Friday, August 2, 2013

AT Refugee

7/31: 14.4 miles, VT 9 to Kid Gore Shelter. We went up a beautiful fire tower. Catch was here!!! So we were able to collect him again. Also we saw some other friends, Ambassador, Lil' Engine and Timber.

8/1: 15 miles to Stratton Pond Shelter. This day also had a fire tower, which I explain in more detail below.

8/2: We hiked 11 miles and then hitched into Manchester Center to resupply on food. We'll do more miles this afternoon after lunch!


I was never a girly girl. Most of this came from the fact that I have an awesome mom, and she was never gender oriented. She let me be whatever way I wanted to be, even if that meant I wanted to do things like build a fort out of a refrigerator box in the basement and live in it. I would sit in that box for days at a time, with a casette recorder, recording myself reading aloud from a book about dragons. I'm not really sure who or what that audiobook was for. Maybe it was for my future self. I think I was just doing it to practice my baritone. Needless to say, I never had a princess phase.

I would refuse to shower, for no reason at all. Now I will retroactively excuse that behavior by saying that my childhood self was just preparing for the life of a thru-hiker. My mom, still awesome, wouldn't freak out at my waist-length, stringy mop of greek hair that would mat itself into a greasy nightmare tangle. The gnarly waterfall of brown locks would have made Medusa herself green with jealousy. Every once in a while, Mom would gently suggest that I might be more comfortable if I showered ocassionally. I would make non-commital grunting sounds from behind my heavy brown theatre curtain and she would let me be. I'm sure she would just say to herself this too shall pass. Which it did. This is what makes my mom great: she knew that if she harassed me about it, I would dig my heels in and be ornery. But she let me figure out that hygiene was cool in my own time. It's too bad that it's all fallen apart now that I'm homeless in the woods. Mom, it's not your fault. 

When I was 8 or so, I had a next-door best friend named Emily or Ashley or FillyWillow or something. I can't remember- we were a military family and moved a lot. Whenever it would rain, we would sprint out of our houses, our horrifyingly unwashed tomboy hair flying out in streamers behind us, intent on saving the worms. We ran into the road, collecting the nightcrawlers that had wriggled out of the mud to escape drowning. Darting in front of the slow-moving neigborhood cars, we'd wave our arms and hold up traffic, collecting fistfuls of wriggling, slimy creatures to take to our "worm hospital." The worm hospital was a marginally dry patch of dirt under a nearby tree, where we would bring the squirmers. We would crouch around this patch of dirt, soaking wet in our boy clothes (I was probably wearing a t-shirt with a dragon on it), nudging the worms in varying states of near-death. Half of them were already partially mangled or squished from passing cars. We had learned in our hippie montessori school that if half of the worm was intact, it would live, so all were welcome in our hospital, regardless of passing similarity to ground beef. We liked to imagine the worms appreciated our efforts, as they flopped their way into the damp earth. Now I'm sure all they thought about was eating dirt and pooping it out. Emily and I didn't care; we thought we were doing our part to save the world. We high-fived with filthy, muddy hands, and didn't yet fear puberty and all the girlish emotions it might bring. Kindess is not something with which puberty treats the nerdy girl.

There is a proliferation of adorable, bright orange salamanders that live in these Appalachian woods. They're at most 2 inches long, and only come out when it's raining. Their favorite thing to do is to hang out in the middle of the trail, waiting for passing hikers to squish them. It's like the worms sliming their way directly into the middle of the road. I'm not sure if they're just stupid, or if they're playing some version of frogger or chicken where the penalty for losing is a quick death via total flattening. Regardless, I love them. I don't have a good photo, because they're only out when it's raining and that's when I have to bury my iPod in my backpack. But I spend most rainy days bending over every 5 minutes to gently pick up a salamander and move him off-trail. This causes all manner of trail traffic accidents, mostly in the form of Dumptruck colliding into my suddenly stationary back. Other times, if the salamander is off-center enough to be safe from feet but not safe from hiking pole tips, I will just holler out "Salamander on the left!" Or "Salamander on the right!" like a captain giving orders to his crew to avoid small icebergs. 

On the first of August, we headed North with the intention of doing 20 miles. After about 6 miles, the sky opened up and started barfing up all of the water it had previously drank out of the atmosphere. I was again wearing only tiny shorts and a sports bra, but now that we are farther north and the heat wave is gone, it was actually cold. We were climbing Stratton Mountain, the place which, as legend has it, was so beautiful that it inspired the original idea for the development of the Appalachian Trail. The fog was thick, enveloping our bodies as we climbed higher and higher into the soaking clouds. 

The wind was brutal at the top of the 4,000 foot summit, picking up raindrops and slapping us about the face. About 50 feet above came the voices of Grim, Whistle and Catch, in the tiny room at the top of the fire tower. They hollered down to us, saying that the windows were glassed, and that it was warmer in their small tin box. Dumptruck and I exchanged looks as we stared up at the perilously balanced fire tower, swirling in and out of sight as obscuring fog and clouds flew by on the wind. It looked like a half-imagined vision in a crystal ball. Deciding that this would be as good a way as any to die, we grabbed the metal hand rails and began our climb upward.

We were above the tree line after the first flight of stairs, and we quickly understood that the wind on the ground was not as bad as we had thought. As soon as I was higher than the tree-tops, the wind pushed me sideways against the railing with the sudden power of a school bully shoving a dweeb against a locker. I struggled upward toward the encouraging hollers of my friends somewhere above me. Somewhere, distantly in my mind, I recognized that climbing a gigantic metal staircase on the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm was probably not the most intelligent decision I had ever made. But at the time, all I could think about was how freezing cold, practically naked and soaking wet I was. Up above me was dryness and warmth. I had to get there.

