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Pierre and the Caroline Blue Bells

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By Kendall J from The Crucible,cross-posted by MetaBlog

I’m sitting back after a wonderful Christmas spent with my sister, and feeling generally radiant about life. So rather than a heavy post on some intellectual topic I thought I’d pull something a little bit more personal out. This story is from almost twenty years ago, but I posted it to a private blog a year or so ago (original post date: 1/11/08) after pulling out my journal from the experience and reliving it through those words. I’m not too sure what it has to do with Christmas other than I think this time is a time to sit back and reflect on one’s life; to savor it. You’ll see how this ties into it if you keep reading.

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It was 1992, and I'd decided to go on a backpacking expedition. I'd graduated college a year earlier and taken a two week trip to Colorado with Lori. Before that, the last packing trip I'd taken was as a Boy Scout in my teens. So I decided that I was going to do a solo trip and had chosen Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness, based upon a review I'd read in Backpacker magazine. The Wilderness is the last 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, ending at it's northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin. It is a contiguous, uninterrupted, rugged, foreboding hundred miles buried deep in the northern Maine woods. Once you start, there is really no way out but to finish, and for most of the trip one will be at least 50 miles from help. The idea of such a trip might seem like biting off more than one could chew, but for some reason I was drawn to it. Maybe it was a testosterone-laced sense of bravado, the need to prove something to myself after my breakup with Lori, or just plain stupidity. It was probably a mix of all those and more. So the decision was made.

After arriving in Maine at midnight after a marathon drive out from Michigan, a brief sleep, and huge breakfast, I set out, with a 60 lb pack on my back filled with 2 weeks of provisions. The trip started horribly. I was carrying so much weight, that I was slow, and on my first day, I stopped several miles short of my planned camp site. Rain set in. Day 2 saw me still hiking at 10 pm, exhausted, headlamp lighting the way, stumbling along the trail, arriving in camp after most other hikers had gone to sleep. Also unknown to me, my pack frame had cracked and the weight of my pack was poorly distributed causing chafing that by week's end would have me plastering duct tape to my hips to hold together the patches of blistered skin. Day 3, the third day of constant rain. I was losing feeling in my feet as they had been wet and cold for a solid three days, and I was behind my hike schedule by almost a full day. The weight of the pack was wearing me out by lunchtime. I was cold and wet, and demoralized, and at times scared. Suddenly this trip had become a daunting demon staring me down, and I was quickly crumbling under its constant stare.

I was considering quitting. There was one escape route about half way in that involved hiking out 15 miles on a logging road and then hitching a ride back to the start, and I was now considering taking it. But that was only one week of hiking and so I was also replotting my route to shorten each day so that I could stretch out the hike to a more respectable length. I hated doing it. I was ashamed. I was trying to grit every day out, and quickly crumbling and I had told everyone at home about my trip and they had been impressed. And now I was faltering. The trail was incredibly tough with wind-sucking, quad-burning climbs and root-littered, muddy trails. Several times I'd lost the trail and almost panicked at the thought of being lost in the woods. I felt alone and I felt like a failure, and worried about how I'd explain it all.

There were hikers all over the trial of course, "thru-hikers" mostly, walking the entire AT for the last 5 months from Georgia to Maine, all with colorful handles (e.g. "Cotton Patch," "Silverback," "Seabear," "Wild Bill," "The April Fools,"), forming a little trail micro-culture. And there were others as well, people doing just The Wilderness. By the fourth day I'd seen many of them a couple of times and was starting to learn their names. They were all friendly, but I was despondent and not in much mood to talk. On night 4 I stayed in a shelter about 5 miles shy of a creek. My plan was to camp at the creek the next night, and then the next day to the jump off point. With me in the shelter that night were two hikers, one a chemist who'd recently been laid off from a pharmaceutical firm and was thru-hiking the AT before starting a new job, and the other a French Canadian named (of all things) Pierre. Pierre was hiking the wilderness only, and I'd already spent a night or two with him at other shelters. His english was poor and we'd spoken very little, but he was a friendly, calm, quiet type. That night the three of us talked over dinner. I confessed to them that I was changing my plans and that I'd not go all the way through the wilderness. I talked a little bit about my frustration and disappointment. The next day's hike would mean that even if I changed my mind, I had lost enough distance that I probably had no way of making Katahdin. I'd "lost the moon" as Tom Hanks would say in Apollo 13.

