Copyright © 2019 Doctor Chuck Radis. All Rights Reserved
Rain pelted the tin roof of our log shelter in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Roy stuck his head out of his sleeping bag, lit a cigarette, and said, “This sucks.” Marty drained the last of his hot tea before stuffing his mildewed sleeping bag into a waterproof ruck sack. Although Roy has lost nearly 40 pounds since we began our hike on the Appalachian Trail 100 days ago, he still outweighs Marty by 50 pounds. Among the vegan, environmental crowd populating the Appalachian Trail, Roy is a jarring, other-world apparition.
During the night the rain birthed a chocolate stream between the picnic table and a make-shift clothes line. Twigs and leaves, Snicker bar wrappers, and clumps of mud race across our campsite and disappear into a ravine. As the third member of our group, I laced up my boots and shouldered my pack. It’s time. Wait. I forgot to brush my teeth. A nagging tooth ache reminds me to practice good oral hygiene. I pull a tooth brush from a side pocket of my pack, the stem cut to a nubbin to save weight, brush and spit. Done.
Eight young men and one woman—all through hikers who crammed into the shelter to escape the rain last night—are boiling water in their camp stoves for tea and oatmeal and black coffee. Between the roar of propane stoves and the grumbling and the pouring rain, Roy captures the mood: “This really sucks.”
I plough through the stream, the water rising over my boot tops and turn north onto the Appalachian trail. Marty pulls on a soggy black, knit cap, nearly obscuring his eyes. A plastic garbage bag is tied around his pack in a vain attempt to keep the contents dry. Inexplicably, he breaks into a chorus of, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Roy clears the stream in a single long stride.
It doesn’t matter; the trail to the summit is a freshet of numbing, cold water. We slog our way upwards, hoping for a break in the weather.
The previous winter, in the kitchen of our Lewiston, Maine apartment, Marty and I and another room-mate, Tux, planned our Appalachian Trail hike down to the last minutia. Okay, Tux, the list-maker, planned our hike down to the last minutia. Roy, our fourth roommate, was not part of the conversation; his damaged “trick knee” disqualified him; that and, well, everything.
Then, a few short weeks before we departed, Roy roused himself from the couch, stretched, bent over and touched his toes, and announced he was hiking the trial.
On April 7th, 1976 we arrived at the base of Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian trail. Roy wore a long-sleeve khaki shirt and khaki pants. Around his head was a red bandana. The belt holding up his pants strained on the last notch. It was a hot, muggy southern spring day and sweat poured off his forehead and onto his chest. Then we began our ascent.
For about an hour, Roy kept pace. Then he dropped back. We stopped for a break and he caught up. At our second break, he didn’t. Someone said that it was better to end it this way. No mercy. If he can’t keep up the first day, he can’t keep up. We made camp that night 10 miles down the trail. No Roy. Late that night, under a full moon, Roy dragged his sorry butt into camp, ate nothing, emptied his water bottle, collapsed into his tent, and dropped off to sleep. In the morning, no-one said a word. After all, we were guys. But I know what I was thinking: Enough. Stop. Go home.
The next morning Roy silently fell in between Tux and Marty. Dense stands of flowering mountain laurel rimmed the trail. Wintergreen, partridge berry, mayflower, Indian cucumber, and sarsaparilla carpeted the understory. As we hiked up one mountain and down the next, we came to a sign nailed into a dead pine at the base of one particularly steep ascent. An arrow pointed skyward. It read: UP. When we stopped for lunch at the summit, Roy was nowhere to be seen. Tux admitted that his knees hurt. I patched up two dime-sized blisters on my heels. Several toe-nails on Marty’s feet were blackened and painful. For the rest of the afternoon, I day-dreamed about ways I could lighten my pack; cutting my toothbrush in half made perfect sense, so did jettisoning extra underwear and a wool shirt, my fork (with a spoon do you really need a fork?), an extra water bottle, and two books.
Late that night, I heard Roy stumble into camp. Only 2,000 more miles to go.
As we inched northward, the pattern held. Roy could not keep up. His appetite was blunted. His eyes were glassy. He slept like a dead man. Well, a dead man who snores. But we had other concerns. Tux’s knee pain worsened. My blisters burned. Marty began to sing.
