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March 6, 2013

That first day on the trail was a doozy. Up at the crack of dawn, hustle bustle packing up my pack, quick breakfast with strangers in the Hiker Hostel, making a mental note of what might be my last time in a while to sit on a genuine flush toilet, getting picked up by a young Facebook friend I’d never met and her parents…this part was solace and comfort to both our families.

We navigated the slippery icy switchback-y dirt roads up to the Springer parking lot. I had to close my eyes for a few moments and trust this stranger to not let our car slide off the mountain. And then we were there…in the parking lot at the top, crazy wind pulling at us. What were we thinking?? She said a quick and chilly good by to her parents who clearly thought this was a huge mistake and then there was nothing to do but get our packs on and do it. Blustery snow whipping our faces, we pulled hats and collars snug and shouldered our packs which must weigh a half ton each. We started off down the trail towards the terminus.

Half skipping, we jumped rock to rock, avoiding ice patches, pausing to shout, “OMG can you believe we’re doing this??? We’re ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL” and the wind rips the words from our already cracking lips. Here! The terminus! Rock, plaque, logbook, pics, and move on! We hike on. and on. and on. She didn’t think to bring gloves or mittens so pulls out her thick wool socks to use as mitts. I make a mental note about resourcefulness. We pass 2 guys with a whimpering cringing dog who’s trying to not set her feet on the rock solid mud. They have no choice but to turn back.

On and on and on we hike. She’s 26 to my 59 years, lighter and faster which is exhausting for me but at the same time exhilarating and motivating. Of course I want to stop for pics and use those brief moments to catch my breath. Adrenaline moves me onward. Hawk Mountain Shelter…. how many people are here? 30? 50? Oh at least! She sets her hammock; I set my tent. Get water. Use the privy. Eat something hot from my JetBoil. No clue what I was eating. Anything hot would have been welcome right then.

Several of us gathered around a large fire, singeing one side while the other side froze. I finally slowed down enough to really look around.

Then it dawned on me. It was cold, really really cold. I looked at each innocent optimistic face in turn around the fire and my thoughts ran like this …. It’s getting down to maybe 10º tonight. TEN degrees? Wait! That’s too cold. People can’t live in 10º. We’ll die. That’s it. We’ll all freeze to death in our sleep. Look at these poor people! Just look at those happy faces! Don’t they know that we’ll never wake up? How terrible for tomorrow’s crop of hikers to come through here and find us all dead, blue and frozen stiff in our sleeping bags. They’ll be so traumatized!

But wait. Hmm…they do seem happy. No one seems upset. And they are talking about the temperature so they know what’s coming, right? Ok…ok…Maybe just MAYBE they know something I don’t. Maybe we are prepared and…maybe we’re not going to die? The certainty of death loosened it’s grip on my stomach.

How quickly can one change into sleep clothes? Quick, quick…I rush to spare the nips from freezing and falling off. Heaven knows that was a distinct possibility! Wooly socks, heavy thermal bottoms, mid weight wool ¼ zip pullover, balaclava, wool cap, wool gloves, AND my down puffy pulled snug around my face. Thermal liner inside the fluffy down bag.

Sleep found me finally in fits and starts, swaddled in my nest of down and wool with a mylar emergency blanket against the tent’s back wall to shield me from the wind. Oh no! My bladder sounded the alert and my eyes opened, I groaned with annoyance…Wait, who the heck was shining a headlamp on my tent?

A full bladder will not be ignored so unzipping unfolding unraveling myself from my warm cocoon, I crawled out into the crystal clear still dark to look up and behold the glory of the night sky. Moonlight sifted through the woods sideways and bounced off every icy crystal on every pine needle, on each snowflake on the frozen forest floor. The sky above was filled with a million zillion glittering stars. Sinking into the moment and barely daring to breathe in the presence of this magnificence above and all around me, ah yes …. THIS!!!