The next day I was the last one out of the shelter and onto the trail, maybe trying to stretch my time since I only had a few miles to go before I camped. I reached the creek at about noon. Pierre was on the other side. He'd arrived a couple of hours before, and had taken a lazy lunch while he waited for his boots to dry out. I forded the stream and sat next to him and ate my own lunch quietly. I was through for the day. Half way through, Pierre got up, loaded up and turned to continue on the trail. I wished him well. He turned to me and said in broken english, "I see you at the shelter tonight." He didn't ask me; he just said it calmly as if it was simply the truth. And in those words he laid bare my options, my decision. He knew I wasn't planning on going to the shelter tonight, but he'd said it anyway.

And as I finished my lunch alone I weighed it. In my fear and concern at what others would think, and my depression and my efforts to quickly make my journey easier for myself at the least trifle, I'd somehow overlooked what I was giving up. I had 60 miles to go. And I realized that those 60 miles were looming up at me as an impenetrable fortress. They intimidated me. I considered the pain in my legs and my back and my hips, and my fatigue, and 60 miles seemed impossible. But it was only 5 miles to the next shelter. If I continued on I was committed. I'd have to go the distance, there was no turning back. And at that moment, what other people would think ceased to matter; no one was there with me. I asked myself if I could go 5 more miles, and I asked myself if I was prepared to go the full distance. It was not the next step that was daunting. It was thedecision to take the next step. It was somehow finding the will to begin, knowing the journey I had in front of me. I'm not sure what broke then, but I thought of Pierre and what he had said so calmly, and in that instant I was the person he was referring to. I simply saw myself making it. I finished my lunch, and I put my boots back on deliberately, and I loaded up, and I started off.

The trail was still as difficult, and although the rain had stopped, it was still wet and slippery. But I didn't falter. I was going to do this. The "escape plan" had evaporated and I was replotting camps and hikes in my mind order to make up time. My feet were still numb, but they carefully and deliberately put themselves one in front of the other for the next five miles until I reached the shelter just before sundown. Pierre was there cooking his dinner and he smiled and greeted me calmly as if he'd been expecting me. My trip changed that day as did my life. I learned that the way to conquer the seemingly insurmountable is not through strength, but through will, the courage to take the first step. That insurmountability is an illusion; a function only of your perspective. I learned where will comes from, from deep inside, motivated by self. The external does not motivate it, it must spark itself. And I learned what that spark feels like and what it takes to light it.

But that was not the only lesson I was to learn on this trip.

I continued on, the next three days, with daunting hikes each day. The first 60 miles of The Wilderness crosses 2 ranges of mountains. After that it spends 40 miles in the lowlands until coming upon Katahdin and the end of the AT. I spent the next 3 days finishing those first 60 miles. I gutted out each day. I saw many hikers during that time as well, and was moderately cordial to them. I was focused on the goal, and I was determined, and I had a schedule to keep. I took pictures during the first part of the trip but I can't say that I remember appreciating the scenery much. Even now that I had committed to Katahdin, I wasn't focused on it as much as the trail and my goals. The final peak in this segment was Whitecap mountain and as I crested it's summit, I was proud and happy. I could see Katahdin in the distance from the peak and I even though the path between here and there seemed incredibly long I knew that I would make it, one step at at time. I took a few pictures and descended to the next shelter at the base of Whitecap to camp for the night.

I grabbed a spot in the shelter, and began unpacking my pack to make dinner and go to sleep. Several other hikers had already picked out their spots in the shelter and were doing the same. I heard a noise from the trail and looked up to see two women arriving from the trail headed in the opposite direction as I was. I was a bit amazed when I saw them, as one of them looked to be in her mid 60's and the other was more frail and seemed to be more like 70. They were walking slowly and chatting happily together. They came up to the shelter and stopped and said hi to every hiker in the shelter, asking their name and where they were from. Through those various conversations I pieced together their story.

