Is it possible to live vicariously through yourself?
The dictionary is telling me that it doesn’t work that way. But it’s on the internet, which is clogged with Fake garbage lately, so I feel OK going with it anyway. Reviewing my journal, pics, and Facebook posts has transported me back to the AT. It’s more than remembering; I’ve been living vicariously through my AT hike. The sights, sounds, the smells – God the smells! (Everyone else, not me of course.) All these tangible elements form the background against which I become the younger version of myself again. The version of myself that still needed to do a bit of growing to transform into the near-perfect specimen I am now.
This exercise has taken me back to southern Virginia, to a bustling town called Marion. (Here’s a link to the narrative to help you get caught up: The Adventures of Stretch and Sketch ) Stretch and I had just parted ways, he on his way back to San Antonio, and me to curl up in a hotel to decompress. It was great spending time with a friend, but we’d spent the past few days covering a lot of ground. Lots of Trail miles, and plenty of stumbling through painful experiences I’d just about left behind. I was tired and feeling raw.
I wanted to curl up in a dark hotel room for a few days with as much Little Caesar’s pizza, Crazy Bread, and Pepsi as I could carry, but these plans unraveled before I checked into my room. A hiker named Boat needed to take a shower and couldn’t afford to pay for a room; Bearfinder needed a place to crash until she could pick up her food drop at the post office; Eagle arrived, chips and nacho cheese in hand, and claimed the other bed.
We all cycled through the bathroom and settled in for a relaxing night. Three scruffy guys and a slightly less scruffy young woman curled up around separate piles of food to watch Harry Potter try to survive against Voldemort as the night devolved into a slumber party. No pillow fights, but there was gross Storytime. It was fun, and I was glad that I hadn’t found an excuse to turn everyone away. However, I could feel an encroaching darkness that I couldn’t keep back much longer.
All three of them were gone by the time I woke up. Bearfinder and Boat left a plate of doughnuts and several miniature cups of orange juice on my bedside table with a napkin-note telling me to eat more. Boat signed with a big heart. Weirdo.
I called down to the front desk to extend my stay for another day while putting the Do Not Disturb sign outside my door. I pulled the heavy curtains tightly shut. Darker. My sleeping bag hanging from the curtain rod banished a long sliver of light the curtains didn’t block. DARKER. I wedged my tent and rainfly over the remaining cracks of light that threatened to expose my makeshift cave. DARKER! Frustrated, nearly frantic, I yanked the comforter from Eagle’s bed on top of mine then crawled deep into the sloppy mess. There, beneath the smothering weight, seeing nothing, hearing the rapid pulse behind my ears, and feeling the humidity of breath reflected on my face, I stopped trying to hold back the swirling chaos of thoughts that churned in my mind. Images and fragments of scenes raced past. I didn’t have time to analyze any of them before they dissipated, but they were all recognizable, or at least the impression they left. I failed. I wasn’t good enough, was too wicked, broken, ruined. Unsalvageable.
Sometime later (minutes, hours?), my grumbling stomach demanded attention. I was starving. I sluggishly ate the plate of doughnuts and downed the juice. There was a long trail of missed messages waiting for me on my phone. I can’t deal with that now. I didn’t register much of an emotional response to the fact that it was after midnight. Shifting over to a half-eaten pizza, I grazed autonomously until it was gone.
This dark chaos was familiar territory. It felt like being trapped in front of a dam. The pressure built until there was a rupture; water escaped in a violent frenzy, rushing to fill the space of me. Once I’d been sufficiently tossed and scrambled, the crushing weight of it all smothered me. A new equilibrium was reached, motion settled into an oscillating sway. I gotta get up. STAY DOWN. Please, make it stop. NEVER. I need… NO. Negative, destructive thoughts dominated, leaving me paralyzed until they eventually drained away.
Over the next two days, my hiker hunger got all the credit for motivating me to make bleary-eyed treks for food. And Marion had a Taco Bell. It was a bit of a walk, but totally worth it. (I’m not quite ready to say that Taco Bell is as efficacious as Haldol or Nembutal for forcing happy thoughts to the surface, but it sure works for me.) With a pile of burritos, crunchy tacos, and a charming pair of Chalupas ready to become one with my mouth, I finally returned texts from Monica and friends that were starting to get concerned. There was no need to mention unrealized fears about being trapped for several weeks in a room at the Marion Econo Lodge, or my plans to call it quits if I couldn’t shake this funk. By the time I finished off the second Chalupa, I was including smiley emotes with my responses. Besides, I really needed to keep moving forward.