Then one evening, as dinner simmered on the fire, Roy wandered in before dark. He removed his pack and emptied his water bottle and said that the freeze-dried beef stroganoff sure smelled good. Finishing his share, he quickly spooned out another bowl, then another. In the blink of an eye our dinner was gone. He fixed himself two peanut butter sandwiches and finished off a Slim Jim and half a bag of trail gorp. From a remote corner of his backpack he pulled out a can of Coca Cola before lighting a cigarette. The next morning, I noticed his belt was tightened to the second notch.
By now, Tux was limping. Each morning, he massaged his knees and pulled on a pair of knee sleeves. He tried hiking with a cut-off tree branch and then experimented with backwards hiking, inching his way down the steeper grades. Finally, hoping that a brief rest was the answer, he hiked off the trail and visited a nearby friend. When he rejoined us further north, the knees were no better. I’ve kept a grimy black and white photo of us posing outside a shelter in Smokey Mountain National Park in Tennessee with a group of through hikers. It is late May and there is snow on the ground. Tux’s usual photo smirk is gone, his face drooping in a tight, forced smile. Tux, more than any of us, wanted to finish the trail. A few days later, he was gone.
In 1976, through-hikers on the A.T. were usually solitary, and nearly all were male. Cell phones were not yet invented; hiking poles were made of wood not aluminum. Some through hikers, fanatics actually, stuck to a rigid schedule: so many miles per day, so many miles a week, relentlessly pushing on, whatever the weather. Detroit Mike was of this ilk. Brian Doyle was another. Then there were those who noodled along, their journey on the trail open-ended. Take Wrong-Way Warren. We met him twice, turned around and heading south instead of north. Both times it was a mystery how he pulled ahead (both to him and us), but there he was, again.
Roy seemed to enjoy his reputation as a smoker. At night, around the campfire, he blew smoke rings and told tall tales. Marty poked fun at hikers who took themselves too seriously. Every lean-to contained a journal where hikers could write a few lines. Marty wrote scathing journal entries in rebuttal to the rhapsodic I love nature…We are all so lucky…The birds and flowers are calling to me!!…Have a beautiful day!!!! Marty’s comments continued a tradition dating back to high school when he wrote a sixty-page English paper titled: The Boys in My Band: A Book Written During the Final Immature Stages of My Life. Our English teacher gave him an A but wrote: Very funny. Well written, although a bit nasty at times.
I remember reading Marty’s book when I was 18. A little nasty? Yes it was.
Did I mention that I am forgetful? When I wasn’t leaving my ground pad or flashlight behind in our last campsite, I wrote love letters on scrap paper to Sandi Korpela whom I’d met several months before starting the trail. I kept a check-list of seen birds and fished in mountain creeks. I catalogued plant species, mostly incorrectly. My back ached. I tended to blisters that seemed perpetually infected. My Achilles tendon throbbed. When one quadrant of my body seemed to heal, another injury moved in.
To make a phone call or replenish supplies, we hitch-hiked off the trail and picked up pre-mailed packages at rural post offices along the way. Since I was in the throes of newfound love, my letters to Sandi promised that I would call at such and such a time on such and such a date. Remarkably, more often than not, at the pre-arranged time, on the pre-arranged day, Sandi would sit by the pay phone at the YWCA in Harlem, where she was working as a volunteer with ex-convicts, and the phone would ring. It was me. It was if we were talking to each other from separate solar systems. Now, after 41 years of marriage, we both marvel at how we stayed in touch that summer.
Working our way north, the boys in my band grew trail-hardened and made steady progress, but we recalibrated our goals. At our average pace of twelve to sixteen miles a day, it was clear that we’d be lucky to make the White Mountains of New Hampshire before winter settled in. When Marty learned that he was accepted to medical school and the first day of class on the Caribbean island of Grenada was September 1st, we estimated that we would need to pick up our pace to an unforgiving, unachievable, 26 miles/day or we’d never finish the trail in time. A week later, we hitch-hiked off the trail and spent a week at my grandfather’s farm (forlornly empty) in West Virginia before picking up the trail a hundred miles north. That first skip was philosophically difficult: we were no longer through-hikers, we were, what? Trail Jumpers. Then the big jump: In early June, at the northern terminus of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, we hop-scotched northward to the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey, a distance of more than 350 miles. In our rear-view mirror was unhiked, legendary Pennsylvania, better known as “Rocksylvania”, where retreating ice-age glaciers left deposits of ankle-twisting boulders and skree.
