Monday, January 10, 2011

Chattanooga, Tennessee

So my hike is over. We drove back to Chattanooga in the freezing rain last night, out of the wilderness of backwoods Alabama, and made it here just in time for seven inches of snow. It was planned, actually--I pushed the miles the last three days so we could make it out in time for this last front. Shadow is confused and at loose ends. Even though he's a snow dog from Maine, snow in this context is confusing, as is the sudden conflation of people and the lack of backpacks.

They say one of the biggest challenges of hiking with dogs is their adjustment after the hike is finished. He keeps whining and staring out the window in bewilderment and needs a lot of affection. They say many dogs, especially after a longer hike, become depressed. The famous seeing-eye dog, Orient, who accompanied Bill Irwin, the first blind man to hike the Appalachian Trail, became so depressed that he never recovered. He was older anyway, but he passed on soon after completing the trail, going to that great trail in the sky.

No more so than I. Not that I'm going to the great trail in the sky anytime soon, but the adjustment post-hike is just as difficult for humans as for dogs. Today was a snow day in Chattanooga, everything closed, and I used it mainly to cook and eat, favorite post-hike activities. Shadow even has a huge store of Christmas and New Year's bones in the freezer that he can gnaw on, after his meager trail rations.

Hiking changes people and dogs alike, and the recovery process is difficult. I could just step full-force back into my life here, and it's a little overwhelming. I've made some decisions, though, about goals and priorities. Mainly, I've confirmed what I already knew--I want my next major project to be land. That's my main goal for the next however many months, until I find my next anchoring point. I want a homestead of my own.

I love Donne's poem "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," where he compares his wife to the rooted part of the compass, and himself to the other moving leg, and though he circles and moves away, he always comes back. They always meet back in the center. I need a home that can function that way, the rooted anchor that I always return to. I'm not ready to stop adventuring, and I may never be, but having something that ties me to the ground will give me the stability I need for the next stage in my life.

I'll be posting entries from the last two weeks of my hike over the next few days, and I'll try to get photographs up as soon as possible. Looking forward to rejoining civilization, at least for a little while, and hearing from and seeing all of you. Happy New Year, everyone.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Rebecca Mountain to Chattanooga, Tennessee

Campfire and moon memories of the trail

When we walked out of the woods today, into the hallowed hiker heaven of a Mexican buffet (a rarity in the all-you-can-eat universe), I had that same sense of vertigo, of the world shifting around me immediately. Like in a science-fiction movie, when the green screen drops, and our hero realizes he’s been at home the whole time. After the trail, everything changes. The calories I was trying to pump my body full of just this morning now reek of nebulous evil.

Water comes from a tap, not from the earth. Human bodies smell like perfume, and not like themselves. I spend most of the day sitting (even this evening, in the car), instead of moving from place to place on my feet, with my belongings on my back. It’ll be an adjustment.

But the trail, for now, is done. Complete. A tied-off knot.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Sherman Cliffs to Rebecca Mountain

Shadow, at my sleeping bag's foot, in the morning

18.5 miles

Wondering if tonight may be my last night in the woods, I’m sitting in front of the dying embers of a smoky fire. Partly because of Shadow’s food situation (he’s still on strict rations), we’ve been pushing our mileage, which means I’ve done in three days what would have taken us four in December. So we’re ahead of schedule, and the hunters tell us there are eight inches of snow forecast for tomorrow. A good reason to push for the deuce, the big 20-mile day tomorrow.

It still makes me sad, thinking that this campfire may be the last. I don’t know if I’ve done an adequate job of capturing the beauty of this trail, how it’s been a small but lovely part of the American landscape, wilderness but not rugged, with creeks wandering through, low wetlands or ridges with pastureland falling away on either side. We walked a ridge all day today, with a brisk north wind heralding bad weather and keeping my fleece on. But it was a lovely last day of hiking—kicking through leaves, poking at head-sized chunks of snow-white quartz, looking for caves in the boulders that jut out of the tops of mountains.

I love that the Pinhoti Trail is the tip of such a long chain of ancient, ancient mountains. Here, at the end of the chain, you can feel their weight settling into the ground. Just the angle of the rock tells its age—horizontal lines of marbled quartz, now nearly vertical, sunk by the ages. I love that at this point we have now truly finished the Appalachian Mountains, that after these miles they dwindle down into nothing in the swamps and flatland of the Florida panhandle. It makes the Appalachian Trail feel truly complete.

