The Trail: Angels, Demons and the Cafe Beuf
Did you ever get sick of the sound of your own voice? Blahblahblahblah Fragments blahblahblah Tsuga... So, I'm gonna let our son, Nathan, tell you a tale that involves Food and Place, the February 01 topic at Ecotone.
As we join the story, Nate is several weeks south of Bar Harbour, making southern progress in his Quixotic Qwest to find America on the back roads between Maine and Goose Creek. He has picked up the Appalachian Trail (at my insistence) through the NY-NJ portion, to keep him away from the congestion. But of course, he has to jerk us around just a little (us, being the parental "units"). So. Here is a segment snatched from his (unpublished) book that I thought of when the topic turned to Food and Place. Hope you enjoy.
At one point, butt considerably frozen, I crossed a road with signs for a payphone nearby, and used the phone to courtesy-call the Units, who hadn’t heard from me in three or four days. Dad picked up and we said our hellos, and then I realized how busy the road must’ve sounded over the phone. I had to yell when eighteen wheelers splash-roared by.
“Been a change of plans, Dad.” I paused to let a pair of muffler-impaired low-riders drag by. “I met this guy, Marty, who knows the streets of New York like the back of his hand, and he told me about a route I could take through the city that was relatively safe, so I got off the trail a couple of days ago. I guess I’m officially in the Bronx now, but it’s hard to tell. It’s not really that busy anymore…”
“Mmmm,” came in from my receiver.
“I’m fine, Dad. And I think this is basically even legal. I mean, there’ve been a couple of signs that said ‘no pedestrians,’ but I’ve seen a coupla others out here, too, and cops have just flown right by us. We’re small potatoes, Dad. Don’t worry. They don’t have time to mess with somebody just for walking on a busy road in NYC…”
“Not happy.” I heard him say, and then repeat, and then repeat. I knew I’d better give up the gig before he really started worrying.
“Just kidding, Pop. I’m thirty miles from New Jersey. Still on the trail. Everything’s wondaful. Jus’ wan’ to say hi.”
After getting called, rightfully, a jerk, and laughing at my good friend and father, I told him I’d call again in a few days and hung up the phone. I was still freezing, especially after not walking for a few minutes, but now I barreled on with a smile. Dads are good for some things.
That night I made it to the shelter to find an old section-hiker already there who introduced himself as “Pops.” Pops quickly addressed what was on both of our minds. “You ready to freeze your ass off tonight?” Pops had yet to officially surrender to the moisture. He had been conquered but he continued to fight.
Pops had been in his sleeping bag since five o clock, stuffed inside it with some of his wet and clammy gear. He was trying to dry his clothes out with his own body heat so that by morning they would be fine again for the trail. I admired his bravery. He was already shaking and it was hardly even twilight.
My own clothes I hung up in the shelter. Some were dripping and all were in some way trading moisture with the wet night air. With our hanging clothes and gear combined, our shelter soon looked like a slummy yardsale aftermath. We used every hook possible and when there weren’t any we invented some.
Out of everything in my possession, my one remaining dry article was my ugliest pair of algodon underwear. Finding them gave me hope, and they suddenly served as the symbol for my will to fight and live. That lone pair of dry, atrocious boxers was to me like the olive branch carried back by Noah’s post-flood Dove. Inspired by the boxers and Pops’ perseverance I, although conquered, would also continue to struggle on. I repacked these boxers in a ziploc bag, sucked out the air and zipped it tight. I rolled the bag, rubber-banded the bag, placed the bag in another bag, repeated the process, and then put this plastic-and-algodon trophy into my final grocery bag and tied it off in double knots.
Hope! I had hope: Whatever happened throughout the night, however frozen my butt actually became, I would put on dry underwear at sunrise. If I ever awoke, I knew I would surely awake in a dry-girthed sort of paradise.
In the meantime Pops and I both cooked long noodley meals over small stoves, debating even over how much water to add. The more heated water, the more free warmth to drink in with the noodles. But, alas, the more we drank the more often we’d have to creep out of whatever paltry warmth we’d mustered, only to brave the elements in returning some of ours to the soil.
