“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”
-Henry David Thoreau, essayist and philosopher
“What?!” I yelled over the roar of the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens,” playing on the living room television. Mimi, the hostel owner, who I think just yelled my name, was now beyond our reach, glued to the show as it made its final argument: that aliens allowed humans to drive dinosaurs to near — but not complete — extinction, by manipulating their DNA to make them smaller and less dangerous.
“What?!” I said again, but this time directing my frustration at the TV.
“Why do you watch this stuff, Ma?” asked Anteros, who trail-named himself after the greek God of Reciprocated Love. (For comparison’s sake, I was named after a pastry.)
Mimi wasn’t Anteros’ mother, but he had spent so many days at the hostel helping her that he referred to her that way. “Hush!” she leaned in to the TV as the show cut to commercial by posing the provocative, but idiotic question, “Did mankind spawn from extraterrestrial bees?”
“You know I only watch for the Bible verses,” she dismissed him on her way to the kitchen, but then shook her head and snuck in at half-volume, “But there’s no conclusive evidence either way. This show’s just asking the important questions.”
The important extraterrestrial bee question would have to wait another week. The show was mercifully over.
“Now I’ll ask one more time while we’re all paying attention,” Mimi asked, now putting together a salad to go with our rice and beans dinner. “Is Mr. Special-Popular Matthew Haines here?”
“That’s me!” her enthusiasm was infectious. I had decided to stay at this hostel to pick up the care package my friend-since-high-school, Mark, and his wife, Brooke, had put together. This must be it.
“Yayyy!” Cici sang. “Looks like King Cake has a pacccckkkkagggge!”
While the other four guests began scooping salad, hummus, beans and rice on their plates, I went to the living room to get the package and sat down on the couch to open it. What do we have here? I wondered.
Cookie Butter! Yes! I had been wanting this since I first heard about it from Power Slide, hundreds of miles ago. And an assortment of delicious energy bars and Gatorade snack products. All awesome. Oh, and what’s down here? A magazine? Cool, something I can read tonight and leave at the hostel for others to en–
Playboy Magazine? Mark, you son of a bitch! What am I going to do with this? I can’t throw it out here. What if she sees it? That will mortify her. And if I take it with me, it could be another 120 miles before I get to a trash can. I don’t want to be the creepy guy carrying around pornography.
“Let’s see what you got in your care package, King Cake!” Nala came bounding over. Oh no — wait — Jesus. What do I –? I have no –. I pulled the nudie magazine out of the box and shoved it down the front of my pants.
Three seconds later she was rummaging through the care package.
“Oh, cookie butter!” she held it up as if she was examining it in the light. “I’ve been meaning to try this.”
I smiled and nodded, but it was hard for me to focus on anything other than that I had a porno in my pants.
But, over the next six hours, I’d get really good at it.
Saying Goodbye to Tennessee. Or North Carolina.
Last I wrote, my feet were falling off and I was in a small, dark bar in Erwin talking to the owner, Cowboy, while he chain smoked through his pack of cigarettes. His wife was behind the bar, bemoaning the loss of her figure to menopause, and a man with a trucker hat and a cigarette pack wedged into his t-shirt pocket was standing behind the woman he hoped would be his woman, showing her how to play pool.
“I didn’t always look like this, did I, Cowboy?” Betsy probed for a compliment while grabbing me another Bud Light.
“You try the pickled eggs?” Cowboy asked, completely ignoring his wife’s question. I wanted to yell that she looked great, but I didn’t know how that would go over.
“Yup, had one,” I tried to suppress the gag.
“Told him no one could have just one, but he didn’t believe me,” she turned to me, “You ready for that second one yet?”
“Oh god no.”
“What was that, honey?”
“Oh, no thanks,” I took advantage of my second chance. “I’m trying to eat through the menu here. How are the jalapeno poppers?”
“Oh, they’re good, sweetie. Made with love.” But I know they’re frozen. I saw the box in the freezer.
Cowboy cut in over his wife again. “Bet you’re looking forward to gettin’ into Virginia, huh?”
“Oh yeah, but I’ll miss North Carolina. It’s been beautiful.”
I watched Cowboy as he labored to his feet and revealed his impressive beer gut. He walked to the door. “This here’s Tennessee.” Since leaving Georgia, the trail has for the most part followed the North Carolina/Tennessee state line, hopping freely from one side to the other. One State is more likely to have privies and bear cables than the other, but I can’t remember which. I never actually knew which one I was in. “See that over there?” It looked like he was pointing across the street. “That’s North Carolina.”
