Friday, August 23, 2013

Northgoing Zax and Southgoing Zax

It was December of 2010, and I was leaning back against Dumptruck (who at that point was still Mike) on our couch. We lived in a 1-bedroom apartment on 200th street in Manhattan, in a neighborhood long forgotten, or never discovered, by tourists. Our couch was actually a twin bed, as recent college graduates, we knew the only real purpose of a couch was for your friends to be able to crash on it, so it may as well be a bed. Across the room was a pair of wooden sawhorses with a length of sturdy plywood laying across them, a confabulation we generously referred to as a "desk." Sitting on the desk was a wide computer monitor, playing my favorite Christmas movie. The floor so ordinarily strewn with cat-hair was now covered in an assortment of wedding planning miasma. Outside, snow was gently falling.

"What do you want to do for our honeymoon?" Suddenly asked Mike, shifting his weight and accidentally knocking our rotund cat off of the bed and onto the floor, where he immediately began using the wedding planning stuff as cat-claw-fodder. I sat up and grabbed the remote to pause the movie, just at the moment when Bruce Willis realizes that the American he'd helped earlier was actually Hans Gruber, a madman thirsty for power and without a lick of Christmas Spirit. Alan Rickman's dour face loomed over my shoulder as I sat up and regarded Mike.

"I hadn't really thought about it. Although I'm not sure that laying about on a beach somewhere drinking fancy drinks has anything to do with the way that I love you."

"I agree," he nodded, "but people are going to ask what we're doing for a honeymoon. Want to just go to the moon and pour honey all over it?"

"Yes," I said, "But to save enough money to do that, we'll have to work for 50 years. Also, all the bees are dying."

We chatted about options for a while, both agreeing that standard honeymoon destinations were not really our type of adventure. I put the movie back on, while we both lapsed into contemplative silence. The snow continued to fall outside. The cat slept in his paper nest. Bruce Willis blew some stuff up.

"Want to hike the Appalachian Trail?" I burst out, forgetting to pause the movie in my excitement. This is important: Die Hard is one of my very favorite movies, and very little could distract me from the glorious yuletide bloodbath. Mike, the good man he is, paused the movie and stared at me. 


"Yes, really," I put my hands on my hips, pursed my lips and raised my eyebrows playfully, daring him to question my manliness. He poked me in the ribs and I giggled, doubling over. 

"Really!" I laughed, "We've both always wanted to do it. Why not?"

When I looked at him again, there was a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth; the kind of sneaky smile that takes over your face in spite of yourself, when you can't quite believe something is happening.

"We're going to be squeezed out of money after the wedding, we'll have to save up for the trail," he reasoned.

"So we'll go a few years after. The wedding's in October 2011, let's start the trail in Spring 2013."

Mike was openly grinning then, looking for all the world like a little kid who has been told that he's allowed to muck around in the mud for hours, never do homework and not have to take a bath. I straightened my back, stuck out my left hand and looked straight in his eyes,

"Michael Wilson, will you hike the East Coast with me?"

He grabbed my hand with his and shook it.



Dumptruck is a wedding photographer (among other photography), and before we left for the trail, several opportunities for jobs came up halfway through September. We were starting on March 7th, so September seemed very mangeable. Some folks finish the trail in 5 months. Some in 6. Turns out that, for us, a September 15th deadline has been an ever looming threat.

The main problem is that the second half of Maine is what is known as the "Hundred Mile Wilderness," where there are no road crossings for 100 miles. Once you go in, you're in until you come out the other side. Over the past few weeks, it has become apparent that we might not quite make it through the 100 mile wilderness in time for Dumptruck's jobs. Then we'd be stuck, Dumptruck would not be a man of his word, a moose would make a meal of us, the world would end, etc., etc. 

Really, what this meant is that if we arrived at the 100 mile wilderness and knew we couldn't make it through it time, Dumptruck would have to quit the trail at the start of the wilderness, and I would summit Katahdin without him.

