Maybe the White Mountains scared me, or it might have been the $80.00 per night rates at the AMC Lodges in New Hampshire that dampened my spirit, but whatever the reason(s), I changed plans in North Woodstock, NH and returned south. Frankly it was not an unexpected diversion; I had been mulling over my schedule for days, because I could see there was no way I was going to make it to Katahdin before July 8th, the date I was due in Philadelphia to rendezvous with Jacob and Milana, Annice's grandkids.
But, something else came up that pulled me back there sooner, and so it was that on June 7th, I found myself on a Concord Trailways Bus, bound for Boston, and on to the Delaware Water Gap, and my car.
Since I was in Boston, I took the opportunity to drop in on my old friend Jude Monroe, her partner Mark Shub and Mark's father, Dr. Al Shub, who lives with them in South Dartmouth, MA. I transferred to the New Bedford bus and Jude picked me up and drove me to their grand country estate. It is a beautiful, but unpretentious property; very, very comfortable and complete with a standard-issue yellow Labrador retriever. Her name is Matilda and considering the way her parents slobber over her, I could tell they do not consider her standard-issue, but very special indeed. "Tillie' is a typical Lab; all heart.
I had a very good time there. It was a relaxing evening with good friends and good food, and the next day I caught another bus to New York where I transferred to the Delaware Water Gap, but I arrived there too late to retrieve my car from storage. The church-based hostel was closed for renovations and I pitched my tarp behind the local outfitter's store and next to a pond packed with melodious bullfrogs. They serenaded me to sleep. I drove to Philadelphia the next morning.
I felt fine when I left the trail, but over the next few days, my left hip, leg and foot developed strange symptoms. I had pain in the hip, numbness in the foot and weakness in the quadriceps muscle. Nevertheless, once I tended to my business, I headed back to the A.T. However, considering the short interval before I was due back in Philadelphia, instead of resuming my hike in New Hampshire, I returned to the Delaware Water Gap and hiked south, thinking I could knock off Pennsylvania before the grandkids arrived in early July. I lasted two days. After hiking only sixteen miles, the pain was tolerable, but my leg was weak; it was practically useless. The leg collapsed on the hills; the quadriceps muscle simply had nothing to give. I walked off the trail in Wind Gap, PA.
That launched another “Trail Angel” story. I was walking into Wind Gap, not even hitching, when a car pulled over and the driver shouted, “Where are you going?”
“To Philadelphia,” I said. “Is there a bus station in Wind Gap?”
“No, but get in, I have an idea,” he said.
Bill Hutnik drove to the post office and told me to wait in the car. A few minutes later, he came out with a cordless phone stuck to his ear, and said, “Will it help if I can get you to Lansdale?”
“Sure,” I said.
To make a long story short, Bill was talking to his son, who was in his car, about to leave Wind Gap for Lansdale, PA. He asked his son to take me with him. The son agreed, and Bill returned the cordless phone to the Post Office, jumped back in the car and drove me across town to rendezvous with my ride.
Bill’s son dropped me at the Wawa convenience store in Lansdale, and I downed two ice cream bars before Annice arrived and drove me to her house. Windgap to Philadelphia; three shuttles in less than two hours and I was in the shower. Could I make it up?
The next day I limped into the hospital emergency room. They x-rayed my back and leg, but the film revealed only minor arthritis in my hip. The doctor offered some educated guesses about my predicament, including a stressed ligament, but nothing that explained the combination of symptoms enveloping my hip, leg and foot. He prescribed rest and Ibuprofen. I will give it a few days before I consult another doctor.
Meanwhile my unexpected return to Philadelphia allowed me to hook-up with another old friend from California, John Puccini and his wife Patti, whom I had never met. John and Patti were visiting Philadelphia on their way to New Jersey and coincidentally called Annice looking for me. We joined them for dinner at Ralph’s, a famous Italian restaurant with much local color—and great food. It was an unexpected renewal of a very old and important friendship and we enjoyed a wonderful evening together.
Have I learned anything from walking hundreds of miles, day after day, week after week, month after month, mostly alone, with hardly a soul with whom to communicate?
Fortunately, I do not require constant companionship, but when one is alone 24 hours a day, you have to fill that void with something. I talk to myself constantly; I have revisited large parts of my life; I have thought about the mistakes I've made; I’ve reminisced about the people who are important to me, and why, and I have speculated about what I will do with the balance of my time on that thing I am walking on, the planet earth.
My mind skips around like a hard drive on steroids. My thoughts range from the stimulating to the boring, sometimes unbearably boring, especially when I repeat conversations with myself, but I am surprised by the passing of time; the clock seems to be on fast forward, and the hours and the miles evaporate as if on autopilot.
