Sunday, March 24, 2013

Brains and Birthdays

Day 14: 6.5 miles. NOC (Nantahala) to Sassafras Gap Shelter. This was straight uphill all day so we didn't make it very far. At the shelter we met a wilderness training group from Towson University who were section hiking Southbound. They were fantastic! Also at this shelter we met Domino, who was hiking with a ferret (Splinter)

Day 15: 15.2 miles. Sassafras Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter. Over Cheoah Bald and Jacob's Ladder.

Day 16: 6.6 miles. Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter. MAH BIRTHDAH.

Day 17: Zero Day!

For a lot of my young life, I didn't put much creedance in the phrase "mind over matter." It always seemed like the sort of thinking used by people who bet on billiards, or staunchly refuse to ever get a flu shot in spite of getting the flu every single year. In short, it always seemed like the sort of mantra used by folks who had no intention of taking any sort of responsibility for their own role in the universe. Like ordering a pizza with anchovies, and then being terribly disappointed when it does indeed show up sprinkled with tiny, salty, headless fish. I didn't believe that physical things could possibly be changed by the sheer power of thought.

As with many things we believe as adolescents, such as thinking that consuming nothing but cheetos and mountain dew for weeks at a time will not have any negative reprocussions, my belief about the fallibility about "mind over matter," was, simply put: wrong. Granted, there are some things for which it doesn't work. For example, no matter how hard I stare at myself in the mirror and concentrate with all my might, my hair refuses to get any thicker. Rude. However, there are some circumstances in which we can trick our brains, and thus conquer things that may have previously appeared insurmountable.

The map labeled the section of the trail as "Jacob's Ladder," and the elevation line was practically vertical. There were several smaller mountains we'd have to crest before arriving at this beast. On the trail it can sometimes be hard to figure out exactly where on the map we are, as there are only signs every 6 or 7 miles, and even those are roughly cut wooden planks that sometimes don't offer anything other than "water," with an arrow pointing vaguely off the trail. So as we the three of us trudged along, we speculated that Jacob's Ladder was liable to be rocky, slippery and terrifying. As we ascended a mountain with a path that led straight upward at such an angle that the trail ahead of me was only two feet from my face, we were convinced that we were still on the approach mountains to Jacob's Ladder. We couldn't possibly be on the hardest part yet, and so we climbed at a steady unbroken pace, believing that it couldn't be all that bad, because things were bound to get ten times worse on the next crest.

At the top of the hill, we looked around, and both Apollo and I agreed that though we could see no other steep peak in any direction, there was no way we had gone over Jacob's Ladder.

"Guys," croaked Dumptruck, "I just threw up in my mouth."

And with that, the tricks that Apollo and I had played on our minds vanished, and we understood that we had indeed gone over Jacob's Ladder. But because we thought there was something harder ahead of us, we were able to climb the hardest part of the day, our noses brushing the dirt of the steep trail as we'd walked, without being defeated or held back. Mind over matter was truly successful! Except for Dumptruck who, as I previously mentioned, barfed in his own mouth.

Can't win 'em all.

I want to do my best to capture how magical my birthday was, but I think it will be hard, because I am much better about writing about disasters. I think I struggle with containing wonderfulness in words, because it doesn't seem to fit. It's like when my friend Ashley and I were 13 and tried to bake a cake in a meatloaf pan, and the batter expanded into a giant mushroom which exploded and vomited boiling hot cake batter all over the inside of the oven, sending clouds of black smoke into the kitchen and setting off the fire alarm. The intention was there, but the vessel was incorrect.

We were at a shelter at Fontana Dam, where many hikers gathered because they'd heard we were going to have a birthday celebration. This particular shelter is unique, in that it is only 2 miles from a little town, and it is slightly more enclosed than the standard wooden lean-to shelter. Apollo and Dumptruck had gone into town to get $75 worth of hot dogs, chips n' salsa, s'more-making supplies and drinks. When they were at the register, a local man said "I got this," and paid for the whole spread. He even insisted that Apollo go back and get more beverages. Birthday magic and Trail magic UNITE! So many wonderful people gathered around the campfire and stayed up way past their bedtime (read: past sunset), laughed, sang and talked while the stars came out over the lake. I had an incredible time and I don't really have the words so CAKE EXPLOSION FIRE ALARM SCREAMING ETC ETC.

It rained all night, and the next morning Dumptruck said that he'd woken up to something freezing cold and wet sitting on his cheek. In the darkness he couldn't really tell what it was, until it took a step. He became aware that it was a soaking wet, shivering mouse, perched on his bare skin. He said that he spasmed and slapped the mouse off his cheek, sending it flying halfway across the shelter, where it landed and scurried away. Based on the frequency with which mice crawl on people's faces in shelters, we have a theory that getting launched across the shelter is a method of entertainment for them.

We are currently staying in Fontana, a teeny tiny little resort town in NC, because the weather is wretched and it's finally time for a zero day. From here we go up into the Smoky Mountains, where bad weather can mean serious danger, so we're trying to time our exit as best as possible. We three have a hotel room in the only little Lodge in town, and we're sharing the room with two excellent gentlemen named Hermes and Guard. This morning consisted of Guard flopping around the room in his sleeping bag like a brain damaged caterpillar, and sleeping bag inch worm races down the hallway. Yesterday a lot of a wonderful bubble of hikers hung out at the Lodge, and I got to know a fair amount of them a lot better than I had before.

Here is a listing of great people- also so you can get an idea of some of the trail names out here:

Rainbow Braid, Owl, Zag, Detour, Movie Star, Bean, Vice, Broken Pack, Mainiac, Boone, Doc, Flipper, Hey Everybody, Alpha Dog, Nails, Dirt Dog, Domino, Roamin', Sarah, Scorchy Pipes, Little Foot, Johnny Cash, Nightwalker, Taco, Caliokey, Hermes, Guard... And lots more, but I can't keep track. Good humans, all.


  1. HOORAY! Happy glad it was fun and you had lots of friends with you. I love thay you've been on the trail long enough that you can off-handedly say "it rained all night" in the midst of talking about what a great day you had. Rolling with whatever comes your way...awesome! We sure love and miss you and so proud of all you're doing and the cool way you're handling everything. Be safe in the Smoky's! Love, Mom and Dad

  2. I'm only able to read "Fontana Dam" in my Gilda Radner Rosanne Rosanadana voice. It made me giggle. I'm glad you are all having so much fun on the trail, and only people like you three can make trail magic and birthday magic combine and multiply like little magic bunnies. Stay safe!!

  3. So very happy you had a Happy Birthday! What a great way to celebrate it with lots of trail friends. We can't wait to here how the hike is going this week with the addition of snow in the mountains. We think of you always. We love you both very much!
    Mom and Dad