The beauty of life on the trail is that you can choose solitude or fellowship, the peace of the woods or an evening in town, quiet stealth campsites or social shelters. I discovered that I really liked hiking alone. My brain needed to be still. Many hours I would just walk and breathe, mindful of the rhythm of my feet and walking sticks in sync with each other. Other moments, I was desperately aware of my need for strength, oxygen, and fuel!
As my life’s pace slowed to the pace of the woods, songs began to come. Songs I hadn’t heard or thought of in years would come to mind and I would sing or whistle them to the scurrying chipmunks, as I would come upon an unexpected, breath taking view.
Oh, Lord, You’re beautiful
Your face is all I seek
For when Your eyes are on this child
Your grace abounds to me…
Oh, Lord, please light the fire
That once burned bright and clear
Replace the lamp of my first love
That burned with holy fear…
I always laughed out loud when I would come upon another hiker, slightly embarrassed that he was aware of my vocal freedom well before I was aware of his presence.
Other times, when my thoughts were processing this new reality of life without Mossy, a wave of grief as big as a tidal wave would knock me over and I would stop in the middle of the trail wracked with sobs. My boy was a five hour drive away, no longer sleeping in a bed across the hall from mine. No more bed time literature. No more evening prayers and snuggles. No more being the one who had a say in everything that took place in his care. True, there was no more yelling and screaming, no more fear of situations that would spiral quickly out of control, and no more incessant verbal attacks, but I was still heartbroken. There, with the sun glimmering through changing fall leaves, I could grieve all that felt so deeply lost… until there were no more tears to cry. Somehow I would start walking again, the steadfastness of the surrounding nature would absorb the pain and replace it with calm.
On the evening of September 18th, I knew rain was coming. I had a choice: hike a short 7.3 miles to a shelter, or hike 15 miles to a lodge or overpriced motel. I opted for Stony Brook Shelter and the short hike since this was only my 4th day of hiking and my trail legs were not quite developed. Still, the 7.3 miles went by quickly, even with plentiful breaks. At 3pm, I had four hours of daylight to blow, so I set my tent up inside the shelter to create a respite from the mosquitos, where I could journal and write post cards. If no other hikers showed up, I would keep the tent inside the shelter to stay dry (who wants to pack up a wet tent!?).
Four hours is a LONG time to be at a shelter. I don’t carry books, cards, or any other form of entertainment when backpacking. When every ounce counts, even a thin, lightweight journal is a luxury! I had journaled, written postcards, collected firewood, strung up my bear bag rope, visited the privy, and eaten dinner with a whole hour of daylight still left.
Around 6PM, Joe strolled in: my height, scrawny, poor posture, long gray loose curls, California surfer voice, and a cheerful smile.
“Hey man, what’s your name?” Joe asked as he set down his half-empty, mostly-falling-apart backpack.
“Tangle. Yours?” I eyed him cautiously.
“Awesome! I’m Joe,” he replied with eyelids half open. “I’m thru-hiking but I’m not finished yet because I stop in town and party for like four days and then hike a few days. And anyway, you can’t close a mountain! Who says I have to finish by October 15th? If I want to finish on the 17th or 18th I will. Nobody’s gonna stop me from going up a mountain!”
I wasn’t quite sure about this character, so I kept my pepper spray nearby and put my poles inside my tent “just in case” I needed them. Early on, a pair of young women had passed along a tip that the end of hiking poles are sharp enough to impale a person if they are trying to get into your tent. That seemed a bit severe, and I’ve never felt unsafe on the trail, but it never hurts to be prepared! However, my main defense was to befriend Joe and get to know him. Most hikers like to talk about themselves, their journey, and their gear. You can learn a lot by just listening. As I started a fire, Joe continued with his advice to me, the novice (and he was dead serious).
Joe: Most people are worried and get worked up over two things… bears… (long pause)
Joe: Yeah, but I said two things! Bears and filtering water. I keep my food right in the shelter, I’m not worried about bears. And water? I don’t worry about filtering or treating water. I just drink the water and I haven’t had any problems.
Me: What about the mice? Do they ever get into your food?
Joe: No, man, I just talk to the mice like they are my pets. All they want is a little food.
See, I just put a little of my dinner on a rock and say, “Alright, little mice, I’ll give you some food if you stay out of my stuff.” It works every time, you just gotta talk to them.
Me: (thinking) Well, I don’t have to worry about bears. They’ll get his stuff or him and I can run.
Joe: When I went through New York, I saw lots of rattlesnakes. They have this defense mechanism when they get scared or feel threatened… they shake their tails and it sounds like a rattle!
Me: (again thinking) Seriously?! You don’t say! (but said) : Oh wow, that’s awesome.
Joe: So what you have to do is walk real slow off the path to pass them and then they follow you. That’s how they make sure they’re ok. But one time, a rattlesnake was in the path and I started to walk around the path like this (he then demonstrated going off trail in a half circle and coming back to the trail further ahead), and it just STRUCK AT ME!!! I had to jump back like this (demonstrating a full body leap backwards with hands flying above his head). Wait, no like this (repeated the same move). No, it was more like this (demonstrated the same move with more energy). I don’t know, I just can’t get it right, it was like SUPER HUMAN or something! Then the snake must have realized I was a human and not a bear, so it didn’t want to hurt me.
At that moment, Joe reminded me of a boy I know with a grandiose sense of reality. He was likely an undiagnosed adult on the autism spectrum, who had fried half of his brain cells partying, and who had found a place to be… and he was harmless.
I fell asleep to the sound of Joe giggling as he read various entries from the hiker log book, recognized friends’ names and talked back to them as if they were still at the shelter. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, partly delighted by his childlike enjoyment of animals and partly humored that I had initially been concerned. I woke up alive. I had no need to use my poles.
Every day on the trail is a new day. God bless Joe.