Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fingerboard Shelter to New York City to Providence to Marion, Massachusetts

Wednesday 24 June 2015
4.1 miles

Today I hiked past the Lemon Squeezer, which, if I'm honest, is the whole reason I decided to hike this section.  In 2004, this was the first white blaze that I blue-blazed, thus, in my mind, invalidating my entire thru-hike.  Not really, but kind of.  When Big County and I came to this section, northbound, I couldn't get up the rock face.  I took as many pictures as I could manage (I had to make it to the bus, after all) but they do not manage to convey how steep and challenging this boulder set in the middle of the trail is.

In 2004 I came here, to this patch, a rock I had to climb straight up, vertically.  I tried it first with my pack on, throwing myself against the rock.  That failed.  Then I handed my pack up, to County, and tried it without the pack.  Still no luck.  I was not strong enough then, or now, to pull myself up vertically using just my arm strength.  I never have been.  In middle school, I was unable to sustain a ladder hold (the girlie version of a pull-up) for even a second.  In elementary school, I did not play on monkey bars.

And there's no place to rest weight on a foot, although it is very hard to tell from the photographs.  I could have asked County for help.  He could have offered.  Neither of us did those things—for me, asking for help during a physical challenge is as bad as failing at the physical challenge.  In those days, the side trail around the rock, probably a ten-foot diversion, was white-blazed.  In those days, I was a purist.  I'd passed every single white blaze from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Southfields, New York.  To the Lemon Squeezer.

But I knew, and he knew, that the trail went up that boulder, not around its side.  Today, in 2015, it's even more clear, and more well-marked:  the side trail is blue-blazed (meaning it's not official Appalachian Trail) and marked "Easy Way."  [Incidentally it's also clear the the Appalachian Trail, especially in New York, is built and maintained by sadists.]  So if someone's hiking pure, it's get through the Lemon Squeezer or else.

I didn't in 2004.  I took the side trail and its gimme white blaze.  I was determined to succeed today.  Every day of this three-week hike, if I'm honest, has been building to this moment.  Back in Massachusetts I reminded people of the Lemon Squeezer, and for the last couple of days north-bounders have been warning me: it's going to be even worse for you, coming down.  I didn't care.  I was going to get down that boulder if I had to take all day doing it.

But I kept asking myself questions.  Would it count if I couldn't do it with my pack on?  What if I just threw myself down and fell—would that count?  What if I couldn't do it southbound and took the side trail around, and then was able to pull myself up going north?  That was what I missed the first time, but didn't that mean I was taking the easy way in another sense?

So I was eager with anticipation and nervousness and determination.  And pain.  My knees are getting worse, not better.  I'm walking now with a noticeable and humiliating limp.  When I come up on people on the trail, I double my speed, gritting my teeth, and falling back into my heaving monstrous limp once they go by, when no one can see.

I passed two north-bounders in the morning, hikers with daypacks, one in jeans—two brothers, it looked like, of vaguely mixed race—maybe half-Latino, or Arabic.  We nodded and passed each other, and they looked at me with that suspicious look one would give a Martian.  I'm mysterious out here—not just my all-black hiking spandex, when it's ninety degrees out; but my giant, ripped, oddly-shaped eleven-year-old pack; my barefoot-running shoes; my green glasses and the communist cap I bought at the Lao border.  I gritted my teeth and pressed on.

Then the Lemon Squeezer.  I came to it and barely had time to take some pictures and plan my attack when they came up behind me.  I hadn't thought about them in hours—but of course if they were out for the day they'd have to hike out and turn around.  Being watched is the worst—I find I'm able to attempt almost anything if I'm alone.  Hiking by myself in North Carolina I climbed a hundred yards down a sheer cliff to retrieve a food-bag that had rolled off.  In Aroostook by myself I spread out sewing projects and do cooking experiments and set up composting bins in weird arrangements without fear.  But as soon as someone's watching—even a single person—I cringe in humiliation, fearing their criticism.  Nowhere is this more true than in feats of physical strength.  The best thing about backpacking is being able to walk alone, almost always.