You’d think that after several days of lying in bed I’d be ready to put in some big days. The sun was shining and there weren’t any big elevation changes in front of me. Instead, my pack felt several pounds heavier, blood moved like sludge, joints in desperate need of lubrication, and my head floated in a haze. Just keep moving. I made it 11 miles to a little town called Atkins for another night on a bed. I devoured a huge sloppy burger at a diner in a big red barn aptly called the Barn that convinced me I was still a hiker, even though I was putting together an embarrassing string of nights indoors. Less than half the miles I’d planned to move. But I was still moving forward.
The following morning, I burned off my food baby, starting to make up the miles. I wasn’t quite ready for the shelter social scene so I pushed beyond the shelter after a quick howdy to a rowdy cluster of hikers fixing dinner, and found a cozy little campsite just beyond a footbridge. I still remembered how to set up my tent and even coaxed a small fire to life. Surrounded by nature sounds and nature smells, my glowing companion crackled agreement as I thought about how great it was to be out on the Trail again.
Chestnut Knob shelter
The next morning brought a few thousand feet of elevation gain, most of it through the green tunnel created by Rhododendron arching over the trail, but I popped out onto a rolling flower-speckled meadow at the summit far sooner than I’d expected. Tucked in between two little knobs, a cool concrete and stone cabin waited for me.
A lazy lunch turned into a siesta, which was cut short by the arrival of a gaggle of hurried hikers. “Did you see those clouds?” Salamander asked as she dropped her pack on one of the many platforms lining the interior of the shelter. “Good thing we made it here before that started dumping on us!” She pointed beyond the door to the sky. Curiosity brought me outside to join the growing group of hikers staring towards the horizon.
A huge bank of black and grey clouds claimed the entire horizon. We could see them tumble over each other in their relentless march towards us. Brilliant shards of lightening flashed. For a few minutes, no one spoke. It was stunning.
Then, I saw a familiar face round the bend. Jem was coming. When she paused her quick bouncing stride to look up, I watched her relief at beating the storm to the shelter morph into a big beaming grin. “SKETCH!” she shrieked. We had one of those slow-motion reunions. She galloped audaciously, arms outstretched, and waggling pack flailing. No standard hiker fist-bump, she gave me a sweaty enveloping hug that would have lifted me off the ground if she’d gotten better leverage. The crust broke away my atrophied laughing muscles.
“This is simply miraculous Sketch! Absolutely miraculous! I thought you would be days ahead,” she said.
“It’s great to see you too Jem.”
We cheered the crowd of hikers that pushed ahead of the storm-wall to reach the shelter. Nearly two dozen hikers packed into the shelter. Everyone smelled like wet dog, only Pish’ dog Chef had a good excuse. Dinners were cooked and stories started. Legs had a liter Nalgene bottle filled with Jack Daniels. Soon enough, bellies were full, the Jack Daniels was nearly gone, and we were yelling to speak over the thundering collisions of rain on the tin roof.
The conversations about food and hiking and weather began to die down. Jem, who sat cross-legged on a packed platform with Teddy, Salamander and Skittles, said, “my parents would get so furious if they caught me eating food in bed. Now look at us. We’re even cooking in bed!”
“Yeah, Dad would pull out the belt for something like that,” Rambler replied. He was grinning through his grey whiskers nostalgically. A belt vs. switch vs. spanking vs. time-outs debate grew progressively louder as we barked over the rain and each other. A spindly hiker named Spider Man shuddered as he told us that having to pick out his own willow branch was worse than the whipping itself, which prompted me to jump in.
“You know,” I said, “I remember this old oak canoe paddle my mom had. The handle was shortened so it was only about the length of a baseball bat, but it was about 2 inches thick. Two hearts and a diamond were cut out of the paddle and the whole thing was sanded down so all the edges were rounded. She stained it so dark, you could barely see the grain. She loved that thing. Even hung it from a hook on the inside of the front door so we could see it every time we came in or left the house.” No one interrupted with their own similar stories. “See, my mom wasn’t a big woman, but with those holes cut out of the paddle, she could make it sail through the air. Even made a whoosh when she was really angry.” If I weren’t so caught up in my own storytelling, I’m sure I would have picked up on the awkward vibe, but I didn’t. “With those holes in her custom-made paddle, she could launch an 11-year old boy clear across the room. For me,” I said looking at Spider Man, “seeing that paddle by the door was probably as much of a deterrent as you having to pick your own switch.” The look on Spider Man’s face as he briefly met my stare told me I’d crossed the line. Crap! What the hell was that about? Despite the rain, the silence was palpable. Eventually, there was talking again, more lighthearted this time. I faded back to my platform and pretended to read my Kindle until I fell asleep.