In Connecticut, that’s when the skies opened up. The rain continued across the width of western Massachusetts into the Green Mountains of Vermont. On that dismal rainy morning at the shelter, Roy was at a breaking point. After 8 straight days of rain, he’d stopped complaining, which worried me. On our way to the summit I glanced back at Roy; his head was down, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
A foul-mouthed string of expletives brought me to attention. Roy, half-bent, groped into the water towards… his knee? A stone in his boot? When he pulled up his boot above his mid-calf, I looked at him dumbly before realizing that…if he could pull his boot up, that must mean…the sole of his hiking boot had separated, rotted away, and, no wonder he was miserable: He was walking in his sock.
Roy threw off his pack. “That’s it. I’m done.” Leaning against a tree, he peeled off the remnants of the sole of his boot. From the bottom of his pack, he fished out a role of gray duct tape and wrapped the sole back onto the boot. Marty leaned against a rock outcropping and against all instincts, said nothing: a wounded bear is a dangerous animal. Then we followed Roy back down the mountain to the leant-to. There, my cup and baseball cap hung on a hook. I surreptitiously removed my T-shirt hanging on the line outside.
We fired up our propane stove and boiled water for coffee. Roy leaned back against his pack and emptied two packets of sugar into his tin cup. He lit a cigarette off the stove and propped his bad knee up on his pack. “I’m done,” he repeated.
Okay, I thought, we’ll camp here again tonight. Maybe tomorrow the rain will stop. Who wants to hike another day in the rain, anyway? Roy changed into a semi-dry shirt and downed the last of his coffee. “Let’s go.” He abruptly picked up his pack, flicked his cigarette into the roiling stream, and turned south on the trail. Marty and I gathered our belongings and scrambled after the big guy. This was madness. We’d hiked half-way up the mountain yesterday to reach the shelter and were now sloshing downhill, each step bringing us further from our goal of Mount Katahdin. At the base of the mountain, a lonely, mountain road intersected the trail. As if on cue, a car rounded the corner. At the last moment, Roy stuck his thumb out and the car braked to a stop. The trunk popped open. Roy threw his pack in and climbed into the front seat. He rolled the passenger window down and shouted but the rain and wind drowned out his words. The car accelerated around the bend, and Roy was gone.
In the days and weeks that followed, except for a brief respite in the spectacular White Mountains of New Hampshire, it mostly rained. Marty and I slogged on. Mountain streams which in late summer were usually bone-dry, churned off hillsides, forcing us upriver looking for safe crossings. Reaching the Kennebec River, in Maine, we floated our packs across on a crude raft and were nearly swept off our feet by the undercurrent. It was, not surprisingly, a good year for mosquitos.
Moving steadily through Maine’s 100-mile wilderness, a roadless stretch between the town of Monson and Mount Katahdin, the skies finally cleared. Mornings turned crisp and cool and the wind shifted around to the northeast, a harbinger of fall. Marty and I churned out long days, often loading up our packs after dinner and hiking until dusk overtook us. The trail skirted Daicy Pond and Little Beaver Pond, and traversed the remote Barren Chairback Mountains, Gulf Hagas and White Cap Mountain.
One warm, cloudless afternoon, we splashed through Abol Spring Creek and soon arrived at a lean-to at the base of Mount Katahdin. The shelter was filled with through-hikers, filthy and unshaven, most of whom we had passed and been repassed by since leaving Springer Mountain more than 4 months ago. It was a celebratory reunion.
I recounted Roy’s last day on the trail in Vermont. Roy’s trail name: “Cokes and Smokes,” was familiar to many. There was admiration for the big guy; no-one in the shelter would have predicted he would make it out of Georgia; the man racked up a thousand miles before his boot fell apart.
Shortly before mid-night, a quiet, lanky man with a patchy red beard, who’d stayed mostly in the background during the night’s laughter and reminiscence, gathered up his pack. A through-hiker named “Gentle Jim” stirred from his sleeping bag and nudged me awake. “The park rangers are watching,” he whispered. “No-one is allowed to begin their ascent until 7:00 am. It’s a spiritual thing for him; the guy’s been through a lot; marriage break-up, custody problems with the kids, lost his job. I don’t begrudge him getting to the top before I do.”