My attention is primarily focused on where next to place my foot—the Appalachian Trail is not made for walking; rocks, tree roots, mud and water are the common surfaces and they are all slippery—but it is impossible to ignore the surroundings. I prize the beauty around me; the trees, the water, the birds and the animals. They all contribute to an image I have come to appreciate, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but that if you took away any of its components, that would diminish the rest. My years on the water gave me a heightened sense of awareness for many of the natural and unnatural threats to the environment, and my time on the trail reminds me of that delicate balance.
However, I cannot claim that the environment has been one of my hot buttons. It is not a simple issue to come to grips with; opaque is the word that comes to mind. The zealots exaggerate their claims; Rush Limbaugh and The Sierra Club are equally sincere and persuasive but they both turn me off. Perhaps I can’t get past the messenger.
My new awareness first came in New Jersey. I had only walked a few days then, but I was in the most beautiful forested land you can imagine. Walking on a ridge 1,200 ft above sea level, I marveled at the unexpected beauty of the mountains and the countless natural lakes that dotted the landscape below, including the beautiful Delaware River. Decades ago, concerned citizens had the foresight to stop the damning of this important waterway and today it is the longest free flowing river on the East Coast. But conversely, as I looked out on hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped forestland, I thought, if New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the Union, is this natural and wide open, what is all the fuss about? Of course, my views from the ridge were only surface deep.
The birds entertain me. It is no accident that I named my weblog, Morningbird. Living on a boat, and before that in a country house with open windows (read no air conditioning), made me a fan of their merry early morning symphonies. Even the shrieking sea gulls produce a harmony that calms the soul. Coincidentally, in Vermont and New Hampshire, I hiked with Tom Banks, a veteran U.S. Park Ranger, who can identify birds by their sounds. That opened another window for me, and I looked forward to learning who was singing that tune. Woodpeckers are the noisiest birds and we heard many different kinds. I learned from Tom that woodpeckers have a protective layer of water around their brains to soften the impact of butting their heads against the tree. I could use that.
At night, books are my companions; I read on average, one book a week. I would read more, but in order to keep my pack weight down, I limit my inventory to one paperback at a time. I replenish my library when I stop for food.
I enjoy the absence of noise, the constant buzz in the background that over a lifetime, I unwittingly came to accept as normal, and not long ago I wondered when the hike was over, if I would return to TV-land and a world saturated with electronic media. I decided, no, I would not, but on my first night off the trail in New Hampshire, I found myself watching the NBA playoffs—not an encouraging transition. Nevertheless, reading remains my favorite pastime, and I am determined to wean myself from the tube.
I walked solo for weeks, and seldom saw other hikers, even on the weekends. At the end of the day, I looked forward to camping alone, and later when the weather turned warm, and I began to encounter other backpackers, I initially resented those hikers who ventured into the solitude of my shelter. That was shortsighted and selfish, because without exception, I enjoyed their company, and being a backpacking rookie, I invariably learned something from my shelter mates.
I have not met one disagreeable person on the Appalachian Trail and I’m told that is true of the backpacking community in general. It is true of the sailing world too; on the water, inconsiderate oafs become good Samaritans. Go figure.
The early going was hard; I was out of shape and woefully unprepared to hike up and down mountains day after day with 35-40 lbs. on my back. I dreamed that my body would quickly fall into shape, but that was not to be. I suffered for about 300 hundred miles and it was only after I detoured onto the Long Trail in Vermont, and hiked the Green Mountains, that I began to feel stronger. The Greens pushed me over the hump; after that, I stopped looking at the elevation charts; there was nothing to dread.
If you read my earlier postings, you might remember the fantastic breakfast we had at the Garlic Clove restaurant in Glencliff, NH. It was a memorable morning; not only because of the food, but also for an accidental meeting I had with another diner. The man was seated at the bar having coffee and conversation with two friends, all of them locals. When I looked over at them, I noticed a book lying next to his elbow. I do not know why the book grabbed my attention, and I don't know why I walked over and asked the man about it, but I did. He patiently explained the subject and the author's thesis and I wrote the information on a napkin. A few days later, I located a bookstore in Lincoln, NH and bought "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" by Thom Hartmann, published by Three Rivers Press.
It is a mind-bending book and it will require more than one read for me to grasp the full impact of Mr. Hartmann's message. Simply put, it is that we are "fouling our nest." According to Mr. Hartmann, the depletion of energy is not a dilemma exclusive to our society, but a human failing existing for thousands of years and the leading cause of the demise of every major civilization; oil is simply the threatened “resource of the moment.” He contends that the problem is a by-product of culture, and because of that, band-aid solutions, e.g., recycling, birth control, and saving the rain forest, will not arrest the problem. It requires a cultural flush; a new set of values. We must accept that we are part of nature and not simply users, or masters. He caused me to rethink some of my beliefs and assumptions.
I’m glad I am walking this path. The fresh air has cleared my mind. When my leg recovers, I will lumber on down the trail.