Tightening the straps of my Osprey Aether 70, I turn back to take one last look at civilization. There is not much to see here; a gravel parking lot full of cars proudly badged with stickers that say “13.1” and “Eat, Sleep, Hike”, a few day hikers spraying their kids down with bug spray, and a sun-bleached porta-potty whose unique aroma can be smelled halfway across the parking lot. This place is a local favorite in some small town situated outside a larger town.
Looking back down the trail I see an information sign. It is the typical sign seen at trailheads from Florida to Maine to Washington State. A wooden affair that traps a 20-year-old map, a Leave No Trace (LNT) message, and a brief history of the area behind a sun-scorched piece of Plexiglas. Attached to the front of this particular one is a homemade flyer for a hostel in a nearby town that promises pick up points for hikers. Briefly, I stop to look at the map.
Turning to face the trail, I commence to my silly habit (or maybe it is a ritual for warding off evil spirits.) I pound my hiking poles into the ground twice before saying to myself, “Well, let’s do this.”
The next few hours are spent moving forward while listening to the click clack of my poles and the song of the wood thrush. According to my friends, I’m supposed to achieve some Zen state of self-awareness during this passing of time. I am sure that there are some people who might dive right into a utopian harmony with nature, but not me. Did I remember the toothpaste? I brought too much food again. How many miles to the power lines by the footbridge? Ok, it’s 11:34, so I probably left the blue blazed trail to left at 11:25 – it’s 1.6 miles to the power lines, to 2 miles an hour, I should hit it by 12:10. Oh great, another uphill. Make that 12:15. Woohoo! Easy downhill, this will make up the time! Wait, is this… it’s only 12:03… (Checks AWOL) Yep. Sweet, there’s water in .2 miles. I’ll take a break there.
While slathering Goober (that old peanut butter and jelly in the same jar mix) on a tortilla, I notice a deer has come down to the stream for a drink. The water is cool, clear, and running fast, but too shallow to completely submerge my water bag. I’ll have to use my ultra high speed, highly technical, absolutely priceless water dipping tool (a soda bottle with the top cut off) to completely fill my bag. I gulp down the last of the water from my SmartWater bottle with the last bite of my Goober and granola roll-up. Hopping down into the stream, I try to find a place with a nice rock to sit on, but as usual I end up half squatting with a knee on a wet rock. Meh. It’ll dry.
Lunch is over, water bottles are refilled, pack is on, AWOL guide is checked for the next three points, and I’ve scrutinized what time I estimate each arrival. The shelter is 5.8 miles from here, I’m fat and out of shape, and I’ll hopefully get there by 4. Oh joy, another up. You know what comes after a good long uphill push right? Another uphill. This is the way of the trail.
“Dear Secretary of the Interior. I know this is a “Footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness” and all that, but don’t you think maybe some of these rocks pose a trip hazard? Please have them removed.”
“Oh. My. God. This is (explicative) gorgeous. THIS is why I hike. Look at that.” I unsling my pack, wandering around the vista that looks over the valley from which I have just climbed. Parallel lines of mountains snake north and south to both sides of the ridge where I stand. 2,500 feet below lies a sleepy little village. Time for a picture. “Wait, do I have cell service? Cool, I’ll tell people back home I’m safe and almost to the shelter.”
“Gah! Its 3:30 and I’m already at the shelter! I don’t have the 7.9 miles left in me to push on, but it’s too early to stop. Meh. I’m done. At least I get the shelter. I’ll be out faster in the morning.”
“Too early to eat, time to check out the shelter log. Mice in the shelter? No kidding? Who would have thunk? Good, the spring is near and clear. How do you get the trail name Five Knuckles? ”
A few hikers trickle in, one or two at a time. Shelter slots are taken, while others break out their cook stoves. Introductions are made in the standard greeting; trail name, where they are from, and those who section hike might tell where they started and where they are stopping. Then the obligatory gear talk begins. “Hey man, how do you feel about using that alcohol stove? I was thinking about going that way.” Gear talk moves on to where the next trail town is, and then stories about other trail towns.
The sun begins fading down the western sky and bear bags full of food go up in the trees. Stars begin to peek from the evening sky. Far from the land of neon lights and zooming cars, here I find my peace.
If this story is familiar to you, or if you dream of days like this, bookmark this page. There will be many more to come!