Over the next three days we covered the 50 miles from Blue Mountain Summit to Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. We hiked first through a superfund site into Palmerton and then out of Palmerton to the Leroy Smith Shelter. Those days dragged. We were seventh graders with spring break on the horizon and no matter how many movies the teacher showed, we could not be distracted.
I woke up on May 14th at Leroy Smith Shelter with my stomach in knots. I’d become accustomed to the everyday body aches and with the help of ibuprofen had almost forgotten about the ever-present open sores on the heels of my feet, but I didn’t have anything in my first aid kid (a ziplock containing band-aids, gauze and duct tape) to fight the waves of nausea I felt that morning. I cursed my body. We had only 20 miles until the New Jersey border and I felt like shit. I peaked my head out of my sleeping bag and saw E hobbling around. The Pennsylvania rocks had taken a toll on her already injured knee. She regularly spent her mornings muttering, and occasionally yelling, at the terrain, until her knee loosened up. She then repeated the ritual toward the end of the day when her muscles grew tired.
“My stomach feels like shit.” I complained.
“Take a dump, you’ll feel better.” See Blue said without looking up from his trail guide.
“Thanks.” I muttered and stomped off towards the privy, dramatically clutching my stomach.
“NOPE!” I declared when I’d stomped back, still holding my belly, shooting daggers at Blue.
See Blue laughed and E patted my shoulder. I asked E about her knee.
“Surprise! It also feels like shit.”
We tried to pump ourselves up with the reminder that this would be our last day in Pennsylvania, that in two days we’d be back in Virginia sipping beers with Roxie and E’s brother Brian at Trail Days. But over the next few hours we struggled with what was, in Pennsylvania terms, pretty easy hiking. We were making the slow decent into the Delaware Water Gap and the hiking was mostly downhill. The sky was cloudy but the rain had held off. The rocks, though still present, were a manageable size. Within a few minutes of walking even my stomach felt mostly fine and I had to admit that my foot dragging was purely mental.
It was still before noon when I reached a road. Off to my left E and See Blue sat on a wall, smoking, looking at a folded up piece of paper. I plopped down next to them. I recognized the paper they were looking at as the contact information for people willing to give hikers rides that we’d picked up at the park ranger station outside of Shenandoah National Park.
“This says the owner of this motel will shuttle hikers into Delaware Water Gap.” See Blue told me.
“Dude, it’s cool with me. I’m fucking done.” I said.
“I’m going to go ask.” E said, leaving See Blue and I sitting on the wall.
“You’re cool with this?” I asked Blue. I didn’t know exactly how far we’d hiked, but we were well short of the 20 miles for the day. Getting a ride into town would mean skipping the rest of those miles.
He shrugged, “Yeah, I’m done too.” I was surprised. By that time in our hike, E and I had stopped worrying about cutting a few miles here and there, but See Blue was a purist and as far as I knew had never missed an inch of trail. We’d never talked about it. It was a touchy subject. Even if “Hike Your Own Hike” was the accepted mantra among hikers some people are adamant it wasn’t a true thru-hike if you took any shortcuts. And this was going to be a big shortcut.
E came out of the motel just then and the chance to question Blue about his decision was lost. Nobody at the motel was available to shuttle us, but they’d given E the name of a local man who was willing. Thirty minutes later we were waving goodbye to that man and watching his pick-up truck speed away.
“Did you catch his name?” I asked E.
“Mike?” E said at the same minute See Blue answered, “Jim.”
I looked at See Blue. If he felt bad about skipping those miles, it didn’t show on his face, and he wasn’t talking about it.
We made our way to Church of the Mountain Hostel, a Presbyterian church with two bunk rooms available for hikers. The caretaker, a woman called Reverend Karen showed us to our rooms and then we settled in on the porch to figure out the logistics of the next few days. It was Wednesday afternoon and we didn’t need to be in Damascus until Friday. E and I wanted to hike the next day and leave Friday morning. See Blue wanted to drive down right away; he was anxious to see Roxy. See Blue was outnumbered, so he took to quietly pouting. E and I forged ahead, finding a car to rent in the neighboring town of Stroudsburg that would pick us up at the hostel, and were wrestling with the logistics of how to hike and still get back to the hostel when tiny woman with a blond pixie cut walked up to our little group and, with a serendipity that we’d almost come to expect, solved our dilemma.