Over the past week, this hovering eventuality felt like someone had put several bricks in the bottom of my backpack. It's not that I am afraid to hike alone; to the contrary, I know it would be its own adventure. The trouble is that we've made it this far together, and the idea of summiting Katahdin without him feels... I am struggling for a metaphor, so I will settle for an adjective: awful. Thinking about it made my stomach twist into tight little terrible pretzels, covered in horrible mustard.

As the 2 of us were climbing down the impossibly rocky, steep and never-ending descent of Mount Madison, the creeping grip of pretzel guts was increasing with every step. Grim and Whistle were at least a mile ahead of us, and we had told them we would catch them the next day. I was exhausted from the day (see the previous post: 6 empire state buildings in 1 day!) and I was stumbling with every step. I nearly tumbled off into several ravines, my feet a pair clumsy clown shoes. I had already fallen several times, miraculously not hitting my head, but my legs were a mess of bruises and bloody road-rash scrapes from the rocks. I was so tired, but we couldn't stop because we were above tree-line and there was quite literally nowhere to camp. Every direction was sharp boulders at 45 degree angles or steeper (again, look at the previous post for photos of this) and we were walking along a thin ridgeline. We had to keep going. The sun was setting beautifully over the ridge behind us, but it was a dangerous beauty, as it pulled the ever-dimming blanket of light down over the back of the mountainside as it went.

Dumptruck and I put our poles away because they were no use against the jumbled boulders. We descended together, one wobbly sharp rock at a time, in the only possible way: by holding hands. He would take a few tenuous steps downward, turn around and hold his hands up to me, and I would use his steady weight as a fulcrum to swing downward. Then we would switch, and I would go forward for a while, bringing him down. It reminded me of two children on a see-saw. One cannot go forward without the other. 

As soon as we got to the tree-line, the last of the light crawling away, we found a tiny established stealth campsite between some trees a little off the trail. I tried to help Dumptruck set up the tent, but I was shaking so badly that my attempt at assembling the poles looked like I was trying to wrestle several angry orange rattle snakes. Dumptruck gently told me to rest, and he set up the tent.

It was too much. My exhaustion, coupled with my stress regarding the end of the trail, washed over me like a bucket of ice water. I rubbed my eyes and tried to hiccup back the growing eventuality of tears, but I was unsuccessful. Salt water poured over my face, leaving streaks through the accumulated grime on my cheeks. My pink hair, which I had pulled back into tiny childlike pigtails to keep out of my face, was now jiggling around as I shook with the onslaught of emotion. I imagined that I must have looked like a cartoon character, with big, salty water drops falling from my face to create a small ocean around my comically over-sized hiking boots, Pig-Pen stink lines squiggling upward toward the sky.

Dumptruck sat down with me, and we talked about how we could possibly combat the possibility that we wouldn't finish together. Hike faster? Not possible through the White Mountains and the Mahoosics of Maine, which are enormous, steep, and constantly changing. Skip a section? Not desirable, as this is one of the most beautiful sections we've encountered, and we definitely don't want to miss it. Buy rocket boots? Not feasible, as even if they were invented, they would probably be prohibitively expensive. We couldn't figure out what to do, so we ate food and went to bed, deciding to talk about it more in the morning.

As ideas are sometimes wont to do, a plan coalesced in my brain as I slept, all the pieces weaving together and settling into a perfect, simple solution:

Southbound it.

I sat up in my sleeping bag in the morning, rubbing the leftover sleep out of my eyes and looking around. Dumptruck was sitting near the tent, making coffee in the morning light. 

"Hey," I murmured, smiling with my idea. He looked up at me and tilted his head to the side, evoking the image of a puppy who isn't quite sure whether or not something exciting is about to happen. 

"What about if we Southbound?"

He paused, thinking about it, "What do you mean?"

"We can get a ride from my mom up to the base of Katahdin and hike South from there. Then, when September 15th rolls around, if we haven't quite made it back to here [Pinkham Notch], then we won't be trapped in the wilderness. My parents can pick us up anywhere near here because they live so close. Then, we can drive back up to Katahdin and still finish with summiting Katahdin. Together."

"Oh! That's a great idea! We'll be Flip-Floppers!"

