I put my water bottles and filter inside my fleece jacket and zipped it up. I knew I would have to keep my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. I stepped from the shelter to the snow-covered ground. The snow was easily 8 inches deep, and wet. The wind was gusty and bitter. I knew that there would be no rest breaks as the wind blew through my body.
I followed the trail through the field and turned to look at the shelter. It was a beautiful scene, though I wasn't able to completely enjoy it. The trail entered the woods and was very easy to follow. The virgin snow had a clean beauty about it. Occasional squirrel tracks made me smile. I was making very good time, without the weight of a pack. It was no time until I was at the VA603 road crossing. I hadn't seen a human footprint all morning, and there were no car tracks on the road. The early-season snow had caught everyone off guard.
I stood in the parking area surveying the situation. There was a sign with area information posted on it. I was looking the sign over when my empty stomach began to let me know it was wanting something to do. The sign told me nothing of value, so I turned to look the road over. As I reached the road, an old man emerged from the woods on the opposite side of the road. He had on a backpack, but it fit him poorly and he struggled with it.
"How ya doin'?" I asked, very glad to see him.
"Not worth a damn. I'm sick of these God durned things" he said, referring to his ski poles. "For a slug nickel, I'd throw the sombitches away."
"No kiddin'? What's wrong with 'em?" I said, trying to stay on his good side.
"I never used 'em before. Now, all the sudden, I got to. Not cuz I want to, cuz I got to."
"Who said you have to?"
"Who the hell knows? What are you doing out here with no pack?" he asked with a tone of superiority.
"Well, it's actually a long story. I had my stuff stolen last night. I'm trying to figure out which way is closest to get to a phone and some food."
He was now taking off his external frame pack. It looked like one of Mr. Kelty's originals, straight out of his garage. He was kicking snow all over his gear. He reached into a zippered-pocket and handed me a baggy of some sort of homemade granola. He then tried to walk around the pack to the other side. He tripped over his ski pole, and fell flat on his face. I helped him to a knee and brushed snow off of him. He reached in the pack and retrieved a Snickers bar for me.
"Here. You need this. I need to get rid of these bastards" he said as
he picked up his ski poles and flung them as far as he could. I stood quietly
and hoped he'd go get them. He did not. I finally spoke up and asked where
he'd recommend I go.
"603's closed. You need to go to 16. 'Bout 8, 8.5 miles north. Thats your best bet."
"Yeah, but I haven't got any food and I'm freezing." I pled.
"Hey, I'm just telling ya. Go north to 16. Its your best bet." He put the pack on and he was gone, ski poles 40 yards in the woods.
I headed north. I started the monster climb over what I was assuming was Iron Mountain. The heavy snow was taking a toll on my legs. My thighs burned and my calves ached. It wasn't long until I noticed that there were still no footprints in the snow. This was the same direction the old man had come from. I'd have bet anything the old boy was from Paris.
As I neared the top of Iron Mountain, I was exhausted. Dragging my feet
through the snow on a near-empty stomach was all I could do. I reached
the 'summit' and leaned back against a tree. I got a drink of water and
closed my eyes briefly. It felt so good to not be walking. After several
minutes of this, my body cooled down and I was ready to hike again. I started
hiking a much more pleasant section as the trail levelled. I could see
a sign ahead announcing the Iron Mountain Trail. As I neared the junction
of the two trails, I could see something leaning against the signpost.
I couldn't believe my eyes. There, in the snow, was my pack...
The first thing I did was check my watch in the top compartment. It was already 3 o'clock. The snow had really slowed me down. I was physically exhausted. I quickly looked through the top compartment to see what was there and check for my maps. The map showed a stream about a mile and a half down the hill. I put my water bottles away, ate a mouthful of trailmix, and mounted up.
My hiking sticks were leaning against the signpost. As I picked them up, I wondered what the last 18 hours had been like for them. Where they had been, who they had been with. This whole thing had gotten very weird, and I was nearly enjoying it. I didn't feel like I was in any danger, but I knew something was going on.