“Well. I’ll miss them both.”
What Goes Up.
You’re on your fourth ascent of the day and it’s 4:30pm. It’s 87 degrees and, thankfully, the sun can’t beat down on you through the trees. But the wind can’t get to you either. The air is thick. It feels like you’re drowning in it.
This ascent gains more than 3,500 feet — to the peak of Unaka Mountain — towering at nearly 5,200 feet. The climb is over 13.5 miles, so you prepare to push yourself almost entirely uphill for nearly six-and-a-half consecutive hours. You fill your camel pack with water because of the heat, which adds an extra six pounds of weight to carry.
You have ideas on what you’re going to think about to pass the time, but twenty-five steps in and all you can think about is how much this is going to suck. Fifty steps in and you are only focused on sucking in enough air. But you can’t.
Step. Step. Step. Step. Your quads are burning, so you rely on your arms and trekking poles to do more of the work. You stab the pole into the moist, rich earth and push yourself up the mountain by pushing the ground down and back as hard as you can. Right arm and left leg. Left arm and right leg. Right arm and left leg. Left arm and right leg. Your arms are burning now, as well. You look at your watch. Six hours and 15 minutes left to go.
You’ll let yourself stop for a snack in an hour and 45 minutes. You’re already hungry. The sweat is dripping. You take 12 sips of water because hiking makes you anal and 12 sips seems like the perfect amount. Enough to quench, but not enough to prematurely run out.
Your toes — including your big toe with the ingrown toenail — slams into a root. Fuck! Your poles slip on rocks. You slip in mud. Your poles don’t clear a tree stump.
Don’t stop moving. You’ll lose the little momentum you have. Left arm and right leg. Right arm and left leg. Left arm and right leg. Right arm and left leg.
You just need a few minutes of flat ground to regroup. You look up and can see the top of this portion of the ascent. In about 200 feet, it appears to level off. You push! Left arm and right leg. Right arm and left leg. Left arm and right leg. Right arm and left leg. C’mon!
Seventy-five feet away. Fifty feet. Twenty-five feet. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
And then you see what it really is. Ten steps of flat followed by more climb as far as you can see. A false peak. It’s sweat running down your face, but it might as well be tears. Who knows how many of these there are. You don’t trust anything.
Mike, by far everyone’s favorite character in this series, liked to say, “They say what comes up, gotta come down. But I don’t believe that out here. It just keeps goin’ up.”
“I would normally drive you into town, but I’m not allowed to operate a vehicle again until Saturday at sundown,” Mimi explained for the 80th time. “It my Sabbath.”
“Wait,” Nala tried to make sense of this all,” you’re Jewish, but you also believe that the Greek gods might have actually lived here on Earth?”
“I’m a Messianic Jew.”
Anteros looked at me. “King Cake’s from New York. You look kind of Jewish!”
Mimi’s eyes lit up. Since the moment she saw me, I could see those same eyes probing, needling, begging to know if I was Jewish. But she played it as cool as she could. “Now, now. King Cake, might be,” she threw an arm in the air as if to dismiss two of the world’s most influential and historic cultures, “greekoritalian.”
She then locked her eyes on me. Examining my reaction for any clue.
“I’m Jewish,” I confirmed between bites of beans and rice, then quickly added the caveat, “but I think it’s a different kind.”
We sat around the table talking, and eating the incredible dinner Mimi made for us. When was the last time I’d had this many vegetables? They’re hard to get on the trail.
In Part Four, I spoke about the two options for sleeping: mouse-infested shelters and bear-threatened campsites. But I failed to mention hostels, a common third option. On average, I stay at hostels once a week. I love them because they mean showers, laundry, and a resupply of food. Depending on the hostel, they might also mean a hot dinner, a trip into town to go to a restaurant, or at least big frozen supreme pizzas to heat up.
They’re also inexpensive. Private rooms are an option, but most opt for a spot in the bunkhouse, or spot on the property to set up a tent, which usually ranges between $5 and $15. At this hostel it was $7.50 per night.
And for those that don’t think a hostel jives with their vision of the Appalachian Trail, it was interesting to learn that in Benton MacKaye’s original 1921 proposal for the AT, he imagined a trail dotted with amenities provided by neighboring communities. Trail towns could provide places for hikers to sleep and eat, and hikers could help support the local economy on their way through.