She introduced herself as Trish. She’d thru-hiked years before and now lived nearby. Trish told us she liked to stop by the hostel to see what she could do for hikers and without hesitation, offered to drive us 18 miles up the trail the next day so that we could slack pack back to the hostel and be there Friday morning to pick up the car.
I’d talked to Cara about this phenomenon before we’d started the trail; the compulsion of former thru-hikers to come back and offer help. Cara and Chris now lived in New Hampshire and often gave rides and food to hikers. Cara explained it in terms of paying back the kindnesses she’d experienced during her thru-hike as well as a way to keep her connection to the trail alive. I didn’t really understand it then, but several times the next summer I’d find myself driving to the trail from my summer internship in Washington DC just to put cooler of snacks and beer on the trail.
“This is so fun!” Trish said the next morning, waving goodbye as she dropped us off in the middle of the woods in New Jersey. I hadn’t been paying much attention, but when I looked around and realized where I was, tears sprung to my eyes. From where we were standing, I could see part of the summer camp where I’d worked during college. I knew we’d be close to it, I remember hikes and bike rides during those summers on the AT, but I didn’t know I’d be able to see it and I certainly hadn’t expected to feel so overwhelmed being there again.
“You guys! This is it! That’s the lake where I thought I saw a ghost!” I practically yelled at See Blue and E, pointing out memory landmarks. They humored me for a few minutes and then set out in front of me, eager to get our last day of hiking before vacation over with. In college, I’d written a paper about the acute nostalgia I felt instantly after leaving camp each summer (both as a camper and then counselor at Camp Kern in Ohio and then later at this camp in New Jersey), about how those were experiences and feelings that I could never recapture but always yearn for, and I’d wondered if the pain of longing afterwards made the summers worth it more or less. After all, here I was, in the midst of the grand adventure of hiking the Appalachian Trail and I was so lost in this past that I was surprised when I found myself back at the hostel hours later. I’d spent the day reliving those summers at Camp Mason in my head, images popping up like a slideshow set to random. The guy I’d fallen for the first summer and then barely talked to the next summer. The camper I’d led on a mountain biking excursion, who’d flipped over her handle bars and when asked where it hurt yelled at the top of her lungs, “MY VAGIIIINNNNAAA!” The countless nights off I’d spent at the archery range doubled over from laughing with the other counselors. The weekend trip into New York City when a guy who spoke no English gave me a crooked tongue piercing. The campers who cried saying goodbye at the end of the summer; the ones who made me cry too.
“DUDE!” E called out from the church porch, dragging me back to the present, her pointer and middle fingers forming a big V. “VACATION!”
I returned the V sign and yelled, “VACATION!”
It took us 8 hours to drive from Delaware Water Gap, PA to Damascus, VA; a distance that had taken a month and a half to walk.
“It’s kind of depressing from the outside.” I muttered, as we sped past signs for towns we’d stopped in and the ridges of mountains we’d walked on.
We arrived in Damascus to a sea of people; hikers and tents and vendors had taken over, making it almost unrecognizable from the sleepy town where we’d waited out the snow storm with Sug and Pilgrim at the end of March. See Blue peeled off instantly to find Roxy, and E and I looked for her brother Brian and his friends, who had arrived earlier and set up camp. We were wandering around the makeshift tent village when we heard someone calling our names.
“Sweets! Not Yet!” We turned, surprised to see Mike walking towards us, waving his arms with a big smile across his face. We ran towards him, giving him big bear hugs, a happy reunion with our long lost little brother.
I looked at the guy next to Mike. He had a mess of brown curls, a hiker’s bushy beard, and baggy hiking clothes from the inevitable weight loss of three months on the trail.
He stuck his hand out, “Hey, I’m Ben.”
“No way!” This was the BFB (Best Friend Ben) I’d been writing to in the trail registers for the past few weeks.
“Did you guys get my messages?” I asked, looking from Ben to Mike.
“Yeah, what’s weird is that those are my initials. BFB. In real life. Ben Francis Brooks.” Ben smiled at me.
“Well, I guess it’s fate.” I said, my voice serious. “We have to become best friends.”
He nodded solemnly, “Okay. I’m in.”
To be continued…