It was still raining when I woke early the next morning. Jem and a few others were starting to move around. Nearly everyone took one look at the sheets of rain pelting the swampy mess outside and decided to spend the whole day in the shelter. Taking a zero in a shelter? It sounded tempting. I was sooo cozy in my sleeping bag, and it looked chilly out there, but I was too embarrassed. Besides, I could probably use a day of sloshing around in the mud with my monkey feet.
Within a few hours, the rain became a damp mist, but the sound of it lingered; busy drops bounced through thick trees in a jabbering concert onto the soggy carpet of fallen leaves. Jem’s muddy footprints cropped up occasionally, but otherwise, I felt like it was just me and the Trail, sorting things out.
I ran into Jem at the first shelter a short 6 miles later. We were both more tired than we should be. She decided that her feet were getting a day off. She hopped up and down playfully while clapping her hands when I suggested that we watch Pirates of the Caribbean on my iPad. Instead, I got distracted and ended up dumping a lot of my emotional garbage. She didn’t reciprocate. She’d put her ordained minister hat on.
She’d nearly finished packing when I poked my head out of my sleeping bag in the morning. “Yay! Look at the glorious day we’ve been given! Can’t wait to see what we have in store,” she said. She’d clearly switched back into her jubilant hiker hat.
“Yay,” I said as I tucked my head further into my sleeping bag.
“Sketch,” she said before leaving, “Fuck your mom.”
Woods Hole Hostel
A few days later, I’m sitting on a bench in front of a gas station/grocery store called Trent’s, waiting for my laundry to dry while enjoying a liter of chocolate milk, Doritos and powered doughnuts for second breakfast.
None of this seemed unusual. Laundry at a gas station, second breakfast, and the kind palate party that only quality ingredients can provide. Yup. The good stuff.
It only got better when I stopped for lunch at Dismal Falls. Machine was sitting on a rock ledge, dangling a fishing rod into the pool fed by a gradual series of cascades that flowed around us. When he saw me, he hauled up a net filled with beer and offered me one. “Nice catch,” I said, taking a cold beer. Hollywood, Clutch, Matrix, and Honey Badger were perched shirtless on the edge of the pool soaking their feet and enjoying the return of sunny days. I left my pack and shirt next to Machine and slid down the cascades to join them, proud of being able to keep my beer from spilling on the way down.
A few hills and lots of river walking finally brought us to Woods Hole Hostel. I’d been looking forward to the homemade smoothies served in Mason Jars for days. I walked past the carefully partitioned garden growing in front of a sprawling American Chestnut lodge straight to the front door. Small herds of livestock could be seen grazing in a nearby meadow from the rocking chairs and swings that lined the wrap-around porch. Jem beat me there by an hour or so and greeted me with a smoothie.
“Finally. I thought you might have decided to take a nap,” she said.
“And miss Woods Hole. No way.”
Neville, one of the charismatic owners, came out to join us as more hikers arrived. She explained that she was taking the interns and employees working at her self-sustaining farm for a retreat so she wouldn’t be fixing us the usual vegetarian dinner feast, but she promised to be back in time to make us all breakfast in the morning. She handed the keys over to Jem and, after giving us instructions about cleaning after ourselves, told us that we were all in charge until she returned in the morning. I wondered if a Holiday Inn or some other business in the “real world” would be able to hand the keys over to an unknown guest without consequences.
I worked on a second smoothie from my comfortable bench, watching Jem march around in a borrowed bathrobe, calling out ridiculous orders to arriving hikers. The whole scene had me choking in catharsis-enhanced laughter. The emotional weight of the past hundred miles washed away…
It’s easy to see now that I was still moving forward, making progress in my quest to let go of the garbage that kept me from becoming the better version of myself I knew I could be; even though I was spending a lot of time not hiking.