"We might have made it in time either way, but this way there won't be any stress. If there's a small section we don't get through down here in the Whites or Southern Maine, then it's okay, and we can maybe even come back and do it in October. Then we won't yellow blaze, and we will still summit Katahdin."

Dumptruck and I packed up our tent and gear, and made the rest of the 6 miles down to Pinkham Notch, where we found Grim and Whistle. Also there was my mom, who was doing trail magic for hikers! We had found Mom 2 days previously, when she had surprised us at Crawford Notch with trail magic. We had found Sunshine, Carpenter, Leaks, Jerry Riggs and the Florida Flip Floppers there are well! She had promised to catch us again at Pinkham Notch, and then make plans for when we could go and zero at my parents' house. In those 2 days we hiked a huge portion of the White Mountains. The muscles in my calves feel so big that sometimes I swear I can feel my skin stretching over them, it's actually quite strange. 

The White Mountains, though they are incredibly arduous to hike, are also a popular tourist destination because of their beauty. Additionally, there is a system of "huts" that are like mountainside bunkhouse hotels. Occasionally thru-hikers can get work-for-stay at these cool spots, but there's usually only a few spots, as the huts are full-up with customers paying a pretty penny to stay. Thus, for the most part, Grim, Whistle, Dumptruck and I have been just stopping into the huts for a bowl of soup and hiking on. Furthermore, there is an auto road that folks can drive up to reach the summit of Mount Washington, so the top of that mountain is swarmed by tourists curious about what it feels like to be inside of weather in the sky. This has led to some interesting interactions between us thru-hikers and the visiting families, who may or may not have any idea what the Appalachian Trail is, and why there are people standing near them who haven't showered recently. 

We had made it to Zealand Falls Hut halfway through a day, and we were sitting at the long mess hall tables, quietly eating soup. Dumptruck was in a particular zoned-out mood. He had recently removed his cap, and his long hair was sticking out from his head in a thousand directions like some kind of insane hedgehog. His beard was ruffled and long as per usual, and his white hiking shirt was a charming gradient of browns and yellows from sweat and dirt. He was sitting near the door of the hut, staring off into space with his mouth slightly open, when a young girl around the age of 13 came into the hut. She was very clean, and was clearly on just a short trip with her family. 

I would like to take a moment and flesh out the character of this girl. She was wearing a conspicuously clean bright green shirt, and her long brown hair was loose around her shoulders. I do not have the power to read minds, but based on her initial facial expression, I would assume that up until the moment she encountered us, her thoughts had been something like "The woods r soooo boooorriiinng #summerboredom #myparentsaretheworst #barf"

Sometimes, in movies, there is a moment when the camera will zoom in on something terrifying, and then swing wildly back to the protagonist to see their reaction to the beast in question. She saw Dumptruck and she froze in place as her eyes grew to the size of golf balls.  Her pupils dilated in confusion and fear, and she quickly glanced around to see if there was anyone who could come to her rescue. But no, she was alone. Only thru-hikers in here, Clarice. She began to ever-so-slowly take backward steps away from us, as though frightened that any sudden movements may alert Dumptruck to her presence. She shouldn't have been worried. Dumptruck was still completely zoned out, and even if he had seen her, the most dangerous thing he would have done would be to give her a cheerful wave. But apparently this girl had never seen a hiker before, or perhaps, anyone with facial hair.

She continued to retreat, one agonizingly slow step at a time, until she disappeared back into the bunk room from whence she came, and then the door SLAMMED closed. I had watched this all happen, my eyes watering slightly from restraining my laughter. I suppose we look homeless, and thus I suppose, very scary. Unfortunately for this girl, we encountered the same family a few huts later when Dumptruck politely asked someone where the bathrooms were. It just so happened to be the same preteen, who looked like she'd been hit with a tazer at being addressed by the same tree trunk of a man who'd scared the wits out of her a few days previously. She made a wild glance around and yelled "No!" and then ran away as fast as she could. Dumptruck was confused until Whistle pointed out to him that it was the same girl, and that she probably had been having nightmares about him. Her mother gave us a very dirty look when we left the hut.