“I don’t know about you but I’m peeing right off the deck,” Pops said.
“I’m tempted to just stay in my bag,” I admitted. “Can you imagine how nice that first warm minute would be?” We laughed – the kind of laughing where our bodies automatically did the shaking and all we had to do was add voice to our breath. We laughed at how absurdly reduced to the elements we’d become, and this when it really, comparatively speaking, was not that unspeakably cold!
“If it just wasn’t so dagblamed wet!” Pops shiverlaughed, shaking. We both agreed that snow would’ve been much better than this relentless rain. Snow could perch rather politely on your shoulder and you’d never even notice it was there. Snow could convince you that it wasn’t really made from water at all. The same amount of rain would hit your shoulder like a cold raw egg and then rip through your clothes in a baneful search for your underwear. It would find its way to soak you, freeze you, kill you if it could.
Night had come in and we hoped for snow. We braced for the long haul. I boiled a pot of water and poured it back into my Nalgene, wrapped it in a shirt and huddled around it in my thin little bivy, sometimes putting it down with my frozen feet for a while. Sometimes we tried to talk ourselves and each other into distraction. Other times one of us would say goodnight and plunge in, hoping that we were fully ready for sleep and the morning would come quickly. In the morning, once we could get moving again, we’d be fine.
Never much beyond the lip of sleep, a crashing down the trail startled us from our own chattering little worlds. Flashlights flung out across wet trees along the ridge.
“Who in the hell could that be?” said Pops in disbelief. “What time is it, anyway?”
I looked at my watch. “Eight thirty.” Pops let out a cross between a whimper and a moan. “I’ve been in this shelter since noon today. Been in my sleeping bag since five…” He mumbled off. “…damn thought it was at least one o clock.” We whistled to the oncoming hikers to let them know they’d found the place. They whooped back. One was singing.
“Sweet mother of Mary,” Pops quietly growled.
Rich and Ed unpacked their things and the four of us got acquainted. They were middle-aged boy-scout troop leaders who went to the same church in a nearby town. They hadn’t expected to find anybody else in the shelter on a night like this.
“Too early in the year for thru-hikers to be this far north” Rich said, “and nobody in their right minds would come out in weather like this just for the weekend.”
“Hmm.” Pops said.
Rich and Ed laughed. Rich, by far the larger of the two, was quickly becoming the spokesman. “Well, we’re boy-scout leaders. We enjoy this sort of thing.”
Never in a million years. Never in a million years would I have guessed what happened next.
Ed lugged a ten-pound propane grill from his pack and began to set up its stand in the midst of a light drizzle.
“Itellya, Ed, I am starving.” Rich looked at the two of us. “What about you boys? Up for a coupla ribeyes?”
Trail Magic: trayl-ma-jik. n. A common term used by hikers of the Appalachian Trail to signify a moment of sheer, overwhelming fortune at the time of greatest need.
Shoot now and ask questions later. Real, plump, juicy man-sized fresh-grilled ribeye steaks. Sautéed mushrooms and onions. Mountains of scalloped potatoes in a homemade cheesy white sauce. Suddenly, somehow, two wet bedraggled rats, one minute shivering alone in the wilderness and trying against all odds to sleep their way into oblivion, are the next minute served steaming ribeye steaks on paper plates by singing strangers under light of a lantern in a New Jersey wood. “You’re good men,” Pops said with his mouth full. “Yep. Good. You’re good, good, good men. Wow. You’re—you believe this?” Pops looked up at me and laughed with his mouth full, and laughed and laughed and laughed.
While we all ate, Rich and Ed explained that they’d been planning on coming out with two more campers. The two in their troop who had earned the most patches were going to get to come on this trip as a reward. Then, at the last minute, neither of the boys wanted to go. “They don’t make scouts like they used to,” Rich said. “Tell’em they’ll be hiking six miles in the dark, cold, and rain and they all of a sudden get a chip on their shoulder.” He speared a potato sliver from his plate and held it up like a trophy. “More for us, right? You eat all you want, boys. We don’t want to carry this out in the morning.”