In “A Walk in the Woods,” the 1997 book that probably did more than anything else to rocket the Appalachian Trail to its current level in the public conscious, Bill Bryson described a trail that, for all its strengths, remained too isolated to reach MacKaye’s vision. (Unfortunately I mailed the book home when I finished it so I can’t quote it at the moment. Rookie mistake. But also books are heavy and I don’t want to carry more than one at a time.)
Twenty years after “A Walk in the Woods,” I think the trail is moving in the direction its founder had wanted all along, and my belief is a lot of that has to do with Bill Bryson. The number of hikers has increased exponentially since his book was released, and again since the Robert Redford movie based on his book. More hikers mean more business. New hostels pop up each year and, if one wanted to, in the portion of the trail I’ve completed thus far, I believe a hiker could stay at a hostel every two to four days. Based on the number of aspiring hostel owners I’ve met along the trail, I don’t see that trend slowing any time soon.
And this brings me to what I think is, both, the beauty of MacKaye’s vision and my favorite part about hostels: the camaraderie. In campsites you’re often alone, and in shelters you might have a conversation, but hikers are usually asleep by 8:30pm and leaving early in the morning. But in hostels, you’re sharing meals around a crowded dinner table, watching TV, or discussing what passes on the AT for current events.
So when Nala, Anteros and I stayed up past midnight eating cookie butter and Ben and Jerry’s Truffle Kerfuffle ice cream, I’d contend that we weren’t relaxing off the trail. We were actually fulfilling one of its original objectives: relaxing…off the trail.
Finally, at 1:30am everyone went to sleep. Except for me. I had one last objective to accomplish. I pulled the Playboy Magazine out of my pants and placed it in the half-full trashcan. I took the garbage I had been saving all night for this very moment and placed it carefully on top — so not even a single nipple was visible.
Poof, It’s Gone.
And then the next morning we wake up and say what will most likely be goodbye forever. Probably less a vision of MacKaye’s, but this also seems to be a common experience on the trail.
Most of us are going north, but some are heading south. Turtle follows the weather. He is doing what is called a flip-flop, going one-fourth of the way up and then hitchhiking to Maine where he’ll hike the remaining three-fourths down.
Some of us are hiking the whole trail at once, while others split it up into Section Hikes. Low Gear told me she’s taken 23 years to complete her 1300 miles and, by the way, she strongly recommended I carry a firearm for protection against “bears and rascals.”
“Where you heading today?” I asked Nala.
“I’m thinking the Stan Murray Shelter.” About 15 miles away. “How about you?”
“I was thinking the Bradley Gap campsite.” About 20 miles.
“Alright, well see you up the trail!” she lied.
“Yup! See you up there.” I lied back.
Little Red Riding Hood, my German friend for a day in Damascus hikes ten miles a day, while Al, the 20 year old college student trying to finish the trail before the fall semester starts, is hiking 23 miles a day and hasn’t taken a day off yet. Fox hikes 36 miles some days, but then takes the next two days off.
“What did you do today, Fox?” I asked.
“I laid in my sleeping bag for most of the day,” he responded and then paused. “But I got up a few times to stretch.”
“Hike your own hike,” is a common mantra on the trail.
I’ve met so many people on the trail. Hundreds of excellent people. But everyone does it differently and none of them are “wrong.” But it’s hard to make friendships in a day or two, and this lifestyle has me yearning for the depth I have with my friends back home. I miss watching soccer with them at Finn McCools, I miss trying new restaurants with them during Man Nights, and I miss singing karaoke with them. I miss them.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s been a wonderful two weeks and I’ve had unforgettable experiences that I wouldn’t trade in. I think it’s possible to do both: to yearn for the people and things I miss — the wedding showers, the soccer matches, the writing classes all happening without me — while also enjoying the experience in front of me.
And the experience the last two weeks has highlighted the changes that have probably been happening little by little over the last 594 miles, more than a quarter of the trail. But maybe no change has been more noticeable than the landscape.
The constant climb-and-descent cycles of Georgia and southern North Tennalina (no use separating them) gave way to the longer, more gradual rise-and-falls of the Smoky Mountains and beyond. And, as I’ve made my way through Virginia — an adventure that will take nearly a month, and more than 550 miles — I’ve noticed something even more curious: for stretches of time, the trail almost feels flat!