And here I was, at the crucial point of my hike, a moment I'd been thinking about for eleven years.  With two strangers watching.

I let them by.

"Go ahead," I said.  "It'll take me a while."

The first, fitter and smaller, got down relatively easily, sliding halfway on his butt and then leaping.  The bigger brother also did okay, relying more heavily on his rear end.  He did panic a little, partway, making me feel better.

Then, they turned around to stay and watch me descend.  I couldn't tell them to shove off, keep going, that I'd do it myself.

First I tried with my pack and when I realized immediately tit was impossible I sent it down.  They offered to grab it, but I wanted to be able to do it all by myself.  I hung the pack as far down as I could, and it was still a good two feet off the ground.  So I dropped it, and it felt on its side and rolled over.  No problem.

Then I positioned myself to come down, both men watching.  I slid my butt to the point where I couldn't go any farther without dropping, my feet awkwardly braced on rock, my arms clinging above me.  

I don't really remember getting down, or maybe I don't want to remember.  I did say at one point:

"I'm going to die!  I'm going to die!"

And one brother stepped forward and offered me a hand somehow and I made it down alive.  Didn't break any bones.

But does it count?  He helped.  I didn't get down by myself.  Did I pass that blaze?  Can I say I walked that stretch of trail when I didn't?  I fell down it, barely avoiding injuring myself—I didn't walk.  I still haven't hiked it northbound, which was my original intention, to do it both directions, when I came to that point, so I could say that I'd hiked this section purely, both north- and southbound.

The two day-hikers raced ahead, embarrassed for all of us, maybe.  That's how it felt.  I limped on, barely able to walk.  Flagged down my bus at the side of the road, rode to New York City while all the people held their handkerchiefs against their nose against my hiker scent.  I didn't see them again.  But I keep thinking about it.

In the Bible, angels often appear in pairs.  They are nameless and disappear mysteriously.  In one of my favorite Bible stories, a stranger appears alongside two disciples, on the road to Emmaus.  He walks beside them, but they don't notice him, or don't think to wonder who he is.

I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't been there.  I probably would have made it down, probably wouldn't have hurt myself, at least not more than I'm already hurt.

When I missed that section of trail in 2004, in some ways, it ruined my hike for me.  After that I abandoned purism.  We skipped miles of trail, including a big chunk of Vermont so that we could make it to Katahdin in time.  In other ways, it was the most important part of my hike.  I said that it was a gift, that I'd been set free, that what the AT does is cure a person of purism, because you're always going to break some rule for yourself.  You'll slack-pack, or hike a section the wrong direction.  The trail will be routed past a high-running river, or around a washout.  Its difficulty and length is the reason it's so important, because purism, in some sense, becomes impossible.

But this missed blaze haunted me more than any of the others, because this was my breaking point.  And now I come to it again, and this time again, my desire for perfection is flouted, subverted by the appearance of mysterious strangers.  

Remembering those late weeks in Maine, almost to Katahdin—how in pain I was.  How much I suffered.  And how I damaged my body in ways that are only beginning to manifest now, injuring my knees and shoulders.  I did that because of my clenched-jaw stubbornness that refuses to ask for help, refuses to accept help, and refuses to accept my own weakness.  It was good that I skipped that blaze, because we made it to Katahdin.  The handful of miles we missed are always going to be there if I want to hike them, and if I'd forced myself to hike them then, I could have hurt myself to the point where I had to abandon the thru-hike entirely.  I was completely unable to listen to my body then.  I didn't know how.