I came up through the wooden floor of the small enclosure and finally was able to shiver freely without the fear of vibrating myself off the open metal-work stairs. The little room was maybe 8 feet by 8 feet, with a wooden floor, thin metal walls, old glass windows and a pitched roof. It was significantly warmer than the stairs had been, though that wasn't saying much, as the stairs had been like climbing an ice luge into the abominable snowman's refridgerator. Catch and Whistle were huddled under a sleeping bag in the corner, and Grim was playing music out of his phone and dancing in place. He may have been doing this to warm himself up. It's also possible he was doing this just because he's awesome that way.

I stood and dripped, the water-drops shaking off of my exposed skin. I stood there for a moment, then dropped my pack and extracted a bandana to squeegee some of the water off of myself. After I was marginally drier, I took off my drenched sports bra and put on my down jacket. I was much warmer, and some of my senses returned to me. Grim hugged me for warmth, while Dumptruck also changed into dry clothing and set about trying to find a way to cover the large opening in the floor that led to the stairs. He and Catch MacGuyvered a tarp over the opening, hindered by the wind just below yanking hungrily down on the tarp.

We made some coffee in our cook stove, passing it around to each other and drinking directly out of the pot. We looked like refugees, half-drowned but delirious and happy with the simple fact of survival. The metal walls would bang and bulge alarmingly whenever the wind changed directions.

"I just saw a bird fly by the window," said Whistle, "and it wasn't under his own power."

We ate lunch, and tried to figure out what to do next. We had come 12 miles, but the cold rain showed no sign of stopping. As we were chatting, Whistle's hiking shirt (which she'd hung on a small peg to dry) suddenly fell down, slid down the tarp, fell out the opening in the floor and was instantly whipped away, carried by the wind off the mountain. This all happened before I even had time to finish saying "Oh no!" 

We had a moment of silence for Whistle's blue shirt, which had kept her happy since Virginia. It was a good shirt, and it was taken before its time. We imagined that somewhere, miles below, it had probably prostrated itself miserably onto the windshield of a car driving on a country road, causing all sorts of problems, the least of which would be that a lot more worms would die on that road than would have otherwise. 

The real problem we faced was that Whistle and Catch were both completely without rain gear. They had both sent all of their rain gear home weeks ago, as the heat rendered it wholly unnecessary. Now was the first real return to cold rain, and it didn't seem safe for the two of them to keep hiking. However, the little room was far too small for the 5 of us to stay there. Not to mention that it was a giant lightning rod of doom.

Grim, Dumptruck and I decided to hike on to the next shelter 3 miles away, and Whistle and Catch said they'd wait for the rain to let up a bit. We pulled back the tarp and began the swaying, dangerous descent. But as we exited the little room, we were greeted by a glorious sight: Whistle's shirt, improbably clinging to one of the upright metal poles of the staircase and flapping madly in the wind like a flag. It wasn't ready to abandon Whistle. Dumptruck yanked it down and returned it to a flabbergasted but delighted Whistle before we left. 

The 3 of us did the last miles very quickly, and came upon a large shelter, set up like a bunk house with a loft, full of a wonderful collection of Southbounders and Northbounders. It felt like a rainy day at summer camp, and we all stayed up much later than regular hiker bedtime, talking and laughing and commiserating. Grim got a text message from Whistle at about 6pm, letting us know that she and Catch were staying at the fire tower, and that they would catch up to us the next day. 

I woke up the next morning in the shelter, Whistle's face a few inches from mine. She was leaning over me, her long ponytail brushing my face.

"The Russians are coming," she whispered.

"Heaven help us," I groaned, rolling over and rubbing my eyes. "I'm glad you didn't die in the fire tower."

She agreed. 

Clever Girl

Whistle's new Chacos for hiking!
At the first fire tower- the one on the nice day

AT hiker hungry!

My new favorite photo

Beaver dams make it so sometimes the trail is below the water line.

Trying to secure the tarp

Big red monster!

AT Refugee

Only Grim's feet can keep it in place!

Grim's flaming dinner


  1. Huzzah! Love the firetower story; beautifully told. Your pics are first rate...I thought it was because Dumptruck got his camera functional. Who knew your worm training would be so helpful on the trail? :-) Are you taking pictures of all your shelter entries? Love the ones you've shared. Other bloggers have commented on them! Who's the mysterious "Ralph" mentioned on the entry? We love and miss happy you're getting close. Give our best to all hands; Catch sounds like a great addition to the fam. Love, Mom and Dad

  2. Thanks for another brilliant story. When you finish, check out Karma on the Trail at Wordpress. She's another very creative writer.

    You two should be writing for the New Yorker. Sisu

  3. You've not only grown as a outdoorsy ATer, but you are turning into one fantastic writer. We so miss both of you. We are so glad you spent time with Uncle Bob and Aunt Martha. They are wonderful folks! We can't believe how close you are to your Mom and Dad's place. We love you bunches!
    Mom & Dad

  4. I missed a week, so I stayed up way past my bedtime to read the last few entries. Glad I did, because THIS BLOG is the kind of stuff that keeps me motivated.

    I love your sense of humor and style of storytelling, and I can only hope that I have traveling companions half as fun as you guys next year.

    Be safe out there!