by Nathan First, Special to the Press ~ a father-son story of a thousand-mile rite of passage
In the month it took to walk through New England, you might have thought I’d have gotten wiser for the wear.
In Connecticut, after a few hundred miles of back roads, I decided that I’d try out the Appalachian Trail. Nothing stupid there: New York and New Jersey loomed ahead, and taking the Trail was a good way of skirting the sprawl.
But after a week alone in the woods, I started feeling rugged and self-sufficient. With grim excitement, I mailed home my sleeping bag, hat, gloves, and sweater. I needed nothing! I was Nate of the Wild.
And then came the cold front. For the next several days, the sky turned gray, temperatures plummeted, and a cold rain made relentless, baneful raids on my underwear.
Dumber for the wear. By the time I crossed the New Jersey border, the weather had taken its toll. I was hypothermic. My lips and fingertips were blue; my hands were losing their coordination. My shaking was sometimes more akin to convulsion, and sometimes stopped altogether. By then, instinct had finally kicked in. I was even ready to break my “no hotels” rule. Trouble was, the closest hotel was still a day’s walk away.
That night I shared a shelter with “Pops,” a 60-year-old who had planned to hike northbound into Massachusetts. His plans, though, had changed. Tomorrow, he promised, he’d be homebound, to all things warm and dry.
Pops was far from cheery. “You ready to freeze your butt off tonight?”
I just nodded grimly. At times Pops and I tried to talk ourselves into distraction. Other times one of us would say goodnight and plunge in, hoping that we were ready for sleep and the morning would come quickly.
Finally, well after dark, a crashing down the trail startled us from our chattering little worlds. Flashlights flung out across wet trees along the ridge. “Who in the heck could that be?” said Pops in disbelief. “What time is it, anyway?” I looked at my watch. “Eight thirty.”
Pops moaned. “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. Pops quietly growled.
Rich and Ed unpacked their things and we all got acquainted. They were leaders of a Boy Scout troop back in town, they said. They’d planned this trip as a reward for their troop, but none of their scouts had been fool enough to come.
“More for us, I guess,” said Ed.
Trail Magic: tr al-ma-jik. n. A term used commonly by hikers of the Appalachian Trail to signify a moment of overwhelming fortune at the time of greatest need.
Rich lugged a ten-pound propane grill from his pack and set it up in the light drizzle.
“Itellya, Ed, I am starving.” Rich looked at the two of us. “What about you boys? Up for a coupla ribeyes?”
Plump, juicy, rib-eye steaks. Sautéed mushrooms and onions. Various hills of scalloped potatoes. Warmth. In a delectable cheesy white sauce with pepper. Trail Magic.
For the time being, let me end with a confession. When I started walking home to Floyd, I thought the trip would be less warmth, less Magic. More me. Alone with the road. Nobody else.
So before I lead you to believe that I “walked off to look for America,” a star in some Simon and Garfunkel song, I’ll admit that my goals were not really so noble. I didn’t entirely expect to meet a whole bunch of Rich’s and Eds. And without them, frankly, I had little desire to “find America.”
If you’ll forgive the clichéd way of saying it, though, I think America found me. In countless feats of “Road Magic,” America walked off its front porches, stopped me in its front yards, invited me into its homes and offered stories, suppers, hot showers and warm beds.
America of all kinds, all shapes and sizes: monks and cowgirls and dying tycoons; college kids and brave old ladies; pastors, professors, doctors and farmers. And if that wasn’t enough, Ma mailed me cookies, and Dad even came out to join me for a while, and we shared some Trail Magic together. But that’s a story I’ll let him tell.