As I started hiking down the hill that is Iron Mountain, I started to regret that I hadn't brought my tent. I was at least 8 miles from the next shelter, and with the snow I knew I couldn't make it. I planned to eat a hot meal, if there was any food in my pack, at the next water source. Then I would make the rest of the evenings plans.
I could hear the water rushing over the rocks from a 1/4 of a mile away. I got a burst of energy and excitement from the thought that hot food was in my near future. I sped up and nearly fell on a snow-covered tree root. It's wonderful when something as simple as the sound of a nearing water source can change your entire outlook on your very existence.
I dropped my pack on a large boulder next to the water. I raised my arms and stretched out, taking inventory of aches and pains. I knew it was nearing 4 o'clock, so I had little time to waste. I opened my pack and pulled out my food bag and stove. I wasn't sure what food I had left, or what food someone had put into my bag. The first thing I saw was a Lipton noodle meal, and the decision was made.
I fired the stove and got the water heating. While I waited for the bubbles of boil, I laughed at the disparity in recommended boil times that I had seen over the years. I stared at the water through sandpaper eyes, wanting sleep. I took a handful of snow and rubbed my neck and forehead. I leaned back against my pack and rested my head on it. I noticed an unfamiliar bulge sticking out from under my pack cover.
I pulled the pack cover all the way off, exposing what appeared to be a tent. Could my luck be improving? I quickly unsnapped the straps and opened the bag. Sure enough, a Eureka Timberline. Turning the stove down to a simmer, I poured the Lipton into the pot.
The Sun was already behind the mountain and night was a couple of hours away. I looked in the pack to see if all of my other gear was in usable condition. Everything seemed to be there, and it didn't appear that there was anything extra. Other than the tent, of course.
I ate a mouthful of M&M's while I waited for the Lipton to soften. The chocolate calmed my shaking hunger with a quick burst of sugar. I loaded everything that I could, planning to head out as soon as the noodles were gone. I filled a water bottle with untreated water, daring something to go wrong. The noodles were close enough, I had to eat.
After I finished the last bite, I put my dirty dishes away. Another mouthful of M&M's and I was ready to roll. I pulled my pack up and every stiff muscle in my body yelled. I knew I would be stopping at the first flat spot I came to, so I wasn't too concerned with pack comfort. I hiked a little over a half mile when I got to another stream with a nice campsite right next to it. I had enough light to set up the tent, and little more.
I had everything set just the way I wanted, and things almost seemed normal for the first time in days. My gear was situated just like I like it: Bulky gear in the vestibule, clothes in my sleeping bag, Petzl and water bottle within reach. I climbed into my bag and my body began to unravel. I knew it was going to take some time for the uncoiling to finish, but I felt good, finally.
My thoughts swam back to a time when things seemed to be so much more certain. Good things and bad things were fighting to control my mind. I was struggling with emotions that I hadn't had in years. People from my past were appearing, and disappearing just as fast. Things I hadn't thought about for years, things I hadn't ever wanted to think about again. Before I knew it, I was openly sobbing. It was beyond my control. I was gasping for air. As I drifted off into a deep sleep, I saw a face that I couldn't put a name to.
The night's sleep turned out to be quite tumultuous. Aches and pains typical of hiking gave way to the pains in my mind. The nameless face kept showing up. His image was so life-like his presence would cause me to toss and turn in my bag. He didn't look at all familiar to me.
When I woke, it became obvious why his image was so life-like; He was
staring me in the face. I didn't move at all at first. Thinking I was still
asleep, I was waiting for this image before me to clear and vanish. Finally,
in a cigarette-battered voice, he said "How ya doin'?"
Realizing now that he was, indeed, real, I jumped back, trying to get away from him. My arms and legs were tied down in my bag, and I could barely move. I pressed against the wall of the tent to the point that the poles began to give. He took his massive arm and laid it across my shoulders.