There are still some brutal climbs almost every day (recently there were four in a day), but I’m getting the sense that, on average, the elevation is decreasing and things might be flattening out a bit.
For the most part, the trail continues to cut through thick forests of maples, oaks and poplars. And, like I mentioned earlier, that can be both a blessing and a curse as the summer intensifies. It shields me from the sun, but also keeps out what would be a welcomed breeze.
But even that stifling wool blanket of trees has given way with more frequency as I’ve moved farther north. Balds — the treeless mountaintops like Max Patch, which I described in Part Three — have been a more regular occurrence. [pic 7 – video?] The Roan Mountain Highlands of northern North Carolina were striking to climb through over two days, but the gentler Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia had one crucial thing its North Carolina neighbor did not…PONIES!
Lots of cute, stinky, affectionate, food-grubbing, wild mountain ponies. They were introduced to the highlands in the 1970s to keep the mountaintops clear by constantly grazing on vegetation. And constantly graze they do. I’ve never seen anyone as good at their jobs as these guys.
And they have no fear of humans. As soon as they see me cresting over a peak, one or two will leave the job to which they have taken a solemn oath to fulfill to come over and partake in one of their favorite hobbies: using their teeth to try to pull the pack off my body. When they realized I wasn’t going to give them food, one pony moved on to its second favorite pastime, which is licking the salt from the dried sweat off my hands, arms, and — if I didn’t assert boundaries with my persistent new friend — my face.
The area around the Grayson Highlands also featured another beast: steer? Cattle? Longhorn cattle? I have no idea. But they were big cow-looking things with sharp horns. As I marched down one peak I encountered my first herd. Did I take a wrong turn? Surely trailblazers wouldn’t send hikers straight into a violent horn-stabbing.
I read that, if you see a bear, you’re not supposed to look it in the eyes. Considering I didn’t know anything about Danger Cows, I applied the same rule. I put my head down and trekked on by as quick as my feet and poles would take me. Fortunately, the Danger Cows aren’t as invasive as their pony neighbors.
The evening I made it through the Grayson Highlands, I came upon a place called The Scales. It got the name because farmers would drive the road up here to weigh their livestock before they lost weight on the march down. The more an animal weighed, the more money the farmer could get for it.
I was planning on pushing on a few more miles, but as I approached The Scales there were three guys sitting in chairs under a big tent like the one you’d set the food up under at a family reunion. They’d driven the tent, the chairs, and what looked like an incredible food spread in. The trail went right by where they were sitting. Please please please please invite me over.
I walked by, slowing my speed and looking extra friendly as I approached. Please please please please. If I ever find myself with such a glorious spread, and a thru-hiker walks by, I’ll invite them over, I swear it, I promised a God I only talk to during the most important of occasions. Please please pl–
“Hey buddy,” one held up his arm and yelled at me. “Ice cold beer?” We got plenty.” Thank you.
“Sure! Thanks!” I beamed, as he handed me a Coors Light tallboy. There were two guys in their 50s and one in his 20s. The younger guy was stoking a fire.
“Have a seat, my man,” the other guy in his 50s tapped on the camp chair next to him. “Tommy’ll sit on that log, won’t ya’, Tommy?”
“I guess I will!” laughed the younger guy hunched over the fire.
“And help yourself to a plate of food,” the second, most generous, man offered. Fried chicken, pulled pork, sausage, potato salad, green salad, cake, hallelujah!
“Thing is,” the first guy began to explain, “we’re a few beers in and when we get a few beers in, we get real political.”
I had a feeling these guys didn’t share my progressive leanings.
He continued, “Me and Frank’s conservatives. We were Ted Cruz guys in the primary, but now we gotta support ‘ol Trump. And Tommy over here,” Tommy had stopped messing with the fire and had a big grin on his face, “he went to college and became a librul.”
“I plead guilty, you’re honor,” Tommy chimed in.
“Now you,” the first guy turned toward me and continued, “you look like you’re from New York or something,” which I always take as code that the speaker thinks I look Jewish or — I wave my hand, dismissively — italianorgreek. “So you must be a librul, too. We got ourselves one of these talk shows on CNN, here.”
“You don’t watch CNN,” Tommy shook his head.
“Now, Tommy, I sure do,” he seemed offended. “If the remote’s busted and you been watchin’ the TV before me!”