Maybe God's trying to tell me something.  It's okay to be weak.  It's okay to be imperfect.  It's okay to be in pain.  It's okay to accept help.  What's not okay is insistence on perfection, in myself or in anyone else.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

West Mountain to Fingerboard Shelter

9.1 miles
23 June 2015

My last day on the trail.  Today was excruciating—my knees and feet and shoulders are in pain—and I'm feeling fatigued and I had chills all day and I'm worried about Lyme even though I haven't found a bulls-eye rash or a deer tick on me since Connecticut.  I'm at the shelter tonight with two flippers, two Gamers, and the first south-bounder I've met, Trek.  Figures we'd meet on the last day—like me, he's a former thru-hiker out for not the whole trail but a section.  But he's going all the way to Springer, starting somewhere in New Hampshire.  A much longer section than mine, almost over.

It's a good group.  Crocrocket, a Gamer, packed in some beers and I made a hooked up chili ramen with tuna, using up as much of my leftover food as possible.

The Lyme thing is really weird.  Maybe it's just groupthink, or paranoia, since everyone's worried about it, but I really did feel especially fatigued today.  But that's the joke about it, that all the symptoms mimic trail exhaustion.  I still feel so tired that I feel like I could fall asleep right now as I am writing.

I'm unsure if I should get tested when I get back to Marion or if I should have my knees checked out—they're really scaring me with the level of pain I'm feeling.  It's tough to feel motivated when I don't feel like I ever had my shoulder pain treated seriously three years ago and I never ended up with an MRI.  I have a hard time convincing people of the legitimacy of my repetitive stress injuries, although I don't know if it's not to be expected after 3000 trail miles.  That's not bragging, or an excuse;  just acknowledging that I spent a significant chunk of my twenties walking, and my joints are beginning to show the signs of it.

Or maybe it's Lyme.

It scares me, though, especially when I've been falling in love again so thoroughly with hiking, and convincing myself I could do the Long Trail later this summer, or head north to hike the Hundred-Mile Wilderness with the north-bounders I've met.  But it's my last night camping, my last night in a shelter, my last night with my knees propped on my rolled-up tent.  The last night with hiker stink, the last night outdoors.  Tomorrow I'll be back inside—that's if I can flag down a bus to New York City on the side of the road.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Graymoor Friary to West Mountain Shelter

22 June 2015
12.9 miles

Turns out yesterday I didn't go far enough, as usual.  I went far enough today, maybe too far.  Maybe I'd have been better off camping by myself at one of these lovely camping sites on top of the mountain, closer both today and tomorrow to water.  I like camping by myself but I also like sleeping with other people at the shelter.

I was really excited about today's shelter—.6 off of the trail on a ridge-line with spectacular views of the New York City skyline—but I set up in the corner where I can support my battered knees on my rolled-up tent and I can't even see the view.  Today was too exhausting for me to enjoy it anyway, and there's no water to cook and I'm dehydrated and feeling sick.  I was afraid I'd diarrhea or vomit on the way here.  I'm not eating dinner.  It doesn't appeal.

Maybe this means I am sick.  I have two more days of hiking and then I have to flag down a bus to New York City at the trail crossing.  Supposedly it comes by.  I don't even care.  I'll wait till dark, then camp there if it doesn't come.  I have enough food, I can yogi water if I need to, and there's a hotel in the nearby town.

There's no water at the shelter here, and unlike the north-bounders who were able to collect water within a half-mile as they climbed the ridge, I had to carry my pitiful two liters all the way from drinking fountains at the base of Bear Mountain, four miles and across two summits.  It makes sense to hoard my water for morning.

I'm with two guys tonight—No Hurry, a flip-flopper from Harpers Ferry whom I really like for his lackadaisical pace and great trail attitude, and Skipper, a competitive sailor, who was thrilled to hear about Spirit, our double-ended cutter.  Not that I'll be living aboard anytime soon.  I feel hypocritical about that, like everything, even my hiking.  Sure, I made it farther than any of these people have yet, all the way to Maine, but I did it at a feeble eight-month pace.  Acting like I know anything about backpacking or thru-hiking is making me feel like a liar.

In leaving the trail, in leaving this peripatetic outdoor life, where there are no restrictions or requirements on me other than following the blazes, I'm afraid that I'm going back into depression, back into the mire. Here I have autonomy and purpose and will.  In regular life I lose all of these things.  I do regain the people in my life, my family and friends.  And I do need people and their love.  Don't I?