"Hey. Hold on. You're alright," he said.
I relinquished my struggle. It actually felt good to relax. I laid my head on the tent floor, waiting for what was next.
"What are you doing in my tent?" I asked.
"Your tent? This is my tent."
"How did I get it?"
"You needed it. You didn't have one, did you?"
"NO, but how the hell did you know that? And what's going on with all these people showing up from outta nowhere? And my stove? And my gear?"
"Hey, I just let you use my tent because you didn't have one. If that's a problem, let me know."
"It's no problem. I do appreciate it. I just can't figure out what the hell is going on around here."
"Sometimes things happen for a reason, sometimes they don't. Sometimes things don't happen at all."
It was good to talk to someone who actually was talking back. Even though what he was saying made no sense, it was nice to hear someone else's voice for a change. About that time he started to open the tent door.
"Where you going?" I asked, not wanting him to leave.
"Gotta see a man about buying a dog." I was glad to hear this, as it meant he would be back. He climbed out the door, zipping it shut behind him. I heard him take a few steps in the crunching snow and stop.
After waiting about 15 minutes for him to return, I decided to stick my head out the door of the tent. The sky was showing the first signs of daybreak. The air next to the stream was chilly and the sky looked overcast. I looked around for my nameless friend. I never saw him again.
I got back into my bag and laid back down. I drifted in and out of sleep for about an hour. It was daylight now, and I heated water for oatmeal and coffee. I started to organize and pack things when I noticed that there was a small flame on the underside of my stove. I was still in my sleeping bag, so I careful reached for the valve. I knocked the stove over, spilling the water and fanning the flame.
Within seconds, the flap of the vestibule was engulfed in flames. The toxic fumes caused my lungs to shrivel. I started to throw everything I could get my hands on through the opening of the tent. It appeared that the only things left in the tent were me and my sleeping bag. I was at the end opposite the door. The flames licked at my head. The tent had turned into a tunnel of fire and my only exit at the other end.
As the scent of burning hair danced around my nose, I knew it was time
to make my move. With all the energy I could muster, I pushed my aching
legs against the ground. As I flew through the chemical-laden smoke, I
looked like a snake after a mouse. I hit the snow-covered ground with a
thud. I rolled as far from the tent as I could, making sure that I wasn't
Once I was sure that no flames had followed me, I crawled out of the bag to assess my damages.
I put my boots on so that my feet wouldn't get wet in the snow. I noticed one of my boot laces had melted a bit. Otherwise, the boots seemed fine. As I sat on a rock to tie the boots, I noticed two guys, about a hundred yards away. They were laughing. When they noticed I was looking at them, they turned and made their way around a bend in the Trail. This left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Finding humor in another's misfortune is one thing. But to not at least make sure I wasn't injured was another.
I moved all of my gear away from the still-smoldering plastic of the
Breathing the toxic smoke had left me with a headache. Apparently the fire on the stove had burnt itself out, as the stove laid harmlessly on its side. I picked it up and decided to light it. I still had to eat. It fired without a glitch and soon I had water heating, again.
I started to load everything into the pack, checking for fire damage as I did. I thought it strange that I never once was concerned about the tent. Had it been mine, I would have been terribly upset about having lost it. Somehow, I felt no remorse whatsoever. Instead, I was more angry at the two guys who callously walked away from my situation. Other than a little dampness from the snow, everything seemed to have survived the fire unscathed.
As I was loading the last of the gear, the water was reaching a boil. I badly needed a cup of coffee to help clear my head. I sipped on the coffee while I waited for the oatmeal. For some reason, as I sat a starred at the base of my stove, I could only think about a dog I had had as a child. He had a wonderful demeanor and was with me where ever I went. I could feel a tear welling in my eye. I was shaken from my memory by the sound of distant chainsaw chewing in to a chunk of wood.