At daybreak, we quietly packed for the last time and wished each other well. But before we could step onto the trail, a warden entered the clearing carrying a bulky pack, and behind him, 2 wardens shadowed our unlucky through-hiker, arrested for climbing Katahdin in the dark. His mistake: Reaching the summit, he boiled a pot of water for tea on his propane stove. The light was visible from the warden’s cabin and they ascended the mountain in darkness, awakening the through-hiker and removed him from the mountain.
From time to time, I think about that long summer on the trail. Perhaps the rains were less frequent and the mud and mosquitos a minor nuisance, but my scratchy, mildewed diaries seem to say otherwise. I’ve remained friends with Tux Turkel. He’s had an impressive career as an investigative journalist for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, writing stories on energy, business, and the environment. His knees have held up remarkably well. Several summers ago, he hiked Katahdin and wrote a story for Senior Magazine, contemplating that it might be his last time up Katahdin. I hope not.
Marty Kane went on to medical school and became…. a psychiatrist. He is the same weight he hiked the trail at: 135 pounds Since his recent retirement, he has embarked on a second career as a close-up magician, which suites him to a T. He recently gathered together his favorite sleight- of-hand card tricks into a book: Card ChiKANEry. You can buy it on Amazon.
Soon after Roy left the Appalachian trail in Vermont, he went to business school and settled into a long career with the Federal Reserve Bank. He married, raised a family, has a gaggle of grandchildren, and successfully quit smoking. I suspect he enjoys a can of Coca Cola now and then. Now retired, in his spare-time he enjoys building wooden decks. He has never backpacked again.
Me? My mother insisted that I make an appointment with my dentist several months after coming off the trail. Fit and trim, I was feeling good about myself. Dr. Berenson examined me and made a series of unusual clucking noises. Then he took a mouthful of x-rays and held them up to the light. More x-rays, more clucking. Then he identified a cavity here and a cavity there, and there, and there, and there. Seventeen cavities. I didn’t know there was enough room in my mouth for seventeen cavities. Trail gorp: equal parts, chocolate, raisins, and honey-dipped-cashews were my downfall. I know that now.
Since turning 60, I have nibbled away at finishing the trail. In the parlance of Appalachian Trail backpacking, this is called “section hiking.” Tux joined me for several days a few years back. Marty and I backpacked through a difficult stretch of rocky trail in Pennsylvania when I was still capable of carrying a loaded backpack, tent, and supplies for a 4-day hike. On our last day hiking south, we met a young couple with their children in tow and Marty asked them how far it was to the Mexican border, explaining that he was Mexican and intended to self-deport himself. I cringed, but have to admit it was as funny as it was politically incorrect.
Recently, I have transitioned to day hikes. I call it section hiking, light. Once or twice a year, Sandi and I drive from our home in Maine to an unhiked portion of the Appalachian Trail. We check into a motel. The next morning, she drops me off where the trail cuts across a road, before she visits a commercial cave or local museum and then drives to our rendezvous, 10 to 15 miles down the trail, and hikes in to meet me. Last year, I hiked 68 miles over 5 days; the year before 75. I’ve finished Pennsylvania and this year hope to reach Damascus, Virginia. Each year, the number of unhiked miles on the trail shrinks, but I suspect I’m running out of time. Knee surgery and foot surgeries, replete with plates, and screws have slowed me down. Of course, it doesn’t really matter if I finish, but I’ll keep picking away until I simply can’t.
On a recent trip south, we pulled off on the shoulder of a gravel mountain road where a bright white blaze confirmed that the rutted path cutting into the forest was the Appalachian Trail. Sandi checked my First-Aid kit and reminded me that it wouldn’t hurt to take a Tylenol. She asked, “Do you have your phone?” I checked my pockets and remembered: the cell phone is at the motel, by our bed, on the nightstand. Oh well. Some things never change. Before disappearing into the woods, I turned and waved. The trail points uphill through old-growth white pine and red oak. My mind slowly empties out. Through the forest canopy, I see a bank of clouds racing in from the west. Rain drops out of the sky and I look back, my muddy imprints slowly filling with water. I snug up my poncho and lean into the hill. I’m in for it now.
Thanks for reading Dr. Chuck