Aurelia Kennedy and Kakii Haudley were two retirees and best friends from North Carolina. They'd come from Katahdin!! I couldn't believe it. I then figured they'd be jumping off at the same mid-point I was planning on or that they were taking 3 weeks. No, they were doing the entire 100 Mile Wilderness in the same 10 days I planned! They backpacked regularly, and had the lightest equipment, in order to keep their packs under 25 lbs. In the spirit of thru-hikers they'd taken the handle of "The Carolina Blue Belles". They were friendly and bubbly, and infectious. After a while Aurelia unpacked her stove and began heating water for a late afternoon snack, while Kakii began scouting out a spot to pitch their tent. She decided on a spot next to the nearby brook after calling back and commenting to Aurelia how lovely the spot looked and how she loved to sleep next to a babbling brook.

Their snack consisted of tea and reconstituted vegetables that Kakii had grown in her own garden and then dried for the trip. And they talked to each other and the other hikers, asking each about their travels. I asked them about the trail they'd just come on from Katahdin, and they went one about how lovely it was, and how their climb of Katahdin had been gorgeous and such a sunny day. They spoke about the lakes and rivers they'd seen and the various thru-hikers they'd met, some of which I'd also met earlier in my hike. I asked how they got along on the trail and they said it was fine. They packed light, started early each day, walked at a leisurely pace and made good time as a result.

By this time I'd finished my dinner, and the sun was setting. I'd laid out my sleeping bag, and was talking to them tucked in my bag while they finished fixing their own dinner. I was amazed by these women. They were on a different kind of trip that I was. Not different in content for that was identical, but worlds apart in perspective. They had the same goals, the same "one foot in front of the other" perspective, for at their age they had to. But they were happy! They were living in this moment, soaking everything up, and appreciating every little thing they could. And they were infectious. They seemed to genuinely care about the other people they met, and take interest in their stories, enriching their own travels through their interaction with others. I on the other had, though having conquered my fear and set my sights on the goal, was "gutting" it out, stoic, focused.

Aurelia then spotted a book under my sleeping bag, and asked what I was reading. I pulled it out and showed it to her. It was a book of poems by Robert Frost. I'd brought it with me from Michigan somehow thinking that my favorite poet at the time and the Maine woods would go together. Truth was, I had been too preoccupied and too exhausted to enjoy it, even though I dutifully pulled it out and tried every night. Upon seeing it Aurelia gasped and asked if I wouldn't please regale them with a reading of some poetry. She asked so sweetly, and in that wonderful genteel Southern lilt found in the Southeastern coastal states, that I couldn't refuse. They had infected me by that time and I was having the first good night of my trip, one not focused on sleep and pain, and planning out the next day's trip. So I read to them. They each had a favorite and I found it for them and when I asked them to read they said no, they wanted me to do it, and so I did. "The Road Not Taken..," "My November Guest," "Fire and Ice," "Stopping by Woods," "Mending Wall" and on. At the end of each one, they would say "Oh, how lovely," and ask me what I thought of it, and talk of which images they liked the best and recall some memory from their own lives that was similar. And we talked like that for an hour or more. I made hot chocolate, and they had tea, and it was wonderful. Then they packed up their gear and thanked me ever so graciously for reading to them and headed off to their tent.

I sat and read Frost for another hour by the light of my headlamp and I loved it. I took in every poem I read and paused and considered it as they had, and the words seeped into my exhausted body until it finally reminded me that I needed sleep too. They awoke in the morning and made breakfast by their tent and broke camp. Before they left, they came over to the shelter where I was also packing up to head out. They thanked me again for the evening of poetry, and wished me well on my travel and ascent of Katahdin. Then Aurelia asked if I wouldn't like to read them one more poem before they left. They thought it would be a wonderful way to start the day. They asked if I had a favorite and I said I did, and they asked me to read it, and I did. They paused when I finished and said, "Oh my, that is a beautiful poem." And they thanked me again and I hugged them, and then they started off.