With the oatmeal now eaten and the dishes rinsed, I was ready to head out. Other than the headache, which seemed to be getting better, I felt good physically. I strapped on my Gregory and headed out. When I got to the spot where the two guys had been standing I wasn't surprised to find the ground littered with cigarette butts and candy wrappers. Their footprints left the Trail and headed down the side of the mountain. I was glad. I didn't want to have to worry about seeing them again.
I passed the trail to the Hurricane Camground and entered a beautiful Rhododendron grove. Snow was hanging from the drooping leaves of the skeletal plant. The big leaves held the cold air from the snow close to the ground. I sped up a bit to keep from getting cold. I could hear water rushing down the side of the hill and knew I was getting close to Comers Creek. As I stepped up onto the snow-covered bridge, my feet slid out from under me. The next thing I see is my feet silhouetted against the overcast sky as I hit the ground, pack first.
Initially I thought I was having a heart-attack. I couldn't breath and wasn't sure if I was moving or not. As a gasped for oxygen, I realized that I had knocked the air out of my lungs. The pain was intense, but I was relieved that it was not, indeed, a heart-attack. After I regained normal breathing patterns, I just stayed on the ground, laying on my pack. I leaned my head against the base of the bridge and didn't move for several hours.
I decided to get up when large clumps of snow began falling from the
trees and hitting me. Once I was upright again, I felt much better. I think
the time spent resting was good for my headache, and my body. I again tried
to traverse the slick log-bridge, this time paying much more attention.
As I climbed the hill to Dickey Gap, I began to enjoy hiking again. I was able to loose myself in the woods. I hadn't felt that for several days. The air was cool and wet and soothed my throat as it passed through. My body felt relaxed but strong. My pack felt like part of me. I love that.
I had become pretty much resolved to ending the trip, until now. I started to think about my plans for the next day or two. It was good to be thinking positive things for a change. I still wasn't sure how much, and what kind of, food I had. I figured I could stop at the next shelter and take inventory. If I had enough, I'd hike to Atkins. If not, hitch a ride at the next road crossing. I assumed the highway department had cleared the roads enough that I could get a ride if I needed.
As I neared Dickey Gap, I heard a siren speed by on the highway. I only caught a glimpse of the blue lights of the volunteer fire department truck. The blaring echoed off the mountains for an eerie eternity. When I got to the road crossing, I was comfortable with my decision to continue hiking. I was feeling alive again.
I checked the time and was surprised to find it was already 3 o'clock. That would give me enough time to make the next shelter and eat before dark. I was somewhat surprised to see footprints in the snow when I got to the trail to the shelter. I was hoping for good company, fearing what had become the norm.
As I got closer, I was amazed, and nearly sickened, to see an elderly man standing in front of the shelter, naked, on one leg, with both arms raised skyward. He was doing a wonderful job keeping his balance, but what a sight. His white body blending in with the snow background. As I got closer, I could hear him humming. I was sure he was unaware of my presence. I was very aware of his.
"How ya doin'?" I said, so as to not frighten him.
"Who's there?" he said in the same voice that could have been any man in his 80s.
"Oh, hey Felix. I didn't hear you coming."
Arrrrggghhhh!! I could do nothing but roll my eyes and shake my head. This isn't fair, I thought. This isn't fair. I walked on past him and acted like I didn't hear him. The sign with the shelter name on it was broken and half gone. What was there read "Raccoon Bran", and I laughed. It was a nervous laugh.
"What are you doing out there naked?" I asked.
"I try a little yoga on occasion. The cold air helps to cleanse the body and soul." He started to move toward the shelter, but with great difficulty. I thought the cold air had tightened his feeble body. As I watched him, however, I could tell there was something else going on.
"You alright?" I asked.
"Yeah. Sometimes after yoga, it takes me a minute to get my bearings."