Our Quiet Little Mountain Town
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most during the first quarter the Appalachian Trail is getting a chance to explore small town, America. The more I see, the more I realize that from small town to small town, there are some big differences. Just as I’ve watched the landscape change, I’ve also seen the gradual change across towns. For those of you that have been following along, you may have noticed that the craft beer bars in towns under the sphere of influence of cosmopolitan Atlanta and hipster Asheville are long gone. As I moved deeper into Carolinessee, they’ve been replaced by small, dark, smoky bars like Cowboy’s pickled egg-serving bar in Erwin.
But four days after Erwin, as I walked down more than a hundred stone steps toward Laurel Creek Falls, and my feet, seemingly held together by duct tape, were screaming, I needed a better solution. The duct tape cured the blister problem, but now caused cuts all over my feet that were getting larger by the hour. Every two miles I would feel a new abrasion, would stop, take off my shoes, and wrap more tape around the new cut. After so much tape, I had effectively bound my feet into a ball which, like when it was a deliberate practice in China, caused me serious pain.
I hiked the mile side trail into the very tiny and partially shuttered, Hampton (Tennessee, I think, but just as possibly North Carolina) and hobbled into the Dollar General.
I went to the bandage section and looked for something less duct tapey than duct tape. I found some gauze wrap and self-adherent tape. I made a quick bathroom stop in the Dollar General before I checked out and it was an important reminder of how much things had changed since Hot Springs. Swastikas drawn onto the wall, no cover-up attempted, and racial slurs that would make Huck Finn’s dad blush.
In “A Walk In the Woods,” Bill Bryson reads a disturbing, backwards headline in a local newspaper while in Gatlinburg, TN, and decides he wants to get out of the south as fast as he can. He and his travel companion, Katz, rent a car and drive up to meet the trail in the middle of Virginia. I loved the book, but I didn’t like that approach. First, driving away from a problem doesn’t get rid of it. Like my night around the fire reminded me, it’s important — and fun — to engage with those with which we disagree. And, second, even in a town in a county in which 83% of voters cast their ballot for Donald Trump I still don’t think that means a majority — or anywhere near one — agrees with the kind of things on this wall.
After a my somber Dollar General bathroom experience (can there by any other kind), I walked over to the town’s one restaurant — a barbecue spot with no inside seating. I walked up to the window, placed my order for pulled pork nachos — the woman behind the window insisted pulled pork was the best item they had — the cheesecake ice cream (which was more like a fossilized piece of cheesecake that needed to be excavated out of a pint of ice cream), and begged her to let me charge my phone and external phone battery. While I waited for my food I examined the sign taped next to the menu, encouraging customers to carry a gun as long as their aim was “sure.”
A few days later, I’d pass through Damascus, Virginia. In the previous installment I described my experience there a few weeks earlier during Trail Days. I was right — this time “quaint” was a more accurate description. As I got a feel for the town, I spoke to the portly man running the hostel at the local Methodist Church. “We had a Spanish guy try to stay here last night. He didn’t speak a lick of English! How do you come here and not speak English?”
And then I went to the local brewery, a pretty surefire liberal bastion. I was meeting Gary, a pretty successful-looking guy in his 40s who kind of acted like he was in his 20s, that I had met at the taco place the night before. Gary had recently left his job in Arlington, Virginia, after a buyout and was now looking to make that money last by moving to a less expensive town in which he could “fish all day and flirt with pretty girls at night.”
Gary was a lot of fun to hang out with, and was already living his dream. He’d spend a few days in Erwin, then Hot Springs, then Boone, then Johnson City, then Damascus. He’s fish for trout during the day, and then see if it was a town in which he’d like to live when the sun went down. Then he’d go back to his tent, someplace up in the mountains, and get ready to do it all again the next day. One of my favorite mannerisms of his was that he’s the kind of guy who thinks every woman wants to have sex with him.
“Did you see the way she just looked at me?” he’d ask.
“No, I missed it, I think.”
“She definitely wants to have sex.”
“Oh? Why not do it?”
“She’s probably married or something.”
Later that night, we’d do the same thing.
“Yo, did you just see the way that woman looked at me? Pretty dirty!”
“No, I think I missed it.”
“Oh, she wants me.”
“You don’t want her?”
“I think she might be here with that guy. We’ll see.”
At the brewery the conversation shifted from this to the re-population of cities, to the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana, to basketball (Game 1 of the NBA Finals was that night) and brewing beer.
