novel The Orphan Master’s Son and the author’s superb ability to describe pain and then, when the second hour of climbing turned into the third hour, I stopped thinking and just let myself feel—like a baby feels what’s around it—and I realized I was as close to a be-here-now moment as I’d ever get. (How can it help but occur: maybe all that time he spent on the trail schooled Dave in his talent for living in the present.)
The world fell away the way it does when you’re in the middle of a birth or a death. The hours stretched and contracted at once. It felt like forever. It felt like the blink of God’s eye, not that I believe in God.
And here I must come clean. Our hike was, in fact, sort of like the blink of an eye. We walked 30 miles only. We spend three nights out. But it’s funny, isn’t it, how something so comparatively small as three days can feel like something so much larger.
Here’s how large it looms, for me:
In order to protect our packs from the rain, we draped our ponchos over the frames sort of like giant capes. Our packs were old and thus without the fancy new-fangled internal frame hoolimagooley and thus, when the ponchos hung from the metal frames and cascaded down our backs, we looked gigantic—as big and broad as any brown bear. And there I was, walking behind Dave, so that when I looked up from the trail floor, all I could see of him were his sturdy calves sticking out from underneath this downright edifice of blue. And he went one two one two walking along. It’s usually I who lead: I’m faster, I have a better sense of direction, I have more of that urgent snap snap thing about me. But in this case, it was he who lead and I who followed and it was beautiful to me.
And the landscape: the variety, the variousness.
We zig-zagged up the sides of mountain, on trails that fell away precipitously on one side and angled up steep on the other; we walked through patches of red poisonous-looking mushrooms; we walked through dripping dark tunnels of rhododendron, no sky visible.
Walking through a vast patch of stinging nettle and jewelweed (Dave pointed out how the latter provides the salve for the smarts of the former), I was called to mind of my first sight of the River Jordan, just a skinny little thing after all, despite its heavy rep. Same with the AT. Lots of lore, plenty of hype, but here just the merest tiny path, overgrown almost to invisibility.
We walked through sunny meadows spangled with gnats; we clambered over boulders slick with moss; we sloshed and sloshed. It rained while we were out on the trail, to the point that the Little Laurel Creek—after which one of our shelters was named-- overran its banks and drowned the farmlands at the feet of the mountains. I heard about that flooding as national news on NPR when we came home. And that’s a thing I learned about the Appalachian Trail, or I guess, any mountain trail—it goes up and then it goes down, so if it rains, you’re going to walk in a stream. Ain’t no way around it.
At one point, it began to rain so hard— such a heavy downpour—that Dave just stopped walking—and so I did too. I watched him figure out which way the wind blew and then turn and stand with his back to it—and so I did too. And we stood there in the blowing rain and looked out—sometimes I would sneak a look up at him and there he was, still there, stoic, waiting—and I considered the wetness and the dripping and then, in what can only be considered the epiphany of a town-girl in the woods, I remembered something. I remembered that the rain would diminish. I remembered that squalls blow over. I remembered that we had only to be patient. It’s strange, isn’t it, to be half-blinded by a recollection of something you’ve known all your life.
And then the rain stopped. And then we walked on.