I watched as he stumbled around, trying to locate the shelter. It then dawned on me that he was blind. I went about my own business of getting ready to eat, watching him from the corner of my eye. He finally got back to the shelter and found his cloths. I was glad about that.
"I didn't catch your name" I said.
"Demus. As in 'Nostrademus'," he said proudly.
"Isn't it 'Nostradamus'?" I questioned.
"Well, you'd think. But not in this case. My folks weren't too smart."
"You mean that's your real name?"
"Yep. And I got a brother named Nick. Nickodemus" he said as he was pulling on his long-johns.
"What's your last name?" I said, expecting to laugh at anything he said.
"So,whats your first name?"
"Nostra. I ain't kiddin' either" he said, sensing I didn't believe him.
"So, your brother is Nick O. Demus? What's the O. stand for?"
I could tell I was in for another interesting evening. I checked my
food bag and found that it had all of the food I had brought, and more.
I knew I would have no trouble making it to Atkins, and maybe Bland. If
I made it through the night with this guy. I watched as he tried to put
his boots on. He wasn't too good at being blind.
The old man continued to dress and tossed me some idle chit-chat. I half listened most of the time. Not at all others. I was busy eating a can of tuna and some peach halves. My body was growing stiff and cold. I couldn't wait to get out of my sweat-soaked clothes and into my sleeping bag.
As I was removing my boots, I started thinking about something that had happened a long time ago. I stared into the toe of my singed boot and the picture was vivid. It was not a pleasant picture. I was remembering the passing of a life; the result of my stupidity. I reacted the way I always did when I thought about it. I was glad the old man was blind.
"What's wrong?" he asked, catching me off guard.
"Huh?" I muttered.
"Something wrong? You're crying."
"Oh, uh. No I'm fine" trying to recover myself.
"Hey, don't worry about it. It'll get easier" he said with a comforting, fatherly tone. I didn't know what was going to be getting easier, though.
I finished taking my boots off and hung my cloths on nails around the shelter. I was hoping the temperatures didn't drop below freezing. I hate putting frozen clothes on in the morning. I hate wet ones in my sleeping bag at night, too. As I climbed into the bag, the old man said "Them cloths'll freeze, ya know?"
"Ya think?" I asked, hoping.
"Hell, yes. It's gonna get cold tonight."
I cussed under my breath as I climbed back out of my bag. Few things I despise as much as having to get back out of my bag. I gathered all the wet, stinky clothes and stuffed them into my bag. Once again, I climbed into my cocoon.
"You been hiking long" I asked the old man.
"Oh, on and off, I spose. I never was too good at it, ya know. Then, this whole other thing happened, too" he said as if I knew what he was talking about.
"What other thing?" I asked, assuming he was talking about his eyesight.
"Oh, just that stuff that happened with Patty. I never did think she got a fair shake. But then, who am I to say anything, ya know? I just kept my mouth shut and let 'em move whoever they wanted to. Hey, I'm in no hurry. I got no place better to go."
"Uh-huh." I said, not wanting an explanation.
He continued with his story. I laid my head against the back wall of the shelter and stared at the ceiling. I was wondering why my feet weren't hurting. They almost always have blisters by this point of the trip. I was counting this as one of the few good things that had happened so far. I occasionally heard a word or two from the old man. I'd make some noise to make him think I was listening. I wasn't.
"What'd you do for a living?" I ask to feign interest.
"Damn it. I just told you I worked for the railroad. Don't you listen to anything?" he said, genuinely upset.
"Oh, that was you. I thought you said your son works for the railroad" I covered my tracks.
"No. He works for 3M. Lives in Minneapolis. At least he did."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I haven't seen him since, well, you know?"
I'm sure I had that puzzled-eyebrow look going. He keeps telling me stuff that he thinks I should know. The only thing I do know is that one of us is crazy. And, I'm not so sure it's not me. "Oh, yeah" I said, hoping to avoid the rest of the story.
