Wednesday, October 9, 2013

189. Highs that Contrast the Lows

This is a story from right after I got hypothermia in the Smoky Mountains in March of this year. I'm just going to jump right into the second part of the story, so I would recommend reading the first part for context!


They say that shivering is the best way to warm up. On the plus side, apparently you don't have to be conscious to shiver, as your body will do it for you. At some point in the middle of the night I woke myself up from all the shaking. It was like waking up inside of a washing machine, where I was the agitator and the sleeping bag was the laundry. I was completely tangled up, my hair an insane mess of a squirrel's nest somewhere inside my woolen hat.

Inside the shelter it was pitch dark, but I could hear the breathing of the 20 some-odd fellow hikers all jammed into our 3-sided stone sardine can of a shelter. The wind was howling outside in the night, whipping through the skeleton trees and never allowing the freezing snow to come to rest. The ripped and barely functional tarp that had been strung up over the opening of the lean-to was crinkling back and forth with the indecisive wind.

I snuggled deeper inside my mummy sleeping bag, feeling like a swaddled baby. Dumptruck had thoroughly wrapped me up; my arms were pinned to my chest like I was The Mummy or Dracula, getting some much-needed shut-eye before my next ghoulish dinner party with Boris Karloff. My hand had been thawing all night, saving me from further stages of frost bite. The healing came with a wave of pain, and I clenched and unclenched my fist as though I were some cool badass instead of just a freezing hiker popsicle.

Eventually I fell back asleep, and when I woke, it was to the dim gray movement of morning. The blizzard wasn't finished, and though everyone already felt insanely cramped in the tiny shelter, no one had the nerve to hike on. Only 2 hikers left the shelter that day. One of them was Grim, before we were conglomerated into our hiking family. I had met him briefly a few days previously, and he had seemed like a kind fellow, but I had no idea that I would one day count him among my best friends.

I just remember him standing at the ripped opening of the tarp, looking out into the frozen white tundra. I watched him from inside my sleeping bag, hoping that he was going to be okay, but not really understanding what was happening. He, along with everyone else in the shelter other than Apollo and Dumptruck, were basically strangers to me. He whispered to himself "I'm not stupid... I'm not stupid..." before stepping out into the swirling fog and disappearing. I later learned that he had made it 6 miles to the next shelter, but also had the fun adventure of advanced hypothermia.

The morning wore on with the quiet misery of survival. Everyone in the shelter was quiet, or spoke in low tones as though they were at a funeral. A funeral to mourn the passing of fun. There was a cloud of unspoken fear. Everyone was worried about even making it out of the Smokies with enough food, let alone continuing on their thru-hike. I remember there being so many people; so many faces that I can't remember, and others that I came to know quite well over the next few weeks on the trail. But in my memory of this day, they wore all the same grizzled, tired face. All the noses were bright red, all the cheeks flush with cold. All the eyebrows with little beads of ice clinging to the hair.

Somewhere around noon, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and stared up at the ceiling of the shelter, the silence of 23 people feeling loud in my ears. I don't know what inspired me to do it, but all of a sudden, I began to sing.

"All the leaves are brown..."

Before I could finish the lyric, 5 or 6 people picked up at the appropriate time and echoed back to me all the leaves are brown...

"And the sky-y is grey..."

10 people now, harmonizing in the relief of hearing human voices, And the sky is greee-eeey.

"I went for a walk..."

I went for a waaaalk.... 15 people now, and someone tapping on the wood of the shelter floor in rhythm.

This went on for the duration of the song, my lone voice carrying the main lyrics, and nearly every single other person in the shelter singing along with the echoing harmony. When we reached the chorus of California Dreamin', everyone sang at the top of their lungs, the warmth of community swelling in our chests as we sang. Because I continued to lay in my sleeping bag, looking up at the ceiling while I was leading this spontaneous sing-along, it was hard to believe that I was not simply imagining it.

But it was real. People clapped at the end, laughing and patting each other on the back. We were strangers who suddenly realized that we were all experiencing this, this awful thing, experiencing it together. And that made us family, even if it was only for a brief moment. Shortly thereafter, someone produced a large bag of rice, and someone else had beans, and someone else ventured out into the cold to dig up some fallen branches to make a fire. We all ate together, passing around bland food that felt like the food of kings. Laughing or crying it didn't matter, we were going to survive.

And the next day, when we all one by one trickled away from the shelter to trudge through the thigh-high snow drifts, we were rewarded by a perfect blue sky.

Clever Girl


  1. Thanks to you, that song has been floating in and out of my head all day! Which is OK because it is a great song:-)

    Happy belated anniversary to you and DT. I hope that you are adjusting to life with the normals.

    Mama Whistle

  2. Love this post! Brought tears to our eyes, imagining everyone singing and then working together to make the best of a terrible situation. Sounds like "Stone Soup" for supper! Love, Mom and Dad