It felt like a thousand miles from Hampton.
Families Are Like Feet
It took me awhile to realize, but that day going into Hampton was Memorial Day. Earlier in the afternoon were those steps to Laurel Creek Falls on which my bound feet were being crushed. Partially because it was a holiday, partially because the falls were a popular destination, and partially because the area is close to several major roads, this part of the AT was teeming with people. It was hard to move at points, which means each step had extra weight as I plodded along.
My biggest pet peeve is when I’m gaining on a family taking up too much space. Rather than yelling, “Excuse me!” which wastes my short supply of air and interrupts their conversation, I try to find a path through or around them so I can whisper a polite, “Sorry,” as I squeeze by. This usually works. Unless there’s a mother around.
Mothers, always watchful over their flock, will sense you coming. Just before you’re about to make your move through, they will turn around and spot you. Seeing you don’t currently have a mother of your own for protection at the moment, they will unilaterally adopt you and try to help you even though you’ve made it this far up the trail without them.
You had your path selected. You would have been through, but they announce to their group, in their thick, southern drawl, “Watch out for the man! Watch out for the real hiker, Susan!” Susan and her friends, and her siblings and their friends, will halt their conversations and, disoriented, will waddle aimlessly, confused like drone bees who just lost their Queen. Your path is gone. Everyone’s movement is unpredictable. You head to the side of the path, where the rocks are sharpest. Your poor feet. Your mother is the worst, Susan.
Leaving the barbecue restaurant that night, I’m walking back along the road to get to the side trail, but I waited too long for my devices to charge and now I was running low on daylight It was nearly two miles until I’d hit the path, and I had picked a spot on it to camp for the night before I was back on the Appalachian Trail in the morning. By the time I got to the side trail, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find the camping spot.
So I stuck out my thumb and attempted to hitch a ride back to the start of the path. I once again put on my non-threatening, happy face and within a couple of minutes, a truck pulled off to the shoulder of the road in front of me.
“Oh man, thank you so much. You’re really saving me here!”
A big, body-building, blonde-haired guy in his 40s stepped out of the drivers seat, and his son, probably 12, who looked like a nominally taller version of Simon Burch hopped down out of the passenger side.
“Our pleasure,” the father’s voice boomed. “We were just coming back from our annual Memorial Day fishing trip and we saw you out here. Just trying to do the Lord’s work,” and he turned to his son, “ain’t we?”
“Let me grab your poles, the tiny mouse-boy squeaked.”
I told them where I was heading, hopped into the back of the truck, and said goodbye to “downtown” Hampton. As we stopped at the trail head, I had a smile on my face. I had successfully hitched my first ride, and I had supplies to try to fix my feet, and I had put in a good 20 miles today.
The man asked me a few basic questions about the trail, maybe so his son, Simon Birch, could learn or feel inspired. “Isn’t it true that every hiker gets a trail name? What’s yours?”
“Yup! Mine’s King Cake — it’s a Mardi Gras dessert from New Orleans.”
“Ah, Catholic, just like us. Aren’t there a lot of religious people on the trail?”
“There are all types of people, but yes, I’ve definitely met observant hikers, as well as religious groups that help hikers.”
The man kept looking at his son with an “I told you so,” face, and his son had a big smile on, nodding vigorously throughout all of the questioning. It was pleasant, but I would also lock my door if I was staying in a room at their house. As we were saying our goodbyes, the boy reached out the trekking poles to me. I grabbed the poles, but he held on, pulled them closer, and leaned in, lowering his voice a level to say, “Watch out for the crazy people in Hampton, King Cake. Not everyone here’s normal like us.”
That’s what crazy people say, Simon! It gave me the shivers then, it’s giving me the shivers now, and I’ll never be able to watch Simon Birch again without thinking about him.
Families Are Like Everything
That night, as the sun went down, I unwrapped my feet. They looked horrendous. Like I imagined the weathered, wrinkled feet of a 90 year old veteran. I was right. The blisters had begun to heal, but the edge of the tape was digging gashes into my skin. Worst, though, was the smell. I don’t think I have the words, skill, or stomatch to describe this. As I removed the layers of tape, some of which had been on my feet for more than four days (you try ripping duct tape off your skin every night and see what that feels like, Ms. Judgy Pants) it smelled like death. Dead skin. But this was worse, because death has formaldehyde to mask it. Death uses formaldehyde as a deodorant and the dead skin being torn from my feet was out of Old Spice.