"I think that was the toughest part for me. You know, the family," he said with a look of solemn thought. "How'd you deal with it? I mean, you got kids?"
"No, I don't have any kids yet."
"Yet?" he paused. "You don't know, do ya?"
"Oh, I've got a pretty good idea," I said, having no clue what he was talking about. I didn't figure he knew either. It didn't stop him from talking. The lack of knowledge never keeps people from talking. He went on to tell a story about his son. His son was a swimmer, that is about when I stopped listening. I went back to his "You don't know, do ya?" remark. I had a nervous weakness, a burning in my stomach.
What don't I know? Generally, that would be an all-day conversation. This time, this time was different. He knew something that I was supposed to know. I didn't care. The more I thought about it, the less I cared. I wanted nothing more than for the old man to leave me alone. To stop his story telling. To vanish. Leave me alone.
As the evening crept along, it grew lighter outside. The skies had cleared, and the Moon was near full. As I listened to the old man ramble, I decided what I must do. I had to get out of there. Once I made my decision, I was up and loading my pack in a heartbeat.
"Where ya going?" he asked, interrupting his own story.
"I gotta get going. It's a near full Moon and I need to make up some time" I said in a rush.
"Oh, I see" the blind man said. "Won't do any good, though."
"Well, if I can make a few miles tonight and camp, it'll be a few miles I won't have to do tomorrow" I reasoned. I had forgotten that I had no tent again. Maybe I just didn't care.
"Do what you think is best" he said.
The air was crisp, clean. As I stepped away from the shelter, I looked in and said "Take care of yourself, old man." He said nothing. My lunar lantern lit the night like a gray Winter day. More than enough for hiking. I was glad to be out of the confines of the shelter. My thoughts were able to roam freely. Not being suppressed by the old man's stories. I felt free again. I made good time, too.
As I got to the pasture just south of VA 672, I could hear some commotion across the field. As I got closer, I could see quite a gathering of emergency vehicles. I slowed down a bit, as I didn't want to see what was going on. I checked my watch. Nearly 3 o'clock. Seemed it was always nearly 3 o'clock.
It became obvious that whatever was going on wasn't going to be gone before I got there, so I decided to continue. After the Trail crosses the pasture, it enters the woods briefly, then climbs a small incline to the road. At some point in the woods, I noticed that my legs felt the best they ever had. No pain, no aches. Walking was effortless.
As I climbed the incline, I heard someone yell "He's dead. He just don't know it yet." This stopped me in my tracks. I was unnoticed by all those around the scene. My pack seemed to disappear with all the excitement around me. Things seemed to be getting grayer, darker. And then, like cold water in the face, I was slapped to reality.
I eased up the incline. Looking around, things seemed very familiar. Frighteningly familiar. All of the people there had been with me on the Trail. The man who doctored my face was leaning against an ambulance. The side of the ambulance read "Pearis Township Ambulance Service". The woman with the lilt in her voice was tending to someone on a stretcher next to a pick-up truck. The two guys who ignored my tent fire were standing at the side of the road, watching again. They were all there. Then, and only then, did I realize what was going on.
In the bed of the pick up truck was a Doublemint sleeping bag. On the ground next to the truck were two hiking sticks. I walked over and took a look at the guy on the stretcher. Just as I suspected, he was wearing a blue fleece jacket. On the ground, next to the road, was a green Gregory pack.
As it turns out, my section hike didn't go as planned. Seems I never quite made it to the trailhead. Somehow, my truck found its way into a bad situation while travelling VA 672. I had, apparently, hiked my hike while drifting in and out of consciousness. Some men picked the stretcher up and walked passed me. I could see the gapping wound on my cheek, singed hair.
As they neared the back of the ambulance, my vision grew dimmer. A man in a uniform was looking in my wallet. "Cute girl," he said. "Too damned bad". At this moment, I realized the one thing I was going to miss. As they slid the stretcher into the dark ambulance, my vision was gone. I was gone.
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