Appalachian Trail journal. Day 13. Maine.
I am not enamored with the AT, yet. The PCT could do no wrong by me, I loved it so. But the AT, oh, the AT, ggrrrrr …
Since I left Monson, my days have had a predictable pattern. I wake up tired, unsure whether it’s raining or just dripping fog from the trees. I triple dry-bag my gear, put my achy feet in wet socks and wet shoes, and wobble down the trail. It’s usually sunny by then. But I don’t see the sun because it’s shielded by the green roof, the shelter of infinite leaves all vying for the light.
It’s alright, it’s not like I can look up anyway. A cloud of gnats hovers in front of my eyeballs, matching my speed exactly. If I stop, they stick to the sweat on my face. If I accelerate, they dive-bomb my eyeballs. By gnat consensus, whoever dies in eyeballs is granted immediate, uncontested entry into bug Valhalla. I am certain of it.
I also can’t look up because of all the damn roots and rocks. No two steps are the same. I have no rhythm. Walking without rhythm is exhausting, and I imagine that the roots only await their chance to take me down. Best would be my face on a sharp rock, but they’ll settle for a twisted ankle.
I turn inward to escape my bleak circumstances, but it’s just as dark in there. That’s one of the gifts of the trail. So much space is created in the mind that any unresolved issue, grudge or resentment bubbles up to be released into the wild. But this release requires a clear heart, not a heart already seething with discontent. The terrain and my dark thoughts create the perfect volatile mind cocktail. Suddenly, I am pissed. Anger knots my stomach and clench my teeth. I walk faster. My feet hurt, and I don’t care. I stab my toes, and I don’t care. I slip, and my poles catch me.
My poles always catch me, sometimes with my face only a few inches from injury – out here, this could be really bad – but they catch me. That’s usually the turning point. Gratitude replaces anger. Gratitude for my poles, so tough, so light and reliable. Gratitude for my pack, so effortless and compact on my back … gratitude!
Gratitude is an integral part of my gear system. I don’t filter the water I drink. Instead, I love it. I take the time to deeply appreciate it, its beauty, its life giving energy. I thank it and the stream where I collect it, and know for a fact that I am safe drinking it. I don’t carry insect repellent. Mosquitoes don’t bite me. I have a long history of appreciating these misunderstood little creatures. I don’t carry bear spray. I am grateful for these powerful animals. I love them, and I believe they know it. I don’t carry Crocs to protect my feet at camp. I am grateful for the opportunity to ground myself barefoot and boost my immune system. All in all, gratitude probably saves me a couple of pounds on my back. And it weighs nothing. And it works.
I met Firefly and Loon (the man formerly known as John) on day 2. Loon was across the river when I came upon them. Firefly was still on the bank on my side. She seemed anxious.“I hate these!” she pointed to the precarious rock path across the river. “You should change your mind about it.” I told her. “Try this instead, ‘River, I love you. Please grant me safe passage. Thank you'” And I walked across the river without a pause. Firefly thanked the river and crossed right behind me, confident and safe. Loon asked “What did you tell her? I’ve never seen her cross a river so fast!” It really works.
So, if I know it works, it seems all these things that pissess me off are simply indicators of where my relations aren’t clean. I don’t like mice. Mice chew through my tent and eat my food. I don’t like gnats. They fly in my eyeballs. I also have adversarial relationships with wet socks, slanted or uneven ground under my tent, steep uphill, slick roots, rocky downhills and sun-blocking canopy … so pretty much the whole of the AT in Maine.
I have been trying to work on my attitude problem about it. I mean, I can see that the forest is gorgeous, but I don’t always love it, yet. And, honestly, I think it doesn’t care much for me either. On day 3, I hugged a tree by the side of the trail. I have hugged trees all over the world. I always get a happy feeling when I do – a love returned kinda warm glow. But when I hugged this one, I felt annoyance. I wasn’t annoyed, the tree was. Two other tree huggers have since shared similar experiences. Loon says this forest feels like Fanghorn. It has neither patience nor care for the affairs of men. I imaging we are nothing but nuisance, like gnats, to the trees. The AT is old. These trees have seen too much. Maybe, too many have taken knife to bark to carve initials, or painted blazes, or cut roots to clear the path, or, like the very nice and well-intentioned trail crew man today, with his deadly sharp tool, wacked off leaves within the corridor of the trail “for the hikers”. No permission is asked from the trees. No apologies are offered.
Those were the thoughts running through my head today, while dripping sweat up the Little Bigelow Mountain in the thick, sticky, buggy air. I stopped and placed my hand on a tree in apology. Five gnats immediately landed on my eyelashes, and I let them – an opportunity to maybe mend another relation. The sky grumbled. As though in answer to my handshake, the top of the canopy began to shake, and a breath of cool air funneled down through the narrow trail, sweeping all the insects away. I grabbed a quick snack before the noontime dawn. Oh yeah, I knew what was coming. I’ve felt that cold breeze before. I know this pattern:
It begins when the insects leave. The breeze clears the way, the trees shake, the sky grumbles and darkens. “Noontime dawn”, I call it – almost dark enough to use a headlamp. Anticipation mounts. Creatures scurry to their holes, hikers speed to shelters. I stay out, in eager excitement, with rain gear on standby. Then, suddenly, the sky unleashes. Within minutes, the whole world is drenched, starting with my shoes. The trail becomes a chocolate river and every leaf owns a waterfall. I love it! I love the rain in Maine. It is one of my best relations on the trail.
When the rain falls, and I known that my gear is safe and dry, I get giddy with joy, I jump in puddles, I hoot to the sky. I fall in love with this trail, this difficult trail I sometimes hate. In the rain, all anger and sweat get washed away. The forest speaks and I hear it. And for one brief moment, I am at peace with ALL my relations.
P.S. mike 188 – I have another blog post/story titled “Please don’t step on the fish” in the works. I don’t know if I’ll have it done by tomorrow. Resupply in Stratton is going to be a touch and go. So it might have to wait for the next zero.