It does not, however, in any way sate my desire for a hiker’s life. I keep thinking of other trails that hover on the horizon—the 1000-mile Florida Trail, the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail, the 900-mile Bibbulman Track in Australia, the American Discovery Trail, the continent’s longest trail, that stretches from coast to coast, more than 5000 miles. No matter how much pain I feel, how much my shoulders tingle, I want more. I don’t want it to be over.

I want to have adventures and write about them. I want to do that forever.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Clairmont Spring to Sherman Cliffs

Shadow and his Puppy Chow from heaven

16.0 miles

A shaman met us on the road today. Well, a crazy Californian living in a van with “LOVE” painted on the side who claimed to commune with the spirit of Sacajawea and to have knowledge of his past lives. And to be a shaman flautist. He claimed that my nose indicated I came from the Cheyenne tribe. He called me a “wise woman.” I’ll take that compliment, no matter who it comes from.

It’s the second odd experience in as many days. I’ve been really worrying about Shadow’s food. The campground store at the state park had nothing but ramen noodles and Snickers bars for our resupply, and even less supplies for him. We packed out seven cans of Vienna sausages to supplement his dog food, but they’re not really doing the trick. His high-protein dog food is running really low. He seems to understand our conundrum. He whines less for his food, accepting what he’s given, and putting his head on his paws while we eat. It’s still awful. It’s one thing for me to go hungry when I know there are Chinese buffets waiting at the next road crossing. It’s something else when you’re a dog and you don’t understand why there’s no food.

But yesterday, walking along the trail, we found a full bag of puppy chow, two pounds of it, exactly what he needs to get through the next five days. Dog food, untouched, still in its original packaging, just lying by the side of the trail. Exactly what I needed, when I needed it.

How bizarre is that? My first thought was: it’s not possible. My second thought was that it was one of those inexplicable unasked-for miracles, a sign that someone in the universe has a sense of humor. And is kind. Call it synchronicity or Christ Jesus, call it what you will. I just have a hard time believing that anything so coincidental is actually coincidence.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Heaven Camp to Clairmont Spring

Tired trail dog

13.4 miles

Before I left on this trip, I showed some friends at my job a map of the trail, told them my plan. “Better you than me,” was their attitude. Today was one of those days I know what they mean. Half the day was spent walking through a “rock garden,” with each step unsure beneath my feet, jagged stones throwing me off balance, wrenching my ankles, my knees, my shoulders.

The concept of adventure has been something that’s haunted my thoughts this entire trail. What makes this an adventure, and not just a walk in the woods? I’ve risked frostbite and hypothermia and coyote attacks, but does danger alone make for an adventure? Is adventure merely a conscious choice to expose oneself to physical discomfort, to pain?

What’s an adventure to one is not to all. One of the things I love to do is built small adventures into my everyday life. Visiting a restaurant I’ve never been to before. Going to the park all by myself. Driving home from work on roads I’ve never explored. So are those adventures? Solely the thrill of the new?

I’d like to call myself an adventurer, but it’s a title--like poet, like yogi, like prophet—that’s difficult to bestow on myself. Whatever the discomfort, though, the life of an adventurer is the one I want. Adventure makes me see the world through new eyes. I feel like new scales are dropping from mine with every step I take outside the status quo. Even when I’m gasping in pain, I can breathe fully here. Van Gogh said: “Our only job is to breathe as hard as ever we can breath.” Keats said: “I want to clamber among the clouds and exist.” Eliot said: “In the mountains, there, you feel free.”

I don’t know what it is that makes an adventurer adventurous. But whatever it is that makes me feel this feeling at the end of the day—beaten, broken-down, exhausted, and happy—it’s what I want.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Cheaha State Park to Heaven Camp

Cheaha State Park placard

8.2 miles

I’m sitting cross-legged, in front of a birthday bonfire. Shadow is a curly dog next to me. K is cracking dead oak into logs for the fire. We built an oven to cook my birthday dinner, a packed-out frozen burrito from the campground store.