So now, along with my algodon underwear, I had secure and warm in my belly one and a half ribeye steaks, sautéed mushrooms and onions, and various hills of scalloped potatoes in a delectable cheesy white sauce and pepper. Hope.
Regardless, Pops and I still “froze our asses off.” The scout leaders pulled on their long underwear tops and bottoms; good thick dry socks; warm hats; and climbed into their nice thick cozy warm dry delicious sleeping bags while Pops and I curled in or little wet balls and looked on. Pops had on long underwear but it was wet, a thirty-degree sleeping bag but it wasn’t enough. The temperature was down in the thirties now, and I couldn’t convince Pops to take the clammy things out of his bag. The thought of putting on frosty-wet clothes in the morning was enough to keep him with them all night.
Moron that I was, I had already mailed home all of my winter clothes. By then my long underwear, my hat, my wool sweater and my gloves were all snuggled, soft, quiet, and dry in a box in Virginia. Every article of clothing I now had – other than my algodon underwear – was wet. My fleece liner was small, damp, and thin. Even cooking another water bottle was not enough to put any life back into my deadnumbed frozen feet. I reminded myself that my shaking was a good sign – it meant that I was still in only the early stages of hypothermia. I drifted off.
I have never – never in my life – heard anything like the snoring that came from our old friend Rich. And may I never again. Ed snored too, but I have several times heard something like the snoring that came from Ed. Ed’s snoring was just irritating. Rich’s snoring was something paramount. Something that everyone should experience once.
Pops and I, both too cold to sleep, experienced that foghorn wail for seven good hours with seldom a break. Comrades are made quickly in the trenches, and Pops and I were fast becoming friends that needed little speech between us. We pounded the walls, coughed, shouted, laughed hysterically, nudged, poked, kicked and cursed our way through the snoring of the evening. I know it is not his fault. I know that sleep apnea is a horrible condition that cannot easily be helped and should not cast unfavorable light on the snorer. But, still, even with the steaks in our bellies and the knowledge that he was a friend, if we had not kept our sense of humor that night we may very well have killed our good pal Rich.
Pops got up while the sky was still dark gray. He looked and sounded out of sorts. “I’m hiking to the closest road and then hitching a ride to my car. I’ve had enough of this.” He rolled up his ground pad and strapped it sloppily to his pack. He didn’t even bother to put his trash-bag raincover over his pack. “Good luck to ya. See you around.” He looked up at the spattering trees, cursed, and made his way down to the trial.
I listened to him crash away and then tended to myself. I wasn’t looking too good either. Everything about me—my mood, my body, my thoughts, my breathing—was a clammy and deadbody blue. My shaking didn’t seem like such a good sign anymore. I needed heat. I grabbed for my waterbottle and found it in a thin pool around my head. I remembered, now, that I had left it open and Rich had bumped it over. My bivy was waterproof, thank goodness, so I wasn’t any wetter for the wear. But now I’d have to go out to the creek.
I crawled out of the sack and into the drizzle in nothing but my boots and clammy underwear. “God,” I thought, half a prayer and half an expletive. It was the first time I really started fearing for myself. I was shaking so violently that I could only see around me in flashes, like looking at an amateur collection of flip-book pictures.
By the time I had cooked a hot water bottle the boy scouts were up and rummaging around. “Well. You’re up bright and early.” Rich said.
“Yeah.” I was wrapped around the bottle in the tightest ball I could make. “Pops got the jump on me. He left fifteen twenty minutes ago.”
“Too bad,” Ed spoke up. “He’ll miss breakfast.”
Hot damn skippy. Breakfast was more steak and potatoes. The three of us ate our fill and there was still more left over for the boys to take home. If it weren’t for the heat I got from those two meals – the carbos and energy churning in my gut – I don’t know how I would’ve made it through the night. I thanked them, and ate, and thanked them, and thanked them. I extended—and still extend—Pops’s eloquent speech: Rich and Ed, wherever you are, “you’re good men. You’re good, good men.”