On the more positive end of the spectrum, someone left a half-eaten bagel on Whistle's backpack on the top of Mount Washington (as a donation, we assume). Most of the people who we've spoken to in the Whites have been fascinated by the our thru-hike, and completely blown away by how long we've been hiking. Whistle hiked past a pair of preteen girls hiking up a steep incline, wearing small day packs.

"Wow, your pack is so big!" One of them said, impressed, "How much does it weigh?"

"Oh, probably 30 pounds," said Whistle, smiling.

"Goodness! I feel like mine weighs 20," the other girl said. Both of them seemed to be enjoying their hike, unlike the girl of the hut. Whistle chatted with them for a few minutes, then hiked on ahead. As she was leaving, she heard one of them say to the other,

"Wow. Look at her go. She looks like she could go anywhere she wanted to in the world."

Thus, appropriately, M3OwZ3BA made this video on the top of Mount Washington:


So, my friends, Dumptruck and I have been Northbound thru-hikers for 5 and a half months, and here, at the end, we are going to become Southbounders. Not many people flip-flop at Pinkham Notch, but there you have it. We are quite heartbroken to be leaving Grim and Whistle, who are going to continue Northbound, but they completely understand why we have to do it this way. We will see them in 10 days or so when we pass each other going opposite directions. We're the scouting team for M3OWZ3BA! We are very much hoping to coordinate it such that we can summit with them.

Dumptruck and I started this trail together, and that's how we're going to end it. At the top of Katahdin, swinging our way up together.

100 Miles Wilderness, here we come!

Clever Girl

I will give updates regarding the location of Grim and Whistle from text messages as we go, and post them here!


  1. BEST POST EVER! Story is perfect; pictures grand; logic flawless! Love the video...the song is already stuck in our heads which just makes us think of you. Be safe in the wilderness, stay on the boardwalks and we'll catch you on the other side. Hugs and kisses to all...we're so proud of you and the wonderful friends you've made. Love, Mom and Dad

  2. I agree with your mom and dad about the BEST POST EVER! I'm probably old enough to be your grandmother and I'm proud of you too. I knew the day I met you two (even though I didn't know at the time you were married) that you had something special. Hand in hand on to Katahdin. "Who ever walked behind anyone to freedom? If we can't go hand in hand, I don't want to go."~Hazel Scott

    1. Thanks PrayerWalker, you're such a sweetheart!

  3. So sweet, good solution and I hope all goes well. I think "all y'all" are amazing. (Southern saying I kind of like.) Apple Butter's Mama

    1. The most excellent part is that we'll probably see Apple Butter again, because we'll pass going the other direction! Hooray!

  4. Is true love not grand? To walk hand in hand through life is magical and not everyone is so Blessed. North or South may your adventure continue to be amazing.

    1. Aw Beth and Bernie, you two are too much. Much love!

  5. LOVE the pic!

    Good luck the rest of the way.

  6. This post made my eyes wet.. literally! I'm so glad you found a solution to summit together! Also.. how awesome is that song???!!! Loving it!!! Lost :)

    1. Thanks Mr. Lost, we miss you! You are an excellent human.

  7. Love sweet love:-) Thanks for the video and all the pictures! Here's to hoping that Northgoing Zax and Southgoing Zax will summit together.

    Mama Whistle

    1. I hope so too!! I think it'll probably work out. We are so sad not to be with Whistle and Grim, but we know they're safe, and we bother each other almost contantly with texts and things. We're the M3OWZ3BA scouting team!

  8. This one made me cry, you guys are too cute, so glad I got to meet you at the trailhead for Smarts Mountain. SO glad that you two can do this and what a great idea. So happy for you and look forward to more updates. Take care and happy trails!


    1. Thanks Heather, you're such a doll! The candy you gave us at the bottom of Smarts was incredibly appreciated at the top of the mountain. I hope the rest of your journey was beautiful as well!

  9. And now I feel terrible as one of the reasons to cause twists in the pit of your stomach :-( Glad you both are able to stick out together though! <3

    1. Oh no!! It's not your fault even a little teeny tiny bit, not at all, ever. You have been so sweet and supportive- it's totally our fault for hiking too slowly! We love you!