The smell was overwhelming. It filled my nostrils. I could taste it on my tongue. I had to step out of my tent and wrapped my feet with gauze on a rock overlooking a few houses off in the distance. My feet felt so much better already.
As I got into Virginia, and the tree coverage became a little less constant, one of my favorite views is seeing these little houses at sunset, placed alone on the side of a mountain, not another home for miles.
You can see their farm beside the home, the little road that leads up to the residence, and tiny clouds of smoke puffing from the chimney. I bet a family’s in there. Gathered around a kitchen table. All five of them. Eating dinner together. Like we never will again.
It looks so beautiful but it makes me so sad. The Memorial Day families. The Father-Son fishing trip. It all has me thinking the same thing. I want to call my Mom, but I don’t have phone service, so I work on writing her a note instead.
Another thing that makes Virginia fun and unique from what has come before it is that the trail winds through several — usually flat — farms, but even Virginia has days in which I have to climb four peaks. The climbs are tough, and they threaten to break my will, but they’re worth it. Because while there’s so much I miss at home, there’s stuff I’ll miss about the trail one day, too.
It’s hard to think of many things in the world that feel better than when you’re walking along a ridge, above the trees, and the chill evening breeze turns your sweat cool on your body. Or, when you’ve set up camp and cleaned up after dinner, and all you have left to do is find the perfect tree to lean your back against so you can read your book and watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. These are the things I will savor every chance I get a clear sky and an open field.
And that’s what I had on June 5, 2017. Seven years after the worst day. I’m on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by a sea of mountains, covered in dark green spruce-fir forests. Or maybe my peninsula is actually a ship, and I’m standing on the deck, facing the bow as it cruises through my ocean of tree-covered peaks. The sun drops in the light blue sky, adding a crescendo of orange as the minutes pass by. The clouds are wisps, descending at angles toward the sun.
Light green fields across the valley are scattered patches dotting the jungle green trees on the mountainsides. These can’t be good for the for the environment. Deforestation of some kind. Farming? Logging? But from my ship it looks so beautiful my vision blurs. I don’t know if it’s the start of tears, or the cold evening wind burning my cheeks and eyes. I can see tiny spots on the patches. Cows grazing? Children playing?
I crane my neck to the east to where I think the sun will rise in the morning, and a see a white house on the side of a far-off mountain. It’s no bigger than an eighth of my fingernail, but it overlooks everything I can see. The sunset. The trees. The fields. The mountains. The cows. The kids.
I zoom in and I imagine a porch on the back of the house. I imagine a father, 39, and his son, 6. And it felt like my heart was punched in the stomach. But I decide to set up my tent there. I miss him so much tonight.
We used to sit in our backyard, not overlooking mountains, but Long Island skies can fill up with stars, too. He’d drink Coors Light and we’d order Domino’s and spend the night looking for UFOs.
“Is that one, Dad?” I’d ask. I was a chubby kid with a uni-brow that would make Anthony Davis jealous.
“I don’t know,” he’d lie, looking at an airplane. “What do you think?” He had thick black hair and a mustache that was kind of brown, and even thicker.
“I think it is,” I’d stare up at the sky, amazed. As amazed as I feel staring at the same sky tonight.
It’s getting cold on this ridge. I should go inside my tent, but I can’t.
I’m ten years old. The UFOs are airplanes now. UFOs don’t come around so often, but I still like eating pizza under the stars with my Dad.
I ask him the tough questions. “What’s ejaculation?”
He does his best. “It’s what you do with a woman when you love her?” He corrects his inflection, “When you love her.” He considers and then corrects himself again, “Or at least really like her.”
“What’s masturbation?” I counter.
“It’s,” he sighs, “Where do you hear this? You’ll learn that when you’re ready.”
My socks are wet from hiking through the mud today. I can’t feel my toes, they’re so cold. I change into my sleep socks, but I don’t turn from the sky.
One of my earliest memories is of this game we’d always play. He’d say, “Matt, you know you’re my favorite son?” My role was to laugh and remind him that I was his only son. I don’t know why it felt so good. I was winning a game with no competition.
It was also one of my last memories of him. I’m 26 years old now. I was home for Thanksgiving and was trying to see all the friends I could. He asked me what night I’d be staying home and I told him tonight could work.