When I finally donned my pack that day it felt lighter, and I knew that the reason was not that it was lighter than the day before. My back still ached, and my legs did too, but not as much it seemed. That day, I was in the moment too, and it was as if I was floating over the terrain I was so light. And instead of looking down at the trail in front of me, I looked up, and I finally saw the forest and the beautiful colors, the streams, and the ponds and lakes with moose grazing in them. The air was clear and sunny and fresh and I felt alive. It had all been burned away, all the inessentials and I was here, with myself, for myself. It was not about the goal now. I was the goal. And Katahdin was merely a means of expressing myself. It was not that I seemed insignificant to the world. It was that I was more significant than anything. The world seemed smaller and I seemed larger, and everything was calm and effortless.

I walked 20 miles that day, if you can believe it. I scarce can. I hit my planned campsite at the 13 mile mark by 2 in the afternoon, and decided to press on another 7 miles to the next. The world was in technicolor, and I took it in, and I talked to everyone I met, and asked them at least one question about themselves, and I smiled when I left each of them and wished them well.

Another 4 days to Katahdin, and there were some rough patches, but I carried those lessons with me, and the trials never seemed quite so hard as a result. I climbed Katahdin on October 1st, along with several thru-hiker friends I'd met in the last 4 days, and even witnessed a wedding of two thru-hikers at the summit. I was elated at the summit and so was everyone else. It was a wonderful feeling, pure and rich and floating.

I have a difficult verbalizing how that trip changed my life. I'm certainly not in those perfect states all the time, but much more of the time now. When I came back I had this sort of calmness as someone coming back from war, who sees the trials of everyday life and realizes that they are insignificant compared to the past experience, and who handles themselves calmly and matter of factly. I look back among the posts I've written in the last few months and realize that these two lessons, the lessons of will and savoring the moment litter everything I've written about. For me they are two of the pillars of egoism, and I would see those characteristics purely expressed in the heroes of The Fountainhead, which I was to begin reading shortly after returning home. One cannot coexist one without the other, for it is value and purpose that give life it's meaning, that allow one to sit back and savor the accomplishment. Without value savoring is simply idleness, and without the savoring value is simply stoicism. Together they are pure joy.

And that has made all the difference...

A few of the many pictures here.

Excerpts from my Journal

Things I Learned

1. Carry a walking stick. It helps you through the tough spots and keeps your pace up when you're getting tired.

2. The secret to making good time or distance in a day isn't to go faster - it's to start earlier.

3. Treat each root, boulder, brook, rock slide as a new and challenging problem all its own.

4. Patience - slow and methodical wins the race and keeps you alive.

5. Instant mashed potatoes are the thru-hiker's "perfect meal."

6. Never overestimate what you can get done on the 1st day.

7. Never underestimate what you can get done through the long haul.

8. Wear gaiters every single day. They work!

9. If you have to rest, at least find a place that's pretty - kills two birds with one stone.

10. Don't step on the roots. Step over them.

11. If you follow rule #8, then you can just plow through the mud instead of picking your way across the slippery log bridges. Have fun with it!

12. Wear your boots when you ford a river. Much safer.

13. If you don't stop to take in a view, then why hike.

14. When you get to camp, unload everything you're going to need right away cause you're going to unload it sooner or later anyway.

15. Don't pack your stove after dinner. You never know when you're going to want hot chocolate to go along with good conversation.

16. Let other people have their triumphs. Congratulate them and get out of their way.

17. Take time for your own triumph.

18. Never be afraid to give a little. It comes back to you in so many ways.

19. Get more names and addresses next time.

20. Everybody who tries makes a difference.

21. Thanks to everyone I met, I will keep you all in my heart.

Saying written in shelter logbook by AT thru-hiker

What is above knows what is below.

What is below knows not what is above.

There is a manner of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw from above.

One cannot always see, but one can still know...

Kendall's poem for the Carolina Blue Belles to start their day

Into My Own - Frost

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,

So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,

Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,

But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day

into their vastness I should steal away,

Fearless of ever finding open land,

or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,

Or those should not set forth upon my track

To overtake me, who should miss me here

And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew--

Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Poem for a frigid Oct 1st 1992 ascent of Mt. Katahdin

My November Guest - Frost

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:

She's glad the birds are gone away,

She's glad her simple worsted grey

Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.


Cross-posted from Metablog

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