The burrito was absolutely delicious—crispy and brown on the outside, gooey and dumpling-like inside, with oozing cheese and bean sauce. It’s amazing how being outside makes gas-station food fantastic.

It’s always funny to me how much of a contrast there is between time in town and out here. This morning I woke up in a climate-controlled room, in clean sheets, with plumbing and running water and a television. The minute I stepped out into the woods, I’m alone, just me, with the food and clothing I carry on my back. The change is instantaneous.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Blue Mountain Shelter to Cheaha State Park

Another Pinhoti Trail stream

1.9 miles

When I woke up this morning, I thought I may end up here—in yet another motel room. That’s four for a 350-mile trail, and I hope it’s the last. As much as I love the anonymous hotel room, and this one’s especially nice, at a state park with a gorgeous view of Alabama’s highest point and stacked rock everywhere, I feel like I’m splurging a little bit, too much for a short trail. Then again, I always felt that way on the Appalachian Trail, too.

I must admit, too, that a day in a flooded-out tarp does make one want a hot shower, a cheeseburger, and some clean sheets. So we had an easy two-mile hike to the state park, where we got a room.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Friendship Camp to Blue Mountain Shelter

Stone floor to a tarp (that's the green tarp wall to the right)

9.6 miles

Sleeping on a bed of rocks last night hurt my hip a bit, I think. But it was far better than sleeping in an inch of standing water, which was the alternative. Yesterday, after my pen ran out of ink, we were huddled in the shelter of the tarp, I was reading, Shadow keeping my feet warm. The rain was pounding down.

Then Shadow stands up, absolutely dripping in water. K, my hiking companion, says: “You better check your tortillas.” I do, and we pull back the sleeping pads, and there’s about an inch of groundwater, just below the ground cloth.

My choice at that point was: hike on with everything I own wet, or devise a solution. We ended up pushing the flat rocks from around the campsite under the walls of the tarp, sweeping away the water, and devising an impromptu stone foundation. It wasn’t that uncomfortable. A lot more comfortable than sleeping downhill, for instance. Or in an inch of water. I felt like Jacob, sleeping on a stone pillow, although I did not dream of angels.

We even built a fire with wet wood, and today almost everything I carried was dry. At least, until I decided to ford a stream with my shoes on. Impatience always makes stupid decisions. Today’s hike was a lot less eventful. Pleasant miles, interesting flute-like fungi, and vibrant green moss. Moss may be my favorite plant. It’s always so green, and it’s involved in very interesting reproduction right now. Every bed of it is topped by miniscule and mysterious growths.

Tonight I sleep in a shelter, with no rain to concern me. Nothing to worry about except ghosts and mice. Oh, and a worry about a return to my home-bound life.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year’s Day

First picture of the New Year

0 miles

We’re trapped in the tarp again, on New Year’s this time. We’re bored. Ender’s Game is the book that succeeded Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—some easy reading science fiction to take the place of hardcore natural realism—but I don’t know if we should finish it today, because then we’ll be all done and that will make me sad and we won’t have a book left to read. I’m thinking over my resolutions and wondering if I should have shared them because then they won’t come true.

I’m also wondering if anyone is reading or commenting on my blog, on the things that I’m writing and the ideas I’m exploring. I’ve been writing them differently than I did on the Appalachian Trail, exploring my larger goals and larger concepts, rather than focusing on the day-to-day minutia of how many miles I’ve hiked or how much pain I’m in. It makes my hiking journal less interesting to some, I’m sure, especially those looking for specific details about the Pinhoti Trail so they can hike it in the future. But more interesting to others, I hope, more interesting to those unconcerned with mileage but interested in the feeling of long-distance hiking.

My right shoulder is in pain, and I do find myself thinking about little details like how we carried too much food out of town or when we’re going to finish if we don’t stop doing more than a zero day at a time. I feel like it’s more valuable to find something interesting to focus on and write about it than it is to obsess on the little details. Especially by the end of the AT all I could think and write about was how many miles I was doing a day. Today I’m frustrated by not hiking, by being a day further behind, but I want to think about other things, like books and music and art.

There was an eighty-percent chance of thunderstorms today. I should have known. Maybe it’ll still clear and enable us to hike, but I doubt it. It feels like an all-day rain.