He ordered the pizza. We went back to our spot in the backyard. I don’t remember anything we spoke about that night, but I’m sure he told me I was his favorite son and I’m sure I reminded him I was his only one.
I think it was the last time I saw him conscious. My Mom called me in New Orleans and told me his ear infection spread and triggered a heart attack. “What?”
By the time I got back to New York, he would never respond again, but we didn’t know that at the time. We’d stay with him throughout the day, but I wouldn’t leave him at night even though hospital rules didn’t allow that. I hated the idea of a nurse coming in at night and thinking no one cared enough to be with him. But my biggest fear was him waking up at night and thinking it.
I’ve lived a pretty easy life. I know it. But there’s one really hard thing I’ve been through, that I think will affect me forever. When doctors are checking to see if a patient on life support is responsive they proceed through a series of steps. I don’t know why they allow the family to watch. I don’t know why we wanted to watch. I guess to be sure, ourselves, that he had no chance of living any sort of life off of all these machines.
The doctor entered the room where my mother, my two sisters, and I were waiting. He explained what he was looking for. Any reaction from my father — detectable with or without monitors — to the stimuli he’d provide.
I remember being in junior high school. I was in a bowling league with my friend, Billy, and two guys who became our friends, but were two years older than us. We were all nerds and I remember after our match, we’d hang out in the game room that bowling alleys have. There were a few arcade games — The Simpsons was one — and that claw you’d use to grab dolls. We were kids and we were bored so we staged a fake fight. In the scenario we created, Darren had me by the collar and pushed me against the wall.
My Dad, who had just arrived to pick me up and was unaware this was staged, ran, in lifted Darren off me and threw him against the wall. It was embarrassing, and I think I got mad at him, but it was also secretly nice to know someone was there to protect you.
Now, as this doctor screamed into my Dad’s face, “Jack! Can you hear me. Respond if you can hear me.” As he tossed him around like a rag doll in a staged fight, I was ashamed I couldn’t protect him when he needed it, the way he protected me; and aware that I had just watched the swift deterioration of my Dad, my hero, the man who was supposed to make sure we’d always be OK.
Who I Was Is In Who You Are
My Dad wasn’t perfect. I know this. He likely had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. He’d drink too many Coors Light when he got home from work, which meant too big of a burden was left on my Mom to shuttle us to all our after-school activities. But there was this one differentiation I always thought was interesting. He’d point out, “I drink, but at least I’m here at home with my family. My father would go to the bar, drink all night, and come home drunk. That’s my memory of my dad.”
He saw something in his Dad he didn’t like and he reacted. Who I was is in who you are.
Similarly, I have a mental picture of my dad drinking beers by himself, and it’s so sad to me I still won’t drink beers at my house alone. Who I was is in who you are.
My Dad wasn’t perfect in the way no one is perfect. But he did one thing perfectly. His words and his actions consistently sent a message to me, and I think to my sisters, that his love for us was unconditional. No matter how badly we screwed up, we could not screw up his love. No matter how lost we got, we couldn’t lose it. It would always be there for us. If there was only going to be one constant in our lives, his words and actions always said his love for us would be it.
The older I get, the rarer I see that is.
I remember how often he’d tell me he was proud of me. It felt like a joke. Too easy. He felt proud about everything. And then as I was hiking the other day, thinking about this, I think I finally got it. I don’t think he’s always saying he’s proud of the things we do — though I’m sure he was, like so many parents are. He’s saying he’s proud of us. Just proud we exist.
If he was alive today, I’m sure he’d be proud of this. Proud of the attempt to hike. Proud of the attempt to write. But if I failed miserably at them both, he’d be just as proud. That’s what he did so perfectly and, if I decide to have kids of my own, it will be in large part because I want to share that unconditional love he showed me. Who I was is in who you are.
The Mississippi River, as it flows through New Orleans, is made of the same water that trickles through a tiny stream no more than half a dozen feet wide in northern Minnesota. Mt. Springer and Mt. Katahdin, the start and end of the Appalachian Trail, both come from the same geologic events that took place 480 million years ago. In much the same way, we are all a product of what came before us. Whether we like it and keep it, or don’t and react to it, the past’s effect is inescapable.
I owe him my capacity to love. I owe him my appreciation of the night sky. And I owe him, as well as my Mom — who has and continues to do so much for my sisters and me — whatever I am and will be.
“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost.”
– -Frederick Buechner, writer and theologian
Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City which meets at Treo every other week and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and
preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.