I don’t know why I started thinking about this today. I guess it’s because I sit at my desk with the roar of a highway not 100 yards behind me and, if I looked out of my window, on a clear day I can see about nine miles in any direction over a flat, mostly beige landscape. I could be slightly homesick. I could be missing mountain peaks and blue spruce.
I used to do a lot of hiking in the Appalachian Mountains when I was a kid at camp. (That’s pronounced Ap-ah-latch-an, btw. We could always spot the tourists because they call them the Ap-ah-lay-chee-ans.) We’d start off early, early in the morning long before the mist had burned off the mountains. Sometimes we’d drive to the trail head, sometimes we’d just start walking. We weren’t too much bigger than our frame packs and if you were the unlucky one who had to carry water or the big frying pan…well, you definitely didn’t want to be that one. Everything got shared out…food, tarps, tools, supplies. Bring one change of clothes, four pairs of socks, your flashlight, your canteen and silverware and a cup. You can bring a book, but you’ll never read it. Bring a camera if you have it even though the photos will never capture the views well.
Almost immediately the rest of the world would fade away once we got started down the trail. The trees close in, there’s no road noise. Just the sound of boots hitting dirt and the jingle of pack straps (internal frame packs were cutting edge then. We all had the old style metal frame packs.) As the slope of the trail increased, conversation died away. Sometimes, it rained. We’d pull out ponchos, struggle to get them on over the bulky packs and keep on walking…a line of neon orange and olive drab hunchbacks plodding through the mud. Most of the time though, it was sunny and warm.
After a few hours of walking, we’d stop for a break; a drink of water, warm and metallic from a canteen; a snack of homemade granola; someone would dart back down the trail for a potty break. You were warned not to take your pack off, not to sit down. It made getting started again that much harder. We’d lean against trees with our packs on, and look back down the trail, trying to trick our brains into thinking that downhill slope was what lay ahead instead of behind. Eventually, it would be time to start again.
If we were still below the tree line, there were usually birch trees around. The twigs smell and taste like root beer, so we’d break them off to chew on as we walked, spitting out splinters as we went. A clearing might be filled with blueberry bushes that, if we were lucky, hadn’t been picked clean by the birds. I’ve eaten a lot of blueberries, but none of them taste as good as those we found on the trail. Blackberries, too.
The new kids learned the rules of the trail from the ones who had been there before. Never just step over a log on the path, step on top and check for snakes on the other side first. It might feel good at first to splash your feet in the stream, but wet socks lead to blisters and no one will have much pity for you. If something feels like it’s rubbing funny, fix it, don’t ignore it. If you are climbing a steep slope, test the strength of your hand or foothold BEFORE you put your weight on it. Don’t let branches just fly back…you never know when the person you just smacked in the face will be in front of you. Walking sticks are a waste of energy. Don’t fool yourself, downhill is as hard, if not harder, as uphill. That plant has stinging hairs on it and that plant will take the sting away.
When we’d start to get tired, someone would start to sing. Always the same handful of songs. Everyone joined in. The slowest walker would be moved to the front.
Campsites were always reached before dark. Sometimes there would be a place to swim if you could stand the cold. There would be a discussion about whether or not to set up the tarps. Would it rain? Would it be nicer to be able to see the stars? If there was a spring nearby, a few would be sent off to get water for dinner. Someone was given the job of getting the fire started, others sent off to get a good supply of wood. Usually for the first night on the trail, we had a special treat. We might have been sent off with frozen hamburger meat or hot dogs (no, no one in their right mind would do this now. Given that we ate them burnt on the outside and raw in the middle its a wonder we didn’t all come down with something nasty) or we had ingredients to make vegetable soup or veggie sloppy joes. There were cookies or smores for dessert. Dishes got scrubbed out with gravel and rinsed in a creek or with water brought up from the spring. Sleeping bags were rolled out, there’d be some grumbling about a rock under someone’s back and usually within minutes everyone was dead asleep.
Up with the sun. Sleeping bags wet with dew. We’d spread them out in any sunny patch we could find to try to dry them off some before rolling them up, but you just knew the rest of the hike you were stuck with a damp, clammy sleeping bag. We’d slept in our clothes, so there was only socks to change. Boots were gathered from around the fire where they’d been left to dry. I remember one summer someone melted their soles leaving them too close. Oatmeal for breakfast. Peppermint tea or water. Brush your teeth. One last visit to the hole dug the night before, then fill it back in. Leave the site looking as untouched as possible. We always returned from the hikes carrying trash collected on the trail, our own and that of others.
Upwards and onwards. The destination was always somplace different. It might be a sliding rock in a freezing cold mountain river. It might be a waterfall or a swinging bridge a mile above sea-level. It might just be a field on the top of a mountain, so far away from everything as to be on a different planet.
One hike, we got lost and spent almost two days crawling on our hands and knees through rhododendron. One hike, we decided to walk all the way back, instead of meeting the truck at the rendezvous point, so we tromped along the side of the highway for 15 miles, singing and waving at cars, tired and grubby from four days and three nights in the woods.
Once we got back, all the equipment got washed and put away. Sleeping bags could be hung up to finally get dry. The dirt of the trail got scrubbed away in showers. Dinner was always something big and filling…spaghetti, homemade pizza, vegetarian meatloaf, anything but canned tuna, or peanut butter please. Evening chores were done, then gratefully, to bed at sundown. Sore. Exhausted. Wishing it were time to do it again, but that would have to wait one more week.