Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sausage-lust in the Mountains (6 of 7 on the AT)

I’ve had the good fortune, three or four times, of spending an entire week backpacking in the mountains. That’s one of the chief advantages of spending many, many years as a college student – there’s always a break on the horizon. In my pre-children years, I’d often spend those college breaks backpacking.

One thing became very obvious to me on those trips. Spending seven continuous days hiking and camping is a very, very different experience than hiking and camping for seven days spread out over the course of several months. Knowing that you’ll step into the woods on Saturday and step back out of them the following Saturday changes everything – the physical exertion, the packing, the planning. It also gives you a different outlook. There’s a sense of immersion in the wilderness that you just can’t get by being out for just a night or two.

The first time I spent an entire week in the woods, I hiked the 70 miles of the AT in the Smokies. It was on about the fifth day that I had my sugar and meat conniption. I had planned my food so that I ate the same thing every day. Breakfast was granola bars and chocolate (powdered) milk, lunch – the meal you eat all day long between breakfast and supper – consisted of cheese crackers, raisins, and peanuts. For supper I’d have a couple of packets of dried chicken noodle stew – just add boiling water. I had intentionally omitted candy. Same routine every day. That was a mistake.

By the fifth day I was obsessing about… well, the list would be long. Let’s just say I was obsessing about everything except granola bars, powdered milk, cheese crackers, raisins, peanuts, and dried chicken stew. I really wanted some chocolate candy and a Coke. But when we stopped for a break at Pecks Corner shelter, what I really, really wanted was the big sausage log that another hiker was eating. Murder was out of the question. Too many witnesses. Robbery was an option, but I’d never actually robbed anyone before, so I wasn’t real confident that I could pull it off. Sleight of hand might work, but he wouldn’t lay it down. He protected that sausage log like a mama bear protects her cub. I think he could see the sausage-lust in my eyes.

During the conversation in the shelter we discovered that he and his partner had just started at our destination, Davenport Gap, the day before. They were spending a week on the AT, going the opposite direction from us. That meant offering to trade food with him was out of the question. First of all, all I had was junk. Powdered milk, cheap cheese crackers, raisins. If he had traded a couple of slices of his meat stick for some of my food, it would have been a clear case of babysitting on his part. I just couldn’t lower myself to ask. I’d been self-sufficient all week. I didn’t want to give in now and have other people start taking care of me. Second of all, he was just starting on his trip. You just can’t try to get a guy to give up some of his prized food possessions that early on the trip. So, I just sat there and burned with desire for some smoked sausage. I know man doesn’t live by bread alone, but right then a bite of sausage would have been nice.

In my defense, I thought about trading for the meat before I considered murder and robbery. A week in the woods hadn’t destroyed all my scruples, but they were in a weakened state regarding meat products.

Our arrival at Tricorner Knob that evening prompted our usual routine. Claim a bunk, some prefer top, others prefer bottom. Find the spring and get water, usually 50 or 100 yards down one side or the other; a well-worn trail showing the way. Read or take a quick nap before supper. Some guys carry a pair of tennis shoes to put on now. I didn’t because of the extra weight, but I seriously consider it every time I backpack. If this trip had been shorter, I might have included them, but an extra couple of pounds was a lot to carry for a week. Now that we were at the evening’s shelter, I burned with desire for my partners’ tennis shoes. Apparently, this was just a good day for coveting my neighbor’s stuff. Again, in my defense, I’m pretty sure that was the only one of the 10 commandments I broke that day. For me, that’s a pretty good day – which is another reason for wives to encourage their husbands go backpacking – it’s almost impossible to get in trouble with the police or God when you spend all your time walking, eating, and sleeping. You’re just too tired and preoccupied to get into any mischief. [To be continued]

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Unabomber (5 of 7 on the AT)

When you spend a few nights on the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies you’ll meet some interesting people. Sometimes “interesting” is good, sometimes not. (Like that old curse: “May you live in interesting times.”) About half the time, you’ll have one hiker in the shelter who is just plain strange. I don’t know why, but these guys almost always arrive late, after dark like possums or vampires. There are two types: the guys who don’t speak at all to anyone and the guys who are eager to share their vast reservoir of experience with the rest of us, even if our body language is making it absolutely clear that we aren’t interested in hearing it.

The quiet guys make you wonder what they are up to, but at least they aren’t annoying. The talkative guys, however, can really get on your nerves. A talkative one showed up at the Spence Field shelter about an hour after sunset.

 “Is this Russell Field? I lost my maps a week ago.”

 “No, this is Spe…”

 “It doesn’t matter. I’ve been out for 6 months. I’ve been in Colorado and Virginia and started at Big Creek two weeks ago. They let us through-hikers sleep wherever we want.”

 “Actually, this shelter is full. You’re supposed to make reservations.”

 “Not me. Just sleep where I want. I’ll just sleep here on the floor. You guys’ll have to put your packs somewhere else” (A pause to take a breath and change subjects, which he does periodically.) “You know, breathable jackets don’t really breathe. It’s physically impossible for the water vapor to escape.”

 At this point, no one is listening, and everyone has his back to the intruder. We are busy putting on our breathable jackets, which we wouldn’t hike without. We all swear by them.

 “I’m telling you, it’s the biggest sham ever perpetrated by the backpacking apparel industry.”

 “Okay,” I’m thinking, “I’m always willing to concede the point that public opinion is manipulated by Madison Avenue, not to mention the CIA, the Pentagon, and the New York Times, but if this guy mentions aliens…”

 “I think it’s alien technology that has a more sinister purpose. I’m presently doing research for my dissertation. I’m not in a grad program right now. Stinkin’ experts don’t respect the truth, but I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. You’ll read about it when I publish my results.”

 I’m thinking how sorry I am that I let my subscription to Mad Magazine lapse; looks like I’ll miss his exposé on breathable jackets. Everyone else is thinking, “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t speak. It will only encourage him.”

 Everyone, that is, except one of the college guys who’s a bit too daring. “I know what you mean, man. When I was a kid I was abducted by them little, gray b-#@&-s.”

 “Then you know of what I speak. They are up to something. That’s why I spend my time away from everyone and everything. The X-Files are real, man. Not the werewolves and vampires. The alien agenda.”

 I’m thinking, “I don’t know exactly what the ‘alien agenda’ is, but I hope it involves taking this guy with them. Soon.” It was at this point that I began thinking we normal ones should draw straws to determine who will stay awake all night standing guard. We never actually posted a sentry that night, but we all tried to stay awake until we were sure the guy had gone to sleep.

 He was gone when we awoke in the morning. Someone asked, “Where’s the Unabomber?” and we all got the joke.  

 “I saw a bright flash of light from the sky last night, and never saw him again. He’s probably on Neptune by now.”

 One of the college guys made the closing remark as he shouldered his pack and walked out the front gate: “He must be glad to be home.”