So last night I trekked into the Graymoor Friary, remembering the layout from 2004 and happy that it was still a trail stop.  It was a 14-mile day, and by the end I was nearly in tears from the pain.  Although the bouldering is not so bad as in Massachusetts, every step onto stone jars the cartilage in my legs, feeling like bone grinding on bone.  Often I can hear it, a sound of crunching and snapping.  Every day the pain is worse, every day the last two miles more intense.

So when I got to the Friary yesterday, at the end of my day, I was ecstatic.  I followed the blue blazes to the field where I was told I could camp.  But there was no one else there.  How odd, I thought, since I'm in the thick of the pack, passing about twenty north-bounders a day.  Someone told me there had been fourteen camped here the day before.  But it was almost dark, and I went hunting for water, desperately thirsty (most of the water sources in New York are contaminated with coliform bacteria), and I was annoyed that I couldn't find it, since it's one of the reasons people stop here.  I trekked up concrete walkways to the picnic tables and pavilion where I'd slept two nights in 2004, and then farther up, to a small chapel, where a priest was adjusting flowers or something.  I nodded at him but went right to the tap without saying anything and filled all my water bottles.  He looked at me oddly but I thought it was my  spandex mini-shorts and at that point I just wanted to stop putting pressure on my legs.  So I went down and camped and cooked by myself, in my wet tent, and by the time I was done it was dark and I slept.

In the morning, troops of hikers started walking past me as I packed.  Evidently the actual ball-field for camping was a few more blue blazes down the road, where there was a shower and plenty of water and a lot of camped north-bounders.  So as usual I gave up too soon, and that's why the priest gave me that look—another scantily clad female invading the sanctity of his monastery, the free services they provide for hikers deemed not good enough.  Maybe I'm feeling guilt for 2004, when we zeroed here and they still fed hikers, the last year they did.  I worry that we were the reason they stopped, late-season lazy-ass hikers taking advantage of their hospitality, and now I was again.  His face, and my exhausted disgust as I filled up water, keeps haunting me.

But then again I like to blame myself for everything.  So tonight I was determined to go far enough, all the way to the shelter, rather than stopping .1 or .2 ahead, as I've done so many times, losing the satisfaction of reaching an intended destination.  But my legs are shot.  My knees are getting worse.

The last two miles of the day were excruciating, as always.  After the final waterless climb, the trail stretched for a mile along this gorgeous and austere ridge piled with rocks.  I limped up and down, each step jarring, completely unable to enjoy the constant gorgeous scenery, the lichen-splattered rocks amid tufts of grass and dwarfed trees. Bewildering blue-blazed trails led off mysteriously, making me doubt if I hadn't already passed the shelter.

Then the shelter sign was missing, and I had to trust the arrow that someone had marked with a Sharpie.  Then another .6 miles of climbs and tumbles down granite boulders, not even knowing if this extended blue blaze was the right shelter trail.  That last .6 off-trail felt like six miles, up and down rocky outcroppings, with strangely blazed blue and orange and yellow trails criss-crossing the unmarked shelter trail and no water.

I could have stopped earlier and camped alone again, but I pressed on, and on, and on, and actually arrived at the promised shelter, seeing the hammocks strung up in the trees, smelling the woodsmoke.  In these last miles I find myself constant playing, please God, please God.  I am praying for a glimpse of a slanted roof, the whiff of privy that means other humans.  Now that I'm here I'm not sure the .6 was worth it.  And I'm thirsty.

I'm happy I only have two more days, for the sake of my body, but I'm nervous about the bus ride to NY and thence to Providence or Boston.  I wish I was continuing, because I love life out here, but I really think my body can't stand it.    On the trail, I am whole.  Minus my knees.

So here, tonight, for one more night, I am home—hungry and dehydrated and sick—but home. In a three-sided shelter, with stinky strangers and mosquitoes and no view, carrying everything I need.